Something old is new again in the state of Denmark.

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

©Fred van Wijk/Alamy Stock Photo

©Fred van Wijk/Alamy Stock Photo

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

©YellowstonePark.com

©YellowstonePark.com

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

©YellowstonePark.com

©YellowstonePark.com

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

©PhysOrg/Wikimedia

©PhysOrg/Wikimedia

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


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


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

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

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

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

@Save the Rhino

@Save the Rhino

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

©Save the Rhino

©Save the Rhino

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

©Panthera.org

©Panthera.org

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

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

©World Wildlife Fund/Jacques Flamand

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


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

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


Once more, onto the beach.

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

©Reuters/handout

©Reuters/handout

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

BEACH map.png

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

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


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

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


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

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

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

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

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

©Phil Ryan/Triple D Game Farm

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

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

©Scott Joshua Dere/Nature's Best Photography

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best

©Daisy Gilardini/Nature's Best


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

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

©Daisy Gilardini/WPOTY People’s Choice Award

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

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Bence Mate/WPOTY People's Choice Award

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

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

©Alain Mafart Renodier/WPOTY People's Choice Award

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


 

 

 

 

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

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

©Al Jazeera

©Al Jazeera

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

2. Gallmann:white mischief.png

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

©Xinhua/SIPA USA

©Xinhua/SIPA USA

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

©Martin Bauert/Lewa Conservancy

©Martin Bauert/Lewa Conservancy

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

©AP/Ben Curtis

©AP/Ben Curtis

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

©The Guardian

©The Guardian

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

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


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


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

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

©Sindre Skrede

©Sindre Skrede

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

©Edmund Johannes Grønmo/NRK

©Edmund Johannes Grønmo/NRK

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

©Getty Images/New York City

©Getty Images/New York City

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

©EPA/Washington DC

©EPA/Washington DC

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

©AP/Denver  

©AP/Denver

 

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

©Twitter

©Twitter

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


©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Paris

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/Amsterdam

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/London

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Getty Images/Washington DC

©Reuters/New York City

©Reuters/New York City


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

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

©Paramount Pictures

©Paramount Pictures

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

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

©Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

©Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

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

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

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


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

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

©Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

©Vasilyev Alexandr/Shutterstock

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

©OpenColleges.edu.au

©OpenColleges.edu.au

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

©U.S. Dept. of the Interior

©U.S. Dept. of the Interior

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

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


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

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


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

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

©BBC

©BBC

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

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

©Khan Academy

©Khan Academy

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

©The Independent

©The Independent

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


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

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

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

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

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

There are success stories, though.

©BBC

©BBC

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

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

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

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

©DNP/Freeland

©DNP/Freeland

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

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

The truth is that there’s room for both.

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

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

©University of Oxford

©University of Oxford

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

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


Ten wildlife attractions to avoid, and why.

Not every wildlife attraction is a good deal for the animals themselves, despite what slick marketing campaigns would have you believe.
Earlier this week, Australia’s International Traveller website did everyone a public service — travellers and animals alike — with a list of10 so-called animal attractions to avoid at all costs.
It sounds obvious, especially for the seasoned traveller and animal lover who wouldn’t be travelling to a wildlife destination in the first place if they hadn’t done some vetting first.
It may sound obvious, but in a lot of cases it isn’t. Many of the most visited attractions are cleverly — some might say cynically — promoted as environmentally friendly, pro-conservation eco projects, when in reality they’re anything but.
I’m not talking about anything as obvious as a big cat locked in a cage as part of a roadside attraction in southern Africa — take a selfie with the leopard! — but rather big operations with fancy advertising, slick promotional videos and, strangely, solid visitor testimonials on TripAdvisor and other sites.
Wherever there’s money to be made and animals to be exploited, it’s a safe bet that someone, somewhere has figured out an idea to part travellers from their money, and sell a fake conservation message while doing it.
“Swimming with dolphins,” for example, sounds fine and benevolent. One of the most expensive high-end hotel chains on the planet offers a dolphin-swimming excursion on its property, in a hotel pool, in Hawaii — one of the last places one needs to cavort with a captive dolphin, as there are so many free-roaming dolphins within yards of the beach, virtually anywhere in the Hawaiian Islands that’s away from a big city.

