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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

English Village Enlists Nature’s Own Water Engineers

How lucky are the villagers of Lydbrook, living as they do in the stunningly beautiful Wye valley with the wildlife-rich Forest of Dean right on their doorstep. But by definition being in a valley means being near a river, and this particular village nestles between the River Wye and the flood-prone Greathough Brook. And that has proved not so lucky on more than one occasion.

But the good folk of Lydbrook received welcome news in 2015 with the promise of a £290,000 flood defence overhaul. And the good luck kept on coming in the form of, courtesy of the Forestry Commission, a family of beavers.

Derek Gow, a beaver expert who has worked on reintroductions in Scotland and England, said: “This is a tremendous opportunity. The science suggests these animals will hold back 6,000 cubic metres of water.

“This has the potential to prevent a once-in-30-years flood event. These animals will also open the forest canopy to light, and create a biodiversity jewel in this forest.”

 

Read more: Meet the latest recruit to the UK flood defence team: the beaver – The Guardian

Related posts

UK Rewilding the Beautiful Lynx

Flaviu Ghost Cat of Dartmoor & his Swiss Cousins

Hands Clasped Across the River for Two Big Cats

Hands Clasped Across the River for Two Big Cats

If you step into the stillness of the snowy pine forests, where China meets Far East Russia and the mighty Amur river flows into the Sea of Japan, do not expect an encounter with Panthera pardus orientalis. A sika deer or two, elk, and even with a bit of luck, wild boar may cross your path – but never the Amur leopard. It’s as elusive as it is rare. Only 70 remain in the wild – the world’s rarest wild feline. Even conservationists who’ve spent years working with them count themselves lucky if they get to see so much as a paw print, or the site of a kill. The cats themselves will never be seen, except on occasional camera trap footage.

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It is just possible though, you’ve seen this beautiful animal in a zoo. There are around 200 in zoos’ captive breeding programs – still a perilously small population. This leopard will not be coming off IUCN‘s Red List any time soon.

The good news

But now there is great news. Just last month China approved a new national park for the Amur leopard, and its almost equally rare cousin, the Amur (Siberian) tiger.

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The two carnivores have seen illegal logging shrink their habitat, and numbers of their prey of preference, elk and deer, dwindle as a result of poaching. There have even been reports of tigers hungry enough to stray into residential areas taking dogs and cattle.

This is Amur-Heilong, home of the Amur leopard and the Amur tiger, an area as big as Alaska straddling the border of two of the world’s greatest nations, China and Russia

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A few facts about this exciting new national park in Chinese Amur-Heilong

  • At 5,637 square miles, it will be 60 percent bigger than Yellowstone National Park
  • Communities and factories within the new national park area will be relocated, to avoid conflicts between wildlife and humans
  • At its heart will be a centre for monitoring, research and rescue of the big cats
  • The park will be completed by 2020

The surprise

Talk conservation, and China has scarcely been a country that leaps to mind. We are much more likely to think of the millions flocking from rural villages for a new life in rapidly growing industrial cities.

Or China’s incredible production levels: as in Qiaotou the ‘button capital of the world’, churning out 15 billion buttons and 200 million meters of zippers a year. Or one worker on his/her own racking up – what surely is not humanly possible – 80,000 umbrellas a year.

Or the spectacle of an entire city’s population scurrying about their business in face masks, hoping this won’t be the year they become one of the three quarters of a million who will die prematurely, the result of the country’s appalling levels of pollution.

All a far cry from wild Amur-Heilong, “one of the most biologically diverse temperate forests in the world, vast steppe grasslands and unbroken taiga.”

But with the turn of the 21st century China turned too, in a surprising, historic and incredibly welcome new direction. The heavily industrialised country with its brutally damaged environment and waning biodiversity announced its intention to become the ecological civilization of the 21st century. With its hand held and guided along this unfamiliar path by an array of notable conservation and sustainability agencies¹, China’s ambitious target is to build “a resource-saving and environmentally friendly society by 2020.”  An ambitious target in a positively astounding time frame.

(While President Xi Jinping is personally invested in reversing “severe ecological damage” and building a greener future for his country, his counterpart in the White House is busy dragging the US back in the opposite direction)

Part of China’s grand green plan is an entire, revamped national park system to be developed over the next three years, with the Amur-Heilong reserve as just one piece of the jigsaw. The fabulously visionary Bird Airport is another. 9 pilot parks already established. Hopeful and exciting times in the Peoples’ Republic!


Brought to the brink

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Apart from the Amur tiger, to which it will give a wide berth, the leopard has no enemies to fear but one – the most feared animal on the face of the planet, Man. The cat has been hunted for its beautifully marked and luxuriously thick coat, and hunted again because it preyed on the deer and elk that human hunters crave for themselves. Humans felled and burned its forests, and crisscrossed its territory with railways and lethal roads until all that was left for the cat to roam from its vast historic range was an area the size of Dorset. And a population brought to an all time low of 35. Man it was that brought this leopard to near-extinction.

wcs-amleop-camtrap-3_2011-1

Over the river into Russia

Just the other side of the great Amur river, Russia is also working hard to turn around the fate of Panthera pardus orientalis. In 2012 Russia created, also in Amur-Heilong, a secure national park for the cat, good habitat with ample prey, the Land of the Leopard. This short word picture of a camera trap clip is testimony to the park’s success:

“The leopard steps forward to the roe deer carcass, wedged among the rocks where she dragged her prey two days earlier. She looks back along the trail and coughs discreetly. Three small whiskered faces emerge, and her six-month-old cubs scamper over the rocks to greet her. She steps back and allows them to feed. 

