When seeing is not always believing.

Fake news is all the rage today, even though what’s fake to some isn’t fake to all.

Fake photos, though, also have their place in the conversation, even if they’re not mentioned nearly as often.

A recent study by the psychology department at the UK’s University of Warwick made the news headlines this past week after published results showed four in 10 of 707 test subjects couldn’t spot a doctored photo even when told ahead of time than an image had been faked.

The bottom line: Many people aren’t very good at telling real images from fake ones.

More interestingly, in an age when nearly everyone thinks they know everything about, well, everything, people think they’re much better at spotting doctored images than they really are.  

If there’s a silver lining to the study results, it’s that the six in 10 who guessed right is slightly higher than the five in 10 that would be expected to guess right if the results were decided entirely by chance. Heads or tails.

Test subjects were shown a number of real and fake images, and told to choose. Researchers created a photo bank of 30 fake photos and 10 real ones, all sourced from Google Images.

The flaws ranged from changing the direction of a shadow to distorting the angle of buildings. In a handful of cases, the researchers applied more subtle flaws, such as airbrushing a person’s appearance.

Tellingly, when subjects were asked to pinpoint what they thought was wrong with an image they thought to be fake, they spotted the actual flaw just 45% of the time.

The study was originally published in the July issue of the trade journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications. It was quickly picked up by media, ranging from online sites like Live Science to traditional media outlets like the Daily Mail and Washington Post.

Sophie Nightingale, a doctoral candidate in psychology at Warwick University and the study’s lead author, suggested the results show that, if nothing else, people aren’t perfect.

While that’s hardly news, it is troubling when it comes to telling fake from real — right from wrong, in other words.

“This has serious implications [for society] because of the high level of images, including possibly fake images, that people are exposed to on a daily basis through social networking sites, the internet and the media.”

Study co-author Derrick Watson, noted that even when people know something is wrong with a photo, they can’t reliably identify exactly what.

“Images have a powerful influence on our memories,” Watson told reporters. “So if people can’t differentiate between real and fake details in photos, manipulations could frequently alter what we believe and remember.”

In other words, anyone seeing the faked black-and-white photo of Lee Harvey Oswald holding a rifle in the Oliver Stone movie JFK might well believe Oswald was framed for theKennedy assassination. Perhaps it was Ted Cruz’s father who did the deed, after all.

faked lee harvey oswald.jpg


The challenge now, according to Nightingale, is to help people improve their ability to spot fake images and hopefully tell the difference between false and real.

The implications for society are more serious than simply being able to tell whether a Sasquatch is real or fake.

According to study co-author Kimberley Wade, a doctor of psychology at Warwick, there are worrying legal ramifications for court cases.

“People’s poor ability to identify manipulated photos raises problems in the context of legal proceedings where photos may be used as evidence,” she told the Daily Mail. “Jurors and members of the court assume these images to be real, though a manipulated image could go undetected with devastating consequences.

“We need to work to find better ways to protect people from the negative effects of photo manipulation. We’re now exploring a number of ways that might help people to better detect fakes.”

Fake news is an even more serious matter: A 2016 study in thew U.S. suggested that nearly 80% of college-age students can’t tell the difference between an actual news story and “sponsored content.”

The content in this blog item is not sponsored, nor has it been altered in any way. The names and identifying details have not been changed to protect the privacy of individuals named.

Now you know.


 

 

Monkey see, monkey sue.

Monkey sues man! How is this a thing?

Of all the court cases in all the world, this is perhaps the oddest, the weirdest, the most bizarre.

An Indonesian macaque monkey is suing a British freelance photographer over the copyright of a “selfie” picture the monkey snapped, using a camera placed by Monmouthshire, UK photographer David Slater. The image, naturally, went viral.

©AP

©AP

Slater, who like most freelance photographers, struggles to make ends meet, was counting on royalties from the image to pay for at least part of his trip to Indonesia.

Animal-rights activists, fed up with what they see as the constant and relentless exploitation of animals in their natural habitat, filed suit in a California state court, insisting that all financial and monetary gains from the image should go to the ‘person’ who clicked the shutter and thereby took the picture — i.e. the monkey — and not the freelancer, who they say merely provided the means by which the photo was taken.

A lower court ruled that copyright protection cannot be applied to a monkey. The animal-rights group PETA disagreed, and filed an appeal with the US Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal in San Francisco, Calif.

And there the case stands.

Testimony in the case was read in court this past week, and details were duly reported by mainstream media outlets, including — but not limited to — the Daily Telegraph, BBC World, de Volkskrant, ABC News, USA Today, Sky News Australia, the Guardian and, well, Maxim magazine. 

Slater estimates he has already lost out on tens of thousands of dollars in rights fees for an image that has gone viral, both on the internet, where hardly anyone pays for anything, and in respected, high-profile periodicals that, in theory anyway, pay copyright holders for the use of widely sought-after images.

The whole thing sounds silly — and, in a way, it is — but there’s method behind PETA’s legal madness. 

If the appeal court finds for the monkey, a legal precedent will be set. There may be a time in the not-too-distant future when wildlife conservancies, nature reserves and national parks will be legally entitled to a percentage of the proceeds from wildlife images taken within their boundaries, in the same way most zoos now control what for-profit photos may or may not be taken on their premises.

It’s easy to make light of the case — the image itself is on the wacky side, and so difficult to take seriously — and mainstream media outlets have hada good time watching claimants in the case go, well, bananas.

©Chris Slater/Caters News Agency

©Chris Slater/Caters News Agency

Slater himself, however, feels hurt. As a freelance photographer, he struggles to make ends meet at the best of times. And he has a point when he says — as he did this past week to the BBC — that PETA must have better things on which to spend the money it receives from well-meaning donors than taking on a penniless photographer with a family to support.

Slater is so strapped for cash he couldn’t fly to California to testify in person this past week. (One might reasonably ask how a California court has jurisdiction over a case involving a UK photographer over a photo that was taken in Indonesia, by a resident, if you will, of Indonesia, but that’s a whole other matter.)

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

Slater argued in absentia that there was more to taking the image than simply handing a troupe of monkeys a camera and seeing what might come of it.  He insisted that it took time and perseverance over a period of several days to get the selfie in question, along with other photos. If nothing else, it took days, weeks even, to earn the monkeys’ trust. The time he put in was, by itself, enough to earn him the claim of copyright ownership, he argues.

Weirdly — everything about this, um, tale is weird —  PETA needed a name for the purposes of their lawsuit, so they named the macaque ‘Naruto,’ for the purposes of court documents. (The case is officially filed as ‘Naruto v David Slater.’) Naruto is a female name, however; Slater insists the monkey in the selfie is a male. In other words, he says, he isn’t even being sued by the right monkey.

Slater sees himself as a conservationist first, andwildlife photographer second. Interest in the image has already helped highlight the plight of Indonesia’s dwindling rainforests — and the animals that live within — around the world.

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

©David Slater/Caters News Agency

He’s upset because he will be in serious financial trouble if he loses the case, and yet PETA insists any proceeds it will get from the case will go towards protecting monkeys and their natural habitat. BBC News reported that PETA would not say how much money it has spent on the case so far, but did say the group is acting on the macaque’s behalf.

PETA is arguing that, given the circumstances under which the picture was taken, the monkey is the sole copyright holder, “and PETA is proud to be his voice in court.”

PETA’s legal argument rests on the fact that, in the organization’s eyes, it was the monkey, not Slater, who “made the cause-and-effect connection between pressing the shutter and the change to his reflection in the camera lens, resulting in (the) now-famous selfie photographs.”

‘Now-famous’ doesn’t even begin to cover it.

The case won’t be settled any time soon, by the way. 

The appeal court’s decision isn’t expected for months.

And, yes, this is really happening.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jul/12/monkey-selfie-macaque-copyright-court-david-slater


New photos: more evidence that Amur tigers still burn bright in the forests of the night.

I saw the pictures just 17 minutes after they were posted on BBC Earth’s official website, under the heading “Rare Siberian tiger ‘selfie’ pictures are released.” A camera trap recorded the images of big cats at play in Russia’s remote Far East, in Russia’s somewhat prosaically named Land of the Leopard National Park.

The park, 262,000 hectares (650,000 acres) of untrammelled wilderness in one of the most remote corners of the world’s largest country, was established in 2012, thanks to the merger of Russia’s Kedrovaya Pad Reserve, Barsovy Federal Wildlife Refuge and Borisovkoya Plateau Regional Wildlife Refuge. The newly created park was named for the Amur leopard, officially labelled the “world’s rarest cat” by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The Amur tiger, also known as the Siberian tiger, is doing little better, though recent surveys suggest their numbers have increased slightly in recent years, thanks in no small part to Russia’s renewed focus on big-cat conservation and habitat preservation in the remote Primorsky Krai region of Russia, which borders China in the southeast.

Population surveys are one thing. Actual photographic evidence is quite another. Seeing is believing, after all.

No more than two dozen tigers are said to be roaming in the park, but two dozen is better than none, especially when the species itself is facing extinction.

The new images are particularly striking because they show a young family at play — a sight rarely seen by human eyes, let alone photographed. The Amur tiger may be nature’s largest big cat by size, but they’re reclusive and rarely seen.

The advent of camera traps, which can be set up well in advance and eliminate the need for any human-animal interaction, have had a profound influence on both wildlife photography and conservation studies in recent years.

Russian scientists are taking a strictly objective approach in their tiger studies. There’s no room for sentiment here, no Bambi-style anthropomorphization with cuddly, human-sounding names.

The mother tiger featured in the photos is known as T7F. She was first photographed in 2014. She had three cubs at the time two of which have grown and are now believed to be across the border in China.

 

China has also taken a more protective attitude toward its remaining wild tiger population, which had been heavily poached for its fur and so-called medicinal properties.

If nothing else, the pictures prove one thing: Where there’s life, there’s still light at the end of the tunnel.

 

http://blogs.wwf.org.uk/blog/wildlife/tigers/tigers-and-camera-traps/

https://www.worldwildlife.org/species/amur-tiger


 

 

Rewilding: replacing the silent spring with a raucous summer.

There are some wonderful things to be said for rewilding, cautionary Michael Crichton blockbusters and Nimby protests aside.

Nature’s ability to recover from ruin and destruction constantly takes the experts by surprise — and yet, seeming no-brainers like bringing back hummingbirds and green fields where now there are weed whackers and parking lots face a constant struggle for public opinion.

Even the word itself, “rewilding,” is discouraged by some government agencies, for fear of the controversy it might cause. Dense thickets of sallow, eight metre-wide blackthorn hedges and grassy meadows might not seem like an existential threat to anyone with even a remote connection to nature, but the R-word has a way of galvanizing opposition, from sheep herders in the UK angry about wilderness replacing food production to scientists who warn that wild boar illegally reintroduced to Scotland carry the CC398 strain of MRSA superbug that is resistant to antibiotics.