Swimming with dolphins is just one example of a cynical, money-making ploy based on keeping wild animals in captivity. One expects it from a cheap huckster’s idea of a low-end carnival, but not from one of the most prestigious hotel chains on the planet.
Another attraction to make the International Traveller must-avoid list is “Walking with Lions,” a popular tourist pastime in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, where visitors are encouraged to walk with lion cubs and young lions as part of a program “to help conserve lions in the wild.”
In fact, no such thing is happening. Lions, like any apex predator, are unreleasable once they’ve become habituated to human contact. The argument that captive lions help bolster the gene pool of other captive lions is bogus, too: Many lion cubs raised for “walking with lions” programs end up being gunned down in so-called canned hunts, where wealthy “hunters” from overseas fly in to bag themselves a lion, claim a trophy and then brag to their friends back home about their “African adventure.”

The Walking with Lions sales pitch is slick and seductive; I know, because I was briefly tempted myself, during a tourist visit to Victoria Falls several years ago. It wasn’t until I did my due diligence — three cheers for the internet — until I realized what was really happening. The U.S. news program 60 Minutes did an exposé a couple of years ago, but not everyone watches 60 Minutes — or reads The Guardian, let alone the legitimate conservation periodicals. The Walking with Lions tourist office in Victoria Falls makes it seem as if walking with lions is no more unethical or detrimental to the environment than taking a helicopter ride over the falls or bungee jumping over the Zambezi Gorge.

Other wildlife attractions to make the International Traveller list of “don’t”s include:
• Riding elephants. Elephants are a social animal — obviously — but the hard truth is that elephants used for riding attractions are often taken from their mothers as babies and forced to endure a strict, often cruel training regiment.
• Visiting bear parks. Bears, unlike elephants, are not social animals. They tend to be solitary in the wild. In bear parks, found predominantly in Eastern Europe but also in China and throughout Asia, the bears are often kept in overcrowded concrete pits and are forced to perform circus tricks, often in silly costumes.
• Tiger selfies. The whole idea took a battering with the shutting down last year of Thailand’s “Tiger Temple,” which ostensibly operated for 20 years o raise funds for tiger conservation, but was in fact encouraging and supporting the illegal wildlife traffic trade. One recent year, the Tiger Temple was a challenge and pit stop on the long-running, award-winning U.S. outdoor-reality TV series The Amazing Race, such was the temple’s reputation. And then they found the dead tiger cubs, stuffed intorefrigerators. The issue is not dead yet — Al Jazeera news reported several weeks ago that the Tiger Temple may open again in the near future, “under new management,” as they say.

• Handling sea turtles. According to International Traveller, the world’s last sea turtle farm is in the Cayman Islands. It’s a bad idea, though, because being manhandled by people causes young turtles undue stress, and tourists have been known to drop them on the ground, all for the sake of taking a selfie.
• Snake charmers. No one is exactly hitting the streets to protest the treatment of venomous snakes in captivity, but the truth is the snakes are often defanged, their venom ducts pierced with needles and their mouth Al Jazeera's sewn shut in some cases. The practice is so cruel, International Traveller reports, that India banned it in 1972. I did not know that.

• Dancing monkeys. The hard truth is that monkeys are often kept in small cages when they’re not performing, or else kept on short chains that cause skin rashes and even infection. It seems silly to have to say it, but monkeys were never meant to dance.
Climb trees, yes. Dance, not so much.
• Crocodile farming. Again, protesters aren’t exactly filling the streets, banging on about the need for crocodiles’ rights, but the truth is that most if not allcrocodile farms that pitch themselves as tourist attractions are breeding crocs for meat and leather. Crocs may not play on our emotions the way monkeys, dolphins and lion cubs do but, even so, they are sentient, living beings too.


http://us.whales.org/issues/swimming-with-dolphins

https://africageographic.com/blog/walking-with-lions-good-conservation-probably-not/



 

 

 

 

Wildlife workers work to overcome wolves' bad PR.

