Have you heard the one about the New Zealand penguins that broke into a sushi stall?
Last weekend police responded to an unusual call – a little blue penguin had been spotted in the centre of NZ’s capital city Wellington. The police located the bird, scooped it up, and returned it to the water whence it came.
It now seems like he/she was there casing the joint, because two days later, he/she was back, but this time with a partner-in-crime. The pair of “waddling vagrants”, as the police dubbed them, began building themselves a nest right under the sushi stall in Wellington’s busiest railway station, in the heart of the city.
If you’re struggling to imagine two penguins under a food stall, it may help to know that little blues are as tiny as they are cute. Standing at only 25 cms (10″) tall, and weighing a mere 1kg, they hold the record as the smallest species of flightless seabirds. Under a sushi stall there’s gonna be plenty of space. “Really, you won’t even notice we’re here.”
Department of Conservation manager Jack Mace said the birds were entering their breeding season, and chose the stall as a good spot to lay their eggs. With fresh meals just a beak’s reach away, what better place?
But what a shame – the police managed to lure this pair of little chancers away from the sushi with promises of salmon, and returned them to the harbour. Meanwhile to prevent any possible reoffending, wildlife officers sealed off all nooks and crannies under the stall. All the best-laid plans of little blues come to nought.
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
“Otters are… cute, romantic, loyal and intelligent. They hold hands to ensure they don’t float away from each other, live in close family units, use tools to access food, and pat stones in the air and then roll them around their bodies. These unique behaviors and human-like characteristics have made them hugely popular animals, globally. “
Adam Gekowski, photographer and filmmaker
(And that, sadly is their undoing.)
“Aw, adorable!”, we find ourselves murmuring. It’s an instinctive human response when we encounter other animals – especially the cute furry ones – in photos, videos, nature films, or if we’re really lucky, in the flesh.
Our desire for face to face encounters in particular is all down, it seems, to “our natural affinity for life… the very essence of our humanity [that] binds us to all other living species.” So says the blurb on the book ‘Biophilia’, authored by renowned naturalist E. O. Wilson. He believes we are born with this urge to connect with other life forms. It’s innate, he says, hardwired into our biology. “Our existence depends on [it], our spirit woven from it.” Biophilia– love of what lives.
But nowadays we have a problem giving expression to this instinct. Our increasingly urbanised life offers fewer and fewer chances for animal encounters. Right now 3 million of usare moving to cities every week. By roughly 2040, it’s expected 66% of the world’s population will be living in cities.
Nonetheless, “even in urban environments,the animal connectionis real and strong. We need to live with animals because they offer us so much, not the least of which is someone to love.” – paleoanthropologist Pat Shipman. I think she’s nailed it right there, don’t you?
So, given we have that innate need for animal connection, where can we find ways to satisfy it in the city, especially in the busiest, most crowded city of all with 38 million humans squeezed into it, Tokyo, Japan?
The answer for many lies in caring for a cat or a dog, hopefully rescued ones. That may not be so easy for the residents of Tokyo. Housing here is at a premium – often there is just no room for companion animals, and many landlords forbid them. On top of that, few people would have time to take care of them since Japanese culture dictates notoriously long working hours. (Shockingly, the Japanese have a specific wordfor death attributed to overwork – “karoshi“.)
Now stir the following disparate ingredients into the Tokyo mix:
Japan’s birth rate last year was the lowest in history. Many 20 -30 year olds remain single and/or childless – no-one to love and care for
Otters do look undeniably cute
Social media is hugely influential (Instagram’s Japanese otter celebrity Takechiyo, for instance, has 300,000 followers)
And what does it all add up to?
The latest craze, Tokyo’s otter cafes
Which for a price, offer the promise of half an hour’s cuddle time to city dwellers and visitors in need of their animal ‘fix’.
Several of these places appear on TripAdvisor. In some cafes, visitors are let into a small room containing the otters, and are allowed “to run riot” with them. In others, the otters remain caged and visitors can feed them through small holes.
