It’s Christmas. Time to put your feet up. Ready for a festive quiz question to mull over with your mince pie, cuppa, glass of wine?
How many acorns does a squirrel need to stash to get him/her through the dark cold days of winter?
I’ll give you a few clues:
a small acorn weighs about 10 grams
a hefty one closer to 14
and a squirrel eats an average of 450 grams a week
By my reckoning that’s about 37 and a half average-size acorns a week. And if December, January and February together add up to 13 weeks, it makes the seasonal total 488 to the nearest nut. That’s a lot of acorns to bury – and importantly, find again.
Have you ever played that party game where you are presented with 25 random household objects on a tray, you have 1 minute to study them before the tray is removed, and then you have to write down every item you can remember?
Well, I hate to tell you this but when it comes to memory, a squirrel is a pretty major contender for the prize. Because research has it that a squirrel remembers where it has hidden a good 95% of its nut-shaped snacks.
This year I planted 343 spring-flowering bulbs in my garden, and I had to mark everything with small sticks to avoid digging up bulbs already planted, while planting more. No way could I remember where 343 bulbs were buried, so remembering approaching 500 tiny burial spots under a carpet of fallen leaves is a feat indeed. (But maybe that’s just me🤔)
3,000 and they stillremember exactly where 95% of them are buried. How is that possible?
Grey squirrels “scatter-hoard”, so it’s one nut, one hole. But it’s not random. They sort their harvestings, clustering each type of nut or seed with its kind. It’s called “chunking”, and helps to “decrease the memory load”, as scientists put it.
They also sort their stash according to their ‘best before date’ – how long they are likely to ‘keep’ once buried. And by the acorns’ tannin content. Our squirrels are not partial to the bitter taste – nice white tannin-light acorns are for eating right away. The darker tannin-heavy nuts are buried, left to leach out some of the compound over time. Both of these ways of sorting the nuts may also serve as aides memoire. “That patch is where I put my bbf-February stash, and that one my vintage acorns ‘brut’.”
It used to be thought that the little tree dwellers had awful memories and located their buried chow by scent. But what if, as does happen, several squirrels cache their hoards in the same area? How would they tell theirs apart from the others? Don’t all acorns smell much of a muchness?
For our clever furry friends, it’s no problem. A 1991 study tested them out in just such a situation and found individual squirrels were easily able to locate their own personal caches. So it can’t just be that delicious nutty smell that’s guiding them straight to target.
“From my own observation, I think they are using landmarks,” says Japanese researcher Pizza Ka Yee Chow. “They recognise the trees, and they are gauging the distance between themselves, the tree and their own nests.” (Besides, simply following their noses wouldn’t be much use when the earth is covered in a blanket of snow.)
Of course, that doesn’t mean they’re above a bit of opportunistic thieving from each other. From a convenient lookout in a nearby tree they watch their counterparts burying acorns and hiding the signs of soil disturbance with a careful sprinkle of autumn leaves. Waiting until the hoarders are gone, the watchers get right in there and dig up their ill-gotten swag.
(Perhaps the surprisingly huge number of nuts cached is in anticipation of such lawless looting. And also allowing for the 5% they will probably forget. No squirrel is perfect!)
But forewarned is forearmed. If the hoarders realise they’re under surveillance, they only pretend to cache the nut, then strew the leaves and scurry off to bury it in a spot safely away from prying squirrel eyes.
It’s not just in their remarkable ability to locate vast numbers of nuts that they top the leaderboard for memory. The squirrel’s longer term recall is enviable too. In her 2017 study, the same researcher found that once a squirrel has solved a problem to get an edible treat, when presented with the same problem after a gap of 2 years, they instantly remember exactly how they did it the first time.
“These little creatures may be way smarter than we thought,” she says.
Or are they …
They may have got the measure of their thieving fellows, but here comes another woodland robber, the cunning blue jay.
Still, in spite of sitting there watching the squirrel bury the nut, it can’t be said the jays home in on the precise location first try. Come on jays, you’re supposed to be clever corvids.
Perhaps the squirrels can keep the Best Memory trophy after all.
(Even though no-one still seems entirely sure exactly how they do it.)
Love squirrels? You may want to watch the BBC’s Super Squirrels. Apparently fox squirrels can remember where they buried 9,000 nuts! Super squirrels indeed.
PS Just to put in a good word for the much-maligned grey squirrel :-
“Nuts clearly are dependent on either gravity or animals for dispersal. Squirrels are one of the most important species in this regard.
“But not all squirrels provide this service. Red squirrels store nuts in piles on the ground. Those piled-up nuts tend to dry out and don’t take root. Whereas grey squirrels bury nuts all over the place, and [sometimes] forget them. That results in trees [like oak, beech and hazel] growing in new areas.”
