“My job is to give people hope” – Jane Goodall’s Call to Action

‘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.

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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.

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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.


info_12569In 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

 

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These Are the Heroes Putting Their Lives on the Line for the Animals of Paradise

And for an entirely different take on the topic – Should We Look on the Bright Side of the 6th Mass Extinction?

 

Three Years in Heaven After 60 Years of Hell – RIP Sweet Lakhi

If ever a story was compelling us humans to acknowledge as persons not property the other animals with which we share the planet, this one in yesterday’s email from Wildlife SOS is it

Dear Pam

Several days ago we lost our dear, dear elephant friend, Lakhi. We cannot express the heaviness of our hearts this week. But we want to celebrate and remember Lakhi’s life, and perhaps the best person to do that is our Elephant Campaign Manager, Rhea Lopez. She was one of the many people who knew and loved Lakhi, and was lucky enough to spend time with her regularly. These are her words:

In February 2015 when Lakhi arrived at the Elephant Conservation and Care Centre, she was more than 60 years old, a blind, former-begging elephant rescued from the streets of the city of Pune. She seemed timid and nervous – blindness is an added burden for captive elephants that can never really tell where the next blow will come from. The touch of human hands caused her to recoil fearfully, too scared even to investigate new smells or people.

Then Lakhi met Asha. “I’ve never seen two elephants get along so spontaneously”, her mahout Babulai recalls. “They were complete strangers, but from the first day itself, they knew – and we knew – this friendship was going to be something unlike we’d ever seen before.”

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With Lakhi under her care, Asha blossomed into the matriarchal role she seemed destined for, standing protectively over Lakhi when she lay down and using an astonishing array of sound cues to call her and comfort her.

We called Lakhi “the Banana Thief” because she made her adoration for the fruit obvious from the day we first met her, sneaking her trunk out toward the smell and gingerly plucking her favourite treats from the bundle and swiftly putting them in her mouth. Her keeper was always happy to oblige, and would call out to her when he approached with a bunch of bananas, breaking them off as he fed her each piece and talked quietly to her. Between her keeper and Asha, Lakhi’s world came alive through conversations, in human voices and elephant rumbles, and through the myriad of new smells and sensations she experienced over her time at the Care Centre.

She discovered the soothing effect of cool water against her skin and the weightlessness of being in the water, the delightful roughness of tree bark against itchy skin, the warm sun on her back, and the coziness of her winter blankets when the temperature dipped. Slowly she learned what kinder hands felt like, allowing her keepers and the vets to run their palms along her trunk as they spoke to her, or guide her gently as they went on long walks. But I think the sensation that gave her the most joy was always that of Asha’s trunk running along her face, touching her lightly our on walks, just to reassure Lakhi that she was there and keeping a watchful eye on her.

When Coco came, Lakhi’s world grew even brighter. Timid and fearful little Coco had been deprived a mother for her entire life., but Lakhi stepped into the role with absolute ease. She never hesitated to seek Coco out when the younger elephant cried, or to stay close by her side out on walks, occasionally enveloping the smaller elephant with her trunk in a safe embrace. As if taking a cue from Asha, Lakhi made sure that Coco always felt safe and loved, and stood protectively over her whenever she lay down for a nap.

Lakhi was an incredible elephant – she was already tall but she held her head up high, which added to the effect. Despite her gaunt frame, she seemed to take over the space she was in with an aura that engulfed you and instantly put you at ease. She was calm, and enjoyed her walks and baths so much that it was incredibly easy to work with her.. New mahouts that joined Wildlife SOS would always start off working with her and the herd, so in a way, she initiated everyone into their lives at the Care Centre. She was the starting point to all of their journeys here, touching and easing us in.

The thing about caring for older elephants is that it is that much harder to treat them: their bodies have been ravaged by cruelty for decades, and they just don’t heal as easily. And somewhere deep inside, you know you don’t have as much time to heal them fully, and need to focus on making sure the few years they have left are the most incredible, peaceful ones they could ever dream of.

