Father Christmas in his sleigh, Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer and the rest, an image beloved of children generation after generation, made their first appearance in the starry winter sky nearly 200 years ago in 1823. But Rudolph was just too darn cosy in his straw-filled stable at the North Pole. It was another 100 years plus (1939) before he first poked his red nose outside, and was promptly appointed Santa’s right hand reindeer. I know Vixen, life is not fair.
It’s likely though that this bizarre-when-you-think-about-it vision of Santa and his reindeer flying across the night sky has far deeper roots:
“According to the theory, the legend of Santa derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped into locals’ teepee-like homes with a bag full of hallucinogenic mushrooms as presents in late December.
“As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago, these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice. Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”*
Little wonder our ancestors were dreaming dreams of magic!
The festive sleigh-pulling team contrary to popular belief is comprised entirely of females – yes, even Rudolph. Though both sexes of reindeer wear antlers, the males only need theirs for the autumn rut and shed them well before Christmas
In the winter the animals live almost exclusively on “reindeer moss” (lichen) and cover long distances to find it, travelling the furthest of any land mammal in the world, up to 5,000 km a year
They can run at up to 80 kph
They are smaller than you think, standing at only 1.2m at the shoulder
They have clowns’ feet – wide spreading hooves that make perfect snowshoes, shovels to shift snow (to get at the food beneath) and paddles for swimming
It’s true they do have unusual noses – not normally red – because they are furry. In fact their special insulating hollow fur covers every bit of a reindeer’s body from furry nose to furry feet, except of course their eyes. Their coat is one of the thickest and densest of any animal
They talk to each other with their feet. When the herd is moving, “they make a delicate clicking or popping sound. Being surrounded by a small herd sounds a bit like being in a bowl of puffed rice as the milk is poured on to it”
Once reindeer roamed the hills of northern England and Scotland. They were hunted by the Vikings
In the 1950s a small herd was reintroduced to the Cairngorms and are now 130 strong
Elsewhere they can now be found only in Russia and Norway
This naturally curious and gentle creature was a prime candidate – thought to be the first with hooves – for humans to domesticate, 30,000 years ago in Scandinavia
Like so many animals, their usefulness to humans (milk, meat, skins) meant their being hunted almost to extinction
In southern Norway, there remain only 20 herds, about 40,000 deer in all
In reality, having to pull Santa’s sleigh all around the world, arduous as that sounds, is the least of Rudolph’s problems
The main threats to these beautiful animals, along with nonhuman animals the world over, are human-caused: habitat fragmentation and destruction; roads carving up the forest; house-building; oil, gas and timber extraction. And global warming – the timber line is creeping northwards and shrinking the arctic tundra on which the reindeer rely.
Another serious cause for concern is inbreeding. Reindeer females don’t seem able, as many species of animals do, to select mates from outside their immediate group, and will frequently mate with males too closely related to them. Direct human interference has exacerbated the problem. Large numbers of males were removed from the herds in the 70s, to increase the preponderance of females and produce more young. The intended outcome was more reindeer to hunt. The unintended outcome was a further shrinking of the gene pool.
Shooting rights up for grabs
If you have a yen to celebrate the season of goodwill with a killing spree and have enough spare cash, the Norwegian government has opened up two of their largest national parks for you to slaughter any number of the last surviving wild population of these gentle creatures in Europe.
The business selling the tickets for such a trip, for which it claims exclusive rights, styles itself “Scotland’s Premier Sporting Agency“. Shooting reindeer in Norway is, it says, “a magical experience”. (And feel free to take a pop at bears and wolves, both critically endangered in Norway, while you’re there.) This is the picture promoting the trip on the agency’s website
Could you believe it – a brown bear escapes his enclosure by scaling a 4-metre high fence, electrified with 7 cables carrying 7,000 volts?
This is the jailbreak 3 year old M49 – so named by scientists with their inimitable imaginative flair – pulled off on Tuesday in northern Italy. The call of the wild, a daring bid for freedom, the stuff of legends. So now our bear-Houdini is on the run. And now his life is in danger.
How did this extraordinary story come about?
Illegal hunting in northern Italy decimated the brown bear population to such an extent that by the 1990s, only 4 of the animals were left. The last bear died in 2000. For the best part of the last 30 years the ‘Life Ursus’ reintroduction project has been working to bring the animals back to the Trentino region, radio-collared M49 among them.
But just recently our poor M49 got too close to human habitation for human comfort. So he was taken captive and placed in a holding pen – the one with the scaringly well-electrified fence. What they planned to do with him next is unclear, but whatever it was, it never happened because this gutsy guy is still very much at large.
Whose side are you on?
There are now between 50 and 60 brown bears in northern Italy, and as is invariably the case with reintroductions of large predators, opinion is split right down the middle. Farmers fall heavily on the frown side of the argument. Farmers’ Association spokesman Sig. Coldiretti claims Orsino has already killed 13 farm animals.
Governor of the Trentino region Marizio Fugatti announced, “If M49 approaches inhabited areas, the forestry service is authorised to kill it.”
On the other side is, among others, zoology professor Luigi Boitani: if livestock are taken, it’s the farmers’ fault for failing to use electric fencing to deter the bears. WWF Italy agrees, blaming the farmers’ “failure to adopt appropriate prevention tools. Adding, M49’s “danger to people is still to be demonstrated.”
And happily for our bear, Environment Minister Sergio Costa quickly countermanded Fugatti’s order to kill. “M49’s escape from the enclosure cannot justify an action that would cause its death,” he said.
“We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom
Michela Vittoria Brambilla, president of the Italian Defence League for Animals
Brown bear or superhero?
We all love a renegade on the run, but this is where our bear’s heroic tale takes a darker turn, because WWF Italy smells a rat. “A solid electrified fence with adequate power is an insurmountable barrier even for the most astute bears,” it says. “Obviously the structure was not working properly, since bears do not fly.”
The League for the Abolition of Hunting (LAC) goes further. They detect conspiracy:- “M49 is, of course, an escape genius… endowed with superpowers like a Marvel Comics hero. He just happened to climb over the fence, unharmed by electric shocks, by chance without his radio collar—and, what do you know, he can be declared public enemy number one and the escape sparks a maximum security alert.” It’s their belief M49 has been allowed to escape so he can be declared a danger and his killing justified.
So Run Bear, Run
If our bear does get caught, let’s hope and pray Minister Costa’s plea for humanity will prevail. But take no chances M49. I’m sure Michela Vittoria speaks for us all: “We are on the side of the bear, and of freedom – run and save yourself.”
For your life bear, run for your life.
CLICK HERE TO SAY NO TO THE CAPTURE OF BEAR M49 IN TRENTINO
Pictured above, the quirky, cute and clever monk parrot, native of Chicago.
Did I say native of Chicago? Chicago the Windy City where winter temperatures can plummet to -26°C, and annual average snowfall is 91cm? No way.
Ok, I hold up my hands. That was a lie, or anyway a half lie. The monk is commonly found in South America, and like most parrot species is native to the tropics. On the other hand, several decent-size colonies of monk parrots have called Chicago home for the last 50 plus years, so it’s fair to say they are well and truly naturalised.
But what are they doing right up there on the 42nd parallel, nearly 5,000 km north of their ancestral homelands around the Equator?
According to American legend, as cargo was being unloaded at JFK airport one day in 1968, or maybe 1969, two thousand of the colourful creatures, or was it two dozen (details of the legend are a little hazy) burst forth from their damaged crate and took to the air. And who could blame them? Far better flying the skies of a strange land than looking out on the world through the bars of a pet shop cage – their intended destination.
But that was New York. So Chicago? These lively mischievous birds are a handful, as folk who’ve acquired them as pets will testify. They are “notoriously loud and noisy birds, the rock star of the bird scene, little Houdinis who like to find their way out of a cage and chase your rottweiler around the house …. They are fearless, intelligent and vociferous.”
Some likely escaped from captivity into the city. Or were released by freaked-out owners who got a bit more than they bargained for!
