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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Food Trend Number 1 Diet tribalization intensifying

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

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

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

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

The Ripple Effect

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

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

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

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

Big Investors outside the food industry

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

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

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

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

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

Follow Charlie’s Acres on Facebook here


Sources

¹Wiki

²Plant based alternatives attract investment from meat producers – Lifegate

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

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

Related posts

Big Meat, We’re Making You History!

When Everyone Is Telling You Meat Is The Bad Guy

This is the Future – 5 Awesome People Make Fabulous ‘Post-Animal’ Food

German Meat Companies Are Investing in Veg Meat

Which is Your Burger of Choice for the Future of Food?

Will New Pea Milk Spell Demise of Dairy?

The Bright New Age of the Humane Economy


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grazing and Foraging – The CAFO

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

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

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

 Healthy food?

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

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

Dr Mottet’s cattle feed piechart

livestockpro

Unusable for human food?

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

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

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

Livestock farming’s environmental impact

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But still, Dr Mottet’s conclusion is:

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

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

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

It doesn’t add up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Help yourself, help the planet  Go vegan

Update

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

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

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

 

Dr Mottet is wrong on at least 4 counts:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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



Sources

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

Agriculture at a Crossroads – Global Agriculture Org.

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

America’s mega dairy farms

The Wall Street Journal

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

What to do with all the poo? – Modern Farmer

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

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

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

FCR – Wiki

Related posts

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy Revisited

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

Another Nation Trims Meat From Diet Advice

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

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

Which is Your Burger of Choice for the Future of Food?

Favourite Food for Cows?

 

 

Hands Clasped Across the River for Two Big Cats

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

panterkop

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.

kristiansandtiger9

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

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 19.25.02

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

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

The surprise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Brought to the brink

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

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Over the river into Russia

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

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

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

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Wildlife Heritage Foundation

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

Russia too is making history

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

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

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© Jackie Thomas
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Wildlife Heritage Foundation

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

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

Two nations, two stories

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

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

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

The great powers finally get it together

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

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Image:Phoenix Fund

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

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

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

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


Breaking news
Wild tigers to reappear in Kazakhstan after 70 years

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

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

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

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

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

Read more

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

altawebheader1All images with kind permission of ALTA

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

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

Sources

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

Land of the Leopards – bioGraphic

Reporter’s Notebook – Inside a Chinese Factory Town

Pollution in China – Wiki

Qiaotou – Wiki

Our Planet: Ecological Civilization – UN Environment

Related posts

World First – China’s Bird Airport

Tiggywinkles, Tigers & Tunnels

 

We Owe It To The Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update

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

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

A page of environment petitions

Related posts

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

Walking Hand in Hand with Nature

Busting the Myths of Human Superiority

When Everyone is Telling You Meat is the Bad Guy

Shooting Lions (and other things that move)

Shooting lions has never been easier. We can all have a go. No need even for long flights and safaris into the wilds of Africa. Thanks to modern technology, we can slay the King of all creatures without even leaving the couch.

And I mean, for real. This is no VR, no video game. This is a genuine option offered by canned hunting venues to maximise our ease and comfort while we exploit and inflict suffering upon our fellow creature – for fun. All that is needed is a camera and a gun on a mount at their end. At ours, an internet connection  – and a few thousand dollars.

I learn something new everyday, and mostly I wish I didn’t.

There are over 1,000 captive mammal hunting ranches in the US offering up lions, zebras, giraffes as quarry – at least some of them do. The animals that are bred there are accustomed to humans and unafraid. If we prefer getting off our couch and shooting them face to face (actually, we see theirs but they don’t see ours), we simply lay out bait, sit in a hide with our guns and wait. Like taking candy from a baby.

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The Ox Ranch Texas for example, on its 18,000 acres, offers a choice to hunt: no less than 14 different species of deer, 24 species of antelope, 11 of sheep, 3 of goat, and buffalo, wild boar, javelina, kangaroos, zebra, emu, ostrich, rhea, alligators and more. 72 species in all. So many to go at. No chance of our ever getting bored.

When we’ve had our fill of killing, we can leave the ranch staff to “process” our bag while we reward ourselves for a day well spent with a drink at the bar followed by a taste of Cordon Bleu fine dining, before retiring utterly replete to our luxurious cabin.

