A Troubling Dilemma – Should We Kill to Save?

“The most melodious wild music I have ever heard”

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.

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The endangered 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.

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The veiled chameleon, invader in Hawaii, all the way from Yemen

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:

  • Rapid reproduction
  • Fast growth
  • 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.

Eradication methods

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.

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Galapagos lava heron

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.” 

The ethics

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 impractical

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.

The bizarre

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”.

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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.

The risky

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.

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One of the invaders, an Australian possum

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 will sooner or later.

The dilemma

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?

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Update 6th December 2017

Genetic tool that can doom a species under UN review

Gene experts set to tackle pest control

Sources

Eradication nation

Hawaii’s Invasive Species Might Be Cute, But They’re A Huge Island Threat

Invasive Species – Wiki

Alien invaders: American mink removed from Scotland

Confronting introduced species: a form of xenophobia?

When killing off a species is the best solution

Gene-drive technologies for ecosystem conservation: use with care

Related posts

Futurology Offers More Hopes than Fears for the Animals & the Planet

Should We Wipe Mosquitos off the Face of the Earth?

Planet at the Crossroads

The Stripey Dog, CRISPR & the Chimaera

Are You Really Helping the Planet Eating Plant-Based? Yes! & This Awesome App Shows You Just How Much

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

Last week, GRAIN, a non-profit, working with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy and the Heinrich Böll Foundation published a report of the estimated greenhouse emissions produced by meat and dairy. Their finding?

‘In stark terms the study warns that if unchecked, the world’s top meat and dairy producers’ greenhouse emissions “could lead us to a point of no return.”‘

So let’s get using Chris’s amazing app – download here and share with friends, family, colleagues, neighbours, everyone you know. Don’t forget, it’s FOC!

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“Soon, meatless diet may no longer be a matter of choice, but a necessity for humanity’s survival”


Get the #EatForThePlanet podcasts here

5 Easy Steps to Wean off Meat here

Go vegan here


Sources

This Awesome App Shows You How Much Good You’re Doing by Eating Plant-Based | One Green Planet

The Human Impact on the Biosphere

Meat & Dairy Greenhouse Emissions ‘Could Lead Us to a Point of No Return”

Humanity gets its second warning: We’re crippling the planet

Related posts

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy Revisited

Don’t Care About Animals? Meat & Dairy Are Poisoning Your Land Air & Water

Another Nation Trims Meat From Diet Advice

If everyone on Earth ate a Western diet, we would need two Planet Earths to feed us. We’ve only got one and she’s dying

The Living Planet Report: Our Dinner Plates are Destroying Life on Earth

Are Meat & Dairy Really Bad for the Planet?

The App that Wakes You to a Sweet Dawn Chorus Any Time of the Day

 

 

 

 

 

Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards 2017

ENJOY!

Article by Angela Nelson

Brian Valente's photo of a laughing seal is a finalist for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards.

Brian Valente’s photo of a laughing seal is a finalist for the 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards. (Photo: Brian Valente/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

The 2017 Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards finalists have been announced, and this year’s crop doesn’t disappoint in the humor department with hilarious expressions, amusing antics and even a little fun with perspective.

While you may laugh out loud (or at least crack a grin), keep in mind the contest has a serious goal: highlighting wildlife conservation efforts.

 ‘Let Me Clear My Vision’ is one of 40 finalists in this year’s contest. (Photo: Arkaprava Ghosh /Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

This year, more than 3,500 entries from 86 countries were submitted to the contest, which was started by photographers Paul Joynson-Hicks and Tom Sullam.

From 40 finalists, the category and overall winners will be announced Dec. 14. The overall winner gets a week-long, all-expense-paid, photographer-led safari in Kenya.

‘Hitching a ride’ is a 2017 finalist. (Photo: Daisy Gilardini/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

“Conservation was always at the heart of the competition, along with the fact that people seemed to enjoy images of animals doing entertaining things,” said Sullam in a statement. “But essentially living in a country that has some of the best wildlife in the world — Tanzania — and seeing how destructive human actions can be to this wildlife, made us want to do our little bit to help.”

 A terrifyingly big grin in ‘Smile.’ (Photo: Eugene Kitsios/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

Joynson-Hicks and Sullam recently released a new book of some of the funniest photos (the “best of the best,” they say) to come through the Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards. Some of the proceeds go to the Born Free Foundation, a wildlife conservation charity.

 Any mom will immediately understand why this photo is called ‘MOM MOM MOM MOM.’ (Photo: Barb D’Arpino/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

Take a look at more of our favorite finalists, including the fed-up mother owl above who has had it with her little ones.

 ‘Animal encounters’ is a 2017 finalist. (Photo: jean-Jacques Alcalay /Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

He needed to get a better view — or maybe he really likes crowd-surfing.

 ‘WTF’ is a thing even in the animal kingdom. (Photo: George Cathcart/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

Redditors would have a field day with this elephant seal photo as a meme.

 Fun with perspective in ‘Outsourcing seatbelt checks.’ (Photo: Graeme Guy/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

It looks like this giraffe is peering into the plane as it comes in for a landing. Maybe this airport employs wildlife as part of the security team.

 All aboard the ‘Foster Monkey Escape’! (Photo: Katy Leveck/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

These two monkeys in Indonesia are making a getaway on a borrowed motorcycle.

 What a cutie in ‘Cheering sea otter.’ (Photo: Penny Palmer/Comedy Wildlife Photo Awards 2017)

This sea otter is living his best life and loving it. We should all be so lucky.


Source: These comedy wildlife photo finalists will make you belly laugh

Related posts

Comedy Wildlife Photography Awards 2016

Just Wow! Best Bird Photos of 2017 – Animalista Untamed

Cutest Wildlife Pics Ever – Woodland Creatures ‘Building’ Snowmen! – Animalista Untamed

Wildlife Conservation Society’s favourite pictures of 2016 – Animalista Untamed

Russian Miner Takes Stunning Photos of Foxes in the Wild

How Our Mortal Remains Could Save Every Endangered Species on the Planet – But Wildlife Can’t Wait

Don’t panic. No-one is suggesting when we die our bodies should be scooped up and fed to hungry polar bears. Nothing quite that ghoulish. Though come to think of it, it’s not actually such a bad idea. I’d happily donate mine, if mama bear and her cubs could find enough meat on my skinny bones. But we’ll come to the what-to-do–with-our-dead-body bit shortly.

First the good news. Last week Professor Chris Thomas told us we should be cool about climate change and every other way humans are messing up the planet. Kick back and go with the flow. It’s just evolution taking its natural course. He also suggested we could be wasting good money trying to save endangered species that with the best will in the world, are headed inexorably for extinction. Well Prof Chris, maybe you should cast your eye over this –

“This paper sends a clear, positive message: Conservation funding works!”

So says John Gittleman, senior author of a new report about the effects on biodiversity of funding put into conservation projects around the world since the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. The results from the global study are in, and it’s looking good:

  • The $14.4 billion spent on conservation 1992-2003 reduced expected declines in global biodiversity by 29%
  • 109 countries signatory to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity saw a significantly reduced biodiversity loss
  • 7 countries – Mauritius, Seychelles, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Poland and Ukraine saw their biodiversity improve between 1992-2008
  • 7 other countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, China, India, Australia, and Hawaii in the US are the locations where 60% of the world’s loss of biodiversity occurs

That last statistic doesn’t sound like good news, but it sort of is. If there are only 7 countries where most biodiversity loss is concentrated, then a little money in the right places goes a long way. Or, as Prof Gittleman puts it, “The good news is that a lot of biodiversity would be protected for relatively little cost by investments in countries with high numbers of species.”

“From this study, we know approximately how much a conservation dollar buys and where in the world it is best spent.” 

Now, the study’s method of data analysis will provide policy-makers in every country of the world a fantastic new tool for setting accurate conservation budgets. And that in turn will help them achieve internationally-agreed conservation goals.

Study’, ‘findings’, ‘statistics’, ‘report’ – those words have a pretty dull and clunky sound to them. But in fact, it would be hard to overplay the importance of this research work – it’s a godsend for the entire international community in our attempts “to balance human development with maintaining biodiversity….[and achieving] true sustainability.All of which equals more animals saved.

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Now that’s what I call good news – and who’d have thought data analysis could be so exciting!


Where to put to rest our mortal remains

Now we have the proof that conservation funding delivers results, where to find those funds?

We don’t like to think too much about the end of our days, but wouldn’t it be brilliant if there was a way to continue helping animals from beyond the grave? Well now there is, with Dr Matthew Holden’s genius idea. We could call it ‘Green Burial Plus‘.

Green burials are gaining in popularity, I’m glad to say. No pollutants like the formaldehyde and non-biodegradable materials used in traditional burials. And no trees cut down to create the traditional coffin – no waste of Earth’s precious resources reduced to ashes and releasing greenhouse gases. Instead we get to help provide a natural habitat for wildlife, with the satisfaction of knowing all the stardust in our bodies is returning to the earth. For once, a human life and death can nourish the planet rather than deplete it. This has to be the be-all and end-all, literally, of recycling.