Whatever, this exotic creature of the tropics, which just happens to be themost adaptable of all parrot species, is thriving in the Windy City, snow or no snow. Most of the year they forage in parks and open grassy areas, but bird-lovers’ garden feeders are their salvation in the winter months.
Wouldn’t you think yourself immensely lucky to find some of these little treasures in your neighbourhood? Chicago’s first ever African American mayor, Harold Washington certainly did. Living just across the street from one of the city’s best-known monk parrot colonies, he called them his “good luck talisman”. He was clearly good luck for them too, because once he was no longer around to protect them (he died in 1987),the USDA tried to remove the birds. But the locals, who loved them as much as Harold did, threatened the USDA with a lawsuit. People power at its best!
The monk parrot’s behaviour, it has to be said, is not exactly serious and quiet, as you’d expect from its name. It has another name that’s a much better fit with its lively personality – ‘the quaker parrot’. And this little guy quaking and shaking to ‘Happy’ will show you why –
What do you think of those moves!
Friends & family
As well as being the most adaptable parrot, the monk/quaker is unique in another respect. It’s the only one of all the parrot species that makes a nest.The nest is a fairly messy affair as you can see, and can get quite a lot bigger than you might expect: “In the wild, the colonies can become large, with pairs occupying separate “apartments” in nests that can reach the size of a small automobile.” And even in cities you will find the monks hunkering down with their siblings, cousins, mum, dad, aunts and uncles – they’re all there. Doesn’t that sound a good way to live?
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. The nests can get so cumbersome that it’s said they can bring down power lines, and damage other infrastructure. Hence the USDA’s attempt to remove them.
Monk/quaker parrots in the UK
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, unlike the USDA in Chicago, were deaf to protests about their own program to eradicate this country’s wild monk parrot population, tiny in comparison with those in the US city. “Monk parakeets can pose a threat to national infrastructure, such as pylons and substations, crops and native British wildlife. That is why work is being carried out to remove them in the most humane method appropriate,” they pronounced.
Over 4 years and at a cost of £259K, 62 birds were trapped, of which roughly 40 were safely re-homed. The remainder “could not be re-homed”, whatever that means, and were put down. 212 eggs were taken and disposed of, and 21 nests were destroyed.
62 birds. A “threat to national infrastructure”. Really?
The monk parrot at home
Sadly the monk is not much favoured in South America, its original home range either. If not deterred in some way, large flocks can munch their way right through a farmer’s precious crop. They are, after all, not to know the humans have different intentions for that food.
And now, ‘charismatic, beautiful, exotic’, the parrot we love
If the monk parrots here in the UK are few, what we do have in abundance are these green-feathered beauties –
There are even more mysteries surrounding the Afro/Asian ring-necks’ appearance here, than there are about the monk parrots’ arrival in the US. Take your pick from these wild theories:
An unknown number escaped in 1951 from Shepperton Studios while they were filming The African Queen with stars Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart
Jimi Hendrix released a pair he named Adam and Eve in trendy Carnaby Street, London in the 60s
Something fell off a plane and landed on an aviary. All the birds broke free through the hole it made
A furious wife released her husband’s aviary birds in revenge for his errant ways
But whether all or none of the stories is true (for me, the Adam and Eve one most appeals) this colourful bird has spread all over Britain, and has become “the most northerly, wild breeding parrot species on Earth”. (Further north than Chicago, but of course, much more temperate.) Now numbering at best guesstimate 50,000, over the many decades since they first made their home with us, they’ve become “as British as curry”.
Not welcome at home
These little creatures are no more welcome in their homes of origin (west Africa stretching over India to the Himalayas) than their South American cousins the monk parrots are in theirs. “In its native areas, the parakeet has been a severe agricultural pest for decades. In India, [it is] one of the most destructive birds. They have been known to reduce yields of sorghum and maize in India by 80 per cent.”
Research already shows the ring-necked parrot adversely affecting our native birds, by frightening them from food, commandeering the best nesting spots, and even on occasion attacking them. In December 2017, the bird found itself at no. 67 on the list of Europe’s top 100 most invasive species.
Stricter legislation on the possession, transportation and commercial trafficking of invasive parakeets, which has already happened in Spain
A new system for relinquishing unwanted pet parakeets
Removal of legal and financial constraints on rapid-response eradication of new populations, especially in areas where they are currently not present
Raising public awareness of the parakeet population and potential problems
They have to raise our awareness, because apparently, we the uninformed masses, all love them. “Many people say they bring an enormous sense of wellbeing. They say they are charismatic, beautiful, exotic. They absolutely love having them around.” The authorities know better, naturally.
Champions for the parakeets
These birds we so love have one expert champion in York University’s professor of ecology, Chris D Thomas. He favours leaving the parakeets free to move about and breed. And in his book, Inheritors of the Earth, argues against “irrational persecution” of non-native species. Thomas says, “We do not try to control species because they moved in the past, so why should we now try to police the distributions of species that are thriving in the human epoch? It makes no sense.” Rabbits and hares were invasive species here once.
And Thomas is not entirely alone. Biologist Roelant Jonker is the self-appointed protector of the ring-necked parakeet in the Netherlands. “The next generation [of people] will see the parakeets as ordinary birds… and they will be as ordinary as all the different colours of people and birds in Europe,” he says.
Back to the parrots of the USA
When ecologist Stephen Pruett-Jones left Australia for Chicago University in 1988, it was the presence of “a unique piece of the city’s history”, the monk parakeets in Hyde Park, right there on the university campus where he was taking up his new post, that ignited his quest to discover whether other colonies of parrots might be thriving in equally unlikely settings across the USA.
Teaming up with Jennifer Uehling, Cornell University, and Jason Tallant, University of Michigan, he researched all available parrot data in the States from 2002 to 2016. He found:
56 different non-native parrot species spotted in the wild, in 43 states
25 of the species fully naturalised and breeding, in 23 different states
Monk parakeets, the Red-crowned Amazon, and the Nanday Parakeet the most common species
More Red-crowned Amazons living in California than in their original habitats in Mexico
“Because of human activity, transporting these birds for our own pleasure, we have inadvertently created populations elsewhere. Many of these species are perfectly happy living here and they’ve established populations. Wild parrots are here to stay.”
As of now, the colonies of ex-pat parrots are a welcome exotic addition to America’s native fauna. But as is our experience with wild parrot populations in the UK, it’s a fine line between being ‘welcome and exotic’ and becoming ‘an invasive pest‘.
It’s entirely fortuitous, by luck, by chance, that the dark cloud of animals originally snatched from the wild and taken to places where they don’t belong, may just have one silver lining. Stephen Pruett-Jones believes, for parrots endangered in their native habitat, the colonies dotted across the States may become important, even “critical”, species reservoirs for the survival of species being decimated in their home range.
In an ideal world of course, species reservoirs in alien lands would never have to be the fall-back.
The exotic pet trade causing extinctions
The trade in animals taken from the wild to sell as pets is causing extinctions. “92%of the 500,000 live animal shipments between 2000-2006 to the United States (1,480,000,000 animals) were for the pet trade.”
“Many bird species are under severe extinction threat because of the pet trade. They include thousands of birds in South America, and an estimated 3.33 million annually from Southeast Asia.
Captivating as they are, and delighted as we are to have them living wild and free among us, we should never buy these gorgeous birds as pets. The exotic pet trade is lining the pockets of criminals while driving animals in their natural habitats to extinction.
“Compassion for animals should be fundamental for conservation”
– Marc Bekoff, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
“What gives us the right to be the gods…, to say who lives and who dies? [Invasive species] aren’t our children that we can control. They aren’t our pets or our livestock. They have their own agency. Conservation is ultimately a chauvinist method that treats animals as automatons”
– conservationist Arian Wallach
Filling in the background
Let me jump you back 350 years. We are in the Antipodes, in the land of Arustaralalaya¹, a land of wondrous creatures with wondrous names: the Rufous Bristle Bird, the Kangaroo Island Emu, the Rope River Scrub Robin, the Sharp-Snouted Torrent Frog, the Burrowing Bettong, the Pig-Footed Bandicoot, the Big-Eared Hopping-Mouse, the Western Barred Bandicoot, the famous Tasmanian Tiger, and many many more.
