“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war. It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
The cat man of Aleppo, Mohammad Aljaleel, touched the hearts of millions when his sanctuary featured in a BBC video in 2016. He had to leave the city when it fell to Syrian government forces, but he’s now back – in an area nearby – and helping children as well as animals, reports Diana Darke.
(There is nothing I can possibly add to this amazing story, except to say that if you want to see what true humanity looks like, look no further than Diana’s account below of this exceptional man.)
Just weeks after the video was filmed, Mohammad Aljaleel (known to everyone as Alaa) watched helplessly as his cat sanctuary was first bombed, then chlorine-gassed, during the intense final stages of the siege of Aleppo.
Most of his 180 cats were lost or killed. Like thousands of other civilians he was trapped in the eastern half of the city under continuous bombardment from Russian and Syrian fighter jets.
As the siege tightened, he was forced from one Aleppo district to another, witnessing unimaginable scenes of devastation. Yet throughout, he continued to look after the few surviving cats and to rescue people injured in the bombing, driving them to underground hospitals.
When the city fell in December 2016, he left in a convoy, his van crammed full of injured people and the last six cats from the sanctuary.
“I’ve always felt it’s my duty and my pleasure to help people and animals whenever they need help,” Alaa says. “I believe that whoever does this will be the happiest person in the world, besides being lucky in his life.”
After a brief recuperation in Turkey, he smuggled himself back into Syria – bringing a Turkish cat with him for company – and established a new cat sanctuary, bigger and better than the first one, in Kafr Naha, a village in opposition-held countryside west of Aleppo.
Using the same crowdfunding model employed successfully in east Aleppo, funds were sent in by cat-lovers from all over the world via Facebook and Twitter.
But Alaa has always worked for the benefit of the community, as well as the cats themselves.
In Aleppo, he and his team of helpers bought generators, dug wells and stockpiled food. Even at the height of the bombing, they ran animal welfare courses for children, to develop their empathy. They also set up a playground next to the sanctuary where children could briefly escape from the apocalyptic events taking place all around them.
The new sanctuary has expanded to include an orphanage, a kindergarten and a veterinary clinic. Alaa and his team resemble a small development agency, providing services that government and international charities cannot or will not. He strongly believes that helping children to look after vulnerable animals teaches them the importance of kindness to all living creatures, and helps to heal their own war traumas.
“Children and animals are the big losers in the Syrian war,” he says. “It’s the adults who so often behave badly.”
As a boy growing up in Aleppo, Alaa had always looked after cats, spurring his friends to do likewise, even though keeping cats and dogs as pets is not customary in Syria or the rest of the Arab world.
He started working aged 13, as an electrician, but also turned his hand to many other jobs – painter, decorator, IT expert, satellite-dish installer… he even traded toys between Lebanon and Syria.
He worked hard and he learned how to get things done. “May the dust turn to gold in your hands, Alaa,” his mother used to say.
His dream was to become a fireman like his father and work in search and rescue, but such jobs were handed out only to those with connections, and the connection through his father was not enough. So for years his applications were rejected.
“Of course I would never have wished for a war in order to make my dream come true. I wish I could have achieved these things without the suffering I have seen,” he says.
“God blessed me by putting me in a position where I could help people by being a rescue man, but in my worst nightmares I never imagined a war like this for my people or for my country, or even for a single animal.”
During the siege in Aleppo he used to visit both Christian and Muslim old people’s homes, distributing food. Extremist groups such as al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra regularly chided him, calling him a kaafir, an unbeliever, but he continued regardless.
“Our Prophet Muhammad was good to everybody. He spoke with all Christians and Jews. I believe in Moses, Jesus and Muhammad, because all of them had a noble aim. I’m a Muslim, but I am not a fanatic. I just take from religion everything that’s good and that I can learn things from,” Alaa says.
Despite the difficulties he has endured, Alaa has always maintained a wicked sense of humour. At the new sanctuary, a tabby called Maxi the Marketing King is chief fundraiser, soliciting “green kisses” in the form of dollar bills via social media accounts.
Alaa wears a T-shirt with “Maxi’s Slave” written on it, and gets ticked off for smoking too much or for not cooking gourmet meals. He admits his shortcomings. “We submit to Maxi’s authority as the ruler of his kingdom. But even with Maxi’s leadership it wasn’t easy to launch the new sanctuary,” he says.
This is an understatement. The rebel-held area where Alaa now lives is semi-lawless and when powerful gangs realised he was receiving funds for the sanctuary, they attempted to kidnap him. He was no longer being bombed, but his life was still at risk.
As well as cats, the new sanctuary has dogs, monkeys, rabbits, a chicken that thinks it’s a cat, and an Arabian thoroughbred horse.
“There are so few thoroughbred horses left inside Syria now that I worry about finding him a mare to breed with. I plan to perform the role of a traditional Syrian mother and try to find him a wife, so that he can have children and start building up the population of thoroughbred horses in Syria again,” Alaa says.
All the animals have names, generally awarded by Alaa. An aggressive black-and-white cat who came to the sanctuary, stole food and terrified all the other cats was nicknamed al-Baghdadi, after the Iraqi leader of Islamic State (IS).
“Of course, this cat was a million times better than that evil murderer al-Baghdadi, but this name came to mind because his presence in the sanctuary coincided with the arrival of IS gangs in Aleppo,” Alaa says.
“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.
Wow, these images are beyond stunning, aren’t they? How lucky are we to have these super-talented photographers capture for us the kind of close encounters most of us would never have the good fortune to witness in person – breathtaking, touching, awe-inspiring, and tragic. What a wondrous place is the Planet Earth we share.
Curious Encounter (Photo: Cristobal Serrano/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Any close encounter with an animal in the vast wilderness of Antarctica happens by chance, so Cristobal was thrilled by this spontaneous meeting with a crabeater seal off of Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula. These curious creatures are protected and, with few predators, thrive,” Serrano wrote in his submission for his photo seen above.
This year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition held by the Natural History Museum in London selected a group of images for its annual LUMIX People’s Choice Award. More than 45,000 entries were submitted from professional and amateur photographers from 95 countries, and the selections have been narrowed down to 25 entries.
“The images showcase wildlife photography as an art form, whilst challenging us to consider our place in the natural world, and our responsibility to protect”
the museum’s organisers wrote in a press release.
Last year’s People’s Choice Award winner captured a particularly poignant and compelling moment when a female lowland gorilla lovingly embraced a man who had rescued her from poachers who wanted to sell her for bushmeat.
