On “nomaphobia” and digital detox: Tuning out, turning on and doing without the the devices, if only for a few days.

There’s a hotel on Bali that has passed a “digital detox” policy for its guests — while poolside, anyway. The resort has banned smartphones from outdoor public areas to enforce relaxation, and the early word is that people are loving it.

I won’t be on Bali for the next two weeks, but I will be somewhere in the tropics, untethered from my digital devices.

So … no blog, no Dispatches, and no weekly columns for TVWorthWatching.com. Imitation is the sincerest form of — well, if not relaxation exactly, something close. As writer Hannah Ellis-Petersen put it recently in the Sunday Observer, does a hotel pool exist if you don’t put it on social media?

Ayana Resort in Jimbaran, Bali —perched on a limestone cliff overlooking the Indian Ocean — is encouraging guests to simply soak in their surroundings and take pleasure in being alive and somewhere other than the concrete jungle — to stare at the wider, green world, rather than staring at a screen.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Ayana’s digital detox extends to tablets, MP3 Players and laptops, not just smartphones. It’s all part of an effort to “forcibly untether people from their addiction of checking the news, compulsively taking photos, updating social media and replying to emails even when on holiday.”

I will be taking photographs, mind, just not compulsively. And not on Bali. 

All of us need to take a break from the wired world on occasion. It’s hard sometimes to grasp just how pervasive — and easy — instant communication has become, across the entire globe. A conservation-photographer acquaintance of mine just this past week sent me a Facebook message from the Southern Ocean, off the northern tip of Antarctica. Her expedition ship had no Internet connection while in Antarctica, she noted, but she had discovered — presumably by accident and not out of some need to stay in touch with the West Coast of Canada — that her Facebook Messenger app worked, albeit sporadically, and assuming her ship wasn’t about to be tossed about in a Force 9 gale while trying to navigate the Drake Passage, somewhere off Antarctica’s South Shetland Islands. The life of a research assistant in 2018 is never completely cut off from the ends of the Earth, it seems.

On Bali, Ayana’s guests are encouraged to swim, “truly relax and be in the moment” and — spoiler alert — read a book. On actual paper.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

There’s even a new word to describe our need to be in touch 24/7 — “nomaphobia,” which experts are now labelling “the 21st century disease.” Surveys show that, even while travelling, one-in-five of us check our phone once an hour. More than one in 10 of us — 14%, if you must know — admit to checking our phones at least twice an hour. A 2017 Deloitte survey in the UK found that more than a third of those polled — 38%, if you must know — said they believed their were using their smartphone too much . . .  and then immediately went back to looking at their phones.

After all, how were they to know the results of the survey they had just taken, if they didn’t look it up online?

Myself, I plan on reading Paul Theroux’s new book, Figures in a Landscape: People and Places, and the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times Africa correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman’s book, Love, Africa: A Memoir of Romance, War and Survival — in the original hardcover.

Back in two weeks.

Oxford 101: How to get that PhD in zoology without losing the plot.

As headline grabbers go, any young person considering a long-term career in ecology, zoology, conservation, wildlife biology or anything to do with the environment and climate change couldn’t help but be drawn to the recent heading on Nature.com (official website for the journal Nature), titled: “Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD.”

The writer, Lucy Taylor, wasn’t banging on about Kwantlen College or the Mary Magdalene School of the Unrequited Sisters, either, but rather the University of Oxford — better known to plebes, proles, tourists and avid fans of the popular Inspector Lewis and Endeavour TV crime series as Oxford University.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Taylor earned her PhD from Oxford this year, in 2018, so her advice is both topical and au courant.

Helpfully, she curated a to-do list, including don’ts, by buttonholing fellow PhD students and post-doctoral researchers at her alma mater in the Dept. of Zoology, partly to help new graduate students and partly — no doubt — to rationalize, justify and come to terms with decisions she made, or didn’t make, in pursuing her goal.

Her post came to me in a roundabout way from a medical doctor and trauma surgeon I once interviewed in a past life, who had been serving at the time in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) with Médecins San Frontières (MSF). I was writing about the National Geographic anthology documentary Doctors Without Borders at the time, and did the interview by satellite phone (he was in Goma, in the middle of a war zone; I was in Vancouver, on the other side of the world).

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

We’ve stayed in touch, through the miracle of social media (and Twitter), and he’s taken it upon himself to mentor and help advise any young person willing to give up a comfortable life back home for a career post in the developing world — though he would be the first to draw the line at sending someone, anyone, into a war zone without first knowing exactly what they’re getting into. (Among his other observations, the sound of distant mortar fire coming through faintly but clearly over the satellite phone, was that he missed watching NHL hockey games on TV in his home town of Toronto.)

He thought enough of Taylor’s advice to share her list with his followers on Twitter. I won’t burden you here with all 20 (I’ve included the link here, so you can find out for yourself, if you’re so inclined), but I have included a handful that jumped out at me.

 ©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

• “I don’t need to write that down, I’ll remember it,” is the biggest lie you can tell yourself. Write down everything you do, even if it doesn’t work. This includes notes from meetings, code annotations, method details, everything.

• It’s never too early to start writing your thesis. Write and show your work to your supervisor as you go. Even if you don’t end up using your early work, it’s good practice and a way to get ideas organized in your head.

• Back up your work. You can avoid grief by doing this at least weekly.

• Aim to publish your research. It might not work out, but drafting articles and submitting them to journals is a great way to learn new skills and enhance your CV.

Have a life outside work. Although your lab group is like your work family, it’s great for your mental health to be able to escape work.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

• Don’t compare yourself with others. Your PhD is an opportunity to do original research that reveals new information. All PhD programs are different. Just do what works for you and your project.

• Enjoy your PhD. It can be tough, and there will be days when you wish you had a ‘normal’ job. PhDs are full of wonderful experiences, though, and give you the opportunity to work on something that fascinates you. Celebrate your successes and enjoy yourself.

Taylor’s article was from the Nature Careers Community, a place for readers of the journal Nature to share their professional experiences and advice. Since there’s less money in a career in nature and conservation than, say, being a hedge fund manager, bonhomie and community is what it’s all about.

And, unlike a hedge fund manager, you’ll be helping to save the planet.


 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

One tree can make a million matches; one match can destroy a million trees.

Yes, the numbers are sobering — as they should be. And while it can seem overwhelming — an estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest felled, burned and ground into sawdust each year — there’s  room for help. For another decade, anyway, if we’re to believe even the most pessimistic of climate scientists. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FOA) cites, as just one example, the case of Afghanistan, which has lost more than 70% of its forest cover in just the past two decades.

And so it goes. Logging. Overgrazing. Forest fires. Deliberate burning. Urbanization. Unchecked soybean farming, to provide cheap feed for cattle on ever-expanding cattle ranches. And so on.

 ©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

One and a half acres of forest is cut down every second. Shrinking forest cover contributes to between 12% and 17% of annual greenhouse-gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. At the current rate of destruction, it will take less than a century to destroy all rainforests on Planet Earth — that is, if climate scientists are wrong when they say we have just 12 years to stop irreversible climate change.

There’s more.

 ©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

The Amazon rainforest alone produces 20% of the world’s oxygen, but the newly elected national government in Brazil is committed to wholesale destruction, in the name of development and boosting local economies. Short-term thinking, in a world where more than 25,000 animal and plant species are expected to become extinct in just the next 25 years.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

There are things we can do, though, according to the website Conserve Energy Future. 

The NGO Green Match named Conserve Energy Future (https://www.conserve-energy-future.com) one of the best green-energy websites for 2017, not so much for its dire predictions — though this is one problem that won’t be solved by just shutting our eyes and hoping it goes away — but for its practical how-to pointers on how nearly everyone can, if not save the planet exactly, slow down its destruction.

 ©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

(It’s worth noting, for the record, that there are exposés online denouncing Conserve Energy founder Rinkesh Kukreja, such as an April, 2017 essay in medium.com headed “Credibility Becoming an Issue,” but these pointers are common-sense enough that they don’t need a scientific study to back them up. Sometimes, common sense is just that.)

• Use and re-use paper bags or, better yet, switch to canvas.

• Eat less beef. Cattle farming is one of the planet’s most destructive agricultural practices.

• Choose products that require little or no packaging.

• Support eco-friendly companies (easy enough to ascertain online). Likewise, boycott or simply shun those companies whose products actively encourage environmental degradation. 

• Sign those online petitions, even if you suspect they have little effect. If nothing else, the old saw, “Not worth the paper they’re written on,” doesn’t lead to much deforestation if they’re not written on paper to begin with.

 ©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

• Plant trees — in your garden, your backyard or with a local neighbourhood group that actively plants trees in nearby wilderness areas. “The future of the planet concerns all of us, and all of us should do what we can to protect it,” Kenya Nobel Peace laureate Wangari Maathai famously said. “As I told the foresters, and the women, you don’t need a diploma to plant a tree.” Lend a hand to save trees.

 • Try to wean yourself off plastic. Collins English Dictionary named “single-use” as its Word of the Year, but that’s not a good thing: “Single-use plastics” drew unwanted attention across the UK following the airing of BBC’s Blue Planet II, in which presenter David Attenborough showed sea birds trying to feed bits of plastic to their newborn chicks, in remote regions of the ocean previously believed to be untouched by human presence.

  • Stay informed, and spread the word.

“The creation of a thousand forests is in one acorn,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said.

It’s never too late, until it is.

David Attenborough's ‘Dynasties’ — a betrayal of the natural world he loves, or a celebration. You decide

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

“Against stupidity, the Gods themselves battle in vain.”

I stumbled across that epigraph quite by accident  recently, during my online travels through social media. I liked it enough that I made it the introductory inscription on my Facebook page — no, I’m not above stealing — and I’ve seen nothing since to suggest the inscription is in vain.

One of the unintended consequences of growing old, the novelist and raconteur Paul Theroux wrote in his Siberian travelogue Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, is being confronted by the same old arguments, made time and time again, often by younger people who carry on as though they’ve thought of that argument for the first time.