Well honestly, if you were a rancher in the US, why would you bother raising cattle for meat when canned hunting delivers an non-ending deluge of dollars.


A hunter is a hunter is a hunter, right?

Wrong. ‘True’ hunters distance themselves from the likes of the visitors at Ox Ranch who are despised, undeserving of the name. They are mere ‘shooters’.

Real hunting, say the hunters, means patient days tracking in the woods, and nights under the stars, drinking beer, telling stories and playing cards. Hunting is deeply-rooted in the American psyche. It’s a hangover from the days of the pioneers when ‘the West was won’, forging their way through the wilderness, living from the land, armed with their wits and their guns.

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“There’s this idea that being out in the woods is recreating the pioneer experience that they [the hunters] see as being the basis of America” – Simon Bronner, ethnologist.

Shoot to save?

For Bronner, hunting is a positive. Licensed hunting brings revenue to individual states and, he believes, ensures stewardship of the land. “Anyone who spends time in the woods and watches wildlife would demand that we do more work on improving habitat.”

No less a man than President Theodore Roosevelt is the hunter/conservationist icon of the US hunting fraternity: at one and the same time passionate, even obsessive hunter, and also creator of national parks and protector of the magnificent landscapes of the USA.

The incumbent president does not emulate his predecessor in either respect. Donald Trump Jr though, seen online in many a photo proudly posing next to his latest trophy corpse, advocates culling wolves in the western States because “they deprive hunters of moose,” and believes the US Fish and Wildlife Service “should be encouraging American hunters legally and ethically hunting abroad, not hindering them.”

Of course hunting is not exclusive to Americans. Far from it. Our own royals have in the past done their share of big game hunting, and still enjoy shooting birds, deer and boar, pursuing wildlife on horseback, and hooking fish out of the water, so-called traditional field sports. Translation: blood-letting for fun.

And as with Teddy Roosevelt and the ‘true’ hunters of America, our royals combine their love of hunting with an anomalous patronage of conservation. Prince Philip’s total ‘bag’ over the past 30 years stretches over continents, species [including an Indian tiger] and runs into mind-boggling numbers… in Britain alone he has shot deer, rabbit, hare, wild duck, snipe, woodcock, teal, pigeon and partridge, and pheasant numbering at least 30,000.

“On one occasion he and Prince Charles are said to have killed 50 wild boar in a single day. In 1993, out shooting for up to four days a week during his seven-week stay [at Sandringham] he hit his target of 10,000 pheasant.”

Quite the rate of slaughter – and nearly all during the 35 years he acted as the first president of the World Wildlife Fund UK, and then president of WWF International.

To those of us who flinch at any thought of harm to a living creature, this bloodlust is incomprehensible.

So why do they do it?

Well, our royals follow a long historical precedent – 4000 years of it in fact. It dates back at least to the Assyrian empire.

“Ancient hunts were spectacular displays of royal power and dominance, and always took place with the king’s public watching from the sidelines,” says Linda Kalof, professor of sociology at Michigan State University.

The same is true today. Trophy hunting remains a display of power, an activity rooted in colonialism and patriarchy, the participants predominantly white men. And, since you need very considerable funds to cover the costs of travel, accommodation, equipment, guides and licences, it also tells the world you are well able to support a lavish lifestyle.

“Men use hunting to send signals about their fitness to rivals and potential mates,” according to a study published last year in Biology Letters. That makes perfect sense in evolutionary terms.

(This evolutionary impulse is quite likely the unconscious propellant towards prominence of most who achieve it: whether rock stars or racing drivers, marathon runners or mountaineers. Fortunately, few other ‘display’ activities require fear, pain and untimely death to be inflicted on innocent animals.)

Today of course, the hunting fraternity no longer has need of an on-the-spot crowd of lesser beings to impress. Today we have the wonder that is the internet. “Hunters can now trumpet messages about their personal wealth and social status to a global audience.” Darimont in Biology Letters

Trophy hunting is about spending lots of money killing rare animals for instagram likes,” is US comedian Jim Jefferies’ pithy epigram on the subject. I don’t see the lions laughing.

So, showing off. This may well be the real motivation behind hunting, attracting women and p***ing off their rivals. But how many hunters are going to admit to that? Instead they justify their ‘sport’ by claiming it is not just good for conservation, but vital. (Being cruel to be kind?)

Is their claim true? Is hunting good for conservation?