But however the individual cafes are organised, and however much the visitors enjoy their encounters (and most really do. Only 11% of visitors to one cafe left reviews on TripAdvisor expressing real concern for the animals), one thing is guaranteed:
No good whatever is to be had for the otters themselves. It’s quite tragic that the very love people have for, and want to give the furry creatures, “translates into behaviour that is incredibly harmful to the animal,” says World Animal Protection’s global head of the Wildlife. Not Petscampaign.
“The otters are heard whimpering, shrieking and making distress calls while customers are interacting with them. Some are kept in solitary conditions with no natural light, others are seen biting their claws and exhibiting traumatized behavior – some of the worst housing conditions included small cages with no access to water.”
One otter seen by the WAP team was so stressed it had bitten the end of its tail off.
Otters are semiaquatic animals, and Asian otters typically live in streams, rice paddies, and marshes, in large family groups. A far cry from a Tokyo cafe full of excited noisy people.
Even apart from the suffering of a wild animal kept in captivity, otters do not make for good petting, or for good pets, even though well-edited video clips might lead you to think so. When WAP visited Instagram star Takechiyo in his home for example, they saw him looking very cute and placid for a few minutes, picking up small pieces of cat food and popping them into his mouth.
“However, the illusion was quickly shattered as he then went on a tour of destruction around the house; climbing on all the furniture, chewing, shrieking, and even biting and scratching our translator. It was a lightbulb moment – otters may look cute, but they make terrible pets. Otters are best observed at arm’s length and in the wild.”
Orphans stolen from the wild
The otter craze is not confined to Tokyo. It’s sweeping across Southeast Asia. In Thailand for example, there are at least 10 large Facebook groups devoted to keeping pet otters. Otter-mania is hiking sky-high the price on the animal’s head. Just one can fetch several thousand dollars. And where there is money to be made, there is no shortage of people with few scruples wanting a piece of the action. To supply the booming market, farmers, hunters and traffickers are shooting or electrocuting adult otters and stealing their babies. Even law enforcement agencies and government officials are involved, and it’s thought likely there are links to organised crime.
As a result, three out of four otter species found in this part of the world are now at risk of extinction, according to the IUCN.
What can we do?
The good news is, there are a number of positive steps we can all take to help captive otters in Asia, and indeed other wild animals.
It’s all too easy to click on some cute animal video, to comment or follow. Let’s pause for a moment. Is it a wild animal taken from its natural habitat? Then it’s certain to be suffering for our entertainment. World Animal Protection suggests instead of the automatic click, we change the conversation online about keeping wild animals, like otters, as pets. “Every ‘Like‘ ” they say, “leads to a lifetime of cruelty.”
3 Download the Wildlife Witness app
If you’re planning a trip abroad, you can actually play a part in the detection of illegal wildlife trade. You may spot wild animals being sold in a local market for example. “The Wildlife Witness smartphone app allows tourists and locals to easily report wildlife trade by taking a photo, pinning the exact location of an incident and sending these important details to TRAFFIC“ – says their website.
4 Never visit cruel wildlife attractions when you’re on holiday – Take the pledge
9 Watch and share Aaron Gekoski’s film ‘Pet otters: the truth behind the latest wildlife craze’
This is not a case of Westerners pointing the finger eastwards. We have exactly the same problem on our doorstep, only the ‘cute cuddly’ animal in question here is the ring-tailed lemur, taken from tropical Madagascar to the Lake District, northwest England. Armathwaite Hall, a hotel and spa resort near Keswick, offers ‘lemoga’ – outdoor yoga in the company of the primates. Carolyn Graves, owner of the hotel, says: “Lemoga offers our guests the chance to feel at one with nature, at the same time joining in with the lemurs’ playtime.”
Teaming up with adjoining Lake District Wildlife Park (now doesn’t that sound nice – for a zoo), the hotel also offers walks with alpacas and meet-the-meerkat sessions. Manager of the ‘wildlife park’ Richard Robinson, waxes lyrical:
“I don’t think you ever see an unhappy zookeeper. We spend all our time with animals. We know how it makes us feel and if we can give a little piece of that to people then great.” Interestingly, he omits to say how the animals feel about it.
It’s just a crying shame that we so often give expression to our natural desire for animal connection in a way that is a thoughtlessly one-sided affair.
