Father Christmas in his sleigh, Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Prancer and the rest, an image beloved of children generation after generation, made their first appearance in the starry winter sky nearly 200 years ago in 1823. But Rudolph was just too darn cosy in his straw-filled stable at the North Pole. It was another 100 years plus (1939) before he first poked his red nose outside, and was promptly appointed Santa’s right hand reindeer. I know Vixen, life is not fair.
It’s likely though that this bizarre-when-you-think-about-it vision of Santa and his reindeer flying across the night sky has far deeper roots:
“According to the theory, the legend of Santa derives from shamans in the Siberian and Arctic regions who dropped into locals’ teepee-like homes with a bag full of hallucinogenic mushrooms as presents in late December.
“As the story goes, up until a few hundred years ago, these practicing shamans or priests connected to the older traditions would collect Amanita muscaria (the Holy Mushroom), dry them and then give them as gifts on the winter solstice. Because snow is usually blocking doors, there was an opening in the roof through which people entered and exited, thus the chimney story.”*
Little wonder our ancestors were dreaming dreams of magic!
The festive sleigh-pulling team contrary to popular belief is comprised entirely of females – yes, even Rudolph. Though both sexes of reindeer wear antlers, the males only need theirs for the autumn rut and shed them well before Christmas
In the winter the animals live almost exclusively on “reindeer moss” (lichen) and cover long distances to find it, travelling the furthest of any land mammal in the world, up to 5,000 km a year
They can run at up to 80 kph
They are smaller than you think, standing at only 1.2m at the shoulder
They have clowns’ feet – wide spreading hooves that make perfect snowshoes, shovels to shift snow (to get at the food beneath) and paddles for swimming
It’s true they do have unusual noses – not normally red – because they are furry. In fact their special insulating hollow fur covers every bit of a reindeer’s body from furry nose to furry feet, except of course their eyes. Their coat is one of the thickest and densest of any animal
They talk to each other with their feet. When the herd is moving, “they make a delicate clicking or popping sound. Being surrounded by a small herd sounds a bit like being in a bowl of puffed rice as the milk is poured on to it”
Once reindeer roamed the hills of northern England and Scotland. They were hunted by the Vikings
In the 1950s a small herd was reintroduced to the Cairngorms and are now 130 strong
Elsewhere they can now be found only in Russia and Norway
This naturally curious and gentle creature was a prime candidate – thought to be the first with hooves – for humans to domesticate, 30,000 years ago in Scandinavia
Like so many animals, their usefulness to humans (milk, meat, skins) meant their being hunted almost to extinction
In southern Norway, there remain only 20 herds, about 40,000 deer in all
In reality, having to pull Santa’s sleigh all around the world, arduous as that sounds, is the least of Rudolph’s problems
The main threats to these beautiful animals, along with nonhuman animals the world over, are human-caused: habitat fragmentation and destruction; roads carving up the forest; house-building; oil, gas and timber extraction. And global warming – the timber line is creeping northwards and shrinking the arctic tundra on which the reindeer rely.
Another serious cause for concern is inbreeding. Reindeer females don’t seem able, as many species of animals do, to select mates from outside their immediate group, and will frequently mate with males too closely related to them. Direct human interference has exacerbated the problem. Large numbers of males were removed from the herds in the 70s, to increase the preponderance of females and produce more young. The intended outcome was more reindeer to hunt. The unintended outcome was a further shrinking of the gene pool.
Shooting rights up for grabs
If you have a yen to celebrate the season of goodwill with a killing spree and have enough spare cash, the Norwegian government has opened up two of their largest national parks for you to slaughter any number of the last surviving wild population of these gentle creatures in Europe.
The business selling the tickets for such a trip, for which it claims exclusive rights, styles itself “Scotland’s Premier Sporting Agency“. Shooting reindeer in Norway is, it says, “a magical experience”. (And feel free to take a pop at bears and wolves, both critically endangered in Norway, while you’re there.) This is the picture promoting the trip on the agency’s website
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.”
When your holiday zest for sightseeing bazaars and palaces begins to flag, and you turn into the nearest cafe for a much-needed sit down and restorative coffee, chances are several street dogs and cats will have got there before you and nabbed the best seats.
As you settle at a vacant table, a furry feline will in all likelihood settle on you. And in this city no-one is going to turn them out. Because you are in Istanbul, the ‘four-legged city’, where the free-roaming dogs and cats get cared for as well as the pampered pets inside the home.
The cafe owner emerges from the kitchen with dishes of food for his four-legged guests. The fishmonger next door is slicing up pieces of fish for the hopeful, patiently waiting outside.
Local residents are putting out bowls of water and food next to the little shelters they’ve knocked together for the furries out on their own streets. And of course, there are rich pickings to be had for the enterprising in the bags of rubbish thrown on to the street.
Reinvigorated by your coffee? Then head for Nişantaşı Sanat Parkı, otherwise known as ‘the Cat Park’. There are cats, cats and more cats everywhere you look. Hundreds, yes hundreds, of them. Unlike feral cats in the UK, these are completely habituated to people, and will return your attentions with happy purrs and affectionate nuzzles.