Wolves have some of the worst PR in the animal world. That’s just one reason why the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives enacted legislation late last month lifting sanctions on the hunting of wolves in Alaska and other states where the predators still remain in the wild.
The legislation also allows the killing of wolves and grizzly bears while they’re hibernating — the North American equivalent basically, of South Africa’s controversial — and widely condemned — canned hunting industry, in which lions and other trophy animals are bred in wire enclosures specifically for wealthy visitors to “hunt” once they reach adulthood.

©CBC

©CBC

Natural history films and even big-budget Hollywood movies have done their part over the years to counter the prevailing notion that wolves are wanton killers that, left to their own devices, would wipe all livestock off the face of western Canada and the U.S.
Never Cry Wolf, filmmaker Carroll Ballard’s graceful 1983 adaptation of the first-hand account of living among wild wolves by the late Canadian author and environmentalist Farley Mowat, and Dances with Wolves, Kevin Costner’s period western about a disaffected Civil War vet who chooses to live what remains of his life among the Lakota Sioux of South Dakota — the film went on to win seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture for 1991 — while influential at the time, have done little to counter the time-worn view of wolves as nature’s marauders. Even in the 21st century, the prevailing public impression of the wolf is the Big Bad Wolf of Little Red Riding Hood fame and infamy, the villain of outdoor tales — fanciful or otherwise — stretching all the way back to the time when early humans gathered around the fire to complain about life in the great outdoors.

©Tig Productions

©Tig Productions

Wolves’ bad PR has made it possible for ranchers,  big-game hunters and other self-interested parties to do away with pesky regulations, even when previous administrations — under former U.S. President Barack Obama, for example — enacted legislation enshrining the survival of the world’s rapidly shrinking wild spaces, and the animals that live there.
Recent weeks have shown that there’s no legislation, particularly anything governing environmental protections, that can’t be dismissed with the stroke of a pen.

And yet, for all the criticism leveled against nature documentaries and how they can be crafted to manipulate or even deceive their audience into believing that what they’re seeing is real, films and TV programs can and occasionally do a lot to counter fear and ignorance.
A 2010 video of wolves cavorting with a worker at an animal refuge in Norway went viral on YouTube, and has since racked up more than 10 million views. A more recent video — from February of last year — of a wildlife-refuge worker in Colorado reunited with a timber wolf after a two-month absence, has racked up more than 800,000 views.

4. Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.36.07 AM.png

It’s a safe bet that few,  if any, of those viewers believe shooting wolves from helicopters qualifies as ethical hunting, let alone choose to do that in their spare time.

And then there is The Fable of the Wolf, an animated short from the environmental group Earthjustice, that gives an abbreviated history of the relationship between wolves and people, dating back some 33,000 years, when, recent research shows, early humans and wolves often worked together after a fashion, by tracking, isolating and running down large prey animals.
This early symbiotic relationship led to the domestication of some wolves, who would one day become “man’s best friend” — dogs.
Wild wolves and domesticated sheep, calves and goats don’t get along, though, and American government legislation sanctioning the extermination of wild wolves goes back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. Despite the occasional respite, during the Clinton and Obama years for example, wolves make an easy scapegoat, especially during hard economic times in the farming states.

©Thomas Harrison Anthony

©Thomas Harrison Anthony

Facts are unfashionable these days, but The Fable of the Wolf — which makes no secret of its agenda — is especially poignant for the fact that it happens to be true.
It’s not a wildlife film, in the traditional sense. It’s animated, so it can’t be. It has an interesting tale to tell, though. And only the most cold-hearted can watch it and then dismiss it as so much propaganda.
The PR war is heavily weighted the other way, in any event. Wolves will forever be the Big Bad Wolf in the public imagination. In its own small way — just 70,000 views on YouTube so far and counting — The Fable of the Wolf is an effort to counter centuries-old misconceptions. For that reason alone, it’s worth seeing.