Here too are the aboriginal peoples. In ‘the Dreaming’, a ‘time beyond time’, ancestral spirits created the land and all life on it, the sky and water and all life in them. Nature is not something separate from the people. They, like all the other animals, are a part of Nature. And from it all their needs, physical, artistic and spiritual, are being met. A life with animals and plants, land, water and sky in perfect harmony. A life unchanged for thousands of years.
That is until ….
The British First Fleet, with orders to establish a penal colony where Britain could conveniently offload its felons, sailed into Botany Bay. And nothing was ever the same again.
As the anchors splashed into the water that day in 1788, no-one there could have imagined the magnitude of the moment, marking as it did the beginning of the end for so many species in Australia’s glorious panoply of life. Native animals and plants found themselves defenceless against the predations of the new colonists and the alien species they brought with them. Together, and in record time, these intruders drove the native animals over the cliff edge of extinction. Irrevocably lost. Gone forever.
The first wave of the British brought ashore pathogens till then unknown Down Under: tuberculosis, smallpox and measles, smallpox in particular wiping out huge swathes of the indigenous population. Next followed two centuries of systematic crushing of aboriginal culture, and unspeakable violations of human rights.
Horses and pigs were the first invasive (non-human) animals to disembark from the ships. A decade later sheep arrived. In the 1850s, foxes and rabbits were the unwilling travellers to a land that had never before seen such creatures. They were shipped there just so they could be hunted, for no better reason than that the thrill of the hunt was an indulgence the settlers were simply not prepared to leave behind them in the old country.
And so it went on, one after another. With the colonists, the alien species kept arriving.
Animals and plants in the wrong places are bad news for native flora and fauna conservation across the planet
And nowhere more so than in Australia, where they are “the No. 1 threat to Australia’s most at-risk species” – more deadly even than climate change and land clearance. As we speak, the invaders – plants, animals and pathogens – are putting well over a thousand native Australian plants and animals at risk.
Already a major conservation disaster. But what makes it even more critical is that 80% of the country’s flora and fauna is endemic, unique, found nowhere else in the world. “These species have existed for tens of thousands, in some cases millions of years, and many have been successful in responding to everything thrown at them for that time.” Right now though, in the Rate-of-Species-Loss world league, Australia unenviably holds poll position, right at the top of the table. Invasive species areeating away Australia’s precious biodiversity.
So, how to stop invasive species wiping out more endangered plants and animals in Australia and elsewhere?
The customary answer to this entirely human-created crisis is large-scale culling of the species that have fallen down ‘the status ladder’ as viewed from the human perspective. Humans brought in horses, donkeys and camels to serve as beasts of burden. When technology made the animals’ services redundant, they were abandoned. Now they are a pest. That is the paradigm. The animals go from ‘useful’ > abandoned as ‘no longer useful’ > a positive ‘pest’, the enemy. Once an animal reaches the bottom rung and gets labelled ‘PEST’, it loses the simple right to exist. In fact in human eyes, it’s a virtue to eradicate it, no need for remorse. There are no ethical issues, only practical ones.
And so, the deaths
Accurate figures of feral animals killed in Australia are difficult to obtain. Few records are kept by federal, state, or territory governments. But if this statistic from the state of Victoria is anything to go by numbers are huge: Victoria admits to paying out almost a million dollars for fox scalps – every year. The going rate is 10 dollars per scalp – that’s 100 thousand foxes killed yearly, in one state.
Here’s another chilling stat, this time reported by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: in the name of conservation 6,000 wild buffalo, horses, donkeys and pigs were ‘culled’ in Kakadu National Park in 24 days.
And another: the Australian government is implementing a cull of feral cats, with a target of 2 million to be eradicated by 2020.
These are researcher Persis Eskander‘s conservative estimates of some of the invasive species culled in the country annually:
Wild boar/feral pigs 3,450,000
Red fox 310,000
European rabbit 200,000,000
House mice 25,000,000
Eradication. Elimination. Cull. Bland innocuous words behind which to hide the true picture – millions of living, breathing individuals made to endure the most inhumanely-inflicted suffering. Animals who feel pain, animals who grieve, sentient beings who want to live.
Foxes and feral cats, which kill millions of Australia’s native animals nightly “are typically killed with cage traps—in which the animals wait for hours until death arrives on two legs—or with 1080 poison, which causes vomiting; auditory hallucinations; irregular heartbeat; rapid, uncontrolled eye movements; convulsions; and liver and kidney damage.”
And we’ve already made acquaintance with the longest fence in the world intended to protect sheep ranches as well as native wildlife from predating dingoes. The fence, “a rickety-looking five-or-so feet of chicken wire that any decently sized mutt could easily dig under or vault over…. isn’t really meant to stop dingoes; it is more valuable as a landmark for the pilots who drop thousands of baits, laced with 1080, in a swath of poison up to four kilometers wide.”
If any of the unfortunate creatures escape the traps and poison, they will be shot at from the air.
The land of Australia runs red with the blood of the slaughtered, whose only crime is to have been born. And all in the name of conservation.
Unhappily, this kind of massacre is far from unique to Australia. Take the slaughter of 250,000 goats, pigs and donkeys in the Galapagos islands for example. The goats in particular were said to have “grazed the island mercilessly, causing erosion, threatening the survival of rare plants and trees and competing with native fauna, such as giant tortoises,” until Project Isabela unleashed on them “one of the best hunting and eradication teams worldwide”.
This unimaginable carnage was applauded as a landmark conservation success.
‘Merciless’: dictionary definition? ‘Callous’, ‘heartless’, ‘inhumane’. Who in this nightmare scene were the merciless?
A better way – compassionate conservation
Travelling the remote highway between Adelaide and Alice Springs, it’s a relief to come across a bloodshed-free zone, Evelyn Downs ranch. This 888 sq. mile ranch is one of the very few places in Australia where wild donkeys, camels, wild horses, foxes, cats – invasive species all introduced by settlers – and dingoes, aren’t being routinely killed. There we will also find Arian Wallach, “one of the most prominent voices in an emerging movement called ‘compassionate conservation’.”
Arian, after persuading the owners of the ranch to implement a no-kill policy for the non-native animals living there, has made it the site for her field research. Her team have set up cameras around the ranch so they can study the natural interaction between the invasive species, the native species and the farmed cattle. She believes they will discover Nature restoring balance to the ecosystem if left to its own devices. It is, after all, and as always, Man that’s thrown it out of kilter.
Arian’s life and research partner can vouch for this in an unusual way. Australian Adam O’Neill was himself responsible for thousands of animal deaths in his former career as a commercial hunter and professional “conservation eradicator” – the irony in that title! Drawing on his many years of experience at the sharp end of invasive species control, he published a book in 2002 with this unequivocal message:
“If humans simply stopped killing dingoes … Australia’s top predator could keep cat and fox numbers down all by itself, allowing native animals to thrive and humans to retire from shedding so much blood.”
The donkey expert in Arian’s team, Eric Lundgren, also knows where to lay the blame, this time for the degradation of pastureland, and it isn’t at the donkeys’ door as the ranchers would want us to believe. The donkeys are being scapegoated. No studies have found donkeys to be responsible.
Lundgren says: “It seems very evident to me that the onlyherbivores to be substantially affecting plant communities there are the cattle—that are maintained at such ludicrously high densities.”
Man has introduced one invasive species, the non-native cattle, every one of which is destined for the slaughterhouse. Meanwhile, he’s busily despatching to equally premature deaths ‘pests’ he deems inimical to his business venture.
And mainstream conservationism happily goes along with this – it’s obvious, the donkeys must be culled. But Wallach instead “sees a puzzle to be solved. Step one: Stop overstocking cattle. Step two: Stop killing dingoes that might prey on the donkeys and keep their numbers down. Do this and the ecosystem will sort itself out—no killing required.”