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With time, Lakhi’s age caught up with her, and she showed signs of slowing down; old injuries got inflamed, and she seemed to prefer resting against the mud beds in her enclosure. Late Saturday evening on the 3rd March, she seemed more weary than usual, and even as her knees buckled under her, Asha and Coco rushed to her side to support her. Asha appeared calm and strong, as if she knew in her own way that this was it – Coco panicked initially, rushing about and running circles around her fallen friend. The team rushed in and the crane was called in to lift Lakhi back to her feet, and even the young elephants seemed uncharacteristically calm. Maybe they knew, maybe they realised it was time to let go and had their chance to say their goodbyes, and wanted to let her pass in peace. Lakhi resisted being lifted, as if she too knew her time had come. She let out her final breath and slumped down against the mud bed, eyes shut, looking completely at peace. As the team moved away, heartbroken, Asha rumbled loudly from where she was standing, but none of the elephants moved. Coco let out a small wail, and from every enclosure elephants responded softly with rumbles, trumpets and huffs – all the way from the bulls to the closer-by females like Phoolkali – in what seemed like an orchestra of calm, reassuring solidarity for their fallen friend.

Lakhi’s burial was simple but poignant. Her keepers adorned her with flowers and lit incense and earthen lamps around her, each taking a moment to touch her one last time, paying their respects through silent prayers and whispered words. Her burial stood testament to how many lives she had touched during her three years at the Rescue Centre. So many journeys had started with this wonderful elephant, and now her journey had come to an end, leaving a huge gap in all our lives.

Lakhi’s post-mortem report revealed her cause of death to be organ deterioration and joint degradation due to her advanced age and her 60 years in captivity. These are things we could never have completely undone, and although her passing was sudden, it must have ben time for her gentle soul to leave the tortured body that had housed it all those years.

Lakhi leaves behind broken hearts around the world, starting here. Asha refused to eat the entire day, refused to budge from the spot on which she last lay. She’s been listless and mournful, albeit quiet – running her trunk through the mud and letting out the most heartbreaking guttural rumbling sounds every few minutes. Every so often, Coco, Peanut, or Suzy will respond to her. Once in a while another elephant will rumble back. Asha’s keeper stands beside her, talking to her and trying in his own way to comfort her. He hand-fed her a bucket of greens last night, which she ate slowly and sadly. He talks to her awhile about Lakhi – about ow beautiful and calm she was, how incredible their friendship was, and how much he missed her too. He tried calling her into the shade, but Asha remained rooted to the spot her friend had passed.

In the evening an incredible storm hit the centre with strong gusts of wind and pouring rain- completely uncharacteristic of this time of the year. Someone said that Lakhi sent the rain to us and all the elephants for a little respite from the incoming summer, to settle the dust and clean the air. The weather is cooler today, and Asha and the other elephants seem calmer, though Asha still lets out the intermittent sigh or rumble.

It will take time for the sadness to lift, and for any semblance of normalcy to return to our lives here. We mourn Lakhi, the kind soul that defined so many of our lives. Coco mourns the mother she was to her. The other elephants mourn their fellow elephant. And Asha, mourns everything that made her life at the Rescue Centre complete – her touch, her smell, her joy and sadness and fear, her very presence, and her unwavering friendship that has so defined Asha’s life here.

We know you are all mourning her too, and we ask that you keeep Lakhi in your thoughts always – but remember her free and happy, surrounded by elephants that were her family.

—  Rhea Lopez, Wildlife SOS Campaign Manager

 

Support the work of Wildlife SOS here

Petitions to sign

Thomas Cook, Stop Selling Elephant Rides

Elephants Are Being Abused for Trekking Vacations – Demand TripAdvisor Stop Promoting & Profiting from Cruel Tourist Attractions

Urge These Travel Companies to Stop Offering Cruel Elephant Rides TODAY

No One Needs to Ride an Elephant – Support a Ban on Elephant Ride Attractions across the US

Elephants Beaten With Bullhooks for Thailand’s Annual King’s Cup Elephant Polo Tournament – Take Action

This elephant was starved to death – Take Action

And Please – Take the pledge

If you can hug, ride, touch or take a photo with an elephant, the chances are that it has gone through some kind of cruel training.

Baby elephants taken from their mothers, beaten, chained, deprived of sleep and denied food and water in a horrific ordeal known as “the crush”  –  and then face a lifetime of suffering, just to entertain tourists.

Please don’t look away. Take the pledge with World Animal Protection

 

 

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The Easiest Way Ever to Help Wildlife on World Wildlife Day

Happy World Wildlife Day!