Grey squirrels are not simply forgetting where they put 5% of their autumn nut haul, they are providing eco-services😊
May peace and compassion reign over all living beings this Christmas, and may we each play our part in 2019 to help liberate the world’s oppressed, human and non-human.
How are your ears? Are you up for a bit of citizen science listening to the song of the whales? You are invited to “help explore and conserve marine life around the globe, starting with studying and saving the southern resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.”That’s some invitation, an invitation hard to refuse.
The Orcasound project app sends the sounds picked up by a network of underwater microphones (hydrophones) located in the Salish Sea off the U.S. state of Washington, straight to your laptop, tablet or phone. The idea is to gather data to raise awareness of the damage noise pollution is doing to marine wildlife, particularly the pods of orca for whom the Salish is home territory. And then use that data to better protect these beautiful and iconic creatures.
AI algorithms are being developed to analyse the underwater sounds, but they only get us so far. Nothing beats the human ear. “We actually have some listeners who will sleep with the hydrophones on in their bedroom,”says Scott Veirs, Orcasound’s lead researcher, “and their brains can wake up when they hear a killer whale sound, even if it’s just a faint killer whale sound in some ship noise. That sort of signal detection is right at the cusp of what machines are struggling to do.”
Orcas communicate to each other in a language of whistles, screams and squeaks, as in this video
They also use a clicking noise to echolocate prey. Both their talk – keeping them with their pod and passing on information – and their clicks – finding food – are critical to their survival. Underwater noise pollution could so disrupt this natural behaviour as to wipe them out.
Minky whales and humpbacks as well as harbour porpoises frequent the Salish Sea. So before we make a start at listening to orca song, to help us distinguish one underwater sound from another Orcasound features an interactive image of Salish sealife. We can click on any of the ‘objects’ in the image, animate or inanimate, and hear the different sounds each produce. Now we’re all set to go.
If anyone knew a thing or two about mountain gorillas it was the remarkable Dian Fossey. Ms Fossey, the first to study gorillas at close quarters, loved these animals with a passion. Humans – not so much. Her every breath, her every ounce of energy, her life’s blood, was spent protecting the gorillas by keeping humans at bay.
In the Rwanda national park where she established her research station, she had 4 of her own staff destroy 987 poachers’ snares in 4 months. (In the same period, Rwandan park rangers destroyed none. A desperately poor local community makes its livelihood where it can, and if that means poaching gorillas, so be it, was their thinking.)
Apart from fighting a war against one kind of humans, the poachers, Ms Fossey was fierce in her hostility to another kind – wildlife tourists. She had three seemingly incontrovertible reasons for her opposition to ecotourism. Firstly, humans would damage the habitat. Secondly, humans could infect the great apes with anthroponotic diseases (diseases which could jump the species barrier from us to them) such as TB, flu, the common cold, chicken pox, measles and herpes. With no natural immunity to these infections, gorillas could, and did die. And thirdly, the very presence of humans would affect the great apes’ natural wild behaviour.
I wonder how she would react today if she knew that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme now actively promotes tourism to her precious primates’ habitat. The charity’s rationale is simple: tourism provides a living for the impoverished locals living around the national parks and gives them a vested interest in protecting rather than poaching the animals. And the Rwandan government runs a scheme ploughing back 5% of income from gorilla tourism into local development projects like road construction, clean water supplies, sanitation, and health centres accessible for all. What better incentive could the local population have to see that the gorilla tribes thrive?
Good news story
This policy does indeed appear to be working. Kirsten Gilardi, director of Gorilla Doctors is adamant, “Gorilla tourism revenue has absolutely saved them from extinction.”(Her team of medics attending the gorillas with hands-on health care for four decades is also a beneficiary of ecotourism cash.) From the desperate level of only 240 remaining in 1978, and Ms Fossey fearing they would be extinct by the year 2000, the apes now number 1000 – still on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Endangered list, but no longer Critically Endangered. It’s a reason for “cautious optimism”, says the IUCN, a good news story of ecotourism directly benefitting wildlife.
And there are others:
Money from tourism was used to expand the habitats of cheetahs and African wild dogs, slowing population decline
Ecotourism funded the restoration of hoolock gibbons’ and golden lion tamarins’ habitat, reversing human-inflicted environmental degradation, and boosting growth in their respective populations
Wildlife management staff are safeguarding the future for African penguins and the great green macaw by using ecotourism money to control the birds’ predators – natural animal predators and human poachers
Around the world, national parks and nature preserves receive 8 billion visitors a year at a conservative estimate, in all probability many more. Ecotourism generates in excess of $600 billion, so researchers discovered in a first-of-it–kind study.
As with most things in life, there are no easy answers, and the jury remains out.
Of those billions of dollars generated by tourism to national parks and preserves, how much is actually spent on conservation of these amazing habitats and their wildlife? A small fraction. Less than $10 billion – and nothing like enough.