In its 54th year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the oldest competition of its kind. “Inspiring audiences to connect with the natural world is at the heart of what we do as a Museum, and that’s why we’re so proud to run this competition. The LUMIX People’s Choice Award is special to us because it gives the public the chance to choose the winner, and I’m looking forward to seeing which of these beautiful photographs emerges as the favourite,” wrote Ian Owens, director of science at the Natural History Museum and member of the judging panel.
To help you choose your favourite, we present all 25 entries, with information about how each photographer captured the image.
Family Portrait (Photo: Connor Stefanison,/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A great grey owl and her chicks sit in their nest in the broken top of a Douglas fir tree in Kamloops, Canada. They looked towards Connor only twice as he watched them during the nesting season from a tree hide 50 feet (15 meters) up.” — Connor Stefanison, Canada
Bond of Brothers (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“These two adult males, probably brothers, greeted and rubbed faces for 30 seconds before settling down. Most people never have the opportunity to witness such animal sentience, and David was honored to have experienced and captured such a moment.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Painted Waterfall (Photo: Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“When the sun beams through a hole in the rock at the foot of the La Foradada waterfall, Catalonia, Spain, it creates a beautiful pool of light. The rays appear to paint the spray of the waterfall and create a truly magical picture.” — Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal, Spain
Under the Snow (Photo: Audren Morel/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Unafraid of the snowy blizzard, this squirrel came to visit Audren as he was taking photographs of birds in the small Jura village of Les Fourgs, France. Impressed by the squirrel’s endurance, he made it the subject of the shoot.” — Audren Morel, France
One Toy, Three Dogs (Photo: Bence Mate/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“While adult African wild dogs are merciless killers, their pups are extremely cute and play all day long. Bence photographed these brothers in Mkuze, South Africa – they all wanted to play with the leg of an impala and were trying to drag it in three different directions!” — Bence Mate, Hungary
Sound Asleep (Photo: Tony Wu/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This adult humpback whale balanced in mid-water, headon and sound asleep was photographed in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga. The faint stream of bubbles, visible at the top, is coming from the whale’s two blowholes and was, in this instance, indicative of an extremely relaxed state.” — Tony Wu, United States
Three Kings (Photo: Wim Van Den Heever/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Wim came across these king penguins on a beach in the Falkland Islands just as the sun was rising. They were caught up in a fascinating mating behaviour – the two males were constantly moving around the female using their flippers to fend the other off.” — Wim Van Den Heever, South Africa
Teenager (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Franco was free diving off Dominica in the Caribbean Sea when he witnessed this young male sperm whale trying to copulate with a female. Unfortunately for him her calf was always in the way and the frisky male had to continually chase off the troublesome calf.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
Red, Silver and Black (Photo: Tin Man Lee/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Tin was fortunate enough to be told about a fox den in Washington State, North America, which was home to a family of red, black and silver foxes. After days of waiting for good weather he was finally rewarded with this touching moment.” — Tin Man Lee, United States
The Extraction (Photo: Konstantin Shatenev/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Every winter, hundreds of Steller’s sea eagles migrate from Russia, to the relatively ice-free northeastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan. They hunt for fish among the ices floes and also scavenge, following the fishing boats to feed on any discards. Konstantin took his
Otherwordly (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A school of Munk’s devil ray were feeding on plankton at night off the coast of Isla Espíritu Santo in Baja California, Mexico. Franco used the underwater lights from his boat and a long exposure to create this otherworldly image.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
The Orphaned Beaver (Photo: Suzi Eszterhas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A one-month-old orphaned North American beaver kit is held by a caretaker at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, Washington. Luckily it was paired with a female beaver who took on the role of mother and they were later released into the wild.” — Suzi Eszterhas, United States
The Bat’s Wake (Photo: Antonio Leiva Sanchez/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“After several months of field research into a little colony of greater mouse-eared bats in Sucs, Lleida, Spain, Antonio managed to capture this bat mid-flight. He used a technique of high speed photography with flashes combined with continuous light to create the ‘wake’.” — Antonio Leiva Sanchez, Spain
Unique Bill (Photo: Rob Blanken/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The pied avocet has a unique and delicate bill, which it sweeps like a scythe, as it sifts for food in shallow brackish water. This stunning portrait was taken from a hide in the northern province of Friesland in The Netherlands.” — Rob Blanken, The Netherlands
Gliding (Photo: Christian Viz/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“With conditions of perfect visibility and beautiful sunlight, Christian took this portrait of a nurse shark gliding through the ocean off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas. Typically these sharks are found near sandy bottoms where they rest, so it’s rare to see them swimming.” — Christian Vizl, Mexico
A Polar Bear’s Struggle (Photo: Justin Hofman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Justin’s whole body pained as he watched this starving polar bear at an abandoned hunter’s camp, in the Canadian Arctic, slowly heave itself up to standing. With little, and thinning, ice to move around on, the bear is unable to search for food.” — Justin Hofman, United States
Shy (Photo: Pedro Carrillo/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The mesmerizing pattern of a beaded sand anemone beautifully frames a juvenile Clarkii clownfish in Lembeh strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Known as a ‘nursery’ anemone, it is often a temporary home for young clownfish until they find a more suitable host anemone for adulthood.” — Pedro Carrillo
Fox Meets Fox (Photo: Matthew Maran/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Matthew has been photographing foxes close to his home in north London for over a year and ever since spotting this street art had dreamt of capturing this image. After countless hours and many failed attempts, his persistence paid off.” — Matthew Maran, United Kingdom
Resting Mountain Gorilla (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The baby gorilla clung to its mother whilst keeping a curious eye on David. He had been trekking in South Bwindi, Uganda, when he came across the whole family. [As he was] following them, they then stopped in a small clearing to relax and groom each other.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Clam Close-up (Photo: David Barrio/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This macro-shot of an iridescent clam was taken in the Southern Red Sea, Marsa Alam, Egypt. These clams spend their lives embedded amongst stony corals, where they nest and grow. It took David some time to approach the clam, fearing it would sense his movements and snap shut!” — David Barrio, Spain
Isolated (Photo: Anna Henly/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Snapped from a helicopter, this isolated tree stands in a cultivated field on the edge of a tropical forest on Kauai, Hawaii. The manmade straight lines of the ploughed furrows are interrupted beautifully by nature’s more unruly wild pattern of tree branches.” — Anna Henly, United Kingdom
All That Remains (Photo: Phil Jones/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A male orca had beached itself about a week before Phil’s visit to Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. Despite its huge size the shifting sands had almost covered the whole carcass and scavengers, such as this striated caracara, had started to move in.” — Phil Jones, United Kingdom
Ambush (Photo: Federico Veronesi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“On a hot morning at the Chitake Springs, in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, Federico watched as an old lioness descended from the top of the riverbank. She’d been lying in wait to ambush any passing animals visiting a nearby waterhole further along the riverbed.” – Federico Veronesi, Kenya
Ice and Water (Photo: Audun Lie Dahl/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The Bråsvellbreen glacier moves southwards from one of the ice caps covering the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. Where it meets the sea, the glacier wall is so high that only the waterfalls are visible, so Audun used a drone to capture this unique perspective.” — Audun Lie Dahl, Norway
These are the 25 images from the Natural History Museum of London contest showcasing animals and landscapes in the running for the People’s Choice Award. To cast your vote, click here, and then on an individual image, and follow the prompts there. Voting is open until Feb. 5, and all images are currently on display at the Natural History Museum of London.