Wolves reintroduced to Yellowstone are a source of constant controversy with ranchers in the park’s border areas, and even a plan to reintroduce the rare wild lynx to parts of the northeastern UK are being met by the kind of opposition usually reserved for registered sex offenders moving into the neighbourhood.

As more wild animals adapt to living in urban environs — from raccoons in Toronto to leopards in Mumbai — it’s as if the very notion of allowing nature to reclaim areas that were once wild is both unneeded and unwanted.

And yet, as surveys have shown, rewilding has unexpected side benefits — everything from alleviating the threat of flooding in urban flood pans and alongside riverbanks to the simple calming effect nature has in an otherwise frantic, frenzied urban environment.

Rewilding as a way to combat flooding isn’t pie-in-the-sky, airy-fairy thinking, either. Just this past weekend, the Sunday Observer’s Patrick Barkham reported that a plan to restore 30,000 hectares of upland bogs in Yorkshire is designed in large part to pre-empt flooding, as bogs act as giant sponges for floodwater.

Rewilding alleviates soil erosion, too. Noted biologist John Lawton, author of Making Space for Nature, has argued the case for “more, bigger, better and joined” wild areas.

In a 2013 manifesto for rewilding the world, Oxford environmentalist George Monbiot argued that a mass restoration of ecosystems, “offers us hope where there was little hope before.”

For some, returning the Americas to a time when four-tusked mammoths and two-ton bison walked alongside beavers the size of black bears — two-and-a-half metres from nose to tail — sounds worryingly like something out of Jurassic Park, but the reality is more prosaic. About the worst thing that can be said about replacing a parking lot with a grassy meadow is that there’s less money to be madefrom a patch of green than there is yet another place to park cars in an already traffic-congested city.

Inevitable controversies aside — your wolves just murdered my sheep! — Monbiot argues that rewilding puts a positive face on conservation, as opposed to the usual cries of alarm — Henny-penny, the sky is falling! — that, after a while, begin to lose their effect.

“Environmentalists have long known what they are against,” Monbiot wrote in 2103. “Now we can explain what we are for. It introduces hope where hope seemed absent. It offers us a chance to replace our silent spring with a raucous summer.”

More bird song, in other words. Bring on the raucous summer. And never mind the Nimbys.


Tiger, tiger, still burning bright in the forests of the night.

Good news is increasingly rare these days — as rare, one might say, as the Amur tiger.

The Amur tiger — commonly known by its more familiar though less geographically specific label, the Siberian tiger — is of particular interest right now because recent surveys suggest the fabled cat’s numbers are actually rising.

Make no mistake: the Siberian tiger is still critically endangered. Just 500 to 1,000 remain.

Understand, though, that those numbers, while low,  have climbed from an estimated 20 to 30 cats just a few decades ago. (Estimates range as high as 1,000, but I always prefer to guess low. Environmental studies teach us that, where numbers are concerned, especially apex predators like tigers, it’s always a good idea to focus on the low end of the guessing scale.)

Buffalo Zoo ©Wikimedia Commons

Buffalo Zoo ©Wikimedia Commons

A World Wildlife Fund appeal designed to highlight the threat of habitat destruction and climate change, as opposed to illegal hunting and poaching, appears to be having a more pronounced effect, at least in eastern Russia where tiger numbers are believed to have increased in recent years.

Pittsburgh Zoo ©Wikimedia Commons

Pittsburgh Zoo ©Wikimedia Commons

It’s easy to blame illegal hunting, especially as it comes with a seemingly obvious and relatively simple solution: Catch poachers in the act, prosecute them to the full extent of the law, and jail them for as long as it takes to send a stern message.

Habitat destruction and climate change are harder to fight. They’re more costly than a simple policing operation, and take more time. The hard truth is that without large enough habitats to hunt in and procreate, apex predators cannot survive in any appreciable number, regardless of whether they’re being hunted illegally or not.

The World Wildlife Fund, in conjunction with efforts like the National Geographic Society’s “Big Cats Initiative,” has unveiled a campaign to increase the world’s wild tiger population to 6,000 over the next five years. Not entirely by coincidence, the year 2022 is the next official Chinese year of the tiger.

The world has lost 97 per cent of its tigers in little more than a century, according to World Wildlife Fund estimates. The tide has turned, however, albeit slightly. Last year, the World Wildlife Fund reported that the global tiger population — all tiger species — is just shy of 4,000, an increase of 700 since 2010, when the WWF estimated just 3,200 tigers remained.

The population gain has been attributed to more aggressive anti-poaching patrols and a concerted effort to preserve what remains of wild tiger habitats in countries like Russia, China, India and Nepal.

“The increase in tiger numbers is encouraging,” World Wildlife Fund tiger specialist Rebecca May told the UK Guardian newspaper this past weekend, “but the species’ future in its natural environment still hangs in the balance and numbers remain perilously low.”

©Andrew Lichtenstein,  Corbis via Getty Images for The Guardian (UK)

©Andrew Lichtenstein,  Corbis via Getty Images for The Guardian (UK)

May hopes the WWF campaign and similar programs like National Geographic’s Big Cat Initiativewill push recent progress even further. That means not only engaging animal lovers the world over to help fund and finance conservation efforts but, just as importantly — even more importantly, perhaps — encourage the commitment of and urgent action from tiger-range countries, at all levels of government.

For all the negative news reporting surrounding Russia, for example, Russian President Vladimir Putin is an ardent supporter of tiger conservation,  and the poaching of Siberian tigers is considered a serious crime — and dealt with accordingly.

amur @RIA Novisti/Reuters

amur @RIA Novisti/Reuters

China’s forestry authority, meanwhile, has claimed that the country’s population of Amur tigers has virtually doubled in the past 15 years, thanks largely to the country’s recently implemented National Forest Protection Program.

The numbers are still tiny by wildlife estimates — today’s population is 27 tigers, up from 14 in 1999, but officials in Northeast China, where the Amur tiger is endemic, insist the curve is headed in the right direction. Recent figures were providedby the Feline Research Centre of China’s State Forestry Administration (CSFA-FRC) and published in the Global Times, an English-language Chinese newspaper affiliated with China’s People’s Daily.

Small-scale fund-raising on a large scale may be the key to future success. The World Wildlife Fund initiative is asking members of the general public to become so-called “tiger protectors,” by agreeing to donate £5 UK pounds a month — or roughly $7 USD — to its conservation programs.

The money is destined for the black hole of “administration costs,” either; the Fund says much of the money will be used to expand existing tiger reserves, so existing wild tiger populations can mix and breed in greater numbers.

Bastak Nature Reserve, Russia ©Wikimedia Commons

Bastak Nature Reserve, Russia ©Wikimedia Commons

The tigers’ range across Asia has shrunk by 95% over the past 150 years — roughly the same amount of time during which the world has lost 97% of its wild tigers. The similarity between the two percentages is no coincidence.

In the meantime, captive breeding programs in zoos around the world continue to try and find the answer.  Later this summer, Moscow Zoo will send a three-year-old male Amur tiger to the Denver Zoo, where zoo officials hope it will breed with one of the Denver zoo’s three existing Siberian tigers. It’s becoming increasingly evident, though, that captive breeding programs alone will not suffice where saving the species is concerned.

Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano ©Wikimedia Commons

Museo Civico di Storia Naturale di Milano ©Wikimedia Commons

The Amur tiger is officially listed as “endangered” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), but tiger experts say the word ‘endangered’ isn’t strong enough. Even by tigers’ standards, the Amur tiger is special. It is by far the world’s largest surviving big cat; males can grow to be as large as 450 pounds, or 180 kilograms.

A long and potentially treacherous road lies ahead for the world’s remaining Amur tigers, with many hidden forks and potentially treacherous turns.

Still, in a world with so much bad news, it’s heartening — encouraging, even — to be able to grab onto a flicker of light on occasion.


 

 

 

When fake means fake: the hidden underbelly of faked nature photography.

Fake news, fake views. One is so common, it has practically become part of everyday conversation.

The other isn’t so obvious, but for anyone interested in nature photography — or nature, for that matter — it’s fast becoming a burning issue. No pun intended.

At first glance, a photo of a frog riding a turtle looks like fun. It’s funny, cheerful and uplifting, and heaven knows we could all use a little more of that these days.

The photo below was posted on PBS NewsHour’s Photo of the Day showcase, the U.S. public broadcaster’s equivalent of National Geographic’s popular — and prestigious — Your Shot series.

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

©Yan HidayatGetty Images, via PBS NewsHour

PBS News, like National Geographic, is a credible, proper news organization, unlike say some of the UK tabloids, and so it wasn’t long before someone on PBS News’s science desk flagged concerns that the photo may have been staged — or, worse, faked, using Photoshop or Lightroom or any number of the growing number of user-friendly, less expensive photo-editing apps that are becoming as common as smartphones themselves.

In case you’re wondering, as one science expert noted, frogs don’t normally ride turtles, for recreational purposes or for any other reason.

The resulting controversy, minor as it might have seemed at the time, highlighted the increasingly cloudy lines that demarcate nature photography, animal welfare and creative licence. All of a sudden, a fun, whimsical photo was starting to look a lot less whimsical.

It didn’t help that an infamous 2015 photo that went viral, of a frog riding a beetle, was later found to be staged, and discredited.

In PBS’s case, suspicions were further raised when the caption accompanying photo — from Getty Images, and identified as having been taken in West Sumatra — identified the frog as an Australian tree frog, and the turtle as a sulcata tortoise.

There’s just one catch. Or two, if you want to get picky about it: Neither species is native to the region.

It was as if someone had photographed a crocodile wrestling an anaconda in the Florida Everglades, which would have been some catch as neither the croc nor the snake are indigenous to South Florida. (Florida crocodiles are called alligators because, in point of fact, that’s what they are.)

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

PBS dutifully posted a science story on the channel’s home page, fessing up to any deception, intentional or otherwise, while tracing the photo’s origins (Getty, by way of a contractor called Barcroft Media, by way of a subcontractor called Riau Images, based in Indonesia).

No harm, no foul. At least not in hindsight.

Ironically, though, just days later, another series of frog images ran on the UK Daily Mail’s website Mail Online, showing a pair of snails perched on either side of a frog’s head, looking remarkably like Princess Leia’s cinnamon-bun hairdo from the original Star Wars film.

No one at Mail Online seemed to care that much, though a handful of visitors in the comments section noted that the photographer in question has previous, as the English say, in this area.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News


The photographer Yan Hidayat, when asked to explain the photo’s original in an email exchange with PBS NewsHour, was perfectly forthcoming: He purchases his frog and turtle subjects in a pet store in Jakarta, then stages the photos. The snails he digs up from his garden. When the juveniles grow up to become adults, he releases them, Hidayat told NewsHour.

Hidayat added that Riau Images never asked him how he took the photos; Barcroft assumed they were legit, and Getty followed suit.