It’s a heart-warming scene of health and productivity. “

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Wildlife Heritage Foundation

(How much would we give for a glimpse of one of those ‘three small whiskered faces’!)

Russia too is making history

From the 2007 low of 35 leopards, the population today at 70 is ‘stable’, and hopefully still on the up. Good news. But Land of the Leopard is reaching capacity, so Russia, partnering with its own set of conservation agencies², has earmarked an additonal but separate reserve for the leopards to the northeast, at Lozovsky. The Amur leopards that once slipped like shadows through the Lozovsky forest wilderness were wiped out 30 years ago, but their prey animals are still in good supply. It’s never been attempted before, but the scientists reckon reintroducing the cats is a viable option.

No-one though wants to chance moving any of the few and precious Land of the Leopard cats. Far too risky. So this is where, we hope, the zoos’ captive breeding programs can make a real contribution to conservation.

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© Jackie Thomas
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Wildlife Heritage Foundation

“Young leopards bred from these captive animals will be raised in a special breeding center inside the reserve, and the cubs chosen for reintroduction must pass rigorous tests, proving that they can hunt in the wild, and that they still retain the ‘panic response’ fear of humans.”

Everything is ready and waiting for them right now. So provided cubs born in captivity can adapt successfully to the wild, two or three breeding pairs of Amur leopards may be stealing silently through the snow in Lozovsky as early as the end of this year. And if the program works out as hoped, it will pave the way for more reintroductions in the future.

Two nations, two stories

Humans brought the Amur leopard to crisis point. It is still on human behaviour that the future of the leopard depends. For the cat’s population to have a chance of bouncing back,“the communities that make their living in this remote corner of the world must be prepared to share their forests with the big cats.”

In Russian Amur-Heilong the people are already onside. Over centuries they’ve learned the wisdom of sharing the land with predators. Besides, today’s Amur leopards are immensely popular stars in their own “reality show” (camera trap footage) on Russian TV. Even President Putin is a fan.

In China though, the mindset is different. So,“an outreach program in the Heilongjiang region is working to convince locals that leopards are worth more than just their pelts,” and the forests more than just timber. Conservation agencies are organising cooperatives to show the people more sustainable ways to live with and from the forests, such as harvesting Korean pine nuts, or working for the park itself, including as park rangers.

The great powers finally get it together

Two great nations divided by one great river which marks their common border. Two great nations dividing between them Amur-Heilong, the land of the Amur leopard and the Amur tiger.

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Image:Phoenix Fund

You can drive across the border from China to Russia. The two big cats of course can’t. They know nothing of borders and divisions, and care even less. And that used to put them in great danger, because what 15 years ago was a quiet road, is now a major highway buzzing with traffic from a new and sizeable city on the Chinese side. That is what makes Russia’s money-no-object Narvinskii Pass Tunnel, a new wildlife corridor opened in 2016, running for a third of a mile underneath a major migration route for the cats, truly a matter of life and death.

So, two nations joined across the Amur by road, but still acting separately in their efforts to bring the iconic big cats back from the brink.

Until now. “Six months ago, the Russian government signed an agreement with Beijing University that enabled, among other things, the sharing of camera trap images.” These two beautiful cats have finally brought the nations together, and in a new spirit of co-operation”  the two powers are at last reaching hands across the divide. 

It may have taken longer than it ought, but it’s another historic step very much in the right direction. Let us hope it will result in many more ‘small whiskered faces’ caught on camera in the years to come.


Breaking news
Wild tigers to reappear in Kazakhstan after 70 years

Last Friday (Sep 8th), Kazakhstan & the WWF signed off on an historic reintroduction of wild tigers – Amur tigers to be precise. Not the same as the Caspian tiger driven to extinction in Kazakhstan 70 years ago, but closely related.

The Fund is providing $10 million (8.3 million euros) for the project.

WWF’s Russian representative Igor Chestin hailed the signing as a “event of global significance” but warned “It will be years before tigers appear on this territory because the territory needs to be specially prepared.”

Kazakh Agriculture Minister Askar Myrzakhmetov said work on a specially protected natural area for the tigers would start at the beginning of next year.

“In fact, we are talking about restoring a whole ecosystem, where this species is set to be reintroduced,” Myrzakhmetov said at a press conference in the Kasakh capital Astana.

Read more

And Nature Needs Us to Work Together with China -Wild Foundation

 20th November 2017 Wonderful work IFAW!

altawebheader1All images with kind permission of ALTA

¹Nature Conservancy, Yale University, the Natural Capital Project, the Paulson Institute, and WWF

² WWF, IUCN and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA)

Sources

Tigers and Leopards to Get New National Park in China, 60% Bigger Than Yellowstone – EcoWatch

Land of the Leopards – bioGraphic

Reporter’s Notebook – Inside a Chinese Factory Town

Pollution in China – Wiki

Qiaotou – Wiki

Our Planet: Ecological Civilization – UN Environment

Related posts

World First – China’s Bird Airport

Tiggywinkles, Tigers & Tunnels

 

We Owe It To The Earth

Even if you’re not the praying kind, and even if the message is still somewhat anthropocentric, I’m sure you’ll agree it is very heartening that these words are flying out across the world to 1.2 billion catholics and 300 million Orthodox christians – and particularly those of any faith or none we hope may be listening in presidential homes and palaces – urging us to protect, preserve, respect. And cease to exploit.