So what could be better than a green burial?

Dr Holden’s idea, that’s what: Use burial fees to buy and manage new land specifically for wildlife habitat. Is that it? Yes, that’s it. It’s that simple. “The nature reserve [where our bodies would be buried] could be placed in an area that specifically maximises benefits for endangered wildlife.”

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Isn’t that the best?

How would this work? Well, take the US as an example. With 2.7 million folk reaching the end of their days each year, roughly $19 billion is being spent annually on funerals. Compare that huge sum with the mere $3-$5 billion the IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) reckons are required to protect every threatened species on their lists.

And in the US conservation burial reserves are already a thing. There aren’t enough though. We need many many more in the US, in the UK – in every country if this way of conserving wildlife is to have any impact.

If we could get the powers that be to actually care enough about conservation, national registers on the model of organ donor registers could be set up for those of us who wish to donate our bodies and our funeral expenses to wildlife reserves. What a difference it would make. If we could…

Sadly, nothing is ever that plain sailing, is it? These are black times and conservation has serious opposition.


The Backlash – the Deadly Rise of Populism

“The recent trend toward populist politics has occurred, in part, as a result of a cultural backlash, where select segments of society have rallied against progressive social changes of the later 20th and early 21st centuries. This trend includes the Brexit vote in England, [and the] election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.”

Q. What has this got to do with conservation and wildlife? A. Everything.

Are you a populist? More likely a mutualist, I imagine. Mutualists see wildlife as “fellow beings in a common social community” – as opposed to populists who still cling to traditional ideas of human dominion over nonhuman animals, and view wildlife as either vermin to be exterminated, or quarry for their so-called sport.

Millennials swept forward on a tide of progressive ideas, mutualism for one. Just look at the incredible rise of veganism over the last couple of decades, matched by an ever-expanding interest in conservation and green issues. A survey in the millennial year 2000, found that 20 million Americans were registered members of the top 30 environmental organisations.²

But – and there’s always a but, isn’t there – Newton’s 3rd Law, “For every action force there is an equal and opposite reaction force”, is as true in society as it is in physics. Backlash was inevitable. In the US, the explosion between 2000 and 2016 of ballot initiatives to protect hunting rights is one sign of the pushback. This War on Wolves infographic exemplifies America’s populist backlash against conservation.

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‘America First’ puts wildlife last

Donald Trump, the epitome of populism. To say he is an enemy of wildlife is an understatement. More like the grim reaper.

“With President Trump at the helm of our nation’s wildlife ark, we are setting an irreversible collision course toward an environmental catastrophe of epic proportions.”¹

Here are some of his proposals for the 2018 federal budget:-

  • Funding for the agencies involved in combating wildlife poaching and trafficking, cut by more than half from $90.7 million to $40.9 million
  • Funding for USAID’s biodiversity program which in 2017 aided conservation projects in 50 countries, cut from $265 million to $69.9 million
  • USFWS’s International Species program for African and Asian elephants, great apes, migratory birds, tigers, rhinos and sea turtles, cut from $9.15 million to zero
  • Funding to protect new species under the Endangered Species Act cut by 17%
  • Funding for the Cooperative Endangered Species Conservation Fund, cut $34 million, a 64% reduction
  • Funding for the State Department’s International Conservation Program giving financial support to the most important wildlife organisations including the IUCN, cut to zero

The savings made are less than a flea bite in a total federal budget of $1.15 trillion, but will spell the death sentence to thousands of animals all over the world.

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Who will benefit?

Poachers and criminal trafficking cartels

Who will suffer?

Poor communities in Africa and Asia. Elephants, pangolins, lions, giraffes, snow leopards, great apes, migratory birds, tigers, rhinos, sea turtles and many many more.

That’s just abroad. At home, the Environmental Protection Agency has become the Environmental Pulverisation Agency under Trump’s appointee Scott Pruitt.

And as for That Wall at a cost of $1.6 billion – what a long way $1.6 billion would go protecting wildlife! Trump’s border wall will imperil at least 93 endangered and threatened species, including jaguars and ocelots, and cut its malignant swathe through several important wildlife refuges.

The POTUS’s war on wildlife will decimate many of America’s iconic species, and could see wolves for just one, after 20 years of tireless conservation efforts to save them from the brink, pushed once again to the cliff edge of extinction.

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Wonderful as Matthew Holden’s vision is of reserves paid for by our burial fees, the clock is ticking for precious wildlife. The animals can’t wait for our demise. They need us now.

Congress has yet to sign off on Trump’s life-butchering budget. So if you are a US citizen, now is the time to let Congress hear your voice for wildlife.

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Join the Center for Biological Diversity    Join Defenders of Wildlife

A petition for everyone

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger African Wildlife

Petitions for US citizens:

Stop drastic budget cuts that devastate wildlife habitat

Protect the Endangered Species Act

Protect the Environment – Tell President Trump We Won’t Back Down

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger Africa’s Wildlife

More petitions

Sources

¹It will take a nation to combat Trump’s war on wildlife – Jeff Corwin in The Hill

²Environmental Movement – Encyclopedia.com

Investing in conservation pays off, study finds

We now have proof that conservation funding works

Spooky conservation: saving species over our dead bodies

Rise of populism affects wildlife management in US

Trump Budget Undercuts U.S. Commitment to Global Wildlife Conservation

Related posts

What Trump’s Triumph Means for Wildlife

Good job Mr President – Your Action Plan for the Environment is the Best

Half for Us Half for the Animals

 

 

 

 

 

Should We Look on the Bright Side of the 6th Mass Extinction?

One man thinks we should. Stop worrying about what is happening to the planet – just kick back and enjoy the ride. That is the message of ecologist Chris Thomas’s new book ‘Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction”. It is time” he writes, “for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement to throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world.”

We’ve now become all too unhappily familiar with the ‘Anthropocene’, the word coined by Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen to describe this new age, the age in which Man has played havoc with the entire functioning of the planet. We’ve altered the make-up of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, changed the climate itself. Glaciers are melting, sea levels rising. We’ve depleted biodiversity, plants and animals, and messed up their distribution. We’ve rerouted rivers, drained lakes, razed forests and covered the Earth in highways and cities. And all the while our own population has exploded, 7.4 billion today and an expected 9.7 billion by 2050.
What is there not to be alarmed about?

Anthropocenists (by that I mean the vast majority of ecologists who are concerned about the repercussions of human activity) propose that if we have the technology to so damage the planet, why can’t we turn technology to its healing? Hi-tech geo-engineering such as air cleaning plants, altering ocean chemistry to absorb more carbon, or capturing carbon emissions from power stations and factories. Maybe we could even modify the weather. A luxury travel company that promises perfect wedding weather for the big day thinks we can. Expert opinion says otherwise: “The scale of the Earth’s atmosphere is far too great to tamper with—at least for now.” according to meteorologist Bruce Broe.

But Professor Chris Thomas’s thinking runs on altogether different lines, and he’s nothing if not a glass-half-full man. In this age of mass extinction, he says, nature will do what it always does – fight back.
A quick summary of his thinking –
  • Man is an animal and just as much a part of Nature as a bird or a fish
  • Contrary to what we are constantly being told, Nature is thriving. There are biodiversity gains as well as losses, and “the number of species is increasing in most regions of the world”
  • The essence of life is eternal change  – everything lives, evolves, dies. There is no stasis in Nature. We need to embrace the change and forget about trying to hold back the hands of the clock

Taking each of those points in turn:-

Man is part of, not outside Nature

All life forms on Earth including humans, Chris says, are the result of natural physical, chemical and then biological processes. “I take it as a given that humans have evolved and everything we do is directly or indirectly a product of human evolution. We are part of nature, and in that sense we are part of the force of nature, rather than altering it.” 

The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, with Homo sapiens a relative newcomer emerging approximately 200,000 years ago. But our planet has never known another species like ours in terms of our exponentially developing technological abilities, which have enabled us to colonise all corners of the globe, and make momentous changes to the environment.

The biggest dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico courtesy of toxic waste from America’s industrial meat production, pesticides and herbicides poisoning the land, plastics polluting the oceans, failed nuclear power plants irradiating entire continents* – I see all these as the unforeseen and unwelcome backwash from acclaimed-at-the-time ‘advances’ intended to improve our efficiency, and make our lives easier and better. Yet for Prof Chris all the damage and pollution is ‘natural’, because all result from innovations emanating from the evolved human brain. And evolution is the law of Nature.

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Furthermore, the Prof argues, “most of the ways we are changing the world are not completely unprecedented.” They are already present in some form, apart from human activity. To back up his point, he cites background radiation; beavers building houses; and leaf-cutter ants farming fungi. “Most of the things we are doing are kind of comparable to normal ecological processes.”