Think wildlife, what instantly leaps to my mind are elephants, tigers, lions. The big and spectacular. And this year the theme for World Wildlife Day is indeed the majestic big cats.

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But wildlife also means of course, garden birds, mice, foxes, badgers, stoats and weasels, and here in the UK, the endangered hedgehog, to name a few. They may be less exotic and rare, but their lives are just as important to them – as they should be to us. We’re not all able to actively help our native animals today – heartfelt thanks to those who do, the rescuers, badger patrols, hunt monitors, all the wonderful folk who give up their time to protect wildlife and help it thrive. For those of us who can’t, at the very least there are ways we can take care not to cause harm.

Focusing on Wildlife has these simple tips for us:

Life as a wild animal is challenging: you have to run after your own dinner, find your own shelter from the elements, and learn to avoid any predators that might be interested in making a meal out of you. And then, of course, there’s us. Sometime we make life easier for our furred and feathery neighbours by providing them with food (whether deliberately or not).

And sometimes we cause them a lot of suffering: usually unintentionally, by carelessly discarding hazardous objects in their environment. In other words, by littering.

Every day the RSPCA receives an average of 14 calls about unfortunate encounters between wildlife and items of litter. Summer is the worst time and birds are especially vulnerable.

A great deal of pain and suffering could be avoided if we all at least remembered to put out discarded items into the nearest  bin. Even better would be taking our litter home with us and recycling it responsibly.

Examples of the items which most routinely ensure vulnerable wildlife include:

*Cans

Discarded and empty cans may still be filled with enticing aromas, leading hungry wildlife to get stuck in the empty cans or injure themselves on the sharp edges. Clean your used cans  and dispose fo them properly in recycling facilities.

*Fishing tackle

This is made to be sharp and potentially lethal so it should come as no surprise to hear that discarded tackle injures thousands of birds every year. They become ensnared or impale themselves on the hooks. If you are a fisherman, dispose of your tackle sensibly.

*Balloons

What goes up must come down. Once balloons have finished soaring through the clouds they pop and fall to earth, where luckless creatures may find, swallow and choke on them.

*Plastic bags

This notorious urban nuisance can suffocate or choke wild animals, so please dispose of your used plastic bags sensibly and responsibly.

*Glass

Broken glass is another frequent source of serious injury to our wild neighbours – and unbroken glass jars can entomb smaller animals. Please dispose of your jars properly and recycle your glass.

*’Elastic bands

Discarded plastic bands are both a choking and strangulation hazard for birds. Cut them before throwing them away: or better still recycle them.

*Chinese lanterns

These increasingly popular paper and bamboo halloween entertainments can travel for miles on the wind after being released, before like balloons, falling to the ground and trapping, entangling or choking passing birds or other wildlife. Think twice before choosing Chinese lanterns for your party.

I would add another one to the list – those plastic ties from 4- and 6-packs of beer, cider and soft drinks. Cut them up before throwing them in the recycle bin.

Want to go one small step further?

Keep a paper bag in your pocket and pick up potential hazards others have discarded as you’re walking along. (Important – obviously it goes without saying, but I’ll say it nevertheless, NEVER pick up needles, or any other thing that might endanger your own health. )

Surprisingly, our neighbourhood posties pose a special danger to our local beasties. Some drop the rubber bands that bind together the bundles of mail, leaving a trail all along the footpaths of their delivery routes. I’ve seen a blackbird trying to eat one. I’ve also seen distressing  photos of a hedgehog’s injuries after getting entangled in a rubber band. If it is a hoglet, as he or she grows, the band gets embedded in its flesh. Rubber bands can and do even kill them.

You will not have far to look to find the bands – they’re strewn on pavements everywhere, and probably on your front path from time to time. Why not phone your local sorting office and ask them if they have a policy for instructing their posties to save not drop the rubber bands. And if not, why not!

Discarded fishing tackle is one of the worst dangers to wildlife. You will be saving lives if you remove and dispose of any you come across – and any other stringy stuff.

Once you become aware, you will be surprised at how much potentially harmful stuff there is around.

So if you can, do the beasties one more little favour, and pick up and recycle discarded cans and carrier bags.