Joint message of Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the World Day of Prayer for Creation

“The story of creation presents us with a panoramic view of the world. Scripture reveals that, “in the beginning”, God intended humanity to cooperate in the preservation and protection of the natural environment. At first, as we read in Genesis, “no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up – for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground” (2:5). The earth was entrusted to us as a sublime gift and legacy, for which all of us share responsibility until, “in the end”, all things in heaven and on earth will be restored in Christ (cf. Eph 1:10). Our human dignity and welfare are deeply connected to our care for the whole of creation.

“However, in the meantime, the history of the world presents a very different context. It reveals a morally decaying scenario where our attitude and behaviour towards creation obscures our calling as God’s co-operators. Our propensity to interrupt the world’s delicate and balanced ecosystems, our insatiable desire to manipulate and control the planet’s limited resources, and our greed for limitless profit in markets – all these have alienated us from the original purpose of creation. We no longer respect nature as a shared gift; instead, we regard it as a private possession. We no longer associate with nature in order to sustain it; instead, we lord over it to support our own constructs.

“The consequences of this alternative worldview are tragic and lasting. The human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people. The impact of climate change affects, first and foremost, those who live in poverty in every corner of the globe. Our obligation to use the earth’s goods responsibly implies the recognition of and respect for all people and all living creatures. The urgent call and challenge to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.

“Therefore, united by the same concern for God’s creation and acknowledging the earth as a shared good, we fervently invite all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1 September.  On this occasion, we wish to offer thanks to the loving Creator for the noble gift of creation and to pledge commitment to its care and preservation for the sake of future generations. After all, we know that we labour in vain if the Lord is not by our side (cf. Ps 126-127), if prayer is not at the centre of our reflection and celebration. Indeed, an objective of our prayer is to change the way we perceive the world in order to change the way we relate to the world. The goal of our promise is to be courageous in embracing greater simplicity and solidarity in our lives.

“We urgently appeal to those in positions of social and economic, as well as political and cultural, responsibility to hear the cry of the earth and to attend to the needs of the marginalized, but above all to respond to the plea of millions and support the consensus of the world for the healing of our wounded creation. We are convinced that there can be no sincere and enduring resolution to the challenge of the ecological crisis and climate change unless the response is concerted and collective, unless the responsibility is shared and accountable, unless we give priority to solidarity and service.”

This is a message not just for the 1st of September, but for every day of every year.

Update

6th October 2017 Catholic institutions announce largest ever faith-based fossil fuel divestment – EcoWatch

Source: The Day of Prayer for the Care of Creation – Vatican Radio

A page of environment petitions

Related posts

A Very Quick Critique of the Pope’s Message on Climate Change

Walking Hand in Hand with Nature

Busting the Myths of Human Superiority

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy

Shooting Goats on the Rooftop of the World

“To protect a rare Central Asian goat—and the snow leopards that depend on it—conservationists are turning to an unlikely ally: trophy hunters,” writes wildlife reporter Jason G Goldman

Goldman is tracing the footsteps of avid trophy hunter Bill Campbell, a doctor with his own private psychiatry practice. Several months before, Campbell had made the 5,000 mile journey from the US to the ‘rooftop of the world’, the remote Pamir mountains of Tadjikistan with the single purpose of adding a rare markhor goat to his extensive trophy collection. He paid $120,000 for the privilege of shooting it.

“It’s probably the most expensive hunt in the world,” Campbell says. “This is basically where my income goes.”

This is what a markhor looks like (alive) with its characteristic twisted horns, and this is where they live.

 

By the early 90s in spite of their nigh-on inaccessible habitat, markhor were close to extinction, the inevitable result of local poaching for meat and a certain amount of illegal trophy hunting. In 1994, in stepped the IUCN, placing the goats on the Red List of species that are Critically Endangered. Over the following decade numbers rose sufficiently for the species to move up a level (or down, whichever way you look at it) to Near Threatened.

Goldman asserts that during his trip to Tadjikistan, I learned that wealthy hunters like Campbell are the main reason that Bukharan markhor still exist at all—despite how uncomfortable that truth may be.

“Some hunters, of course, are almost certainly engaged in a vainglorious pursuit of power. But after spending time with dozens of Tajik hunting guides and wildlife biologists on two markhor hunting concessions in southern Tajikistan, I discovered that painting the entire hunting community with such a broad brush ignores a reality: the trophy hunters who attempt to engage honestly with the thorny ethical quandaries underlying their pastime, who go out of their way to have their fun in an ecologically and socially responsible manner.”

Seriously? Who is he kidding? Is he really expecting us to feel for the mental and emotional turmoil the poor hunters suffer while they are ‘having their fun’, rather than for their innocent victims, trying to survive and rear young in a harsh environment, suddenly confronted by a man with a gun?

Goldman continues to embellish the myth of the sensitive soul that is the trophy hunter. He quotes the reflections of another of the super-rich, this time from South Africa, who trekked for days over inhospitable mountain terrain to get within shooting range of a markhor: “You’re faced with sadness and joy. Joy that you achieved what you did, but there’s a sadness associated with it. It’s a very emotional time when you look at an animal you’ve just killed.”

O  –  M  –  G

Sadly Bill Campbell’s hunt too was ‘successful’. “It was a beautiful animal in a beautiful setting. It was the most exciting hunt of my life.”

Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the US is also a man who knows how to hit his target, but his weapon is words: “Cruel, self-aggrandizing, larcenous, and shameful,” is his judgement on trophy hunting.

The concession where Campbell bagged his markhor issues only one hunting licence per year. As Tadjikistan is an exporter of gold, the argument goes that selling licences to rich hunters like him enable privately held lands to be managed for wildlife, when they might well otherwise be despoiled by mining.

But licence money alone is not enough to halt the decline of these rare goats. Not unless villagers are incentivised to stop poaching. The goats’ value is not in some (illegal) internationally tradeable commodity like elephant ivory or rhino horn. Their value is as a local source of food.

The long-established Torghar Conservation Project in neighbouring Pakistan that both pays the locals as game guards and also turns over to them the ‘lion’s share’ of the meat from licensed hunting suggested a possible model for Tadjikistan.

Enter Panthera, the only organization in the world devoted exclusively to the conservation of the world’s wild cats. Panthera gives support to the local communities in the form of wildlife monitoring training, as well as hardware such as binoculars and vehicles. The organisation’s interest in conserving markhors however, is only as the preferred prey of snow leopards. More markhors mean more snow leopards.

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To this end they are happy to assist the local people not only to interface with their government and the IUCN, but also international hunting organisations. Not just WWF, then.

This is the official version of what happens to the $120,000 Campbell and his ilk hand over for their licence to kill:

  • $41,000 to the Tadjiki government
  • Of that money, $8,200 is channeled into national government coffers
  • According to the Mamadnazarbekov, Deputy Chair of the Committee for Environmental Protection, ‘a fair amount’ of that $8,200 is used ‘to benefit wildlife and the public’
  • The remaining $32,800 is split between regional and local authorities
  • ‘Most’ of what is left of the $120,000 after the government takes its cut stays with the private hunting concession and pays for the markhor’s protection, as well as community projects like water pipes and funding for schools

Even Goldman though, the hunters’ apologist is forced to admit:

“It’s hard to determine how much of what Mamadnazarbekov describes is true. Several sources told me that some money must also be spent making various payoffs that aren’t legally justifiable, and that the government doesn’t necessarily spend its share of the revenue as they are supposed to. In a country with a per capita GDP of just 804 U.S. dollars, it’s not hard to imagine why many people here would want a piece of the action. Bribery and corruption may simply be part of the cost of doing business, even when that business is wildlife conservation.”

How easily ethical concerns are dismissed when it comes to justifying trophy hunting.

Goldman continues, “It’s difficult to argue with the results, at least so far. More than 10 years of intense effort have allowed the markhor population in Southern Tajikistan to flourish.”

Well, as a matter of fact, we could argue with the results. Describing the markhor population as flourishing might be over-egging it. Remember that in 2015 the markhor graduated from Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List to Near Threatened? Well, this is how IUCN defines Near Threatened:

A taxon [species] is Near Threatened when it has been evaluated against the criteria but does not qualify for Critically Endangered, Endangered or Vulnerable now, but is close to qualifying for or is likely to qualify for a threatened category in the near future.”

Not quite out of the woods yet.

But Tanya Rosen, Panthera’s director of snow leopard protection, reckons to have seen a welcome rise in the cat’s population – we’re talking small numbers here, from 6 to 10. Nevertheless, the highest density of these rare and elusive creatures seen anywhere in the world.

Goldman concludes, Isn’t it better to sacrifice a few old animals [markhors] in order to maintain an entire functioning ecosystem?” Many of us would answer “NO, absolutely not”. The markhor may not be as iconic as the snow leopard, but its life counts just as much.

In a country with such amazing scenery, wildlife and culture (the ancient Silk Road from India to China runs right through the Pamir mountains), there is much for any visitor that does not come to kill.

BirdLife International has designated a large area around the famously beautiful turquoise Iskanderkul Lake in the Fann mountains an IBA (Important Bird & Biodiversity Area).

Migrant bird visitors and residents include Himalayan  snowcocks, saker falcons, cinereous vultures, yellow-billed choughs, Hume’s larks, sulphur-bellied warblers, wallcreepers, Himalayan rubythroats, white-winged redstarts, white-winged snowfinches, alpine accentors, rufous-streaked accentors, brown accentors, water pipits, fire-fronted serins, plain mountain-finches, crimson-winged finches, red-mantled rosefinches and white-winged grosbeaks.

The dramatic rugged terrain makes it a mecca not just for birders, but for all wildlife enthusiasts and nature lovers, as well as trekkers, climbers and photographers.

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Karakul Lake – Wiki Creative Commons

Moreover, Pamir Mountains Ecotourism is ready and waiting to put together your own tailor-made tour. It wouldn’t be cheap, but I doubt it costs $120,000. And isn’t that a much better way to conserve the majestic landscape and all that call it home, human and nonhuman?

Yet no qualms about killing goats on the rooftop of the world trouble the conscience of psychiatrist/hunter Bill Campbell.  “I feel good about it in my heart because I feel like I’m promoting really effective conservation,he says.

Well that’s all right then.

It’s little surprise to find that Campbell is a buddy of dentist Walter Palmer, the infamous killer of Cecil the lion. “I feel sorry for him,” Campbell says. “I think that the people who lynched him [online] don’t realize how much he has done for conservation. I wouldn’t be surprised if Walt spends $250,000 to $500,000 a year hunting. And the people who are lynching him donate 25 bucks to the Sierra Club. Who’s done more for conservation? There’s no comparison.”