“These pieces of the world provide us with untold benefits: from stabilising the global climate and regulating water flows to protecting untold numbers of species. Now we’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas.” -Andrew Bainford Professor of Zoology at Cambridge University.
So what about the rest of the money from ecotourism? If governments aren’t investing it in protected areas, where is it going? According to USA Today“Corrupt governments frequently take a large cut of the profits from ecotourism, leaving little or none for local communities that are directly affected by the influx of visitors.”
And as we’ve already seen, benefit to local communities, giving them a stake in protecting their local wildlife, is a vitally important desired outcome of ecotourism. Without it, poaching will continue. But all too often corrupt governments allow “international corporations and developers from outside the area into popular destinations. Their hotels and stores take money away from the local economy. In addition, the original residents have to pay the same inflated prices for food and water as tourists do, putting a greater financial burden on them.”
And Ms Fossey was 100% right about some of the other downsides of ecotourism
Land gobbled up for visitor centres, cafes, tourist lodges, and toilet blocks for the growing numbers of visitors, and the roads to reach them
Wildlife accidentally killed by cars
Wildlife deliberately killed by hunters and fishers
Tourists passing on disease
As for that last point, it seems tourists are far more concerned about contracting a disease from contact with wildlife than they are about themselves passing infection to the animals. Anthropologist Dr Michael Muehlenbein found that though as many as 86% of tourists knew they could pass disease to wildlife, they clearly didn’t care too much because two thirds said they would still touch or feed wild primates if they got the chance.
“Imagine you’ve spent $2,000 to go to Malaysia to see the orangutans and you’ve got a cold. Are you going to stay away? It becomes a complex moral question: How much do you respect the life of other animals over your vacation experience?”
Personally I don’t see it as that ‘complex’. A tough decision naturally, but not a complex one. Though it’s ‘only a cold’ for us, it could kill that animal we would so like to see up close and personal. When we are watching wildlife, let’s be the responsible ones and follow the advice here.
What if we travel on foot to see the wildlife and keep ourselves to ourselves?
What could be less harmful to wildlife than rambling quietly along a woodland trail, soaking up the forest scents and listening to the birdsong? Sad to say, even this most gentle activity is not as innocuous as it seems. Just the fact our being there has an effect. A recent study found that the longer a forest trail is used, and the bigger the number of people walking it, the greater the adverse effect on forest birds. “We show that forest birds are distinctly affected by people and that this avoidance behaviour did not disappear even after years of use by humans.”The birds simply never get used to our being there.
“This is important to show because pressure on natural habitats and nature protection areas is getting stronger and access bans are often ignored,” says Dr Yves Botsch of the Swiss Ornithological Institute.
And an earlier study found that the mere presence of humans is more terrifying to smaller prey animals like badgers, foxes and raccoons – who we may have thought were habituated to us – than the presence of apex predators like bears and wolves. And that we “may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
When you consider that at least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of humans and human activity in one way or another, this particular piece of research is not good news.
Overall, human disturbance detrimentally affecting animals’ survival and mating behaviours can lead straight down the path to extinction
Take the New Zealand sea lion for example. The habitat disturbance and fishing brought by ecotourism is killing young sea lion pups. This animal is predicted to be extinct by 2050, a direct victim of ecotourism.
On land, nature preserves can have well-defined boundaries, theoretically easier to protect. Yes, we do have marine conservation areas, but the thing about water is that it flows. No oceanic conservation area’s boundaries can keep out pollution or stop rising sea temperatures. Marine animals are also disproportionately affected by humans’ plastic waste. The dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sulawesi this week had 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach: 115 plastic cups, plastic bags, bottles and even flipflops. On top of that animals such as whales and dolphins are badly affected by underwater noise from shipping.
All of these problems are far more likely to be exacerbated than mitigated by ecotourism.
In the Arctic, for example, 53% of 80 populations of Arctic animals in the ‘open-water’ period of September when the ice is at its minimum are adversely affected by ship traffic, by collisions, by noise disturbance, by the changes these trigger in the animals’ behaviour. Most of these animals are found nowhere else on Earth.
And Arctic ice is shrinking. “Summer sea ice cover has shrunk by over 30 percent since satellites started regular monitoring in 1979.” And less ice means more ships.
Less ice, more ships. More ships, more harm to the animals.
It’s as simple as that. Whales and walrus are among the most vulnerable, and narwhals most vulnerable of all. So you may want to rethink your Arctic cruise. And, as if the harm shipping does to Arctic wildlife were not bad enough, cruise ships also take the trophy when it comes to being the most environmentally-unfriendly way to view wildlife – one cruise ship releasing fuel emissions equivalent to a million cars, in one day.
The last thing we want is to harm the very wildlife we love going to see. So how can we nature-lovers see nature without destroying it?