The birth of compassionate conservation
The concept and phrase “compassionate conservation” emerged from a symposium hosted by the Born Free Foundation in Oxford in 2010. The movement was still in its infancy when the Centre for Compassionate Conservation (where Arian Wallach works) was set up at the University of Technology, Sydney in 2013.
“The core mission of compassionate conservationists is to find win-win approaches where [endangered] species are saved but no blood is shed. Where elephants in Kenya are being killed because they destroy farmers’ fields, the compassionate conservationist promotes a fence that incorporates beehives, since elephants hate bees. (As a bonus, the farmers can collect honey.) Where foxes are being killed on a small Australian island because they are eating rare little penguins, the compassionate conservationist installs guard dogs to look after the penguins and scare away the foxes. Often, advocates say, a solution can be found by examining what all the species in the area want, what they are thinking, and how best to tweak their behavior.”
What is it that makes compassionate conservation different from the mainstream? The Born Free Foundation wraps it up in a nutshell:
“Compassionate Conservation puts the welfare of individual animals at the heart of effective conservation actions.”
‘Invasive species’ are so much more than statistics. They are individuals whose needs must be respected and welfare safeguarded. Individuals, as much as you and me.
¹ The aboriginal name for Australia, “where ‘Arus‘ (अरुस्) means the ‘Sun’, ‘Taral’ (तरल) means ‘Water’ (route they took to travel from Asia 50,000 years ago) and ‘Alaya’ (आलय) means ‘home‘ or a ‘retreat‘. So, Arustaralalaya or Australia is home of Sun-praying, Water-travelled people.”
There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals
Aussies, as we all know, have a multitude of colourful expressions, some printable and others less so. But if someone calls you a dingo, there can be no doubt – your reputation is shot. ‘Dingo’ is “a term of extreme contempt… because of the animal’s reputation for cowardice and treachery.” The poor dingo has always had a terrible press.
How did the unfortunate dingo come by such notoriety?
Right from the time British settlers first brought sheep to Australia in the 18th century, the carnivorous dingo has been considered No. 1 pest by ranchers, a pest best met with a shotgun. Bounty hunters were hired to track and kill them. The bounty hunter in colonial writings of the 19th century was cast in the role of the quintessential Australian, canny and heroic, ridding the land of the thieving marauding dingo that was “ripping the heart out of sheep grazing country.” In these tales, dingoes were the outlaws and criminals.
“280,000 bounties were paid for dingoes between 1883 and 1930, by which time dingoes had become scarce in all but the north-eastern corner of the State [New South Wales], where sheep numbers were lowest” – a grievous slaughter, practically an annihilation.
As recently as 2011, an Aussie MP was still proposing a bounty be put on the animal’s head.
The villainous persona the unfortunate dingo has acquired is deeply imbedded in Australian culture. As a former dingo trapper Sid Wright says in his 1968 book ‘The Way of the Dingo’: “In the outback it is accepted without question that the dingo is a slinking, cowardly animal”
“There is little doubt that the dingo is the most reviled of all Australian mammals. It is the only native mammal not protected in NSW by the State’s fauna legislation. [Indeed] the dingo, along with other wild dogs, is covered by a Pest Animal Control Order.”
The longest fence in the world
In the 1940s, the gaggle of higgledy piggledy fences erected to keep dingoes (and rabbits) out of sheep-grazed land was joined up to make one giant fence stretching 8614 km. Since shortened to 5614 km, it encloses the south east quarter of Australia, of which New South Wales is the heart. It’s the longest fence in the world, and its upkeep costs 10 million Australian dollars a year – “a truly epic testament to how much Australians can hate the dingo.”
(Eat your heart out Donald Trump – if your horrible wall happens, as all lovers of wildlife, biodiversity and commonsense sincerely hope it won’t, it would be little more than half the size of this one.)
So, a loathed and despised predatory pest – such is the view of the dingo from the rancher’s side of the fence.
From the dingo’s side of the fence the picture looks very different
Dingoes ranged the bush thousands of years before the first sheep set foot on Australian soil, and while some co-existed with the indigenous peoples, none were ever domesticated. Quick-witted, pragmatic, and resourceful, these are wild animals perfectly adapted to their environment. According to a study undertaken at the Dingo Discovery Sanctuary and Research Centre near Melbourne, the dingo is, “the most intelligent animal in Australia apart from man.”
Sid Wright’s personal opinion of the dingo did not accord with what he knew to be the ranchers’ view. For him the animal was a “wild, magnificent creature” that should be conserved in Australia’s national parks and reserves.
These two opposing stances represent Australia’s ‘dingo schizophrenia’
So what to do about the dingo? Is it villain or hero? Should it be killed to protect sheep, or should it be protected as native fauna? This is the dilemma legislators and conservationists have to grapple with, of which the four most important elements are these:
1. Is the dingo a distinct species of its own, or is it simply a feral dog?
2. If it is a distinct species, is it a genuine native one, and why does this matter?
3. If it is a distinct and native species, is it threatened?
4. As the apex predator in Australia, what is the value of the ‘ecosystem services’ it provides?
According to Dr. Laura Wilson, UNSW’s School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, “Pure dingoes have been shown to have cranial growth patterns more similar to wolves than domesticated dogs, larger brains and a more discrete breeding season producing fewer pups than domestic dogs.
“Dingoes are also notably less sociable with humans than domesticated dogs, characterised by a weaker ability to interpret gestures and a shorter time maintaining eye contact.”
The most recent research into the animal found further evidence of specific characteristics that differentiate dingoes from domestic dogs, feral dogs, and other wild canids such as wolves. And were there still any doubt, the clincher is of course the genetic data.
Answer to Q.2
“Dingoes have been living wild and independently of humans for a very long time — they have a distinct and unique evolutionary past that diverged some 5 to 10 thousand years ago from other canids. This is more than enough time for the dingo to have evolved into a naturalised predator now integral to maintaining the health of many Australian ecosystems.” – The dingo is a true-blue native species.
Co-author of a new study, Professor Corey Bradshaw agrees:“We show that dingoes have survived in Australia for thousands of years, subject to the rigours of natural selection, thriving in all terrestrial habitats, and largely in the absence of human intervention or aid.”
“The dingo is without doubt a native Australian species,” the Prof concludes.
Why does it matter?
It matters because conservationists’ ability to protect the dingo hinges entirely on establishing and upholding its status as a distinct and genuinely native Australian species.
It matters because the Western Australian government for example, in order to evade its conservation obligations to the dingo, recently made a politically-motivated and controversial attempt to classify it as “non-native fauna”.
Bizarrely – though maybe it’s not so bizarre considering New South Wales’ land area falls almost in its entirety on ‘the ranch side’ of the Dingo Fence, and is therefore no doubt under constant pressure from the ranching lobby – NSW is trying its darnedest to square the circle. It simultaneously acknowledges the dingo as a native speciesandexcludes it from the protection afforded by the Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016 to all the rest of its native fauna. “All native birds, reptiles, amphibians and mammals (except the dingo) are protected in NSW. It is an offence to harm, kill or remove native animals unless you hold a licence.” But not if you’re harming, killing or removing dingoes. That’s ok. And dingoes continue to be routinely shot and poisoned in huge numbers.
It matters because Australia holds an unenviable record: “Half the world’s mammal extinctions over the last two hundred years have occurredin Australia,and we are on track for an acceleration of that loss” – Dr Thomas Newsome, School of Biological Sciences University of Sydney. “Predation by feral cats and foxes is the main reason that Australia has the worst mammal extinction record of modern time” – Prof. Sarah Legge, Threatened Species Recovery Hub.
Answer to Q.3
It matters because the dingo is on the IUCN’s Red List as a “vulnerable species”, and could also be heading for extinction.
Even without finding itself in the ranchers’ crosshairs, the dingo may lope down another disquieting path to extinction: interbreeding with domestic dogs settlers brought with them to Australia. Unless positive steps are taken to segregate the dingo, its genes will be diluted until the true species ceases to exist.