Spitting feathers anyone?


Meanwhile, in Tadjikistan’s neighbour Kyrgystan, trophy hunting and corruption go hand in hand.

The Focusing on Wildlife poll: Should trophy hunting in Kyrgystan be banned?

 “The hunting of ibex and argali sheep has had a knock-on [effect] on the snow leopard – the situation is so bad we only have three breeding populations of snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan. Hunting and wildlife conservation cannot coexist.”

Emil Shukurov, one of the country’s leading ecologists. Read more


Petitions:

Please sign & share as many as you can – unrelated to Tadjikistan and the markhor, but  important nonetheless

BAN Breeding, Trading and Trophy Hunting of Wildlife in South Africa

Mr Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa: Ban ALL Forms of ‘Canned’ & ‘Trophy’ Hunting In South Africa

EU Please Ban The Import Of Wildlife “Trophies” into Europe

Yolanda Kakabadse WWF: End YOUR Trophy Hunting Safaris in Partnership with USA TH Dallas Safari Club

Stop trophy hunting giraffes

More to be found here. Some are closed, but many are not.

Sources

Shoot to Save – bioGraphic

Iskanderkul – Wiki

Related posts

Shooting lions (and other things that move)

What’s in a Name?

Endangered Animals As You’ve Never Seen Them Before

Man, Money & Rhinos – Unravelling the Tangled Knot of Poaching

 

 

Tsá Tué – Where People & Animals Are Equal

The Dene Déline are a First Nation people of Canada, with a name-meaning that positively sings:
“Where the water flows”
The People of Great Bear Lake

The settlement of Déline lies on the western shore of Great Bear Lake in the remote Northwest Territories. Great Bear Lake, which is sacred to the Dene Déline, is as vast as the ocean. And so pristine, so pure, “you can lower a cup into the water and drink it.” ¹

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Sahtú Gotı̨ch’ádı́ı – Wildlife of the Sahtú Region Facebook page

The Dene Déline’s spiritual connection with the lake is ancient and profound – their other name, Sahtuto’ine, means ‘People of Bear Lake’. There is a myth passed down through the generations that at the bottom of the lake there lies a gigantic beating heart, a water-heart which gives life to the grass and the trees, the insects, the birds, the animals – and to them. To everything.

“There are prophecies, and relationships with the lake that go back thousands of years. There is, in fact, a prophecy that talks about Great Bear Lake being one of the last remaining bodies of freshwater on this planet.” Stan Boychuk, expert in First Nation culture.

The prophecy he refers to was made by a Dene Déline elder by the name of Eht’se Ayah, who “foretold that in the future, people from the south would come to Great Bear Lake because it would be one of the few places left with water to drink and fish to eat. He said so many boats would come that you could walk from one to another without entering the water. Simply put, Great Bear Lake would be a last refuge for humanity.” ¹

Today, in the 21st century, Eht’se Ayah’s prophecy has already partly come true. Of the 10 largest lakes in the world (yes, we may never have heard of Great Bear Lake, but it comes in at no. 8, bigger than Belgium and deeper than Lake Superior), it is the only one still remaining unspoilt, intact, primeval.

Unexpectedly, a new report from NASA of all things, gives additional credibility to Ayah’s prophecy. NASA’s GRACE satellite mission finds that of the world’s 37 largest aquifers (layers of water-bearing permeable rock under the Earth’s surface), 21 are being depleted at an unsustainable rate, and of those, 8 have little or no water recharging them. We “are inching toward a world where fresh water is much more difficult to come by.” Read more

The Dene Déline’s Territory, Tsá Tué

A while back, if you wanted to visit the township of Déline on the lake shore, you would need to take a hair-raising 200 mile drive along an ice road in the winter time, the only time you could get there by road, and when the temperature is in the minus 20s C. Nowadays you can fly to see the wonder that is Tsá Tué, the 36,000 sq miles of taiga around Déline – ancient boreal forest and water, and one of UNESCO’s most newly-designated biospheres. You can see from the map below how remote Tsá Tué is. And, what 36,000 sq miles looks like – BIG!

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Sahtú Gotı̨ch’ádı́ı – Wildlife of the Sahtú Region Facebook page

You would be forgiven for thinking that sometime over my many years I might have stumbled across biospheres, especially as there are 669 of them dotted about the world. But no. Now I have though, I’m very excited. They are SSSSs – ‘Science for Sustainability Support Sites’, jargon for those special places where human life and activity is both sustainable, and in balance with the local ecosystem.

A UNESCO biosphere typically comprises three interrelated zones:
  • A core ecosystem of strictly protected landscape, wildlife and plants, with enough genetic diversity to maintain a healthy population of local species
  • A buffer zone surrounding the core where only activity compatible with research, education and training is permitted
  • A transition area – the outer circle – where human economic activity goes on, in a way that is culturally and ecologically sustainable
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The Spreewald Biosphere in Germany

You’ll find biospheres in the Volga floodplain in Russia, in the Maldives, Ecuador, China, India, Japan – in 120 different countries. Closer to home there’s one in France’s Dordogne region, and here in the UK, Galloway & southern Ayrshire where two biospheres merge.