At first glance this idea seems preposterous. How can you compare Fukushima and Chernobyl with natural background radiation, a few beavers’ lodges with our megacities, or ants’ fungi with factory farms? But a new article in Chemical & Engineering News gives a measure of credence to Chris’s point. Apparently certain living organisms can and do make their own versions of as many as 6,000 chemical pollutants, some the exact equivalent of man-made chemicals now banned because of their toxicity. “You could call them naturally produced persistent organic pollutants,” says Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI. There’s a public perception that humans have produced more halogenated compounds than nature has, he says. “That’s not necessarily true.”

Nature is thriving

It takes a brave man to make a statement like that when the world is on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020But the Prof maintains that while it cannot be denied the overall number of species is declining, there are actually a greater number of species in many parts of the world. Take the UK for instance, he says. In addition to our native species, we are host to nearly 2,000 non-natives, like the house sparrow and the poppy.

(I’m not sure how wisely he’s picked his examples, since the house sparrow, with a population declining since the 1970s – by 50% in the country and by 60% in towns and cities – is on the red list of ‘species of high conservation concern’. The poppy isn’t threatened, but we’ve yet to see fields of golden wheat lavishly stippled with the poppy’s vivid red as we once did pre 1950s and the advent of industrial farming)

But, in support of the Prof’s ‘Nature thriving’ contention, there is the so-called ‘cocaine hippo effect’. By that is meant the flourishing colonies of animals in unexpected places – animals that may well be endangered or even extinct in their native habitats. Why ‘cocaine hippos’? Because there’s a small population of wild hippos in South America, offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every cloud has a silver hippo lining.

“In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years’, according to a new study.

“Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.

“Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.”

And in their new environments, these translocated species are often creating new beneficial trophic cascades. Take burros for example:

“In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees”, say the lead authors of the study.

“Everywhere you look, there are species that are doing very well in the human-modified world. That is what I mean by nature is thriving,” says the Prof.

But though every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also brings with it its cloud. The cocaine hippos, though thriving thousands of miles from their native habitat, are creating a little havoc of their own. With the damage to the environs they have decided to call home, and disturbance to native wildlife, they’re giving Colombian conservationists a few nasty headaches. Not to mention the threat to people – the hippos seem quite at home in town, as you will see from the video.

The thriving colony may thrive for this generation only, if Cornare‘s neutering program is successful.

The moral of the tale is surely, that though pockets of threatened species may flourish far from their native habitat, will we be able to say the same in 50 or 100 years time? We’d better not be relying on the cocaine hippos for the survival of their species. And there’s a reason why megafauna fit so well in their native habitats.

The essence of Nature is change. Embrace the change. We can’t hold back the tide

I can’t put the Prof’s point better than he does himself:

“We must become accustomed to thinking that the world will continue to change, rather than hankering after some rose-tinted past that it is no longer possible to return to.

“The idea that we are somehow keeping the world in a pristine natural state is a kind of mirage because the entire planet has already been transformed by humans. The reality is that the world is dynamic and the distributions of species are changing. You can try to intervene and keep things as they are, but this is not how the biological world works. With climate change set in motion, it will be impossible to keep things just as they are. What I’m saying is, go with the flow a bit more and choose carefully which fights you are going to fight because otherwise you are going to throw good money at losing battles.

“The rate at which we are moving other animals and plants around the world is the greatest it has been for at least the half-billion years. It’s like we have reunited all the continents into a new version of Pangea. We are connecting up the world. This is an unprecedented experiment. But the outcome will be that the most successful animals, plants, fungi and microbes will rise to the top. And with more robust species, you can expect future ecological systems to end up being more robust as well.”

It’s certainly true that many species are adapting themselves to a human-dominated world. Foxes, raccoons, coyotes and Canada geese are among the many species moving into cities. Coyotes too – one has even made a Chicago graveyard his home. There are wild boar in Berlin, peregrine falcons in the centre of London. Many of these animals are seeking refuge from hunting and persecution. Cities have become a safer place for them. And they are adapting to city life fast. Pavement ants appear to be thriving on discarded junk food. And in Britain, birds’ beaks have lengthened noticeably in the last 40 years, a true genetic, evolutionary adaptation to the prevalence of urban and suburban garden bird feeders. “That’s a really short time period in which to see this sort of difference emerging,” says Professor Jon Slate.

Wrapping up

Professor Chris’s message is beguiling – he’s like a kind uncle patting us on the head and telling us not to worry, everything is going to be just fine. But I’m not ready to be that easily placated. I have profound misgivings. He may have hit the nail on the head with his prognostications for the future of the planet, but is that the planet we want to see? Three thoughts:

1  Am I wrong to think there’s a danger the professor’s contentions could do a lot of harm? If the message we’re receiving is you can’t hold back the tide, why should we bother doing anything? Let Nature and Fate take their course. After all, Nature is thriving, Nature will keep adapting and Nature will survive. So why trouble trying to check carbon emissions, why trouble banning plastic bags, why bother saving the tiger? Let’s just kick back and “go with the flow.” Life would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?

2  The Prof dubs life on Earth “an unprecedented experiment”, which he watches unfolding before him as if from on high. But it is an experiment in which animals, human and nonhuman, are getting hurt. Is sitting back and watching with fascinated scientific detachment an appropriate response to the sight of a slaughtered elephant with flies crawling over the congealing pools of blood where his tusks should be? Or a polar bear on shrinking ice, starving and unable to feed her cubs. Or the terror in the eyes of an orangutan infant, orphaned by human cruelty and greed. Creatures are suffering – now, today, and will keep on suffering if we don’t make every effort to put the brakes on this cruel ‘experiment’.

I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll be saying it again because I believe it to be true: “The mysteries and marvels of Nature we will never fully fathom. Nature is an irreplaceable treasure, and to lose even the smallest scrap of it is tragic beyond measure.”

So I’m afraid I cannot echo the Professor’s optimism. The future of the Earth he foresees where only the toughest few survive is a planet desperately diminished in richness and complexity. Species at threat right now have their own unique and vital roles within the complex web of life. We do not know all the ways their loss will impair our own survival. But we do know we will lose our delight, our constant surprise at their dazzling beauty, their awesome abilities, from the humblest woodlouse to the blue whale, king of the oceans. Every day we discover more wondrous beings we never knew shared our planet with us. And we’ve barely even begun to uncover the complexity of their thoughts and feelings, the secrets of their lives.

Above all, they too have a right to their life and a place to live it, untrammelled and free.

The good Prof says, “Appreciate the world for what it is, rather than spending time being sad that the world isn’t how you think it was supposed to be…”
But I’m with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the Earth crying.”  

How about you?


Further reading

How do you stop the next mass extinction? Look to the past

The Geoengineering Fallacy 

Artificially cooling planet ‘risky strategy,’ new research shows

Sources

*Radioactive contamination from Chernobyl detected all over the world – Global Radiation Patterns

Why we should accept our ecological state for what it is, not what we want it to be – MNN

From feral camels to ‘cocaine hippos’, large animals are rewilding the world

The Anthropocene: Has human impact changed Earth forever?

How Wild Animals Are Hacking Life in the City

Related posts

Half for Us Half for the Animals

When Everyone Is Telling You Meat Is The bad Guy

Hope for the Animals & the Planet

The Living Planet Report – Our Dinner Plates Are Destroying Life on Earth

Extinction Is Forever – Why We Need To Change To Save Animals

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scared of Spiders? You May Be Hard-Wired That Way

Ask kids what they are most scared of, and with one voice they’ll shriek “SPIDERS!”  Hardly surprising then that of all the phobias UK people suffer, nearly half involve creepy crawlies, spiders taking the crown. And no less than three quarters of undergrads canvassed admitted to some level of arachnophobia.

Arachnophobes have always been a puzzle to me. Despite having once been on the receiving end of a startling nip, I love spiders. The cobwebs in the corners of my house are designated conservation zones where no duster is permitted. Tell me, what’s not to love? Any creature that can draw silk like magic out of its own body, and spin the thing of beauty that is the spider’s web, deserves better PR – IMHO.
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Just look at that cute little face!

My personal favourite has to be Bagheera Kiplingi, who out of 40,000 named species, is the only known vegan spider in existence! It’s name alone is endearing. This is what the BBC has to say about our little veggie friend: “Like other species of jumping spider, Bagheera kiplingi has keen eyesight, is especially fast and agile and is thought to have good cognitive skills, which allows it to “hunt” down this plant food.”  See, these little guys are clever too. (Apologies if the  ‘jumping’, ‘fast’ and ‘agile’ have triggered a phobic meltdown)

But come on guys, we don’t have any real monsters in the British Isles. The house spider we’re likely to find in the bath at this time of the year, or glimpse out of the corner of an eye hurtling across the floor of an evening in the flickering light from the TV, deserves to be a welcome guest. It’s estimated that one will chow down and clear your home of 2,000 unwelcome bugs and flies a year. OK, so it can be a decent-ish span from one hairy little foot across to another, especially 2,000 bugs further down the line, but it’s not exactly in dinner-plate-size tarantula league.

