‘You don’t have to work hard for the beauty:’ Sir David Attenborough on filming ‘Blue Planet II.’

A metre-long worm with dagger-like teeth rising from the coral reef. A cuttlefish hypnotizing its prey by turning itself into an underwater lava lamp. Dead-eyed sharks gorging on spawning grouper fish, like an undersea adaptation of The Walking Dead. Just another night for Blue Planet II — in the U.K., that is.

Blue Planet II won’t bow in Canada and the U.S. until spring, 2018. BBC America won’t be more specific than that, at least for the time being. BBC Earth, the tepid Canadian version at any rate, will follow suit.

Even though it hasn’t aired yet in North America, the David Attenborough-narrated follow-up to 2001’s The Blue Planet is already making waves, so to speak.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

And not just in the UK, where the first episode went into the record books as the most watched program of 2017 so far, when it debuted on Oct. 29. 

BBC’s marquee wildlife series was seen by more than 14.1 million viewers the week it aired, according to UK media reports. That’s including repeats, streaming and PVR viewing in the week following the initial broadcast, but still, that’s a telling number.

The UK Daily Mail reported this past weekend that Blue Planet is such a hit in China that it slowed that country’s Internet.

Yes, consider the source — the Daily Mail is the UK intellectual equivalent of the New York Post, but still: Even the idea that Sir David Attenborough, who the Daily Mail described tongue-in-cheek as “the most viewed creature on Earth,” could slow China’s internet service — owing to all those downloads, see — is a conversation starter in itself. Blue Planet II has already had a profound effect, in other words, even if it has yet to air in the land of The Walking Dead and NBC Sunday Night Football.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The world’s oceans — one of planet Earth’s last enduring natural resources — are in serious trouble,  environmentally and climate-wise, and yet they remain home to many of Earth’s most enduring, eye-opening mysteries.

Judging from comments on Weibo, a Chinese social media site modelled after Twitter, Blue Planet is having a profound effect in China, where comments range from, “I watched with my mouth hanging open,” and, “it’s a profound humanistic appeal to protect our environment,” to, “I’ve been crying all the time … it’s just so beautiful.”

Writing in the Guardian this past weekend, media critic Stuart Heritage wrote that BBC’s wildlife sequel has it all — profundity, wonder and trippy visuals. Crucially, he added, it transports viewers to a tranquil place, “untouched by the awfulness above the ocean.”

There’s something more at play, too.

“I can remember with uncharacteristic clarity watching the first episode of The Blue Planet,” Heritage added, “thanks to its context. BBC One broadcast the first episode at 9pm on September 12th, 2001, and it felt . . . necessary. Graphic images of the Twin Towers in flames were on the front of every newspaper. Television schedules were shoved to the wall in favour of rolling news coverage. It was the topic of every conversation, no matter where you went. The anxiety of the moment was suffocating.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“And then the clouds broke. At roughly the same time that most broadcasters were overcooking 9/11 coverage, setting clips of the attack to a Gounod oratorio, BBC One treated us to the most soothing thing imaginable. The Blue Planet, with its whispered narration, gently pulsating light and quiet wub-wub noises, was a screensaver. It was a lava lamp. It was the closest that television had ever got to letting you crawl back into the womb, right at a moment when everyone wanted nothing more than to ball themselves up in a duvet and shut the world out.”

We are living in disquieting times once again, even if these times lack the immediacy and emotional hot button of the 9/11 terror attacks.

Blue Planet II, from what I’ve seen of it so far, is unlike anything else on TV. The second episode —  called, appropriately enough, “The Deep” — ventures to the bottom of the ocean, an area we know less about than we do the surface of Mars, and explores where life may have started.

Hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor — including a vent in the Atlantic Ocean dubbed “The Lost City” — contain as much life as a tropical rainforest. “Something truly extraordinary is taking place,” Attenborough narrates. “Under extremes of pressure and temperatures, hydrocarbons — the molecules that are the basic component of all living things — are being created spontaneously.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Indeed, Attenborough adds, “many scientists now believe life on Earth may have begun around a vent like this four billion years ago.”

Filming was dangerous — life-threatening, even — on several occasions. In one instance, a  submersible deep dive in Antarctic waters nearly ended in disaster when a leak sprang a less than hour after submerging. Cameraman and producer managed to avert catastrophe by first finding and then plugging the leak with whatever they had at hand.

Then there was the producer who, while swimming in deep waters off South Africa, found himself within arm’s length of a rarely seen species of  octopus, only to be attacked — cameraman and octopus together — by a marauding shark.

Then there gnarly critters like the colourfully named fang tooth fish, which roams the depths, “snapping at anything that moves or glows,” and the sea toad fish, an ocean predator which can transform its fins into feet, like some kind of marine, sub-aquarian superhero villain.

Blue Planet II was four years in the making. It was filmed virtually wherever there are oceans, from Mexico to Japan and New Zealand, with stops at Hornoya Island, Norway; Sipadan, Borneo; Monterey, Calif.; the Sea of Cortez off Mexico; and Australia’s Great Barrier Reef along the way.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

 

“The wonder, the knockout quality that you get from the natural world is infinite and never ending,” Attenborough told a gathering of reporters at the semi-annual meeting of the Television Critics Association, in Beverly Hills, Calif., back when his Planet Earth was about to change the way many people look at the world. “When you see something for the first time, you are knocked out. It’s extraordinary. It’s beautiful. It’s wonderful. But when you see it for the second time, you are beginning to understand more about the way (it) works.”

If programs like Blue Planet II have anything more to offer than the original, it has to do both with the increase of scientific knowledge over time and rapid advances in camera technology, Attenborough explained.

“The technology today is amazing. I started in 1954. My first animal, I was then using a clockwork camera, which ran for 90 seconds, and a hundred-foot roll of film, in black-and-white, which we tried to run for two minutes 40 afterwards. You had to change it. We were using lenses that couldn’t give you a closeup of anything beyond about 10 yards away. And, of course, the results were terrible. Thank goodness no one looks at them anymore. But, in 1954, people hadn’t seen giraffes or even heard of giraffes. Even if they were just a herd on the skyline, or a far distance away, people said, ‘Wow, a herd of giraffes, and they are fantastic.  Which, of course, they were. But now, with the increasing complexity and sophistication of the gear we have, we can do anything. We can put a tiny camera down the burrow of an armadillo or in the nest of a bird. We can slow down a hummingbird’s wings so you can see how they move. You can speed up how plants develop. You can film at night. You can film at the bottom of the sea. The range of images you can bring back is simply breathtaking. Year after year, my breath is taken away more and more.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

 

There is more beauty in truth, even if it is a dreadful beauty, John Steinbeck wrote, in East of Eden. Attenborough would agree.

“The beauty is there,” Attenborough said. “You don’t have to work hard for the beauty, really. Ugly is . . . what is ugly? It’s very odd. You can’t say necessarily an amoeba or a trilobite is beautiful or ugly. I happen to think it’s beautiful, but, in fact, that’s what it is, and that’s what you are dealing with. You are dealing with that funny animal with those eyes, multiple eyes, and a tower on either side. Is it beautiful? I think it’s  absolutely knockout, but it’s up to the viewer to make up their own mind whether it’s beautiful or whether it’s ugly.”



Blue Planet ©James Honeyborne:BBC Natural HIstory UNit.png

Dances with cheetahs: Kim Wolhuter films cheetah family on foot for PBS Nature special.

If there’s one thing lifelong conservationist and wildlife filmmaker Kim Wolhuter hopes viewers will take away from Wednesday’s PBS Nature special The Cheetah Children, it’ll be a sense of wonder for what remains of the natural world. Viewers themselves can take solace, too, in knowing that, if only for an hour, the news events of the day will seem faraway. PBS’s Nature — 36 seasons and climbing — has always been one of the more sober, clear-headed, less sensationalist nature programs, but it’s also carved out a hard-earned reputation for family-friendly programming that’s neither maudlin nor condescending.

The Cheetah Children, in which Wolhuter tracked a mother cheetah and her five vulnerable, weeks-old cubs with his camera through the thorn scrub and miombo bush of Zimbabwe’s Malilangwe Wildlife Reserve, has some hard lessons about natural selection and survival of the fittest, but it’s also a window into a world of almost breathtaking beauty. And simplicity.

There are no contrived confrontations between man and beast, no deliberately manipulative scenes designed to play on the audience’s emotions. In the best tradition of PBS Nature documentaries, what the cheetahs see is what you get at home, warts and all. Warthogs, too.

©Kim Wolhuter

©Kim Wolhuter

First, some background. There’s some of this in the program, but The Cheetah Children was never intended to be an informational lecture, or a PSA for saving endangered species per se.

The cheetah is the world’s fastest land animal, capable of sprints of 70 mph over short distances. More impressively, perhaps, the loose-limbed, lightly built cat is built for acceleration — an average adult cheetah can hit 45 mph in two seconds, faster than any Ferrari built by human hands.

It is also in serious trouble, and not just for the usual reasons — habitat destruction, poaching, trophy hunting, illegal wildlife trafficking for the pet trade, and so on. A genetic bottleneck early in the cheetah’s prehistory means that their gene pool today is tenuous at best. Many cheetahs are born with genetic deficiencies — a weak jaw, a lame foot, brittle bones, etc. Any kind of leg injury to an animal built for speed is tantamount to a death sentence.

Nature has compensated, as viewers learn early on in The Cheetah Children. Cheetahs have big litters, because the infant mortality rate is so high. Whereas the stronger, more powerful — and  more genetically successful — leopard has one or two cubs, a cheetah may have as many as 10 or more. 

©Kim Wolhuter

©Kim Wolhuter

Depending on the terrain, and how many rival predators there are in a cheetah’s territory — lions, leopards and hyenas will all kill cheetahs on sight, because nature has conditioned predators to see any competition for food as a rival for their own survival — as few as two cheetah cubs may live to see adulthood, and often not even that.  

Wolhuter took great pains in The Cheetah Children to show that this is a natural process, one more complication in nature’s game of survival. 

Even so, knowing the species is in real danger of extinction in our lifetimes, it’s hard to watch.

Wolhuter, the grown son of one of South Africa’s original park wardens — his father, Henry Wolhuter, was at one time Head Ranger of South Africa’s world-famous Kruger National Park, southern Africa’s equivalent of Yellowstone National Park — grew up wild.

He learned from a young age how to survive on his own in the wilderness, and how to read nature’s signs, good or bad. He learned walk barefoot through thorn scrub, and in so doing learned how to blend into his surroundings and pick up on the small details that can mean the difference between survival and dying. He learned that wild animals can become more accepting of people outside vehicles, once they determine the intruder poses no threat. The result is that today, virtually alone among contemporary wildlife filmmakers, Wolhuter makes nearly all his films on foot. That affords him a rare intimacy into the lives of his live subjects, one rarely captured by other wildlife filmmakers.