Yoga Studio Set to Exploit Monkeys, Reptiles, and Others – Take Action Now here
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.
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me. The lioness in the circus—I see you. The pig in the sow stall—I see you. The mouse in the medical experimentation facility—I see you. The fish crushed at the bottom of a trawler net—I see you. I know your suffering, and I will never be silent. I will push forward no matter what life throws my way because the cruelties inflicted on you must end, and I’ll do all I can to see that happen. You have all of me.”
The stirring words of outspoken vegan activist Emma Hurst, representative of the Animal Justice Party(AJP), at her swearing in to Australia’s New South Wales State Parliament. She is now the third vegan activist elected to state office.
My last post “Isn’t it Time to Stop the Killing in the Name of Conservation“, cast the spotlight on the horrific scale of Australia’s ongoing slaughter of wild and feral animals. Still more blood is shed to ‘protect’ farmers’ and ranchers’ interests – without mentioning the unhappy fate of the farmed animals themselves. So it’s good to know Arian Wallach and the Centre for Compassionate Conservation are not alone in their campaign for kinder ways. Here is an introduction to the Animal Justice Party –
Last month vegan activists stopped the traffic in central Melbourne, while others demonstrated outside abattoirs. The Prime Minister Scott Morrison no less, said their activism was “un-Australian”, and bad-mouthed them as “green-collar criminals”. 40 of them were arrested. He declared his determination not to let them “pull the rug from under our Aussie farmers,” at present an industry worth $30 billion.
May 18th’s pivotal election
“Australians will return to the polls this Saturday in what’s becoming a pivotal election for animals and the environment. The big question: Will Australia’s next prime minister be friend or foe to the nation’s animal agriculture industry?”
Veganism in Australia
The country has more than 2 million vegans
Veganism is especially popular among younger voters
44 percent of young people (aged 18–24) think that veganism is “cooler than smoking.” (Certainly much healthier!)
The plant-based food industry there is forecasted to grow 58%by 2020
Why things have to change
1.8 billion animals have been killed for food in Australia so far this year and counting
70% of the $30 billion Australian agriculture is ‘worth’ comes from slaughtered animals
30% comes from milk, wool and eggs (which of course all also mean animal slaughter)
Last year the country exported 2.85 million living animals which suffered cruelly over long journeys in cramped shipping containers
2,400 sheep died of heat stress en route from Perth to the Middle East
Australia’s animal agriculture accounts for 11% of national emissions of GHGs
Over 20 year timescale that actually means 50% because methane has a stronger climate forcing effect
“Nearly 85 percent of the population that lives along the coast will be impacted by rising seas, storm surges, flooding, heatwaves, and damage to public infrastructure”
And climate change is already a big problem
Last year Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology issued four Special Climate Statements relating to “extreme” and “abnormal” heat, and reported broken climate records
With temperatures around 40°C in December last year, firefighters struggled to contain the 115 bush firesraging across Queensland
Piles of dead fox bats, whose brains literally fried in the heat, covered Sydney
For the last two years the country’s rainfall has been 11% below average
With the severe shortage of grazing on the parched land for their cattle, farmers in Western Australia have been struggling to find the money for the cost of feed, at $10,000 dollars per truckload
Farmers have also had to drive round with tankers of water to keep their thirsty cattle alive
In spite of all this, “as far as Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Parliament’s pro-farming majority are concerned, animals are no more than the means to a very profitable end for this Parliament.” (This attitude is what we are all up against.)
The Animal Justice Party, which doesn’t“prioritize a cattle and BBQ culture ahead of a livable climate,” but does, like Emma Hurst, prioritise animal rights, certainly has its work cut out.
If you live in Australia please vote this Saturday for the AJP.
“My promise to the animals is this: You have all of me.”
For the sake of the animals, please share this post widely. Thank you.
Sign Animals Australia’s petition against live exports here and take more actions for the animals here
“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.”
“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.
Imagine a Forbidden Area, left to slumber for 100 years, in which lies a ‘Fairytale Valley’,“where diamonds were once so common they could be picked up in handfuls as they gleamed in the light of the moon.”