If you live in Central America, India, Australia or such, you’d be insane – and quite possibly on the way to meet your maker – if you weren’t anxious about spiders. But we have no spiders of evil intent here, no deadly wolf, no sinister black widow. So why the fear? If it can’t be the size, or the poison factor here in the UK, how come this irrational abhorrence of arachnids?

Arachnophobia does run in families. The question is, inherited or learned? Nature or Nurture? It seems plain commonsense that if mum or dad are scared of these beasties (and it’s more often than not mum) the kids will not be slow to pick up on it. So nurture then.

Well, yes, but not entirely. As with so many aspects of the human animal’s behaviour, unpicking the tangled web of the two Ns isn’t simple. In a 2008 study, 5 month old babies who were shown a variety of images, looked longer at the spiders than at any of the other pics. These babes were unlikely to have been ‘turned’ at such an early age. The finding indicated, the co-authors said, that “humans, like other species, may possess a cognitive mechanism for detecting specific animals that were potentially harmful throughout evolutionary history.” Arachnophobia could well be innate – evolution made us this way. Not irrational at all, but an aid to survival.

A more recent and wonderfully titled study, Spiders at the Cocktail Party, confirms the baby test finding: human evolution has passed down undiminished the ancient fear of the arachnid. This time students were shown a range of different images to identify, including several fear- or revulsion-inducing objects like needles and flies, as well as spiders. Nearly all the participants recognised the spiders more quickly than any of the other images, and also gave them more attention. The spiders were rapidly spotted, even when they appeared out on the display’s periphery, and while the central image was drawing the subjects’ focus and conscious attention.

“Spiders,” say the authors, ‘may be one of a very few evolutionarily-persistent threats that are inherently specified for visual detection and uniquely ‘prepared’ to capture attention and awareness irrespective of any foreknowledge, personal importance, or task-relevance.”

Or, in plain English: Try to complete any requisite task, and we’re beset with constant distractions. We may pride ourselves on exceptional concentration and ability to focus. But, it doesn’t matter how engrossed we may be, the one thing that is certain to grab our attention however peripheral or fleeting its appearance, and spark in us that instant phobic response –  is the scary eight-legged creeping and quivering, scurrying, scuttling, spider.

It really is all in the genes. You, my arachnophobic friend, are hard-wired this way. It’s normal.

Happy Halloween – and please don’t stamp on the spiders!

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(What’s wrong with me then? Why can’t I be in the arachnophobe gang? What’s gone awry with my hard-wiring? Am I missing a gene or two? Maybe I’m a Neanderthal throwback or something. Any other dis-arachnophobes out there…. )

Sources

Frightened of spiders? It could be in your DNA

Why Are We So Afraid of Spiders? – The Independent

Eight Reasons to Love Spiders (Or At Least Spare Them)

Related posts

Spiders eat up to 800 million tons of insects a year

8 Kinds of Animal Craziness

8 More Kinds of Animal Craziness

Who is the Real Hallowe’en Monster Lurking in the Woods?

It’s Hedgehog Time!

9 Creatures Named After the Outgoing President

 

The Parrot who Cried “Don’t Shoot” – & Other Feathery Feats

The African Grey Parrot, prince of prattle, pre-eminent among a small bevy of birds with the ability to speak the language of humans.

Occasionally when one of these awesome birds is thrown into the human mix, strange things happen. And so it was that in one utterly bizarre murder case that involved a crossbow, psychics, and mysterious death threats between members of the victim’s family, the bizarrest element of all was the key witness to the crime – an African grey by the name of Bud. What began as a domestic dispute in the home Bud shared with his humans, ended with a 48 year old woman shooting her husband.

After the calamitous incident, Bud was heard saying in a deep man’s voice,”Get out,” followed by the woman’s voice saying, “Where will I go?” The man’s voice answered, “Don’t f—ing shoot.” Extraordinarily, Bud appeared to be repeating the couple’s final argument.

Damning evidence in the case? “The case’s prosecuting attorney said he wasn’t aware of a precedent allowing a parrot into a trial, but would look into whether Bud could serve as admissible evidence.” In the event, Bud wasn’t called to take the stand. After all, who’s to know if he was giving testimony to that tragic event, or simply imitating a TV show he’d once seen? Despite the lack of testimony from the crime’s only witness, the woman was convicted.

Experts, acknowledging the incredible brain power of these birds, admit it is possible Bud could verbally re-enact an incident observed just once – but unlikely. The fact remains though, these birds are truly remarkable mimics. Not only can they produce the sounds of human words, but they can even imitate to near perfection different voices and tones of voice, a feat that is pretty exceptional among their fellow avians.

How do they do it?

Physically:

  • Like most other birds, parrots have a syrinx above the lungs for producing sound. But what’s unique to them is the complicated set of muscles controlling the syrinx that give them enormous versatility in sound production
  • Like human use of tongue and mouth, parrots use their tongues and beaks to speak
  • What they can’t use like us, are lips and teeth, so they use the esophagus to ‘burp’ their Ps and Bs, and press their tongues against their beaks to make L (with us it’s tongue and teeth)

Cognitively? An extra layer, literally, of grey matter inside the little psittacine skull.

Why do they do it?

In the wild, a lone parrot is a dead parrot. Learning new songs and sounds helps them bond with their mate and fit into the flock. In captivity, by learning to speak like us, the parrot is saying to its humans “Please let me be in your flock”.

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Now to another member of the clever parrot family showing off its talents

cockatoo-1129586__340The Goffin’s cockatoo. A study reveals that these cockatoos who are not tool-users in the wild, can learn to create tools to solve a problem reaching food. If that doesn’t seem surprising, we should take into account that these birds had never experienced this kind of test before, and yet actually performed in it better than many 8 year old children.

In one test the cockatoos were shown a tiny basket with a handle containing food inside a vertical tube, and a straight pipe cleaner. To get the food the birds needed to bend the pipe cleaner into a hook that could lift the basket by the handle out of the tube. The second test involved a piece of food lying in horizontal tube, with a bent pipe cleaner. This time the birds needed to straighten the pipe cleaner to poke out the food. Many of the birds managed one of the tasks, and one little genius managed both!

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Their beauty is their downfall

Of course it’s not just the parrots’ cheeky personality, startling ability to mimic us, and sheer brainpower that make these animals so appealing. Their plumage makes a vivid splash of colour in their forest habitat, and sadly it’s that very plumage that puts them in jeopardy. It seems humans suffer from feather envy and covet that finery for themselves. In the 19th century, thousands upon thousands of these dazzling creatures were killed so their gorgeous feathers could decorate fashionable ladies’ hats.

Today in spite of CITES they are still – illegally – being plucked from forests and jungles, with the result that 66 parrot species out of 375 have been put on the Endangered Red List. The South American Blue-throated Macaw is one of the rarest – there are only about 250 birds left.

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And the beauty of this parrot creates a particular problem. On the Moxeño plains of Bolivia ‘macheteros’ (meaning anything from ‘cane-cutters’ to ‘revolutionaries’ – take your pick) hold fiestas where they dance to the music of bongos and flutes in celebration of the colours of nature – the colour that ironically by this very celebration they are causing to disappear. Because macheteros traditionally wear brilliantly coloured headdresses made from the feathers of 4 types of macaw, including the Blue-throated.

But there is good news. The Asociación Armonía (BirdLife Partner in Bolivia) has come up with the ‘Alternative Feather Programme’. It involves workshops held in local schools to teach the macheteros to create their own ‘feathers’ out of organic materials found locally. Since each headdress is made of approximately 30 central tail feathers, “one headdress of artificial feathers saves at least 15 macaws,” explains Gustavo Sánchez Avila, Armonía’s Conservation Programme coordinator for the Blue-throated Macaw.

In 6 years this program has saved 6000 individual birds of the 4 macaw species, involved thousands of local people in the conservation of Bolivian nature, and provided work and income for locals selling their vivid headdresses of hand made ‘feathers’ to tourists.

And more good news for Blue-throated Macaws: conservationists from Asociación Armonía discovered an entirely new roosting site of this rare bird. Hopefully a sign that these gorgeous creatures are making a comeback.

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So how do birds get their colours?

We already know why all the colours and patterns in birds’ feathers. They serve one of two purposes: camouflage as protection from predators; or finery to attract a mate. No-one knew where the colours came from until a recent study undertaken by Dr Ismael Galván and his team.

Their findings?

  • melanins provide the range of blacks, greys and browns in birds’ plumage
  • carotenoids taken up by specialised feather structures create the brighter shades

Interestingly, birds cannot themselves produce carotenoids. So if they want bright feathers, they have to eat foods rich in the stuff. The carotenoids are carried in the bloodstream to the feather follicles. Melanins on the other hand are synthesised in birds’ bodies by cells called melanocytes.