In spite of all the negatives, there can be no doubt that ecotourism makes animals more valuable in money terms alive than dead. That gives it huge potential to protect nature and save endangered species. But the responsibility of making that happen lies with each of us individually. Planning a trip? Do some thorough research. For potted advice check out The Essential Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel .
But for in depth information go to Responsible Travel which the Guardian rates “The first place to look for environmentally friendly holidays.”The Responsible Travel website is packed to the brim with information on how to be a wildlife-friendly ecotourist. Find out Responsible Travel’s stance on wildlife, and wildlife tourism issues here.
In the end it’s all down to us as individuals, our choices. Just as we shape the kind of world we want to live in with our eating, shopping and everyday living choices, so with our travel. Our choices are making the difference between life and death for the animals.
‘How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home?”
Who better to open the Guardian’s new series The Age of Extinction, than the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall? Her lifespan of 84 years has seen a horrifying loss of wild animals of all kinds, along with their habitats.
And yet she believes if we come together and play our part in our own lives, we can “heal some of the harm we have inflicted.” This is her message to us all:
During my years studying chimpanzees in Gombe national park in Tanzania I experienced the magic of the rainforest. I learned how all life is interconnected, how each species, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has a role to play in the rich tapestry of life – known today as biodiversity. Even the loss of one thread can have a ripple effect and result in major damage to the whole.
I left Gombe in 1986 when I realised how fast chimpanzee habitat was being destroyed and how their numbers were declining. I visited six chimpanzee range states and learned a great deal about the rate of deforestation as a result of foreign corporations (timber, oil and mining)and population growth in communities in and around chimpanzee habitat, so that more land was needed for expanding villages, agriculture and grazing livestock.
Chimpanzees were affected by the bushmeat trade – the commercial hunting of wild animals for food. I saw traumatised infants, whose mothers had been killed – either for the same bushmeat or the illegal animal trade, for sale in the markets, or in inappropriate zoos where they had been placed after confiscation by local authorities.
But I also learned about the problems faced by so many African communities in and around chimpanzee habitat. When I arrived in Gombe in 1960 it was part of what was called the equatorial forest belt, stretching from East Africa through the Congo Basin to the West African coast. By 1980 it was a tiny island of forest surrounded by bare hills, with more people living there than the land could support, over-farmed soil, trees cut down on all but the steepest slopes by people desperate to grow food for their families or make money from charcoal. I realised that unless we could improve their lives we could not even try to protect chimpanzees.
But chimpanzees, and many other species are still highly endangered. Over the last 100 years chimpanzee numbers have dropped from perhaps two million to a maximum of 340,000, many living in fragmented patches of forest. Several thousand apes are killed or taken captive for the illegal wildlife trade. Orangutans and gibbons are losing their habitats due to the proliferation of non-sustainable oil palm plantations. We are experiencing the sixth great extinction. The most recent report from WWF describes the situation as critical – in the last 49 years, we have lost 60% of all animal and plant species on Earth.
We are poisoning the soil through large-scale industrial agriculture. Invasive species are choking out native animal and plant life in many places. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by our reliance on fossil fuels, destruction of the rain forests and pollution of the ocean. Increase of demand for meat not only involves horrible cruelty to billions of animals in factory farms, but huge areas of wild habitats destroyed to grow crops for animal feed.
So much fossil fuel is required to take grain to animals, animals to slaughter, meat to table – and during digestion these animals are producing methane – an even more virulent gas than carbon dioxide. And their waste along with other industrial agriculture runoff is polluting soil and rivers sometimes causing toxic algae blooms over large areas of ocean.
Climate change is a very real threat as spelled out in the latest UN report*, as these greenhouse gases, trapping the heat of the sun, are causing the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, more frequent and more intense storms. In some places agricultural yields are decreasing, fuelling human displacement and conflict. How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk the Earth is destroying its only home?
Because many policymakers and corporations – and we as individuals – tend to make decisions based on “How will this affect me now, affect the shareholders’ meeting, the next political campaign?” rather than “How will this affect future generations?” Mother Nature is being destroyed at an ever faster rate for the sake of short term gain. This, along with our horrifying population growth, poverty – causing people to destroy the environment simply to try to make a living – and the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us who have way more than we need, is the root cause of all the planet’s woes.
It is depressing to realise how much change I have witnessed during my 84 years. I have seen the ice melting in Greenland, the glaciers vanishing on Mount Kilimanjaro and around the world. When I arrived in Gombe the chimpanzee population stretched for miles along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Buffalo, common then, are locally extinct and only a few leopards remain.