You may be puzzled by strange white boxes dotted about the city. These are ‘smart’ recycling boxes. Recycling with an unusual twist: the box rewards you for recycling your empty water bottle by dispensing cat and dog food to give to the animals.
Canines beyond the city limits where food opportunities are thin on the ground are not forgotten either. A van is sent out daily to Belgrade Forest with 1,000 kg of dry dog food. The driver honks the horn, the signal that breakfast has arrived. The dogs come running out of the trees.
That’s hunger dealt with. What about thirst? The city has installed fresh water stations especially for the 130,000 thirsty dogs and 165,000 thirsty cats free-roaming the city – that’s about as many street-dwelling felines and canines combined as there are human residents of Nottingham or Belfast.
If any of these free-spirited furries get sick, no problem – if they can’t get to one of the 6 health clinics (with a little help from the always willing humans), the VetBus will come to them.
There’s no doubt about it: Istanbul’s four-legged residents are done proud. You could say they own the city.
A paradise present and past
What a paradise for these lucky animals, a paradise present and past. Dogs and cats have been documented on the streets of Istanbul for hundreds of years. “The dogs sleep in the streets, all over the city,”Mark Twain wrote after a visit in 1867. “They would not move, though the Sultan himself passed by.”
Why is it that in this city they are not just tolerated, but actively cared for? “They are the neighbourhood’s dogs [and cats]. They protect us and everyone loves them,” says resident Hamit Yilmaz Ozcan.
Sadly the same cannot be said of many other cities in the world. In the last few years alone we have heard of cities like Sochi, Beijing, and Rio de Janeiro’s horrific mass killings of street animals ahead of big sporting events. Other places like Cyprus and Bali also view the street animals as pests, and regularly cull them. ‘Cull’ of course is just officialese for ‘kill’. But killing it is nonetheless. In 2013, Romania’s capital Bucharest ordered euthanasia (another euphemism) of its 50,000 strays.
“The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide. Countries such as Ukraine, Sri Lanka and Mexico have in the past, taken reduction measures [yet another euphemism to cloak the unpalatable truth] to control their large populations of stray dogs.”
So what makes Istanbul so different, possibly unique?
The answer is, centuries of Islamic tradition in the Ottoman Empire, of which Istanbul was the capital and seat of power. The Ottomans took to heart the Qu’ran’s teaching that all animals were made by Allah. All animals are loved by Allah. All animals must be treated with kindness and compassion.
“According to Islamic culture, people should avoid being unjust to others, and it places animals’ rights above human rights since it is possible to compensate for the wrongdoing to people by asking for their forgiveness; however, it is not possible with animals as they lack reason.”
(Personally, I think it’s not that they lack reason, but that we don’t understand their language.)
“Prophet Muhammad told the story of two different women who lived long before his time. As he recounted, an evil women went to heaven because she gave water to a dog, while a good woman went to hell because she starved a cat to death.”
(Define ‘good woman’, I’d say. Starving a cat to death sounds pretty evil to me. But anyway, you get the drift.)
“Fearing this story, people in the past fed their animals before they sat down for meals and did not go to bed before they cleaned the animals in their barns and checked if they had water and feed. Moreover, the government punished those who carried barnyard fowls upside down or overloaded horses or donkeys, and people who harmed animals were alienated from their community in the Ottoman Empire.
“The Ottomans established foundations to feed street dogs, and wolves in the mountains, provide water for birds on hot summer days and treat storks with broken wings or injured horses. They also built birdhouses in the courtyards of buildings such as mosques, madrasahs and palaces and placed water pans on gravestones for birds.”
Even ‘worn out’ donkeys and horses, no longer fit to work, were not shot or abandoned as would have been, and often still is their fate elsewhere, but cared for until the end of their days.
Sad change in the 19th century
The people of Istanbul have always loved having the animals around – and who wouldn’t. The state though is a different matter. In the 19th century, the Ottomans, realising the image they were projecting to European powers was one of backwardness, decided to push beggars, orphans and the unemployed into forced labour or deportation. And at the same time made “systemic efforts to annihilate stray dogs within the wider picture of Ottoman modernizing reforms.”
In 1909, “although old Istanbul’s street dogs were very famous, the municipality collected all of them, ferried them to an island in the Marmara Sea and abandoned them. They were left with no food or clean water, and their cries were heard throughout the city.
“The people who pitied them threw them food, but when all of these dogs died on the island, the residents of the city were disturbed by the smell of their corpses. The wars that broke out and the defeats of the empire following this incident were seen as a punishment for what was done to those animals.”
That sudden ruthless disregard for the centuries-old traditions of care and respect for the street dogs and cats continued right through the 20th century. Right up to the 1990s, officials were strewing poison around the city, consigning the animals to a cruel death.
In 2004 Turkey passed an Animal Protection Law
Everything changed again. The municipalities were forced to take a more humane approach. Instead of slaughter, an extensive neutering program was implemented by the VetBus and the clinics.