Animal-rights advocates and ethicists worry that, regardless of how well these particular animals may or may not be treated, in our present-day selfie culture, there are always morons who’ll go to virtually any length to snap a pic of themselves with a wild animal, even if that animal is torn away from its natural element and harassed and abused to strike a good pose.

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

©Tanto Yensen/Solent News

More and more, nature-photography competitions demand signed affidavits to the effect that the animals in submitted photos are wild, and not captive. Photoshop manipulation raises the stakes to a whole other level of deception, and is tantamount to fraud in many adjudicators’ eyes.

It may seem harmless enough — the hybrid word “non-troversy” has been used — but the whole issue of faked nature photos has spawned at least one Facebook page, Truths Behind Fake Nature Photography, which features such lively comments as, “Excellent exposé of these highly staged photographs with their accompanying bullshit stories.”

Well, not bullshit exactly. More like frog shit. But you get the point.


http://www.pbs.org/newshour/updates/whimsical-wildlife-photography-isnt-seems/

https://www.instagram.com/yan_hidayat_567/

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3970942/He-s-star-Toad-One-hilarious-moment-two-snails-amphibian-Princess-Leia-look.html


 

 

“Hell no. This war is ON.” From the front lines in the rhino wars.

There are two kinds of people who stand up for the world’s critically endangered animals, such as rhinos: Those who talk, and those who do.

“Doing” is preferable — no news flash there — but direct action has a way of provoking controversy, even at the best of times.

And not much is more controversial these days than the use of heavily armed guards, many of them U.S. army veterans recently emerged from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, in the bush war against poachers in private game reserves in South Africa, and a handful of other countries.

The public controversy has simmered since 2013, when an Animal Planet docuseries Battleground: Rhino Wars — the Discovery Communications-owned cable channel’sfollow-up to its popular Whale Wars series — introduced ordinary TV viewers to the concept of mercenaries in the service of wildlife conservation.

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

An expansive exposé in the UK Guardian newspaper last month briefly touched on the somewhat uncomfortable optics — uncomfortable to some, anyway, especially in post-apartheid South Africa — of heavily armed outsiders, mostly white,  imported to combat the problem of poaching by local, mainly black Africans.

Like much of The Guardian’s journalism, the exposé — by veteran Guardian Africa correspondent Jason Burke — weighed different points-of-view, and raised issues the casual observer might not have realized. One unexpected factor, for example, is the reality that many of the U.S. army veterans involved are recovering emotionally and physically from post-traumatic stress. By fighting for a cause they believe in, by putting their lives on the line — once again, but this time for critically endangered animals — many of these veterans see the initiative as a way to ease back into civilian life after weeks, months and even years of intensive firefights in Afghanistan.

©Animal Planet/Rhino Wars

©Animal Planet/Rhino Wars

“Green militarization,” as it’s called, has its critics. The scale of the crisis facing Africa’s rhinos is clear to almost everyone, though, especially in a world where rhino horn, which is made primarily of keratin — the same substance as fingernails — is now worth $65,000 USD per kilo on the black market, according to recent conservative estimates.

In 2007, a mere 10 years ago, no more than a dozen rhinos were poached in South Africa. In 2015 alone, according to The Guardian, that number jumped to 1,200.

Given that a rhino’s gestation period is 16 months,  and given that a rhino has just one baby at birth, one doesn’t need to be a mathematician to see that the numbers are untenable.

South Africa is critical to the species’ survival because the country is home to 80% of the world’s surviving wild rhinos.

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

At the time Battleground: Rhino Wars debuted on U.S. television, Animal Planet president and general manager Marjorie Kaplan told an assembled group of reporters and TV critics in Pasadena, Calif. that more than 100 African park rangers were killed the previous year while trying to protect the continent’s wildlife reserves.

“Make no mistake, this is war,” Kaplan told the assembled reporters. “The men and women protecting rhinos on the ground in South Africa are outgunned and outmanned. This is not about threatened habitat. This is not about human encroachment. This is pure greed, and pure ignorance. There is absolutely no justification for these creatures to be dying. The people who are risking their lives to to protect them are heroes.”

Former US Navy SEAL Craig “Sawman” Sawyer, one of the original team leaders in the anti-poaching initiative and one of the leading voices behind Animal Planet’s Rhino Wars, said the poaching problem has many faces. It isn’t just about impoverished locals trying to make a living.

©Brent Stireton/National Geographic

©Brent Stireton/National Geographic

“It’s a mix,” Sawyer said. “It’s the locals. It’s an international problem. This is major money, a multibillion-dollar business going on. With each rhino horn being worth up to half a million dollars, it’s easy to see the lure there. So what we have to do is change the incentive. We need to come up with a multifaceted approach to address the problem. Because this species is on the brink of extinction. They’ve been around for 50 million years, and in the past 50 years alone, man has almost completely wiped them out. We’re at the redline crisis at this point.”

©Craig "Sawman" Sawyer

©Craig "Sawman" Sawyer

A number of poachers caught in the Rhino Wars net said they wanted to get out of the criminal life, but had a hard time finding jobs. Some of those same ex-poachers have since been hired by ranchers to help protect the dwindling rhino herds, as they have intimate, first-hand knowledge of how poaching is done and the most effective way to prevent it.

Sawyer said action beats words every time.

“In our role here, we have an opportunity to directly address the physical problem of poaching,” he said. “With our backgrounds, coming from the special operations community, that’s what we can contribute. Our fight is travelling halfway around the globe and risking our lives personally to join the South Africans in their fight to save not only a national resource but a global resource.  We’re all losing our rhino, okay? We’re over there fighting this fight to try to save the rhino and also raise awareness. If we take it to them, maybe we can help spread the word. Maybe we can raise global awareness and bring some pressure against this threat to the rhino, and actually maybe even save the species.”

©Dai Kurokawa/European Press Agency

©Dai Kurokawa/European Press Agency

Outfits such as the US-based nonprofit organization Veterans Empowered to Protect African Wildlife (Vetpaw) serve a two-fold purpose: to draw a line in the sand against the wholesale slaughter of rhinos, and to help former combat veterans in the US find a renewed purpose in life. The Guardian noted that many former servicemen suffer high levels of unemployment and mental illness — PTSD by any other name. Ex-servicemen often struggle to reclaim the sense of brotherhood they got from combat. Despite millions of dollars spent on training — billions of dollars, even — the US government doesn’t use them again. Helping protect wildlife affords them a renewed sense of meaning and self-worth.

Vetpaw founder and squad leader Ryan Tate, a former US Marine, told The Guardian that he selected combat veterans precisely because they are disciplined enough, experienced, battle-hardened and well trained enough not to use lethal force unless absolutely necessary. Poachers are apprehended in the act, and then turned over to local police. Alive.

©Dai Kurokawa/European Press Agency

©Dai Kurokawa/European Press Agency

Another Vetpaw commando, a British-born veteran who served 15 years in the US elite special forces until last year, told The Guardian that the rhino wars are textbook counterinsurgency — about winning hearts and minds on the ground, rather than actual firefights.

“Let’s not sugarcoat it,” Sawyer said, back when Rhino Wars first aired on US television. “We’ve got hardcore crime syndicates coming in from Mozambique, armed with AK-47s, not only slaughtering an entire species but anyone who gets in their way. More than 100 rangers have been killed trying to protect the rhino, whether they were armed or not. This war is on. And we can either sit back and go, ‘Isn’t that unfortunate? We don’t have the heart to deal with it.’ Or we can pick up arms and go and face the enemy and tell them, ‘Hell, no.’”

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/30/us-army-veterans-find-peace-protecting-rhinos-poaching-south-africa

 

 


“Ethical animal encounters” not just PC — they're also the only way to go.

Animals bring out the worst in people. Just spend an afternoon at the local zoo and watch how bored parents let their children — encourage them, even — to tease the animals, scream , jump up and down and even throw food at them. I’ve often thought, while visiting a zoo, that the worst thing about zoos is the people who visit them. (Don’t blame zoo staff. Zoo operators like money, and like most money-making operations, they’ve figured out that the secret to happiness is to hire as few people as possible and pay them as little as possible, with the result that what staff do remain are overworked and underpaid.)

 

Zoos themselves are not about to go away. As mass extinctions look more probable with each passing day, zoos will become even more important, if only as a last stand for critically endangered animals like Asiatic lions and Sumatran tigers. Most accredited zoos keep an official record of their specimens’ gene pools — “stud books” — for future breeding programs, often in cooperation with other zoos.

 

©Anandabazar Patrika

©Anandabazar Patrika

 

That said, more travellers are becoming interested in actual animal encounters in exotic destinations, whether it’s swimming with dolphins in Hawaii or riding elephant-back in Zimbabwe.

 

The issue of ethical animal encounters, both in the wild and in captive situations, has jumped to the fore of late, and it’s easy to see why.

 

As our daily lives become more frantic and urbanized, more and more of us are reaching out to wilderness areas — and the creatures who live there — in hopes of reawakening a part of our own natural-history DNA.

 

That has inevitably led to money-making schemes involving captive and semi-captive animals, everything from “lion walks” with lion cubs in South Africa — who more often than not are being raised to be killed in canned hunts, “bred for the bullet,” as the animal advocacy group Blood Lions labels it — to baiting wild animals with food, whether it’s Japanese macaques who frequent Nagano’s hot springs or semi-wild leopards on privately owned game reserves scattered throughout southern Africa.

 

©Getaway

©Getaway

 

There’s a growing interest, though, in genuine ethical animal encounters, in which everyone from tourists to nature photographers are encouraged to experience true wilderness, and leave behind as light a footprint as possible.

 

Make no mistake: This is not a trend, as much as we wish it were otherwise. It’s more like the germ of an idea marketed to a niche group of green-minded world travellers who pride themselves on being informed and tend to vote based on environmental concerns, whether it’s ecological sustainability or concern over climate change.

 

The travel site TripAdvisor — a partner with the equally high-profile travel-booking site Expedia — recently vowed to de-list resorts, vacation spots and tour operators who exploit captive and semi-captive animals for financial gain.

 

Nature magazines and travel periodicals are jumping behind the idea, too, from Getaway Magazine and the travel site Go2Africa to Africa Geographic.

 

©Go2Africa

©Go2Africa


It’s not always easy to know upfront what’s appropriate about animal encounters, especially when all one has to go one is a slick brochure or an eye-catching website. I’m not fond of lists as a rule — they tend to be facile, misleading and downright unhelpful at times — but one of the great side-benefits of many of the articles that have appeared in the environmental press lately have been easy-to-read pointers, do’s and don’t's aimed at the reader who’s short on time but still keen to learn the facts.

 

Some go as far as to recommend certain attractions and activities over others. And while that sounds fraught with peril for potential abuse — who knows who’s in bed with whom; not everyone knows that TripAdvisor is married to Expedia, for example — they at least get people thinking about the right questions to ask.