One third of the 9,000 species of bird studied had complex plumage patterns, most of which are produced by melanins. So the rule is, patches of bright colour – carotenoids. Subtle and complex patterns – melanins.

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But that’s not the whole story

Some Canadian woodpeckers are seeing red – that is if they’re looking at each other, because their feathers have taken on an inexplicable rosy hue. It’s like this: the Northern Flicker woodpecker has two populations, the “yellow-shafted” in the east and the “red-shafted” in the west. The shaft is of course, the feather’s central ‘spine’.

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Where the two different populations cross paths in the middle of the country, you get a blend of both colours. But for years ornithologists have puzzled over the ‘yellows’ that are too far east of the hybridization zone to have picked up the genes of the ‘reds’, yet also sport a blend of both colours.

Well, now the puzzle is solved. In the autumn the eastern birds feast on a bounty of bright red honeysuckle berries. It turns out that the red of the western birds does indeed come from carotenoids, but the red in the eastern birds comes courtesy of the berries, from another compound altogether – rhodoxanthin. That to me has a toxic ring to it, but clearly the Flickers are not getting poisoned.

There is a downside. The berries in question are the fruits of two invasive species of honeysuckle. And because the new red hues they are creating in the birds come from rhodoxanthin not the usual carotenoids, other Flickers could be bamboozled into picking the wrong mate. Normally, bright colours equals plenty of carotenoids. equals a well-fed bird, equals a fit and healthy prospective partner. It “could have major implications for mate selection if plumage coloration no longer signaled a bird’s body condition.” Who knows how that could affect the population long term.

And it’s not just the Flickers. Cedar Waxwings’ feathers are turning orange too. Dr Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum is afraid this is not the last we will see of birds displaying unexpected colours.

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From colour to camouflage

We all know that animals’ fur or feathers is often the perfect camouflage ‘design’ for concealing them in their own habitat. Some are hiding from predators, and others are concealing themselves from their prey. And as we also know, though all tigers have stripes, no two tigers’ stripes are quite the same.

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Ground-nesting nightjar

But what scientists from Exeter and Cambridge Universities discovered about animal camouflage is mind-blowing. In this instance they were looking at not a predator like the tiger, but 9 species of birds who, as ground-nesters, have a particular need to mitigate their chances of being prey. And they found that not only are those species wonderfully camouflaged for their habitats, but individuals within a bird species choose a place to nest that best matches their own individual colours and markings.

“This is not a species level choice.” Prof Martin Stevens tells us. “Individual birds consistently sit in places that enhance their own unique markings, both within a habitat, and at a fine scale with regards to specific background sites.”

And even more amazing, the individuals are tailoring their choice of nesting sites to the visual systems of their main predators! Like seeing themselves through the predator’s eyes. Isn’t it remarkable? How do they do it? How do they even know what they look like? As yet no-one knows, so exciting as this is, there could be more to come.

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Looking back, it seems we have travelled quite a distance from Bud the African grey, witness to murder. But from each little piece of this post (for me, and I hope, for you) emerge two common take-aways  – the ever-amazing genius of birds, and the wonder of Nature. The mysteries and marvels of Nature we will never fully fathom. Nature is an irreplaceable treasure, and to lose even the smallest scrap of it is tragic beyond measure.


If we want to help stem the loss, here are 50 Easy Ways to Save the Planet Although this list dates from 2002, it’s still entirely relevant. We can all make a difference.

The single biggest adjustment we can make to our lifestyles though, is missing from that list – cutting back on meat and dairy. “Human carnivory—and its impact on land use—is the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna.” Science

So here are 6 Easy Ways to Cut Back On Meat If You’re Not Ready to Give it Up Just Yet

Come on ecowarriors, let’s go make a difference!


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What Is It Like To Be a Dog? (Or a Dolphin)

“I can’t imagine not living with dogs. That would be really sad for me”, says Gregory Berns, author of ‘What It’s Like to Be a Dog’. A statement which will surely strike a chord with dog-lovers everywhere.

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Gregory enjoying the company of Callie & Cato

Growing up as a kid in Southern California, Gregory was blessed with the companionship of Pretzel and Popcorn, two golden retrievers. “Kids and dogs go together” he says. (Don’t they just!) Later there were 3 pugs, Simon, Newton and Dexter and another golden retriever, Lyra. Now there are Cato, Callie and Argo, “a yellow dog of some kind of mix.” 

Gregory’s hope for his new book is that understanding how animals think will revolutionise the way we treat them.

It was the loss of his beloved Newton in 2013 that prompted Gregory – a neuroscientist at Emory – to switch from studying the human brain to exploring the way dogs’ – and other nonhuman animals’ – thought processes work. And you will be particularly pleased to know, as I was too, that his studies are entirely non-invasive – no captive lab animals with electrodes implanted in their heads here, thank goodness.

We are trying to understand the basis of the dog-human bond and whether it’s mainly about food, or about the relationship itself,” said GB.

What does go on inside a dog’s head?

This is something we’d all love to know. GB decided to use the same method with the dogs as is used to examine human brain activity, fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). Nothing if not ambitious. Because of course, for fMRI to give useable results, the subject needs to keep completely motionless and yet alert for considerable periods. GB and his assistants had to give his new subjects, the dogs, extensive training to be able to do this.

In what proved a ground-breaking achievement, he opened a window, figuratively speaking, straight into the doggy brain, and recorded what he saw happening in there in real time –  this had never been done before. He was looking for answers to questions like:

  • Do dogs prefer praise from their human, or food?
  • What happens in the doggy head when we make them sit and wait for food or a treat?
  • What’s happening in that doggy head when they smell the scent of their human?
  • How do dogs recognise faces?

And the answer to the first question is: they like the praise from their human as much, and often more than the food. The interesting thing is that when the dog is praised, the activity in the doggy brain is located in the caudate nucleus part of the brain –  the same area active in ours when we receive some praise.

The second? When we ask our dog to sit and wait for the command before he/she is allowed to eat, the mental activity occurs, Gregory says, in a part of the prefrontal cortex, again the same as in humans. Not that we have to sit and wait for the command to eat, but it’s the same part of our prefrontal cortex that’s active when we have to exercise self-control.

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Number 3 (from the National Geographic) This takes us back to our friend, the caudate nucleus. That is the part of the brain associated in humans with reward and positive expectation. And the caudate nucleus was precisely the area GB and his team found activated in the dogs again, this time by the scent of the dog’s own human. And only by that scent. The smell of an unfamiliar human, another dog in the same household, an unfamiliar dog, and even their own scent got little response. Though we may not be too thrilled with theirs from time to time, our smell makes our doggies happy!

Lastly When the dogs were shown 50 photos of different people and 50 of everyday objects, recognition triggered activity in the same area of the dog’s brain, the temporal lobe, as with humans. “Dogs are the only members in the Canidae family that can recognize faces of people without training. Dogs can tell when we are smiling or not and are able to notice differences between two faces, something that even primates like Japanese monkeys aren’t able to do. Dogs also spend more time examining new faces compared to familiar faces.” Psychology Today

So the next time you’re wondering if your dog can read what’s on your mind, the answer is probably yes.”

cat-2367154__340
All I can say is, those dogs must have been getting some pretty dee-lish-us treats

(Admit it cat-lovers, as wonderful as cats are, can you imagine trying to get a cat to sit completely still while being shown 100 photos? I reckon after the first couple they’d give a bored yawn and start licking a paw.)

Now that Gregory has what he calls “a basic understanding of canine cognition”, he is interested in finding out what it’s like to be this dog, rather than that dog, what makes an individual tick. But the main take from his research is, how very very like our own are the processes inside the doggy brain. Hold that thought.

dog-and-man-175549_960_720


Moving on to even bigger things –  the Brain Ark

What could be more important than sussing out the canine mind, you ask. Well, Gregory is doing something else that’s truly amazing – creating the Brain Ark, which aims to be a digital archive of the three-dimensional brain structures of megafauna: big cats, great apes, elephants, bears, wolves and so on.

What does this involve? Using technology called diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) to map the neural pathways of long-dead animals held in museum collections, starting with dolphins. “Dolphins are incredibly intelligent social animals but they’ve remained relatively mysterious. We provided the first picture of the entire dolphin brain and all the white matter connections inside of it.”

And “This year, we reconstructed the brain architecture and neural networks of the extinct Tasmanian toger, also known as the thylacine, using two brain specimens from museums, both of which were about 100 years old.”

And not just brains in museums, the brains of today too. But don’t worry – still entirely non-invasive. For the brains of species still hanging on to existence, like tigers, lions and other of the big beasts, he and his team hope to access creatures whose lives have ended in zoos. Gregory’s collaborators in this project include scientists from 8 other academic institutions across the globe, including the University of Oxford and the Smithsonian Institution.