The water of the Lake was crystal clear, fish and water cobras were abundant, and there were crocodiles. But with soil washed into the lake and over-fishing, that changed. When I spent time in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro in the 60s and early 70s, rhino and elephants were plentiful. I grew up in the south of England. The dawn chorus of the birds was magical – so many of them have gone, along with the hedgehogs that used to rustle through the vegetation at night. In May and June we had to draw the curtains at night to keep out the hundreds of cockchafers – May bugs, attracted to the light – today it is rare to see even one, and the clouds of mosquitos and midges are almost gone.
Yet I believe we have a small window of opportunity when, if we get together, we can start to heal some of the harm we have inflicted. Everywhere, where young people understand the problems and are empowered to take action – when we listen to their voices, they are making a difference. With our superior intellect we are coming up with technological solutions to help us live in greater harmony with nature and reduce our own ecological footprints. We have a choice each day as to what we buy, eat and wear. And nature is amazingly resilient – there are no more bare hills around Gombe, as an example. Species on the brink of extinction have been given a second chance. We can reach out to the world through social media in a way never before possible. And there is the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle the impossible and won’t give up. My job is to give people hope, for without it we fall into apathy and do nothing.
How we fight back against biodiversity loss
In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute launched the Tacare program, working in collaboration with the villagers themselves. A holistic program including restoring fertility to the farm land (no chemicals used), improved health and education facilities, water management programs, microcredit opportunities (particularly for women), family planning information, and scholarships to keep girls in school. Today this operates in 72 villages throughout the range of Tanzania’s remaining chimpanzees, most of whom live in unprotected village forest reserves. Village volunteers learn to use smart phones, patrol their forests, and note any illegal activities as well as signs or sightings of animals. This information is uploaded onto a platform in the cloud, including Global Forest Watch.
Tacare now operates similar programs in six other African countries. “The villagers have become our partners in conservation,” says Goodall. “They know that protecting the environment benefits them as well as wildlife.”
*Jane’s call to action is urgent. According to the UN report she mentions, we have only 12 years left to get control of climate change. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.” – Debra Roberts for UN IPCC
“Stunning limestone cliffs, lagoons with turquoise waters and long stretches of untouched beaches.” Palawan, one of the world’s most beautiful islands, home to the Philippines’ last remaining forests and an internationally recognised biodiversity hotspot.
But this seeming paradise is also the setting for greed, corruption, even murder – and jaw-dropping heroism. Meet the PNNI, the Palawan NGO Network Inc, a strangely grand title for a small band of ragged flipflop-wearing underfunded environmental crusaders, many ‘baptised’ with scars from sharp-toothed chainsaws at the hands of illegal loggers .
50 year old ‘Tata’ Balladares has already led his small band of six environmental para-enforcers up and down the steep mountain slopes of Palawan for 15 hours, searching for signs of illegal logging, only stopping once for 30 minutes sleep on a mountain path. Reporter Kari Malakunas stands by as they stealthily close in on what the whine of a chainsaw gives away as a crime scene – a site of illegal logging.
Completely unarmed, their only weapon in these dangerous situations is surprise. This time luckily, caught in the act of felling a giant apitong tree, are only two young men. Tata asks if they have a permit for the timber, and if the chainsaw is registered. They don’t, and it isn’t. His little band confiscate the men’s chainsaw and machetes, and search the area for possible concealed homemade pistols and rifles.
Tata, though ‘only’ a civilian para-enforcer, wraps up the brief skirmish with calm unflappable authority. But afterwards, during a short break for a meal of rice and dried fish, he breaks down in despair at the enormity of the task the PNNI is facing.
“This should be the work of the government but they are not doing their job. Who else is going to stop this if we’re not here,” he says.
Traditional campaigning has failed to prevent corrupt businessmen, politicians and even the security forces from pillaging the rich resources of this beautiful island. So the PNNI goes for direct action – confiscation and citizen’s arrest – against illegal loggers, miners and cyanide fishers, however many and whoever they may be.
On display at their small HQ in Puerto Princesa is a ‘Christmas tree’ standing two storeys high, made entirely of chainsaws. The organisation has confiscated more than 700 in its 20 years of life, along with a boat used for transporting illegally-logged timber, two drills used for illegal gold mining, and a number of firearms.
Tata and his men may be unarmed themselves – besides being overworked and underfunded – but they have the support of local communities, as anxious as they to stop the despoliation of their island home. Nevertheless, they are ill-matched against their greedy and powerful opponents. It’s an unequal contest.
And though many small and not so small victories are won, as witnessed by the chainsaw ‘tree’ at HQ, there is no end in sight to the war being waged over the paradise of Palawan. It would be demoralising for the best of us. Add to that these men, passionate about preserving their environment though they are, live daily with the inescapable knowledge that the supremely taxing task they have taken upon themselves also puts their lives on the line.
Twelve of their courageous fellow-enforcers have been murdered since 2001. In 2004, PNNI’s founder and leader, environmental lawyer Bobby Chan was out with his team when they discovered the body of Roger Majim, one of their own, on a beach. “The loggers put his flip flops on the mound where they buried him. When we unearthed him he had, I think, 16 stab wounds. His eyes were gouged out. His tongue was cut off. His testicles were cut off and placed in his mouth,” says Chan.