©Ki9m Wolhuter

©Ki9m Wolhuter

At a recent meeting of the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills, Calif. — a world apart from the mopane forests and Zambezi teak trees of Zimbabwe — Wolhuter shared some of his innermost thoughts about living wild and one of his earlier documentaries, the self-explanatory Man, Cheetah, Wild, made at the time for the Discovery Channel. Malilangwe Reserve is in Zimbabwe’s southeastern hinterland, near the Mozambique border and about as far away from Zimbabwe’s tourist-travelled Victoria Falls as it is to get and still be in Zimbabwe.

“There's no special muti, as we call it, or juju,” Wolhuter said. “It's just that I've spent so much time with them. They've got to know me,  and I've got to know them. It's hard portraying myself to them, how I can present myself with complete confidence. They can read that and understand that. They feel it.

“There's never actually been a case where cheetah have killed a person. Of all the predators — lions, leopards, wild dogs, hyenas —  cheetahs are the most timid. They would rather run away from something than confront it. Yes, they do bring down antelope and other game. But those animals are running away from them. I don't run away. I present myself in a respectful manner, but also in a confident manner, and they respect that. We have this incredible relationship, which for me just went beyond anything I could ever imagine.”

©Kim Wolhuter

©Kim Wolhuter

Being on foot makes all the difference in the world to the resulting film.

“What I'm doing takes it to a totally different level. I spend a lot of time with these animals. Their behaviour then becomes totally natural, far more natural than if I was sitting in a jeep. I think it’s just so much more intimate than you're ever going to get sitting in a vehicle. So what we're trying to do with these cheetah is try to get you into their world. I think it’s something that people are going to engage that much more with.”

Wolhuter is not crazy, though. There are certain predators he wouldn’t dare get that close to, no matter how well he knows their  habits or how well he read their emotions.

“Lions. Lions are . . . well, for one, you're not just dealing with one individual. You're dealing with a whole pride. But also, they're just far too big . Lions are incredibly aggressive animals, in that they want to kill anything and everything. Any other predator that steps up, comes anywhere near them, they'll try and kill it.  So, you know, they're . . .

“I'm just not going to do it with lions.”


Meet ‘Pongo tapanuliensis,’ the first new great ape to be identified in nearly 100 years.

The news that a new species of orangutan has been discovered — if “discovered” is quite the right word — is both wondrous and troubling.

Wondrous, because it reminds us that, even in 2017, seeming miracles can and do happen. It’s a reminder of both the resilience of nature and the fallibility of science and humankind, in that such a large mammal — and a primate species at that — can elude detection for so long.

Troubling, though, because yet another creature has been added to the IUCN list of Critically Endangered species, the official designation for animals that are not just in trouble but in serious trouble. Just 800 remain of the Tapanuli orangutan, as it’s being called. Tapanuli is the central rainforest region in Sumatra where those remaining apes cling to life, even as Indonesian developers — legal and illegal — are hidebound determined to burn their forest to the ground, all in the name of palm oil plantations.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

But wait, it gets worse. Acting on the notion that what the world really needs is more hydroelectric power dams, Indonesia is in the process of constructing a monster dam that will finish the job the land developers have started, if they have their way.

Naturally, conservation groups, advocates for nature and assorted NGO’s are scrambling to save the rainforest by any means possible, but as the Amazon Basin has shown, petitions and public protests are no match for armed militias willing to burn, loot and murder to do their paymasters’ bidding. Corrupt politicians and land developers get their way every time, and so the Tapanuli orangutan faces uphill odds, even though it’s only now been identified as a separate species.

What constitutes a specific species, as opposed to a subspecies or distant cousin, is a technical branch of zoology, ably explained by National Geographic’s Jason Goldman in a story posted earlier this week. (https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/11/new-orangutan-species-sumatra-borneo-indonesia-animals/)

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

The accompanying photos, by the way — a couple of which appear here — were taken by veteran primate photographer Tim Laman for National Geographic Creative, a digital branch of the National Geographic Society’s tree-of-life. Laman is not new to this: He won last year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award for his image of an orangutan climbing a tree towards his remote-controlled camera placed high in the sky, the rainforest spreading out below.

Scientists are cautious by nature. They’re not inclined to jump to conclusions until a new find has been subjected to peer review. The “discovery” is not technically new; the orangutans in question where first reported to exist following an expedition into the remote mountain forests of Sumatra in 1997. A research project devoted the intervening years to unlocking the apes’ genetic code, to determine whether or not the species was genetically different from the two species already known to exist, the Sumatran and Bornean orangutan.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

This is unglamorous work, involving long hours of poring over electron microscopes and DNA-testing computers — not like tramping through virgin jungle in person, like a latter-day Professor Challenger in a post-modern update on Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lord World. The discovery is only coming to light now because the study, authored by researchers from University of Zurich and Liverpool John Moores University in the UK, in conjunction with the wildlife NGO Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme (https://sumatranorangutan.org), published their work in the latest issue of the scientific journal Current Biology.

If the find is still determined to be true years and decades from now, the Tapanuli orangutan will go down in history as the first new great ape to be identified as such in nearly a century.

In the shorter term, though, the Tapanuli orangutan’s greatest contribution to conservation and the fight to preserve what remains of nature, will be that it has forced the plight of Indonesia’s rainforest — and rainforests in general — into the mainstream media, however briefly, from BBC World News to USA Today, from Radio New Zealand to the Hindustan Times, from The Independent to India Today.

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

©Tim Laman/National Geographic Creative

In this case, all publicity is good publicity, where survival of a species is concerned.

As the study’s co-author, Serge Wich, a professor of primate biology at Liverpool’s John Moores University since 2012, told the BBC: “It’s . . . worrying, to discover something new and then immediately also realize that we have to focus all our efforts before we lose it.”


‘Remembering Rhinos:’ “We simply cannot let extinction happen on our watch.”

By any measure, Remembering Rhinos, a Kickstarter-funded photo book for charity, is an eye-opener. Sixty-five prominent wildlife photographers, including many of the leaders in their respective fields, have donated one of their prized images to the coffee-table book, all in the name of raising funds for rhino conservation.

The Kickstarter campaign, launched earlier this year achieved its initial goal in near-record time. It didn’t stop there, either. Galvanized by public opinion and a growing sense of outrage at what is happening to our planet,  it grew from there, much like a baby rhino that has finally found a safe home in which to grow up in the wild.

Remembering Rhinos will be officially unveiled Wednesday at an evening champagne reception at London’s prestigious — and historic — Royal Geographical Society, a Victorian-era redbrick home tucked behind the Natural History Museum in Kensington. It’s from these very halls that 19th century explorers plotted and mapped early expeditions deep into Africa’s interior. The idea of unveiling a coffee-table book dedicated to saving Africa and Asia’s remaining rhinos at the Royal Geographical Society in the 21st century seems entirely appropriate somehow.

©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett

©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett

Remembering Rhinos is a follow-up to 2016’s successful Remembering Elephants, which raised some USD $200,000 in the war against ivory poaching. Remembering Rhinos is more than that, though. It seems more urgent. More pressing.

The situation facing rhinos in 2017 is desperate. The illegal trade in rhino horn — driven by superstition, ignorance and a thriving black market in emerging economies in Southeast Asia and China — threatens to wipe out one of the planet’s oldest, longest-surviving land mammals, an animal so deeply buried in the human imagination that virtually anyone can recognize a rhino at a brief glance.

©Remembering Rhinos/Mike Muizebelt

©Remembering Rhinos/Mike Muizebelt

The photographers represented in the book include freelance photographers, staffers for some of the world’s leading nature periodicals and international award winners. They may not be household names outside the nature community, but they represent some of the most respected photographers working in the field today — Mike Muizebelt, Steve Winter, Greg du Toit, Frans Lanting, Piper Mckay, James Warwick, David Lloyd, Ayesha Cantor, Jan van der Greef, Will Burrard-Lucas, Marina Cano, Hilary Hann, Remembering Rhinos founder-editor Margo Raggett,  and countless others.

©Remembering Rhinos/Hilary Hann

©Remembering Rhinos/Hilary Hann

“Everyone in the wildlife world is sick to their back teeth of animals being treated like commodities and slaughtered on a daily basis for their horns, tusks or whatever other body part the . . . market in the Far East seems to crave,” Raggett explained, when launching her Kickstarter campaign.

“Our book hit a nerve as a way for photographers and animal lovers to unite and do something positive to stand up to poachers. We don’t want to see these species wiped out in our lifetime.”

The Remembering Rhinos campaign has drawn numerous nigh-profile celebrities, from film actors Michelle Pfeiffer and Russell Crowe to comedian and animal-rights campaigner Ricky Gervais, Mad Men ensemble player Jared Harris and Coldplay frontman Chris Martin. 

©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett

©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett

©Remembering Rhinos/Chris Martin

©Remembering Rhinos/Chris Martin

Virginia McKenna, a lifelong animal-rights campaigner, former model and actor who starred in the 1966 film Born Free, and Will Travers OBE, president of the Born Free Foundation, are closely involved.

©Remembering Rhinos/Virginia McKenna

©Remembering Rhinos/Virginia McKenna

Travers will introduce Wednesday’s reception.

The keynote speaker is Steve Winter, veteran wildlife photographer and lecturer with the National Geographic Society and a former winner of the Natural History Museum’s prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. Winter was a nominee again this year, for his sad, haunting image of a captured, caged Sumatran tiger that had just had its hind leg amputated to save its life.

The idea behind Remembering Rhinos was to produce the most beautiful, memorable book about rhinos possible, in the hopes that, decades and centuries from now, photographic images won’t be all future generations have to remember rhinos by.

All proceeds from sales of the book go toward protecting rhinos in Africa and Asia.

©Remembering Rhinos/James Warwick

©Remembering Rhinos/James Warwick

The World Wildlife Fund’s official website (worldwildlife.org) notes that rhinos once roamed freely throughout Eurasia and Africa. They were known to early Europeans, who depicted them in cave paintings, and frequented savannah grasslands and tropical forests throughout Africa and Asia.

Today, very few rhinos survive outside national parks and reserves. Two species of Asian rhinos — the Javan and Sumatran rhinos — are officially classified on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) list of endangered species as Critically Endangered. A subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011.

Conservation efforts have helped a third Asian species, the greater one-horned (or Indian) rhino, to increase in number, albeit slightly. Their status has been upgraded to Vulnerable from Endangered, but Indian rhinos are still poached for their horns.

©Remembering RhinosAyesha Cantor

©Remembering RhinosAyesha Cantor

In Africa, Southern white rhinos, once thought to be extinct, now thrive in protected sanctuaries and are classified as Near Threatened. A surge in land invasions and poaching raids in the past year by heavily armed crime syndicates in South Africa now threaten even the most protected sanctuaries, however. 

The Northern white rhino subspecies is now believed to be extinct in the wild, and only a few captive individuals remain in a sanctuary in Kenya — also threatened by poaching. 

©Remembering Rhinos/Piper Mckay

©Remembering Rhinos/Piper Mckay

Black rhinos have doubled in number over the past two decades from their low point of fewer than 2,500 individuals in the mid-1990s, but their total numbers are still a tiny fraction of the estimated 100,000 that roamed across Africa’s grasslands in the late 19th century and early part of the 20th century.

“We simply cannot let extinction happen on our watch,” Raggett said simply.