Focusing on Wildlife says:

What’s the biggest single thing you can you do to help? Recycle and reuse. Keep your discarded items (and I would add, other people’s whenever possible) out of the ecosystem altogether. The birds and the butterflies will thank you for it. As will other wild and native critters.

PS Discarded crisp packets and plastic bags can be hazardous for dogs and cats too.

 

Source

Recycling protects wildlife – Focusing on Wildlife

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Snorting, Barking Trains in Japan Save Animal Lives!

If you never had the Japanese down as a nation of animal-lovers, get this – on the Japanese rail network Animals Rule. 

Monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (lobsters?!) and a tortoise proudly hold the official title of stationmaster at rail depots around the country. The most famous to occupy the post in recent years was a cat called Tama, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 16. Her funeral was attended by thousands of local commuters and admirers hailing from near and far. Following a period of mourning, the newly minted Honorable Eternal Stationmaster was replaced by Nitama, a former apprentice of Tama who beat out other candidates for the job partially based on her “willingness to wear a hat.”‘

The only thing vaguely similar of which we can boast here in the UK, is the day last April when a large herd of cows took it upon themselves to congregate on Hever station platform in Kent. Strangely, in spite of having a wealth of applicants to choose from, Network Rail declined to appoint any of them to their staff.

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Cows spotted on Hever station platform CREDIT: LUKE RYAN

But Network Rail does have one heartening animal trick up its sleeve. Paradoxical, startling, but nonetheless true – the rail network and surrounding land managed by NR is possibly the most biodiverse wildlife haven in the UK. An unseen Shangri-la for rare and endangered species such as the large blue butterfly, the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt. If we were permitted access, which of course we are not, we might also find an abundance of lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, and bats.

But – and it’s a very big but – the network is both haven and hazard. Between 2003/4 and 2013/14 the number of animals struck by trains tripled, and the unfortunate animals logging up the highest death count are deer.

“Deer have excellent peripheral vision, but most deer incidents take place while the beasts are traversing the railway as part of their natural movement pattern between habitats at dawn/dusk – a time when more trains are running as part of the morning and evening peaks.”¹

What is Network Rail doing to prevent animals getting on the tracks?

Not an awful lot it seems. They “educate land owners about the dangers and disruption caused by animal incursions, emphasising the need to keep gates securely closed and encouraging them to use additional measures such as electric fencing.” 

And that’s it. Good as far as it goes, and fine for domestic animals: horses, sheep and cattle – but if we look for NR’s ideas on keeping deer and other wildlife off the tracks, we draw a blank. This in spite of their desire to minimise collisions and costly disruptions to the rail timetable.

Over in Japan, they do things differently

Yes, certainly there is the same imperative not to let collisions with animals mess up the schedule. (Magnify that sixty-fold. The Japanese don’t have a name for super-efficiency for nothing, and Japanese trains are precise to the second. Last November a rail company felt compelled to issue a public apology for one of its trains departing 20 seconds early, at 9.44.20, instead of 9.44.40 – can you imagine it!)

And yes, as in the UK, the most frequent victims of death by train are deer. The deer are “reportedly attracted to the lines due to a need for iron in their diets, licking up small iron filings left behind by the grinding of train wheels on the tracks.”

But in Japan it’s not just about the timetable. As their unlikely choice of stationmasters/mistresses attest, in the world of the locomotive the Japanese have a care for animals. And that extends to the wild kind, whose interaction with trains is too often fatal.

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Creatures as small as turtles can come a cropper, as well as cause delays, so one rail company has worked with wildlife experts to create safe crossings in the form of special turtle trenches running underneath the tracks. Rail workers even carry out regular inspections to see if the little guys need an extra helping hand.

For the bigger animals the usual ropes, fences, and flashing lights have all been tried – without success. Now, displaying a creativity sadly lacking in Network Rail, the Japanese are coming up with all kinds of imaginative ways to prevent costly timetable disruptions and animal deaths.

The ideas

One of the most out there was someone’s brainwave of mixing water with lion dung garnered from a safari park, and spraying the solution along the track. Hey presto, it worked! Not one deer was run over. Even though Japanese deer have never seen a lion, it seems they recognise the smell of an apex predator when they come across it.