Back at Tsá Tué

Tsá Tué is not only one of the most recently designated biospheres (2016); it’s not only the largest on the North American continent; it is also the only one in the world entirely controlled by an indigenous people. Shortly after its designation by UNESCO as a biosphere, the Canadian government granted Déline self-government, strengthening the Sahtuto’ine’s ability to protect their land and Great Bear Lake. And this is how they celebrated that historic moment in the life of their people:

Tsá Tué’s biodiversity is rich and healthy

The Sahtuto’ine live in harmony with the lake and the land, seeing themselves as stewards of this magnificent piece of N. American wilderness. They have been here for 6000 years, as much a part of the landscape as the grizzlies, moose and caribou they share it with, the snowshoe hares, the arctic foxes, wolves, wolverines and lynx.

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Moose mother and calves

And birds: ducks and geese, sparrows, finches, waxwings, warblers, sandpipers, cranes, hawks and eagles in their billions. All these and more nest and raise young in the Canadian taiga, feasting on the humid summer’s swarms of insects, and fall’s berry bonanza before they leave once more, migrating to more temperate climes.

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Cedar waxwing

Tsá Tué’s biodiversity has suffered no diminution in recent years – unlike the devastating losses in the ecosystems of, for instance, the Borneo rainforest or the Amazon basin. That isn’t just down to the almost inaccessible remoteness of the territory the Sahtuto’ine inhabit, although that certainly helps. Even supposing they had little respect for the plant and animal life they live among (but the very opposite is the case), with a tiny population of just 600 souls they would be very hard pressed to make much of an impact on their vast wilderness environment. In Tsá Tué, the Sahtuto’ine average 1 person to every 60 sq miles. Compare that with the UK’s 1,010 people to 1 sq mile. Little wonder our own biodiversity is under such severe pressure.

In that case, why does Tsá Tué need this biosphere designation from UNESCO?

The designation will help this tiny community resist attempts from outsiders to exploit their land. Predatory multinational corporations find ways of circumventing protections, even those instituted at national level. There is reason to fear. The area’s natural resources have been plundered before.²

Being an SSSS will make it that much harder to do. And that together with their new self-governing status means their future as a people, and the guardianship of Tsá Tué, belong entirely in their own hands.

Sahtuto’ine beliefs – “When People and Animals were Equal”

“There was a time when it was believed that everyone was the same – animals, birds and humans. It was believed that a creature or a human could change from animal to bird, human to animal, bird to animal. It was also believed that with the change, animals and birds had the power to speak.”

That time “came to an end about the time the first European explorers arrived in the area. By then, most animals no longer had the power to speak or to change their appearance. Only medicine persons with strong dream power could still talk to the animals.” ³

wolves-2058902_960_720“Every seed is awakened and so is all animal life. It is through this mysterious power that we too have our being and we therefore yield to our animal neighbours the same right as ourselves, to inhabit this land”

The wisdom of Sitting Bull, a Teton Dakota chief of the 19th century, not a Sahtuto’ine of course, but voicing a belief common to all First Nation peoples of N. America.

Historically, “Animals were respected as equal in rights to humans. Of course they were hunted, but only for food, and the hunter first asked permission of the animal’s spirit. Among the hunter-gatherers the land was owned in common: there was no concept of private property in land, and the idea that it could be bought and sold was repugnant. Many Indians had an appreciation of nature’s beauty as intense as any Romantic poet.

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“The Indians viewed the white man’s attitude to nature as the polar opposite of the Indian. The white man seemed hell-bent on destroying not just the Indians, but the whole natural order, felling forests, clearing land, killing animals for sport.”▪︎ 

But the Sahtuto’ine traditional culture remains little changed. We can be sure they will continue to treasure the priceless pristine wilderness that is Tsá Tué. It could not be in safer hands.

Let’s give the last word to Sahtuto’ine Walter Behza, who has had the responsibility of managing these boreal lands for many years and is now official Integrated Resource Management Advisor for Tsá Tué:

“Listen to what the land wants, listen to what the lake wants, listen to what the animals want”

(If only everyone would do the same)


¹New York Times

²”The area became prominent when pitchblende was discovered at the Eldorado Mine, some 250 km (160 mi) away, on the eastern shore, at Port Radium. During World War II, the Canadian Government took over the mine and began to produce uranium for the then-secret American nuclear bomb project. Uranium product was transported from Port Radium by barge across Great Bear Lake where a portage network was established along the Bear River, across the bay from Fort Franklin, where many of the Dene men found work. As the risks associated with radioactive materials were not well communicated, it is believed that many of the Dene were exposed to dangerous amounts of radiation,[8] which Déline residents believe resulted in the development of cancer and led to premature deaths. Wiki

³A Dene Way of Life

▪︎North American Indians: the spirituality of nature

Other sources

At biggest biospere in N. America, humans live in harmony with nature – MNN

The World is Running Out of Fresh Water – One Green Planet

Listen to What the Land Wants – PressReader

Related posts

The Rights of Nature

A Fragile Butterfly Joins the Face Off at Standing Rock Revisited

Walking Hand in Hand with Nature

15th June U.S. Quietly Removes 17 Sites From UN Biosphere Reserve Network

More of Trump’s dismantling of the environment? Click link above for full list. The better news is that around the world 23 new biospheres have been designated. Full list in the article.

 

 

 

 

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Dodos & Dinosaurs – Should We Bring Them Back?

Well, we can put the dinosaur question to bed right away, because it can’t be done. Those particular animals have been extinct for more than 65 million years and there simply is no viable DNA to recover.

Dodos? Yes. The dodo is on the list of ‘Candidate Species for De-extinction’. To be a possible candidate the chosen animal must have a living genetic relative, and the dodo does have one, and a very pretty one at that – the Nicobar pigeon, seen here

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Of the two main contenders for resurrection, one is large and iconic like the dinosaur – the woolly mammoth. And the other is a bird like the dodo – the great auk.