With rabies still endemic in Turkey, the thought of rabid animals roaming the busy streets of this ancient city is not one the municipality was prepared to countenance for a second, so the other important part of the program is vaccination. Under the Capture Neuter Vaccinate & Release program, CNVR, the dogs and cats are also chipped and given an ear tag so they can easily be identified as having been ‘done’ before they are returned to the street or square where they were found.
It’s a secret
The tons of food, the water stations, the recycle boxes, the clinics, the VetBus, the CNVR program – surely none of this can come cheap? The municipality refuses to say how much is being spent on the street dogs and cats of Istanbul. “If people knew how much money was spent on these services, maybe people would be more upset, but these figures are not disclosed,” says Yildirim, coordinator of the collective “Dort Ayakli Sehir” (Four-legged City).
But Turkey’s Agriculture and Forests Minister Bekir Pakdemirli did recently admit that between 2009 and 2018 his ministry expended 31 million Turkish lira (around $6 million) just contributing towards the budgets of local authorities across the country for their care of street animals.
Maybe still not quite such a paradise for the street dogs and cats after all?
The best efforts of the CNVR program has only succeeded in keeping the stray feline and canine populations at a fairly constant level. Their numbers have not fallen over time as the municipality might have hoped and expected. Of course, there will always be some wily characters that escape the net and keep breeding.
But much sadder than that, according to animal welfare organisations on the ground:
“There is a high incidence of dog abandonment in Turkey. Pets are often bought on impulse, and frequently as gifts. But when cute little puppies grow into large dogs that need space, exercise and long-term care, many families simply abandon their pets to the streets or forests. Many abandoned dogs are pure breeds, like golden retrievers, that are temperamentally unfit to survive on the streets or in the wild.”
The self-same fate awaits cats:
“In Turkey everyday, thousands of puppies and kittens are sold in the pet-shops just like stuffed animals and most of them find themselves abandoned on the streets within a couple of months… Abandoned cats and dogs are everywhere. Sometimes people simply kick them out from their home right on the streets, sometimes they take a dog into a forest and leave him there so he can’t find his way back home, or even abandon him by the side of a motorway so he gets killed quickly.”
This little guy is one such victim. Only 40 days old, found all alone and whimpering in a ditch at the side of the road. Luckily he was rescued and put up for adoption. But there’s still a chance he could end up back on the street further down the line.
Love for the street animals/casual, callous abandonment. How to reconcile the two?
Is it that the good people of Istanbul enjoy the pleasure the animals bring into their daily lives, and feel good giving food and some outdoor shelter, but don’t want the full responsibility of caring for them in their own home?
Or could it be that in today’s cosmopolitan city, while some still hold fast to the old traditions, others have discarded them as belonging to the past? That would be sad indeed.
From the centuries-old Ottoman Islamic ethic of respect and compassion, I believe there is much we and the world could learn in our attitudes towards all animals, great and small. Don’t you agree?
Please sign and share:
Petition to stop the poisoning of strays in Turkey’s capital, Ankara
Petition to end this tragedy in Turkey: dog starvation on a colossal scale.
Petition to stop neighbouring Jordan killing every street dog in the country
Petition to stop authorities in Benalmadena, Spain ruthlessly culling homeless cats
Petition to enforce ban on dog culling in Bangladesh
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.
It cannot be denied that the human world is often a place of nightmare, rife with hatred and war: nation against nation, race against race, tribe against tribe, sect against sect, political systems pitted one against the other, hostile factions splintering their own countries to the point of destruction. In the many wars of the last century 108 million humans diedat the hands of other humans.
But human conflict doesn’t just kill humans. Bombs and bullets rain down on human and nonhuman animals alike.
And wars cause famine. Animals starve, and animals are eaten by starving humans. Animals are forced to suffer everything we like to inflict on our own kind, and more.
Animals are even slaughtered simply so they don’t have to be fed. On the outbreak of World War II, the British government persuaded the population it was their patriotic duty to have their beloved pets put down. The first week of the war witnessed a mass euthanasia of three quarters of a million “non-essential animals”. Cat owners were prosecuted for giving their pet a saucer of milk.
At London Zoo, fruit bats, crocodiles, alligators, snakes, spiders, and lion cubs were also euthanised..
And then there were those animals we forced into the thick of it, conscripted into a war that wasn’t theirs: “elephants, dogs, cats and pigeons, even chickens, were all recruited to help in the war effort, and many of them died.”
Turning to a different arena of war, in the 80 years since WWII, “70 percent of Africa’s protected nature reserves have been turned into battlegrounds”taking down animal populations with them. In one decade, in Mozambique alone, 90% of hippos, zebras, elephants, antelope, and other herbivores perished. Happily, the wildlife has since bounced back, almost to its pre-conflict levels.
Ironically, this very belligerence that in our kind seems so deeply rooted, sometimes has the opposite, unexpectedly happy effect not of destroying animals and Nature, but creating space for her and respite for wildlife.