Update 14th February 2019 The winner of the People’s Choice Award is David Lloyd with his ‘Bond of Brothers’, the lions. (Coincidentally, the one I voted for!)
And clink on this link for the heart-melting pic that was People’s Choice last year:
Victories won for animals by just a few of the many voices raised for the voiceless in 2018
In the UK,
Since the graphic above was prepared, “more developments have taken place. For example, more than 30 organisations have now taken the decision to cancel live reindeer events. While it has been an excellent year, there is still so much work to be done.
“With your help, we can achieve even more for animals in 2019. Why not get involved straight away by visiting our Take Action page?”
PETA UK 2018 highlights
The International Fund for Animal Welfare’s Awards for inspiring animal advocates
This year’s full list of winners:
Christine (Chris) and George Rockingham, from Norfolk, for a lifetime’s dedication to rescuing and rehabilitating animals at their PACT sanctuary for nearly 25 years.
Michel Birkenwald, from London, for drilling more than 100 ‘hedgehog highways’ in South West London to help hedgehogs navigate to new areas to forage.
Ralph the Golden Retriever, from Hertfordshire, for changing the life of his companion Paul who was left paralysed after a car crash six years ago.
Debbie Bailey, from Derbyshire, for her work to protect badgers from culling through vaccinations.
Michelle Clark, from London, for starting her voluntary run, not-for-profit organisation Dogs on the Streets (DOTS) that cares for and helps homeless people and their dogs.
Nigel and Sara Hicks, from Cornwall, for their dedication to treating injured and orphaned orangutans in Borneo for six months every year, for nearly 10 years.
Chloe Hennegan, from the West Midlands, for running her rabbit rescue and rehabilitation centre Fat Fluffs since 2008.
Trisha Shaw, from Warwickshire, for her many years volunteering and raising thousands of pounds for her local dog charity Pawprints.
Natalia Doran, from London, for setting up Urban Squirrels, a licensed squirrel rescue in her own home.
World Animal Protection 2018 proudest moments
Too much to mention – these are just a few of our proudest moments:
29 travel companies committed to stop promoting elephant entertainment venues, making a total of 226
10 bears used for baiting and dancing were given new lives in our partner sanctuary in Pakistan
We reached more than 500,000 KFC petition signatures, and are in talks with the fast food chain to improve their animal welfare standards
83,000 dogs in Sierra Leone and Kenya were vaccinated against rabies
We helped 454,774 animals recover from 12 disasters around the world
The disaster preparedness work we did with governments and NGOs this year will help protect 52,000,000 animals in future
Sainsbury’s, Morrisons, Marks & Spencer, Waitrose, Lidl and Tesco have all joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) which we helped set up in 2015 to tackle the problem of Ghost Gear (marine pollution from abandoned or lost fishing nets and lines)
Animal Australia Year in Review 2018
In the US,
Click on the link below to see a wide range and a long list of achievements won for wildlife by the Humane Society of the US:-
The Animal Legal Defense Fund is winning victories for animals in the US courts of law
“As 2019 approaches, we’re looking back at our biggest legal victories for animals over the last 12 months. These are just a few highlights – watch the video from Executive Director Stephen Wells to learn about all the legal advances we made for animals.”
Previous posts related to voices for animals in the legal system:-
If you were born without a heart and simply didn’t care about the horrors perpetrated on animals in laboratories all over the world, testing drugs intended for human use on animals is still a very bad idea.
“In the contentious world of animal research, one question surfaces time and again: how useful are animal experiments as a way to prepare for trials of medical treatments in humans? The issue is crucial, as public opinion is behind animal research only if it helps develop better drugs.”
How did animal testing even become a thing?
Bizarrely, it’s a backlash from experiments performed by the Nazis. “Decades ago, in response to horrific medical research conducted by Nazis on prisoners, Western medicine stepped back from human clinical trials and required that animal-based tests occur before people could be exposed to new drugs or treatments.” – Professor Lisa Kramer.
It’s so shocking to think that our decision to perform brutal experiments on other animals actually springs from a reaction to Nazi brutality. And that it’s not only completely taken for granted and flourishing today, but still expanding at an alarming rate. A PETA study presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 2015 showed a staggering 72% increase in 15 years in the number of animals used in US labs. The UK saw a leap from the 1995 figure of 1.41 million to 4.12 million in 2013, that’s triple in 18 years. Medical experimentation and drug testing too barbaric even to think of inflicting on human beings, but ok for our surrogates, the nonhuman animals.
(And all the while the numbers rise, the two respective governments continue to pay lip service to the 3Rs doctrine – Replacement,Reduction, and Refinement. Write your MP your concerns about the use of the animals in labs, and I’ll dance naked in Trafalgar Square if you don’tget a response that declares how hard the government is working to implement the 3Rs. 😡)
Surprisingly, Lisa Kramer, University of Toronto, co-author with Dr Ray Greek of a peer-reviewed article examining the controversial question of animal testing, is not a professor of science, medicine or ethics as you might expect, but a professor of finance. Why finance?
Because animal testing makes no business sense.
Ethical arguments against animal testing are readily dismissed by scientists as being just a matter of opinion. Medical researchers claim that ethics require we put humans first, and persuade the public that using animals may be unpalatable but is a necessary evil if we wish to save human lives.
Kramer and Greek say that is a false choice. They not only demonstrate that testing on animals is in fact – looked at purely from the financial angle – an expensive waste, but that more cost-effective and reliable alternatives already exist.