What if Indiana Jones was wrong? Scientists debate recent fossil findings.

Two recent fossil discoveries have prompted a radical change of thinking in scientific circles. That’s the fast headline, anyway. A closer examination of subsequent controversies — not every scientist holds the findings in the same esteem — suggests that, unlike say mathematics or physics, palaeontology is open to different interpretations. Nothing is exact. And that opens a whole other can of worms, metaphorically speaking: We may never know the answer to the big questions.

This past week, the journal Nature reported that a cat-sized fossil discovered in Scotland  (http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v543/n7646/full/nature21700.html) could be the prime candidateas our common dinosaur ancestor. If true, that would fly in the face of a century of dinosaur classification.

Weeks earlier, fossilized remains discovered on the Hudson Bay coast of Quebec were judged to be the earliest findings of their kind ever found — proof, in other words, that life on Earth has been around a lot longer than anyone realized and that, furthermore, evolution happened in the blink of an eye.

A blink of an eye is about as long as it took for the doubters to weigh in — in part because no one, not the least palaeontologists who’ve devoted their entire careers to studying dinosaurs’ family tree, wants to be told that some of their most cherished beliefs about evolutionary history are dead wrong.

Huge plant-eating sauropods like the Brontosaurus have traditionally been classified with meat-eating theropods like the infamous Tyrannosaurus Rex, even though there are key skeletal differences between the two groups — itself a sign that the entire classification system may be flawed.

©Field Museum, Chicago

©Field Museum, Chicago

The doubters are determined to have their say, though. The experts are divided, as the old expression goes.

The Scottish findings, these doubters say, amount to little more than fake news — at best an overreaction motivated by good but wrong-headed intentions, at worst a thinly disguised ploy to grab easy headlines and boost burgeoning careers.

The latest findings that the Scottish big-cat-sized creature, Saltopus, is the closest to what our hypothetical common ancestor might have looked like, are themselves little more than hypothesis, according to Max Langer, a palaeontologist at the University of Säo Paulo in Brazil who is widely considered to be one of the world’s leading authorities on dinosaur research.

At stake is the traditionally accepted notion that the oldest, most revealing fossils are to be found in the Southern Hemisphere, not the the Northern.

Matt Baron, a graduate student at Cambridge University who led the three-year dino project in the UK, said that while it will never be possible to pinpoint the origin of dinosaurs with any degree of certainty, his findings have raised new questions about the Northern Hemisphere possibly being the origin of humankind’s dinosaur ancestors.

“It may just be that dinosaurs originated in Scotland,” he told The Guardian newspaper.

Without getting too complicated about it — the earlier Quebec findings, for example, hint that life may have originated long before the break-up of the continents into northern and southern hemispheres, as depicted in Scottish geologist Iain Stewart’s 2011 BBC documentary series Rise of the Continents

(Recommended viewing, by the way; Stewart is the David Attenborough of geological filmmaking and a respected evolutionary thinker in his own right.)

For many palaeontologists, the idea that dinosaurs may have originated in Scotland has about as much veracity as the notion that Nessie is out their in Loch Ness somewhere, still terrorizing locals in small boats. 

Baron’s findings, coupled with similar studies sponsored by London’s Natural History Museum, suggests that scientists’ classification of dinosaur ancestors into two specific groups — a belief held since the 1880s — may need a major rethink. There are also suggestions that many of the earliest dinosaurs may have had feathers as well as scales, and that the original precursor of today’s mammals may have been an omnivore, not a carnivore.

©Iain Stewart, BBC

©Iain Stewart, BBC

Baron told The Guardian that he did not come by his conclusions lightly.