And so, with Dynasties, a new BBC natural history program about to make its debut on BBC (Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One and Nov, 17 on BBC Earth; Jan. 19 in the US, on AMC Networks’ BBC America), presenter David Attenborough is once again having to defend his approach to wildlife documentary filmmaking against environmental activists who insist that, by focusing on nature’s wonder and deliberately side-stepping the human-made catastrophe facing the world’s last wild places, Attenborough is being part of the problem, not the solution.

At age 92, Sir David is more easily irked than he was at, say, 32, when his early BBC effort Zoo Quest, a studio-bound program featuring animals from the London Zoo, let alone at 52, when his landmark, career-defining series Life on Earth changed the way many TV viewers viewed the natural world.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough has devoted the final episode of virtually every nature program he’s ever made to climate change, the environmental crisis and the looming mass extinction, he recently pointed out in a pithy exchange in The Guardian, a fortnight before Dynasties’ BBC debut. This didn’t start with this year’s Blue Planet II, he said testily, even though few programs he’s made have had the real-world impact of that series’ final episode, in which he focused on how our careless use of plastics is killing the world’s oceans — and getting into our food chain, whether we like it or not. Science and technology can only do so much to counter humankind’s consumerism, rampant greed and penchant for excess.

That said, he added, turning to one of his most deeply held beliefs — that too much pessimism is a turn-off. Viewers overwhelmed into thinking the situation is hopeless, that the time to do something has long since passed, are tempted to give up. “There’s nothing I, one person can do, so why bother?”

That’s the real danger, Attenborough insists. The issue is not whether he fails to constantly remind you that virtually every wondrous, living breathing wild being you see in one of his eye-filling nature programs is staring extinction square-in-the-face. The worse danger, he argues, is that by being constantly told that the problem is so big it’s insurmountable, it becomes all too easy for the viewer at home to toss the remote aside and go back to noshing on Chilean sea bass and farmed salmon, chowing down on hamburgers and steaks made from soybean-fed cattle, and wrapping everything in plastic, all the while filling the gas tank to the brim, keeping the lights on all night and cranking up the air conditioning and/or central heating to the max, and leaving it there until winter or the spring thaw. 

 ©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Regardless of what you think of him, Attenborough’s touch with ordinary, everyday people was apparent following the airing of Blue Planet II, perhaps proving his point: Millions of people around the planet tuned in, and his efforts — in the final episode especially — was credited with pushing the issue of plastic waste in the world’s oceans higher up on the political agenda.

Attenborough might argue, too, that had he pushed industrial fishing and overconsumption into Blue Planet’s agenda, as some environmental activists demanded he do, he might well have lost viewers rather than gained them.

Dynasties was filmed over two years in five locations, including Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve, famous for its lion prides and the setting for one of BBC’s more popular natural history programs from the 1990s, Big Cat Diary, a precursor — stylistically and from a storytelling point of view — of Meerkat Manor: The focus is on individual family groups, filmed over a period of time (in Dynasties’ case, day in and day out, over two years).

 ©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Dynasties’ producers have promised a grittier journey into the natural world with this new series, grittier anyway than anything in Planet Earth.

“The animals are extraordinary creatures in their own right and they live amazing lives,” Gunton said in a just-posted interview with BBC Earth’s online media service. “But they're also animals that have to share the world and compete with humanity. They are in trouble. There is an environmental subtext to this; all these animals are in decline because there isn't enough space for them. We tell incredibly dramatic stories of these animals living really difficult lives against their rivals, their enemies and each other, and that's hard enough. But when you superimpose them also having their space taken from them by humanity, which adds to the pressure, it almost feels unfair.

“Hopefully, I think it's going to make people think about our relationship with nature and also what goes on in nature in a way we very rarely see. The realities of these animal’s lives. Sir David Attenborough says these are important films, they're real documentaries. They tell a truth not often told.

“Every film has very moving moments, where you see heroic struggles against the odds. There are also extraordinary moments of connectivity where you absolutely empathize with the animals.”

 ©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Attenborough himself defended his approach in an interview just days ago with BBC News.

“We all have responsibilities as citizens, but our primary job is to make a series of programmes which are gripping, truthful, and speak about something quite important,” Attenborough said.

“These aren't ecological programmes. They're not proselytizing programmes. They're not alarmist programmes. What they are is a new form of filmmaking, and a new form of wildlife filmmaking.

“What we have said is, we will show what happens. We are not going to tart this up, we're not going to distort it in any way. If it's a triumph, fine, if it's a tragedy, that too we will show.

“This series is about the problem, for a lot of these creatures, that there just isn't enough space for them to survive. Space is not as sexy as plastic, it's a harder thing to get your head around, it's a much bigger issue, so [with] the individual struggles in these creatures lives, that's a very good way of bringing it to attention.”

As a counter-view, the respected environmentalist and Guardian editorial-page columnist George Monbiot penned a furious denunciation of Attenborough’s approach earlier this week (links to both articles below), and more-or-less accused Attenborough of betraying the living world he professes to love so much. By knowingly creating a false impression of that world, Monbiot argues, Attenborough is unwittingly playing into the hands of the planet’s destroyers, not its defenders.

 ©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

Monbiot argues that since just one scene in Blue Planet II’s final episode caused a sea change in the way millions of BBC viewers in the UK view disposable plastic in today's oceans, he could have done so much more if the entire series were rooted in environmental message-making.

Just as compelling an argument could be made that, had Blue Planet II been an environmental screed,  millions of viewers would have given up on the series long before that point in the program.

Who believe? Who is right, and who is wrong.

I can see the strength of both arguments. Based on my 25-plus years of experience covering the TV industry in my previous incarnation as a media journalist and critic, I lean toward Attenborough and his understanding of the way TV audiences think.

That’s not to say the question of environmental ruin and degradation should be overlooked entirely. Attenborough doesn’t do that anyway, regardless of what some of his more ardent critics say.

Es nidditmir de neshuma, as they say in Yiddish.

“My soul is vexed.”



Dynasties premieres Sunday, Nov. 11 on BBC One at 20:30 GMT, and Nov. 17 on BBC Earth in Canada. Americans will have to wait until Jan. 19, 2019, when it finally makes its debut on BBC America.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018: The experts have spoken. Now it’s the people’s turn.

It’s a known fact: People trust customer reviews more than they do critics. As one influencer posted recently on Review Trackers — not exactly an unbiased source, as any objective, professional journalist worth their salt, would point out — “So it’s between the New York Times and Yelp.”

The academia website academia.edu recently asked — somewhat rhetorically — if consumer critics write differently from professional critics, while the self-explanatory site “Coaching for Leaders” (coachingforleaders.com) named “3 Differences Between Feedback and Criticism” (the Dale Carnegie principle: ‘Don’t criticize, condemn or complain’).

All of which is a roundabout way of taking a second look at the 54th annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year awards, announced just last week.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

I was fairly critical — and I stand by my criticism — of the judging committee’s choice for the top image this year, which favoured the safe and comfortable over last year’s daring and, some would say, controversial and inappropriate choice of a poached rhino, slaughtered for its horn, worth an estimated USD $120,000 on today’s black market. (Why ground powder from rhino horn, made of the same material — keratin — as our fingernails, should be so valuable to a primarily Asian market, and it is strictly an Asian market we’re talking about here, is a topic for a whole other debate.) One idea holds that wildlife photography awards should celebrate the beauty of nature; the other holds that, in the environmental catastrophe facing humankind and planet Earth today, the top award is better suited as a deliberate provocation, urging us to wake up and shake us out of our complacency.

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

Any award calling itself “the People’s Choice” wears its intention clearly and on its sleeve, though. Every year, following the WPOTY’s black-tie awards dinner at London’s Natural History Museum, the “Oscars of wildlife photography awards,” as they’ve been called, the judging committee announces 24 images shortlisted for the People’s Choice Award, which is announced the following February (voting for this year’s edition closes Dec. 13). Each visitor to the Natural History Museum’s website is allowed one vote, and one vote only. (This isn’t America’s Got Talent, where you can vote early and often, in almost as many different ways as you can think of.)

Anything open to the general public is driven by emotion, not reason.

That’s positive emotion, though. One of this year’s shortlisted finalists, of a starving polar bear, went viral around the world earlier this year. It sparked a lively and at times bitter debate about humankind’s effect on climate change in the polar regions. (Climate deniers refused to accept that the melting polar caps could have anything to do with a starving polar bear, et alone that humans might be responsible.) The image, by SeaLegacy conservation photographer Justin Hofman, is undeniably powerful, and has already proved influential, but I suspect it won’t win the people’s vote. (In his caption, titled “A Polar Bear’s Struggle,” Hofman admits his entire body was pained as he witnessed the starving bear scavenge for food at an abandoned hunter’s in the Canada’s high Arctic; the bear could barely stand under its own power, Hofman recalled.)

 ©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

There’s nothing wrong, in this case, with favouring beauty over fragility. Inspiration works in wondrous, often mysterious ways. In a world beset by grim, increasingly bleak news — everything from climate change and dwindling food resources to a new mass extinction — one can’t fault people for looking for a ray of light in the darkness, wherever that light may be found.

As the Natural History Museum’s own guidelines for the Lumix People’s Choice award points out, they’re looking for a winning image that “puts nature in the frame,” something that reflects the beauty and fragility of the natural world — with the emphasis, I’m guessing, on “beauty.”

A conservation-photographer acquaintance and occasional travel companion tells me he’s doubtful of people’s choice awards as a rule, since a public vote tends to favour those finalists who have a sizeable social media following, and he has a point.

Still, as someone who pays attention to customer reviews — I’ve personally known a number of professional critics, in different fields, who are so screwed up I’m not sure I’d trust their judgment of anything, let alone something I care about — I’m always curious to see where popular tastes lie.

I’ve yet to decide which image I’ll be voting for myself, but I have narrowed my choice down to three or four candidates. I have until next month to make my final decision — and you to, too, if you choose to participate.

As with any vote, though, remember: If you don’t vote, when you had the chance, you can’t complain afterwards, if the vote didn’t go the way you want.


Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the world's most prestigious nature photography competition (WildlifePhotographerOfTheYear.com). This year’s finalists and winners, some 100 images in all, are on display at  London’s Natural History Museum from now until June 30, 2019. See  nhm.ac.uk/wpy for tickets.

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

 ©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

When “Earth becomes Mars” — a global warning from inaugural Wildlife Photographer of the Year lifetime achievement recipient Frans Lanting.