The rationale for this approach is, when those at the top can’t be swayed by ethical arguments, highlighting that the animal research model makes for very bad economics will surely make them sit up in their seats and take note. Money talks.
So leaving entirely aside ethical issues of animal rights and animal welfare, the paper’s co-authors demonstrate that assuming other species’ response to drugs can accurately predict the human response is a big mistake. The pair cite “hundreds of medical studies published in prestigious journals such as Nature, Science, and The New England Journal of Medicine to show that animal models are not predictive of human responses to drugs and disease.”
Here are just a few examples of those hundreds of drugs that were deemed both effective and safe in animal tests:
Fen-phen – a diet drug recalled after causing serious heart-valve failure in 30% of patients
Thalidomide prescribed for nausea in pregnancy – infants born with severe abnormalities
Vioxx, an anti-inflammatory – taken by 80 million people until it was discovered it caused heart attacks and strokes
Rezulin – caused liver failure. Many people died
Propulsid – life-threatening heart rhythm abnormalities. Again, many died
TGN1412 to treat cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, and multiple sclerosis – caused multiple organ failure at doses 500 times lower than had been used in animal studies
In 2012 Van Meer and his colleagues decided to take a look at this from the other end of the telescope. They “retrospectively studied whether serious adverse drug reactions in humans could have been identified using animal models prior to the release of various drugs. They evaluated drugs currently on the market and discovered that only 19 percent of 93 serious adverse drug reactions were seen in animals.”
Who, apart from the animals, are the losers?
The answer is all of us. Everyone who ever needs or administers medical treatments. And perhaps, those genuinely dedicated to finding cures.
Patients obviously suffer when drugs pronounced safe from animal trials cause harm and sometimes kill.
They also suffer when drugs that seemed to work in animals, don’t work for them. “Researchers have cured cancer in mice countless times, and yet there remains no cure for humans. Likewise, about a hundred vaccines are effective against HIV-like viruses in animals but none work in humans.”
Then there are useful drugs that are erroneously consigned to the bin because they don’t work on animals. For example, “It took decades and countless deaths before the therapeutic value of penicillin and the polio vaccine were recognized. An unknowable number of other drugs may never be discovered if we continue down this … path” of putting our reliance on animal trials.
“In a comparison between animal-based methods and a purely random method, such as flipping a coin, you’d be better off relying on the coin flip.”
And unbelievably, large numbers of animals bred for the labs are never even used, just wasted. A tragic waste of individual lives, but as at the moment we’re only looking at the finances not the animals, a profligate waste of money too.
Let’s not forget the taxpayer’s place among the losers from mandatory animal testing, since it’s the taxpayer that is ultimately footing the bill for the drugs prescribed by the health service. A bill which came in at the unthinkable sum of £20 billion for the NHS last year.
And if we must feel sorry for them, even the shareholders of the pharmaceutical companies themselves are being short-changed by this flawed research model.
Yet vast sums continue to be spent on animal research. Why?
First because currently our law demands that all drugs be tested on animals before they can be licensed for human use. The law needs to change to make drug testing safer, cheaper and more effective (still leaving aside the issue of animal rights and animal suffering.)
Second, there are those who have a strong financial interest in maintaining the status quo and blocking change: research establishments, scientists, regulators, laboratory inspectors and those responsible for granting licences. As for the companies that breed, sell, and ship nonhuman animal subjects to the labs, and suppliers of equipment for the research, animal testing is a hugely profitable business.
Don’t be fooled by those with vested interests who “point only to success stories where life-saving drugs have emerged from animal-based research. Of course, bad models can accidentally produce right answers. Famously, stopped clocks are right twice a day, but we don’t use them to keep time.”
Not only is animal testing expensive, unreliable, unsafe and wasteful, it is also unnecessary.
New technologies that provide alternatives are emerging all the time. Micro-dosing, organs-on-a-chip, computer modelling, human-patient simulators, computerised patient-drug databases and virtual drug trials, stem cell and genetic testing, MRIs and CT scans – all already available.
At best testing on animals is a scandalous waste of money. At worst it is deadly – to them certainly, but also to us.
If you do have a heart, and want a glimpse of why regulations intended to safeguard the welfare of lab animals are not the answer, watch this short video.
Check in case your favourite health charity is funding cruel experiments on animals here
If anyone knew a thing or two about mountain gorillas it was the remarkable Dian Fossey. Ms Fossey, the first to study gorillas at close quarters, loved these animals with a passion. Humans – not so much. Her every breath, her every ounce of energy, her life’s blood, was spent protecting the gorillas by keeping humans at bay.
In the Rwanda national park where she established her research station, she had 4 of her own staff destroy 987 poachers’ snares in 4 months. (In the same period, Rwandan park rangers destroyed none. A desperately poor local community makes its livelihood where it can, and if that means poaching gorillas, so be it, was their thinking.)
Apart from fighting a war against one kind of humans, the poachers, Ms Fossey was fierce in her hostility to another kind – wildlife tourists. She had three seemingly incontrovertible reasons for her opposition to ecotourism. Firstly, humans would damage the habitat. Secondly, humans could infect the great apes with anthroponotic diseases (diseases which could jump the species barrier from us to them) such as TB, flu, the common cold, chicken pox, measles and herpes. With no natural immunity to these infections, gorillas could, and did die. And thirdly, the very presence of humans would affect the great apes’ natural wild behaviour.
I wonder how she would react today if she knew that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme now actively promotes tourism to her precious primates’ habitat. The charity’s rationale is simple: tourism provides a living for the impoverished locals living around the national parks and gives them a vested interest in protecting rather than poaching the animals. And the Rwandan government runs a scheme ploughing back 5% of income from gorilla tourism into local development projects like road construction, clean water supplies, sanitation, and health centres accessible for all. What better incentive could the local population have to see that the gorilla tribes thrive?
Good news story
This policy does indeed appear to be working. Kirsten Gilardi, director of Gorilla Doctors is adamant, “Gorilla tourism revenue has absolutely saved them from extinction.”(Her team of medics attending the gorillas with hands-on health care for four decades is also a beneficiary of ecotourism cash.) From the desperate level of only 240 remaining in 1978, and Ms Fossey fearing they would be extinct by the year 2000, the apes now number 1000 – still on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Endangered list, but no longer Critically Endangered. It’s a reason for “cautious optimism”, says the IUCN, a good news story of ecotourism directly benefitting wildlife.