It will take more than a book to prevent that, of course, but every bit helps. Especially when the book is as elegant and hard-to-forget as Remembering Rhinos.


Remembering Rhinos
Wildlife Photographers United
Envisage Books
£45, 144 pages, hardback
978-0-99301-932-6

https://rememberingwildlife.com/remembering-rhinos/


10. screen build1 ©Remembering Rhinos.png
©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett

©Remembering Rhinos/Margot Raggett


An astronaut’s view from space: ‘The earth is a beautiful planet.’

“If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night,” Galileo wrote in 1632, “it would look to you more splendid than the moon.”

“Never in all their history have men been able to truly conceive of the the world as one,” the American poet Archibald MacLeish, a Boston native, said in his commencement address at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., in 1942. “A single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all directions would eventually meet, in which there is no centre because every point, or none, is centre — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals.”

American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a then-record 340 days in space as part  NASA’s proposed “year-long mission to the International Space Station from March 27, 2015 to March 1, 2016, put it more succinctly, if less poetically, in his oft-quoted, “The earth is a beautiful planet.”

Kelly expounds on that thought in his biography  Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, published just last week — “The space station is a great vantage point to observe and share our planet in pictures . . . It makes you more of an environmentalist.”

©NASA

©NASA

Kelly was relaxed, laid-back and jocular in conversation Friday night with Stephen Colbert in an appearance on CBS’s The Late Show, allowing that a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think about being back on the ISS, where planet Earth seems less both fragile and beautiful, and life, politics and the battle for the environment seem less . . . complicated.

“I believe in exploration, and I will miss being on the front lines of that endeavour,” he said at the time. “On one hand, I look forward to going home, but it's something that's been a big part of my life, and I'm going to miss it.”

3  screen shot 2.jpg

There was more where that came from.

“When you look at the... atmosphere on the limb of the Earth, I wouldn't say it looks unhealthy, but it definitely looks very, very fragile and just kind of like this thin film, so it looks like something that we definitely need to take care of. . . 

“The thing I like most about flying in space is not the view. The thing I like about it is doing something I feel very, very strongly about.”

©NASA/Scott Kelly

©NASA/Scott Kelly

And this: “There are parts of the Earth that are covered with pollution all the time. I saw weather that was unexpected. Storms bigger than we've seen in the past. This is a human effect. This is not a natural phenomenon.”

And this: “There are . . . parts of Asia, Central America that, when you look at them from space, you're always looking through a haze of pollution. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, and being able to see the surface, you know, I would say definitely those areas that I mentioned look kind of sick.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.01.47 AM.png

“A year is a long time to live without the human contact of loved ones, fresh air, and gravity, to name a few.”

This, too, shall pass.

The first thing Kelly did, when he got home — as in literally home, his own house — Kelly told Colbert was jump in the swimming pool. For all the things the International Space Station offers, from spectacular  sunrises to a new perspective on our home world, it’s impossible to take a shower. Kelly simply wanted the feel of water on his body, he told Colbert. It’s always the simple things.  

The complete interview:


'A cat is more intelligent than people believe,' and other just-so stories.

Mark Twain liked cats more than people, Smithsonian reported the other day.

This is old news — Twain’s lifelong affinity for cats is not a new revelation — but just because it’s old news doesn’t make it old. Twain had a way with words, after all, and there’s never a bad time to revisit Twain’s writings and sayings.

Twain is reputed to have made a home for as many as 19 cats at a time, according to Livius Drusus in Mental Floss, “all of whom he loved and respected far beyond whatever he may have felt about people.”

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He gave them colourful names, too: Blatherskite, Apollinaris, Satan, Tammany, Soapy Sal, Beelzebub, Zoroaster, Sin, Buffalo Bill, Sour Mash, and that old reliable, Satan (presumably a black). The naming of cats can be a difficult matter, as T.S. Eliot can attest. It isn’t just one of your holiday games.

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Twain was hardly an outlier in the literary community, where his affection for cats was concerned. Ernest Hemingway, Patricia Highsmith and T.S. Eliot all suffered a touch of the old ailurophiles — a highfalutin’ word for “love of cats” — and several notable authors of the day incorporated cats in their fiction. Hemingway devotes an entire chapter to cats in his posthumous Bimini-set novel Islands in the Stream.

Twain’s most famous — or perhaps that should be infamous — was arguably Bambino, a cat originally owned by his daughter Clara. Twain famously posted a cash reward in the New York American for the return of Bambino, after the irascible but loveable critter vanished one morning “Large and intensely black; thick, velvety fur; has a faint fringe of white hair across his chest; not easy to find in ordinary light.” Bambino eventually found his way home on his own — so like a cat — but not before several persons of marginal scruples and loose morals turned up at Twain’s doorstep, proffering cats that matched the description in his notice.

“Some people scorn a cat and think it not an essential; but the Clemens tribe are not of these,” the artist formerly known as Samuel Clemens was quoted as saying in the San Francisco Chronicle.

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“The person that had took a bull by the tail once had learnt sixty or seventy times as much as a person that hadn't, and said a person that started in to carry a cat home by the tail was getting knowledge that was always going to be useful to him, and warn't ever going to grow dim or doubtful,” Twain noted in Tom Sawyer Abroad.

“You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does — but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use,” Twain wrote in A Tramp Abroad.

“A cat is more intelligent than people believe, and can be taught any crime,” he wrote in Notebook, in 1895.

There were longer passages, too, as told to himself in Autobiography of Mark Twain:

“I had a great admiration for Sour Mash, and a great affection for her, too. . . . She had an abundance of that noble quality which all cats possess, and which neither man nor any other animal possesses in any considerable degree — independence. Also, she was affectionate, she was loyal, she was plucky, she was enterprising, she was just to her friends and unjust to her enemies — and she was righteously entitled to the high compliment which so often fell from the lips of John T. Lewis — reluctantly, and as by compulsion, but all the more precious for that: 

Screen Shot 2017-10-24 at 3.58.38 PM.png

‘Other Christians is always worrying about other people's opinions, but Sour Mash don't give a damn.’

Indeed, she was just that independent of criticism, and I think it was her supreme grace. In her industries she was remarkable. She was always busy. If she wasn't exterminating grasshoppers she was exterminating snakes — for no snake had any terrors for her. When she wasn't catching mice she was catching birds. She was untiring in her energies. Every waking moment was precious to her; in it she would find something useful to do — and if she ran out of material and couldn't find anything else to do she would have kittens. She always kept us supplied, and her families were of choice quality. She herself was a three-colored tortoise- shell, but she had no prejudices of breed, creed, or caste. She furnished us all kinds, all colors, with that impartiality which was so fine a part of her make. She allowed no dogs on the premises except those that belonged there. Visitors who brought their dogs along always had an opportunity to regret it. She hadn't two plans for receiving a dog guest, but only one. She didn't wait for the formality of an introduction to any dog, but promptly jumped on his back and rode him all over the farm. By my help she would send out cards, next day, and invite that dog to a garden party, but she never got an acceptance. The dog that had enjoyed her hospitalities once was willing to stand pat.“

Mark Twain Bambino&MrTwain.jpg

And this, from A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court:

“I urged that kings were dangerous. He said, ‘Then have cats.’ He was sure that a royal family of cats would answer every purpose. They would be as useful as any other royal family, they would know as much, they would have the same virtues and the same treacheries, the same disposition to get up shindies with other royal cats, they would be laughably vain and absurd and never know it, they would be wholly inexpensive and finally, they would have as sound a divine right as any other royal house. . . 

“The worship of royalty being founded in unreason, these graceful and harmless cats would easily become as sacred as any other royalties, and indeed more so, because it would presently be noticed that they hanged nobody, beheaded nobody, imprisoned nobody, inflicted no cruelties or injustices of any sort, and so must be worthy of a deeper love and reverence than the customary human king, and would certainly get it.”

And finally this, from Notebook, in 1894, and as good a note as any to end on:

“Of all God's creatures there is only one that cannot be made the slave of the lash. That one is the cat. If man could be crossed with the cat it would improve man, but it would deteriorate the cat.”

Alrighty, then.


Can a single image change the planet? Just ask Brent Stirton, winner of 2017’s Wildlife Photographer of Year award.

Brent Stirton’s haunting image of a dead rhino, killed and butchered for its horn, was already widely known before it won Tuesday’s top honour at the 53rd Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards.

Stirton, a lifelong documentarian and senior staff photographer with Getty Images’ Reportage unit, photographed an eye-opening spread for National Geographic — both the magazine and the website — before rhinos became the tipping point of the worldwide conservation movement.

Stirton won the top award after earlier winning in the photojournalism category before a black-tie audience at London’s Natural History Museum.

Winners in each category faced off for the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show, capping a confusing process in which a dozen semi-finalists were released to the media last month. The fact that Stirton’s image was even in the running — it was curiously omitted from September’s selection, along with several other finalists for the top award — would have been a clue right there as to the eventual winner. As jury chair Lewis Blackwell told the assembled audience, the final decision was unanimous.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

That in itself may well be a first for a photo contest involving a panelled jury — judging photography is subjective, after all, and subject to individual, personal tastes — but then hardly anyone looking at Stirton’s image, either for the first time or after multiple viewings, can fail to be moved.

Stirton is no dilettante who got lucky. Luck plays a huge role in wildlife photography — that, and patience and a willingness to put in the hours — but in this case Stirton called on a lifetime of placing himself in life-threatening situations, camera at the ready.

His CV reads like a modern-day Robert Capa of combat photographers. Stirton works on a semi-regular basis for the Global Business Coalition for HIV/AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the Ford, Clinton and Gates foundations, and the World Economic Forum. He’s on the road an average 300 days out of the year. His work has been published in Time, Newsweek, The Sunday Times Magazine, Geo, The New York Times Magazine, as well as by Human Rights Watch andCNN.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

A Canon ambassador, he has won the prestigious World Press Photo seven times, as well receiving citations and plaudits from the Overseas Press Club, Days Japan, the Deadline Club, China International, Graphis, the American Society of Publication Designers, Germany’s (news) Lead Awards and the London Association of Photographers. In addition, Stirton has two United Nations honours to his name, for his exposés on the global environment, and for his photo essays on the worldwide fight against HIV/AIDS.

He has said photojournalists strive every day to find new ways to tell an old story. And the trade in illegal wildlife trafficking is an old story indeed.

In his own work, Stirton consciously looks for images that will move people and galvanize them to action, in ways that extend beyond the 24-hour news cycle.

The single image that changed his life, he said, came in 2007, when he witnessed park rangers with Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC)’s Virunga National Park anti-poaching unit hauling the bodies of four mountain gorillas — one of the world’s most critically endangered animals — following their deaths under suspicious cicrumstances. 

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

One of the gorillas was a silverback alpha male and the leader of the group. The others were females, two of them with babies and the third one pregnant at the time. The babies were never found; it is thought they probably died of stress and dehydration.