 

I’ve curated a few highlights here that I happen to agree with, or have had personal experience of. For a solid, tmore horough breakdown of the issues involved, do check out the article written by South African lifestyle blogger Kathryn Rossiter at Becoming You (BecomingYou.co.za):

http://www.becomingyou.co.za/the-ethics-of-animal-encounters/.

©Go2Africa

©Go2Africa

Yes, a lot of this is obvious to anyone with a modicum of common sense.

 

Just because something is obvious, though, doesn’t mean it isn't worth repeating. We could all use a gentle reminder every now and then.

 

The best encounters are the ones that nurture our fascination with the natural world, on the natural world’s own terms.

 

There’s a difference, for example, between learning how to free dive, so one can explore the sea on one’s own, and going shark diving in a cage, where the sharks are lured by chum bait. (There’s a growing belief that shark-diving operations that lure sharks with bait have inadvertently led to an increase in shark attacks at nearby beaches. It may be scientifically unproven, but it certainly seems logical.)

 

Avoid any encounter where animals are forced to touch you, whether it’s a tiger cub at a Buddhist temple in Thailand (open, then closed, then reopened) or a captive dolphin at a five-star resort on the French Polynesian island of Moorea.

 

Be mindful that you’re the intruder; once you’ve gone home, they have to live with the effects of whatever it is you’ve done.

 

©Quotesgram

©Quotesgram


Some animal advocates even recommend that people actively discourage curious animals from touching them, by squirting monkeys with a water bottle for example, or by rolling up the car windows around a curious bear.

 

Again, this seems obvious, but gentle reminders are always helpful.

 

Beware big cat sanctuaries that claim to release their cats back into the wild. The plain truth is that once an apex predator has been habituated to being around people, it can never be released — ever. Period. Genuine big cat sanctuaries are careful to keep their releasable cats far away from people before releasing them; every staff interaction, such as feeding the cats and veterinary interventions, is kept to a minimum, and done at a distance.

 

Paid volunteer programs sound good in principle, but again it’s a good idea to think ahead and do as much reading as possible.

 

There are two schools of thought here. One is that so-called “animal ambassadors” — unreleasable animals ostensibly used for school meet-and-greets and other public-relations purposes — should be barred altogether, as it’s unethical to pull an animal out of its family just for teaching purposes.

 

©Amanzi

©Amanzi

 

I’ve seen it the other way, though. I know of one respected NGO in Namibia that used a cheetah ambassador for many years. The cheetah in question was the runt of a litter, and very sickly when the mother and her cubs were caught in a gin trap on a neighbouring farm and dropped off at the cheetah refuge. The NGO director wanted to release the mother and cubs back into the wild as soon as possible, before they became too habituated to people. It would have taken too long to wait until the sickly cub recovered, though. On the other hand, releasing the cub back into the wild with its family would have been tantamount to a death sentence.

 

Was it right or fair for the NGO to keep the cub and raise it to adulthood, knowing that it could never be released back into the wild? Would it have been preferable to euthanize the sick cub, or release it knowing that it would die a slow and painful death? Again, there are no easy answers.

 

Those are the kinds of question any would-be volunteer should be considering, though.

 

Some animal advocacy groups hold that tourist paid volunteer programs be banned entirely.

 

The argument holds that only qualified volunteers, whether zoologists, field biologists or veterinarian trainees, should be allowed to volunteer at wildlife sanctuaries.

 

©VolunteerSA

©VolunteerSA

 


Then again, the hard reality is that there’s plenty of “grunt work” at animal sanctuaries — clearing bush, filling in holes under wire fences under the broiling hot African sun, etc. — that doesn’t necessitate physical interaction with animals, but which helps sustain conservation efforts just the same.

 

Would you spend two weeks of a paid vacation clearing thorn bushes or filling holes in dirt to help save the world’s remaining population of wild cheetahs? Those are the kinds of questions would-be volunteers need to be asking themselves.

 

For more background on ethical animal interactions, volunteering at animal sanctuaries, docheck out the Facebook pages of Volunteers in Africa Beware (https://www.facebook.com/volunteersbeware/?fref=ts), Blood Lions (https://www.facebook.com/BloodLionsOfficial/?fref=ts) and the conservation NGO website WildlifeAct.com.

 

©BloodLions

©BloodLions

 

A family-oriented, small-scale NGO called Green Girls in Africa (greengirlsinafrica.com) has come up with an animals’ bill of rights — five pointers, for domestic and wild animals alike — to weigh when considering any animal encounters.

 

The site itself features thought-provoking posts with headings like, “Debunking the many myths of lion cub petting,” and “to pet or not to pet,” and is worth a visit.

 

Green Girls in Africa’s “Five Freedoms for Animals”:

 

    1    Freedom from hunger or thirst by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigour

    2    Freedom from discomfort by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area

    3    Freedom from pain, injury or disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment

    4    Freedom to express (most) normal behaviour by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind

    5    Freedom from fear and distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering

 

• For what it’s worth, Nairobi’s world-renowned Daphne Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage and David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, Giraffe Manor — also in Kenya — and organized gorilla trekking in Rwanda and Uganda top many lists of ethical animal encounters.

 

©Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

©Daphne Sheldrick Wildlife Trust

 

 

This post is by no means all-encompassing, nor does it even scratch the surface of available information. It’s a start, though. The best information is always that which you find on your own.

 


 

 

 


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Rediscovered Royal Geographical Society films bring history back to life.

Vintage film reels still have the power to evoke awe, even in a digital age when CGI can virtually create any world the human mind cares to imagine.


That's especially pertinent now, as the Royal Geographical Society is releasing films of scientific explorations it originally sponsored in the early 20th century — the early days of film.

©Royal Geographical Society

©Royal Geographical Society

And while these grainy, scratchy films of old — now available online — may lack the polish and eye-filling spectacle of a 21st-century IMAX production, there’s something undeniably compelling about seeing theactual expeditions, as they happened.


The footage, some of which hasn’t been seen since the days of the Wright Brothers, is being digitized for posterity, so future generations can access them with a single click of a computer keyboard or iPad.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

The footage, much of which was thought to be lost to history, ranges from the first-known aerial footage of Mount Everest — shot by one-time fighter pilot Maj. Latham Valentine Stewart Blacker in 1933, some 20 years before Sir Edmund Hillary and Sherpa Tenzing Norgay became the first climbers confirmed to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain — to British army officer Ralph Bagnold’s crossing thousands of miles of Saharan sands in a town car though Libya in 1932.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

Bagnold wasn’t entirely a wacko suffering the effects of heatstroke; his son Stephen told BBC World News late last week that his father took careful measurements along the way to understand how sand is moved by the wind, and later published several research papers on the subject.


History doesn’t always repeat itself, but it does have a way of foreshadowing the future, often in unexpected and hard-to-predict ways.


Bagnold’s findings in the Libyan Desert would be used by the American and European space agencies in their early explorations of Mars, principally in the design of rovers that can cross Mars’ sands without becoming stuck.


There’s something awe-inspiring about seeing old aerial footage, shot by adventurer Aubery Rickards, of Hadhramaut, dubbed “the Manhattan of the desert,” a region in Yemen home to an civilization of skyscrapers, 10 to 12 stories high, constructed almost entirely of mud,  that date back to the late 15th century and remain inhabited to this day.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

The Royal Geographical Society films are especially compelling today because they shed light on a simpler time, when there were still places to be explored, and existential threats like climate change and mass extinctions were largely unknown.


The earlier films in the RGS collection reflect a brighter, more hopeful world at the time, Nottingham University professor Mike Heffernan told BBC World’s Pallab Ghosh this past weekend. The heady optimism and spirit of adventure shown in the films would prove a marked contrast to the desolation of Europe after the two world wars.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG    

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG
 

 

Explorers Frank Ludlow and George Sherriff first journeyed through Bhutan and Tibet in 1933, Heffernan noted, the same year James Hilton wrote his book The Lost Horizon.
Lost Horizon introduced the concept of ‘Shangri-La,’ Heffernan told BBC News, “this perfect place . . . a mountain kingdom, a vestigial world of peace and harmony, the world so obviously left behind by the industrial warfare they’d gone through.”


Past is not always perfect, but it can sometimes point to a better future. If only by reminding us of what could’ve been.

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG

©BBC/Royal Geographical Society - IBG


Something old is new again in the state of Denmark.

Denmark has its first wild wolf pack in 200 years. After centuries of persecution throughout the well-peopled landscapes of northern and central Europe, the persecutors — some of them, anyway — have become protectors.
Why care? For one, Denmark’s last wolf is believed to have been killed in 1813.
For another, those who work both inside conservation and on the periphery, are hailing the sighting as a welcome bit of good news on the heels of a recent run of bad news.
Controversy has flared once again on the ranch-lands bordering Yellowstone National Park, where wolves have never been popular and ranchers fought a decision to reintroduce wolves into the park tooth-and-nail n the mid 1990s.

©Fred van Wijk/Alamy Stock Photo

©Fred van Wijk/Alamy Stock Photo

Wyoming is staging its first legal wolf hunt in two-and-a-half years. And although the Wyoming Game and Fish Department told the local newspaper in Jackson Hole that the hunt has started slowly, with not a single report of a wolf killed by a hunter in the hunt’s first few days — owing to “crummy weather,” according to one local outfitter — the future suddenly looks bleak for one of nature’s most maligned, least understood predators.
The new U.S. administration is turning back the clock on decades of wildlife research and legislation, much of it enacted under former U.S. President Barack Obama. The current presidential administration seems determined to lift protections on wilderness areas that have been in effect since Theodore Roosevelt established the national park system in 1905. “We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune,” Roosevelt said at the time.

©YellowstonePark.com

©YellowstonePark.com

The Wyoming hunt has the potential to undo recent gains — modest gains, at that — in the state’s wild wolf population. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hasn’t released its annual estimate of wolf populations yet, but according to figures published late last month in the Jackson Hole Daily, the previous year’s tally — 382 wolves statewide — was the highest since wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone little more than 10 years ago.
That’s telling because other research figures, printed in the Billings Gazette out of Billings, Montana, show that Yellowstone’s elk population is up, not down. The argument that reintroducing wolves would wipe out Yellowstone’s prey animals has been refuted, in other words. Advocates for wolf conservation have long argued that wolves help curb disease in elk, making the resultant population stronger — inasmuch facts matter in our present post-truth political climate.

©YellowstonePark.com

©YellowstonePark.com

Denmark is different, though.
Europe is an older, more mature society. Wolves have been an indelible part of folklore since the earliest children’s tales, and the persecution of wolves dates back centuries, not just years.
Word that a female wolf had trekked some 200 kms — 125 miles — into Denmark from Germany, to presumably link up with the male wolves already known to be there, means Denmark has its first viable wolf pack since George III sat on the throne of England and Mary Shelley penned her literary classic Frankenstein.
The wolf sightings aren’t idle conjecture, either. The wolf pack was filmed together as recently as January.