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The USA legally imports no fewer than 126,000 animal trophies every year, and the EU 11,000–12,000, of 140 different species  –  everything from African elephants to American black bears. That’s without counting the animals that remain in the countries where they were shot.

So we really need to know: is this helping or harming?

As with most controversial topics, there’s black, there’s white and there are varying shades of grey.  Sometimes the answer depends on whether you are viewing this critically important question through the crosshairs of a rifle.

Professional hunter Nathan Askew, owner of an American company that leads hunting safaris for “dangerous game” in South Africa, Tanzania, Botswana and Mozambique claims: “The positive economic impact brought about by hunting incentivizes governments, landowners and companies to protect the animals and their habitats.” Well, he would, wouldn’t he?

And no surprise (in view of its choice of former royal patron) that the WWF comes up with this: “In certain limited and rigorously controlled cases, including for threatened species, scientific evidence has shown that trophy hunting can be an effective conservation tool as part of a broad mix of strategies.”

More surprising perhaps is the conclusion of the UK government-commissioned report (after the death of Cecil the lion in 2016) conducted by Oxford University Wildlife Conservation Research Unit: “The most fundamental benefit of trophy hunting to lion conservation is that it provides a financial incentive to maintain lion habitat that might otherwise be converted to non-wildlife land uses.” 

Another point made for the shoot-to-save argument is that hunting (supposedly) pumps cash into local communities, not only providing work and lifting them out of poverty, but making them less susceptible to involvement in illegal activity like poaching.

Wilfried Pabst of the Sango Wildlife Conservancy has no doubts of the positive link between hunting and conservation. Sango is donating money to bring thousands of elephants, giraffe, African buffalo, zebras and more, back to Zinave national park in Mozambique, whose wildlife was decimated by 15 years of civil war. Pabst says,

“In remote places and countries with a weak tourism industry and a high unemployment rate, it is very difficult – or almost impossible – to run a conservancy like Sango without income from sustainable utilisation.

Sustainable utilisation is the preferred euphemism for trophy hunting.

Sounds good in theory, but is it working?

Masha Kalinina (Humane Society International) calls the Sango scheme misguided and potentially deadly:

“Mozambique continues to have one of the highest rates of poaching in southern Africa,” she said. Mozambique lost nearly half of its elephants to poachers in five years. Now both South Africa and Zimbabwe are transporting their own animals to this park just so that they may die at the hands of either trophy hunters or poachers. Is that what we are calling conservation?”

A report last year from the US House Committee of Natural Resources casts doubt on the shoot-to-save argument in general. “In assessing the flow of trophy hunting revenue to conservation efforts, we found many troubling examples of funds either being diverted from their purpose or not being dedicated to conservation in the first place.”

Some estimate that the hunting elite and corrupt government officials siphon off as much as 97 per cent of hunting licence fees. Is it over-cynical to suspect Swiss bank accounts?

Jeff Flocken, for the International Fund for Animal Welfare doesn’t just cast doubt on the claim that hunting aids conservation, he asserts that in the case of lions, trophy hunting adds to the problem.” The most prized trophy kills are young healthy males. Their deaths destabilise lion prides and diminish the gene pool, both of which weaken the already dwindling and endangered population.

Born Free spells out the very direct way in which trophy hunting works counter to effective conservation: Trophy hunting is not about preserving wildlife. Trophy hunters covet the spectacular and rare, and the Safari Club International’s World Hunting Awards specifically reward hunters who have killed animals belonging to species or groups of species that are threatened, and some of which are critically endangered. In January 2014 wealthy American trophy hunter Cory Knowlton bid US$350,000 to shoot a critically endangered black rhinoceros in Namibia. 

What is more, it undermines public support for conservation work, and de-incentivises donations. Jeff again: “Why should anyone spend money to protect an animal that a wealthy American can then pay to go kill?”

And economic arguments are not all on the hunter’s side: hunting licence fees while yes, very lucrative, are one-off payments. Once an animal is shot, it’s gone. Whereas if not a target for hunting, a lion or rhino can earn money for the community from ecotourism for many years.

But let’s leave the last word to Jeff Flocken. And this is the real crunch in my opinion, the most important argument against trophy hunting in any shape or form, the undeniable truth:

“Legalized recreational hunting derails conservation efforts simply
by devaluing the lives of the hunted animals.