“The government does little to stop the violence and rarely holds anyone to account for the killings,” says Global Witness‘s environmental and land defender campaign leader, Billy Kyte.
The most recent murder was last September. 49-year-old father-of-five, Ruben Arzaga was shot in the head as he was approaching an illegal logging site. Earlier in the year Arzaga, during another mission to confiscate chainsaws from illegal loggers, had told AFP“If this illegal activity is not stopped, I think before my youngest daughter becomes a young adult and has a family of her own, all the big trees here will be gone.”
On their way to Ruben’s funeral, Tata’s team stopped to confiscate another chainsaw. For them it’s simple: forest lost equals their priceless paradise lost. That also means inevitably, extinctions.
These are some of the animals the PNNI are fighting to protect –
Frank Passamonte hatched on Sept. 5, 2011. Turtle was less than a month old at the time of this picture.
Some of the most endangered species of the Philippines. L to R, Top to Bottom: the Philippine eagle (critically endangered), Palawan forest turtle (critically endangered), the rufous-headed hornbill (critically endangered), the Philippine tarsier (near threatened), the bleeding heart mindoro (critically endangered), the Nicobar pigeon (near threatened)
philippines palawan island crocodile endangered species animal
The Palawan purple crab, only discovered in 2012 and already critically endangered by mining, and the Philippine crocodile also critically endangered
The hawksbill turtle (critically endangered), the lionfish, and the flamboyant cuttle fish
Those are just a few of the treasures for whom these heroes are risking their lives on a daily basis. “It’s a selfless, courageous task that should be celebrated,”says Billy Kyte, Global Witness.
The country of the Philippines is not just a biodiversity hotspot, but an environmental murderhotspot, one of the most dangerous in the world. Last year in this country, environmental activists were killed at a rate of one every 12 days.
But such egregious violence is not unique to Palawan, or to the Philippines. The problem is worldwide. This is Global Witness’s record of environmental activists, men and women, murdered in 2016, “some shot by police during protests, others gunned down by hired assassins.”
Brazil 49 men and women
The Philippines 28
DR Congo 10
Tanzania, Mexico & Peru 3 each
South Africa, Myanmar, Peru 2 each
Ireland (!), Cameroon, Uganda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, China, Iran and Pakistan 1 each
“Far from the corridors of power ordinary people defending their rights to a healthy environment are being killed in record numbers. If governments are serious about stopping climate change, the very least they can do is to protect the people who are personally taking a stand.”
These are not just statistics. These are flesh and blood, men and women often from indigenous communities, with families of their own. People with a level of courage I can barely imagine, and know I would never be able to emulate, defending their land not just against illegal loggers and miners, but against legal but environmentally destructive industries like mining, agribusiness, logging and hydropower.
“Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.” — Rachel Carson
Let us hope and pray that the lives of these protectors of our planet, deserving of our admiration and gratitude in equal measure, do indeed find reserves of strength and last long. And that in 2018 they notch up many more successes protecting paradise and its animals – and above all, stay safe.
Like and follow PNNI’s Facebook page, and send them a few words of encouragement. And if you are ever lucky enough to get to travel to beautiful Palawan, be sure to support them with a visit to PNNI’s HQ in Puerto Princesa.
Take a look at the Rainforest Alliance supporting indigenous peoples, their lands and their wildlife, all around the world. On their website you can sign petitions for the environment until your fingers ache! You can also help protect the planet by donating
These were the words naturalist Joseph Banks wrote in his journal, his response to the exuberant rhapsody of birdsong filling the air as Captain Cook’s ship Endeavour dropped anchor in the paradise that was Discovery Bay in 1770.
If Banks and Cook were to make that same landing in 2017, they would hear – silence. Little did either realise that their own expedition, the first to map the coastline of New Zealand and study its wildlife, bears in large part the blame for today’s uncanny hush. For the Endeavour was carrying more than its crew. It also brought stowaways, in the shape of Rattus norvegicus, the brown rat. And it’s rats that have brought that music to a stop.
New Zealand’s native birds were/are endemic, ie. unique to that country, occurring nowhere else in the world. And, having no natural ground predators and therefore no need to take to the sky, they’d evolved over millennia flightless. So, easy pickings for the voracious invaders inadvertently brought to their shores.
Since that time, more than 70 species of birds native to NZ have been lost to the world, with more likely headed in the same direction, including the world’s heaviest parrot, the kakapo, and possibly the cheekiest, the alpine kea.
A shocking 26 million of the nation’s birds are killed by invasive predators every year.