Stirton went about his work clinically andprofessionally, but deep down he was both shaken and angered. He resolved then-and-there to use his camera to expose and document the illegal wildlife trade, for the rest of his career in photography.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“The image of the dead silverback gorilla in Congo transformed my thinking about photojournalism and the environment,” Stirton posted on Getty’s InFocus page.  “It got a huge reaction that I totally wasn’t expecting. The reason that image affected me so much was that it was a genuine crossover photograph that talked about both conflict and the environment in a single frame. It made me realize how connected those two things are.”

Though based in New York, Stirton’s recent work has focused on his home continent of Africa, everything from unexplained mass die-offs of hippos to the massacre of elephants for their ivory, to the recent, dramatic spike in rhino poaching for their horns.

It’s not often that Stirton is caught at a loss for words, he told his audience Tuesday, after the top award was announced.

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

“I have huge admiration for all those of you who go out and spend months in a single place, in tremendously difficult conditions, trying to take a unique picture of wildlife,” he said. “I look at these images as the reason behind my work. . . . My job is to reinforce the magnificence of these creatures.’ These pictures are evidence of their magnificence.

“I always think that photojournalism is the red-headed stepchild of the photography world, when it comes to wildlife. I always have that in my mind. So for you to think this of me, for the kind of work I do, in this space — I’m blown away.”

‘Blown away’ is as apt a way as any to describe his image of the dead rhino.

https://www.interviewmagazine.com/culture/brent-stirton


©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton

©Brent Stirton


Not just a pretty picture: Wildlife Photographer of Year Awards strive to save the planet.

A saved but caged Sumatran tiger. A tiny seahorse clinging to a discarded Q-tip cotton swab to swim downstream. Anemone fish showing off parasitic isopods that live inside their mouths (banner, above). An Arctic fox carrying a stolen egg. An elephant matriarch caught in repose after she’s led her herd to water during a dry spell.

These are the finalists in the 53rd annual running of the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards, to be presented Tuesday night at La black-tie ceremony at London’s Natural History Museum.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The awards feature categories ranging from animal portrait to emerging young photographers, aged 11-14. One of the distinguishing features of this year’s competition is that two of the 13 finalists for Wildlife Photograph of the year — the WPOTY equivalent of best-in-show — come from the young age group: Laura Albiac Vilas’ blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse of a rare Iberian lynx in Spain’s Sierra de Andújar Natural Park, and Ashleigh Scully’s serendipitous capture of a bear cub hugging its mother in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park.

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Ashleigh Scully/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

As in past years, though, it’s the environmental awareness images — the photos that trigger an emotional and intellectual debate about habitat destruction, climate change and the sixth mass extinction — that are causing the biggest stir. Veteran National Geographic big-cat specialist Steve Winter’s image of an adolescent Sumatran tiger snarling in a cage, shortly after having a badly damaged leg amputated, and California photographer Justin Hofman’s image of a seahorse swimming against a sea of muck, are standouts.

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Justin Hofman/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman’s seahorse, in particular, has gone viral, in part because it’s an artistically striking image — brilliant colour rendition and near-perfect compositional balance — and primarily because it tells such a vital story.

“It’s a photo I wish didn’t exist but now that it does, I want everyone to see it,” Hofman posted on his Instagram account (https://www.instagram.com/justinhofman/). “What started as a cute opportunity to photograph a cute little seahorse turned into one of frustration and sadness as the incoming tide brought with it countless pieces of trash and sewage.”

Hofman captured the image off the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, where he happened to be diving at the time. As striking to the eye as the image is, it tells a disturbing story about the daily travails of marine life living in seas and oceans choked by human and industrial pollution.

“This seahorse drifts along with the trash day in and day out as it rides the currents that flow along the Indonesian archipelago,” Hofman continued on Instagram. “This (image) serves as an allegory for the current and future state of our oceans. What sort of future are we creating? How can your actions shape our planet?”

Indonesia is increasingly in the environmental crosshairs. Winter’s injured tiger was captured in Indonesia; last year’s winning WPOTY image, captured by Tokyo-born National Geographic wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, was of an Indonesian orangutan — critically endangered, owing to the wholesale destruction of its forest habitat. In a 2015 Environmental Health Perspectives study, Indonesia ranked second only to China among the world’s largest producers of marine pollution on the planet, thanks to more than 3 million metric tons of plastic waste dumped into the ocean every year.

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Tim Laman/2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Hofman hopes his photo will shake people’s complacency and help galvanize change.

This year’s 13 finalists were chosen from a shortlist of 100 images, themselves culled from more than 50,000 entries from 92 countries around the world.

London’s Natural History Museum will present a full exhibition of images from Oct. 20 through the spring, in the hopes that, to paraphrase the late jazz great Louis Armstrong, humanity may once again see skies of blue and clouds of white, the bright blessed day and dark sacred night, so we may collectively once again be able to think to ourselves, what a wonderful world.

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year  

©2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

 

©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year  

©Sergey Gorshkov/2017 Wildlife Photographer of the Year

 


Doors opening a new window onto the world of fine art photography.

Doors open a window onto the world. From the back alleys of Zanzibar — subject of a new book I’m working on — to the blue-tinted ancestral homes of Chefchaouen in Morocco’s Rif Mountains, and in all the inhabited places in-between, doors are both a personal expression of one’s own home and a historical record of local ancestry and culture writ large.

©Chefchaouen-Hamam/Tom Keene, Wiki Commons

©Chefchaouen-Hamam/Tom Keene, Wiki Commons

They’re also creative inspiration for a new wave of portrait painters and fine-art photographers, as represented by the emerging South Asian artist K.R. Santhana Krishnan.

Krishnan, from the town of Kumbakonam in India’s Tamil Nadu state, has painted more than 800 doors in just the past 18 years. He takes inspiration from the ancestral homes right outside his doorstep: His grandparents’ house boasted some 82 doors.

As with many fine-art photographers with an eye for detail in the seemingly mundane rituals of day-to-day life, Krishnan sees his painted doors as a way of bringing back memories from a simpler, more earthbound past, when brass, copper and wood were preferred over glass, steel and concrete as building materials.

In a recent profile for The Atlantic’s online magazine Quartz, Krishnan said that even something as simple as a bicycle can catch the artist’s eye, if the artist is willing to look beyond the obvious. Even a selfie with an antique bicycle can be art to the keen eye.

Krishnan’s work, and that of other South Asian artists, is enjoying a new life, thanks to advances in online technology that make it possible to display local artworks to the global village at the click of a button. 

After all, Krishnan has said, what says more about who we are as a people than our ancestral homes. And what reflects our ancestral homes more than the door we first have to walk through to see what’s inside. “Only when the everything is in place does the door open.”

http://www.asianartgallery.org/artists/k-r-santhana-krishnan/



©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

©K.R. Santhana Krishnan

A bolshie speaks! Save the planet first, then save the elephants.

Yes, yes, environment writer Lucy Siegle wrote this past weekend in the Sunday Observer: It’s all very chic to save the elephant — or the rhino or cheetah, for that matter — but what about the world?

In a heartfelt essay, Siegle singled out the likes of UK environment minister Michael Gove and Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge — the créme de la créme of the chattering classes — as being little more than dilettantes, figurehead conservationists drawn to high-profile campaigns to save icon species like so many moths to the flame. 

©Adnan Abidi/AP

©Adnan Abidi/AP

Siegle admitted her stance will get her disinvited to any number of black-tie environmental soirées — no canapés at the Natural History Museum for you! — but the real world of conservation, she argued, is gritty, grimy and decidedly unglamourous.

It didn’t help the optics that last week’s announcement that Britain’s Conservative government is widening its ivory ban to include ivory carvings made prior to 1947 — dropped from the Tories’ recent election manifesto — kicked off a weekend of elephant celebrations that included “a copcktail and canapé send-off for a fleet of 50 Gujarati Chagda bikes under the Travels to My Elephant initiative, attended by the Duchess of Cambridge, and the Warrior Games promising (retired) Maasai spears and Maasai photographs taken by Jack Brockway (Richard Branson’s nephew) in the company of HRH Eugenie.”

Bolshie! Satisfying as it may be, though, to see the upper classes brought down a peg or two, there’s a sober point here. Framing the ecological debate through a single species can seem myopic when the future of the entire planet is at stake. Scientists warnthat we have already triggered the sixth great mass extinction. This one is different, too, because it’s the first mass extinction of our own making. There’s not much point in saving the elephant if there are no savannahs left in Africa or Asia for them to roam.

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

©Biplab Hazra-Nature InFocus

There’s more to saving the orangutan, in other words, than throwing a black-tie soirée or sponsoring a 10K run through the smog-choked streets of London. Environmental activism is messy, grubby and often nasty. 

“If your gateway to environmentalism is saving a big beast, great,” Siegle argued in the Sunday Observer. “But (your) next move needs to be switching your bank account so that your money is no longer funding the destroyers of Sumatran forests for palm oil.”

Whenever a nob, a royal or another standing member of posh society lectures the unwashed on the merits of saving elephants, or whatever the icon species-of-the-moment happens to be, Siegle says that, to her, the great unspoken question — the elephant in the room, if you will — is: “When did your family stop hunting big game and decide to save it?’

Bolshie! Sometimes, though, even bolshies have a point.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/07/it-is-chic-to-save-the-elephant-but-what-about-the-world

©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year

©Hilary O'Leary/Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year


Ivory ban: World’s largest exporter of legal ivory is shutting down the trade.

Finally. The UK government has bowed to pressure from wildlife campaigners and will ban the sale of ivory, regardless of its age.

At least, that was the word this past Friday, after acting UK environment secretary Michael Gove — of all people — put forward a ban on the sales of all items carved from ivory, including those carved before 1947.

That’s key because, while the international trade in ivory had been illegal since 1990, a loophole in UK law permitted trade in ivory “antiques,” loosely defined as an ivory item carved before 1947. A further loophole — a loophole inside the loophole, if you will — permitted ivory “worked before 1990,” provided those items were accompanied by government certificates.

©Jim Panou/Panimages

©Jim Panou/Panimages

Given that government corruption is a driving force behind the illegal wildlife trade in many of the developing countries where elephants are trafficked for their tusks by international crime syndicates, the UK loophole was the very definition of hypocrisy. Why should UK government officials be allowed to sign off on supposedly “antique” ivory, but not government officials in, say, Tanzania or Namibia?

The UK is, or rather was, the world’s largest exporter of legal ivory —  I did not know that until this past week — and cutting off the trade will in theory help slow down the illegal trade in ivory by international crime syndicates.

©NBC News

©NBC News

Despite recent wins by wildlife campaigners — China and the U.S. have both resolved to scale back trade in ivory, if not eliminate it entirely — poaching continues to be a serious problem. More than 50 elephants are killed by poachers every day. A 2016 elephant census across Africa, funded in part by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, showed that the continent lost a third of its remaining wild elephant in just the 10 years prior to 2016.

If anything, poaching has only increased over the past year, exacerbated by a sudden, unwelcome surge in the poaching of rhinos for their horns. Considering the gestation period for an elephant is two years, and elephants only give birth to one baby at a time, it doesn’t take an advanced degree in mathematics to see how see where an already dwindling population of wild elephants could be heading.

The ruling Conservative government was believed to be disinterested in widening the UK ban; the Tories removed a pledge on ivory from their 2017 election manifesto in June, even though it had been included in the party’s 2015 election manifesto.