“The most unspoiled large plot of land left on the planet, and the only arid biodiversity hotspot.” A unique wilderness almost the size of Belgium, of “towering dunes, sea cliffs, soaring inselbergs¹, panoramic views, lonely gravel plains, the fourth largest meteorite crater in the world, and mass flowerings that follow spring rains.”A dramatic landscape of desert, grassland, coast and mountains.
This is the Sperrgebiet National Park. The park surrounding a diamond mine is an industrial exclusion zone where Nature holds sway.
(More about the Sperrgebiet shortly)
We humans have found a million ways to deface the planet. Our expanding cities devour the land, we crisscross it with highways, we strip away forests, and crush it under factories, we gauge out mines. We disfigure it with scars of a magnitude visible from space.
But do our worst, we cannot keep unstoppable Nature at bay forever. And when large industrial complexes for example, set up heavily protected security zones around them to keep unauthorised humans out, Nature seizes the slightest of chances to move right on in. Her healing hands transfigure what we have blighted into havens pulsing with life. Life finds a way to flourish in the most unlikely of places. Not least in industrial exclusion zones.
Introducing the Industrial Exclusion Zones
Possibly the most infamous of them all – the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone
In 1986, the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl exploded and deadly radiation spread for hundreds of miles in smoke and dust, air and water. Every human being was evacuated from within a 30 km radius of the plant, and forbidden to return. An exclusion zone of 4000 km² was created. Fences and radiation warning signs were erected.
But wildlife is no respecter of fences and doesn’t read signs.
CEZ fence and wild dog inside the zone
30 years after the event, John Wendle made a visit to the CEZ for the National Geographic magazine, and wrote of finding “the tracks of wolf, moose, deer, badger, and horses. I counted scores of birds: ravens, songbirds, three kinds of birds of prey, and dozens of swans paddling in the radioactive cooling pond.”
And Ukrainian scientist Sergey Gaschak confirmed, “We have all large mammals: red deer, roe deer, wild boar, moose, bison, brown bear, lynx, wolves, two species of hare, beaver, otter, badger, some martins, some mink, and polecats.” And a score of other mammals including bats, as well as ten or more species of big birds: hawks, eagles, owls, storks, and swans. What a wealth of wildlife!
That was 2015. Now a bang-up-to-date 2019 study agrees – wildlife is abundant in the CEZ. Nature is thriving. Nature has taken over. Because we are not there.
“In the exclusion zone, humans have been removed from the system and this greatly overshadows any of those potential radiation effects.”
But the CEZ may be shrinking. Professor Jim Smith from Portsmouth University has been monitoring its radiation levels since 1990. In the outer regions of the CEZ radiation levels are lower than we would get flying on a plane or having a CT scan. And lower than the natural background radiation in many other parts of the world. In the decades to come, as people start to move back into the zone, what will happen to the fabulous wealth of wildlife that has so flourished in their absence?
Even in active industrial installations Nature finds a way
The Secunda Synfuels Operations plant, South Africa
The securely-fenced compound of the Secunda Synfuels Operations plant has become an unexpected haven for servals. The servals have found Secunda’s exclusion zone such a great place to live that the ratio of serval numbers to area is “far greater than any other site on record across the entire range of the species.”
Happily for the servals, the compound intended to keep people out, encircles a large area of wetland. Wetland means a plentiful supply of rodents, and no prizes for guessing servals’ favourite food!
There is little more commercially valuable and well-protected than diamonds. The Jwaneng diamond mine produces 11 million carats of diamonds per year, making it the richest diamond mine in the world. To get those precious stones, nearly 47 million tons of rock and ore are dug out every year. That is one big ugly scar on the face of the planet.
But the Jwaneng exclusion zone also encompasses the Jwana Game Park, home to the globally threatened lappet-faced vulture. Red hartebeest, impala, springbok, steenbok, duiker, wildebeest, gemsbok (oryx) kudu, eland, giraffe, zebra, warthog, baboon, cheetah, ostrich, leopard, caracal, and many other smaller animals are thriving in Jwana.
Venetia, South Africa
The Venetia diamond mine tells a similar story. South Africa’s biggest producer of diamonds, Venetia’s exclusion zone, all 360 km² of it, became the Venetia Limpopo Nature Reserve, notable for those most ancient of trees, the baobabs.