How does this happen?
Mostly, all that is needed is for us to be removed from the scene. Healing Nature does the rest. This happens by chance when we create a No Man’s Land between the territories of two hostile parties. In No Man’s Land there are no humans to hunt, trap or poison the animals (human hunters kill 4 times as many smaller carnivores as do the large wild predators). No farming to plough up and fence off potential habitat, or blitz the land with pesticides. And just as importantly, there is silence.
Because even when we are not fighting each other, or persecuting the animals, not doing anything at all directly harmful, our mere presence, the mere sound of the human voice – this may come as a surprise – terrifies the creatures and drastically inhibits the natural behaviours they need for survival such as foraging or hunting. Researchers from Western University found that we humans are far scarier to badgers, for instance, than are any of the apex predators like wolves and big cats. In fact, simply the sound of people talking filled badgers with “a paralysing terror“
They concluded that we could be messing up wild animals’ lives “even more than previously imagined” – not by doing anything in particular, just by being around.
And it gets worse. If we are doing more than just being there, there are at least four wayswe could actually be causing wildlife to develop cancer. We humans are it seems “an oncogenic species“. (‘Oncogenic’: tending to cause tumours) Some accolade!
So, time to remove the humans
The No Man’s Lands
1. The Iron Curtain
The Communist Soviet Bloc’s Iron Curtain stretching from “the Barents Sea at the Russian-Norwegian border, along the Baltic Coast, through Central Europe and the Balkans to the Black and the Adriatic Seas,”all 12,500 kilometres of it, holds the record as the longest ever No Man’s Land in the world. This several hundred metres-wide scar of barbed wire, land mines, watchtowers and Kalashnikov-bearing border guards, dividing the whole of Europe and splitting Germany into two opposing camps, forcibly confined its citizens, and kept them from the ‘contamination’ of Western democracy.
The Curtain remained in place for forty years until it finally came down in 1989. And in that time Nature turned what was a fearful zone of death for humans, into a line of life for wild animals, an ecological corridor for wolves, bears, lynx and eagles. Along the 1,400 km strip dividing Germany alone, more than 600 threatened animal and plant species flourished.
Fortunately, conservationists in both the East and the West of the reunited Germany, were themselves united in their desire to keep that space for Nature, to protect this wildlife paradise from the inevitable human tendency to appropriate the land for human ends.
From what had been a symbol of human hostilities was born the European Green Belt, stretching along the borders of 24 states, and proudly owning a sweeter record, the record of being the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world.
2. The Korean DMZ
The present day DMZ, the de-militarised zone forcibly separating the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, and the Republic of Korea in the south, is pint-size in comparison. Stretching 250 kilometres from the Yellow Sea to the Sea of Japan, and 4 kilometres wide, it can be seen from space as a green ribbon dividing the Korean peninsula roughly in half.
In all other respects though, with all its layers of razor wire, thousands of land mines and military guards, it bears a grisly resemblance to the former Iron Curtain. And yet, in spite of the DMZ being “steeped in violence” and “one of the most dangerous places on earth”, Nature has reclaimed this symbol of enmity too, and transformed its 1000 sq kilometres into a haven buzzing with biodiversity, with thousands of species, many of which are either already extinct or endangered in both countries.
There are “Manchurian or red crowned cranes and white naped cranes, nearly 100 species of fish, perhaps 45 types of amphibians and reptiles and over 1,000 different insect species. Scientists estimate that over 1,600 types of vascular plants, and more than 300 species of mushroom, fungi and lichen are thriving in the DMZ. Mammals such as the rare Amur goral, Asiatic black bear, musk deer and spotted seal inhabit the DMZ’s land and marine ecosystems. There are even reports of tigers, believed extinct on the peninsula since before Japanese occupation, roaming the DMZ’s mountains.
Right now, North and South are making reconciliatory noises. If the two Koreas decide to reunify, there would be no more need for the deadly DMZ. But the DMZ has become the “ecological treasury” of the two Koreas. And even more completely priceless, since over the last 100 years of almost ceaseless conflict, industrial scale mining, deforestation, and soil pollution, ecosystems are in dire straits on both sides of the divide.
Luckily, as with the former Iron Curtain, scientists and citizens in both the ROK and the DPRK, and elsewhere in the world, recognise the richness of Nature in the DMZ, and have been for some time working hard to safeguard the future of its unique ecology. Moves are afoot to get the DMZ recognised by the United Nations as a World Heritage Site. Various NGOs are involved, foremost the DMZ Forumwhose mission is “To support conservation of the unique biological and cultural resources of Korea’s Demilitarized Zone,
“Transforming it from a symbol of war and separation to a place of peace among humans and between humans and nature.”
What better mission could there be.
No Man’s Lands aren’t always borders
1. Take the compound of brutal dictator Idi Amin
The “Butcher of Uganda” was responsible for murdering some 300,000 of his own people. His failed invasion of Tanzania proved to be the last throw of the dice for this unspeakable man, and in 1979 he was forced to flee the country. In the video below we can see for the first time how 40 years of Nature’s handiwork has turned the place where this monster plotted his atrocities into a peaceful wildlife paradise.