“I think a photograph, of whatever it might be — a landscape, a person — requires personal involvement. That means knowing your subject, not just snapping what’s in front of you.”

That’s Frans Lanting, recipient of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards’ first Lifetime Achievement Award, earlier this week at London’s Natural History Museum. The ceremony just celebrated  its 54th year of existence, so while “lifetime achievement awards” are a dime a dozen these days — there’s even one for shoe salesmen — being the first in an organization that has existed for more than half a century is saying something.

Lanting, 67, a Dutch nature photographer based in Santa Cruz, Calif., has been at this game almost as long — so much so that, in addition to numerous published books, including several by the Cologne-based German art-house publisher Taschen and his personal website (lanting.com)

1. Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 6.45.19 AM.png

he rates his very own page at BrainyQuote.com

. “I want to interpret the natural world and our links to it,” he says. “It’s driven by the belief of many world-class scientists that we’re in the midst of an extinction crisis. . . This time (of our own making.)”

Life is both wonderful and mysterious, he says.

“Life is a force in its own right. It is a new element. And it has altered the Earth. It covers Earth like a skin.”

And this, “Life needs a membrane to contain itself, so it can replicate and mutate.”

3. Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.51.00 PM.png

“I became interested in photography during my first visit to the United States. I was a student at a university in Holland. I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the American West. That was when I learned about the tradition of nature in American photography.”

“Tourism is important,” Lanting adds, “because it can create sustainable local economies. I’d much rather have 1,000 tourists going up the Tambopata than 1,000 gold miners.”

 ©Frans Lanting

©Frans Lanting

And then there’s this:

“Water is the key to life, but in frozen form, it is a latent force. And when it vanishes, Earth becomes Mars.”

His wife, he says, “says that I become different once I start to work with animals. My movements become different, my mood is different. It involves letting everything fall behind you, becoming intuitive in your dealings with wild creatures in a way that bypasses reason. Sometimes it’s more like a dance than anything else.”

As with many nature photographers of his generation, Lanting’s work over the years has evolved from portrait and landscape photography to activism and conservation. He was appointed special ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature in 2012, and counts a World Press Photo award, the Ansel Adams Award for Conservation Photography, an Honorary Fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society, the Lennart Nilsson Award and the Royal Geographical Society’s Cherry Kearton Medal among his list of honours.

“Nature is my muse,” Lanting has said, “and it’s been my passion.”

Some truths were meant to be self-evident.

5. 6308736-Frans-Lanting-Quote-Life-is-a-force-in-its-own-right-It-is-a-new.jpg
6. 1579163-Frans-Lanting-Quote-Water-is-the-key-to-life-but-in-frozen-form-it.jpg
7. 1579153-Frans-Lanting-Quote-What-my-eyes-seek-in-these-encounters-is-not.jpg

“Nice” is in, controversy is out at Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2018 awards.

The first thing to know about this year’s winners of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards is that this time, the jury shied away from controversy with its picks. “Nice” is the operative word in the 2018 edition, unlike last year, when South African photojournalist Brent Stirton’s image of a slaughtered rhino forced people to confront serious issues facing wildlife conservation today.

The inevitable result is that, as likeable as many of the 2018 winners are, collectively they’re unlikely to stir the kind of difficult debate about species extinction and the wanton slaughter of rare animals for their body parts many conservationists — and wildlife photographers — say is even more imperative today, in a Trump world of climate denial and environmental deregulation.

That means fewer angry emails to contest organizers from parents upset that their younger, more  impressionable children might be dissuaded from a career in conservation, because the winning image didn’t reflect the beauty and wonder of nature.

This year’s overall winning image — “The Golden Couple,” Dutch photographer Marsel van Oosten’s tender portrait of a pair of rare golden snub-nosed monkeys (Rhinopithecus roxellana) taken in central China’s Qinling Mountains, certainly evokes wonder. The image was chosen over 45,000 entries, from 95 countries. It will be one of 100 other images to go on display at London’s Natural History Museum, the 54th such exhibition in the world’s most prestigious, high-profile wildlife photography contest. The exhibition opens this weekend, Oct. 19th, and closes July 1st, next year.

In her statement to the world’s media this week, long-serving jury chair Roz Kidman Cox admitted the winning image is traditional — it’s a portrait, pure and simple — but then added, “But what a striking one, and what magical animals. It is a symbolic reminder of the beauty of nature and how impoverished we are becoming as nature is diminished. It is an artwork worthy of hanging in any gallery in the world.”

 ©Marsel van Oosten

©Marsel van Oosten

Screen Shot 2018-10-16 at 8.35.37 PM.png

On one level, this is true. It’s hard to imagine Stirton’s dead rhino, blood still congealing from the stump where poachers hacked off its horn with a chain saw, being unveiled at the Louvre or the National Portrait Gallery.

For all Cox’s brave words, though, “The Golden Couple” is unlikely to make people stop and ask themselves, what happened here, who did this, why did they do it, and what can we do to prevent it from happening again.

Admittedly, it’s also hard to imagine Cox’s email in-box filling up with angry comments along the lines of last year’s, “How dare you? I’ll never follow your rotten contest again” viral outrage. As many upset patrons were only too happy to remind Cox then, nature photography is supposed to be about awe and  appreciation, about inspiration and inculcating our collective sense of wonder, and not something that’s shocking and awful.

 ©Natural History Museum

©Natural History Museum

I also know at least one prominent wildlife photographer and former WPOTY winner, a high-profile veteran who gives frequent lectures as part of National Geographic’s National Geographic Live! speaker series, who argues that the time for debate has passed, that it’s more important to shake people out of their complacency than to show them another pretty picture of a wonderful animal doing something wonderful. (Interesting fact: The award committee’s decision to opt for such a violent, off-putting image in last year’s edition sparked some of the most intense debate the jury committee can remember in awards history, but in the end the choice was unanimous. Yes, unanimous. Not only that, but that was reportedly the first time in the awards’ 54-year history that, in the end, the entire jury agreed on the final choice, without a single dissenting vote.)

Here, then, without further ado, is a selection of this year’s picks, along with a link to the Natural History Museum’s awards page, and a link to an investigative article about the precarious situation facing China’s dwindling population of golden snub nosed monkeys.

In a few days, I’ll be posting a profile of renowned wildlife photographer Frans Lanting, winner of this year’s inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award, but first this.



 ©Skye Maeker

©Skye Maeker

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“Whoso pulleth out this sword of that yonder lake is the rightwise queen born of all Sweden.”

And now for something completely different — the oddball news stories you didn’t see this past week. News flashes that somehow escaped the media glare — and these all happened — included such ‘say what’ headings as, ‘Florida store owner: Don’t warm urine in my microwave;’ ‘Ohio man says rescued cow is a regular backseat passenger;’ ‘Iguana on power line knocks out nursing home’s electricity;’ ‘Rhode Island man wins first prize for 1-ton pumpkin;’ and, for the purposes of this item, ‘Swedish girl Saga pulls our pre-Viking era sword from lake.’

That last one missed perhaps the most pertinent item in what otherwise might have been a mild distraction for a slow news day: The “Swedish girl” in question was just  eight-years-old.

Forget The Sword in the Stone; this sounds like a Disney animated classic in the making.

The facts were these:

An eight-year-old girl, Saga Vanacek, pulled a 1,500-year-old sword out of a lake in southern Sweden this past July.

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Her find was announced only this past week for fear it would trigger a summer tourist stampede to the sleepy hamlet of Tånnö on the shore of Lake Vidöstern. Forgive all the umlauts, but this is Sweden we’re talking about here.

According to local news in Sweden — the local news site local.se, followed by the regional Värnamo Nyheter newspaper, followed by national radio  — and picked up virtually overnight by media across Europe and the U.S. and Canada, experts from the nearby Jönköping county museum estimated the sword, found still in the remains of its original wood and leather scabbard, dates back to the 5th or 6th century AD, give or take a couple of pre-Viking generations.

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Saga’s father, Andrew, admitted in a Facebook post that he was annoyed at first: He had been waiting impatiently for his daughter to come in from the water because, godammit, the World Cup final was about to start and Croatia was about to face France, and it was Croatia who had knocked out England, who in turn had knocked out Sweden, and so therefore deserved to pay  the price.

His daughter was skipping stones, however, when she suddenly held up a rusted artifact she found in the water.

He wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of hauling the find home — who knows where it might’ve been? — but neighbours convinced him it looked “kinda old,” and so he called an archaeologist the following morning.

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Ensue pandemonium.

Readers of The Local’s news site started a campaign to have Saga declared the rightwise Queen born of all Sweden. The post of prime minister is currently held by Stefan Löfven in an acting capacity only, but one has to be at least 18 to be PM, rulling Saga out. 

Sweden, officially known as the Kingdom of Sweden, already has a monarch — King Carl XVI Gustav — but why spoil the beauty of a thing with mere detail?

Besides, it was an eight-year-old Lady in Waiting who found the sword in the lake, not the 72-year-old ruling monarch born at Haga Palace, Solna, in April, 1946. (For the record, the official, rightful heir to the throne is King Gustav’s eldest child, Victoria, Crown Princess of Sweden, Duchess of Östergötland.)

There is a serious side to a fun story. A team of forensic pathologists and archaeologists is poring over the sword, trying to pin down its provenance.

The question of whether Saga will be rewarded or involved in future projects has been referred to the National Archives of Sweden — a body not exactly noted for its  romanticized view of historical events.

Then again, as Saga told local media, she doesn’t really want to be queen, nor does she want to pursue a career in archaeology. She’d rather be a doctor, or a vet, “or an actress in Paris.”

See? There must be a movie in there somewhere.


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Bones of contention: How a 70-million-year-old dinosaur, bone smugglers and a US court case rewrote palaeontology history

Imagine, if you will, a story that links dinosaur bones, bone smuggling, international intrigue, a so-called “commercial palaeontologist,” the Gobi Desert, a diplomatic spat pitting the government of Mongolia against a prestigious auction house in New York, the Hollywood actors Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio, and a staff writer for The New Yorker who’s written a book about it

Add to the mix the prehistoric beast Tarbosaurus bataar, a Cretaceous critter reputedly so irritable and given to mood swings that it’s believed even the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex gave it a wide berth.