And there are others:
Money from tourism was used to expand the habitats of cheetahs and African wild dogs, slowing population decline
Ecotourism funded the restoration of hoolock gibbons’ and golden lion tamarins’ habitat, reversing human-inflicted environmental degradation, and boosting growth in their respective populations
Wildlife management staff are safeguarding the future for African penguins and the great green macaw by using ecotourism money to control the birds’ predators – natural animal predators and human poachers
Around the world, national parks and nature preserves receive 8 billion visitors a year at a conservative estimate, in all probability many more. Ecotourism generates in excess of $600 billion, so researchers discovered in a first-of-it–kind study.
As with most things in life, there are no easy answers, and the jury remains out.
Of those billions of dollars generated by tourism to national parks and preserves, how much is actually spent on conservation of these amazing habitats and their wildlife? A small fraction. Less than $10 billion – and nothing like enough.
“These pieces of the world provide us with untold benefits: from stabilising the global climate and regulating water flows to protecting untold numbers of species. Now we’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas.” -Andrew Bainford Professor of Zoology at Cambridge University.
So what about the rest of the money from ecotourism? If governments aren’t investing it in protected areas, where is it going? According to USA Today“Corrupt governments frequently take a large cut of the profits from ecotourism, leaving little or none for local communities that are directly affected by the influx of visitors.”
And as we’ve already seen, benefit to local communities, giving them a stake in protecting their local wildlife, is a vitally important desired outcome of ecotourism. Without it, poaching will continue. But all too often corrupt governments allow “international corporations and developers from outside the area into popular destinations. Their hotels and stores take money away from the local economy. In addition, the original residents have to pay the same inflated prices for food and water as tourists do, putting a greater financial burden on them.”
And Ms Fossey was 100% right about some of the other downsides of ecotourism
Land gobbled up for visitor centres, cafes, tourist lodges, and toilet blocks for the growing numbers of visitors, and the roads to reach them
Wildlife accidentally killed by cars
Wildlife deliberately killed by hunters and fishers
Tourists passing on disease
As for that last point, it seems tourists are far more concerned about contracting a disease from contact with wildlife than they are about themselves passing infection to the animals. Anthropologist Dr Michael Muehlenbein found that though as many as 86% of tourists knew they could pass disease to wildlife, they clearly didn’t care too much because two thirds said they would still touch or feed wild primates if they got the chance.
“Imagine you’ve spent $2,000 to go to Malaysia to see the orangutans and you’ve got a cold. Are you going to stay away? It becomes a complex moral question: How much do you respect the life of other animals over your vacation experience?”
Personally I don’t see it as that ‘complex’. A tough decision naturally, but not a complex one. Though it’s ‘only a cold’ for us, it could kill that animal we would so like to see up close and personal. When we are watching wildlife, let’s be the responsible ones and follow the advice here.
What if we travel on foot to see the wildlife and keep ourselves to ourselves?
What could be less harmful to wildlife than rambling quietly along a woodland trail, soaking up the forest scents and listening to the birdsong? Sad to say, even this most gentle activity is not as innocuous as it seems. Just the fact our being there has an effect. A recent study found that the longer a forest trail is used, and the bigger the number of people walking it, the greater the adverse effect on forest birds. “We show that forest birds are distinctly affected by people and that this avoidance behaviour did not disappear even after years of use by humans.”The birds simply never get used to our being there.
“This is important to show because pressure on natural habitats and nature protection areas is getting stronger and access bans are often ignored,” says Dr Yves Botsch of the Swiss Ornithological Institute.
And an earlier study found that the mere presence of humans is more terrifying to smaller prey animals like badgers, foxes and raccoons – who we may have thought were habituated to us – than the presence of apex predators like bears and wolves. And that we “may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
When you consider that at least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of humans and human activity in one way or another, this particular piece of research is not good news.
Overall, human disturbance detrimentally affecting animals’ survival and mating behaviours can lead straight down the path to extinction
Take the New Zealand sea lion for example. The habitat disturbance and fishing brought by ecotourism is killing young sea lion pups. This animal is predicted to be extinct by 2050, a direct victim of ecotourism.
On land, nature preserves can have well-defined boundaries, theoretically easier to protect. Yes, we do have marine conservation areas, but the thing about water is that it flows. No oceanic conservation area’s boundaries can keep out pollution or stop rising sea temperatures. Marine animals are also disproportionately affected by humans’ plastic waste. The dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sulawesi this week had 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach: 115 plastic cups, plastic bags, bottles and even flipflops. On top of that animals such as whales and dolphins are badly affected by underwater noise from shipping.
All of these problems are far more likely to be exacerbated than mitigated by ecotourism.
In the Arctic, for example, 53% of 80 populations of Arctic animals in the ‘open-water’ period of September when the ice is at its minimum are adversely affected by ship traffic, by collisions, by noise disturbance, by the changes these trigger in the animals’ behaviour. Most of these animals are found nowhere else on Earth.
And Arctic ice is shrinking. “Summer sea ice cover has shrunk by over 30 percent since satellites started regular monitoring in 1979.” And less ice means more ships.
Less ice, more ships. More ships, more harm to the animals.
It’s as simple as that. Whales and walrus are among the most vulnerable, and narwhals most vulnerable of all. So you may want to rethink your Arctic cruise. And, as if the harm shipping does to Arctic wildlife were not bad enough, cruise ships also take the trophy when it comes to being the most environmentally-unfriendly way to view wildlife – one cruise ship releasing fuel emissions equivalent to a million cars, in one day.
The last thing we want is to harm the very wildlife we love going to see. So how can we nature-lovers see nature without destroying it?
In spite of all the negatives, there can be no doubt that ecotourism makes animals more valuable in money terms alive than dead. That gives it huge potential to protect nature and save endangered species. But the responsibility of making that happen lies with each of us individually. Planning a trip? Do some thorough research. For potted advice check out The Essential Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel, and Five ways to be a responsible wildlife tourist.
But for in depth information go to Responsible Travel which the Guardian rates “The first place to look for environmentally friendly holidays.”The Responsible Travel website is packed to the brim with information on how to be a wildlife-friendly ecotourist. Find out Responsible Travel’s stance on wildlife, and wildlife tourism issues here.
In the end it’s all down to us as individuals, our choices. Just as we shape the kind of world we want to live in with our eating, shopping and everyday living choices, so with our travel. Our choices are making the difference between life and death for the animals.
No-one knew that orangutans are unique among great apes, possibly unique among animals altogether with the exception of the human animal, in having the ability to talk about the past.