And this is not the only place once scarred by his dreadful presence. The beautiful island of Mukusu, a spectacular 23-acre paradise in Lake Victoria was the despot’s combined holiday home and torture camp.
“Henry Kabwgo, a fisherman living in a wooden shack on the island’s main beach, recalled how during fishing trips he would often see bodies bobbing in the lake, dumped from the shore by Amin’s henchmen. Then the crocodiles would eat them.”Unsurprisingly he described Amin as “a terrible man, a savage”.
I have not been able to discover how the island looks in 2019, but photos dated 2005 show Nature’s living cloak of greenery softening the ruins that were once the site of bloody horror.
2. No solid borders divide the ocean
While humans are busy killing each other at sea, they can’t be troubling the fish. Back to WWII once again. Fishing boats were requisitioned and fishermen drafted. And any that were not, would have been foolhardy in the extreme to risk venturing out on to the menacing waters of war. The fish got left in peace. Nature is never slow to seize an opportunity, and fish populations burgeoned.
Not only that, but when warships sank, as many did, they made perfect artificial reefs, rapidly colonised by an abundance of marine life. 52 German warships abandoned on the seabed off the north coast of Scotland for example, “are now thriving marine habitats”. Nature once again creating life from the detritus human hostilities leave behind them.
But to every rule, there has to be an exception. Sometimes Nature can prevail even when there are too many humans
In 1945, a certain school of hungry oceanic whitetips, known to be the most aggressive of all sharks, found themselves a new and plentiful supply of food. No encounter with these animals could be worse surely, than the feeding frenzy that followed the Japanese sinking of the USS Indianapolis near the Philippines. In the 12 minutes it took the warship to founder, 900 sailors made it into the Pacific ocean, but the blood from injured men and the thrashing in the water soon attracted the whitetips.
To begin with they satisfied their hunger only with the dead. But when rescue finally arrived, the survivors had been in the water four whole days, and only 317 remained alive. No-one knows exactly how many men the whitetips devoured, but estimates reckon at least 150. If you have an appetite for reading the gruesome story in full, you can do so here.
The event, though undeniably horrific for those seamen, was spawned by humans’ own enmities, one people against another. But Nature finds a way to transcend the deadly worst we can do to each other, and to her.
“Even out of the trail of destruction we leave behind, Nature – which is so much bigger than the human race – takes over, nurturing life.”
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.
Scientists said, “It chose freedom”. I say, “She chose freedom.”The story of the cow who prized freedom above the safety of home.
The story is set in Poland. So, as the heroine of this tale remains nameless as yet, I shall call her Swoboda, Polish for ‘Freedom’.
Ornithologist Adam Zbyryt was the first to spot her near the wild primeval forest of Bialowieza.“It’s not unusual to see bison near the Bialowieza Forest, but one animal caught my eye. It was a completely different shade from the rest of the herd, light-brown”he told a Polish news channel.
On closer inspection Swoboda turned out to be a Limousin cow, a French breed common in Poland. In spite of living on the hoof, so to speak, and exposed to the Polish winter, she was looking good – apparently healthy and unfazed by the snow and the giant bovines with horns of her adopted herd.
Another sighting of Swoboda took place this week, this time by biologist Rafal Kowalczyk. She is still keeping up with the bison, and happily still in fine fettle. At night wolves patrol the edges of the Bialowiez wilderness. A lone cow would be no match against such fearsome predators. For Swoboda to be surviving there, the bison must be protecting her.
All the same, Swoboda remains a bit of an outsider, not fully integrated in the herd. And while that is a cause for concern, if she can survive the winter, not getting too close to her shaggy friends could be a blessing in disguise. What if a big male bison were to take a fancy to her? End result – a hybrid calf. Diluting the bison genes would threaten the survival of the bison population, as of now standing at a precarious 520. What the herd needs is healthy bison babies with 100% bison genes.
And worse for Swoboda, a half-bison calf would likely be too big for her to carry and safely deliver. It could endanger her life.
All in all, come Spring someone may have to guide Swoboda back to the safety of confinement with her own kind. (Temporary safety. Safe that is, until humans are done with her.)
Meanwhile, stay close to your woolly friends Swoboda, and keep on relishing that sweet taste of freedom!
Canis Lupus, the grey wolf, “a fundamental element of our natural European heritage.”
So says the Bern Convention of 1979. The wolf was not always seen this way. Its image among the human population used to be more in line with the cunning and terrifying vulpine of Little Red Riding Hood: a danger and a scourge. Add industrialisation and urban sprawl to ruthless hunting, and by the beginning of the 20th century, the animal had all but disappeared from Western Europe.
Thanks to the work of environmental groups like Euronatur wolves are now recognised as an important apex predator; strategies are in place to encourage their recolonisation of Western Europe; and they have been granted the highest protected status in many European countries.