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The story, under the delightful heading ‘Bones of Contention,’ first came to public attention — that is to say, when The New Yorker picked it up — in 2012, though to be fair, not to mention accurate, the story probably begins more than 70 million years ago, when the Tarbosaurus was an actual thing.

The Tarbosaurus came by its bad temper naturally: It weighed up to five tons, and boasted more than 60 teeth.

But wait, there’s more. It had a locking mechanism in its lower jaw, similar to the space alien in the horror movie Alien, and small, gimpy forelimbs that predate opposable thumbs by more than a few White House presidential administrations.

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Tarbosaurus was no bottom feeder, either. It ate other dinosaurs, the larger the better. The hadrosaur Saurolophus and sauropod Nemegtosaurus were favoured items on the buffet menu, and they were not small. In present-day natural history terms, think of a lion that’s only interested in hippos and elephants, with buffalo having to serve as a light snack between meals on an otherwise slow day on the hunting plain.

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The largest known Tarbosaurus skull is 1.3 metres (4.3 ft) long, which makes sense when you consider we’re talking about a critter that ranged between 10 and 12 metres (33to 39 ft.) from snout to tail, and weighed some four to five metric tons.

The weird gets truly going when, on May 20, 2012 Heritage Auctions in New York City published a catalogue announcing that a fully restored Tarbosaurus skeleton was about to go on the auction block.

This was a problem — though hardly anyone guessed at the time it would be a problem that would involve a million-dollar bone smuggling scam — because Mongolian law stipulates that any dinosaur remains found in the Gobi Desert must be laid to rest at an appropriate Mongolian institution. Since Tarbosaurus are only found in Mongolia and not, say, Iowa, or New York City, this Tarbosaurus, if real, could only have been stolen.

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Enter “commercial palaeontologist” and real-life “Florida man” Eric Prokopi, a present-day Indiana Jones — except that he isn’t — who was willing to part with the dinosaur bones for no small amount in US cash — until, that is, the then-president of Mongolia, and more than a few actual palaeontologists, gave it the old ‘WTF?’ and filed a complaint in the US courts.

On the morning of Oct. 17, 2012, as Paige Williams wrote at the time in The New Yorker, federal agents and sheriff’s deputies raided Prokopi’s home in Gainesville, Florida and arrested him.

The would-be Indiana Jones, dubbed a “one-man black market,” was charged with several counts of felonious smuggling. 

And so an actual court case, United States v. One Tyrannosaurus Bataar Skeleton — the case has its own Wikipedia page! — came to light.

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Prokopi, caught dead-to-rights and facing 17 years in prison, pleaded guilty to illegal smuggling. Facing hard time, he sang like a bird. “There is probably not an active fossil investigation at this point that doesn’t owe, on some level, to information that Mr., Prokopi has furnished law enforcement,” assistant US attorney Martin Bell told US District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein during Prokopi’s sentencing hearing in lower Manhattan.

Hollywood actor Nicolas Cage, meanwhile, agreed to return the bones a dinosaur skull he bought in 2007 for some USD $276,000, handing it over to US authorities, who in turn returned it to Mongolia.

Cage originally bought the skull in an auction held by the I.M. Chait gallery — outbidding Leonardo DiCaprio in the process. Cage didn’t realize the skull might be stolen until the Prokipi affair — movie title! — and voluntarily gave it up when he learned of the circumstances. 

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Sure, he was out nearly $300,000, but now he had one hell of a story to tell. Might not a movie be made out of this — starring, say, Nicolas Cage and Leo DiCaprio?

The Prokipi court case, as reported at the time by Paige Williams in The New Yorker, featured this priceless exchange between US attorney Bell and judge Hellerstein:

Bell noted out that some 18 separate “largely complete” dinosaur skeletons seized included “a dinosaur called an oviraptor, which is an egg-eating thing. I think a number of them stampeded in the 1996 movie Jurassic Park. It might have been 1992. I was young and awestruck in any event, Your Honour.”

“I missed the movie,” the judge replied. “Maybe I should go back to see it.”

“Every now and then it airs on TNT,” Bell replied, presumably with a straight face.

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The Tarbosaurus skeleton was returned to Mongolia the following year, bruised but not battered, where the remains were put on public display in Sukhbataar Square, in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia’s capital (pop. 1.3 million).

For one brief moment, this Tarbosaurus became the most famous dinosaur in the history of the planet, a strangely fitting end for a critter that died of unknown causes in the Gobi Desert, its skeleton more-or-less intact, some 70 million years ago. Perhaps it died of natural causes? If it had been taken on by a Tyrannosaurus, or another Tarbosaurus, it’s hard to imagine the bones would have survived without being scattered across the Mongolian Steppe.

Why is this suddenly in the news again, now, in October, 2018?

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Because Williams, whose side job — in addition to her staffing duties with The New Yorker — is Laventhol/Newsday Visiting Professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, has just published her novel account of the strange case,  who has just published a new book, The Dinosaur Artist: Obsession, Betrayal and the Quest for Earth’s Ultimate Trophy (Hachette).

The Dinosaur Artist is unlikely to survive 70 million years, but Williams’ fellow authors have jumped onboard, for the most part.

“A fascinating story of adventure and obsession, and a captivating journey into the world of fossils and fossil peddlers, scientists, museums, international politics, the history of life, and the nature of human nature,” Jennifer Ackerman, New York Times Bestselling author of The Genius of Birds, enthused. “If you love dinosaurs, palaeontology, or just a rollicking good tale, you will love this book. I couldn't put it down.”

The Dinosaur Artist is a tale that has everything,” Elizabeth Kolbert, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of The Sixth Extinction added in a jacket blurb: “Passion, science, politics, intrigue, and, of course, dinosaurs. Paige Williams is a wonderful storyteller.”

With a wonderful story to tell, it would appear.


Magical circus beasts, and where to find them — a digitized ‘Carnivale’ of the Animals.

No animals were harmed during the making of this motion picture.

That Humane Society disclaimer is familiar to anyone who’s stayed to watch the end credits of any movie featuring animals, or bothered to watch the end titles of a TV show featuring the same, whether it’s a family-friendly classic like Lassie or a post-modern Netflix western like Godless.

Hardly anyone expected to see that of the circus, however. The treatment of animals in circuses — everything from locking tigers in tiny box cages for days and weeks at a time to forcing elephants to perform balancing acts before as giggling crowd  — has been a cause célèbre of animal-rights activists for decades now, and rightly so. Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, aka “the Greatest Show on Earth,” took down its tentpoles for good several years ago because the travelling carnival act was no longer welcome in many towns and cities across the Americas, largely because of mistreatment of animals and the appalling conditions they were kept in.

 ©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

For career performance artist, one-time circus clown and academically accredited circus historian Bernhard Paul, the circus — not just his Circus Roncalli, founded in Germany, but the circus as an institution — needed a complete makeover, if it was to survive.

He came up with a novel idea — holograms, not real animals. This is David Attenborough-type stuff, writ large, in 3D. His elephants are remarkable, and beautiful, and they pull off amazing stunts. They’re not real, though; they’re digitized images, CGI at its most stylish, images so realistic they’re almost real. And no animals are harmed in the performance of his circus act. Even domesticated animals like ponies trotting in circles or dogs jumping through hoops of fire — all holograms.

Where have all the animals gone? Aren’t the kiddies disappointed?

“Pah,” Paul replied, when asked that very question by a trade publication earlier this month. (Yes, the circus industry — such as it is — has its own trade publication.)

“Every child knows what an elephant looks like today, but you do not have to show it anymore.”

The David Attenborough effect, again.

 ©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

Circus Roncalli’s philosophy in a nutshell: They decided against having the animals for the benefit of the animals.

Apart from the societal and ethical considerations, there’s a practical reason, too: Circus Roncalli prefers to play in city centres and town-hall squares — places “where there are not many appropriate accommodations for animals, since suitable pastures for the horses (for example) are often found only outside the cities.”

There’s no room at the Ritz for Mr. Ed, in other words.

Paul, 71, has been around the block a few times. It’s been a while since he last played Zeppo the clown in front of a live audience, but he’s filling seats in the big tent just the same. The artist-previously-known-as-Zeppo has put some serious time — and money — into his digital productions: two years and €300,000, to be exact, to design a proprietary computer program that uses holography, 11 high-performance beam projectors and a transparent screen — a net, actually — that rises in front of the audience. Technology, not animals.

Circus Roncalli’s main tent is 16 metres high — just seven metres shy of Salisbury’s now infamous cathedral,

Roncalli’s travelling carnival act, titled Storyteller: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, is moving to the Rathausplatz in Vienna, after its dry run in Innsbruck.

Not every circus mogul is a fan.

“What I’ve done there,” Paul told his interviewer, “almost all the other circuses lynched me.”

“Pah,” was his response. The only response, to his mind.

“You have to have visions. Certain visionary abilities.”

 ©Circus Roncalli

©Circus Roncalli

But, wait, there’s more. Paul didn’t spend all those years in the circus to be the shrinking violet when somebody asked him what he’s about.

“I’m a big radar. I know exactly what people like.”

Animals, for one. But that doesn’t mean they have to be real.

It helps, too, he added — no false modesty here — “that I come from another world.”

Well, not exactly, but not a world everyone is familiar with. Paul hails from the town of Wilhelmsburg (pop. 6,500) in Lower Austria, a town some describe as having been seized by circus fever. 

Paul didn’t start out as a clown, though — his original trade was electrician. He had no idea how his electrical background would one day inspire his dream of a circus in which no actual animals are hurt, injured or mistreated in any way.

Paul took on a civil engineering apprenticeship straight out of school, but soon grew tired of it. Wanting a new challenge, he studied graphic design at an arts school in Vienna. Electrician, graphic arts, the circus — the idea for Circus Roncalli was born.

 ©Bernhard Paul (centre), Circus Roncalli

©Bernhard Paul (centre), Circus Roncalli

Yes, old-school circus traditionalists want to lynch him, but he’s not going anywhere soon. And neither is Circus Roncalli, if a write-up in this month’s TIME is any indication.

“Once upon a time, a little girl saw the circus parade past the end of her street,” one-time circus performer and “elephant girl” Dea Birkett wrote, years ago, in a Long Read essay for the Guardian newspaper.