 

This is by no means exhaustive coverage of the topic. Next post will take a more detailed look at one particular ‘shoot-to-save’ project.

Petitions

United Nations: BAN Trophy Hunting. STOP Poachers. END Imports.

Hunting Is Not Conservation – Ban Trophy Hunting

Stop Canned Hunting

Sources

Royals’ shooting passion draws bad blood – The Independent

Hunting Big Game: Why People Kill Animals for Fun – LiveScience

POLL – Should trophy hunting be banned? – Focusing on Wildlife

Mozambique: 6,000 animals to rewild park is part-funded by trophy hunting – The Guardian

Trophy hunting can ‘help lion conservation’ says Government commissioned report – Daily Telegraph

Everything you need to know about Trophy Hunting – Discover Wildlife

Related posts

What’s in a Name?

Endangered Animals As You’ve Never Seen Them Before

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

 

 

 

An Enchantment of Birds

Chances are, when you wake up in the morning the first thing you hear is the joyful chirruping of birds. And does a day ever go by without at some hour being graced by their presence, even in the middle of the busiest metropolis?

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Of all wild animals, birds have to be the most familiar to us all, the least secretive, the easiest for us to spot. They usually – but sadly far from always – have little need to conceal themselves from dangerous humans, for it is they, not we, who possess the kingdom of the air.
With their dazzling colours, extravagant variety, and incredible abilities – the sheer magic they impart to our lives – isn’t An Enchantment of Birds exactly the right umbrella-term for the avian life of Planet Earth?

Here I’ve pieced together a crazily random patchwork of the new and not-so new, the bright interspersed with patches of a darker hue. And a few small ways we can give a helping hand to these animals that so enrich our lives.


It doesn’t get darker than murder. ‘A murder’ is the collective name bestowed – surely undeservedly – upon the common crow

What a slur on these sociable and clever birds. A murder of crows. Possibly acquired because where there were corpses there were crows. In times gone by, they cleaned up the human detritus from the gallows and the battlefield, and superstitions sprang up like a thicket around them. Nor has it done anything for their sadly besmirched reputation that their feathery finery is entirely black, the colour of night and dark deeds.

And that these remarkable animals actually hold funerals for their own deceased, serves only, in human eyes, to put the seal on their association with death.

The raven, another member of the the clever corvid family, is likewise cloaked in mystery and superstition
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Legend has it for example, that if ever the ravens abandon the Tower of London, the Tower and the kingdom will fall.

(Legends are engaging, but there is a sadness behind this one. By the time of King Charles 2nd in the 17th century, these magnificent birds had been nigh on exterminated throughout their natural range, including in the city of London. They were only able to find refuge at the Tower under the king’s protection. Then and ever since, 6 ravens have been kept at the Tower – with one wing clipped to prevent their flying away. Read why this is harmful to the birds and sign the petition here or below)

The Guardian in its report on some recent raven research incidentally cites other examples in myth and fiction of the bird’s supposed prescient powers:

  • Ravens have long been associated with powers of foresight
  • Their collective name is ‘a conspiracy’
  • In Greek mythology, they are associated with the god of prophecy
  • In the TV hit Game of Thrones a three-eyed raven appears in a prince’s prophetic visions
  • Edgar Allan Poe’s haunting 1845 narrative poem The Raven, a cornerstone of American literature, features a raven as an uncanny harbinger of doom.

Enchantment indeed.

Who knows whether ravens can truly see into the future – nonhuman animals have such a variety of astonishing abilities that nothing would surprise me. Whatever, it did come as a surprise to the pair of Swedish scientists featured in the Guardian report, that ravens show great ability in planning for the future.

It’s little more than a decade since we humans were forced to concede, with the discovery that other Hominidae/Great Apes have the mental capacity to plan ahead, that our species is not, as was previously assumed, unique in this respect. Now it seems that in this exclusive but expanding club, ravens too can claim their rightful place. And indeed completely outshine species much closer to homo sapiens, like monkeys. No doubt many of us humans as well!

Researchers Mathias Osvath and Can Kabadayi reveal their discoveries

Is this perhaps another example of science finding ‘proof’ of something we’ve intuitively known for millennia?


There’s recycling, and then there’s recycling

What are nests but beautiful and ingenious examples of natural recycling? A new usefulness is found for dead twigs and leaves, moss, straw, feathers and sheep’s wool snagged on fences. But also man-made litter: string, twine, ribbon, lace, cotton, jute, yarn. Even the odd rubber tyre.