The WWF has given the warning that 2/3 of animal species will be lost by 2020. To say that is a shocking possibility/probability, is a gross understatement. GB believes that since mapping brains of different species helps our understanding of their behaviour, the open-access store of information in the Brain Ark could prove not just a scientific treasure trove, but an invaluable aid to conservation. This awesome person is taking us on a new journey of exploration into the minds of the other animals who share our world.


So, what drives Gregory Berns?

Not just the scientist’s mission to pursue knowledge simply for its own sake. Nor even the prospect of helping conserve the Earth’s wildlife, vital though that is. Something more radical, more important, more potentially world-changing. In his own words:

“In the grand scheme of things, I’d like to explore the commonalities we have with other animals. That has important ethical implications for how we treat them and their right to exist in the first place. Animal welfare laws cover things like abuse – pain and suffering.
“I think we should go beyond that and acknowledge that animals also have a right to lead a good life – whatever that means for that animal.”

Go Gregory!


Books by Gregory Berns:

What It’s Like to Be a Dog: And Other Adventures in Animal Neuroscience

How Dogs Love Us: a neuroscientist and his dog decode the canine brain


Sources

Neuroscientist explores ‘What It’s Like to Be a Dog’ – Phys.Org

A dog’s dilemma: Do canine’s prefer praise or food? – ScienceDaily

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The Vegan Mafia – Driving the Post-Animal Future of Food

Vegan Mafia? This particular ‘underworld’ is subversive, for sure, but nothing like as sinister as it sounds. In fact, it’s all good. It’s the nickname given to a group of committed (and super-rich) vegans, including the creator of Google Ventures Bill Maris, who choose to put their money where their mouth is, literally – in plant-based start-up companies. Proving that you can have strong ethical goals and still be hard-headed in business, they reckon their investments are a pretty safe bet on a greener future for food.

“There’s a whole community of us building and funding vegan companies,” says long time vegan Ryan Bethencourt.

Who is Ryan Bethencourt, you ask? He may not be a household name, even in vegan households, but he should be. 38 year old Miami-born Ryan is a highly-qualified bioscientist with degrees from Warwick, Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities. In 2014, he co-founded IndieBio, and has become a major mover and shaker in the post-animal bioeconomy, and advisor to The Good Food Institute

He and his team at IndieBio have funded 68 biotech start-ups to date, including Clara Foods (animal-free eggs), New Wave (algae- and plant-based ‘shrimp’), and Pembient (lab-made wildlife products).

Interestingly, each one of those companies completely independently of the others, describes itself on its website as ‘subversive’, or uses the verb ‘subvert’. Oxford English Dictionary: ‘To subvert’ meaning ‘To undermine the power and authority of an established system” What could be more perfect than undermining the atrocity that is animal agriculture in the 21st century.

Though our mafia are all vegan, what emerged in interviews with a handful of the ‘mafiosi’ conducted by CNBC, was that the start-ups they invest in don’t just target their new products at vegans – though of course we do get to reap the benefits. They love the idea that Beyond Meat for instance, has got their burgers selling from the meat counters in big grocery chains. And that eatery chain Veggie Grill primarily serves people who also eat meat – which is great, because obviously they’re not eating meat while they’re dining at Veggie Grill.

30 year old ‘Robot Guru’ aka billionaire Kyle Vogt, who in September last year hit the headlines by buying the most expensive house in San Francisco, is a VM (Vegan Mafia) newcomer. Just about the same time as he purchased the house, his wife opened Charlie’s Acres sanctuary for farm animals rescued from abuse, or destined for the slaughterhouse.

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Happy animals at Charlie’s Acres (pics from their Fb page)

Kyle figured that if his wife was busy saving them, it didn’t make sense for him to keep on eating them. So he went vegan.

A year on, his business angle is, that though appealing to people’s hearts has its place, creating plant-based foods that taste better and are cheaper than foods derived from animals makes the best business sense.

VM investor Seth Bannon is another remarkable vegan. He was only 14 years old when he began volunteering for advocacy organisations. Fast forward a few years: frustrated by the outmoded technology he found being used in the advocacy world – a good 10 years behind the video games he was playing – he set up Amicus: its mission: “To empower people to advocate for the causes they care about through technology”. Now Amicus’s cutting edge tech powers The Human Rights Campaign, Greenpeace, Everytown for Gun Safety, The Humane League, and more.

Amicus’s success opened Seth’s eyes to the potential for positive social change through business. He co-founded and still runs Fifty Years, a venture fund supportingentrepreneurs solving the world’s biggest problems with technology.”

But back to food. Seth may have ideals, but he has no illusions: “The case for giving up meat is clear: There’s a health case, an environmental case,” he said. (Not to mention an animal welfare/animal rights case.) “But we have largely given up on education as a tool for convincing people.”

As we all know to the animals’ cost, you can show people the horrors of animal ag, you can tell them how it’s wrecking the planet and contributing to climate change, you can say, animal products are bad for your health, but some people just do not want to know. The entrepreneurs Seth is backing, he says, look at the market through a “strict business lens.” 

So the VM look to support plant-based products that will be yes, healthier and environmentally friendly and cruelty-free, but most of all cheaper to produce than the current animal products they are looking to replace.

Geltor is a good example – a less expensive as well as cruelty-free plant-based method of making a replacement for gelatin  (currently produced by boiling the skin, tendons, bones from cows and pigs). Geltor’s aim is to disrupt/subvert the gelatin market with what is hoped will be a game-changing animal-free alternative. Because even if people don’t care about the animals, hard economics is an unanswerable argument.

The Future of Food: The Top 2 Trends Shaping The Food & Beverage Industry In 2018

CB Insights which sifts millions of media articles to track trends, lists the top 8 food trends for 2018. And the top 2 of the 8 are…… (drumroll here please):

Food Trend Number 1 Diet tribalization intensifying

That’s industry in-speak for rapid growth in the number of consumers adopting certain lifestyle-based diets, in particular the vegan diet (we’re a tribe!), and the paleo diet. “The paleo diet emphasizes natural, sustainable, plant-based foods, which relates to overall trends toward plant ingredients within the food space. Vegan and gluten-free foods have also moved into the mainstream since 2012.”

Revere (vegan energy drink powders), Rhythm Superfoods (vegan kale snacks) Koia (plant-based smoothies) are some of the vegan start-ups which have drawn investment this year. And tellingly, while start-ups in vegan and veggie meal kits like Sun Basket and Daily Harvest continue to attract funding, meal kit start-ups that are non-diet-specific (ie for omnivores) are struggling.

Food Trend Number 2: Alternative proteins diversify and attract meat leaders

With the runaway success of companies like Beyond Meat and Impossible Food, and ever-increasing consumer demand for plant-based foods, start-ups are sprouting up all over. And some are pioneering new kinds of plant protein – not just nuts and soy. We’re seeing pea protein, algae protein and chickpea protein. Ripple is a great example. Ripple attracted funding of $43.6 million. That is a lot of funding. Its pea-based ‘milk’ is already sold widely in major grocery store chains. And no cows were hurt in the making of this milk.

The Ripple Effect

This time we’re not talking pea milk. The financial and technological stimulus the Vegan Mafia has provided to the plant-based market has created such a stir in the food industry, it’s less like a ripple, more like a tidal wave. Meat corporations cannot afford to be left behind. The US’s biggest meat producer Tyson, last year acquired a 5% stake in Beyond Meat, and followed this by setting up a $150 million venture capital fund to support the development of plant-based foods. Tyson is excited about the fund because it gives the company “exposure to a fast-growing segment of the protein market”.² General Mills, Hormel Foods, and Maple Leaf Foods are some of the other giants grabbing a piece of the plant-based action.

Not satisfied with that, many of the mainstream companies are producing their own plant-based product lines. Pret A Manger for example opened a vegetarian-only restaurant, Veggie Pret.

veggie-pret-outside
UK-based Pret A Manger’s gamble with vegetarian-only restaurants paid off when it registered a 70 per cent increase in sales, enabling it to make it a permanent fixture © Pret A Manger

That proved so popular, this year the company announced plans to make it permanent. Ben and Jerry’s and Hellman’s are among others capitalising on the growing demand for vegan foods too.

Big Investors outside the food industry

Big investors outside the food industry, alarmed by the ravages animal ag inflicts on animals, the environment and the climate, are predicting and promoting a plant-based future too. In 2016 “a group of 40 investors including Aviva and Swedish state pension funds managing $1.25 trillion in assets launched a campaign to encourage 16 global food companies (including Kraft Heinz, Nestle, Unilever, Tesco and Walmart) to respond to the material risks of industrial farming and diversify into plant-based sources of protein.”

“The plant-based meat market is set to reach $5.9 billion by 2022 and could make up a third of the market by 2050 according to some estimates. Worldwide sales of non-dairy milk alternatives more than doubled between 2009 and 2015 to $21 billion over concerns regarding saturated fat levels, lactose intolerance, hormone content and antibiotic use in dairy cows, as well as questions on animal treatment.”