“Within hours, the park where she played was transformed into a world of wondrous, exotic people and beasts. She saw men walking on stilts and wobbling on a high wire, clowns squelching, white horses teetering on their hind legs, and an elephant strolling around a sawdust ring. She longed to run her hand over the deep ridges of its trunk, to feel the rhythm of its stride, to be transformed into the shimmering lady who smiled down from its back. Then, the next day, the magical world was gone. There was nothing but swings and slides in the park. 

“I was that little girl, and as I grew older fewer and fewer elephants paraded past the end of my road. Soon, there was no magical kingdom springing up overnight in our park. The rhythm of suburban life was no longer interrupted by fantastical eruptions. The circus had left our town forever. . . .

 ©COO/Creative Commons

©COO/Creative Commons

“. . . In less than 20 years, an extraordinary two-century-old art form has been near-obliterated. Animal-rights groups have waged a war against circus(es) . . . Now, the most common image of the circus is not the magic, but the misery. Instead of fabulous feats by human and animal, we imagine elephants chained to pallets, incarcerated big cats and horses trapped in tiny stalls.”

Not anymore. Not if Bernhard Paul, Circus Roncalli and his amazing cavalcade of wondrous, magical — and computer-generated — beasts have anything to do with it.


"Ig Nobel" feelings of not-so-intense jealousy.

Ignoble. ig-no-ble. /ig’ nōbel/. Adjective.

1. not honourable in character or purpose. 

“ignoble feelings of intense jealousy”

synonyms: dishonourable, unworthy, base, shameful, contemptible, despicable, dastardly, vile, degenerate, shabby, sordid, mean.

2. of humble origin or social status.

“ignoble savages”

Ig Nobel. An elegant, grand and most noble prize, a take on the Nobel Prize, but a lot more fun. And with more laughs.

It’s a science award — after a fashion — designed to make you laugh and then afterwards, and only afterwards, think. Laughter is not only the best medicine: Nine out of 10 leading scientists say it also makes you think harder.

Or maybe not.

The science, truth be told, isn’t in on that part yet. Sounds reasonable, though.

©Associated Press

The 28th First Annual Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony (2018)  was held over the weekend at Harvard University, and the winners were in good form. Humble origin, check. Low social status, check — at least, when compared to that annual soirée in Oslo, Norway. Or is it Stockholm?

And if the losers — excuse me, “non-recipients” (it’s an honour just to be nominated!) — harboured any “ignoble feelings of intense jealousy,” they were dignified enough not to show it. The ignoble savages behaved themselves, for the most part, right up to the part where Wilfrid Laurier assistant professor Lindie Hanyu Liang — a teacher of “organizational behaviour and resource management” at Laurier’s Lazaridis School of Business and Economics in WEaterloo, Ont. — won the grand prize for her groundbreaking research on how angry employees can use voodoo dolls to get even with abusive bosses.

“We were really excited to hear we had won,” Liang said, with characteristic humility and understatement — so much so that onlookers were willing to overlook her use of the royal ‘we.’ Unless, by that, she meant her team of underlings and staffers. Assistants to the assistant professor, if you will.

And to be recognized in such a competitive field of finalists, too!

“Our work manipulating the psychological state of retaliation is really novel and can pave the way for future researchers,” Liang added.

There you have it, then. The next time you confront your abusive boss, feel free to poke away with a sharp needle, and then cite research as your excuse. Hey, it works for the Japanese whaling fleet.

“We’re trying to understand why people retaliate against abusive bosses,” Liang continued. “We found that, with voodoo dolls, people feel they’ve restored their sense of justice.”


According to their study, Righting a Wrong: Retaliation on a Voodoo Doll Symbolizing an Abusive Supervisor Restores Justice (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S104898431730276X), published in the February issue of Leadership Quarterly, Liang and fellow researchers asked participants to recall an abusive workplace interaction. Some participants were asked to harm an online voodoo doll using the materials provided (pins, pliers, etc.), while others weren’t given that option. “Those who hurt the voodoo doll felt a greater sense of justice than those who did not,” the release found.

Even so,, Liang is hesitant to recommend that people use voodoo dolls. 

“Employees retaliate because there’s mistreatment going on in the workplace,” she said in a statement. “Instead of punishing people who retaliate against their bosses, the focus should be on the leader’s behaviour.”

Oh, like, that’ll work.

But enough about bad bosses and voodoo dolls.

©Daily Express

Other leaps of the imagination jumped to the fore at this year’s ceremony, all in the name of weird science.

The Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was organized by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research (AIR) as a way to recognize real, actual science, just not the kind you’d expect to learn about in Oslo or Stockholm. The presentation itself may be silly at times, but the science of the prizewinning research is legit.

Adding to the occasion, the prizes are awarded in person by a group of “genuine, genuinely bemused Nobel laureates” — this, according to the Ig Nobel’s official website (https://www.improbable.com/ig/2018/)

BBC News thought enough of the event that it assigned its senior science correspondent, Pallab Ghosh, to the ceremony.

The Ig Nobel Prize for Medicine went to researchers from Michigan State University’s College of Osteopathic Medicine, who found that riding a really, really dangerous roller-coaster is an effective — if ill-advised— way to pass kidney stones. (Don’t laugh: This actually happened when Michigan State professor Dr. David Wartinger, a urologist, assessed a patient who returned from a vacation to Walt Disney World in Florida, complaining that a spin on the theme park’s Big Thunder Mountain ride gave him a lot more than he bargained for.

Prof. Wartinger was intrigued. He pursued the research further, going so far as to build a silicone model of his patient’s renal system, complete with artfiical kidney stones and scale-sized models of theme park rides.

Prof. Wartinger discovered through his research that Big Thunder Mountain is more effective than similar yet scarier rides (because of their prolonged drops) such as Space Mountain and Rock ’n’ Roller Coaster. Prof. Wartinger found that Big Mountain boasts more side-to-side and up-and-down movements that “rattle” the rider, rather than long, steep drops that simply scare the living bejesus out of one.

But wait, there’s more.

©Ars Technica

Other awards went to British researcher James Cole, who won the Ig Nobel Prize in Nutrition for a study that found that good old-fashioned cannibalism is not as nutritious as you might think, copmpared weith other kinds of meat — one imagines the researcher intoning, much like a self-important network-TV news anchor, “We looked into it, and what we found might surprise you.”

(Don’t be alarmed: This wasn’t part of some industry study to come up with a cost-effective alternative source of protein, but rather a look at the dietary habits of early humankind, which branches of early humans survived or died, and why._

Prize winners will have their research published in the Annals of Improbable Research, which is a little like the journal Nature, only not really.

The evening went quickly by all acounts — more quickly than those tedious Hollywood ceremonies like the Oscars and the Emmys.

That’s in part because the award winners were told they had 60 seconds, and no longer, to deliver an acceptance speech.

The time limit was strictly enforced by an eight-year-old girl who was instructed to say, “Please stop — I’m bored,” over and over again, until the speaker stopped.

Perhaps Hollywood could take the cue.

After all, you know what they say: Imitation is the sincerest form of television.


There are no good years or bad years anymore at Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards.

There are no longer good years or bad years at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards. The prestigious contest — half a century in the making — sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, has never seemed more important.

This past weekend, some 14 commended images in this year’s edition — the 54th overall — were announced to the public. 

One of those images, South African nature photographer Isak Pretorius’ stirring image of a lion drinking from a reed-covered riverbank, has already been selected as the cover shot for Wildlife Photographer of the Year Portfolio 28. The overall competition winners will be announced on Oct. 16, and a full exhibition of winners and finalists will go on display at the Natural History Museum three days later, on Oct. 19.




Submissions for next year’s 2019 WPOTY Awards open Oct. 22 and close on Dec. 13. The window is short, in other words — just eight weeks.

The past year has seen its fair share of controversy, from photojournalist Brent Stirton’s competition-winning 2017 image of a slaughtered rhino, its horn hacked off with a chainsaw by poachers — many viewers found the image to be disturbing and inappropriate for a competition supposedly designed to celebrate nature in all its beauty — to the disqualification of Brazilian photographer Marcio Cabral’s award-winning night image of an anteater moving towards termite mound that was later found to be staged. (The anteater turned out to be stuffed, arguably making it the most famous stuffed animal in the history of taxidermy.)

It will be instructive to see what image wins this year’s competition, because by focusing on a hard-hitting “message” picture last year, award judges were signalling that the most urgent issue facing wildlife today is environmental ruin, everything from habitat destruction to poaching and looming species extinction. It’s no longer enough, in other words, to celebrate natural beauty just for nature and beauty’s sake.

With no further ado, then, here’s a look at a few of this year’s commended images.

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Small steps: how even the simple act of awareness can point the way to a better future.

The educated, the enlightened, the self-aware and the well informed — those who care about the planet, in other words — are often sad, to paraphrase Nancy Mitford, because they care so much about their causes, and their causes “are always going so badly.”

That sadness has seemed relentless lately, director of the NGO Women for Refugee Women Natasha Walter wrote this past weekend in The Guardian newspaper.

There’s no need to parse the reasons why, she added. It’s enough to simply remind ourselves — not that anyone needs reminding —  that the headlines are relentlessly grim, “and the unreported detail often worse.”

Well-intended campaigns tend to start with energy but are soon bogged down by the sheer scale of the problem at hand, before splintering into separate factions with their attendant taunts and mud-slinging. Keeping hope alive is as daunting a challenge as any existential crisis facing humanity today.

We can’t give up, though. 

“I spend my life working alongside refugee women,” Walter writes. “And being with marginalized women teaches me that stepping (away) would be a terrifically privileged step to take.”

 ©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

None of us can walk away, in other words. We don’t have the right. “Stepping away from activism completely doesn’t feel OK, not when so many people are teetering on the brink of disaster. I don’t want to lose touch with the possibility of a better future, even if the change each of us can make is very limited right now.”

She suggests three small things anyone can do, “three things I’ve learned that help me to stay in touch with hope.”

1. Get out of the online swamp. “Instead of being active online, be active in everyday life,” Walter writes. “Sitting with people rather than their online avatars helps you to see what you can do together, despite your differences. You learn to shift your point of view rather than entrench it.” 