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And plastic. But it must be white. Transparent or green plastic will not do. Black kites have taken to adorning their nests with the stuff. Why? Not to dazzle a mate with their artistry, like the male bower bird. In the kite nest-building enterprise the male and female are equal partners. These embellishments of trash seem to serve pretty much the same purpose in the kite world as screwing an alarm box to the front of our house does in ours: sending a message to would-be intruders and thieves – Keep Out! This fascinating article in Science magazine will tell you more.

Recycling just got quirkier
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Image BBC News

In Mexican and Latin American cities today, house finches and sparrows are also busy recycling the waste humans leave behind. They are collecting discarded cigarette stubs from the streets to weave into their nests. This strange behaviour doesn’t arise from any shortage of nest-building materials. Or from dubious taste in architectural ornamentation. These little birds have discovered that the nicotine in the stubs works as an effective anti-parasitic, keeping their chicks free from infestations. Birds have long been known to line their nests with vegetation rich in compounds that drive away parasites, says Nature magazine. In the city, such vegetation may not come so readily to bird’s beak. But stubs there are a-plenty.

So, more feathered creatures putting human waste to good use – what’s not to like? Sadly, there is a dark side to this quirky story too. Cigarettes may possibly be as injurious to bird health as they are to ours. If the concentration of the tobacco parasiticides from the stubs in the nest becomes too great, it can harm the chromosomal development of unhatched chicks, with who knows what long term results. Read more – I promise this too is interesting stuff.


Meanwhile, members of the parrot family (collective name ‘a prattle’) – those Einsteins of the flying squad – have a different but equally remarkable trick up their feathered sleeves

The males have a nice line in rhythmic drumming to woo prospective mates. And they all create their own drum solos. As Science Advances rather stuffily puts it, Over 131 drumming sequences produced by 18 males, the beats occurred at non-random, regular intervals. Yet individual males differed significantly in the shape parameters describing the distribution of their beat patterns, indicating individual drumming styles.

What’s more, they’re very picky about their choice of drumsticks. Here is a male palm cockatoo showing us how it’s done.

(Thanks to AwarenessHelps for this little gem)

Enchanting as all members of the parrot family are, here’s Why We Should Think Twice Before Getting a Parrot for a Pet


And finally to a bird that endears itself to everyone, the penguin (collective name ‘a huddle’)

Is it because they remind us of comical waiters we have an especially soft spot for these cute and snappily-suited birds? Their precarious existence though is far from ‘cute’. Theirs is a harsh world full of dangers, many of them man-made – commercial fishing depleting the penguins’ available food source, entanglement in fishing nets, pollution, habitat disturbance, and of course climate change. 10 out of 18 of the world’s penguin species are sliding towards extinction.

As part of their “Protect a Penguin” campaign, BirdLife International joined forces with virtual reality producer, Visualise to bring us an amazing 5 minute immersive experience,”Walk with Penguins”, a 3D 360 nature film, the first of its kind.

Using 3D 360 film, we can get people closer to penguins and give people that magical feeling of being with them—and ultimately that can lead to a greater support for their conservation. 

As the sun sets on the penguin colony within which you stand, and you learn of their plight through the voice over, you can’t help but feel an emotional connection. Director of Conservation BirdLife International Richard Grimmett

To get the very best from the immersive experience check info here

Click on image if you would like to #ProtectaPenguin

Petitions

Free the Tower of London ravens

Stop Unregulated Domestic Breeding of Parrots in Canada

Save Newly Discovered Australian Parrot Species From Extinction

We’re well passed World Penguin Day (April 25th) but you can still sign this petition to the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources asking them to establish what would be the world’s two largest marine sanctuaries around Antarctica

7 Penguins Drowned at Calgary Zoo: Shut Down the Exhibit!

 

Other sources

Ravens of the Tower of London – Wiki

Collective nouns for birds

Related posts

16 + 1 Dazzling Facts about Hummingbirds

World First – China’s Bird Airport

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

Can You Help Save the 19 Billion?

Save

What Happens to Animals When People Disappear

What happens? Nature fights back!