©PhysOrg/Wikimedia

©PhysOrg/Wikimedia

“We expect that they will have cubs this year or next,” Peter Sunde, a researcher at Denmark’s Aarhus University, told the UK Guardian earlier this month. “People were surprised when wolves (reappeared) in Denmark, but they are highly mobile and are just as adaptable to cultural landscapes as foxes are. The only problem is that historically we killed them.”
The Denmark wolves have settled in a patch of heathland and small pine forests surrounded by actively cultivated farmland. The pine groves are home to a growing population of red deer and roe deer, which the wolves have taken to for prey. The Danish government has established a compensation plan for area farmers who lose the occasional sheep or calf. The government is also backing a fund designed to help farmers erect wolf-proof fencing around their properties.
This shouldn’t come to anyone as a surprise, Sunde insisted.
“There is a tradition in Denmark of reaching compromises and solutions,” Sunde told the Guardian. “We can relatively easily manage the wolf population, but the challenge is the psychology of humans. There are so many feelings and opinions about wolves in Denmark, as everywhere.”
Interestingly enough, southern European countries have been more receptive to accepting new wolf populations than many of their northern neighbours. Finland and Norway, both with relatively small wolf populations, still stage annual wolf culls, although the practice has become increasingly controversial in recent years.
The recent reintroduction of wolves in Denmark is no children’s fairy tale. It’s real. It isn’t the stuff of made-up stories. As a scientist from Sweden told the Guardian: “It is not a myth that it is back. It’s just a natural part of European fauna.”


http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2017/05/04/526937018/denmark-now-has-a-wild-wolf-pack-again-for-the-first-time-in-200-years


Poorer nations doing more than their affluent cousins to protect large mammals.

Where special requirements meet spacial requirements, it’s the poorer countries that do more for the conservation of large mammals, not the wealthy western nations.
That, at least, is the conclusion of a recent survey by the respected Panthera organization, a respected NGO renowned for the scientific study of the world’s remaining big cats, and Oxford University.
Of course, one can say that the world’s remaining critically endangered large mammals — from rhinos and elephants to lions, leopards and cheetahs — are more apt to be found in African countries than those in the northern hemisphere.
Even so the idea that, say, Tanzania has done more for its indigenous wildlife — in terms of setting aside wide open spaces for the animals to roam— than the U.S., which is considering removing protections from several national monuments, many of them established under Barack Obama, is not just sobering but worrying to anyone who cares about the planet.

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

Recent surveys show that 59% of the world’s remaining predators and 60% of the world’s largest herbivores are facing extinction square-in-the-face.
You can argue the numbers if you want, but some truths are obvious to anyone willing to look past next quarter’s profit statements.
Large herbivores like rhinos and elephants need large spaces in which to find enough water and food to sustain them. Rhinos have a gestation period of 16 months, and only give birth to one calf at a time; it’s easy to see how their numbers could dwindle rapidly in a relatively short period of time, even without the recent spike in poaching that has seen their numbers crash in just the past five years.

@Save the Rhino

@Save the Rhino

Apex predators such as lions and tigers need both space to find enough prey animals to hunt, but also find suitable mates that are genetically diverse enough that inbreeding doesn’t become a problem.
Naturally, the bigger or more dangerous the animal, the harder it can be for people in the area to live with them. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where towns, villages and big cities rub up against ecologically sensitive wilderness. Carnivores and herbivores alike can and often do pose a direct risk to human life, crops and livestock.
Panthera researchers created a “megafauna conservation index” in which to measure 152 countries, based on three factors: the percentage of land occupied by large species; the percentage of that land set aside for protected, officially recognized conservation areas; and the amount of money spent by each country on conservation, relative to that country’s GDP.
Interestingly — crazily, you might say — African countries in general make more effort toward the conservation of large mammals than any other region on the planet, despite facing, in many cases, poverty and social instability, whether caused by drought, famine, flooding, tribal conflict, war or bad governance.

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

Of the five top performing nations, four are in Africa: Namibia, Botswana, Tanzania and Zimbabwe. Yes, Zimbabwe.
There’s a lot of negative reportage about conservation efforts around the world, and with good reason: The planetary environment is a mess, and the current U.S. administration is going to do little to change that.
Even so, the Panthera survey found small but bright beacons of hope. The survey isn’t just an exercise in numbers crunching: Researchers sought to find out why the top-performing countries are doing as well as they are in the battle to save the planet’s remaining megafauna.

©Panthera.org

©Panthera.org

These beacons of hope include “rewilding” of landscapes, by reintroducing large mammals to areas where they had disappeared — the desert-adapted rhinos and elephants of Damaraland in northwestern Namibia, for example, or Kenya’s recent reintroduction of critically endangered rhinos into Lake Nakuru and Nairobi national parks.
Other beacons of hope include setting aside more land as protected areas — in other words, the exact opposite of what the current U.S. administration is considering — and investing more in conservation, both at home and abroad. (Germany and the U.K., despite facing ecological and environmental pressures of their own at home, have always punched above their weight overseas; many of the most pro-active conservation organizations in Kenya and Tanzania are financed in large part from northern Europe.)

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

Yes, planet Earth is a mess right now — there’s no way top sugarcoat it — but as the Panthera survey points out, and as Jane Goodall keeps saying, there’s reason for hope.


More information about the Panthera-Oxford study can be found here, and by following Panthera on Twitter at @PantheraCats:

https://www.panthera.org/affluent-countries-commit-less-conservation-large-mammals-rest-world-panthera-and-oxford-university


Once more, onto the beach.

You know the old saying: If a story is too good to be true, well. . . .
Then again, the natural world could use a good-news story right about now, even if the facts sound, on the face of it anyway, to be more of the fake news variety than the genuine article.
Word earlier this week that a 300-metre stretch of beach miraculously reappeared on Easter weekend off the northwest coast of Ireland, after being washed away by a series of Atlantic storms in 1984 — 33 years ago, if you’re keeping count — has been greeted with joy and an almost giddy excitement by almost everyone who’s heard about it.
The idea that nature, given enough time and left to its own resources, can correct the past has considerable appeal to anyone concerned about the fate of the planet and the as yet unknown long-term effects of climate change.

©Reuters/handout

©Reuters/handout

Local tourism officials in the coastal town of Dooagh, on the island of Achill, have told visiting reporters hat their phones haven’t stopped ringing since word of the Brigadoon-like reappearance of a sandy beach that washed out to sea in the mid-1980s, back when Ronald Reagan was president, Amadeus won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Dallas and Dynasty were vying for the title of most-watched TV show in America.
Climate scientists and marine biologists who study the motions of the tides are apt to take a more conservative view. They’re inclined to base their opinions on empirical evidence and research models— science, in other words — not in the haste of the moment when emotions are running high and wishful thinking trumps reason every time. That’s the media’s job.
Even so, the idea that a sandy beach, washed away in the distant past, can one day reappear is a compelling story — in the same way that, deep down, most of us hope that Nessie the Loch Ness Monster is quite real, alive and well and living at the bottom of a deep, cold lake in the Scottish Highlands, much as he/she was when first brought to the world’s attention in 1933. Just ask the local tourism officials in Loch Ness.

BEACH map.png

Achill Island, home to Dooagh, has a relatively small population of 2,700, despite being the largest island off the coast of Ireland. Its sole secondary school — or high school, in American parlance — is on the mainland, which is connected by a bridge.
The local economy has fallen on hard times, like much of coastal Ireland and the UK, and is largely dependent on tourism.
And local tourism can only get a shot in the arm from a feel-good story that makes it into the international headlines. The overnight reappearance of a born-again beach “gives people hope,” as one Achill islander told the UK Guardian. “We live in a dark world these days, so I think that is why there has been so much interest in Dooagh beach since the story broke.”
Stories like this will always have their doubters, of course. Leave it to a grumpy Scotsman, then, to cast a pall over a silver cloud.

It seems a shame to cast doubt on such a tale of hope and joy, though. Travellers have made pilgrimages for centuries to the Catholic shrine of nearby Knock in County Mayo. So what harm is there in a side-trip to the beach?
The bigger story, about climate change, nature’s restorative powers and the ever-wavering line between faith and reason, will be ages in the telling.


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/10/i-had-50-tourists-drive-here-born-again-irish-beach-dooagh-captures-worlds-attention

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/08/irish-beach-washed-away-reappears-freak-tide


When the ‘wild’ in wildlife photography isn’t all that.

Two photos. One, immaculately composed, brightly lit, showing a mountain lion, bright-eyed and well-fed in the foreground against a pristine backdrop of fresh snow. Its furry coat is glossy, every hair in place; the photo itself is in carefully measured, brilliantly sharp focus.
The second photo, in focus but otherwise unprepossessing from a technical standpoint, shows a mountain lion, skinny and weather-beaten, huddling under a rocky overhang. The semi-cave is open to the elements; the mountain lion, in dimly lit shadow is in the background. If you had not been told there was a mountain lion there, you might easily miss it. As a photo, you wouldn’t give it a second glance.
One photo becomes a lightning rod for public attention; the other is quickly forgotten.
It should be no surprise which photo was submitted to a number of prestigious wildlife photography contests.
There’s just one problem — a minor problem or a major problem, depending on your personal sense of ethics and what, if anything, constitutes a legitimate wildlife photo.
The first photo was taken in a game farm, the kind that has been proliferating of late in rural states in the continental U.S. and Canada, where visiting photographers are charged a fee — substantial, in some cases — for access to the animals.

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

Photographers pay a set fee for each, individual species. Bears fetch more than raccoons, and Siberian tigers are at the top of the pay scale. The animals are kept in enclosures and released into a wild-looking compound, with a handler directing their every move, when a paying photographer visits.
The second photo, taken by a field biologist fed up with seeing photos of well-fed, “happy” mountain lions supposedly living in the wild, wanted to take a “real” photo, to show ordinary, everyday animal lovers just how hard life in the wild can be for an apex predator living rough. There is no such things as a well-fed wild mountain lion in winter. Big cats don’t die of comfortable old age; they either starve, being too old to fend for themselves, or are killed by a younger, fitter, more aggressive cat moving in on its territory.

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

It may seem like semantics, but the issue of whether wildlife photos depict genuinely wild animals behaving naturally, without the use of bait or the promise of easy food, or whether they’re taken of captive animals under controlled circumstances has taken on added significance now that environmental and conservation photography is as prestigious as commercial art photography and photojournalism. The London Natural History Museum’s annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the U.S.-based Nature’s Best Awards, which culminates in an annual gallery display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC are serious, well-attended events.