2. Think locally. That can be something as simple as forming a coffee group where people can share ideas, support each other and provide a different narrative from the political talking points of the day. “While we mustn’t mistake sticking-plaster solutions for real change,” Walter writes, “it’s heartening to see how people are getting together to show that another world is possible.”

3. Recognize small steps. Even a small victory, whether borne from a simple, individual act of kindness or a tiny cog in the wheel of a much larger campaign, is something from which to take heart.

 ©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

When Oregon-based conservation biologist Laurie Marker founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Namibia in 1990, she vowed that saving one cheetah at a time is every bit as important as spreading the wider message of cheetah conservation to the world at large. Just 7,000 cheetahs remain in the wild, judging from the most recent estimates. According to a joint study by the Zoological Society of London, Panthera and the Wildlife Conservation Society in 2016, the species could decline by an additional 50 per cent in the next 15 years. Given those numbers, one cheetah at a time might not sound like much, but every individual counts, especially when extinction is facing them squarely in the face.

 ©AfriCat Foundation/Namibia

©AfriCat Foundation/Namibia

Progress is progress, in other words, no matter how small. We must never lose sight of that. We need to celebrate the wins, however small they may seem. Positive stories in and of themselves won’t counterbalance the sheer onslaught of despairing  headlines, but they’re worth knowing about.

“We must accept finite disappointment, but never lose infinite hope.” 

Martin Luther King said that. And it’s as true now as it was then.


 ©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Strange but true: giant panda Yang Yang a rising star in Vienna’s vibrant art scene.

The real Yang Yang must be angry. Really angry. The Chinese-born American contemporary artist whose paintings sell for as much as USD $35,000 has had his thunder stolen in recent days by another Yang Yang, a female giant panda at a zoo in Austria who has taken up the paint brush as a pastime. 

And yes, while it’s true that the four-legged Yang Yang’s abstract paintings can best be described as “basic” — black splotches on white paper, reminiscent of the early scrawling of a young child — her artworks are being sold online for the not-inconsiderable sum of €490 apiece ($560 USD, give or take).

 ©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

Art critics are likening Schoenbrunn Zoo’s artist-in-residence as a minimalist in the vein of American abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock, proving once again that abstract painting, if done well enough, can cross virtualluy any cultural — or species — boundary.

And while Yang Yang’s work is not a group effort exactly, it is collaborative to some extent: a zookeeper serves as her easel.

 ©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

Yang Yang, 18, is a multitasker, too.

In her day job, Yang Yang has painted roughly 100 still-lifes, most of which will be posted online for sale.

She’s also a mother, having given birth to five baby pandas in all, including a set of twins two years ago.

Funds raised from the online sale of her paintings will go towards producing a picture book. Photographer Daniel Zupanc (http://www.zupanc.at) is behind the proposed picture book, which is tentatively scheduled to be published in December, just in time for Christmas.

 ©Daniel Zupanc

©Daniel Zupanc

While it’s true that sentient beings like pandas ought to be running wild and not locked in a pen — least of all in central Europe, let alone their native home in China — Yang Yang’s efforts are designed in part to raise awareness of the plight of wild pandas. Just 2,000 remain, according to conservative estimates.

Despite being a relative newcomer to the world of fine art, Yang Yang has already made a name for herself as the latest member of Vienna’s vibrant arts community.

You can’t buy publicity like this: News stories about Yang Yang’s exploits have appeared everywhere from The Economic Times in India to The Standard newspaper in Nairobi, Kenya, from BBC World in the UK to ABC News in the U.S.

 ©Scheonbrunn Zoo

©Scheonbrunn Zoo

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the original Yang Yang is making waves of his own with his “figurative paintings and sculptures of unconventional forms.” No less an expert than Lui Qi Wei, curator of the Museum of Fine Art in Shaanxi, China has described the two-legged Yang Yang’s work as combining the quality of “the Oriental mystics” with “tragic magnificence” — “tragical magnificence” being as good a description of giant panda bears as anything.

 ©Yang Yang/Museum of Fine Art

©Yang Yang/Museum of Fine Art

And while art snobs might take offence by comparisons of Paul Jackson Pollock (b.1912, d.1956) with a four-legged critter fond of bamboo stalks, who’s to say Yang Yang does not also qualify as “a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement . . .  well known for (their) unique style of drip painting.”

According to that vast fount of human knowledge and reliable sourcing, Wikipedia, Pollock was introduced to the use of liquid paint in 1936 at an experimental workshop in New York City by the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. Yang Yang, on the other hand, was introduced to pen-and-ink by a zookeeper in Vienna, Austria. Is that so very different?

 ©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo


Pollock’s influences included Thomas Hart Benton, Pablo Picasso and Joan Miró. Yang Yang’s influences may be less rarified, but that doesn’t make them any less valid. After all, if Yang Yang could communicate in English, she might also say, as Pollock did in My Painting in 1956, “My painting does not come from the easel. I prefer to tack the unstretched canvas to the hard wall on the floor. I need the resistance of a hard surface. On the floor I am more at ease. I feel nearer, more part of the painting, since this way I can walk around it, work from the four sides, and literally be in the painting.”

Alrighty then, as pet detective Ace Ventura used to say.

2018 Bird Photographer of the Year winners: More than just pretty pictures of our feathered friends.

Not all flamingos were created pink. Nature photographer Pedro Jarque Krebs, from Peru, won the 2018 Bird Photographer of the Year award — the ornithological equivalent of Best-in-Show — this past weekend for his colourful image of American flamingos preening in a lake mist. Yes, there were splashes of pink, but the predominant colour was a rich, vibrant red. Pink flamingos may still be a thing, but in Krebs’ image,  flamingos were allowed to show off their richer, more vibrant shades of vermillion.

Admittedly, Krebs’ work has relied heavily on digital manipulation and Photoshop in the past, but it’s the final image that counts. At least, in this case, the contest judges thought so.

Also, Krebs has had a reputation in the past for using captive animals in his portraits, often under less-than-ideal conditions. (Not all nature-photography award contests are so forgiving; judging committees at many of the top, prestigious awards value authenticity — wild is wild — over the final image, any day of the week.)

All this aside, Krebs’ winning image is certainly arresting.

 ©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru


The Czech Republic’s Petr Bambousek was cited for Outstanding Portfolio, based in large part on his capture of a roseate spoonbill — genuinely wild —  preening its feathers in a pool of standing water.

Young Bird Photographer of the Year — an award of increasing significance, given the precarious state of the environment in these present, turbulent times — was awarded to Johan Carlberg of Sweden, for his stylistically fetching composition of a great crested grebe — also preening! — during golden hour.

 ©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

Best Portrait awards went to nature photographers from Italy (Saverio Gatti, with the gold medal), the Netherlands (Roelof Molenaar, silver) and Sweden again (Ivan Sjogren, bronze).

Other category winners hailed from France, Greece, Spain, Kuwait and Singapore — proving, if nothing else, that bird photography is a global pastime, and not just the private hobby of a handful of well-to-do bird enthusiasts and world travellers from North America and the UK.

The Bird Photographer of the Year awards are managed by the UK-based peer group Nature Photographers Ltd. and the British Trust for Ornithology, a spiritual cousin of the US’s National Audubon Society.

More and more, as Canadian polar explorer, trained biologist and 2012 Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner Paul Nicklen told The Sunday Observer this past weekend, nature photography — or conservation photography, as some prefer to call it — is on the front line in the social-media battle for hearts and minds.

It will be hard if not impossible for humanity to survive, let alone thrive, on a desolate, despoiled planet — that seems obvious — but the present-day toxic mix of greed, denial, militant ignorance and an almost wilful disregard of basic facts means the argument has to be made over and over again.

 ©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

David Attenborough can’t get the message out on his own — not at his age, and not with so many deep-pocketed, big-money interests arrayed against him. Big Oil, the Koch brothers, Fox News and others still perpetuate the belief that climate change is a Chinese hoax, intended to bring western economies to their knees, even as he evidence suggests otherwise and entire ecosystems collapse around us.

That’s why my favourite category in every nature/conservation photography contest award I can think of is that which celebrates wild animals in their natural  environment.

And so it is with this year’s Bird Photographer of the Year awards.

Salvador Colvée, from Spain, won the Birds in the Environment category for his striking image of an ostrich wandering the crest of a sand dune in Namibia’s Namib Desert — the world’s oldest, in geological terms — not far from the aptly named Skeleton Coast. The cold-water Benguela Current from Antarctica follows the Atlantic coast from from South Africa to Angola, creating early-morning sea mists that stretch as far as 500 kms. inland across an arid, deceptively barren desert landscape, nurturing mosses and lichens that in turn feed a surprisingly complex ecosystem that includes, yes, ostriches, as well as large mammals like oryx, desert-adapted elephants and even the increasingly rare, hard-to-spot desert lion.

 ©Salvador Colvée/Spain

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

This is what the award-winning images in the  Bird Photographer of the Year contest are all about: showing nature in all its beauty, but also showing its hardiness and resilience in the face of existential threats. After all, threats don’t get much more existential than climate change and species extinction.

Another wildlife-in-its-natural-habitat image: Nature photographer Richard Shucksmith, from the UK, won a pair of awards, including the popular People’s Choice award, for his over- and underwater image of a northern gannet, the same kind of image that propelled Nicklen’s early career as a photographer, while at the same boosting his profile and spreading the wider message about the need to preserve what remains of  the world’s embattled polar regions.

 ©Richard Shucksmith/UK

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

Nicklen’s above- and below-water split-screen images from Antarctica remain the gold standard against which all similar images are judged today.

Despite some 22 assignments for National Geographic and a new book (Born to Ice, published by the high-end, German-based specialty publisher teNeues, https://books-teneues.com), Nicklen would prefer to be known for his on-the-ground conservation efforts and his co-founding of the ocean conservation group SeaLegacy with his partner, conservation photographer, environmentalist and frequent National Geographic speaker Cristina Mittermeier, than as an accomplished photographer. One is a calling; the other, a life’s mission. SeaLegacy is dedicated to the idea that future generations won’t have to know the world’s wild wonders solely through photographic images from a distant, fading past.