The dung spray though 100% effective, did have several drawbacks:

  1. The spraying was very labour-intensive, impractical on a larger scale
  2. It got washed away in the rain
  3. And finally, it REEKED! Railway staff, passengers, and folk living near the line alike, all complained

Based on the observation that the deer are drawn to the iron from the lines, one company developed another effective method to divert the deer – definitely less off-the-wall and decidedly less offensive than the lion poop  – ‘yukuru’, simple salt-lick blocks containing the vital ingredient iron.

When it really hit home

One night in 2015 a family of deer were crossing the tracks when a young fawn at the rear of the group was struck by a train and killed. Yuji Hikita, an employee of Kintetsu Railway Co. saw it happening. And continued to watch while a parent deer stood motionless, staring down at the fallen fawn for a full 40 minutes. After witnessing the whole heart-wrenching scene, he determined to find a way to stop such a sorrowful event happening again.

Hikita’s focus was on finding a way to help the deer cross the tracks in safety, rather than simply blocking them out.

He made an on-the-ground study of the deers’ movements. Finding hoof prints and dung (deer droppings, not lion!) helped him establish which spots the animals used as crossing points. The line was enclosed with 2 metre-high netting, but crossing places were left open. In the crossing gaps, ultrasonic waves formed temporary barriers at the riskiest times, dawn and dusk, but were switched off overnight when the trains stopped running.

The ultrasonic waves, inaudible to us, have the advantage of not being a terrible assault on human senses like the lion poop.

Hikita’s ingenious plan won him a 2017 Good Design Award.“This is an excellent example of how railway companies can tackle the deer-train collision problem from the deer’s perspective,” a judge for the Good Design Award said in 2017, “and it owes to the countless number sacrificed in the accidents.”

Meanwhile researchers at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) have been testing trains that snort like a deer and bark like a dog. With the usual Japanese precision and attention to detail, the formula is thus: a three-second burst of deer-snort noises, followed by 20 seconds of dog-barking.

The deer-snorting noises replicate deer’s alarm warnings to each other, which would alert any real deer getting too close to the tracks. The dogs’ barking finishes the job by scaring them away. And the snort-bark formula works. In fact, it’s proving so successful the Institute is considering setting up stationary snort-bark devices along the tracks near crossing places favoured by the deer.

Network Rail, are you listening?

 

Sources

¹Analysis of the risk from animals on the line

In Japan, custom trenches help turtles cross railroad tracks with ease

Japanese trains save deer with sound effects

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Are We Going to Find Out What They’re REALLY Saying AT LAST?

“Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.”*

“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone” 

Professor Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University speaking to The Guardian.
Rapunzel the Conversational Cat
My brother has proper conversations with his cat Rapunzel. Not unusual among those of us who have companion animals, you might think. When I say ‘conversations’ though, I mean proper two-way, back and forth discussions on matters of serious import, along the lines of “What do you think of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, Punzel?”
Punzel: “The woman doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please don’t talk to me about Brexit. I’m depressed enough as it is by the state of the world.” And so on.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t actually say that. She’s a real cat, not one in a fairytale, in spite of her name. My brother helpfully speaks her lines for her. He thinks she’s a socialist, but maybe he’s got her all wrong. When she does meow for herself, what is she saying? It could well be, “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone.”  She may even be a closet Tory. Without the key to unlock cat-speak, no-one will know.
Dr Dolittle & Zoolingua
For those of us who couldn’t live without animals somewhere in our lives, the tale of animal-loving Dr Dolittle is particularly captivating. The story goes that Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia teaches him the language of the animals. The good doctor opens his home to an ever-growing menagerie of animals whose speech only he can understand, until – the final straw for his long-suffering sister who keeps house for him – the arrival of a crocodile. A creature too far. She gives her brother an ultimatum – me or the animals. I love it that he chooses the animals!
Don’t we all want to be Dr Dolittle? What if we really could understand every word our cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits utter? Well now maybe we will be able to do just that, thanks to something called Zoolingua, a project born from Professor Siobodchikoff’s work with other furry little creatures.