Of course this is not a problem exclusive to New Zealand. The pattern is repeated all over. On Hawaii for example, the most isolated land mass in the world, native plants and animals evolved, as in New Zealand, without aggressively competitive or predatory species. The native species, not having had to compete themselves, are “more gentle than others, leaving them vulnerable to the ‘meaner’ species … being introduced to the islands.”
This is one of the ‘meanies’, who indiscriminately demolishes Hawaiian birds, insects, plants and flowers. He doesn’t belong there, but he sure has made himself at home.
Islands that once were regular Gardens of Eden where all lived in harmony, are today red in tooth and claw. And most often, the teeth and claws belong to Rattus norvegicus, or Rattus rattus, the black rat. Rats have found their way, courtesy of humans, on to more than 90% of the world’s archipelagoes, and embody everything that characterises an invasive species:
High dispersal ability
Ability to live off a wide range of foods
Ability to adapt to different environments
Association with humans
Mammals like the rat are not native to oceanic islands, which are predominantly the domain of birds. Two-thirds of extinctions over the last 500 years have occurred on islands, largely at the paws of invasive mammals. Islands make up only 5.5% of the Earth’s land mass, but are home to 15% of all land species. They are hotspots of biodiversity. And that makes islands in particular, critically important for conservation.
So, how to stem the alarming losses in biodiversity?
Money for conservation is always at a premium. So much to be done, and never enough funding to do it. $21.5 billion is being spent annually, yet in places it’s hard to see much impact on biodiversity. It’s vital to direct funds to projects that will yield good results. And conservationists have found, especially on islands, the only effective method of stemming biodiversity loss is eradication of the invasive species that are pushing the natives to extinction. When the invaders are removed, the beneficial effect on native species is dramatic.
Different lands, different species demand different eradication methods. What works in one locale, fails in another. Our own ‘meanie’ here on the island of Britain is the American mink brought across the Atlantic to be farmed for its fur. Now escaped into the wild, these invaders have eaten their way through the water vole population, pushing the little rodents to the cliff edge of extinction. Mink are being trapped with the help of volunteers, and then shot in the head.
“It’s not something I get any satisfaction out of, but I am trained to do this, and we dispatch them as quickly and humanely as possible to cause minimal distress to the animal,” says river biologist Jamie Urquhart.
( I once saw a mink in the river at a National Trust property. I began an email to notify the Trust, but then couldn’t bear the thought of being responsible for the animal’s death, and deleted the email.)
In the Galapagos Islands, feral goats spread like wildfire, munching their way through forests and native fauna until nothing was left but bare grass. Native birds, invertebrates and the famous Galapagos tortoise were all endangered. Rangers hunted the goats down on land and by air, and shot them, 55,000 of them just on one island. The now goat-less islands reforested and recovered with gratifying rapidity.
In the Seychelles, where the invading Indian red-whiskered bulbul was ousting its native cousin, nets were used, and “rifles to get the last remaining few.”
In New Zealand, lethal traps and poisoned bait have been ‘successful’ on small islands, but as they are labour-intensive (requiring constant checking and resetting) they’re not practical over larger areas. Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) is developing more effective ‘tools’, from “more attractive lures to electronically monitored traps.”The traps being used kill the rats instantly. “You don’t get those kills where it just breaks the back; we don’t want prolonged suffering,” says Aitken, one of the government-employed eradicators.
This is ZIP’s latest prototype: “Nailed to the tree a few feet off the ground is a shiny orange-and-black contraption called the GoodNature A24. Powered by a gas-fired piston, it delivers a quick, fatal blow to an animal’s head as it tries to snatch the bait inside. The device can kill 24 rats or stoats with a single canister of gas, requiring fewer of these strenuous, time-consuming trap line tromps, thereby saving on labor costs.”
Whatever method is used, eradication means no more nor less than the killing of every possible individual animal of the unwanted species in that territory. ” Most critics point to the ethics of the matter. Killing animals whether they are invasive or not is wrong, they argue, and uncompassionate.Killing wildlife for conservation seems counterintuitive. Isn’t conservation supposed to be about conserving wildlife?”
Some critics even see eradication as another manifestation of racism – prejudice against the non-native. “Certainly the Nazi drive to eliminate non-indigenous plants was related to the campaign to eliminate non-Aryan people.”
But an argument for eradication is that often, the native wildlife needing protection is found nowhere else on the planet, whereas the invaders such as the rats, are generally very widespread. Reading that sentence back and substituting the word ‘Aryans’ for ‘native wildlife’, and ‘Jews’ for ‘rats’, it does sound horribly like the Nazi justification for the Holocaust, doesn’t it? And labelling a group (Jews or rats) ‘vermin’, makes them so much easier to eliminate – it transforms eradication from a murderous crime into a public good.
Even if we accept that the uniqueness-of-the-endangered-native-wildlife argument makes sense at species level, does it justify killing thousands of sentient animals who are just getting on with their lives best they can?