As with all other antipodean native fauna, the simplest way to conserve them is on an island. On islands it’s easier to control who or what arrives and who or what leaves. World Heritage site Fraser Island is “home to the most pure strain of dingoes remaining in eastern Australia.” Fraser Island boasts a wealth of native wildlife and operates an eco-code for visitors.
Dingoes on the beaches of Fraser Island
Yet even here dingoes live under a cloud of controversy. “110 dingoes have been humanely euthanised for unacceptable or dangerous behaviour on Fraser Island between January 2001 and September 2013, with between 1 and 32 dingoes killed in any given year.”
In 2011, one Jennifer Parkhurst was fined and given a suspended sentence for feeding the dingoes on the island, which she claimed were starving. Others supported her claim: “If things go on the way they’re going, the whole dingo population on that Fraser Island will become extinct,” said veterinarian Dr Ian Gunn, from Monash University’s National Dingo Recovery and Preservation Program. Yet other sources claim many of the dingoes on the island are overweight, verging on the obese!
And as you can imagine, the news media are ever ready to fall into a feeding frenzy and stoke dingo controversy whenever there’s a dingo attack on people. Wiki lists 10 such on the island since 1980, the worst in 2001 resulting in the tragic death of 9 year old Clinton Gage.
31 Fraser Island dingoes were culled in response. “It was a meaningless cull, but in terms of the genetics, it was terribly significant because it was a high proportion of the population” – Dr Ernest Healy, of Australia’s National Dingo Preservation and Recovery Program. Such a drastic cull diminished the gene pool, and just where the animals should live free from the dangers surrounding their mainland cousins, this raised the spectre of extinction for the pure breed dingo of the island. “Kingaroy dingo handler and breeder Simon Stretton says purebred Fraser Island dingoes will be gone in 10 years.”
Answer to Q.4
Besides sheep and cattle, invasive species camels, horses, donkeys, deer, rabbits, goats, hares, foxes, cats, rats and house mice also arrived in Australia courtesy of 19th and 20th century settlers. (Foxes were introduced in 1855 simply so the new human arrivals need not forgo the ‘sport’ of hunting them they enjoyed so much at home. The foxes have since multiplied to more than 7 million, and the threat level they pose to native fauna is ‘Extreme’.) After humans, these invasive species are next most responsible for the decimation of Australia’s unique flora and fauna. The carnivores take out the fauna (the foxes and cats alone take out millions of native animals nightly, and are almost solely responsible for the loss of 20 native animal species) and the herbivores “graze the desert to dust and turn wetlands to mud barrens.”
What has this to do with the dingo? A lot! As Australia’s apex predator, the ‘ecosystem services’ the animal provides are, researchers are discovering, invaluable. “Dingoes play a vital ecological role in Australia by outcompeting and displacing noxious introduced predators like feral cats and foxes. When dingoes are left alone, there are fewer feral predators eating native marsupials, birds and lizards” – Prof Bradshaw.
Dingoes may be enemy No. 1 in the eyes of sheep farmers, but cattle farmers (as well as the native fauna) should thank their lucky stars to have them around. “Dingoes can also increase profits for cattle graziers, because they target and eat kangaroos that otherwise compete with cattle for grass in semi-arid pasture lands” -Prof B once more.
And according to Dr. Mike Letnic, Centre for Ecosystem Science UNSW, “the dingo, as Australia’s top predator, has an important role in maintaining the balance of nature and that reintroduced or existing dingo populations could increase biodiversity across more than 2 million square kilometres of Australia.” Where dingoes had been exterminated, Dr. Letnic found far greater numbers of red foxes and invasive herbivores, with small native mammals and grasses being lost.
As the re-introduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone National Park famously proved, from the presence of an apex predator flows a trophic cascade of ecological benefits. In the dingo’s case, the trophic cascade emanating from this particular apex predator flows all the way down and into the soil itself. And for the research that uncovered this surprising benefit, the infamous Dingo Fence for once worked in the animal’s favour:
“The fence provides a unique opportunity to test the effects of the removal of an apex predator on herbivore abundance, vegetation and nutrients in the soil,” says researcher Timothy Morris.
From comparing the conditions in the outback on either side of the fence came forth the revelation that exterminating dingoes not only has an adverse effect on the abundance of other native animals and plants, but also degrades the quality of the soil.
Far from supporting a continued assault on this much maligned creature, all the evidence supports “allowing dingo populations to increase”. More dingoes, not less are Australia’s prerequisite to “enhancing the productivity of ecosystems across vast areas of the country.”
Oh Aussie legislators and ranchers, you are getting it so wrong. Stop demonising and destroying this ‘wild, magnificent creature’, and let us see Canis dingo running free for millennia to come.
If you are of the same mind, please sign and share these petitions:
Petition to save dingoes from extinction – re-classify as an endangered species
Petition (Australian citizens only) to stop the promotion of a new export market — Australian dingoes for Asian diners –
Petition to stop the use of toxin 1080 to poison dingoes
If the dingo teaches us anything as human beings, surely it’s this:
“As they have demonstrated time and again, large carnivores will not stay within human defined safe zones. We need to learn to share the land and its bounty with them, to live with them, or we will lose them—and with them a considerable part of what makes us human.”
“Humanity’s lust for meat is killing off Earth’s large animals”
“We are living on the planet of the chickens. The broiler (meat) chicken now outweighs all wild birds put together by three to one. It is the most numerous vertebrate (not just bird) species on land, with 23 billion alive at any one time. Across the world, chicken is the most commonly eaten meat.”
The tragic life of the broiler hen has become the symbol of the Anthropocene. And the world’s taste for its flesh and for the flesh of other animals is set to cause the in-our-lifetime extinction of at least 150 megafauna species – if we persist in eating so much meat.
But hang on a minute – can that even be true? Isn’t meat-eating in decline? Don’t we keep on hearing how veganism is skyrocketing?
According to a 2018 survey, 3.5 million UK citizens identified as vegan. That’s a 700% increase from 2016. There’s a similar 600% increase in the USA. And, “As of 2016, Asia Pacific holds the largest share of vegan consumers globally, with approximately nine percent of people following a vegan diet in this area.”
Google Trends concurs: in recent years there’s also been a huge growth of interest in veganism in Israel, Australia, Canada, Austria and New Zealand.
It all sounds like great news! So where’s the problem?
The problem is, the worldwide consumption of meat is winning the race by a long mile.
It has escalated by an alarming 500% since 1961. Of course some of that 500% can be accounted for by the exponential growth in the world’s population. But much is down to globalisation and people’s increasing prosperity. Populations that were traditionally plant-based eaters started to crave a less healthy Western diet, heavy in meat.
“Overall, we eat an excessive 300 million tons of meat every year, which translates to 1.4 billion pigs, 300 million cattle, and a whopping 62 billion chickens.” Which all amounts to an infinity of suffering for each and everyone of those sentient beings, creatures with lives of their own we seem to value so little.
Humans do though appear to care a great deal more about the megafauna. So, which are the megafauna being put in danger by humans’ rapacious appetite for meat? Many of them are those animals on which we humans seem to place the highest value, the most iconic, the most popular. The infographic illustrates the results of a poll into our favourite wild animals.
Just look at those species: every one of them is endangered or critically endangered.
But why is our eating meat threatening their survival? After all, we don’t go round eating tiger burgers or hippo steaks do we?
Well yes, in effect we do. By ‘we’ I mean of course our kind, humankind. “Direct harvest for human consumption of meat or body parts is the biggest danger to nearly all of the large species” that are under threat, says William Ripple, researcher at Oregon State University. So, “minimizing the direct killing of these animals is an important conservation tactic that might save many of these iconic species” and “the contributions they make to their ecosystems.”
There are two major issues here: the first is, as we know, the illegal trade in rhino horn, tiger bones, bear bile, pangolin scales and other endangered animal body parts, much of which is consumed in the mistaken belief it is medicinal. The second is bush meat – indigenous people hunting to survive. Both these hugely problematic issues merit far more space than I can give them here right now.