 

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Meet the Prof & the ‘Villagers’
It’s true to say Con Siobodchikoff is the world expert on North American prairie dogs, having studied them closely for 30 years. Prairie dogs are not dogs at all of course. They are rodents, but every bit as fascinating as the canines in our homes. What Prof Con discovered over three decades is that the animals use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.
These engaging little creatures live in ‘villages’ of underground burrows, and take it in turns to stand guard, watching out for predators. With hundreds of hours of recordings of prairie dog chatter, the Prof and his team discovered that whoever is on lookout uses particular calls for different predators, and the other ‘villagers’ respond according to the type of call.

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Deciphering Prairie Dog-ese  with AI
Using advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the recordings, they found that the little rodents have specific ‘words’ for ‘human’, ‘hawk’, and ‘coyote’, and their language is sophisticated enough to distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs.
Professor Con noticed that there were interesting individual variations in calls about specific dangers. So although there was a distinct call for ‘coyote’, for instance, there were also varying elements around the call. He began to wonder if the calls might be doing more than specifying the threat as a coyote. Could they actually be describing the coyote?
Experiments
The Prof had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog village in identical clothing except for the colour of their shirts: one wore blue, the next yellow, then green, and finally grey. Analysis of the rodents’ calls revealed they were indeed describing each individual human, and not just in terms of shirt colour:
“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’” says Slobodchikoff.
The prairie dogs’ linguistic ability turns out to be astonishing. When the team placed a picture of a large black oval near the village, the animals created an entirely new alarm call for it. The team took the picture away, and later brought it back. The little rodents all voiced exactly the same alarm call in response to it. It appears the components of the new call are describing the size, shape and colour of the oval in ‘words’ already part of their rich vocabulary. If that is not language, I’d like to know what is.
Dialects
Prairie dog villages in different locations have their own dialects. The Professor says that the animals he has studied for so long in Gunnison AZ are unlikely to understand Mexican prairie dogs, and vice versa. But then, it’s pretty unlikely they will ever need to!

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Prairie Dogs Love to Chat
Most fascinating of all, it seems they love a good gossip. “Prairie dogs also have what I call social chatters, where one prairie dog will produce a string of vocalizations, and another prairie dog across the colony will respond with a different string of vocalizations. 

“If animals seemingly as simple as rodents have a language replete with nouns, adjectives, syntax and dialects, think what higher-order animals might be saying”

the Prof concludes.

Guilty of Arrogance?
It is such a giveaway of our skewed perspective on our own status relative to other creatures, that there exists a long history of measuring nonhuman animals’ intelligence by their ability to understand and use OUR languages. Well-known examples are Koko the gorilla, Alex the parrot, Tilda the orangutan, Noc the beluga whale, Koshik the elephant, and Chaser, the border collie who knows more than 1000 words.
But thankfully we are now beginning to grasp that, in the words of evolutionary biologist Seeder El-Showk:

“Like every other kind of life on Earth, we may be unique but we are not special”  

– even when it comes to language. All nonhuman animals that live in social groups exhibit complex behaviours. And complex behaviours require complex communication. Thankfully we are starting to take, can I say, a more respectful approach, attempting to unlock the secrets of the nonhumans’ own languages, their conversations with each other. And, being fascinated, and humbled, by what we are finding out about their complexity and sophistication, thanks to the work of dedicated zoologists like Prof Siobodchikoff.
Not Quite There Yet
“We know a lot more than we knew a few decades ago, but we’re still a long way from two-way communication,” says Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory in Mississippi.
So best not get too excited just yet at the prospect of understanding your enigmatic feline as well as he/she gets you. Perhaps a read of Professor Slobodchikoff’s book, “Chasing Dr Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” can give us a few pointers. As yet we don’t have access to the kind of sophisticated AI that is helping him unravel the secrets of the prairie dog. Wait till the Prof has succeeded in converting his system into a handy pocket-size translator of dog-, cat-, or guinea pig-ese. Won’t that be a wonderful thing – a bestseller for sure.
It has to be said though, his Zoolingua is still very much a work in progress. Even the Prof thinks it might take 10 years. But watch this space!

 

Sources

*Pet translator might enable humans to communicate with animals

Can any animals talk and use language like humans?

When Will We Learn To Speak Animal Languages?

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Animal Rights Stickers – Yay!

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a brand new emoji app for animal champions everywhere. Senior Advocacy Strategist Michelle Feinberg invites us to download the peta2 sticker app available now from both the App Store and the iMessage-specific App Store. All the stickers are 100% vegan and cruelty-free!