But now we do. Recently a researcher was surprised to find that the apes’ response to, say, a tiger’s presence is to gather their young to them and climb higher up the tree – in silence. You would expect the evasive action to be accompanied by an alarm call. Theirs is an endearing kind of “kiss-squeak” sound. Strangely though, they wait sometime until after the predator has entirely disappeared before they emit their kiss-squeak of alarm.
What on earth is the use of that, we ask. Isn’t that a bit late? Well, it seems the orangutan mums are transmitting a message to their infants, “THAT WAS DANGER! Remember for next time.”
Zoologists have a name for ‘talking about something that is in the past or the future, not present at the time’: it’s called ‘displaced reference’, and as well as being extremely rare among living creatures, is reckoned to be a sign of high-level cognition. These furry orange tree-dwellers may even surpass in brain power their other smart relations in the great ape family.
Another thing I didn’t know before today
Orangutans come in two varieties: the Bornean and the Sumatran. Both species are critically endangered. The Bornean orangutan has declined by a shocking 60% in the last 60 odd years, and between 1999 – 2015 alone we lost over 100,000. I say “we” because it’s a tragic loss for us all. It’s a similar story for the Sumatran ape. Orangutans rightly fear tigers, but there is another animal that is a much greater threat. As is almost invariably the case when species slide towards extinction, the menace is (the so-called) homo sapiens.
In this case it’s our insatiable appetite for palm oil. “More than half the packaged products on sale in the supermarket are made with palm oil,” according to the European Palm Oil Alliance. It’s palm oil production that is decimating these precious animals.
And it’s not just the injurious effect on the hapless apes, as if that were not enough in itself. The burning and deforestation of Malaysian and Indonesian rainforest to make way for palm oil plantations is a big contributor to GHGs in the atmosphere. In the light of the UN’s recent report that we have only 12 years left to get a grip of climate change, this destruction is a supremely urgent environmental issue which affects the entire planet.
If there was anyone who wasn’t aware of what is causing the frightening decline in orangutan numbers before, they certainly are now thanks to the furore created by the banning of Iceland’s Christmas ad. In case you’ve only just returned to Planet Earth from a trip to Mars and not yet seen the ‘offending’ ad, here it is:
The ad was banned on ‘political’ grounds. If you’re like me, you’ll struggle to find anything political in the ad.
So why ban the ad?
Greenpeace has unearthed some revealing correspondence between various UK government departments. The communications expressed fears that supporting an EU-wide ban on the import of palm oil biofuel might very well provoke Malaysia to change its mind about buying our British-built Eurofighter Typhoon jets, and look elsewhere for its military hardware. So yes, no doubt in governmental eyes the ad is political, though we wouldn’t be so cynical as to suggest Clearcast, the adjudicator of TV advertising that imposed the infamous ban, has been sat upon, would we??
The other reason given for the ban was that it had nothing to do with Christmas. It’s certainly not what you think of when ‘Christmas’ is mentioned. I think Greenpeace supporter and Iceland’s CEO Richard Walker knew exactly what he was doing when he sought permission from Greenpeace to adapt their telling animation for his company’s Christmas promotion. It was always unlikely to pass the scrutiny of Clearcast.
But thanks to the notorious ban, the ad hit the headlines. EVERYONE wanted to see what all the fuss was about. I know I did. And as of Wednesday just gone, the ad notched up 12 million views on Facebook, a further 3.8 million on YouTube, 30 million in total across all social media, with endorsements from celebrities including Anna Friel, Paloma Faith and James Corden. What better way of getting Greenpeace’s important message across, and at the same time promoting Iceland as a leader in business environmental- friendliness.
Managing director Richard Walker said at the time: “Certified sustainable palm oil does not currently limit deforestation and it does not currently limit the growth of palm oil plantations.
“So until such a time as there is genuinely sustainable palm oil that contains zero deforestation, we are saying no to palm oil.”
Well done Mr Walker!
And just in case the publicity was not enough
It’s been ramped up even further by sightings of an orangutan wandering the streets and parks of London, even at one stage hanging from a Christmas tree on Coin Street.
The ape on the loose is Iceland’s genius response to the ban of their Christmas ad. But we don’t have to worry, no orangutans were harmed etc etc – the creature is of course animatronic.
All perfect timing on Iceland’s part, for this week saw Greenpeace publish a report accusing the makers of the world’s most famous cookie the Oreo amongst many other products, of sourcing their palm oil from “rainforest destroyers.”
But why the huge demand for palm oil in the first place?
It has two huge advantages over other forms of fat
It has an unusually high melting point, so is semi-solid at room temperature
Both flesh and stone contain oil which makes it 10 times more productive than say, rapeseed, and therefore much cheaper to produce
If you’re interested in why palm oil makes up 38% of all vegetable oil produced, from only 5% of oil-producing farmland this is an excellent article.
What is palm oil used in?
Half the stuff in supermarkets, as mentioned earlier. That is biscuits, cereals, breads, gravies, sauces, margarines, ice cream, crisps, ‘healthy’ snack foods like muesli bars, pet food, cosmetics, toothpastes, toiletries, cleaning products, even ink. Sad to say, it also pops up in vegan goodies where it is used to provide the creaminess otherwise obtained from dairy.
And then there is the biofuel.
We haven’t spotted it on labels, though. How is it hiding in our products?
Palmitate – Vitamin A or Asorbyl Palmitate (NOTE: Vitamin A Palmitate is a very common ingredient in breakfast cereals and we have confirmed 100% of the samples we’ve investigated to be derived from palm oil)
Sodium Laureth Sulphate (Can also be from coconut)
Sodium Lauryl Sulphates (can also be from ricinus oil)
Sodium dodecyl Sulphate (SDS or NaDS)
Chemicals which contain palm oil
Sodium Lauryl Sulphate
Sodium lauryl sulfoacetate (coconut and/or palm)
Hydrated palm glycerides
Sodium isostearoyl lactylaye (derived from vegetable stearic acid)
Cetyl palmitate and octyl palmitate (names with palmitate at the end are usually derived from palm oil, but as in the case of Vitamin A Palmitate, very rarely a company will use a different vegetable oil)
Even the most passionate environmentalists are not suggesting we avoid palm oil altogether. We just need it to be orangutan- and rainforest-friendly. Sustainable.
Just look for these logos
Meanwhile, ICYMT some petitions to sign and share. Thank you.