©BBC News

©BBC News

Celebrity campaigners from Prince William to Jane Goodall, Stephen Hawking and Ricky Gervais mounted a vocal protest that found favour with ordinary, everyday voters fed up with what they perceive to be wanton greed — the rich getting richer — with utter disregard for the wellbeing of the planet.

Of course, bans are one thing; discouraging demand and eliminating the market entirely is another.

“The unprecedented crisis we face – with Africa’s natural heritage being destroyed and communities put at risk due to poaching by illegal armed gangs – will only stop when people stop buying ivory,” Stop Ivory’s John Stephenson told the media Friday.

Even so, Stephenson said he was gratified by the government’s “important step,” and looks forward to seeing the ban implemented and enforced “without delay.”

©Jakarta Post

©Jakarta Post

Other NGOs caution that the road ahead is not entirely clear, either for elephants or any other endangered animals trafficked for profit.

World Wildlife Fund CEO Tanya Steele warned that the scale of the problem is vast, and promises need to be back up with action.

“The illegal trade involving organized criminals is a global problem requiring global solutions,” Steele told reporters. “To end it anywhere means ending it everywhere. This is about more than banning ivory sales in one country. It means working with leaders and communities around the world, particularly in China and Southeast Asia.”

While China has appeared to have turned a corner, for example, and to a lesser extent Vietnam, Laos has suddenly become the new frontier in the wild west of illegal wildlife trafficking.

©Reuters/Al Jazeera

©Reuters/Al Jazeera

In the meantime, carefully staged photo ops in developing countries like Kenya — twice in four years, now — have seen governments burn stockpiles of elephant tusks, to show the world that they value their remaining living elephants, and the tourist revenue they bring, over selling ivory on the black market and getting rich at the expense of future generations.

The ivory burns, dismissed by some as a cheap publicity gimmick — even though, given the value of the ivory involved, they can hardly be said to have been inexpensive — clearly had an effect on public opinion in the media-savvy West. 

©Africa Geographic

©Africa Geographic

The UK Tory government didn’t widen the ivory ban because they wanted to, but because ordinary, everyday people shamed them into doing it, and not just because of the Duke of Cambridge and Stephen Hawking.

Yes, the UK is just one country, but wins in wildlife conservation have to be taken as they come, day by day, and at a time.


©African Parks/AFP

©African Parks/AFP


First Hubble, and now James Webb: Boldly looking where no telescope has looked before.

The earliest science-fiction writers talked about “sense of wonder” as the creative instinct driving fictional exploration of the stars, in short stories, novels and, eventually, TV scripts and screenplays.

In later years, science-fiction writers turned to acronyms like “GAFIA” — getting away from it all — as one of the reasons readers of all kinds are drawn to science fiction in troubled times, science fiction in the Utopian sense of space exploration, and not necessarily the dystopian novels of George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, and their philosophical successors J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick.

This is all very instructive now because, in a year that in many respects marks a low point for humanity, remarkable things have been happening in the worlds of outer space, living reminders that planet Earth is just one tiny speck in a very large universe.

It wasn’t just last month’s 50th anniversary of the Voyager spacecraft or NASA’s Cassini mission to explore Saturn’s rings and Jupiter’s moons, but recent revelations — just in the past few weeks — of the Hubble Space Telescope.

©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

Hubble was launched into low Earth orbit in 1990, and remains in operation, despite a — literally — shaky early start. Hubble is the only telescope to be examined and repaired by astronauts in space, five times so far, in shuttle missions. That’s one reason it has managed to continue boldly looking where no telescope has looked before.

As it is, the past weeks’ discoveries are only a prelude of sorts for science’s next space mission, the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in the spring of 2019. (The “Next Generation Space Telescope,” as the James Webb telescope is sometimes called, is a joint mission of NASA, the European Space Agency (ESA), Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Baltimore, Maryland based Space Telescope Science Institute (STSi), and will be launched into space by a European Ariane 5 rocket from French Guiana in South America.)

©ESA-James Webb Space Telescope

©ESA-James Webb Space Telescope

That is then, though; this is now.

After 27 years in space, the Hubble Space Telescope is still sending back some of the most beautiful and revealing images from across the universe.

When we look up at the night sky, we’re getting a mere glimpse of what’s out there. There are countless — almost literally countless — galaxies humankind never knew existed, except in the imagination of science-fiction writers. Until Hubble, that is.

“I believe Hubble has been the single most transformative scientific instrument that we’ve ever built,” NASA astrophysicist Amber Straughn told 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker this past Sunday.

Transformative, she said, because Hubble keeps improving our understanding of the universe. 

©CBS News-60 Minutes

©CBS News-60 Minutes

We look at the night sky, and in patches we see nothing but darkness.

“And then, when we look at it with Hubble,” Straughn said, “what we see is thousands of galaxies.”

Not stars. Galaxies.

That was 22 years ago. Since then, Hubble has stared deeper and longer into space with enhanced technology. One recent image revealed more than 10,000 galaxies, in which every single point of light represents an individual galaxy, in Straughn’s words, “its own little island universe.”

©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

What Hubble has taught us is that the universe is filled with hundreds of billions of other galaxies. The most recent results tell us there could be more than two trillion in all, 10 times more than previously thought. Typical galaxies, like our own Milky Way, are home to 100 billion stars.

In more earthbound terms, according to the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Adam Riess, there are more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth taken together. Hubble has changed what we know about the universe, its structure, its age (3.8 billion years, give or take) and its evolution, from early origins to black holes and supernova explosions — quite literally, death stars.

©NASA-Hubble

©NASA-Hubble

In more earthbound terms, according to the Nobel Prize winning astrophysicist Adam Riess, there are more stars in the visible universe than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth taken together. Hubble has changed what we know about the universe, its structure, its age (3.8 billion years, give or take) and its evolution, from early origins to black holes and supernova explosions — quite literally, death stars.

“Yes,” Straughn told 60 Minutes. “Space is big.”

One of the many remarkable things about Hubble’s findings is that it shows how colourful the universe is.

“Big stars, when they die, they explode and send their contents into the surrounding universe,” Straughn said. “And these contents are what seed future stars and future planets and help to seed life, ultimately. The iron in your blood and the calcium in your bones was literally forged inside of a star that ended its life like this. We literally are stardust. We are viscerally made of the stars.”

That’s a striking image. And its images like that which make today’s news events pale in comparison.


How ‘One Little Elephant’ will change your life, if only for an hour.

“Naledi” is the Setswana word for ‘star,’ but it doesn’t end there. Naledi is also the name of a 90-minute documentary about efforts to revive a sickly, wild elephant that was found orphaned and near death in a private wilderness reserve in Botswana, Africa’s most forward-thinking wildlife country and home to one of the last bastions of wild elephants on the planet. 

Naledi: An Elephant’s Tale, made in 2016, followed a European documentary film crew as they tagged along with wildlife rangers who made a timely intervention, to see if they could nurture the starving, emaciated month-old baby back to health. The subsequent film caused a stir on Netflix, which has pursued an active program of award-winning documentaries of late. Naledi: A Baby Elephant’s Tale proved to be a crossover hit for Netflix, popular with both an adult audience jazzed by timely, topical, hard-hitting documentaries and the family audience that typically gravitates toward warm-hearted programs about cute animals.

©Netflix

©Netflix

Now, PBS’s venerable film showcase Nature has chosen a trimmed-down, 55-minute version of Naledi to open its new season (PBS, Wednesday at 8ET/PT; check local listings).

Please don’t think the edited version is a simple retread, though. Retitled Naledi: One Little Elephant, the shorter version is a tight, lean, skillfully made film in its own right. Much of the back story is hinted at, but not explained. There is no narration. Game rangers, conservationists and surrogate elephant parents tell a chronological story in their own, often revealing words; no narration is needed. 

The cinematography is clean and crisp, and at times breathtakingly beautiful. Naledi doesn’t look or sound like your typical TV program made on the cheap and on the fly. There are moments when the photography takes on an almost Game of Thrones-like feel. The music, composed specifically for the film by the feature-film composer Nick Urata, is gorgeous. 

That’s a tell right there, because there’s a trend in TV documentaries of late to hire online music charnel houses that stitch together pre-recorded music cues, selected by computer programs and mashed together to form some kind of fetid, ghastly pastiche of aural wallpaper — white noise.

©Abu Camp Botswana/Dr. Mike Chase

©Abu Camp Botswana/Dr. Mike Chase

Naledi is not that program.

The music was composed by a living, breathing human being, not an AI program.

Urata founded the Denver-based underground band DeVotchKa in 2007 and was Grammy-nominated for the film score of the Oscar-winning Little Miss Sunshine. More recently, Urata composed the title music for Netflix’s Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, with Neil Patrick Harris.

Naledi: One Little Elephant is not your typical TV fare, in other words. It comes in at the high end of the nature program scale, and it’s easy to see why veteran Nature executive produce Fred Kaufman chose it to open the program’s 36th season.

This is just background, of course. The important thing to know — both from a conservation point of view and for an evening’s relief from the day’s news headlines — is that this is a moving, true-life story that will entertain the kids while at the same time engaging the adults in the family.

©Kate Bradbury

©Kate Bradbury

Raising orphaned baby elephants in captivity and then reintegrating them into the wild is never easy.

Thanks to the remarkable work being done on a daily basis now by the Nairobi-based David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, home of the famous — thanks to a classic 60 Minutes segment that went viral — elephant orphanage run by Sheldrick’s widow, Dame Daphne Sheldrick. Raising a baby elephant is not like raising a calf or steer; Sheldrick toiled for years before finally hitting on a baby-milk formula that orphan elephants would both accept and draw sustenance from.

©Daphne Shedrick

©Daphne Shedrick

What makes Naledi so compelling is that an elephant never forgets. Or, more accurately — and more importantly for an audience-friendly TV program — an elephant never forgets a person’s face. Sheldrick herself has been recognized by elephants released back into the wild after 20 years or more.

It helps that Naledi’s story is compelling, of course. It helps, too, that there’s a message — implied, but not shoved in your face — about the crisis facing today’s fast-disappearing population of elephants. The last large-scale elephant census, taken in 2016, found that Africa had lost a third of its remaining elephant population in just the 10 years prior.

As of this moment in time, China and the U.S. have closed their ivory markets — officially, anyway — but poaching is still a problem. Illegal ivory is still readily available throughout China, the Far East and Southeast Asia. 

©Wilderness Safaris

©Wilderness Safaris

Naledi was backed by Paul Allen — the other guy behind Microsoft — and his conservation foundation. Allen, now a full-time philanthropist living in Seattle, was oneof the backers of the 2016 elephant census.

Naledi was made by veteran BBC and National Geographic filmmaker Ben Bowie, alongside Amsterdam-based filmmaker Geoff Luck, also an alumnus of National Geographic and PBS.

The program’s resident wildlife expert is Dr. Mike Chase, founder of Elephants Without Borders. Chasehas been working out of a research station in Botswana’s Okavango Delta for the past 15 years.