The animal is the keystone of a ‘trophic cascade effect’. To find out how astounding is the presence of wolves in bringing about an explosion of life, both plant and animal, watch this beautiful short video about wolves in Yellowstone. It will gladden your heart.
Belgium is the last country in mainland Europe a wolf has honoured with its presence. The environmental group Landschap announced the first sighting on Saturday. Can you imagine how excited the person or people who spotted it must have been?
The wolf, wearing an electronic tracker, made its Belgian debut in the northern province of Flanders. The tracker identified the beast as having come from Germany, via a tour of the Netherlands, travelling 300 miles in the last 10 days. Have tracker will travel!
Welcome news to lovers of Nature, but not everyone is so thrilled. Livestock farmers in particular are unhappy. In France for instance, 8,000 farmed animals were lost to wolves last year. In Spain, Italy and Switzerland, there are also tensions between the farming community and wolf protectors.
Interestingly, in countries that have always had wolves and learned over millennia to rub along with them, like Romania and Poland, loss of livestock to the predator is shrugged off as a natural misfortune, “like an accident, like a flock that falls into a ravine”, says Farid Benhammou, a specialist on predators.
If reintroduction/recolonisation plans are to be successful, getting that balance right between wolf protection and the interests of farmers has to be top priority. Schemes to compensate farmers for losses to predation are usual in countries blessed with a population of wolves. The Belgian government is now being urged to implement a similar scheme.
I hope 2018 will bring more good news about this intrepid traveller and his kind.
Is the human race divided into two tribes, those who love animals and those who don’t? Yes, it seems so. But what makes us this way? If only we could open a window into the human brain and see what is going on in there, what it is that makes one ‘tribe’ so different from the other.
Oh, hang on – we can. Exactly what was revealed when neuroscientist Massimo Filippi and his team did just that, opened that window, we will come to very shortly.
We’ve already seen in his fascinating book The Animals Among Us, John Bradshaw delving deep into the past to unravel the threads of our relationship with domesticated animals. He uncovers an evolutionary forking of the path – one group of humanity opting to settle, begin domesticating and living with animals, while the other remained hunting, marauding nomads.
Through the generations, passing those tameness genes down, the domesticated cats and dogs, cattle and sheep gradually got tamer. And at the same time the humans who lived with animals passed down their own evolving animal-loving genes to their descendants.
Meanwhile, the nomads found themselves an easy living without the trouble of making animals a part of their daily lives, by raiding the others’ settlements and stealing theirs. Animal-lover of animal-unlover, whichever group we fall into, that is very likely how we came to be. With apologies to John Bradshaw for squeezing what takes a book to explain into an ever-so-slightly oversimplified couple of paragraphs!
Now back to Massimo & co and their window into the brain
Their project set out to measure and compare the levels of empathy towards other humans and towards nonhuman animals in 3 different groups: omnivores, ethical vegetarians, and ethical vegans. By ethical we mean those who are veg*n for the animals rather than say, simply for their own health.
All the participants were first given an ‘Empathy Quotient’ survey to complete. Social cognitive neuroscientist Claus Lamm’s definition of empathy might be useful at this point:
“When we are confronted with another person [human or nonhuman] – say, someone in pain – our brains respond not just by observing, but by copying the experience. Empathy results in emotion sharing. I don’t just know what you are feeling, I create an emotion in myself.“
Next, using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) they showed the different groups images of human suffering and animal suffering, and monitored their brain activity to establish exactly what was happening inside these people’s heads.
The results of the fMRI:
The veggies and vegans showed more activity in empathy-related areas of the brain to images of both human and nonhuman suffering than the omnis
The veggies and vegans responded more strongly to the animal suffering than the human suffering
The vegans responded more strongly than the veggies to animal suffering
The veggies reacted more strongly than the vegans to human suffering
The omnis reacted more to the human suffering than the animal suffering
Both vegans and veggies showed reduced activity in the amygdala, which means that they were trying hard to control their emotions. Especially the vegans
All of which corresponded with the results from that preliminary EQ survey.
The study does leave some questions unanswered. For example, wouldn’t it be important to know which nonhuman animals appeared in the images? Were they dogs, cats, rats or hens? If they weren’t companion animals, might not cognitive dissonance have come into play for the omnis? After all, veg*ns don’t hold exclusive rights on loving animals, do they?
Cognitive dissonance – a brief excursion into the secret that enables our crazy species to both love animals and eat them. This is how it works:
In our Western culture we are socially conditioned to see animals as falling into specific groups defined entirely by how we humans relate to them, and how useful they are to us. We absorb this way of thinking completely unconsciously from our mother’s knee, and everything we encounter throughout our childhood, books, movies, games, toys, advertising, reinforces the construct.