“We didn’t want to be these palaeontologists who told the world that Diplodocus and Brontosaurus weren’t dinosaurs,” he said. “We’d be like the guys who said Pluto isn’t a planet.”

For a more clinical take, follow the link to an informative piece by science writer Evan Gough at Universe Today:

http://www.universetoday.com/134625/new-study-wants-rip-t-rex-place-dino-tree/



How wild animals adapt to the big city, as told in Planet Earth’s stirring series finale.

Of all the hours that went into making Planet Earth II, it is the final episode “Cities” — which makes its North American debut this weekend on BBC America — which drew the most attention when it aired in the UK last December, and small wonder.

The finale is not just a summing-up of all that has come before. It takes on the thorny issue of where the planet goes from here, as wild animals evolve and adapt — with varying degrees of success — to the world’s sprawling and ever-growing urban areas.

No spoilers here. One of the special joys in watching Planet Earth is being surprised by those unexpected moments that evoke awe, majesty and, in many cases, an almost childlike sense of wonder. Nature is full of mysteries, after all. For every answer, new questions are almost certain to emerge.

©Steve Winter, National Geographic/NatGeo Wild

©Steve Winter, National Geographic/NatGeo Wild

The issue of how wildlife can adapt to big cities has been tackled before, most notably in National Geographic’s 2015 documentary program Urban Jungle. This is the first time the Planet Earth team have tackled it head-on, though, after almost 20 hours of often breath-taking filmmaking.

That’s worth noting because if Sir David Attenborough and his team of filmmakers have faced one criticism over the years, it’s that, for all Planet Earth’s celebration of nature at its most pure and pristine, it has pointedly avoided the ways in which human beings have affected what remains of the natural world, whether through climate change or unchecked population growth and our increasingly unsustainable lifestyles.

Evolution is not so much about survival of the fittest as it is about adaptability to ever-changing surroundings, so a close-up look at how wild animals find new ways to survive when living in close proximity to large numbers of people is ideally suited to a program with the ambition and scope of Planet Earth, and a fitting way to end the series.

©BBC Planet Earth II

©BBC Planet Earth II

Veteran National Geographic photographer Steve Winter, who followed leopards hunting by night in the centre of Mumbai and who has just concluded a multi-year photographic survey of wild jaguars in Brazil’s Pantanal region (a National Geographic magazine feature and feature-length nature documentary are in the works), shared his experience of photographing leopards — an unpredictable and potentially deadly predator — withjournalists from the Television Critics Association at a gathering in Beverly Hills, Calif. several years ago, while promoting Urban Jungle.

Coincidentally, one of Winter’s most famous photographs — of a wild mountain lion, dubbed “P22” by local biologists, living in the Hollywood Hills, the giant “Hollywood” sign lit up in the background — was taken at night using a trap camera, just a short drive from the very Beverly Hills hotel where Winter was meeting journalists.

©Steve Winter

©Steve Winter

“The leopards in Mumbai are absolutely incredible,” Winter recalled. “They come out when it gets dark. People live right on the edge of the park. I was there, and saw it with my own eyes. People would do their walking, exercising, walk their dogs like we do in parks, and, boom, the sun goes down, and the habitat changes. It's then the leopards' area, and they co-exist without really any major problems.

“The ecosystem changes once the sun goes down. People came up to us, wanted to know, ‘What are you doing here?’ I told them and showed them some of the footage and images we were getting. They had lived there for ten years and didn’t even know the leopards were there, as close as from me to you, and yet have zero problems with them. A guy got up in the middle of the night one night, looked out his windows, and for the first time in ten years, he sees this leopard on a bridge. They are happy about it, too.They want to live with these animals because they don’t find that there’s any conflict.”

©National Geographic/Steve Wimter

©National Geographic/Steve Wimter

There are more mountain lions in the coastal Los Angeles area than people might suppose, Winter added. “There’s a healthy population of mountain lions in the Santa Monica Recreational Area, between, like, Sunset and a little further north. There are probably 15 or 20 cats in all.”