©Dr. Mike Chase

©Dr. Mike Chase

Naledi is not a cheapo wildlife doc, in other words. It’s a proper film, in both its shortened Nature version and in the Netflix original.

More importantly, perhaps, for these troubled times, it will lift your spirits, if only temporarily. PBS Nature is back, and not a moment too soon.


Rhino horn auction is pointless, animal rights groups say.

If there were a one-off sale of illegal drugs, would it kill the drug trade?

It’s not an entirely pointless question.

That exact reasoning — take something that’s illegal and make it temporarily legal, to satisfy demand and discourage black marketeers — was the excuse/aim/purpose/rationalization/justification, whatever you care to call it, behind a one-off auction of rhino horn last month in South Africa.

This was not a government auction, though the South African government sanctioned it, albeit begrudgingly. At first.

The auction was organized by a private rhino rancher in South Africa, John Hume. He took the government to court — at the time, South Africa was insisting that wildlife laws and international trade agreements be honoured — and won the right to sell 265 rhino horns, weighing about 500 kg. Hume owns and has bred more than 1,100 rhinos, according to published reports.

©Mario Moreno/Africa Foundation

©Mario Moreno/Africa Foundation

The absurd price of rhino horn — USD $100,000 per kilogram on the black market, more than the price of platinum — is driven by demand in, guess where, Asia. Ten years ago, rhino poaching had been virtually eliminated. Since 2013, an average of 1,000 rhinos have been poached each and every year, with a dramatic spike in the past 24 months, especially in South Africa, home to the world’s largest surviving population of rhinos, both captive and wild.

With World Rhino Day having passed a week ago and World Animal Day just around the corner (Oct. 4), the issue of rhino poaching is once again part of the public conversation.

It’s too early to judge what effect, if any, the auction had. Rhino poaching was already out of control — it has been for the past two years — and if the sudden accessibility of “legitimate” rhino horn on the market is going to stem the illegal trade, it will take weeks if not months to register.

Conservationists meanwhile argue the sudden availability of rhino horn will only boost the market, not discourage it, as the auction’s promoters insist.

©Heidi Venter/Africa Geographic

©Heidi Venter/Africa Geographic

It’s not an isolated, one-off debate. Many governments in southern Africa — Zimbabwe, Namibia, Mozambique, Botswana, Malawi, Zambia and South Africa itself — are sitting on stores ofvaluable ivory in the form of elephant tusks. Southern African governments — with the notable exception of Botswana — have called for one-off legal sales of ivory, to fund conservation programs.

In East Africa the issue has divided Kenya, the mosthigh-profile and successful tourist destination of Africa’s wildlife countries, where trophy hunting has been banned across the board, and Tanzania, home to East Africa’s largest population of wild elephants — by far — and a vocal supporter of trophy hunting.

The international trade in both ivory and rhino horn has been banned, thanks to an agreement by the member states of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), a kind of United Nations of countries with indigenous wildlife — virtually every country on the planet.

©Federico Veronesi/Remembering Rhinos

©Federico Veronesi/Remembering Rhinos

To get technical about it — and while no one likes to be snarled in legal verbiage and technical jargon, it’s good to know — rhinos are listed on Appendix 1 of the CITES index, which means horns cannot be legally taken out of South Africa into any signatory CITES state. The auction, in other words, was only applicable to buyers in South Africa, as the South African court’s jurisdiction only applies to its home country. (Yes, that might seem to be obvious, but the obvious has a way of being obscured whenever large sums of money are involved.

The international ban in trade of ivory and rhino horn has led to a flourishing black market. Until the issue of demand is addressed — do the Chinese really need ivory trinkets and powdered rhino horn? — the black market will always thrive. Law enforcement can only do so much.

And when crazy ideas enter into the equation — the widespread belief, for example, that powdered rhino horn cures cancer and enhances one’s sex life — solving the problem becomes that much more difficult. “I think, therefore I am” becomes “I believe, therefore I’m right.”

©Hilary O’Leary/Natural History Museum

©Hilary O’Leary/Natural History Museum

Conservationists argue, however, that legal auctions have the opposite effect: The result of one-off legal sales creates an explosion in demand, as what was once forbidden is now legally available. Those involved in the enforcement of wildlife laws also argue — plausibly, it would seem to me — that it becomes almost impossible to tell the difference between “legal” ivory (or rhino horn) and that which has been illegally poached. Tanzania, which has lobbied hard for the legal sale of its stored elephant tusks — to fund conservation efforts, they say, though detractors argue that cash earmarked for conservation has a funny way of disappearing before it’s used for its stated, intended purposes — etches serial numbers into its elephant tusks, serial numbers that can be modified or scratched off entirely.

Interestingly, in an effort to save a critically endangered species, hundreds of rhinos have been imported to Australia, with its similar climate, though that will not dissuade the international crime syndicates if they’re motivated enough and the population in Africa crashes.

©Paula Kahumbu/Wildlife Direct

©Paula Kahumbu/Wildlife Direct

Rhino ranchers argue that, instead of killing wild rhinos, as poachers do, they can harvest the horn from living rhinos, as with livestock. Each rhino’s horn is trimmed, like wool sheared from a sheep, and the pieces are stored, in expectation of a future sale.

The real irony, of course, is that the market for rhino horn in South Africa itself — and other countries — is negligible, if not nonexistent.  As a general rule, Africans do not believe that rhino horn, ground up and sprinkled in a glass of water, cures headaches, hangovers and high blood pressure, let alone cancer.

As Paula Kahumbu, CEO and director of the animal-rights advocacy and conservation group Wildlife Direct wrote last month in an op-ed piece for theGuardian newspaper, you can kill all the rhinos you want, but people will still die from cancer.


Monkey see, monkey sue — and settles out of court.

Remember that selfie of the grinning monkey that sparked a three-year court fight?

Well, it’s over — pending appeal, that is. 

PETA took wildlife photographer David Slater to court in 2014, on behalf of an Indonesian crested macaque named Naruto. A selfie photo of a grimacing Naruto went viral in 2011 and became a talking point from Indiana to Indonesia.

PETA argued before San Francisco’s Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal that Naruto is the legal copyright holder — since he took the photo — and as such is entitled to any proceeds Slater made from future transactions.

©David Slater. Or Naruto the monkey. Not sure which.

©David Slater. Or Naruto the monkey. Not sure which.

 

Given Slater’s court costs — he’s a self-employed nature photographer, after all, not a Wall Street banker — that was never going to amount to much.

As it is, Slater told everyone from the BBC to the Daily Telegraph that the case has driven him to the brink of bankruptcy, even though, to most eyes, the case is bafffling, not to mention bananas.

PETA has argued that, under US copyright law, the person who takes a picture is the copyright owner, even if, as happened in this case, Slater who flew to Indonesia, provided the camera and set up the shot. Slater later included the resulting image in a book of his wildlife pictures, published by Blurb Inc.

02 monkeygenderfeat-800x420.jpg

 

Not wanting to leave anyone out of the frame, PETA also named Blurb as a defendant in its suit.

Now, word comes that the two parties have agreed to a settlement, one they both profess to be being happy about but will likely please no one, least of all the monkey.

Ironically — though not surprisingly — the photo in question is appearing all over again, all over the world, from Indiana to Indonesia, even though neither PETA nor Slater stand to get rich from the notoriety. One online publication has credited the infamous photo as, “Copyright David Slater. Or Naruto the monkey. Not sure which.”

Slater, 52, is from South Wales. And if you’re wondering why a San Francisco court got involved in a case involving a macaque from Indonesia and a photographer from the UK, well, you’re not alone. US copyright law extends the world over, evidently.

“It is absurd that a monkey can sue for copyright infringement in court,” Angela Dunning, Slater’s co-counsel and in-house attorney for Blurb, told the appeals court in July.

“Naruto can’t benefit financially from his work,” Dunning added. “He is a monkey.”

 

Court judge Carlos Bea asked at the outset why the case shouldn’t be tossed, on principle. He asked if anyone, inside or outside the courtroom, can point to any case law which specifically states thatman and monkey are equal in the eyes of the law.

Bea also wondered aloud whether PETA had “sufficient relationship” with Naruto to represent themselves in the legal capacity of “next friend.”

With friends like this, who needs enemies, the dispassionate observer might well ask.

The monkey business came to an end Friday when PETA gave up its appeal, as dutifully reported by the insider website law.com.

Details of the settlement were announced Monday, though not in full.

There was no mention of court costs, for example, or attorney fees, which the near-bankrupt Slater hoped to recover.

Instead, the two parties issued a joint statement, in which PETA and Slater agreed that the case raises “important, cutting-edge issues about expanding legal rights for non-human animals.”

Slater insisted from the beginning that he wants his wildlife photos to highlight the plight of endangered species around the world. 

As part of the settlement, then Slater agreed to pay 25 percent of future gross revenues from the monkey selfies to a range of non-governmental organizations dedicated to preserving the macaque’s natural habitat in Indonesia.

It’s hard to judge whether any legal precedent was set by a court case that captured the imagination of headline writers the world over.

In the end, the two parties couldn’t even agree on what gender the monkey was. Or is.

PETA claimed Naruto is a female well-known to park custodians in that region of Indonesia; Slater argued it’s a different monkey altogether, and a male at that.

For the record, court documents referred to Naruto throughout the trial as a male.

Meanwhile, the all-important question — what would the monkey have done with the money if he were human? — will have to go unanswered. For now.

 

http://www.law.com/sites/almstaff/2017/09/11/monkey-authors-will-have-to-wait-another-day-for-copyrights/

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/legal-arguments-monkey-selfie-case-are-bananas-at-hearing-1020376


Africa’s unsung wildlife heroes: Wayne Lotter did not die in vain.

Here’s the thing. Every day, thousands of park rangers and conservationists like the late Wayne Lotter, shot to death late last month by as-yet unidentified gunmen in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, risk their lives to fight against global wildlife trafficking. Too often, their lives end in tragedy. More than 1,000 rangers have been killed in the line of duty in just the past 10 years.

The killings are not meant to be taken in isolation. They’re designed to send a chilling message to anyone who vows to expose crime syndicates that traffic in animal skins, illegal trophies and body parts, from Chilean sea bass and shark fin soup to rhino horn and, in Lotter’s case, elephant ivory.

©CNN

©CNN


Violence rarely — if ever — deters committed crusaders for the environment from pursuing their goal, though it can have a chilling effect on potential whistleblowers, those people on the inside who can point law enforcement in the right direction, on those occasions law enforcement isn’t compromised by corruption in high places.

Neighbouring countries often take a different approach to the same problem, though. Despite Tanzania’s gift of a natural bounty unmatched in neighbouring countries — a thriving tourist industry based on the annual Serengeti wildebeest migration, the justifiably famous “Cradle of Humankind” in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, and one of Africa’s largest surviving remnant populations of wild elephants — Tanzania is also home to endemic corruption on an almost epic scale. Here’s a harsh reality: Where there is corruption on an institutional, national level of governance, China is rarely far behind.