Suppose eradication is a necessity, aren’t there non-lethal methods that could be used?
Yes, there are. Some are not always a practical option, some are just bizarre, and some pose unknown risks.
The obvious solution would be to trap the invaders and transport them back to where they came from. And on occasions this has been done. But imagine the politics, the logistics, and of course the cost involved of say, catching, keeping alive and shipping every veiled chameleon from Hawaii back to Yemen. And where on earth would you take the tens of thousands of feral goats from the Galapagos? Multiply that by thousands of conservation projects and it’s clear that can rarely be an answer.
Researchers in Australia have a novel approach. Remember the native species are invariably ‘gentler’ than the invading ‘meanies’ whose successful proliferation at the expense of the natives is down to their adaptability and aggressive competitiveness? Since there is little to no hope of ridding the whole of Australia of its mercilessly predatory feral cats, researchers there are trying to “force natural selection’s hand”.
They’ve placed hundreds of small endangered endemic marsupials in a pen with a couple of the cats. The hope is that the smartest marsupials will learn to survive, and pass on their cleverness genes to their offspring. But such human-contrived evolution of the marsupial could take 100 years or more. And if it seems like a big gamble, that’s because it is. No need for me to list possible objections, practical and ethical. They are all too obvious.
Genetic technology already available to us would be by far the most effective nonlethal tool for dealing with invasive species. Scientists have now found a way to not only alter the genes of a species – in this case a gene for producing male offspring only – but make that alteration inheritable. It’s called a “self-propagating gene drive system [which] promotes the inheritance of a particular genetic variant to increase its frequency in a population.” This would obviously require “fewer invasive organisms to be released in order to spread infertility and ultimately eliminate the pest population.” The animal basically would be programmed to (re)produce its own extinction.
New Zealand is one country taking a good hard look at this technology as a much easier, and definitely more humane way to rid the land of the invasive rats, mice, stoats and possums that are so destructive of its native wildlife. There is no question the gene technology would work. The invaders would die out, allowing the native species to flourish once more.
But, and it’s a big but, what it would also do, is create in effect a new species still retaining all the characteristics that made it such a successful invader in the first place. In other words, it would be impossible to contain these modified animals in the target location. Invasion is what they do best – they would spread far and wide with unknowable, and most likely catastrophic results.
The self-propagating gene drive is the perfect example of technology moving ahead at such a pace, it is way in advance of any ethical agreements surrounding its use. The international community needs to catch up fast, formulate, and sign up to a binding accord. New Zealand is by no mean the only country looking at the self-propagating gene drive as a conservation tool. And if something can be done, you can guarantee it willsooner or later.
To kill to save, or not?
“Not doing anything to prevent these extinctions is, in and of itself, an action—which is not compassionate to native species. We can sit there and watch animals go extinct, or we can do something about it,” says conservation biologist Holly Jones. “Killing things sucks. But when you realize the gravity of not acting, which in many cases equates to watching extinction happen in front of your eyes, I think there is no other choice,”
“We do have the ability to fix our damages. Which is why many conservationists believe we have an obligation to right the wrong when it comes to invasives since humans are, more often than not, solely responsible for introducing species into places they shouldn’t be.” Peter Haverson, another conservation biologist.“No other species has this capability, unfortunately.”
We’ve carried invasive species to every corner of the world, either deliberately – sheep, goats, dogs, cats and so on, then escaped and gone feral – or inadvertently, as with the rats. The cats, who are particularly pernicious predators of endangered wildlife, fall into both categories.
As we have caused the problem, should we be taking action to fix it? We can refrain from eradicating invasive species. That means standing by, letting individual endangered animals be killed by invaders, and allowing entire species to go extinct. Or, we can opt to kill the invaders – bearing in mind that rats, stoats and possums are people too. In conservation there is no fence to sit on. By not doing one, we are of necessity doing the other.
This is a cowardly cop out I know, but I’m so glad it’s not me having to make the decisions. What is your take on this most troubling of questions?
The most invasive species of all
We don’t just transport invaders around the globe. We ourselves are by far the worst invaders of the lot:
“From Africa, we’ve spread out onto every continent on Earth settling into jungles, plains, forests, deserts, mountains and more. All environments we touch experience extinctions and suffer from varying degrees of degradation. Many scientists even believe we are currently causing a mass extinction event of global wildlife, like the one that ultimately claimed the dinosaurs.”
“Believe”? The 6th mass extinction is no more a matter of belief than climate change. Strangely, I don’t hear anyone suggesting as a solution to the catastrophic loss of the planet’s precious biodiversity, the eradication of this, the most deadly of invasive species, Homo sapiens. Why is that?
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.
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 2020. But 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.
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’.
3 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 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.”
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.
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.
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
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
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 workeron 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
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.
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. “
(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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.