Three of the ‘big five’, lion, elephant and leopard live there in safety, as well as “a broad array of large mammals such as African wild dogs, and cheetahs”.
Humans out, wildlife in.
Now to the Sperrgebiet, Namibia
German speakers will know that ‘Sperrgebiet’ means ‘Forbidden Area’. It lies within what was in 1908 – when diamonds were first discovered there – the colony of German South West Africa. The Forbidden Area, closed to the public for a century is now a national park extending over 26,000km². A national park with a difference, since nearly all of it is still forbidden to visitors. Though to this day diamonds continue to be mined there on a small-scale ,“the habitat is largely untouched and pristine.” It is a true wilderness.
Ancient signs still remain: “Warning. Penalty £500. Or One Year’s Imprisonment. The Public Is Warned Against Entering The Prohibited Area.”
“Exclusion of humans has helped preserve the natural biodiversity of the region which is now a hot-spot for exotic flora and fauna. The Sperrgebiet has more biodiversity than anywhere else in Namibia, supporting animals such as the gemsbok, springbok, and brown hyena, and bird species such as the African oystercatcher, the black-headed canary, and the dune lark. Some 600,000 Cape fur seals live here, representing 50 percent of the world’s seal population.”
80 terrestrial mammal species have been recorded there, and reptile species are abundant.
The Succulent Karoo holds the world’s richest flora of succulent plants, with one-third of the world’s approximately 10,000 succulent species
40% of its succulent plants are endemic to the Karoo
With 630 recorded species, the region is also exceptionally rich in geophytes²,
284 of the Sperrgebiet’s plants are on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species
The Sperrgebiet is in the world’s top 25 biodiversity hotspots. Man out, Nature in with a vengeance!
The problem is of course that where there are wonders of Nature, people want to see them for themselves. In 2007 the park management were “plotting ecologically sensitive guided driving and hiking trails. Given the importance, but also the fragility, of this ecosystem, tourism planning must out of necessity be carefully and sensitively addressed. Some areas with a high endemicity and range-restricted species are to be designated as Strict Nature Reserves and will never be generally accessible. Other areas will have access limited to visitors on foot, horse or camel back.”
Fine words, and let us hope they will always be born out on the ground³. Otherwise the Sperrgebiet may not remain the forbidden, undisturbed paradise it has been for so long.
But let’s end on an up note. I love this story – Elephant seals reclaim Drake’s Beach in California during the US government shut down. No heavy industry here, but normally lots of humans, including the 85-strong staff of Point Reyes National Seashore. The government shutdown left only 12 staff there, not enough to shake blue tarps to frighten the seals away as they normally would. Every cloud, as they say …
“In January 2019, elephant seals occupied the section of Drakes Beach adjacent to the Kenneth C. Patrick Visitor Center, and, at times, the parking lot and wooden ramps leading up to the visitor center”.The elephant seals – nearly 100 of them – are mostly females with their pups, but there are a few males too.
When the seals showed up, staff promptly closed off the entire area to the public. Now they are experimenting with weekend opening of a small part of the car park, just enough for 20 cars, for supervised viewing only. If the scheme is a success, weekend viewings will continue until early April when the pups will be weaned and the seals will move on.
Drake’s Beach is a far cry from Chernobyl – or Secunda and the diamond mines if it comes to that. But the moral of the story in all cases is the same:
In the words of Point Reyes’ chief seashore wildlife ecologist Dave Press,
“If you just get out of the way, wildlife will find its way in.”
Never a truer word.
¹Inselbergs are rock hills/mountains that arise steeply from a surrounding plain. Inselberg translates as ‘island mountain’.
²Most geophytes are plants that store water and carbohydrates underground – think tuber or rhizome such as the ginger we buy in a store. This underground organ helps them to withstand extremes of temperature and drought and protects them from grazing animals.
³Nowadays there is a strictly controlled guided day tour to Pomona, a ghost town abandoned at the end of the diamond rush, and the famous Bogenfels, a 55 metre high arch of rock on the Sperrgebiet’s Atlantic coast.