So we have:
Wild Animals with whom we have little contact
Utility Animals who ‘work’ for us – horses, donkeys, farm and police dogs and so on
Food Animals – cows, pigs, sheep, hens
Animals for entertainment– racehorses, greyhounds, circus animals, animals in zoos and aquaria
Animals for ‘education’ – animals in labs, zoos and aquaria, in schools and universities
Companion Animals – pet dogs, cats, hamsters, budgies etc
And let us not forget
Vermin – this category can be made to emcompass any species from buzzards to badgers that humans discover reasons for finding ‘a nuisance’
What makes veg*ns different, is that they have broken down and demolished this construct. To them it matters not whether it is a woodlouse or a wolf, a chicken or a cheetah. A life is a life, and each and every one matters and has a right to live free from harm and exploitation. But might it not make a difference which animals’ pics were shown to the omnivorous participants? As they remain captive to that social conditioning which compels them to allot a category to different animals, some animals might matter to them more than others.
That aside, it’s no surprise that omnis responded more to human suffering than animal, or that for the veg*ns it was the reverse. The interesting finding was that the veg*ns were more responsive to suffering overall than the omnis. Yet most veg*ns including me, started life omnivorous.
So do the study’s results mean we were born with an innate empathy that turned us into vegans, or did becoming vegan make us more empathetic? Who knows.
If we fail to imagine what animals might be feeling, ” we could do a great deal of harm, and put suffering in the world that doesn’t need to be there”
Philosopher Janet Stemwedel
One thing the findings do, is cast doubt on how effective it is for animal advocates to try ‘converting’ omnivores by showing them images of the misery endured by so many animals at human hands. The response might fall disappointingly short of a ‘road to Damascus’ experience. The research shows that for some, seeing is not necessarily feeling.
But it isn’t only written in the genes. The brain has plasticity – it is capable of being moulded. So let’s take the hopeful view and assume that becoming vegan helped make us more empathetic. And that omnivores may have more of those nomadic raiders’ genes with an animal-disconnect. But they are also profoundly conditioned, as we all are or have been, in their attitudes to nonhuman animals by the prevailing norms of our society.
Do you love animals but still eat them? Here is one eloquent, passionate man who may be able to change your mind. Philip Wollen, tearing down those malignant social norms – so inhumane towards nonhuman animals, and indeed, so disastrously damaging for humankind and the planet itself.
Have you been thinking about adding to your family with a new furry? Well, tomorrow, Saturday August 19th is The Day to find yourself that one special pooch or moggie who’s sure to steal your heart away. It’s Clear the Shelters Day, when right across the USA shelters offer free or greatly reduced fees for all would-be adopters. It’s a once-a-year event to find loving homes for every fur baby in the participating shelters. Want to know more about this marvellous scheme? Click here and here
And to prod you in the right direction, here is a selection box of cat and dog trivia, facts and fun to dip into, that I hope will yield up one or two surprises.
Those of us already sharing our homes and lives with a BFF or three are pretty sure we can read them like a book, aren’t we. Every twitch of the ear, wag of the tail, arch of the back, squint of the eyes. We live with them for goodness sake. We know them so well that every time some new piece of scientific research on Felix or Fido reveals its (unsurprising) findings, we just go “Dah. Like we didn’t know that already”.
Except this time. Because I’m willing to bet these researchers have turned up an oddity that will have you eyeing your pooch anew.
The tell-tale tail
“It now appears that when dogs feel generally positive about something or someone, their tails wag moreto the right side of their rear ends, and when they have negative feelings, their tail wagging is biasedto the left.“
In spite of having lived with dogs all my life, I can’t claim ever to have noticed. But apparently, that left/right business isn’t as surprising as it seems at first glance. Many animal brains including humans, have a left hemisphere (which controls the right side of the body) that is activated by love, happiness, serenity. And the right hemisphere (controlling the left of the body) by withdrawal, fear, depression.
And, it’s not just, “Was that a left wag, or a right?” The language of doggy wag is a bit more complicated than we might have thought. Apart from the left/right business, the researchers noted 4 different kinds of rear end motion, and surprisingly they don’t all mean ‘I’m-so-happy-to-see-you’. Find the full wag guide here
Cats on the other hand, just wag their tails when they are angry, don’t they? As befits the cat’s enigmatic aura, the feline wag is even more subtly nuanced than the canine. So we have:
The Vertical Tail and Tail Quiver
The Wrapped Tail
The Tail Flick (Or, the Straight Out and Back Tail)
The Fluffy, Arched Tail
And the Twitch
What does it all mean? To whet your appetite for more, I’ll let you in on the meaning of the first, the VT & TQ: “An upright (or vertical) tail and tail quiver (or rattle tail) are often signs of a friendly greeting from your feline. An upright tail is usually a sign of a happy, confident cat” You knew that already of course! More on the cat wag guide here
It’s not fair
From a piece of research in Vienna, scientists found that dogs are right on the button when it comes to what is fair and what is not.
They put two dogs in separate cages, but where they could see each other. Each had a buzzer they could press with their paw. Sometimes when they pressed it they would both get a reward, but sometimes neither would. Sometimes one got a reward and the other didn’t. Sometimes one got a better treat than the other. What happened? The one consistently coming off worse would just give up pressing the buzzer. No-one wants to be the underdog.