The meat doesn’t have to come from a tiger or a hippo for our carnivorous ways to put iconic species at risk.
To satisfy the growing demand for meat, livestock farming is rapidly devouring land that is crucial species-rich habitat, and turning it over to grazing pasture and monoculture crops for livestock feed. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation “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.”
In that hotspot of biodiversity, the Amazonian rainforest, cattle ranching accounts for 65 to 70 percent of all deforestation, and production of soya beans another 25 to 35 percent. Soya beans are “the world’s second most exported agricultural commodity.” After chickens presumably.
Rapidly losing habitat and under threat – the Amazonian jaguar, red macaw, & sloth
But before we start pointing the finger at the vegans making lattes with their soya milk, let’s note that 98 percentof soya bean production is fed to poultry, pigs and cattle, especially poultry, and only 1 percent is turned into people-food.
The 2017 World Wildlife Fund report, Appetite for Destruction identified crops grown to feed livestock as the“driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss.”
“By 2050, given current trends, 15 ‘mega-diverse’ countries will likely increase the lands used for livestock production by 30% to 50%. The habitat loss is so great that it will cause more extinctions than any other factor.” Our lust for meat is laying waste the habitats of the very wild animals we love the most. Habitats that are theirs by right.
We have to ask ourselves what kind of bleak and desolate wasteland, stripped bare of the most majestic of all Earth’s wondrous creatures, will be our legacy to our children, and their children. Such a stark future will be the price we’re forcing them to pay for our addiction to that meat on our fork.
If there is one thing each of us can do to give these iconic threatened species the best possible chance of survival, it has to be making changes to what we put on our dinner plates. It’s as simple as that.
“You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot.”
You can #EatForThePlanet starting today. Just follow the three simple steps below.
1. Replace: Try to swap animal-based products in your daily diet with vegan alternatives (milk, butter, mayo, cheese, grilled chicken, beef crumbles, sausages, cold cuts, etc. For practically everything you can think of, there is a vegan version.) 2. Embrace:Add plant-based whole foods (local and organic when possible) to your diet like greens, fresh fruits, and vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins like lentils, nuts/seeds, beans, tofu, etc. 3. Moderate: Limit consumption of your favourite meats like beef, lamb, pork, etc.
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
Cover photo: Endangered Steller Sea Lions VLADIMIR BURKANOV / NOAA
If the 6th Age of Mass Extinctions we have now entered as a result of our own activities, sees off the human race along with all the other species on the planet, our epitaph might read (should there be a handy alien around to carve it in stone) “They thought theirs were good ideas at the time ….”
In The Magnificent Seven, this was the answer Vin (Steve McQueen) memorably gave to Calvera (Eli Wallach) when the bandit was so puzzled why a man like Vin decided to take the job of protecting the lowly villagers from his pillaging gang: “It seemed to be a good idea at the time ….”
In that instance, things turned out well – mostly. But so many of humankind’s bright ideas that did seem good at the time, have in the longer term proved to be runaway nightmares.
For all our cleverness, when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball to foresee where our handiwork might be leading, our talent is zero. Our remarkable human ability to turn every bright idea into concrete reality is matched by our singular inability to predict where those bright ideas might take us. Perhaps we are just eternal optimists, blind to any possible downsides.
Whatever, that blindness has sadly brought us to a point where 26,500 endangered and critically endangered species of plant and animal find themselves on IUCN’s Red List, thanks entirely to us.
Endangered: the California Condor, the Great Frigate bird & the Whooping Crane
Take that once-bright idea very much in the environmental spotlight recently. That material without which life as we know it is unimaginable. Plastic. Invented 1907. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. So useful it’s insinuated its way into every nook and cranny of our lives: from swimsuits to spaceships; cars to clingfilm; windows to wipes; aircraft to astroturf.
Plastic certainly has always seemed not just like a good idea, but a brilliant one. This ultra-handy substance managed to sneak well passed its centenary before we woke up to precisely what we’d let loose on the planet. How were we to know?
Futurology – the science of anticipation
Enter the futurists, those whose task it is to gaze at that crystal ball for us and forecast what kind of world new developments are propelling us towards. More than two dozen of these horizon scanners have got together with environmental scientists – William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University at the helm – to put their collective finger on which emerging trends are likely to make an impact on Nature and biodiversity in 2019. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that they are hedging their bets on the outcomes of the trends they’ve identified, conscious that any one of them that seems like a good idea right now, may have unintended, unwanted, or even unforeseeable repercussions.
Emerging Trend for 2019 No. 1
And heyho we’re back to plastic
Remember when yellow plastic ducks first started washing up on beaches across the globe?¹ The thought of these tiny bath ducks ‘escaping’ and navigating the vastness of the oceans seemed no more than an amusing story at the time. There were actually 28,000 of them out there, a whole container load, lost overboard in the North Pacific in 1992.“That flotilla of escaped plastic ducks joins millions of Lego pieces, sneakers, styrofoam insulation, plastic crates and a plethora of other items lost at sea.“ It’s reckoned that containers lost overboard every year number in the thousands, and many of them filled with items made of plastic. Items that never even get to be used. A single container can carry 5 million plastic shopping bags.
After all this time, we’ve finally woken up to the environmental devastation our love of plastic has wreaked, and the trend the futurists identify is: people coming up with solutions.
An obvious one is to re-use plastic trash to produce something else we need. An ingenious professor of engineering in India has come up with a highly original use of plastic waste: turning it into hard-wearing, long-lasting roads.
“To date, thousands of kilometers of highways in India have been paved using the process he invented.”
Another approach is to make plastic plant-based and biodegradable, and NatureWorksbased in Minnesota, is doing just that. Their eco plastic ‘Ingeo’ is already in use in everything from 3D printing, through building construction and landscaping, to food packaging. Here’s how they do it.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is proposing a more fundamental shift – an economy based on better design, manufacture and recycling. At present we run on a linear economy – buy something, use it, throw it away. Some of our plastic trash does get recycled, but each time it is recycled, it becomes less and less usable. The Foundation would like to see a circular no-waste economy where items such as cellphones are designed and made so that at the end of their useful life they can be easily broken down into their component parts (glass, plastic, metal) ready to be recycled into equally high quality goods.
“Yay!” we say. All these ideas are impressive, aren’t they? But our futurists are cautious, unwilling to come down off the fence on one side or the other. Because how can they be sure that years down the line, we will not be repeating that refrain, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As the futurists say,“From changes in recycling approaches, to the use of biological agents to degrade materials, to the manufacture of substitutes for conventional plastics from plants, [which as of now only makes up half a percent of all plastic produced] all alternatives will have ramifications of their own for food security, water use, ecosystem integrity and more. Not only that, but the promise they offer — whether it’s realized or not — could defuse other efforts to reduce rather than shift plastic consumption.”
NatureWorks though is in the early stages of a process to make biodegradable plastic straight from greenhouse gases without even using plants. Can this be anything but good?
And surely the futurists will applaud this brilliant idea from TerraCycle. It’s called Loop, for obvious reasons, and it’s based on the manufacturers of goods retaining ownership of containers and packaging. The consumer buys the products inside and then returns for free the packaging to be refilled. Zero waste!
If we can make drastic improvements in our plastic use, on an individual as well as corporate and international level, there may still remain sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea birds et al, to thank us. They have precious little to thank us for right now.
No. 2 Sunscreen
In 1938 a Swiss chemistry student Franz Greiter got a touch of sunburn while climbing Mount Piz Buin in the Alps. So guess what he did – yes, he went home and invented the first sunscreen. And for decades since, sunscreen’s been protecting us from turning an uncomfortable shade of pink, as well as more serious health issues.
Then in 2016, sunscreen joined the ranks of those brainwaves that seemed so good at the time, but might actually have been a huge environmentally-costly mistake. In that year a scientific study was conducted to ascertain if oxybenzone, an active ingredient of the stuff, was damaging coral reefs. The researchers concluded that it was. And several islands and states in the world have already banned it.