That’s why these contests — and the positive image they present — are critical to our understanding of Planet Earth and what’s at stake.

These aren’t just pretty pictures of birds. They’re a reflection of life itself.





‘The Lion’s Share’ and advertising: “A simple, brilliant idea.”

A number of years ago, a far-reaching, all-powerful telecommunications company, one of the big players in an ever-dwindling market of consumer options,  launched a highly effective ad campaign featuring computer-generated images of anthropomorphized animals being playful, friendly and full of energy.

You know the game. If it looks soft and cuddly, had big eyes, and was familiar to children and adults alike — lion cubs, panda bears, giraffes, baby hippos, you name it — it’s good enough for the phone company.

Cheetahs, the fastest of fast cats, are especially prized for a tech company looking for ways to brag about its high-speed Internet connections, regardless of whether that service is any faster than its competitors or not.

There were a handful of complaints at the time, from a handful of environmental groups and animal-rights campaigners, that ad agencies and tech companies were making money off the images of endangered animals, without paying any of the profits back into the conservation community. (It’s a sign of the modern times we live, and how much more savvy and technically sophisticated audiences are today, that accusations of animal cruelty are virtually non-existent: Today’s audiences assume that if you see a cute animal on the TV doing something cute, it’s a digital manipulation, not actually real.)



Naturally, the argument that ad agencies should give something — anything — for the conservation of animals they depict in their ads fell on deaf ears.

Fell on deaf ears, that is, until earlier this year, BBC legend David Attenborough, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Australian advertising production company Finch, Finch founder Rob Galluzzo and composer-filmmaker Christopher Nelius.

Signatories to the fund already include the advertising company BBDO, marketing research and TV-ratings measurement firm Nielsen and Mars Inc., makers of the Mars chocolate bar and Wrigley’s chewing gum, among other products.

UNDP goodwill ambassador and Game of Thrones actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau announced the new initiative at June’s Cannes International Festival of Creativity called The Lion’s Share, based on the idea that advertisers pay into a fund when they use animals in advertisements. They would contribute a token percentage of their media budget, “spend” in ad-agency parlance,  to conservation and animal welfare projects.

 ©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

The suggested amount is picayune — 0.5% of the budget of any ad featuring an animal. The amount may sound picayune, but as anyone who’s managed a family budget knows, pennies add up.

“The Lion’s Share shows that by making a small difference today, we have an opportunity to make an unprecedented difference tomorrow,” Attenborough told the UNDP get-together in Cannes this past June. “Animals are in 20% of all advertisements we see, yet they do not always get the support they deserve.

“Until now.”

The Lion’s Share aims to raise $100m a year within three years. The money will be invested in a range of conservation and animal welfare programs implemented and supervised under the auspices of the UN and a handful of selected NGOs.

Cynics will immediately cite the c-word — corruption — as misuse of funds from charitable donations is practically a spectator sport these days, but UNDP officials and assorted NGOs will be actively involved in seeing that the funds go where they’re supposed to. 

Finch founder Galluzzo, who originated the idea with Nelius, noted that nine out of the 10 most popular animals we see in commercial ads are endangered or threatened. Just as one example, there are 400,000 wild elephants left in the world — but just 7,000 cheetahs. If that.



The Lion’s Share — and, for the record, lions aren’t exactly thriving either — is big-time stuff, in no small part because of the active involvement of the UN. The Lion’s Share is designed to work hand-in-hand with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals programme, the global organization’s universal call to end poverty and re-nourish the planet. Helping to preserve animal habitat — thereby helping the animals themselves — is key to achieving the UN’s stated Goal No. 14, Life Underwater, and Goal No. 15, Life on Land.

The announcement in Cannes featured some star power, but not the kind onlookers may have expected. Coster-Waldau, familiar to fans of Game of Thrones as Jaime Lannister, was there to introduce not himself but Collette Ngobeni, a commando in South Africa’s first all-female anti-poaching unit, the Black Mambas.

Ngobeni told festivalgoers and UNDP delegates that the Lion’s Share is a worthy, worthwhile initiative  because it’s designed to help grassroots programmes like the Mambas anti-poaching unit, and not the big NGO’s with their multiple layers of bureaucracy.

“We’re working hard every day to prevent poaching,” she said simply.

 ©Alliance Earth

©Alliance Earth

Later in the day, Coster-Waldau did a series of interviews with the US TV networks on the Cannes waterfront.

They wanted to talk about Game of Thrones; he wanted to talk about wildlife conservation and The Lion’s Share.

“It’s our responsibility to safeguard all life on our planet,” he explained. “We can’t achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, as launched by the UN and world leaders to protect the future and ensure prosperity for all people, without preserving natural habitats for all living beings, from wildlife to marine life.”



Facing a US TV news crew from CNBC, his message was more succinct.

“It’s a simple, brilliant idea,” he said.

Simple. Brilliant. Reason for hope.





World Elephant Day: a day of remembrance for the animal that never forgets.

“The concept of conservation is a far truer sign of civilization than that spoilation of a continent which we once confused with progress,” the late naturalist Peter Matthiessen once wrote. “We have outsmarted ourselves, like greedy monkeys, and now we are full of dread.”

Matthiessen, as might be expected, was an admirer of elephants.

That’s worth remembering on this World Elephant Day — today, more than most days.

“Of all African animals, the elephant is the most difficult for man to live with, yet its passing — if this must come — seems the most tragic of all,” Matthiessen wrote in his 1972 classic of Africa, The Tree Where Man Was Born.

“I can watch elephants, and elephants alone, for hours at a time, for sooner or later the elephant will do something very strange such as mow grass with its toenails or draw the tusks from the rotted carcass of another elephant and carry them off into the bush. There is mystery behind that masked grey visage, and ancient life force, delicate and mighty, awesome and enchanted, commanding the silence ordinarily reserved for mountain peaks, great fires, and the sea.”

It is one of my favourite quotes, of which there are many, and others of which Matthiessen can claim pride of place.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“This world is painted on a wild dark metal,” he wrote in Shadow Country.

And this, from The Snow Leopard, but which can just as easily apply to elephants and their facility for memory:

“Only the enlightened can recall their former lives; for the rest of us, the memories of past existences are but glints of light, twinges of longing, passing shadows, disturbingly familiar, that are gone before they can be grasped:

“Figures dark beneath their loads pass down the far bank of the river, rendered immortal by the streak of sunset upon their shoulders.”

“The equatorial monsoons which brought a rainy season to the coasts had small effect here in the highlands, from moon to moon, the rainfall varied little,” Matthiessen wrote in Under the Mountain Wall. “Winter, summer, autumn, spring were involuted, turning in upon themselves, a slow circling of time.”

Only time will tell how many more years elephants will live in the wild to see World Elephant Day.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Elephant numbers are estimated to have dropped by 62% during the past decade. Roughly 400,000 remain — a very rough figure — and 100 a day killed each day, today and every day, by illegal hunters to feed the insatiable ivory trade. 

“Days and months are the travellers of eternity,” Matthiessen once said. “So. . . .”


Images courtesy of Pixabay/COO Creative Commons.

Reasons to revisit Jane Goodall’s ‘Reason for Hope’ on International Book Lovers Day.

The Jane Goodall Institute shared a tweet early this morning, on Book Lovers Day, asking followers to name their favourite Goodall book.

The colouring book Me . . . Jane, an early primer for her students’ Roots and Shoots program, was always going to prove popular with children. 

In the troubled times in which we find ourselves, though, it was always likely to be her 1999 memoir Reason for Hope: A Spiritual Journey that was going to jump to the fore. Not so much a straight biography as an account of a spiritual epiphany, Reason for Hope is both an appeal to our better natures and shared words of advice about how anyone and everyone can find a reason to hope.

Screen Shot 2018-08-09 at 8.31.16 AM.png

The ground-breaking — if controversial — primatologist whose pioneering work with the chimpanzees of Gombe Stream, Tanzania in the early 1960s changed the way we look at our closest biological relatives has always been one to swim against the tide of mainstream thinking. Where many choose to see only darkness and destruction, Goodall has always preferred to find that glimmer of light at the end of a long, seemingly dark tunnel, however faint that light may be.

In Reason for Hope — a good book to revisit on International Book Lovers Day — and through her Institute (janegoodall.org), and throughout her periodic lecture tours around the world, she hits the same grace  notes, over and over again.

Perhaps, one day, we’ll figure them out on our own.

Goodall’s words:

The Human Brain.

“We have at last begun to understand and face up to the problems that threaten us and the survival of life on Earth as we know it. Surely we can use our problem-solving abilities, our brains, to find ways to live in harmony with nature. Many companies have begun ‘greening’ their operations, and millions of people worldwide are beginning to realize that each of us has a responsibility to the environment and our descendants. Everywhere I go, I see people making wiser choices, and more responsible ones." 



The Indomitable Human Spirit.

"My second reason for hope lies in the indomitable nature of the human spirit. There are so many people who have dreamed seemingly unattainable dreams and, because they never gave up, achieved their goals against all the odds, or blazed a path along which others could follow. The [2016] presidential election in the U.S. (was) one example. As I travel around the world I meet so many incredible and amazing human beings. They inspire me. They inspire those around them." 


The Resilience of Nature.

"My third reason for hope is the incredible resilience of nature. I have visited Nagasaki, site of the second atomic bomb that ended World War II. Scientists had predicted that nothing could grow there for at least 30 years. But, amazingly, greenery grew very quickly. One sapling actually managed to survive the bombing, and today it is a large tree, with great cracks and fissures, all black inside; but that tree still produces leaves. I carry one of those leaves with me as a powerful symbol of hope. I have seen such renewals time and again, including animal species brought back from the brink of extinction." 


The Determination of Today’s Young People.

"My final reason for hope lies in the tremendous energy, enthusiasm and commitment of young people around the world. As they find out about the environmental and social problems that are now part of their heritage, they want to right the wrongs. Of course they do -- they have a vested interest in this, for it will be their world tomorrow. They will be moving into leadership positions, into the workforce, becoming parents themselves. Young people, when informed and empowered, when they realize that what they do truly makes a difference, can indeed change the world. We should never underestimate the power of determined young people.