24th January 2019 The double-edged sword of palm oil“Contrary to a widely publicized narrative of deforestation driven by industrial-scale expansion, the researchers found most oil palm expansion and associated deforestation occurred outside large, company-owned concessions, and that expansion and forest clearing by small-scale, non-industrial producers was more likely near low-yielding informal mills.”
‘How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk Earth is destroying its only home?”
Who better to open the Guardian’s new series The Age of Extinction, than the renowned primatologist Jane Goodall? Her lifespan of 84 years has seen a horrifying loss of wild animals of all kinds, along with their habitats.
And yet she believes if we come together and play our part in our own lives, we can “heal some of the harm we have inflicted.” This is her message to us all:
During my years studying chimpanzees in Gombe national park in Tanzania I experienced the magic of the rainforest. I learned how all life is interconnected, how each species, no matter how insignificant it may seem, has a role to play in the rich tapestry of life – known today as biodiversity. Even the loss of one thread can have a ripple effect and result in major damage to the whole.
I left Gombe in 1986 when I realised how fast chimpanzee habitat was being destroyed and how their numbers were declining. I visited six chimpanzee range states and learned a great deal about the rate of deforestation as a result of foreign corporations (timber, oil and mining)and population growth in communities in and around chimpanzee habitat, so that more land was needed for expanding villages, agriculture and grazing livestock.
Chimpanzees were affected by the bushmeat trade – the commercial hunting of wild animals for food. I saw traumatised infants, whose mothers had been killed – either for the same bushmeat or the illegal animal trade, for sale in the markets, or in inappropriate zoos where they had been placed after confiscation by local authorities.
But I also learned about the problems faced by so many African communities in and around chimpanzee habitat. When I arrived in Gombe in 1960 it was part of what was called the equatorial forest belt, stretching from East Africa through the Congo Basin to the West African coast. By 1980 it was a tiny island of forest surrounded by bare hills, with more people living there than the land could support, over-farmed soil, trees cut down on all but the steepest slopes by people desperate to grow food for their families or make money from charcoal. I realised that unless we could improve their lives we could not even try to protect chimpanzees.
But chimpanzees, and many other species are still highly endangered. Over the last 100 years chimpanzee numbers have dropped from perhaps two million to a maximum of 340,000, many living in fragmented patches of forest. Several thousand apes are killed or taken captive for the illegal wildlife trade. Orangutans and gibbons are losing their habitats due to the proliferation of non-sustainable oil palm plantations. We are experiencing the sixth great extinction. The most recent report from WWF describes the situation as critical – in the last 49 years, we have lost 60% of all animal and plant species on Earth.
We are poisoning the soil through large-scale industrial agriculture. Invasive species are choking out native animal and plant life in many places. Carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere by our reliance on fossil fuels, destruction of the rain forests and pollution of the ocean. Increase of demand for meat not only involves horrible cruelty to billions of animals in factory farms, but huge areas of wild habitats destroyed to grow crops for animal feed.
So much fossil fuel is required to take grain to animals, animals to slaughter, meat to table – and during digestion these animals are producing methane – an even more virulent gas than carbon dioxide. And their waste along with other industrial agriculture runoff is polluting soil and rivers sometimes causing toxic algae blooms over large areas of ocean.
Climate change is a very real threat as spelled out in the latest UN report*, as these greenhouse gases, trapping the heat of the sun, are causing the melting of polar ice, rising sea levels, more frequent and more intense storms. In some places agricultural yields are decreasing, fuelling human displacement and conflict. How come the most intellectual creature to ever walk the Earth is destroying its only home?
Because many policymakers and corporations – and we as individuals – tend to make decisions based on “How will this affect me now, affect the shareholders’ meeting, the next political campaign?” rather than “How will this affect future generations?” Mother Nature is being destroyed at an ever faster rate for the sake of short term gain. This, along with our horrifying population growth, poverty – causing people to destroy the environment simply to try to make a living – and the unsustainable lifestyles of the rest of us who have way more than we need, is the root cause of all the planet’s woes.
It is depressing to realise how much change I have witnessed during my 84 years. I have seen the ice melting in Greenland, the glaciers vanishing on Mount Kilimanjaro and around the world. When I arrived in Gombe the chimpanzee population stretched for miles along the shores of Lake Tanganyika. Buffalo, common then, are locally extinct and only a few leopards remain.
The water of the Lake was crystal clear, fish and water cobras were abundant, and there were crocodiles. But with soil washed into the lake and over-fishing, that changed. When I spent time in the Serengeti and Ngorongoro in the 60s and early 70s, rhino and elephants were plentiful. I grew up in the south of England. The dawn chorus of the birds was magical – so many of them have gone, along with the hedgehogs that used to rustle through the vegetation at night. In May and June we had to draw the curtains at night to keep out the hundreds of cockchafers – May bugs, attracted to the light – today it is rare to see even one, and the clouds of mosquitos and midges are almost gone.
Yet I believe we have a small window of opportunity when, if we get together, we can start to heal some of the harm we have inflicted. Everywhere, where young people understand the problems and are empowered to take action – when we listen to their voices, they are making a difference. With our superior intellect we are coming up with technological solutions to help us live in greater harmony with nature and reduce our own ecological footprints. We have a choice each day as to what we buy, eat and wear. And nature is amazingly resilient – there are no more bare hills around Gombe, as an example. Species on the brink of extinction have been given a second chance. We can reach out to the world through social media in a way never before possible. And there is the indomitable human spirit, the people who tackle the impossible and won’t give up. My job is to give people hope, for without it we fall into apathy and do nothing.
How we fight back against biodiversity loss
In 1994, the Jane Goodall Institute launched the Tacare program, working in collaboration with the villagers themselves. A holistic program including restoring fertility to the farm land (no chemicals used), improved health and education facilities, water management programs, microcredit opportunities (particularly for women), family planning information, and scholarships to keep girls in school. Today this operates in 72 villages throughout the range of Tanzania’s remaining chimpanzees, most of whom live in unprotected village forest reserves. Village volunteers learn to use smart phones, patrol their forests, and note any illegal activities as well as signs or sightings of animals. This information is uploaded onto a platform in the cloud, including Global Forest Watch.
Tacare now operates similar programs in six other African countries. “The villagers have become our partners in conservation,” says Goodall. “They know that protecting the environment benefits them as well as wildlife.”