But he or she would happily keep pressing the buzzer and not getting a reward, as long as the other dog didn’t get one either. Or, if there wasn’t another dog to compare themselves with – proof that it wasn’t just boredom that made them stop. The pooches were aggrieved. They stopped because it just wasn’t fair.
Is this something dogs have learned from living with us humans? It seems not. The researchers also tried the experiment on wolves – and got the same result. In fact the wolves stopped pressing even quicker, the alpha male quickest of all.
Dogs have been among us for maybe 40,000 years, but it seems their view of fairness learned long ago from dwelling as a member of a pack lives on.
Afterthought: wouldn’t it be fascinating to know how cats would respond? Would you like to venture a guess?
This dog stays wild!
We’re talking Australian dingo here. In traditional aboriginal society, dingo pups were taken from the wild and draped around women’s waists like garments of clothing. Like you do. The women even breastfed them. In return, they kept the women warm, were an invaluable help in the hunt, a source of protection – and sometimes of food.
But before the pups reached the age of two, they were returned to the wild to breed. And in spite of thousands of years of semi-involvement in human lives, the adult dingo still to this day fails “to respond to any amount of discipline, kindness, bribery or coercion.” A dingo pup taken from the wild can not be trained up as a family pet. “Affectionate and tractable when young, eventually their carnivorous nature gets the better of them.”
The dingo’s most astounding gift though, is its ability to divine water. These wild dogs can detect water both above and below ground, and humans throughout history have put its remarkable skill to good use. Records reveal many accounts of “wild/semi-wild dingoes leading Europeans to lifesaving water springs.” And Australian place names still bear witness to this talent: Dingo Soak, Dingo Springs, Dingo Rock, Dingo Gap.
In aboriginal culture, dreaming tracks or songlines trace the dingo’s paths across the continent, from one water source to another. To one well-versed in them, the songs of the dreaming tracks serve as maps, since the words describe landmarks and waterholes. So by singing them they can navigate their way even over the vast Australian desertland. The dingo has shown them the way.
You can find out more about these fascinating wild dogs, and see an extraordinary image of Aboriginal women with dingoes wrapped around their waists here
But enough of dogs. Now for a bit of quality time with the cats.
Cuddles & Cat Flu
This research aimed to find out what effect if any positive interaction with humans has on shelter cats’ health and wellbeing. So, on arriving at a Vancouver cat shelter, each cat was divided into one of two groups. The ‘treated’ group got quality interaction with a human 4 times a day, 10 minutes each time, for 10 days. The control group had someone stand outside the cats’ cage with averted eyes for the same amount of time.
Surprise, surprise, these are the findings:
Human interaction by petting, playing and grooming improved shelter cats’ welfare
‘Treated’ cats were more content and less anxious and frustrated
‘Treated’ cats had increased levels of immumoglobulin [meaning healthier immune systems]
‘Treated’ cats had less respiratory disease
Even if that falls into the cat-egory (ahem) of research results stating the obvious, it does prove one thing: much as they pretend they don’t – putting on every appearance of just about tolerating us and condescending to live with us on their terms only – they do actually need us after all!
But before we get carried away with that good news, I regretfully have to confirm what we all always suspected –
Dogs really do love us more than cats
Five times as much in fact, so the scientists tell us. Who knew you could measure love? Find out how they do it here
Cat lovers take heart though – they do love us a bit😊
Meat-eating US dogs and cats create 64 million tons of carbon dioxide a year – equivalent to a year’s worth of driving from 13.6 million cars
That tonnage of carbon dioxide makes up 25 – 30% of the environmental impact of meat consumption in the States overall
If the 163 million American dogs and cats were a separate country of their own, “their fluffy nation would rank fifth in global meat consumption behind only Russia, Brazil, the United States and China”. Now that is scary.
And don’t forget the ‘waste’ – they produce 5.1 million tons of feces, as much as 90 million Americans
So what’s the answer? Our dogs and cats are family. No way are we going to give them up, even for the best environmental reasons in the world. Prof Okin doesn’t offer solutions, other than his half-joking suggestion that we transfer our affections to naturally vegetarian pets like hamsters or birds – or little ponies that can mow our lawns. Well, I have a couple of suggestions:
Feed your furry friend veggie/vegan dog and cat foods, like Ami, Benevo, and Yarrah. Taurine and arachidonic acid are vital for cats, but these brands do contain them, so don’t listen to those who like to tell you a cat can’t live on a vegetarian diet
DON’T give up the chance to save the life of a rescue pet – a lovable little critter that might well end up euthanized – by getting your BFF from a pet store or breeder. You would simply be lining the pockets of people who exploit dogs and cats just for money.
ALWAYS go to your nearest animal shelter – TOMORROW! – and give a loving home to a pet who’s been abandoned through no fault of their own. They will reward you a thousand times over.
And finally, just for fun!
Actions to take for dogs and cats
Sign up to Cruelty Free International’s campaign to put an end to cruel experiments on dogs here
Speak out for the dogs and cats suffering at Liberty research here
Sign to end the killing in US animal shelters here