Mountain lions are just as secretive around people as leopards. P22 is native to Griffith Park, site of the famous Griffith Observatory.

©Steve Wimter/National Geographic

©Steve Wimter/National Geographic

 

“In all the months I spent in Griffith Park, I never met anybody who saw the mountain lion,” Winter said. “I never saw the mountain lion there. They don’t want to be seen, and they have plenty to eat there. So they’re comfortable.”

Wild animals getting along with people pre-supposes there aren’t any idiots — of the human kind — who will mess things up, Winter admitted.

“The mountain lion doesn’t want to be seen. That’s the bottom line. The leopard is the most adaptable cat in the world, as far as I’m concerned. They are secretive, and they don’t want any interaction. But as far as the idiot part goes, that’s, well . . . who knows?”


When nature docs go wild.

Scan YouTube for highlights of Planet Earth II, now nearing the end of its North American debut, and one can’t help but be struck by how many compilation fan videos are of the blood-’n-claws variety. If it bleeds, it leads, seems to be the thinking. And nothing sells like sex and violence. (No, I won’t insert a video link here; I won’t glorify compilation violence videos by making them easier to access than they already are. Suffice it to say that anyYouTube video titled “Huge jaguar vs. a caiman crocodile (insane fight)” — in full caps, no less —  tells you all you need to know.)

The bigger picture is that, with more people curious about nature every day but with little means to actually experience nature for themselves, wildlife filmmaking, nature documentaries and conservation photography have never been more meaningful, or influential to popular opinion.

Ethics in nature filmmaking are more topical now than at any point in the history of television and film, as the world’s few remaining green spots are shrinking at an ever-increasing pace.

This was brought into sharp relief recently by environmental-film producer Chris Palmer’s controversial book Shooting in the Wild: An Insider’s Account of Making Movies in the Animal Kingdom

I say inspired in part because, like many viewers of Planet Earth, my early life was informed by a steady diet of nature films, from big-screen theatricals like Born Free, which I first saw when I was seven, to Disney nature docs like Charlie, the Lonesome Cougar and King of the Grizzlies.

©Chris Palmer

©Chris Palmer

What we see at a young age informs us in our later years and shapes our opinions and outlooks on the world. Palmer’s book, as Jane Goodall writes in her introduction, is important and much-needed. It won’t change any preconceived notions about climate change, habitat loss or the increasingly evident man-made mass extinction, but it does raise meaningful questions about how these films are made, the motivations and ethics involved, and what the filmmakers’ responsibilities are to the viewer.

Palmer, director of the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University, was executive producer of the 2000 Oscar-nominated IMAX documentary Dolphins, so he knows something of what he speaks.

Without doubt, nature films have helped raise awareness of the wonders of the natural world and the need for conservation. How are these films made, though? Can we always believe everything the narrator tells us? Was that stunning sequence we just saw of a polar bear giving birth filmed in the wild, as implied in the film, or will telling viewers that it was actually filmed in a zoo in Germany make them less engaged and possibly less willing to help a conservation cause? Is it ethical to stage a fight between a leopard and a terrified baboon, in order to get a dramatic cover story for Life magazine, during Life’s heyday? (This actually happened.)

©John Dominis, Time-LIFE

©John Dominis, Time-LIFE

To what extent are animals otherwise living in the wild disturbed in their day-to-day activities during the making of a film?

Is it right to manipulate footage while editing, so that it appears two animals are interacting when in fact they were filmed on separate occasions in separate locations?

Where does artistic freedom and the need to tell a good story meet the obligation to tell the truth when making a documentary?

How much should the viewer be told, anyway? Disney’s early nature films were designed to appeal to as wide an audience as possible. They were made for children, but directed in such a way that they would appeal to parents, too — charming enough for kids to enjoy, but never boring or too tedious for the adults in the family.