We’ve done our best to trash the planet. We’ve plundered the earth of precious stones, covered it in concrete to sell people things they don’t need, contaminated it with deadly radiation, declared a piece of it a DMZ to keep apart the heavily armed guards of two nations that hate each other, covered it in land mines, built factories on it for poison gas and chemical weapons so we can better kill each other, and even managed to dry out the 4th largest lake in the world by exploiting its water for our own questionable ends.

For me, two telling themes emerge from the wildlife stories below: the ruthless devil-take-the-hindmost greed of the capitalist system we humans have created; and our unbridled propensity for violence and war.

Yet even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.

Given less than half a chance, just look what Nature does.

(Thanks to One Green Planet for the article below)


Haven for horses in the desert

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upload.wikimedia.org

Abandoned in 1954, Kolmanskop, Namibia was once a flourishing diamond mining town until the mines were eventually exhausted of their riches. The human inhabitants of the town moved on and left what had been their homes, schools and shops to be taken back by the desert and the rare Namib Horse.

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shazandfrank.wordpress.com

Their origin is unknown as these horses are not indigenous to the region but by limiting human intervention, only offering water support during extreme drought, these horses have been able to adapt incredibly well to the unforgiving terrain and grow in numbers over the years in the ruins of this forgotten town.

Abercrombie and Fish?

abandonedkoi
boredpanda.com

Arson and safety issues plagued the New World Shopping Mall in Bangkok, Thailand until it was shuttered in 1997. The roofless structure sat empty, collecting rainwater in it’s basement until a 1600 square foot pond formed. Mosquitos began to take up residence, annoying locals around the forgotten structure so much that they introduced some koi and catfish into the pond to combat the problem.

Awesome Abandoned Places Around the World Occupied by Animals.

Left to breed uninhibited, the fish flourished  in their new environment and turned the mall into their own private aquarium. The future of the fish is unclear as there are questions about the stability of the building, but for now locals visit the fish to throw them food.

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nhbs.com

While walking around the woods surrounding his summer home in Salo, Finland, photographer Kai Fagerström came upon a derelict house. Not one to miss a chance to snap some unique shots, Fagerström ventured inside to see that the house may have been derelict but it was far from empty.

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ngm.nationalgeographic.com

The house was teeming with animal tenants like badgers, mice, foxes and birds to name just a few. In fact, 12 different species of animals were all living together in harmony under the same roof, becoming the subjects to his photo book The House in the Woods.

Life finds a way in the shadow of disaster

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Very rare Przewalski horses

In 1986 the residents of Pripyat, Ukraine were forced to abandon their homes as the nearby Chernobyl Power Complex experienced what is considered the worst nuclear meltdown in history. The area has been deemed uninhabitable for the next 20,000 years as radiation levels in the area continue to measure off of the charts, but that hasn’t stopped a large variety of wildlife and insect species from moving in.

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sullydish.files.wordpress.com

In fact, the native animal populations like wild boar, dogs and horses have thrived in the exclusion zone, making the area around Chernobyl a natural refuge in the absence of human occupants. Scientists have only recently been allowed access to study the area and its inhabitants, with the results providing an unsure glimpse at how the thriving populations will be effected by the radiation for generations to come. Only time will tell, but for now the city of Pripyat is populated with a diverse selection of life.

Wildlife can’t read the ‘Keep Out’ signs

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news.discovery.com

In place since the Korean War Armistice in 1953, a 250 km long and 4 km wide swath of land known as the Demilitarized Zone separates North and South Korea from coast to coast. With people only being allowed to enter through special permit over the last 60 years, the area has become the perfect place for a large variety of indigenous and critically endangered wildlife to live undisturbed.

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news.nationalgeographic.com

Animals like the endangered white necked crane, vulnerable Amur gorals, the asiatic black bear, Siberian musk dear and the nearly extinct Amur leopard are among the 2,716 different species thought to inhabit the area.

After the dust settled in the Falkland Islands War in 1982, the waters surrounding the area became so overfished that local penguin populations began to decrease dramatically.  Ironically, it was this very overfishing and the ravages of the war that preceded it that ended up creating a unique natural habitat for the penguins to start rebuilding their numbers and living freely.

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wondermando.com

As a deterrent to the British, the Argentinian army laid 20,000 land mines along the coast and pasture lands surrounding the capital that remain to this day. Too light to set them off, the penguin population lives happily and totally undisturbed in this unlikely sanctuary.