To give you a flavour –

 

Let’s get downloading. This app is going to clock up some serious mileage! Fun with an important – the most important – message…

ANIMALS ARE NOT OURS

TO EAT, WEAR, EXPERIMENT ON, USE FOR ENTERTAINMENT, OR ABUSE IN ANY OTHER WAY


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Where to put to rest our mortal remains

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

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

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

So what could be better than a green burial?

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

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Isn’t that the best?

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

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

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

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


The Backlash – the Deadly Rise of Populism

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

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

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

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

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

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‘America First’ puts wildlife last

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

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

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

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

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

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Who will benefit?

Poachers and criminal trafficking cartels

Who will suffer?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Join the Center for Biological Diversity    Join Defenders of Wildlife

A petition for everyone

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger African Wildlife

Petitions for US citizens:

Stop drastic budget cuts that devastate wildlife habitat

Protect the Endangered Species Act

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

Stop Federal Budget Cuts that Endanger Africa’s Wildlife

More petitions

Sources

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

²Environmental Movement – Encyclopedia.com

Investing in conservation pays off, study finds

We now have proof that conservation funding works

Spooky conservation: saving species over our dead bodies

Rise of populism affects wildlife management in US

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

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Giving a Voice to the Voiceless – Meet the ‘Art-ivists’ For Animal Rights

This eye-opening piece by freelance journalist Peter Yeung is from Dazed & Confused magazine, Jan 2015

Animal rights and art have not always been easy bedfellows. Belgian artist Jan Fabre got into hot water for a performance in which he threw several cats up a flight of stairs, who let out pained meows in response. Damien Hirst, meanwhile, is famed for works featuring a formaldehyde-soaked shark, a pig’s head, and even a piece that required the killing of 9000 butterflies. The most recent example, however, was at Colorado’s Aspen Art Museum, where – as part of the show – turtles were made to amble around an art exhibit with iPads attached to their shells.

(More recently the Guggenheim Museum pulled works involving live animals from Chinese Art Survey. Now terrified mice are being used in ‘art’ installation in NY gallery. Plse sign petition)

But there are also plenty of examples of animal rights being championed by the arts. Vivienne Westwood and Stella McCartney are well-known for their anti-fur and anti-leather stances, whereas Morrissey is outspokenly meat-free, once writing the memorable lyrics: “It’s not “natural”, “normal” or kind/ the flesh you so fancifully fry/ the meat in your mouth/ as you savour the flavour, of murder”. Then, of course, Rembrandt, one of the greatest painters of all time, was a pioneering vegetarian. Here, we look at some of the most compelling animal rights artivists.

JACQUELINE TRAIDE 

Performance artist Jacqueline Traide, sickened by cosmetics testing on animals, wanted to convey the cruelty of it to the public by having the procedure done to herself. She was tortured for 10 hours in the performance, which was done in a vitrine in the Oxford Circus branch of Lush, as shocked pedestrians looked on. Amongst a number of activities, Traide had her mouth held open with a vice, was force-fed, had a strip of her hair shaved off, and was given two injections.

(Further info about the EU ban on animal testing for cosmetics here

Email your MP to support global fight against cruel cosmetics here)

ZOE BIRRELL

Portuguese artist Zoe Birrell once made an art installation consisting of 420 dairy cows, each made from vegan fair-trade chocolate, and each equalling her body weight of 53kg. The life of a modern dairy cow is marked by the emotional stress of the loss of her baby calf, combined with the hormonal effect of being kept perpetually pregnant. It inspired Birrell to respond to these psychological and physiological issues, considering the ethical alternatives, as well as, how it related to her own femininity.
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Birrell’s installation was part of her school’s degree show in Glasgow via prweb.com

(Step by Step Guide to Help You Give Up Dairy)

JONATHAN HOROWITZ

Jonathan Horowitz stopped eating meat at the age of 12, after his parents took him to a bullfight when on holiday in Mexico. The artist’s heavyweight Go Vegan! exhibition at a former New York meat-packing plant, LaFrieda Meats, aimed to normalise the idea of meat-free living. Horowitz compiled a portrait gallery of more than 200 celebrity vegetarians, as well as a video installation featuring Paul and Linda McCartney, arguing for veganism through the medium of modern living: commodity culture.
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These billboards featured as part of Horowitz’s Go Vegan! campaign via biennaleonline.org

(Help to Go Vegan here)

BANKSY

Banksy, the king of street art, made a return to the road with his puntastic project Sirens of the Lambs. Making appearances around the world, such as New York City and Glastonbury, the piece was a “moving sculpture”, in which a truck full of shrieking cuddly animals being taken to slaughter, drove around. The work is designed to highlight the issue of animals being farmed for their meat, but without the usual, depressing consequences.