©WWF-UK

©WWF-UK

Kenya, Tanzania’s neighbour, has traditionally taken a radically different approach to wildlife conservation, though, just as Botswana routinely and consistently annoys its neighbours Zimbabwe, South Africa and Namibia with its own, forward-thinking conservation practices. Trophy hunting, for example, is part of the natural order of things in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia; Botswana has banned it outright, despite the loss in potential income and revenue. Big game hunting is de rigueur in Tanzania; Kenya has banned it outright, despite the loss to its economy.

Thanks to its natural bounty, Tanzania has managed to generate income from both hunting and tourism; Kenya, despite being more prone to droughts — much of northern Kenya is semi-arid desert as it is — and despite endemic street crime, a serious terrorist threat and its own share of government corruption, has gone all-in on wildlife tourism, even as it has mounted some of the toughest, most aggressive anti-poaching military campaigns on the entire continent.

©WWF-UK

©WWF-UK

Whistleblowers are key. Without ordinary, everyday citizens finding the courage to report trafficking activity, it’s hard for law enforcement to bringwildlife criminals to justice, let alone put a dent in the Asian crime syndicates.

Lotter, interestingly enough, was closely involved in equipping and training Tanzanian park rangers in how to defend themselves in a firefight and mete out justice of their own — based on the Kenyan model, in other words, instead of looking the other way and pretending nothing happened.

©iAP/Ben Curtis

©iAP/Ben Curtis

This is not simply a case of the great white man telling the black man what to do and how to do it. In Kenya, in Botswana and in the gorilla parks of Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it’s local — black — citizens who are donning automatic rifles and camouflage gear and putting their lives on the line, often for little more than what developed nations would regard as the minimum wage. Once again, as is so often the case in Africa, it is the most impoverished people who are the most incorruptible, and the monied class, often at minister level, who are most inclined to take kickbacks from crime syndicates.

©Ol Pejeta Conservancy

©Ol Pejeta Conservancy

If anything, Kenya is ramping up its anti-trafficking campaign, not scaling it back, despite recent setbacks in Tanzania. Kenya has announced it is about to “significantly” increase the number of specialist prosecutors who prosecute wildlife crime. The Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) currently has two full-time prosecutors on call; that number will soon jump to 14. The conservation organization Space for Giants — Space for Giants’ patron is Evgeny Lebedev, owner of the UK Independent newspaper — is underwriting the training and mentoring of the new prosecutors.

©Ol Pejeta Conservancy

©Ol Pejeta Conservancy

KWS acting director general Julius Kimani told The Independent that while Kenya has experienced success in both intelligence and criminal investigations, they recognized there was a gap in the courts.

Lotter understood this. There is an argument to be made — as yet unproven — that this is why he was murdered.

Murdered, yes, but not silenced. It might not look like it now, but Lotter may well have been on the right side of history. As the heavily armed elephant and rhino rangers and a newly invigorated court system in Kenya show, and as the heavily armed gorilla rangers in Rwanda and Congo prove, ordinary, everyday people can and will stare down the international crime syndicates, given the chance, given the moral authority and the knowledge that doing the right thing almost invariably wins out in the end, despite the potential terrible personal cost.

No, Wayne Lotter did not die in vain. Kenya is showing the way. 

http://spaceforgiants.org


A year of living dangerously for nature’s defenders

Even before last month’s murder by unknown gunmen of leading elephant conservationist Wayne Lotter in Dar es Salaam. Tanzania — which ironically enough translates from the Swahili as “Place of Peace” — the world has become a more dangerous place for nature and the people trying to protect it.

In just the past year, according to the non-governmental organization Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers, or ALERT, more than 200 conservations and wildlife workers from some 24 countries were killed while confronting environmentally destructive development projects. Mining, logging, illegal farming and wildlife poaching are mainly to blame, though old-fashioned human greed is never too far away.

©PAMS Foundation

©PAMS Foundation

In Lotter’s case, his lifelong campaign to protect wild elephants and expose the illegal ivory trade, made him a target. Unlike some of the more prominent wildlife campaigners, he preferred to stay in the shadows, away from the media spotlight — a silent hero. He earned a hard-won reputation as a pragmatist eager to work with local communities in alleviating poverty and show through example the wisdom of conservation over making a fast buck from ivory poaching. He was never going to become a household name. Until now, that is.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Wayne’s anti-poaching efforts made a big difference in the fight to save Tanzania’s elephants from the illegal ivory trade,” Jane Goodall said, in a public tribute. “His courage in the face of personal threats and his determination to keep on fighting has inspired many, and encouraged them to keep on fighting for wildlife. If this cowardly act was an effort to bring his work to an end, it will fail.”

©PAMS Foundation/Krissie Clark

©PAMS Foundation/Krissie Clark

Famed elephant researcher Iain Douglas-Hamilton, who played a prominent role in writer Peter Matthiessen’s 1960’s classic The Tree Where Man Was Born, credited Lotter with exposing corruption in the highest levels of power in Tanzania.

Lotter made enemies in high places, wealthy people who benefitted for decades from the poaching of illegal ivory in Tanzania. The East African country is home along with Botswana to Africa’s largest surviving population of wild elephants.

“He pursued justice for wildlife with little apparent concern for his own life,” Douglas-Hamilton said. “His loss is a grave blow to the defence of the living planet.”

©Nuria Oretga/African Parks

©Nuria Oretga/African Parks

Lotter, the South African-born co-founder and director of the Tanzania-based, somewhat prosaically named Protected Area Management Solutions (PAMS) Foundation, was one of the subjects of the just-released Netflix documentary The Ivory Game, produced by Leonardo DiCaprio. He was 51. He leaves behind a wife and two young daughters.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/aug/17/leading-elephant-conservationist-ivory-shot-dead-in-tanzania#img-1

East Africa is not the only region in the world beset by violence against conservationists and wildlife workers, despite ongoing armed conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), home of one of the last remaining strongholds of the critically endangered mountain gorilla.

©Andrew Bruckman/African Parks

©Andrew Bruckman/African Parks

 

Brazil’s Amazon rainforest is the most dangerous place to be a conservationist, with 49 deaths in 2016 alone, according to ALERT. Land theft by wealthy cattle ranchers and speculators is driving the violence there, as evidenced by the 2005 murder of Dorothy Stang, an American-born Catholic nun and active campaigner for indigenous rights. The Amazon is currently under siege from government efforts in Brazil to weaken environmental laws and reduce the size of protected areas, while at the same time looking away from illegal land-grabs.

Despite the murder of Lotter and other, less well-known wildlife campaigners, all is not lost. 

In an impassioned call to action, ALERT director William Laurance urged followers not to lose hope, and cites several “win-wins” that suggest the battle to save the planet is far from over.

©Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT)

©Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers (ALERT)

 

Campaigns to slow down and in some cases stop altogether the building of dams, roads and highways through ecologically sensitive hot spots in Sumatra, Cambodia, Papua New Guinea and even Tanzania’s own Serengeti National Park have proven surprisingly effective.

The fight is hard, but the battle is not over yet.

 

http://alert-conservation.org/issues-research-highlights/2016/6/28/is-nature-conservation-hopeless?rq=good%20news

http://alert-conservation.org/



©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Babi Prokas/African Parks

©Babi Prokas/African Parks

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Japan Times

©Japan Times

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

©Charlie Hamilton James/National Geographic

Just how much is 17 trillion gallons of water, anyway?

Can you visualize 26 million Olympic swimming pools? Actually, you can.

That’s the amount of rain dumped on Houston and southern Texas these past few days by Hurricane Harvey, the “weather event” that triggered catastrophic flooding and continues to wreak havoc on one the U.S.’s fourth-largest city in terms of population (6.5 million people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's July 1, 2010 estimate).

The existential media question — what’s the difference between a meteorologist and a climatologist? — is mirrored in big-picture terms with Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath.

It’s no longer a question of weather vs. climate, or even nature vs. engineering, but rather the status quo vs. the future of the planet.

©U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

©U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

The political winds are shifting in Washington, DC and other national capitals, as it becomes more apparent — to those who follow science and pay attention to the news — that rising man-made emissions are pushing the global climate deeper into uncharted territory.

As widespread as the flooding in the Gulf of Mexico is, it pales in comparison to what is going on in India, Nepal and Bangladesh, where overnight accounts from BBC World estimate that nearly half of Bangladesh — the entire country,  not just regional pockets — is underwater, due to unseasonably heavy monsoon rains.

©Google Images

©Google Images

Coupled with deadly mudslides in Sierra Leone last week and last month’s overflow of a key tributary to China’s Yangtze River, climate scientists warn that weather extremes are likely to be the norm in the near future, not the exception. As The Guardian global environment editor Jonathan Watts noted in an article earlier this week, we are now living in an era of unwelcome records.

The science is in. Since the advent of climate records, each of the past three years have registered steadily rising records for high temperatures. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air is the highest it’s been in four million years. We know this from geological carbon readings. This isn’t fake science, in other words, just as Hurricane Harvey and its devastating after-effects aren’t fake news.

©ABC News

©ABC News

Climatologists note that high amounts of carbon dioxide do not cause storms, per se, but they do make storms more volatile and violent — and more destructive.

Again, science is the key. As seas warm, sea water evaporates faster. Warming air holds more water vapour than cold air. For every increase in air temperature of just half-a-degree Celsius, atmospheric water content increases by three percent, give or take. The skies fill more quickly, and hold more water. Scientists call the Clausius-Clapeyron effect. The plain truth is that the surface temperature of the Gulf of Mexico is more than a degree higher than it was just 30 years ago.

Climatologists estimate that sea levels have risen more than 20 centimetres in 100 years of man-made global warming. Melting glaciers and the calving of massive ice shelves off Antarctica expand the volume of seawater.

©Guardian/Reuters

©Guardian/Reuters

The result is not worldwide floods or worldwide droughts so much as it is climatic extremes in regions already prone to flood and drought.

Friederike Otto, deputy director of Oxford University’s Environmental Change Institute, told The Guardian that the world can expect to see extreme rainfall amounts and record-setting temperatures “for the foreseeable future.”

Effects will vary from country to country. Bangladesh, for example, is particularly susceptible to ocean flooding, as are large swaths of the southern coastal U.S., because the topography is essentially flat and only slightly above sea level.

Recent storms have shown a tendency to stall, rather than blow through. One reason why Hurricane Harveyhas taken so long to clear Texas and Louisiana’s Gulf coast is that a massive high-pressure ridge over the northwest U.S. and southeastern Canada has blocked the storm from moving on its traditionally north-northeasterly track, if only temporarily. The longer Harvey lingers over flat lowland areas of coastal Texas and Louisiana, the more rain it will dump — and the worse the flooding will get.

©CNET

©CNET

Climate researchers have cited dramatic warming in the Arctic as one reason why high-pressure ridges keep building over British Columbia and Washington State in the summer months, and why it takes weeks rather than days for those pressure ridges to break down and allow the jet-stream to resume its normal track along the U.S.-Canadian border.

Hurricane Harvey is not a local story, in other words, or even regional, but rather international. That’s why climate change is a global concern, and not just a one-time local news hit on the nightly news.

One thing is becoming abundantly clear — and not just because of Harvey. This is no time to play politics with climate change. It’s basic science.