Oh, if only there were something ‘greener’ we could use to block those harmful UV rays!
Well, there is. We can harvest it in small quantities straight from nature, from algae to be precise, and it goes by the appealing name of Shinorine. As of now scientists have proved they can synthesise it. The next step is to scale up production.
Once again, our futurists are reluctant to come down on one side or the other. Is Shinorine going to be good for the environment, or prove as harmful as oxybenzone? All they will tell us is, “Widespread adoption of shinorine without sufficient research could expose corals or other aquatic and marine organisms to a new substance with unknown impacts.”
They are undoubtedly right to err on the side of caution. If only we had been so wise before we unleashed all our agrochemicals, our agro-waste, and yes, our plastic, our fossil fuel gases, our nuclear power, and indeed a superabundance of ourselves on to suffering Nature.
No. 3 Making rain
Last week, “the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation said it was preparing to deploy two planes for cloud seeding between Tuesday and Friday, if conditions are suitable.” Right now Bangkok is shrouded in a pall of smog, and Thailand’s Department of Royal Rainmaking hopes a downpour of the wet stuff will clear the air. (On the website there is a tab called “The King and the Royal Rain”)
Meanwhile in Tibet, China is poised to send up a battery of rockets to release silver-iodide particles in the clouds, with the aim of making it rain over 1.6 million square kilometres of land, a vast area almost the size of Mexico. In 2017, northern China suffered its worst drought on record, With their rockets they hope to ensure water security for their own people, especially farmers, downstream.
Cloud-seeding has been around since the 1940s, but nothing on this kind of scale has ever been attempted before. Unsurprisingly, this is worrying our futurists. They fear such a dramatic alteration to the weather will damage Tibet’s rare alpine steppe and meadow ecosystems, in turn threatening its rare endemic species.
Photos from Wild Animals on the Tibetan Plateau²
Tibet is already the one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, in third place after the North and South Poles. 46% of the world’s population rely on water originating in that country. Tibet, the Roof of the World, high in the Himalayas, lies three miles above sea level, its water feeding 10 major riversacross 11 countries of South-East Asia.
There are no simple certainties about the Chinese plan. It could all go horribly wrong, and have who knows what consequences, not just on the Tibetan plateau, but across a vast expanse of the globe. It certainly has the perturbing potential to be yet another bright idea that seemed like a good idea at the time…
No. 4 Fishy oilseed crops
The possibilities of genetic engineering are endless. So advanced are we as a species, we now have the knowhow to redesign almost every living thing to our own requirements. So why not modify oil-producing crops to produce “the omega-3 fatty acids that are normally found in fish and prized for their health-promoting capabilities.”Fantastic, especially for vegetarians and vegans. And the wild fish populations.
But… Why does there always have to be a but! The modification will displace some of the plants’ natural oils. How will this affect the insects that feed on them? If one study showing caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies with deformed wings is anything to go by, the answer is “badly”.
It’s a zero-sum game. Benefitting one side of the equation (us) automatically means disadvantaging the other. This is true of so many of our bright ideas from the past. Yet we still don’t seen to have grasped that disadvantaging other animals, the environment, Nature, in pursuit of our own ends is only a short-term fix that is certain to boomerang back on us. And time is running out.
Other trends the futurists identified
that will make themselves felt one way or another in the environment this year include:
microbial protein for livestock
deeper sea fishing
modification of plant microbiomes
the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s decision not to regulate the use of gene editing in plants
Insect mass-rearing, though in its infancy is apparently a fast-growing industry. The unfortunate cricket can be fed on nothing but weeds and agricultural by-products, making it a source of protein far more sustainable than the animals we more usually associate with farming.
“Reared insects are increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, even by the United Nations. The future food for a growing world population.” And a readily available source of protein for malnourished children.“Even very poor people would be able to rear crickets.”³
b. Biodiversity offsets
We’ve grown familiar with the idea of carbon offsets. If you need to take a flight somewhere, you can buy yourself enough carbon creditto offset your own portion of the plane’s emissions. Then the money is used in climate protection projects.
Biodiversity offsets work on a similar principle. Setting aside protected areas for Nature to compensate for and minimise the impact of large-scale industrial projects like new mines or dams, or at the other end of the scale, new housing. Recent research discovered 12,983 of these set-aside habitat projects across 73 countries occupying an area larger than Greece. “153,000 square kilometres is a big chunk of land.” And in spite of its being a relatively new idea, it’s catching on fast.
“This is the start of something major,”says researcher Dr Bull, “‘Biodiversity offsets – ‘No Net Loss’ policies, seeking to protect our natural environment, are being implemented very quickly.”
One final trend the futurists have hope for – Insurance for Nature
The futurists picked up on a joint project involving the Mexican government, the Mexican tourist industry, The Nature Conservancy, and – of all things – the insurance industry. Between them they have set up a trust fund to protect the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean. The fund can be called upon for restoration projects in the case of damage to the reef. In effect, the reef is insured.
The futurists think schemes like this have potential for the insurance industry to “play a role in protecting natural areas and helping damaged habitat recover from disasters.” The model could be replicated worldwide to preserve and restore Nature.
Are they right? Where will it all end? Can our clever innovations save the planet and us with it? Or will they just turn out to be more of our brainwaves that seemed like a good idea at the time? Any crystal ball gazers out there?
¹“Many of these toys inadvertently became part of a massive scientific study: beachcombers have been finding them ever since, helping oceanographers refine their models of ocean surface currents.” The Science Museum
² Clockwise – the Tibetan antelope, the pika, the Tibetan blue bear, the Tibetan wild ass, the snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf
³ This one is not for me as a vegan. But then, I’m fortunate enough not to have to live in poverty with malnourished children
Recycle your plastic bottle tops with Lush –here’s how
“For 10 long years, a bachelor lived out his days alone, calling out for a mate, but hearing only the clicks of cameras and clacks of human shoes at the Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny in Bolivia.”
Credit: Matias Careaga, Museo de Historia Natural Alcide d’Orbigny
But two years ago, the forlorn fellow gave up all hope of finding his perfect match and fell silent. This is Romeo pictured above (sorry, cover photo is not him – it’s a cheat!) He’s a very special guy, a sehuencas water frog, and like George the Hawaiian snail who sadly crossed the rainbow bridge this week, the last of his kind.
That is until now. Last year, with a little help from his friends, Romeo posted his profile on Match.com in search of a mate. He describes himself’ as “a pretty simple guy. I tend to keep to myself and love spending nights at home. I also love eating. Then again, who doesn’t?” Scientists with the Global Wildlife Conservation and the museum where our hero resides used his alluring profile to generate funds for a new expedition into the Bolivian cloud forest in search of that special someone for this solitary little guy. They scoured an area suggested by locals, searching in the water and under rocks, and very nearly gave up.
Finally, their persistence paid off, and they found Romeo not one, but five new buddies, including two females, and one of those just the right age for our Romeo.
But the lonesome bachelor has yet to be introduced to his date, and must wait a little longer. Juliet and the other sehuencas are in quarantine for a while. His profile claims he’s “not picky”, but who knows, there’s still a chance he may not fall for her.
Just in case there’s no chemistry between the pair, the scientists have contingency plans. One way or another, the hope is to breed enough sehuencas babies to reintroduce them to the wild.
Watch this space for the next episode in the life and times of Romeo, the Bolivian sehuencas water frog.
If you are anything like me, you will find yourself hiding your head in your hands under the daily barrage of dismal news about the state of the planet. If it’s making you feel depressed, helpless and hopeless, please don’t switch off just yet. We have the antidote – a big dollop of good news from the WILD Foundation to re-invigorate and re-empower us. And a challenge.
Passionate people and conservation organisations are changing the world. All they need is for us to play our parts in “the biodiversity revolution” they are creating. There is good news. There is hope. But burying our heads in our hands is not an option. We need the courage to stare in the face the destination we are headed towards if we fail to take action now.