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

Natural history photography is now a regular component of the World Press Photo awards and the annual Magnum Photography Awards, open to submissions right now, until the end of the month.
National Geographicwhich encourages amateur photographers to submit images to their daily “Your Shot” competition, as well as semi-annual nature and travel photographer-of-the-year competitions, features a disclaimer in its award contests requiring photographers to sign an affidavit confirming that any images of wildlife were taken in the wild unless noted otherwise.
Most people judge a photograph on its merits — either it’s a compelling photo or it isn’t — but the issue of breeding captive animals for photographic purposes has also become an animal-rights issue.  Many game-farm animals are abused or are penned up in small, uncomfortable enclosures when no one is looking, as the following links to news sites show.

https://qz.com/969811/game-farm-photography-love-wildlife-photos-theres-a-good-chance-they-werent-shot-in-the-wild/

https://africageographic.com/blog/a-photographers-perspective-the-wild-vs-captive-debate/

http://www.audubon.org/magazine/march-april-2010/phony-wildlife-photography-gives-warped-view

http://www.westernwild.org/wild-vs-captive-wildlife-photography/

As with so many divisive issues, there is no easy answer, no clear-cut set-of-rules.
Swiss-born, Vancouver-based nature photographer Daisy Gilardini, whose near-miraculous sequence of photos of a mother polar bear with two virtually newborn cubs has won several prestigious awards in the past year, captured her polar bear images last March northern Canada’s Wapusk National Park, in Manitoba, in temperatures reaching 50 below zero.

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best


It was so cold, she says, she felt shaken to the core of her being. Even for someone born and raised in the Italian-Swiss Alps, huddling in minus-50-degree temperatures for a picture of a polar bear seemed extreme — but the sacrifice was worth it in the end.
Gilardini is an avowed believer in the idea that “wild is wild,” and that images of captive or baited animals have no place in wildlife photography competitions.
Her image “Hitching a Ride” was shortlisted forthe 2016 Wildlife Photographer of the Year’s “People’s Choice Awards,” subject to a popular vote.

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

Another image in the same category, a visually striking close-up of a crocodile chomping down on a ball of loose meat, was taken in a private game reserve in South Africa; the crocodile was lured to a hide by bait from the carcass of an animal that had been killed on a nearby reed island.

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

Another, even more evocative image in the category, showed a Japanese macaque’s hand gently cradling her sleeping baby. The image was taken at Japan’s world-famous Jigokudani Monkey Park, outside Nagano, site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

Jigokudani Monkey Park is a wilderness area, famous for its snow monkeys. The monkeys are fed by park attendants — so they can be seen by tourists year-round and not just during the four months of the year it snows — the monkeys are not considered genuinely wild.
Does it really matter?
Possibly not. Except that — quite aside from the moral question of ethical treatment of animals — a competition that promotes itself as a wildlife photography contest, or even a nature photography contest, should be a true reflection of nature and the wilderness at its most wild, with no interference from outside agents, either it’s the photographer or actual, trained animal handlers.
It’s called wildlife photography, after all. The clue is in the name.


 

 

 

 

Spectre of ‘haves’ vs. ‘have-nots’ hangs heavily over conservationist’s shooting.

My initial reaction to the shooting last week of Italian-born Kenyan conservationist and I Dreamed of Africa author Kuki Gallmann was shock, but not surprise.
Gallmann, whose powerful, evocative writing in books like African Nights and Night of the Lions moved a generation of city-dwellers in the west, was the latest victim in a recent surge of land invasions by increasingly desperate cattle herders from Kenya’s dry, northern frontier district.
The land invasions have been in the news since early this year, but the real story of the drought dates back to 2014 when, as The Guardian reported at the time, a prolonged dry spell had already pushed pastoralists to the brink of starvation. Food prices soared and cattle raids were already spiralling out of control. A Guardian story headed, ‘Drought in northern Kenya: ‘Today you are rich, tomorrow you have nothing’’ was a harbinger of things to come.
At last report, Gallmann, 73, was recovering from her injuries. (The family is in seclusion and has remained quiet since the shooting; there were suggestions at the time that Gallmann’s injuries may have been worse than was initially reported.)

©Al Jazeera

©Al Jazeera

Gallmann is not just another privileged property owner ensnarled in a land dispute, though. As with Born Free author Joy Adamson and Out of Africa’s Isak Dineson before her, Gallmann is a world-recognized writer who put a public — if romanticized — face on Africa’s wildlife conservation movement.
The roots of the problem run deep, though, and are not restricted to talk of drought and climate change.
In the late 19th century, the British settled the verdant highlands surrounding Mt. Kenya, the Laikipia Plateau, featuring the most arable, best grazing land in a predominantly dry country that, in the north anyway, is mostly dry flatlands and semi-arid desert, dotted with thorn scrub and the occasional acacia tree — good country for hardy antelopes and desert-adapted lions and elephants, but not much good for farming or sustainable cattle ranching.
The Laikipia farm estates have always been known as a place of privilege, ever since the British settled there in a colonial era marked by scandal and upper-class intrigue, when the region was dubbed “Happy Valley” and high-born British aristocrats partied hard while Europe was at war. The 1987 film White Mischief was based on the real-life 1941 trial of blue-blood Sir Henry “Jock” Delves Broughton, who was charged with the murder of philanderer and fellow Happy Valley aristocrat Josslyn Hay.

2. Gallmann:white mischief.png

Laikipia made headlines more recently in 2010, when Prince William proposed to Kate Middleton while staying on the wildlife estate of a family friend and well-to-do descendant of the original English settlers.
The region would enjoy two more good rain years, and then — nothing.
“This time last year,” the Guardian’s Jessica Hatcher reported in 2014, “Samuel Aboto had 600 goats; today, he has none.”
The last good rains anyone can remember were between March and May, 2012.

©Xinhua/SIPA USA

©Xinhua/SIPA USA

The Laikipia farming estates are large by western terms; in Kenyan terms, they are vast. The Gallmann estate alone encompasses some 390 square kilometres (150 square miles).
Traditionally, estate owners allowed pastoralists to graze their cattle on the edges of their land holdings during times of hardship, but that is no longer enough.
As in Gallmann’s case, the land is set aside for both farming and large, increasingly important wildlife conservancies, where endangered species like rhinos and elephants are allowed to roam free and more-or-less keep to themselves, without fear of being harassed or shot at. Kenya’s state-owned national park system is justifiably famous and a generator of significant tourism revenue. Tsavo National Park — vast, wild, untrammelled and exceedingly dangerous in places — was the site of the infamous “elephant wars” of the 1980s, and is known for its unusually aggressive lions and abundance of venomous snakes.
As the recent surge in illegal hunting for ivory and rhino horn has shown, though, Kenya’s national parks — underfunded and near-impossible to police in places— can’t do the job on their own.
Increasingly, privately owned estates like the Laikipia-based Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, Borana, Solio, Ol Jogi and Ol Pejeta, subject of the Canadian TV nature series Ol Pejeta Diaries, are playing an important role in wildlife conservation. They are the final custodians of East Africa’s last surviving wild rhinos.

©Martin Bauert/Lewa Conservancy

©Martin Bauert/Lewa Conservancy

The problem — as is so often the case with land disputes — is that nothing is quite what it seems.
Rapidly increasing populations in Kenya’s north have piled pressure on already scarce resources. People are less mobile. Where in the past cattle herders moved freely across borders into Ethiopia, Uganda and South Sudan in search of fresh pasture, tighter border enforcement around national and regional boundaries, coupled with the proliferation of automatic weapons — it’s said that an AK-47 is cheaper than a loaf of bread — has exacerbated an already tense situation.

©AP/Ben Curtis

©AP/Ben Curtis

As with the illegal trade in ivory and rhino horn, international crime syndicates have moved in. The Guardian reported that, even in 2014, the conflict was no longer about traditional cattle rustling. It has become commercialized. There are businesses; criminal gangs are waiting to load cattle onto trucks and take them to market before anyone has a chance to respond.
The Kenyan government has said 1.3 million people are affected by the present drought.
Estate owners and local ranchers insist, though, that much of the problem is political, driven by promises from some local politicians — Kenya faces a national election in August — that pastoralists will be given more cattle and be able to keep the land if they drive land owners off their property, promises similar to those made by Robert Mugabe during the 2002 land invasions in Zimbabwe.
Even the land invasions themselves are not as straightforward as they might seem at first. A number of local media outlets in Kenya have suggested that heavily armed bandits are disguising themselves as herders and are looting multi million-dollar estates for their own personal gain.
The land issue is not necessarily race-based. Both white and black land owners have been affected. The former include a former chief of the Kenyan army, and a former speaker of Kenya’s national assembly.

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

Still, the spectre of white “haves” and black “have-nots” hangs heavily over the disputes. An op-ed piece in The Nation, Kenya’s national newspaper, noted that, “In one corner of Laikipia, rich aristocrats sip European champagne in cottages that are hired for Sh1 million a week [about USD $10,000], yet in another corner, half-naked, weary women trek for kilometres in search of water.”
Still, Gallmann’s shooting is not just another news story.
To give an idea of just how poetic and moving her writing is, here is a passage from the introduction to her book African Nights, first published by Penguin Books in 1994:
Africa is a continent of extremes.
“There are droughts and there are floods. There is an Africa of tragedy and famine, of corruption and war, of blood and hunger and tears, of incurable disease and tribal clashes and misery and violence and political unrest.

"It is the Africa we read about today in every paper, the one we see daily in biased cable television reports. It is an Africa captive to and dependent on the blackmail of foreign aid, constantly judged, constantly criticized and never understood.
Here the rich West has imprinted its competitive, frantic image, created alien needs, imposed alien philosophies and financed impossible schemes, unsuited to the potential and true spirit of this troubled and fantastic continent, all too ready to take back that help and sit in judgement of yet another failure.
I do not sing that AfricaThere is no need for another negative reportage, which will leave a bitter taste and serve no purpose.
There is a different side to this ancient land. It is the Africa that, since the beginning of time, has evoked in travellers a deep recondition, an inexplicable yearning to return. The place that still has what most of the world has lost. Space. Roots, Traditions. Stunning beauty. True wilderness. Rare animals. Extraordinary people. The land that will always attract those who can still dream.
Here’s to the dreamers, then.
And here’s to hoping the rains return soon. It’s rainy season now, as you read this.


https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/may/03/inequality-drought-and-the-deadly-fight-for-precious-grazing-land-in-kenya


Minutt by minutt, annual reindeer migration is ultimate in Slow TV.

Minutt by minutt, this just might be the slowest nature program you will ever see. It's also trés cool — if not downright chilly at times (minus 40).
First things first. The annual reindeer migration in Lapland is one of planet earth’s greatest but least known animal migrations. It lacks the big-screen drama of the annual wildebeest migration in Africa, and is not as well publicized as the caribou migrations in northern Canada and Alaska. It lacks the cult cachet of the annual monarch butterfly migration, and doesn’t make the UK newspapers the way bird migrations do.
Thanks to a project by Norwegian state TV, though, the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation (NRK) is making it possible for hundreds of thousands of viewers across Norway — and many more watching around the world online — to have a close-up view of one particular herd of reindeer on their annual spring migration to feeding grounds on the Norwegian coast.