*Jane’s call to action is urgent. According to the UN report she mentions, we have only 12 years left to get control of climate change. “It’s a line in the sand and what it says to our species is that this is the moment and we must act now. This is the largest clarion bell from the science community and I hope it mobilises people and dents the mood of complacency.” – Debra Roberts for UN IPCC
A milestone for lab chimps in the US as Hercules and Leo arrive at Project Chimps in Georgia
After years of experiments, a protracted battle to grant them legal “personhood,” and a life spent bouncing between two scientific facilities, two of the world’s most famous research chimpanzees have finally retired. Hercules and Leo arrived this morning at Project Chimps, a 95-hectare sanctuary in the wooded hills of Morgantown, Georgia.
If you never had the Japanese down as a nation of animal-lovers, get this – on the Japanese rail network Animals Rule.
Monkeys, dogs, goats, lobsters (lobsters?!) and a tortoise proudly hold the official title of stationmaster at rail depots around the country. The most famous to occupy the post in recent years was a cat called Tama, who died in 2015 at the good old age of 16. Her funeral ‘was attended by thousands of local commuters and admirers hailing from near and far. Following a period of mourning, the newly minted Honorable Eternal Stationmaster was replaced by Nitama, a former apprentice of Tama who beat out other candidates for the job partially based on her “willingness to wear a hat.”‘
The only thing vaguely similar of which we can boast here in the UK, is the day last April when a large herd of cows took it upon themselves to congregate on Hever station platform in Kent. Strangely, in spite of having a wealth of applicants to choose from, Network Rail declined to appoint any of them to their staff.
But Network Rail does have one heartening animal trick up its sleeve. Paradoxical, startling, but nonetheless true – the rail network and surrounding land managed by NR is possibly the most biodiverse wildlife haven in the UK. An unseen Shangri-la for rare and endangered species such as the large blue butterfly, the dormouse, the osprey, the natterjack toad and the great crested newt. If we were permitted access, which of course we are not, we might also find an abundance of lizards, grass snakes, slow worms, water voles, deer, foxes, badgers, and bats.
But – and it’s a very big but – the network is both haven and hazard. Between 2003/4 and 2013/14 the number of animals struck by trains tripled, and the unfortunate animals logging up the highest death count are deer.
“Deer have excellent peripheral vision, but most deer incidents take place while the beasts are traversing the railway as part of their natural movement pattern between habitats at dawn/dusk – a time when more trains are running as part of the morning and evening peaks.”¹
What is Network Rail doing to prevent animals getting on the tracks?
Not an awful lot it seems. They “educate land owners about the dangers and disruption caused by animal incursions, emphasising the need to keep gates securely closed and encouraging them to use additional measures such as electric fencing.”
And that’s it. Good as far as it goes, and fine for domestic animals: horses, sheep and cattle – but if we look for NR’s ideas on keeping deer and other wildlife off the tracks, we draw a blank. This in spite of their desire to minimise collisions and costly disruptions to the rail timetable.
Over in Japan, they do things differently
Yes, certainly there is the same imperative not to let collisions with animals mess up the schedule. (Magnify that sixty-fold. The Japanese don’t have a name for super-efficiency for nothing, and Japanese trains are precise to the second. Last November a rail company felt compelled to issue a public apology for one of its trains departing 20 seconds early, at 9.44.20, instead of 9.44.40 – can you imagine it!)
And yes, as in the UK, the most frequent victims of death by train are deer. The deer are “reportedly attracted to the lines due to a need for iron in their diets, licking up small iron filings left behind by the grinding of train wheels on the tracks.”
But in Japan it’s not just about the timetable. As their unlikely choice of stationmasters/mistresses attest, in the world of the locomotive the Japanese have a care for animals. And that extends to the wild kind, whose interaction with trains is too often fatal.
Creatures as small as turtles can come a cropper, as well as cause delays, so one rail company has worked with wildlife experts to create safe crossings in the form of special turtle trenches running underneath the tracks. Rail workers even carry out regular inspections to see if the little guys need an extra helping hand.
For the bigger animals the usual ropes, fences, and flashing lights have all been tried – without success. Now, displaying a creativity sadly lacking in Network Rail, the Japanese are coming up with all kinds of imaginative ways to prevent costly timetable disruptions and animal deaths.
One of the most out there was someone’s brainwave of mixing water with lion dung garnered from a safari park, and spraying the solution along the track. Hey presto, it worked! Not one deer was run over. Even though Japanese deer have never seen a lion, it seems they recognise the smell of an apex predator when they come across it.
The dung spray though 100% effective, did have several drawbacks:
The spraying was very labour-intensive, impractical on a larger scale
It got washed away in the rain
And finally, it REEKED! Railway staff, passengers, and folk living near the line alike, all complained
Based on the observation that the deer are drawn to the iron from the lines, one company developed another effective method to divert the deer – definitely less off-the-wall and decidedly less offensive than the lion poop – ‘yukuru’, simple salt-lick blocks containing the vital ingredient iron.
When it really hit home
One night in 2015 a family of deer were crossing the tracks when a young fawn at the rear of the group was struck by a train and killed. Yuji Hikita, an employee of Kintetsu Railway Co. saw it happening. And continued to watch while a parent deer stood motionless, staring down at the fallen fawn for a full 40 minutes. After witnessing the whole heart-wrenching scene, he determined to find a way to stop such a sorrowful event happening again.
Hikita’s focus was on finding a way to help the deer cross the tracks in safety, rather than simply blocking them out.
He made an on-the-ground study of the deers’ movements. Finding hoof prints and dung (deer droppings, not lion!) helped him establish which spots the animals used as crossing points. The line was enclosed with 2 metre-high netting, but crossing places were left open. In the crossing gaps, ultrasonic waves formed temporary barriers at the riskiest times, dawn and dusk, but were switched off overnight when the trains stopped running.
The ultrasonic waves, inaudible to us, have the advantage of not being a terribleassault on human senses like the lion poop.
Hikita’s ingenious plan won him a 2017 Good Design Award.“This is an excellent example of how railway companies can tackle the deer-train collision problem from the deer’s perspective,” a judge for the Good Design Award said in 2017, “and it owes to the countless number sacrificed in the accidents.”
Meanwhile researchers at the RTRI (Railway Technical Research Institute) have been testing trains that snort like a deer and bark like a dog. With the usual Japanese precision and attention to detail, the formula is thus: a three-second burst of deer-snort noises, followed by 20 seconds of dog-barking.
The deer-snorting noises replicate deer’s alarm warnings to each other, which would alert any real deer getting too close to the tracks. The dogs’ barking finishes the job by scaring them away. And the snort-bark formula works. In fact, it’s proving so successful the Institute is considering setting up stationary snort-bark devices along the tracks near crossing places favoured by the deer.