So how would it be done?

You have to start by retrieving the animal’s DNA, either from fossils in museums or from preserved tissue in permafrost. From that sample the whole genetic code is rebuilt. Enter our friend CRISPR and the DNA is edited into an embryo of its nearest living relative. (There are a couple of other methods if you want to read more)

With the mammoth (relative Asian elephant) we’re already at this stage. Next we need a mother to carry that embryo to term. Or if not a mother, at least a womb which in this case will be an artificial one.

Great auks could be edited into razorbill DNA with a mother goose as parent. Projects for ‘de-extincting’ heath hens and passenger pigeons are also on the move.

That said, it’s all – if not entirely a pipe-dream – still a long way off. Not in my lifetime anyway.

But why bother?

All projects for reviving extinct animals are being coordinated by Revive & Restore.

They are great believers in de-extinction and here’s why:

  • Preserving biodiversity and genetic diversity
  • Restoring ecosystems that have diminished since the animals went extinct
  • Importantly, estorative justice – undoing the harm that we humans did to them in the past
  • Advancing science to prevent future extinctions

An example of where de-extinction research is already proving beneficial is the American Chestnut tree. A fungus rendered it extinct in its natural environment, but the genome of lab specimens has been tweaked to make it fungus-resistant. And now it’s ready for successful reintroduction.

Homo Sapiens

In March, a panel of five experts discussed an intriguing topic the recent Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate in New York: if we went extinct ourselves, would it be a good idea for a superior life form to bring us humans back?

Not that we would get a say in such a scenario. But my own preemptive answer would be NO, NO, NO, bearing in mind the forces of destruction we’ve unleashed on the planet and all the other species we (don’t) share it with.

The panel’s objection to the idea was very different Their worry would be what this superior life form might do with us:

Were another intelligent life to de-extinctify humans, would they put us in a zoo-like environment? For a sentient being, that would beextremely frightening and scary,” said panelist Greg Kaebnick, a research scholar at the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in Garrison, New York. “The animal welfare concerns just get overwhelming.”

Funny how that matters for humans but not for any other sentient animals already held captive in zoos. Hard to believe an intelligent person could make such a remark and not pause to reflect on what he has just said. Come to think of it though, perhaps a zoo (where we could inflict no further harm) might be the best place to contain such a dangerous species as Homo Sapiens.

Why not to bother?

Let’s forget humans for a moment. Aside from the practical scientific difficulties, why is de-extinction problematical? There are many compelling reasons:

  • If the de-extinctified animal is not a perfect copy of its forebears, could it be classified as the same species, or would we actually be playing God and creating a whole new species, a Frankenstein’s monster?
  • What of failed attempts resulting in maimed, deformed, stillborn animals?
  • If the animal did turn out a perfect copy, wouldn’t it immediately have to go on the endangered Red List?
  • What if appropriate food sources and habitat no longer exist?
  • What if the microbiota (the bacterial life within the species’ body, vital in maintaining its functioning) no longer exists and cannot be replicated?
  • Alternatively what if the DNA of a virus had, unbeknownst to the de-extinctifiers, incorporated itself into the animals’ genetic code? De-extinction carries the possibility of apocalyptic fallout
  • What effects might there be on present ecosystems? Another dangerous unknown
  • How many animals of one species need to be de-extinctified to provide a wide enough gene pool? We know it can’t be done for dinosaurs, but even if it could, “It would take about 5,000 Velociraptors (or any dinosaur species, for that matter) to make a sustainable population with sufficient genetic diversity. “ Todd Marshall
  • Where exactly does human responsibility for the revived creatures end?
  • And most importantly of all to my mind, wouldn’t the money at present spent on de-extinction research, be put to better use protecting, and improving the habitat of, the huge numbers of species already at high risk of extinction?
  • And, might funding de-extinction of a small number of species actually threaten the survival chances of a larger number of already existing species?

For me it’s a no-brainer, and researchers in biodiversity agree. The answer to those last two questions is a resounding Yes. In New Zealand for example, government funds at present earmarked for reviving 11 extinct species threaten to sacrifice at least 31 existing ones. The negative impact on biodiversity looks to be even greater in Australia where funding is allocated for 5 extinct species. More than 8 times that number of existing threatened species could be saved for the same money.

We’re hopelessly failing to safeguard life forms in the here and now, so is it wise to use scientific expertise and precious funding to bring back the distant dead –  those that really are as dead as a dodo?

Jurassic Park? Inspired idea for a movie. Let’s just leave it where it belongs – on the silver screen.

 

Sources

Why We Do What We Do – Revive & Restore

Why we shouldn’t bring back the mammoth and other extinct animals – ZME

Were Humans to Go Extinct Should the Species Be Revived? – LiveScience

Should we resurrect extinct species? MNN

Is It Possible to Clone a Dinosaur? – LiveScience

Related posts

The Stripey Dog, CRISPR, & the Chimaera

Extinction is For Ever – Why We Need to Change to Save Animals

Remembrance Day for Lost Species

 

 

 

World First – China’s Bird Airport

Birds. Airports. Those two words rarely if ever sit happily together. The Airbus forced in 2009 to make a dramatic emergency landing on the Hudson River after Canada geese were sucked into both engines, triggered an unstoppable wave of bird slaughter at airports round the world. The unfortunate animals just happening to be in the ‘wrong’ place were gassed, shot and poisoned in an attempt to prevent bird ‘strikes’ on aircraft. Still are. Airports in China included. At China’s east coast Lishe Airport, for instance, the grassland where migrating egrets stop to feed is being sprayed with rat poison.