“Our population is set to increase to 10 billion people by 2050 and supplying protein to everyone will prove to be a challenge if we rely only on animal-based sources. This presents a compelling opportunity not only for forward looking investors but also innovative companies who want to profit from a burgeoning plant-based protein market that is set to grow by 8.4 percent annually over the next five years.”²

But would any of this have happened without the initial and ongoing $100s of millions impetus from the Vegan Mafia?

The host of pioneering plant-based companies, and the vegan investors backing them from behind the scenes, give us hope for the future. With the torrents of bad news we get daily on the sorry state of our world, it’s sometimes hard not to get down. But committed, driven, and talented vegans like Seth, Ryan, Kyle, Bill and the rest, still in the summertime of their lives, using their wealth so effectively to address the problems of the planet, set a rainbow for us in an otherwise dark and stormy sky. Long may the Vegan Mafia, and all the animals they are saving continue to flourish. And here’s hoping for a better tomorrow.

Follow Charlie’s Acres on Facebook here


News October 25th 2017 CEO of Vegan Milk and Beverage Company Named One of Goldman Sachs’ Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs!

Sources

¹Wiki

²Plant based alternatives attract investment from meat producers – Lifegate

Vegan mafia: food investor network includes Bill Maris, Kyle Vogt – CNBC

Billionaire tech entrepreneur Kyle Vogt, 30, is revealed to be the buyer of San Francisco’s most expensive mansion after dropping $21.8 million for it – Mail Online

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This is very interesting – and also hopeful.: Conservation X Labs using the tech startup model to work on challenges in the difficult and complex space of environmental protection.Read more here


Are Meat & Dairy Really Bad for Sustainability & the Planet? UN Scientist Says Not

“As a Livestock Policy Officer working for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, I have been asked many times by the press to report on the negative environmental impacts of livestock.” Anne Mottet, PhD.

“Doing so, I came to realize that people are continually exposed to incorrect information that is repeated without being challenged, in particular about livestock feed. This study [will] better inform policy makers and the public.”

Anne Mottet’s study concludes that farming livestock is “a much smaller challenge to global food security than often reported.” I remain unconvinced.
Dr Mottet is an enthusiast for livestock farming Here are her reasons:
  • Meat makes up 18% of global calories and 25% of global protein consumption and provides essential micro-nutrients, such as vitamin B12, iron, and calcium
  • Livestock use large areas of pastures where nothing else could be produced
  • Animals add to agricultural production through manure production and draught power
  • Tending livestock provides income for people in rural areas
  • Because cattle graze and forage, they only need 0.6kg of protein from human food to produce 1kg of protein in milk and meat
  • Milk and meat are of “higher nutritional quality”. Livestock “turn edible crops into highly nutritious, protein-rich food.”
Dr Mottet’s points suggest livestock farming is an efficient use of resources

But is it? Critics of livestock farming say, because the animals consume food that could be eaten directly by humans, and need a lot of it to turn it into comparatively small quantities of meat or dairy, it’s a hugely inefficient food system. For example, it takes 7 kg of grain to produce 1kg of beef.

Not true, says Dr Mottet. Her study appears to show that only 3kg of cereals are needed to produce 1 kg of meat. To me that still sounds wasteful, just not quite so wasteful. In any case the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) does not agree with her figure:

“The production of meat, milk and eggs leads to an enormous loss of calories grown in fields, since cereals and oil seeds have to be cultivated to feed to animals. According to calculations of the UNEP, the calories that are lost by feeding cereals to animals, instead of using them directly as human food, could theoretically feed an extra 3.5 billion people. Feed conversion rates from plant-based calories into animal-based calories vary; in the ideal case it takes two kilograms of grain to produce one kilo of chicken, four kilos for one kilogram of pork and seven kilos for one kilogram of beef.”

And according to the Union of Concerned Scientists Nearly 60% of the world’s agricultural land is used for beef production, yet beef accounts for less than 2% of the calories that are consumed throughout the world.”

If we are left in any doubt about livestock farming’s wastefulness, how about this? Thousands upon thousands of indoor cows – not outdoors grazing and foraging –   dutifully turning food humans could eat themselves like grain, into human food of “higher nutritional quality” (we’re talking the cows’ milk Nature intended for their own cow babies, so ‘human food’?) – Only then for niagaras of the stuff to be tipped straight out into fields or dumped in manure lagoons. Because that’s where 43 million gallons of US milk got jettisoned in the first 8 months of 2016. 43 million gallons surplus to requirements – not needed as ‘higher nutritional quality’ food for humans, but simply wasted. Efficient? Not so much.

Grazing and Foraging – The CAFO

The trouble with Dr Mottet’s ‘grazing and foraging’ point is, the vast majority of farmed cattle in the world never get the chance to graze and forage. Modern day cattle and dairy farming have given us the prison that is the CAFO.

“In the United States and other parts of the world, livestock production is becoming increasingly dominated by concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). In a CAFO, animals are crammed by the thousands or tens of thousands, often unable to breathe fresh air, see the light of day, walk outside, peck at plants or insects, scratch the earth, or eat a blade of grass.”

“With the rise of factory farming, milk is now a most unnatural operation. The modern dairy farm can have hundreds, even thousands of cows. The animals spend their lives being fed in an indoor stall or a crowded feedlot. One of the largest dairy farms in the world is under construction in Vietnam and is slated to hold 32,000 cows.”

 Healthy food?

As for the “higher nutritional quality”, you certainly get plenty of extras in your milk: the hormones and growth factors produced in the cow’s own body, and with them synthetic hormones such as recombinant bovine growth hormone, used to increase milk productivity. Perfect to knock your own delicately balanced hormone systems out of whack. Then there are the antibiotics. And the poisons: pesticides, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, melamine, and carcinogenic aflatoxins. So the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine tells us, based on a multitude of reliable research studies.

What about the cattle’s flesh. How many warnings have there been in the last few years about the risks of meat consumption, especially red meat? For trustworthy mortality risk statistics, check out Harvard Health Publications from Harvard Medical School, Cutting red meat for a longer life.

Dr Mottet’s cattle feed piechart

livestockpro

Unusable for human food?

Dr Mottet’s pie chart suggests that only 14% of crops fed to cattle would be suitable as human food. But statistics from her own employer, the FAO would appear to tell another story altogether: “Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with pasture and land dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of the total agricultural land.”

Of the 330 million acres of agricultural land in the U.S., 260 million acres are used to grow fodder crops. That is 78.78% of all land in the States available to grow food, that is at present growing food to be fed to animals so they can be turned into food for humans. Are all of those crops unsuitable for humans? And is all of that land unsuitable for growing food for humans?

Globally, 33% of the Earth’s arable land is growing fodder crops for livestock. 40% of the world cereal production goes into their stomachs. Fodder crops are commonly alfalfa, barley, soy, kale, canola, swede, turnip, maize and millet – all of which can be eaten directly by humans. Dr Mottet’s figure of 14% doesn’t seem to tally with the statistics from her own organization of crops taken to feed farmed animals which could go straight to our kitchens instead.

Livestock farming’s environmental impact

Dr Mottet’s focus is on the sustainability of farming livestock, but apart from the briefest reference in her opening sentence, she does not mention the damage livestock farming wreaks on the environment. Yet environmental degradation inevitably impacts the very global food security she says farming livestock provides, because it impacts the health and viability of the planet itself. Are any of these aspects addressed in this study?

Fertilizer Growing crops to feed livestock in itself causes a massive amount of pollution. Take for example this year’s ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico spreading over an area bigger than the size of Wales – de-oxygenated sea, death to all the marine life in it. “The environmental campaign group Mighty Earth has blamed the meat industry for the dead zone, claiming much of the nitrate and phosphorous pollution came from fertilizer used in producing vast quantities of corn and soy to feed meat animals.” And incidentally naming as the main culprit Tyson, America’s biggest meat producer.