©Sindre Skrede

©Sindre Skrede

The reindeer route, from Suossjávri to Kvaløya on Norway’s Finnmarksvidda plateau, is expected to last six to nine days or longer, depending on when or even whether the reindeer decide to start moving. There’s an element of doubt there, or at least there was the last moment the outside world checked in with the production crew. As with wildebeest river crossings, it all comes down to that one individual at the front of the pack who takes it on himself, or herself, to take a gamble on what lies ahead. The reindeer migration has its own version of a river crossing: the mandatory swim across the strait of Kvaløya.

©Edmund Johannes Grønmo/NRK

©Edmund Johannes Grønmo/NRK

The program, officially titled Reinflytting: Minutt for Minutt, has been dubbed “the impossible project” by its makers, in part because almost anything can, and probably will, go wrong.
For one thing, the area is so remote it’s not even covered by communications satellites; the producersare evidently having to rely on signals reflected by mirrors planted along the route, as well as the ubiquitous new gadgets in camera technology: drones.

The lead cameraman is Muzet, which means “black” in the local Sami language. Muzet has been outfitted with a camera mount on his head, not unlike a GoPro headstrap. The producers are hoping Muzet resists the temptation to bean anyone while filming, since he’s a reindeer and that’s what reindeer do.
If Minutt for Minutt should end the way The Sopranos did — not so much end as stall in mid-scene, followed by a cut to black silence — viewers will be able to follow the reindeers’ continuing adventures online. Which is probably the way most viewers will choose to watch, anyway.

Gimmick or inspiration, you decide. Live camera transmissions of everything from eagles’ nests to elephants’ waterholes have been a standard feature on nature-oriented websites for a number of years now. The Norwegian experiment will show whether the concept can or will migrate to mainstream TV. https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/apr/26/slow-tv-reindeer-migration-norway-nrk-reinflytting-minutt-for-minutt https://www.nrk.no/rein/

Gimmick or inspiration, you decide. Live camera transmissions of everything from eagles’ nests to elephants’ waterholes have been a standard feature on nature-oriented websites for a number of years now. The Norwegian experiment will show whether the concept can or will migrate to mainstream TV.

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/apr/26/slow-tv-reindeer-migration-norway-nrk-reinflytting-minutt-for-minutt

https://www.nrk.no/rein/


Blinding ‘em with science: how the March for Science silenced its critics.

The day after is always a day for taking stock. The March for Science should never have had to happen in the first place, not in 2017.
Then again, there’s a march for everything these days, it seems. And Earth Day — April 22nd — made an ideal companion date.
Much of the world has forgotten, you see, what entire generations took for granted ever since 1543 when Copernicus published his heretical idea, from his deathbed no less, that the sun is a motionless body at the centre of the solar system. The planets revolve around the sun, not the other way around.
Oh, and the world is round, not flat. And, as a general rule, gravity exists — not a sure thing until 1664, when Isaac Newton signed off on his law of Newtonian physics — and penicillin does in fact kill bacteria, which wasn’t a sure thing until 1928, when Alexander Fleming got a little jiggy in his lab while playing with mold and fungi.

©Getty Images/New York City

©Getty Images/New York City

Twenty years later, Donald John Trump would be born. And, 20 years after that, Scott Pruitt.
The arc of human evolution is marked by a steady upward curve in human knowledge and evolution, with just the occasional dip. Now, though, thanks the war on science, many scientists — and everyday, regular thinking folks — think we may no longer be looking at a dip but rather the beginning of a slow, steady dive into oblivion. The concept “mass extinction” was unheard of just 10 years ago. Now, it looks like the probably path to the future.
One-off protest marches have their place — just look at the examples below of some of the clever, creative turns-of-phrase on display just yesterday — but whether they have any tangible effect is another matter. Cumulatively, perhaps, but even then, it takes time.
The only thing that counts, at least now, is that last November, 62 million voters in the U.S. decided that climate change is a hoax. And any objection to that idea is tantamount to fake news. Evidence-based policymaking is for losers. The Obama administration’s signature Clean Power Plan was a thinly disguised conspiracy by media elites and kale-chip eating tofu lovers to kill the fossil-fuel industry. Coal is clean; freak weather events are the inevitable result of loose social morals on the U.S. West Coast and effete enclaves in Europe; and if wild tigers, polar bears and elephants tigers don’t make it to the next century, well, they just lost the evolutionary lottery, that’s all.

©EPA/Washington DC

©EPA/Washington DC

Godless, liberal weenies: Charles Darwin taught you this, if you believe in natural selection and survival of the fittest. If you believe in evolution, you can’t have it both ways, right?
You want expert opinion? During last summer’s Brexit referendum in Britain, no less an expert than former UK cabinet minister Michael Gove said that the public “have had enough of experts.”
The March for Science was an effort by experts to fight back, and in one sense it was a miracle. “You know you’re in trouble when scientists take to the streets,” one of those experts declared in The Guardian two weeks ago. Scientists are not, by nature, rabble rousers. By training and temperamentthey prefer to avoid the limelight, happy to stay in their lab, playing with their mold and fungi, testing and retesting results.

©AP/Denver  

©AP/Denver

 

They tended to do well in math in school — another reason to hate them — but, generally speaking, when you think of your dedicated, died-in-the-wool protesters, scientists don’t exactly jump to mind.
Before the March on Science, there were worries that protests are counterproductive and can have unintended consequences. They can play into the hands of the power brokers, by showing the proverbial silent majority what a bunch of immature crybabies the protestors are, and how worthless their issue-of-the-moment is as a result. There’s also the fear that, by painting a bleak portrait of a steadily eroding environment and the wholesale destruction of entire ecosystems, ordinary, everyday thinking folks may decide that it’s too late, and give up on doing anything.

©Twitter

©Twitter

Some argued that the March for Science risked making science political. It already is, though. And it wasn’t the scientists themselves who did that. It was always political. And not addressing that is a problem.
As Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor and former co-chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology under Barack Obama John Holdren noted this past weekend in the Sunday Observer, science is evidence-based. Science is driven by our desire to learn more about ourselves, our world and our universe. Most if not all scientists want their discoveries and new understanding to be applied to advancing economic prosperity — more and bigger research grants, if you want to be cynical about it — public health, environmental sustainability, personal safety and security and good governance.
This is nothing to apologize for. It is something to be proud of. And that, in the end, was what the March for Science was really about. It wasn’t timed to coincide with Earth Day as much as it was a reminder that every day is earth day, if we want the planet to survive beyond next quarter’s profit statements.
Oh, and some of those signs were really clever.


©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Reuters/New York City

©Reuters/New York City


Tsavo’s notorious man-eating lions — back in the news.

The notorious man-eating lions of Tsavo were the subject of two fine books, Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson’s 1907 first-person account The Man-Eaters of Tsavo and Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Philip Caputo’s 2002 memoir Ghosts of Tsavo, and one perfectly awful Hollywood movie, director Stephen Hopkins’ 1996 clinker The Ghost and the Darkness. The film featured a game but ultimately unconvincing Val Kilmer as Col. Patterson, and an over-the-top Michael Douglas in the completely fictional role of “Great White Hunter” Charles Remington. Remington never existed; the events depicted in the film involving his character never happened.
The film was made in Zimbabwe, not Kenya; the lions in the film sported large, lavish Hollywood manes, unlike the maneless lions of historical record; and the lions themselves in the film came not from the wild but from a zoo in Bowmanville, Ont. They were named not “Ghost” and “Darkness” but rather Caesar and Bongo.

©Paramount Pictures

©Paramount Pictures

Despite Hollywood’s finest efforts to ruin a perfectly good story — Kilmer earned a 1997 Golden Razzie nomination for worst supporting actor — the actual story, in which a pair of man-eating lions killed and devoured 28 railroad workers (according to official records kept at the time) during the building of the Kenya-Uganda Railway in 1898, continues to have legs to this day.
Theories as to why the lions did what they did — debated openly and in absorbing, compulsively readable detail by Caputo in his book Ghosts of Tsavo— range from persistent drought and an outbreak of rinderpest at the time to Tsavo lying on the traditional slave-trade routes, which meant that lions in the area, being opportunistic hunters, were quick to dispose of any bodies that perished along the way.

A new theory, more scientifically detailed — and so less appealing to Hollywood moviemakers — has taken a different tack, and revealed some surprising results.
The fact that the Tsavo lions are still making the news in 2017 shows just how timeless the original history really is.
In a new study, Larisa DeSantis, a palaeo-ecologist at Nashville, Tenn.’s Vanderbilt University, used 3-D imaging technology to examine what remains of the Tsavo lions’ teeth, which have been preserved at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History. (How the lions’ remains, including a pair of life-size, mounted specimens for exhibit, ended up at the Field Museum is a story in itself, and another reason why Caputo’s book makes such absorbing reading.)

©Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

©Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

The first surprise is that, despite the lions’ fearsome rep for ferocity, the teeth are not sharp fangs and molars worn down by crushing and chewing on bone but rather the smooth, polished teeth one has come to expect of zoo lions, fed a steady diet a soft food such as days-old beef.
That suggests the railroad workers, far from being the lions’ preferred food, were simply part of a diverse, well-rounded diet that may have included whatever the lions could find.
Lions, after all, like all cats, are opportunistic hunters.
“We often see ourselves as the top of the food chain,” DeSantis told National Geographic’s online site earlier this week, “where in reality we have been on the menu of lions and large cats in general for a long time.”
As the late, legendary — and quite real — Great White Hunter Peter Hathaway Capstick wrote in his 1978 memoir Death in the Long Grass, all you are to an apex predator like a lion, or a crocodile for that matter, is protein. (In his later years, Capstickwrote that his hair didn’t turn grey so much as decline and fall out in clumps, owing to the sheer stress of being hired to track down man-eating leopards and lions in the miombo thorn-scrub of upcountry Zambia.)

DeSantis also points to dental disease — about as unromantic and unlikely a subject for a Hollywood movie as you’re likely to get — being a major factor in the Tsavo lions’ misbehaviour. One of the Tsavo lions had a broken canine and an abscess that would’ve affected the surrounding teeth.
Healthy, wild lions rely on their jaws to grab a large prey animal, such as a buffalo, around the neck and suffocate it, while trying to wrestle it to the ground, so persistent dental pain would be a constant, potentially life-threatening problem.
DeSantis’ co-author in the study, Dr. Bruce Patterson, renowned lion researcher and author of the definitive book The Lions of Tsavo: Exploring the Legacy of Africa's Notorious Man-Eaters, first published in 2004, has said that as many as 40 percent of Africa’s lions have some kind of dental injury, owing to the daily wear-and-tear of hunting in the wild. (Even a seemingly benign-looking animal as a zebra is tougher than it looks; any wild animal needs to be wily and physically strong to survive. A zebra can break a lion’s back with just one well-timed strike of its hoof; a healthy buffalo normally requires four or more lions to bring it down, and that’s on a good day.)
What’s interesting, of course, is how the 120-year-old tale of the Tsavo lions continues to raise new questions.
“One hundred years ago, the technology needed to answer this question wasn’t available,” DeSantis told National Geographic. “A hundred years from now, there will probably be new technologies we can apply.”