“Where biodiversity is most in trouble, it’s in trouble because of direct conflict with human activity.” 

Gretchen Daily

So, the world’s first ever custom-built airport for birds? Mudflats, reed beds, lakes and shallow rapids – something for every feathered frequent flyer. Not a plane in sight – and in China?
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Lingang Bird Sanctuary is an ‘airport’ designed with the safety and well-being of migratory waterbirds in mind. (Rendering: McGregor Coxall)

China’s conservation record has not been so hot in the past, to put it politely, so it’s a big surprise, but an incredibly welcome one. In actual fact, the super-power is now ahead of the game in the management of flourishing ecosystems and has declared its vision of becoming the ecological civilization of the 21st century¹

“It’s just such a historic moment in China, with the highest level of government pushing for a level of investment in nature that’s completely unprecedented.” Yale University ecologist Gretchen Daily, 

The Chinese government partnered with Yale and with Gretchen, co-director of the Natural Capital Project, for research on the state of their network of national parks and nature reserves. And now the ecologist is helping the Chinese ‘reimagine’ these spaces to reverse the decline in biodiversity, and at the same time provide ecosystem services such as sandstorm protection and flood control.

“We’re recommending a great expansion of nature reserves to encompass all of the major groups of biodiversity that we studied, which includes plants and the four vertebra groups — mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. That involves many new reserves being established”

And the Lingang Bird Sanctuary in Tianjin is such a one. It has been “specifically designed to accommodate thousands of daily takeoffs and landings by the 50 million birds traveling along the East Asian-Australasian Flyway.” This flyway, one of 9 major bird migration flyways across the globe, stretches over 22 countries – the list includes China, Japan, New Zealand, Russia and the United States, taking in Indonesia and Thailand on the way.

The new ‘airport’ at Lingang is all good news:

  • It’s where it’s most needed, sitting in the most threatened of all 9 global flyways, and in a country where 70% of intertidal habitat has been lost in the last 10 years
  • It’s expected to provide the perfect refuelling stop for those millions of migrating waterbirds – more than 50 species
  • The design² includes an education and research centre – another plus for bird conservation
  • It will provide green lungs for the city of Tianjin, frequently blanketed with smog so thick it  shuts down its real airports
  • It will also act as a ‘sponge city’³ (more below)
  • It transforms a former ugly, dirty, smelly landfill site into a fabulous green eco park
  • It will provide a much-needed green space where humans too can enjoy the outdoors, breath fresh clean air, wander along miles of walking and cycling trails, watch the wonder of migrating birds and hopefully learn the value of making space in our overcrowded world for other living creatures
BirdAirport-McGregorCoxall-2.jpg.838x0_q80
A birder’s paradise, Tianjin’s new wetland sanctuary will also help to scrub the city’s notoriously polluted air and prevent major urban flooding events. (Rendering: McGregor Coxall)
Let’s hope Lingang, due to be completed in 2018 ready for its visitors, human, avian and hopefully a bounty of other wildlife, will provide a template for such projects in the future.

¹The [Chinese] Congress clearly stated that China must incorporate the idea of ecological civilization into all aspects of economic, political, cultural, and social progress. Actions and activities relating to China’s geographical space, industrial structures, modes of production and people’s living should all be conducive to conserving resources and protecting the environment so as to create a sound working and living environment for the Chinese people and make contributions to global ecological safety.” UN Environment Our Planet

Wow – way to go China! Other countries take note. Ms Daily though sounds a note of caution:

“Aligning the activities of over a billion people around conservation might prove to be a challenge, even with the best of leadership we can hope for.”


²Australian landscape architecture firm McGregor Coxall (“We Value Cities Ecologies & Communities”)  partnered with Avifauna Research in this ambitious project.


³Sponge Cities
Lingang bird airport is one of 16 pilot projects in the new Sponge City initiative. In the most populated country in the world, where half of its 527 rapidly-growing cities suffer water shortages classed by the UN as ‘severe’, and another half have woefully inadequate flood protection, there’s a pressing need for storm water to be ‘reimagined’. Last year for instance, the floods in north and central China killed at least 150 people with many more missing, destroyed 53,000 houses and saw hundreds of thousands forced from their homes.
But all that water can be turned from a disaster into an opportunity. ‘Reimagine’ the city as a giant, super-absorbant sponge. Catch the water with rooftop gardens, and at road-level plant-filled ditches (called bioswales) instead of concrete, and lo, you have water for gardens and urban farms, for flushing toilets, and even replenishing drinking water supplies. And zero flooding.

 

Sources

China to debut world’s first bird ‘airport‘ – MNN

Airports’ global bird slaughter – 100,000s gassed, shot and poisoned – The Ecologist

China Floods – BBC News

Helping China Rethink its Approach to Conservation – Yale Environment

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Spiders eat up to 800 million tons of insects a year : TreeHugger

Meanwhile, humans consume a mere 400 million tons in meat and fish.

Source: Spiders eat up to 800 million tons of insects a year : TreeHugger

And if that’s not amazing enough for you, just take a minute to have a look at these gems on eight legs. Nature is wonderful!

Some of the most stunning spiders to feast your eyes upon