SUE COE

Sue Coe grew up hearing the rattling of chains and screaming from the local abattoir at her home in Hersham, England. The normalisation of mass slaughter, which she also saw at abattoirs from Liverpool to Los Angeles, became the inspiration for her graphic paintings and drawings. These works are imbued with a mind-warping darkness and death, that the viewer can hardly ignore.
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Coe’s work is certainly a damning indictment of capitalism’s influence on the food industry via http://www.graphicwitness.org

ALICE NEWSTEAD

Artist and animal rights activists Alice Newstead once painted herself silver and suspended herself from hooks to protest the fishing of sharks, who are threatened with extinction (around 100 million sharks are caught in commercial and sports fishing every year. Piercing the skin of her shoulder blades, she was hung for 15 minutes, as blood streamed down her back.

(Sign petition to Ban Shark Fin Sales in Florida)

ASHER JAY

Asher Jay uses her digital graphic skills innovatively to inform the world about animal abuse. In Africa, Jay made screensavers of a poached rhino horn dripping with blood. In China, she integrated elephant tusks into Chinese language characters to encourage a halt in ivory buying while her enormous images of elephants killed for their tusks were projected in New York’s Times Square. “I wanted to visualize the scale and brutality of the crisis and use art to tell the blood ivory story,” she says. “Each year, 35,000 elephants are slaughtered; that’s one every 15 minutes.”
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Originally trained in fashion at the New York School of Design, Jay has gone on to become a conservationist artist via asherjay.com

(Born Free’s Blood Ivory petition)

ROCKY LEWYCKY

Rocky Lewycky’s project Is It Necessary? addressed the problem of factory farming in a violent new way. The work was comprised of hundreds of ceramic animals – pigs, cows, turkeys, fish – neatly positioned together. Each day Lewycky would enter the gallery space, elect an animal, and brutally smash it to pieces, leaving the white sculptures to reveal their blood-red interiors.
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Each sculpture was coated red on the inside and then either smashed or ‘liberated’ via rocksart.com

DAN WITZ

New York artist Dan Witz came over to east London to create his project Empty The Cages. For it, he placed chicken claws and pigs heads in 30 different locations around the streets of Shoreditch, in order to subtly raise the issue of animal consumption, and its dire consequences. Witz explained: “Climate change, deforestation, wildlife extinction, water waste, air pollution and ocean dead zones (among other things) are all directly attributable to meat, dairy and egg production.”
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Witz was part of a PETA campaign that also involved Sir Paul McCartney via danwitz.com

(I urge you to check out what Dan has to say about some other work he did with PETA, and how it made him feel)

GALE HART

Different societies and cultures always tend to draw the line of what sort of animal is okay to eat differently. Elephants, dogs, and silk worms are all consumed in places around the globe. Sacramento-based multimedia artist Gale Hart tackled this issue with her project Why Not Eat Your Pet? It juxtaposed images of devastating animal cruelty with pets that have sinister, child-like innocence.
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Other paintings in Hart’s collection included Pinocchio on his first caged hunt via galehart.com

Source: The Artists Pushing Animal Rights Further

Bits in brackets, mine


Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it

Berthold Brecht

There is power in the hammer of these 10 art-ivists – let us hope they succeed in shaping us a kinder world


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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

Making the Case ― Again ― for Saving Imperiled Species 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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Gregory enjoying the company of Callie & Cato

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

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

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

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

What does go on inside a dog’s head?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moving on to even bigger things –  the Brain Ark

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

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

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

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

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


So, what drives Gregory Berns?

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

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

Go Gregory!


Books by Gregory Berns:

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

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


Sources

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

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

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Busting the Myths of Human Superiority

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