Manure Is the animals’ manure a valuable commodity boosting agricultural productivity? Its disposal is in reality often problematic: “Algae blooms, salmonella and E. Coli, groundwater contamination, and bad smells are just a few of the problems animal manure can cause. In small doses, it’s the stuff of life—the fertilizer plants need to grow. Mishandled, it’s an environmental disaster in waiting. Each year, farm animals in the United States produce over 335 million tons of manure. That’s roughly the weight of 1000 Empire State Buildings.” Modern Farmer

Meat processing plants There is no question that industrial agriculture is polluting the nation’s waterways, but huge factory farms are not the only culprits: processing plants also dump millions of pounds of toxic waste into rivers, lakes, and streams” Read more – USA: Meat is Murdering American Rivers

Water “The production of one kilogram of beef requires 15,414 litres of water on average. The water footprint of meat from sheep and goat (8,763 litres) is larger than that of pork (5,988 litres) or chicken (4,325 litres). The production of one kilogram of vegetables, on the contrary, requires 322 litres of water.” (A Global Assessment of the Water Footprint of Farm Animal Products)

Extinctions Think Amazonian rainforest.Diets rich in beef and other red meat can be bad for a person’s health. And the practice is equally bad for Earth’s biodiversity, according to a team of scientists who have fingered human carnivory—and its impact on land use—as the single biggest threat to much of the world’s flora and fauna. Already a major cause of extinction, our meat habit will take a growing toll as people clear more land for livestock and crops to feed these animals, a study in the current issue of Science of the Total Environment predicts.” Science Magazine. Read more

Greenhouse gases Total emissions from global livestock: 7.1 Gigatonnes of Co2-equiv per year, representing 14.5 percent of all GHG emissions” produced by human activity.

And this from ‘Livestock’s Long Shadow’ 2006: “A 2,000 kcal high meat diet produces 2.5 times as many greenhouse gas emissions as a vegan diet, and twice as many as a vegetarian diet. Moving from a high meat to a low meat diet would reduce a person’s carbon footprint by 920kg CO2e every year – equivalent to a return flight from London to New York. Moving from a high meat diet to a vegetarian diet would save 1,230kg CO2e per year.”

Both reports from the UN Food & Agriculture Organization – interestingly, Dr Mottet’s own organization.

“According to a recent analysis, just a single dietary change — substituting beans for beef — could nearly satisfy the United States’ emissions reduction goals under the Paris Agreement.”

To be fair, Dr Mottet does say, certain [livestock] production systems contribute directly to global food security”, and her points do make some sense if she’s talking about rural economies in less developed countries. Then the animals may be ‘useful’ to pull carts and carry loads and their manure may be beneficial to the land. And the animals may graze pasture unsuitable to grow food for humans. But in those places livestock numbers are minuscule in comparison with the numbers in the biggest livestock farming nations such as India, Brazil, China and the USA, where none of these things is true. Quite the opposite:

“The present system of producing food animals in the United States is not sustainable and presents an unprecedented level of risk to the public health and damage to the environment, as well as unnecessary harm to the animals we raise as food.” Robert Martin, Director of the Pew Commission on Industrial Farm Animal Production. And the same is just as true of all other major meat and dairy producing countries too.

130617-pulse-interview-2016-international-year-of-pulses-charlie-higgins-320x202Only last year the United Nations Food & Agriculture Organization (Dr Mottet’s own employer) promoted the vision of plant food, not livestock as the future for global food security, and designated 2016 ‘The International Year of the Pulse’

Pulses  are economically accessible and contribute to food security at all levels [They] are an inexpensive source of protein – a crucial component of any healthy diet, but especially in poorer areas where meat, dairy and fish are economically inaccessible. Pulses can also serve as a source of income, as smallholder farmers who grow pulses can sell them at markets,” and turn them into added value products for additional income.

“FAO also added that as an affordable alternative to more expensive animal-based protein, pulses are ideal for improving diets in poorer parts of the world, where protein sources from milk if often five time more expensive than protein sourced from pulses.” UN News Centre

The FAO specifically recommends the farming of peas, beans and lentils, not cattle, in those rural economies where Dr Mottet wishes us to believe farming livestock makes such an important contribution.

But still, Dr Mottet’s conclusion is:

“Animal production, in its many forms, plays an integral role in the food system.”

She ends her report with the FAO’s estimate that given the ever-increasing global demand, 70% more animal products will be needed to feed the world by 2050 – and that will of course require still more land. Yet already, with 50 billion food animals being raised and slaughtered each year, the Earth is being overwhelmed by food animals that consume massive quantities of energy and resources, whose wastes foul waterways and farmlands, and when eaten excessively, degrade our health.” CAFO the book

But Dr Mottet places her faith in science to provide ever-improving FCRs – feed conversion ratios. “FCR is a ratio measuring the efficiency with which the bodies of livestock convert animal feed into the desired output.” Or, as I prefer to put it, it’s the science of bleeding ever more out of the farmed animals (genetically engineered to maximize their ‘productivity’) while feeding ever less in (in terms of resources).

It doesn’t add up

As we have seen, Dr Mottet study appears to directly contradict other United Nations’ reports, some emanating from different branches of the UN, and some from her own, the FAO.

A report from United Nations Environment Programme’s International panel of sustainable resource management 2010 reported in The Guardian “A global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change, a UN report said today.” 

Another report, this time from the UN’s International Research Panel (IRP) August 2016. Technocracy News’ headline ran: “The United Nations would like to remove every meat animal from the face of the planet if it could, and especially cattle.”

And then of course, there is the United Nations’ “International Year of the Pulse”, for which they produced an altogether wonderful book (pdf here) – so much more fascinating, appealing, and colourful than the humble bean and lentil might lead you to imagine. I would urge everyone to take a look.

“Thanks to their high levels of protein, fiber, and other nutrients; low requirements for water and other agricultural inputs; long shelf life; and cultural and culinary relevance around the globe, [pulses are] an uncompromising enemy of hunger and malnutrition worldwide and a genuine superfood for the future.”

The future is beans, Dr Mottet. Not beef. Even the FAO says so.

Help yourself, help the planet  Go vegan

Update

28th September 2017 – Even the President of Unilever agrees! Read her piece: Plant-Based Diets: A Game-Changer For Our Food System, Our People And Our Planet

Also Global methane emissions from agriculture larger than reported, according to new estimates 11% more, in fact.

Dr. Julie Wolf, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Agricultural Research Service (ARS), senior author of the study said: “In many regions of the world, livestock numbers are changing, and breeding has resulted in larger animals with higher intakes of food. This, along with changes in livestock management, can lead to higher

 

Dr Mottet is wrong on at least 4 counts:

3rd Oct 2017 Firstly, the fact that some cattle graze on grass does not make farming them less problematic in terms of sustainability.

“Rising animal production and consumption, whatever the farming system and animal type, is causing damaging greenhouse gas release and contributing to changes in land use. Ultimately, if high consuming individuals and countries want to do something positive for the climate, maintaining their current consumption levels but simply switching to grass-fed beef is not a solution. Eating less meat, of all types, is.”

That is the conclusion of a recnt study by Dr Tara Garnett of the University of Oxford, Cecile Godde from CSIRO and a team of international experts. Phys.Org

5th Oct 2017 Secondly, the Extinction & Livestock Conference hosted by CIWF and WWF in London. WWF’s report Appetite for Destruction with staggering statistics about how the production and consumption of meat and dairy is devastating the planet. Their particular focus was Dr Mottet’s own area – crops grown for animal feed. In 2010 an area the size of Yorkshire was needed to grow soy for cattle feed just in the UK. Now in 2017 the amount of land needed to produce crops for animal feed worldwide is equivalent to the size of the EU. The threat to food security is near its tipping point. WWF, like the FAO before them and many national governments around the world, urgently advises us to eat more plants, and cut back on meat and dairy. Meat and dairy are destroying the planet and driving 60% of Earth’s species into extinction.

And thirdly, meat and dairy are not of “higher nutritional quality” as Dr Mottet claims. Apart from the health risks I referred to above, feeding animals energy- and protein-rich crops produces animal products containing less of the healthy omega-3 and more saturated fat. You would need to eat 6 chickens today to obtain the same amount of omega-3 you would have got from one chicken in 1970. “There are serious concerns that our current food system will not be able to meet the future fatty acid needs of our growing global population.”

Fourthly, soil degradation and depletion. 80% of Earth’s land used for agriculture is given over to livestock grazing or growing feed. Philip Lymbery of CIWF quoted at the conference a 2015 FAO report that agriculture as a whole has degraded the soil to such an extent that there are only 60 harvests left in it. “The techniques that were supposed to feed the world threaten us with starvation.” George Monbiot in the Guardian Sorry Dr Mottet, your improved FCRs are simply not going to  cut it.


Disclaimer
I am no match for Dr Mottet either in terms of qualifications or access to the data. However, it seemed important to draw attention to other statistics and expert opinions, with which her arguments and conclusions appear to be in conflict.

PS There are 58 varieties of pulses around the world. I counted them!



Sources

Livestock production, a much smaller challenge to global food security than often reported

Agriculture at a Crossroads – Global Agriculture Org.

Welcome to the World of CAFO Farms become factories. Rivers of waste. Communities under siege. Declining health.

America’s mega dairy farms

The Wall Street Journal

Scientists find polluted sea ‘dead zone’ that is bigger than Wales – The Independent

What to do with all the poo? – Modern Farmer

Sustainability heavyweights take aim at environmental impacts of soy, beef, palm oil – Conservation International

 UN urges global move to meat and dairy-free diet – The Guardian

Tax Meat Until It’s Too Expensive To Eat, New UN Report Suggests – Technocracy News

FCR – Wiki

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