This subway car is going nowhere

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fineprintnyc.com

Since 2001 the Mass Transit Authority of New York has been participating in a program that retires old subway cars and dumps them along the eastern seaboard to create artificial reefs. Known as Redbird Reef, the cars are stripped of floating materials and then cleaned before they’re dropped into the ocean from barges.

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eventbrite.com

By 2010 the program had placed over 2500 cars into the water in the hopes of giving marine life in the area a home to breed and thrive, including black sea bass, flounder, turtles and barnacles.

Don’t forget to take your carrots!

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s1.dmcdn.net

The tiny island known as Okunoshima Island in Takehara, Japan is also colloquially known as Usagi Jima, or “Rabbit Island.” Abandoned after World War II, the island had been home to a poison gas facility.

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montrealgazette.com

How the rabbits came to be on the island is a source of debate but with larger animals like cats and dogs being banned from its shores, the bunnies of Usagi Jima are free to roam wild and multiply while taking the occasional carrot from an adoring tourist.

This island gets an (elephant) seal of approval

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cdn.c.photoshelter.com

Formerly a Coast Guard light station until it was abandoned in 1948,  Año Nuevo Island in California is teeming with wildlife. Now part of a nature preserve operated by the California State Parks, the island boasts one of the largest northern elephant seal mainland breeding colonies in the world.

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apt.ap1.netdna-cdn.com

It also plays host to cormorants, terns, otters, California sea lions as well as the rare and endangered San Francisco Garter Snake.

Just surreal

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i.imgur.com

What was once the fourth largest lake in the world at 26,300 sq mi – that’s bigger than all the Great Lakes of North America with the exception of Lake Superior, the Aral Sea in Central Asia is now on the verge of being completely dry due to rivers and dams diverting its water elsewhere. The effects of this were devastating and the area is being monitored so environmental improvements can be made. Leaving behind a sandy desert and stranded fishing boats, the dry lake bed now sees local camels roaming freely amongst wasted hulls to take a rest from the sun.

abandoned-camels
worldofmatter.net

Revitalization efforts are underway and showing real promise for the area and the wildlife that has moved in, including not only camels but asiatic foxes, wolves and boars.

A place dedicated to taking life becomes a place that preserves it

abandonedbison
cdn.colorado.com

Once a chemical munitions plant, the Rocky Mountain Arsenal in Commerce City, Colorado last saw production in 1982. Clean up and decontamination of the site kept humans from entering the area, which left a perfect opening for animals to move in and create an involuntary refuge.

abandonedarsanal
fws.gov

In 1986, much to the surprise of the U.S. Wildlife and Fish Service, it was discovered that not only was there a communal roost of bald eagles taking up residence but also 330 additional species of wildlife had moved in. Today the site is a National Wildlife Refuge and boasts deer, bison, coyotes and owls.


These good news wildlife stories leave a bitter aftertaste – in most cases (thankfully not all) the animals are making their lives in spite of the wreckage wrought by human hand.

The DMZ seems an apt metaphor for the present state of the planet: hostile peoples pointing killing machines at each other, and in the little space left between, Nature.

Nature generating and nurturing transformative life – in abundance.

Creating, not destroying.


Sources

Cover pic i.imgur.com

Awesome Abandoned Places Around the World Occupied by Animals | One Green Planet

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Tsá Tué – Where People & Animals Are Equal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dene Déline’s Territory, Tsá Tué

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

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

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

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

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

Back at Tsá Tué

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

Tsá Tué’s biodiversity is rich and healthy

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

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Moose mother and calves

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

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Cedar waxwing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(If only everyone would do the same)


¹New York Times

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

³A Dene Way of Life

▪︎North American Indians: the spirituality of nature

Other sources

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

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

Listen to What the Land Wants – PressReader

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

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

 

 

 

 

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Dodos & Dinosaurs – Should We Bring Them Back?

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

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

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

So how would it be done?

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

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

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

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

But why bother?

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

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

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

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

Homo Sapiens

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

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

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

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

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

Why not to bother?

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

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

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

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

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

 

Sources

Why We Do What We Do – Revive & Restore

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

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

Should we resurrect extinct species? MNN

Is It Possible to Clone a Dinosaur? – LiveScience

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World First – China’s Bird Airport

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

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

Gretchen Daily

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

 

Sources

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

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

China Floods – BBC News

Helping China Rethink its Approach to Conservation – Yale Environment

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