What we stand to lose
Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist and conservationist Edward O. Wilson writes in his 2016 book “Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life” of “the complexity, beauty and majesty of Nature” in which “each species is a masterpiece, a creation assembled with extreme care and genius.”These myriad marvels – from axolotl to armadillo, humming bird to hippo, parrot to pangolin, tawny owl to tiger, walrus to wolf, not to mention plant life – are what we stand to lose in this age of the Anthropocene, the 6th age of mass extinction caused entirely by the activities of Man.
Yet our species recklessly continues to suffocate the earth under a toxic blanket of new farms, dams, factories and housing that obliterate vital habitat, polluting land, sea and air in the process. And simultaneously persists in giving free rein to our own population growth, and the callous annihilation of non-human animals.
Wilson asks,“What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply?”
We are, he says, “a danger to ourselves and the rest of life…. the most destructive but unrepentant species in Earth’s history.”
Who can argue with that?
The Age of Loneliness
If we continue on this catastrophic course, the only wild animals left on the sublime planet thronging with life we inherited, will be rats, pigeons and jellyfish. We may of course still have our domesticated plants and animals, but what small comfort for the 4 million dazzling species we look to lose in the next 30 years if we carry on as we are.
We will have entered the Eremocine, the Age of Loneliness. A conquered planet almost devoid of natural life. What a terrifying prospect.
“Our relationship with this planet is badly broken. We need a new story about how we live here. We need a new relationship with the Earth that is thoughtful and balanced.”
– James Brundige, conservationist and wildlife film-maker.
Nature Needs Half
Thoughtful, balanced yes, and bold. Professor Wilson wants to steer us off the road that leads inexorably towards that unthinkable Age of Loneliness, and take a new direction – nothing less than giving over entirely to Nature free from the injurious activity of humans, half the planet. A full 50% of land and sea. And to prove his bold vision is not simply words on a page, ink on paper, he set up the Half-Earth Project: “With science at its core and our transcendent moral obligation to the rest of life at its heart, the Half-Earth Project is working to conserve half the land and sea to safeguard the bulk of biodiversity, including ourselves.”
So, an entire half the planet for Nature – great idea, but is it translatable into real life? Or is it just a comforting fantasy?
“When it was first launched, this idea didn’t go over so well… Although many conservation leaders admitted to personally supporting the half goal, they believed that publicly aligning themselves with half would ruin their credibility.”
If Nature Needs Half was first mooted a whole 9 years ago, what’s been happening since?
Though his widely read book, “Half Earth” came some years after NNH, what Harvard naturalist E.O.Wilson did achieve through his legendary status, was to lend the Half Earth proposal real credibility and clout. Now “the Executive Secretary of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), Cristiana Pasca Palmer, is calling for ambitious actions in advance of the 2020 CBD in Beijing, China. At the same time, many of the world’s most prestigious conservation organizations are in the process of creating a groundbreaking ‘Global Deal for Nature’“, to go hand in hand with the Paris Climate Agreement.
But hasn’t the last decade seen more loss of vital biodiverse habitat? Aren’t we already too late?
There are currently across the world 161,000 protected reserves and parks making up somewhere in the region of 15% of Earth’s land area. 15% is still a shortfall from 17%, the unduly modest target the Convention on Biological Diversity originally agreed back in 1992. And of that 15%, a third is inadequately protected and under intense pressure from human activity, leaving a mere 10% properly set aside for Nature.
10%, 15%, 17% – still a long way short of WILD’s and Wilson’s ambitious vision for half the planet. 50%, isn’t more than that gone already?
Well, here comes even better news –
No, we still have half left! We can do this.
There still remains enough wilderness as yet untouched by human blight. And if we can send spacecraft to distant planets, surely we can save our own. There is nothing that cannot be accomplished when we pull together. The trick is to get people on board, and that is exactly what Nature Needs Half is doing. Year on year NNH brings more people and organisations under its umbrella, creating an ever-growing world wide web of conservation partners which include Wilderness Foundation Global, Rewilding Earth, Rewilding Europe, National Geographic, London Zoological Society, Sanctuary Asia, Coalition WILD, Wild Wonders of China, Google Earth Outreach, the Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation, and more.
And now hopefully, us.
Here are just a few of Nature Needs Half network’s achievements in 2018 –
1. Digital Earth
This year, National Geographic’s chief scientist, Jonathan Baillie co-authored “Space for Naturewhich argues the case for achieving 30% of land and ocean protected by 2030, 50% by 2050.
Under the auspices of NNH, that revered institution National Geographic has joined forces with another colossus on the world stage, Google, to devise a failsafe way of getting world leaders on board with those literally life-saving objectives. With NatGeo’s unsurpassable knowledge on the ground and Google’s tech expertise, together they are creating a public-access four-dimensional digital Earth.
“This living rendition of the globe will allow users to monitor the world’s species and ecosystems over time, understand threats to the natural world and realize solutions to help achieve a planet in balance.” – Partners’ press release.
It’s hoped that imaging change across the planet in real time will have a much greater impact on national governments and their citizens than pages of dry statistics. Seeing is believing.
Under the NNH umbrella, NatGeo is also working with the Nature Conservancy,and the Wyss Foundation which has pledged a staggering $1 billion to help meet the 2030 targets. Good news indeed!
China, that world super-power we most often associate with rapid industrialisation, pollution and environmental degradation, recently made a massively significant u-turn, pronouncing itself in 2015 the ecological civilization of the 21st century¹
Why is this so important? Because:-
China is home to 20% of the world’s population
China is the world’s second largest economy
China’s current and future ecological footprint is enormous
China is in the top 3 most biodiverse countries
China has committed to the most ambitious goals and environmental policiesof all the major nations on earth
This year, Nature Needs Half partners collaborated in a peer-reviewed article introducing the half-Earth vision to this country of 1.3 billion people. And again, we’re not just talking academic ink on paper. The article details the practical steps China can take to reach the goal of 50% for Nature in the next 30 year. The message reached more than 50,000 Chinese movers-and-shakers, academics, land managers, and land management professionals.
WILD and the Wilderness Specialist Group of the IUCN have also joined forces with Professor Yang Rui, expert in wilderness protection. “There are few if any professionals in China whose resumé commands the recognition and respect his does, with literally dozens of major planning, policy, and research projects to protect wild nature.” This hugely influential man, both in and outside China, is the recently appointed president of Tsinghua University’s brand new Institute for National Parks, and has wasted no time in putting forward six major suggestions to put wilderness at the heart of the chain of national parks China has in the making.
3. Securing last strongholds of critically endangered species
“Nature Needs Half partner, the Quick Response Biodiversity Fund, with the help of a major grant from the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation², secured 13 sites around the world for rare and critically endangered species. Many of these sites are the last stronghold for some of Earth’s most unique and vulnerable lifeforms.”
The Half Earth movement is gathering momentum. There is good news. There is hope.
Now, at the turning of the year, NNH partner and conservationist James Brundige throws down this challenge before us –
“The time is now. Nature Needs Half. And Nature needs you!“
What better way to start 2019 than by committing to Saving Half for Nature. Nature will richly reward us.
1 You can be part of this amazing work for the planet by becoming a WILD member here
6 Send your political representatives the Grow Green report, or if in the UK contact your MP here about the Grow Green campaign to transition unsustainable livestock farming to plant protein farming. And share with your friends
¹ In 2015 “The [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
² “With contributions from scientists and partners around the world, One Earth, an initiative of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation (LDF), has developed a bold, new plan to avert a climate crisis and protect our biosphere. Justin Winters, LDF’s Executive Director, explains the three goals humanity needs to achieve by 2050: our energy systems to 100% clean, renewable energy; , connect and restore 50% of our lands and seas; and to regenerative, carbon-negative agriculture globally. At the heart of this effort is a new map of the world called the Global Safety Net, which shows what the world could look like if we achieve these three goals.”
Leonardo Di Caprio Foundation Executive Director Justin Winters on One Earth below
James Brundige”s TedEx talk on Nature Needs Half in this video