Sir David Attenborough on the reason for hope.

He’s been a voice in the wilderness — literally — for six decades.

So it should have been a surprise to no one, detractors and supporters alike, that when David Attenborough faced the room at last weekend’s Edinburgh International Television Festival, he would strike a discordant note.

There is reason for hope, Attenborough told a room more used to hearing how humankind has already passed the the turning point of global destruction.

Planet Earth has never faced so many crises, everything from pollution and overpopulation to wholesale global climate change and the imminent threat of a new mass extinction — which will be planet’s sixth, if the scientists are to be believed.

So it was a shock for many environmentalists to hear the man who has chronicled the lives of Earth’s most remarkable creatures for the better part of a century to sound a note of optimism.

Nearly 20 years ago, primatologist Jane Goodall wrote the book Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey, an autobiographical odyssey that covered much of the same emotional terrain. Goodall argued in Reason for Hope that young people are more attuned to the natural world than their forebears, and will fight hard to preserve what remains of the natural world.

©Middlesborough Gazette

©Middlesborough Gazette

Attenborough’s argument is much the same — the future of planet Earth lies with its young people, who have the most to lose from a ruined environment — but given how much the planet’s ecosystems have suffered in just the past two decades, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Attenborough is knowingly putting a positive spin on an otherwise hopeless situation. No one wants top fight a battle that’s already lost, after all, and environmental news in 2017is a seemingly relentless parade of horror stories.

Attenborough, 91, told the Edinburgh Festival that he’s detected a “worldwide shift” — his words — in attitudes toward conservation, with voters and leaders in previously skeptical nations seeing the light of day.

The current state of politics in the U.S. is a temporary aberration, he insisted, and flies in the face of what’s happening across Europe, Asia, and Latin and South America. Attenborough likened the emerging consensus in favour of protecting what’s left of the natural world, to the awakening of anti-communist sentiment in eastern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

©Huffington Post UK

©Huffington Post UK

That consensus, he argued, was reflected in last year’s Paris deal on greenhouse gases. As of now, 195 countries have signed the Paris accord; 160 of those countries have taken the extra step of ratifying the agreement.

The U.S. has signalled its intention to withdraw from the Paris climate accord, but anything the U.S. does or does not do is outweighed by signatories like China, India, Brazil, Russia, Canada, Germany and other members of the G20, as well as countless emerging nations around the world.

Attenborough returns to TV screens this fall with Blue Planet II, which those who’ve seen it say will do forBlue Planet, the acclaimed program Attenborough made in 2001, what Planet Earth II did for the originalPlanet Earth.

Programs such as Planet Earth, The Blue Planet, Frozen Planet and Life on Earth have played a crucial role in raising public awareness, Attenborough told the room, without a hint of self-aggrandizement.

Optimism doesn’t mean the world’s environmental problems are solved, Attenborough noted. Changing attitudes is a good start, though.

@BBC Earth

@BBC Earth

Attenborough’s detractors note that words come easily, and that the world’s largest polluters — the U.S., China, India and Russia — have done little in terms of concrete action to reduce greenhouse gases and our over-reliance on fossil fuel, not to mention the growing stress on the world’s remaining rivers, forests, lakes and oceans. Some ecologists argue that by 2050 — within 35 years — the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans will outweigh the weight of fish. Human beings produce some 500 billion plastic bags and half a trillion plastic bottles each year, some argue, most of which will end up in a landfill and take 400 years to biodegrade.

Coupled with steadily rising population growth — which Attenborough himself has campaigned against — the future looks bleak.

That’s why this may be as good a place as any to end with Attenborough’s own words. (A video link to the full interview follows below.)

©BBC Earth

©BBC Earth

There are indeed signs of hope, Attenborough insisted, much as Jane Goodall argued 20 years ago.

As for whether the turning point has already been crossed, that is something only time itself can judge.

“I spend a lot of time wringing my hands and saying how dreadful it is, that this forest has been obliterated and that sea has been polluted, and whatever,” Attenborough told his audience in Edinburgh. “But there are signs of hope. It’s almost like the way suddenly — to me at any rate — the knocking-over of the Berlin Wall was a surprise. I had no idea that there was this (political) build-up and that suddenly it was going to be the end of an era, politically.

“I have a sense that worldwide — certainly in Europe and certainly China, which we would never have thought before — people are concerned about this. And perhaps, if I may say this, there are people in America, parté Mr. Trump, who don’t accept that human beings can do no wrong and you can simply exterminate the wilderness. There are people who care about the wilderness, in the United States.

©BBC Earth

©BBC Earth

“There has been a worldwide shift, I think, amongst people in general about the concern that there should be for the natural world. I am encouraged more than I have been for quite some time.”

Attenborough has no doubt about the effect natural-history programming such as Planet Earth and Blue Planet have had on popular opinion — not just on BBC in the UK, but globally, around the entire world.

“We have to be careful that not every program that we put out is grinding an axe. We have to also remember that there is joy and delight and beauty and pleasure and excitement in the natural world. This is our bread-and-butter. That’s what it’s about.

“If there was no need to talk about conservation, the happier I would be. We could just relish (the natural world) and enjoy it. But that isn’t the case. If we are responsible, we have to take on this responsibility.”



Welcome to the Cat Museum. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

All together now, to the strains of Hotel California:

“Welcome to the Katten Kabinet. Such a lovely place for cats (such a lovely place).

“They livin’ it up at the Katten Kabinet. What a nice surprise (what a nice surprise), bring your alibis.

“Mirrors on the ceiling, the pink champagne on ice. And the Cheshire said, ‘We are all just prisoners here, of our own device.’

“Last thing I remember, I was running for the door, I had to find the passage back to the place where I was before.

“ Relax,’ said the night man. ‘You can check out any time you like. But you can never leave.’”

Yes, welcome to the cat museum. If you’re a cat lover, you may never want to leave.

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First, the broad strokes. Amsterdam is rightly renowned throughout the world for its museums, whether it’s the Rijksmuseum or the Hermitage, the Van Gogh Museum or Anne Frank House.
Anyone looking for the quirky, offbeat and downright weird is unlikely to bedisappointed, either, whether it’s a side trip to the House of Bols (Bols liqueurs, EST 1575 — check out the rainbow-hued “Hall of Taste”)  — or a detour to the increasingly famous, if hard-to-find cat-themed museum, the Katten Kabinet.

The museum — a remodeled heritage home off the Herengracht canal — is full of posters, handbills, oil paintings, sculptures, tapestries, wall hangings and other forms of art depicting nothing but . . . cats.

Certified 20th-century eccentric and financier philanthropist Bob Meijer founded the museum in 1990, in commemoration of the legendary ginger cat John Pierpont Morgan (1966-1983), aka J.P. Morgan, often described as Meijer’s “stubborn, headstrong companion.” Wherever Meijer went, it is said, J.P. Morgan was there to tell him he was going the wrong way.

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When J.P. Morgan passed in 1983 — the forensic examiner at the time attributed it to old age, but rumours persist that J.P. Morgan simply became fed up with his owner and opted for the easy out — Meijer sought to immortalize him with an art gallery dedicated to cats and nothing but cats. Art snobs can have their Van Gogh’s and Rembrandt’s; Meijer was determined to pay homage to the likes of Stubbs, the cat mayor of Talkeetna, Alaska (pop. 900, as of the 2012 census), and Simon, the cat appointed a war hero after serving aboard HMS Amethyst during the Yangtze Incident, a 101-day siege that trapped the navy frigate on the Yangtze River during the Chinese civil war in 1949.

Then there’s Sockamillion, the cat with 1.4 million followers on Twitter (@sockington), and Créme Puff, the oldest cat known to humanity, who reportedly passed away on Aug. 6, 2005, at the age of 38, according to his owner, Jake Perry, of Austin, Texas.

An advertising poster from 1911 for Chettalín shoe polish is just one of Katten Kabinet’s guaranteed conversation starters, partly because of its historical significance and partly because it’s, well, weird, like much of what else can be found in the Kabinet.

So wirkt Schuhputz. Kitt-eh! Kitt-eh! Kitt-eh!

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“The tree of revenge does not carry fruit,” goes an old Dutch proverb, but then cats don’t care much for fruit. They’re meat eaters, all the way.

Affectionate carnivores, though, when they want to be.

Among Katten Kabinet’s numerous charms is a wall devoted to Dick Whittington’s Cat, named after the folklore surrounding real-life 14th-century English merchant Richard Whittington, who would later go on to serve as Lord Mayor of London.

Legend has it — and, really, how can these things ever be proved to historians’ complete satisfaction? — that Whittington supposedly escaped a poverty-stricken childhood by living off the avails of his rat-catching cat. A cat with a reputation for murdering rats at will would have been a prized commodity in 14th-century London.

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Regardless of whether the story holds water or not —  and who would begrudge humanity a lively tale on a dark and rainy night? — Dick Whittington’s cat certainly fits in at the Katten Kabinet.

Besides, no other cat immortalized at the Kabinet can lay claim to being the subject of their very own puppet show, as first performed at Covent Garden in 1711, as recorded at the time in the Spectator:

"At Punch's Theatre in the Little Piazza, Covent-Garden, this present Evening will be performed an Entertainment, called, The History of Sir Richard Whittington, shewing his Rise from a Scullion to be Lord-Mayor of London, with the Comical Humours of Old Madge, the jolly Chamber-maid, and the Representation of the Sea, and the Court of Great Britain, concluding with the Court of Aldermen, and Whittington Lord-Mayor, honoured with the Presence of K. Hen. VIII. and his Queen Anna Bullen, with other diverting Decorations proper to the Play, beginning at 6 o' clock." 

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Like cats themselves, the Katten Kabinet is small and not that easy to find. It’s tucked away in a canal house on Amsterdam’s Groudon Bocht — Golden Bend — a section of the Herengracht canal that features some of the city’s grandest and oldest houses. The official address is no. 497, 1017 BT Amsterdam, but even frequent visitors say they could easily miss it if they didn’t know where to look. Only the smallest of signs provides a clue.

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This part of Amsterdam may have been established in the early 1700s, but the Katten Kabinet comes with a very 21st-century signature: its very own website, complete with gallery images, a set of directions on how to find it, and that mainstay of 21st-century commerce, an online shop.

http://www.kattenkabinet.nl/en

TripAdvisor reviews are mixed, ranging from “Terrible” (one star out of five), “Not worth the time or money,” (also one star) and, “Should be called the Krappen Kabinet,” to, at the other end of thespectrum, “Our favourite museum in Amsterdam!” (five stars out of five), “Purrfectly enjoyable,” (also five for five), “This place is the cat’s pyjamas!” and, perhaps most honest of all: “If cats and art are your thing, this is great. If not, I imagine this could be your own personal nightmare.”

There you have it, then. As one final customer review on TripAdvisor warns, “Only go if you love cats.”

Some truths are still self-evident, you see, even in 2017. 


Rob Cerneus gaat voor Uit de Kunst ter gelegenheid van Dierendag naar het Kattenkabinet in Amsterdam. Yes, it’s true!


Dick Whittington, ladies and gentlemen!


And finally, a visitor POV video tour.