"I meet many young people with shining eyes who want to tell Dr. Jane what they've been doing, how they are making a difference in their communities. Whether it's something simple like recycling or collecting trash, something that requires a lot of effort, like restoring a wetland or a prairie, or whether it's raising money for the local dog shelter, they are a continual source of inspiration. 

“My greatest reason for hope is the spirit and determination of young people, once they know what the problems are and have the tools to take action. 

"So let’s move forward in this new millennium with hope, for without it all we can do is eat and drink the last of our resources as we watch our planet slowly die. Let’s have faith in ourselves, in our intellect, in our staunch spirit and in our young people. And let’s do the work that needs to be done, with love and compassion." 

 ©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

Goodall’s published works span six decades, from My Friends the Wild Chimpanzees (1969) through In the Shadow of Man (1971) to, more recently, Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued from the Brink (2009) and Seeds of Hope: Wisdom and Wonder from the World of Plants (2013).

Her books have been published in 48 languages,.

It’s Reason for Hope, though, which is most pertinent today, on Book Lovers Day, in the second year of Our Lord, Trumplandia.

“Each one of us matters,” Goodall wrote in Reason for Hope. “(Each one of us) has a role to play, and makes a difference. Each one of us must take responsibility for our own lives, and above all, show respect and love for living things around us. . . . 

“It is these undeniable qualities of human love and compassion and self-sacrifice that give me hope for the future. We are, indeed, often cruel and evil. Nobody can deny this. We gang up on each one another, we torture each other, with words as well as deeds, we fight, we kill. But we are also capable of the most noble, generous, and heroic behaviour.

“We have a responsibility toward the other life-forms of our planet whose continued existence is threatened by the thoughtless behaviour of our own human species. . . . Environmental responsibility – for if there is no God, then, obviously, it is up to us to put things right.” 

And now for something completely different — a feel-good story for the birds.

They’re all connected. Spiritually, if not exactly literally. A 1996 family film based on the real-life experiences of a Pickering, Ont. naturalist who taught Canada geese to follow his ultralight aircraft through the sky; a 2012 publicity stunt by Vladimir Putin to guide a flock of young Siberian cranes with his microlight aircraft on their migration route; and a bid late last year to repatriate critically endangered, captive-raised northern bald ibises back to the wild by guiding them on a three-week migration across the Alps to their wintering grounds in Tuscany using — you guessed it — an ultralight aircraft, prove one thing: Not all good ideas are created equal, and not all environmental news is bad.

Fly Away Home, directed by Never Cry Wolf and The Black Stallion’s Carroll Ballard — a card-carrying member of Francis Ford Coppola’s late 1970s’ film-making company American Zoetrope — was warmly received by critics and moviegoing audiences alike when it was released in theatres, and not just because actor-playwright Jeff Daniels and young Anna Paquin made an enchanting onscreen father-daughter couple. Reviewers at the time described Fly Away Home as an evocative, uplifting — no pun intended — film that, as one animal-rights noted, “celebration of the creative ways human beings and animals can help, assist, and love one another.” The New York Times’ Janet Maslin wrote that “Mr. Ballard (turned) a potentially treacly children’s film into an exhilarating 1990s’ fable.”

 ©Columbia Pictures/Sony

©Columbia Pictures/Sony


Bill Lishman, the real-life, dyslexic, colour-blind  sculptor and naturalist whose experiences provided fodder for his autobiography Father Goose — later adapted by Hollywood as the fictionalized feature film Fly Away Home — died this past December, just two weeks after he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

He is said to have been the first person to have guided geese on their migration routes using an ultralight aircraft, which he first did in 1988, just three years after he told his wife and daughters that he was going to teach birds to fly with him.

Lishman’s small-scale, homespun efforts were studied and copied by other grassroots, family-run conservancies around the world, and an environmental program showed early success with the endangered Siberian crane. In 2012, looking to raise his public profile and boost his reputation as a rugged, eco-sensitive outdoorsman, Russian president Putin famously donned an all-over white suit and pair of goggles and temporarily became surrogate parent to a flock of juvenile cranes.

 ©Bill Lishman

©Bill Lishman

This isn’t “junk science,” by the way: The phenomenon, officially known as imprinting, describes the way certain species of birds attach themselves to the first living being they see after birth.

For the record, Putin did have a copilot on his famous flight in a motorized hang glider; presumably the copilot was the brains of the operation, at least where the actual flying was concerned.

Putin took the stunt seriously; when a Russian conservationist with the crane program complained to western media that it was a glorified photo op that did little to further the cranes’ cause, Putin is said to have phoned her out-of-the-blue to complain about her attitude. (Interestingly, Guardian science writer Flora Malein wrote in a Sept. 2012 opinion piece that the self-styled man-of-action can be considered to have done a good deed by bringing worldwide attention to a critically endangered species. Siberian cranes at the time were in rapid decline, their numbers estimated at no more than 2,900-3,000.)

Migration isn’t a natural instinct, according to  behavioural scientists: It’s taught behaviour. Parents teach them to migrate. Because young birds imprint on the first living being they see, they’ll accept a basic disguise, even a disguise as weird as a white flight-suit and a microlight with rigid wings and a sputtering engine.

Imprinting is not common to all birds, of course. It has been observed in a surprising number of geese, cranes, ducks, and now ibises.

The northern bald ibis had been extinct in the wild in central Europe for more than 300 years, surviving only in a handful of zoos.

Thanks to the efforts of a multi-year project in Austria and Germany, a project that involves both imprinting and the judicious use of ultralights, some 100 ibises now live wild in southern Germany and Austria.

This past year’s migration flight involved (human) foster parents and some 30 (bird) subjects hand-raised at a Vienna zoo from the time they were just a few days old. The migration flight was the fifth successful flight of its kind. Granted, program founder Johannes Fritz says, the northern bald ibis is not a particularly sexy or beautiful bird — a Siberian crane it ain’t — but as program founder Johannes Fritz recently told the Guardian newspaper, they have certain charisma all their own.



Hollywood movies aren’t just about entertainment, it runs out. Fritz told the Guardian he drew inspiration for his wacky program from Fly Away Home, which he saw while studying for his PhD at a behavioural science research institute — a research institute that had just started working with captive-born bald ibis chicks at a nearby zoo.

What goes around, comes around.



Aug. 1, 2018: This year’s ‘Earth Overshoot Day’ earliest date on record.

As of Wednesday, we good people of Planet Earth will have burned through our annual budget of natural resources earlier than in any of the 48 years the environmental research group Global Footprint Network has kept records.

“Earth Overshoot Day” is the day on which human beings’ yearly demand on natural resources exceeds that which the planet environment can renew on its own.

To put that date — Aug. 1 — in perspective, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Dec. 29th in 1970, the first year researchers began keeping track.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Earth’s growing — and increasingly unsustainable — population is part of the problem. But not the only problem. Growing birthrates in the developing world, where the population of people under 30 exceeds 65% in many sub-Saharan countries across Africa, for example, are not the key factor some might think.

The real culprit is consumption, in particular consumption in the developed world. Especially the Northern Hemisphere. Researchers determined that if the entire world’s population consumed resources at the rate as people who live in the U.K. do, Earth Overshoot Day would actually fall on May 8, three months earlier.

Consumption is only part of the story. The Earth’s ability to renew natural resources is affected not just by how quickly we use the resources we have, but by the Earth’s ability to replace those resources.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

The global equation also has to take into consideration such factors as soil erosion, water shortages and that oft-mentioned bugaboo climate change, which some prominent thinkers — if “think” is the right word here— and national leaders continue to insist is a Chinese hoax.

(Ironically, China has been one of the leaders of late in battling climate change and renewing the environment, in part because China’s environmental record of the 1990s’ period of economic growth has proven to be catastrophic, as well as unsustainable, from the air people breath to the soil they use to grow food, to the rivers and waterways that irrigate those agricultural fields.)

China today is doing its level best to prove that no problem is insurmountable, not even  environmental destruction.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Of course, having an obstreperous, obstructionist, militantly ignorant political administration in charge of the U.S., by far the world’s most voracious consumer of natural resources, isn’t going to help the big picture, but it’s interesting that China is among the players looking to lead rather than follow on climate change. It can’t all be left to Denmark, Sweden and the E.U.

Our carbon footprint is inextricably tied to energy efficiency. Clean energy is not the solution, the experts say, but it’s a start. (Tearing up the Paris Agreement and doubling down on fossil fuel is just nuts, of course, but there you have it: We live in the world, and Trump’s world is thus.)

One of the problems in getting climate deniers to see the big picture is our political leaders’ seeming inability to think in terms of the long-range future. Perhaps it’s something hard-wired into our DNA since the time of the caver, or perhaps it’s a manifestation of the post-industrial age of computers and artificial intelligence, but as human beings we seem to have a fundamental inability to recognize incremental changes. Last year, Earth Overshoot Day fell on Aug. 2nd; this year it is just one day earlier. What difference, a doubter might well ask, does a single day make in the grand scheme of things?

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

It’s the same argument — used by many, including people who should know better — that asks how a worldwide temperature change of just one or two degrees Celsius could possibly make a difference to the world’s climate — but that’s not how science, or compound interest for that matter, works.

Hundreds of people may have died in wildfires this summer all the way from Greece to Northern California, and countless more may have perished in catastrophic floods in Japan and Laos, or died of heat exhaustion in southern Quebec, but as long as we still have food in the refrigerator, how can there possibly be a looming food crisis?

The Global Footprint Network equates the situation to planning the family budget. We’re leveraging the Earth’s future resources — putting it on the credit card, in other words — to live well in the present, all the while digging a deeper hole of ecological debt.

 ©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Planet Earth isn’t the World Bank, though. Resources are finite. Tapping into an imaginary overdraft, based on human ingenuity and creative ideas — “scientists will get us out of it somehow; they always do” — is a hell of a gamble to take when the very future of humanity is at stake.

We’re gobbling up our natural resources at a faster rate than the Earth can replenish them, and that is a problem not even one of David Attenborough’s soul-stirring nature programs will be able to fix.

There are things we can do on a micro, small-picture level. Eat less beef. Reduce what we throw away. Find alternatives for plastic. Go all in on recycling, no matter what the complainers and detractors say. Use less energy. Cycle, don’t drive. Consume less, think more.

Don’t just think local — think global as well.