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/04/man-eating-lions-teeth-kenya/?google_editors_picks=true


Back to nature: Why natural history should be taught in the schools.

Drop that screen, get outside and smell the flowers.
That, in a nutshell, is the gist of a new movement in the UK to wrest children and teenagers away from their screens and explore the great outdoors as part of their school education.

©Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

©Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

A number of educators and celebrities in the UK are lobbying for a GCSE in natural history that would focus on the outdoors — identifying trees and plants, examining eco-systems and studying ecology and conservation outside, not in the classroom, where natural history has traditionally been viewed as little more than a subset of biology.
The movement is a response to the growing worry that today’s children are already living in a world where nature has thinned out by 50% in just the past 40 years — this, according to the UK State of Nature Report for 2016(https://www.bto.org/research-data-services/publications/state-nature/2016/state-nature-report-2016/summary).
The proposal hopes to put nature back into the heart of the education system — no longer an eccentric hobby for those with the means to travel to exotic destinations but part of the mainstream curriculum,  and mainstream thinking.

©OpenColleges.edu.au

©OpenColleges.edu.au

The idea is to make future generations more attuned to the world around them, and more inclined to help save what little is left.
Traditional science classes are not up to the job of inspiring young minds, the proposal’s backers believe. Biology, as it’s taught in the schools, no longer has any real connection to nature the way most people experience it, young or old. Biology, as it’s taught in the schools, has more in common with chemistry than it does natural history. Zoology and botany are studied at the end of an electron microscope. There is no time for observing nature, let alone figuring out ways to save it.
Watching Planet Earth on TV can only go so far, and can reach only so many young people. A GCSE in natural history would make the outdoors part of the school curriculum, and could potentially reach everyone.
(For the uninitiated, a General Certificate of Secondary Education, or GCSE, is an academically structured, internationally recognized qualification, primarily used in the UK but also in some other Commonwealth countries, awarded in a specific subject. GCSEs are taken over a two- or three-year period. They replaced O-level and CSE exams in 1988 in England and Wales as the official certificate of graduation from secondary school.)

©U.S. Dept. of the Interior

©U.S. Dept. of the Interior

The cloistered, indoor life was never suited for human beings, some experts say, let alone being tethered night-and-day to a screen.
In his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, author and one-time San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Richard Louv argued that electronic screens, computer games and social media, when coupled with our growing alienation from the natural world, can lead to increased attention difficulties and growing rates of physical and emotional illnesses, while at the same time dulling our natural senses.
Getting kids outdoors as part of a fully rounded school education seems like a no-brainer.

Seeing, though, is not always believing.
The reality is that it’s an idea that may not see the light of day, despite some of the heavy hitters in education lining up behind it, owing to the usual suspects: Relentless cost-cutting in schools not funded by private foundations or tax-supported billionaires, overcrowded classrooms, a lack of qualified teachers and the ever-shrinking green space available to residents of the inner city.
When you throw in such factors as “stranger danger” — the not-unwarranted fear that it’s a bad idea to have kids running around in the great outdoors without close supervision — it’s hard to see a GCSE for natural history taking root in the real world.
Still, our growing distance from nature is an important — some might say critical — issue, and it needs to be talked about, outside, in the open and preferably outdoors.


https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/apr/01/studying-nature-children-planet-gcse

https://www.fromthegrapevine.com/nature/youth-programs-encourage-connection-nature


Out of Africa: plot thickens in story of early human migrations.

Everybody loves a good story. Even the best stories, though, can change in the telling.
Palaeontologists have argued for years — decades, in fact — that modern humans first emerged in Africa 200,000 years ago and migrated around the world some 50,000 to 100,000 years ago.
Exactly what route they took, though, where they left and where they arrived, is still the subject of much scientific conjecture and debate.
Now a recent study co-authored by the Department of Genetics at Harvard University Medical School in Cambridge, Mass. has brought scientists closer to understanding some of the finer details.

©BBC

©BBC

Humankind’s story begins in Africa with a group of hunter-gatherers, no more than a few hundred in all, who set out toward the distant horizon, for reasons known only to them. Today, 100, 000 years later, seven and a half billion of their descendants are spread throughout the Earth, “living in peace or at war,” as National Geographic geneticist Jamie Shreeve put it in a 2006 story for the magazine,  “believing in a thousand different deities or none at all . . . faces aglow in the light of campfires and computer screens.”
The unanswered questions, shaped in the silence of prehistory, include: Who were these first modern humans in Africa? What compelled a small band of their descendants to leave the safety and security of the home they knew to set out for the unknown of Eurasia? Did they mix and intermarry other, earlier members of the human family tree along the way? When and how did early humans first reach the Americas?

The Harvard study, reported earlier this year in New Scientist, traced early human migrations by contrasting and comparing previously existing studies of ‘out of Africa’ routes with new DNA techniques that continue to improve the way scientists identify and sequence genomes of our early ancestors. The secret, the scientists say, is to find more efficient ways to analyze and understand the data, and improve our understanding of human migrations.
It’s a work in progress, the paper’s lead author, Dr. Mark Lipson, stressed. There are no easy answers. The secrets of those early human migrations remain just that.
Still, over time, more blanks on the giant, blank canvas of human prehistory are being filled in with each passing day. Incomplete maps are always subject to interpretation. “Here there be dragons,” inscribed on an old map, is always assumed to be true — or possible — until someone proves it isn’t. The slow, painstaking work of scientific discovery is often just as much about proving a negative as it is proving a positive. (Pedants, as typified by The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer in a 2013 article, will point out that no old map, at least no early-modern European map, actually featured the inscription, Here there be dragons, but why spoil the beauty of a thing with an unprovable? All that means is that if there is a map with the words Here there be dragons or its Latin equivalent, Hic sunt dracones, inscribed on it, it hasn’t been found yet.)

©Khan Academy

©Khan Academy

Taking into consideration the possibility — likelihood, even — that early hominids interbred with other hominid species along the way, the Harvard study found that there was a definitive split between eastern and western populations once modern humans left Africa. This split happened as recently as 45,000 years ago, and explains how the early aboriginal inhabitants of Australia and New Guinea diverged genetically from their more northern cousins. Interestingly, unlike the closely studied migration of modern humans into Eurasia, the more southerly branch migration across Australia and the southern Pacific is less well understood.
What’s most relevant today about the study of early human migrations is whether any of these human movements were connected to climate change and, if so, how. Earlier research has suggested that humans spread across the globe in four waves, each one driven by climate change. The new findings suggest the picture may be more complicated than that, though. The Harvard study is a classic example of how, for every question answered, more doors open and more questions are asked.

©The Independent

©The Independent

Evolutionary scientists are naturally excited by the new findings, but Lipson urges caution. The process is slow and painstaking, as it should be. He urges against jumping to quick conclusions until more DNA evidence is found.
“There is some older archaeological evidence from Asia,” Lipson told New Scientist. “And while our results suggest the earliest human inhabitants probably would not have been closely related to Asian and Australian populations today, it would be interesting to see DNA from those sites.”
What we do know, based on DNA connected from 142 populations around the world, is that all non-Africans appear to be descended from a single group that split from the ancestors of African hunter-gatherers while, within Africa itself, humans formed isolated groups and then separated from each other.
The first migration did not end there. The study suggests that, subsequent to that first migration, there was a series of slow-paced migrations spread out over a period of thousands of years. Early Homo sapiens first arrived in southern Europe 80,000 years ago — far earlier than previously believed.
Question remain. Thanks to this new study and studies like it, the plot has thickened.


Reason for hope: Time to celebrate conservation’s successes, as well as challenges.

I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid stories of environmental woe and sturm und drang since starting this blog late last year. There’s enough of that going around.

Besides, those contrarians who don’t believe humans are affecting the environment — the small but noisy and politically influential minority who insist climate change is a fabrication intended to deep-six the coal and fossil fuel industry — are unlikely to change their minds now.

As for the rest, as Sir David Attenborough so aptly put it when defending his sunny-skies view in Planet Earth, no one sitting at home at the end of a long, hard day wants to be told the world is going to hell in a hand basket and that it’s all their fault.

Pessimists often depict conservation efforts — underfunded for the most part, and stretched thin — as a cry in the wilderness, and about as effective.

There are success stories, though.

©BBC

©BBC

And the Attenboroughs of the world — not to mention the conservationists themselves — prefer to focus on those stories, rather than warning yet again of imminent threat of a mass extinction. The planet has lost 58% of its birds, mammals, fish and reptiles since 1970 — this, according to a recent survey by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and London Zoological Society, but virtually anyone who can read already knows that.

The same survey found that the average yearly decrease in animal biodiversity is now 2%, “with no sign yet that this rate will slow down,” but again, this won’t come as a surprise to anyone watching the nightly news.

The success stories, rare as they might appear at times, are in the news now, though, thanks to a specially arranged meeting of conservationists, the Conservation Optimism Summit, later this month in London, with gatherings in other cities around the world, including Washington, DC and Hong Kong.

The summit is timed at least in part to Earth Day, which falls on April 22.

©DNP/Freeland

©DNP/Freeland

The implications extend beyond one day in April, though. People need to hear that all is not lost, that there’s reason for hope. One of the surprising conclusions to be drawn from the past 25 years of conservation is that it’s the smaller, grassroots efforts that have a more pronounced effect on the ground than the efforts of big, bloated conservation organizations that are often weighted down by their own bureaucracy and burgeoning operating costs.

Some of the more radical environmental activists say people ought to be told what they need to know, rather than what they want to hear.

The truth is that there’s room for both.

Polar bears are in serious trouble — the bears need pack ice on which to hunt and sustain themselves throughout winter hibernation, and the ice is melting across the Arctic — but the panda bear, the iconic symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, has recovered significantly throughout its former range.

Rhinos are facing a devastating surge in poaching throughout their range in Africa, but the saiga antelope, an oddly shaped grazing antelope endemic to the Eurasian steppe, has survived not one but two population crashes in recent years. The Siberian tiger has made a comeback in Russia, and a new population of rare Indonesian tigers was discovered in a national park in eastern Thailand just last month, even as conservationists warn that the lion — one of the most iconic, most easily recognized animals on the planet — faces a population crash throughout much of its range in Africa, due to habitat destruction, human population growth and the inevitable animal-human conflict that results.

©University of Oxford

©University of Oxford

Despite its Pollyannaish and easy-to-ridicule name, the Conservation Optimism Summit has an important purpose, as Oxford University zoologist E.J. MIlner-Gulland, a summit cofounder, and Oxford professor of biodiversity, told the Sunday Observer this past weekend.

“We have to change our ways and celebrate our successes if we’re going to protect endangered species,” she told the newspaper. “If we’re too gloomy about saving wildlife, you people will think there’s nothing they can do and that would be tragic. And wrong.”