That was the idea, anyway. Everyone likes a good story, and many of us like to watch a good fight. The reality is those early nature films had about as much in common with David Attenborough’s pioneering BBC documentaries as Bambi had to Racing Extinction.

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

Ethical questions surrounding nature filmmaking will never be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, of course, in the same way many conservation groups can’t even agree on the seemingly clearcut question of whether the legal sale of ivory stockpiles will help or hurt elephant conservation in the wild.

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

As Goodall writes in her introduction to Shooting in the Wild, though, it’s high time those questions were asked, and discussed openly.

“We owe this to the animals themselves,” Goodall says, “to the filmmakers who practice truly ethical behaviour, and to the viewing public.”

Amen to that.

Over the next several weeks and months, I hope to tackle some of these issues here. In depth.


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Zebras: white with black stripes, or the other way 'round?

Old question, familiar conundrum: Are zebras white with black stripes, or black with white stripes?
It’s not an entirely frivolous question, as the question of what makes animals the colours they are, and why, remains one that vexes field biologists and nature photographers alike.
That was thrown into sharp relief once again this past week in a Washington Post piece headed, Why are pandas black and white?
Again, it’s not a frivolous question. Bears, after all, tend to be monochromatic, whether grizzly, polar bear or the clue-is-in-the-name black bear and brown bear. Why is the panda different? Is the panda even a bear? The answer is similar, but not identical, to why the African plains zebra, which inhabits very different terrain from the Chinese panda, is also black and white.

©Getty Images/BBC

©Getty Images/BBC

Biologists with the University of California at Davis and California State University (Long Beach) published a paper in the nature journal Behavioral Ecology earlier this week that suggests panda colourationis for both camouflage and communication.
That mirrors similar findings with zebras.
Field studies in Africa have determined that while zebras might not seem to blend into yellow grasslands with their black and white stripes, predators have a hard time distinguishing one zebra from another when they’re pressed together in a herd.
Lions hunt mainly by sight, which is why they tend to pick off strays lagging behind the herd, rather than singling out an individual in the middle of a herd for special attention.

©Africa Wildlife

©Africa Wildlife

Along similar lines, a newborn zebra will recognize its mother by its stripe pattern; that’s why an infant, separated from its mother, may have a hard time finding her again in a large herd.
That can be a problem for infant zebras, because unlike many other mammals, female zebras will not attend to others’ young.
The panda study made similar findings, though with some marked differences.
The biologists studied pandas’ ears, eye patches, limbs and white bodies for clues as to their behaviour.
Tim Caro, a biologist with the University of California Davis’ Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology department, wrote that panda colouration has been a long-standing debate because virtually no other mammal, other than the zebra, has the same combination of colours, which makes analogies difficult.
The biologists reached their conclusions by combing through hundreds of photographs of 40 types of bears, in a bid to identify and isolate fur colour over different parts of the body — back, legs, ears and head. They then divided animals’ faces into separate, independent areas.
Animals that grow winter coats were found to have significantly lighter fur in cold-weather climes.
That’s key, because forest shade and snow appears to have played the major role in influencing the panda’s coat.

©Mohd Rasfan/AFP

©Mohd Rasfan/AFP

Unlike North American and Russian bears, pandas do not sleep through the winter, because there is little nutritional value in bamboo, the pandas’ primary dietary source. A steady diet of bamboo is insufficient to give them the fat reserves needed to hibernate through a long winter. That means they’re forced to forage for winter food in treed areas that change suddenly from light snow to dark forest shade.
As for that overarching question, asked on virtually every safari by every safari-goer — are zebras are white with black stripes, or the other way round — scientific consensus favours the latter.
We humans find this hard to believe at first because we tend to perceive shapes and colours as being against a white backdrop. A child draws on white paper, for example. We write in black ink, on a light surface.

©Science Now

©Science Now

There’s more scientific, evolutionary proof as to why zebras are, at their core, dark-coloured animals with light markings. The plains zebra (Equus quagga) evolved from the African wild ass (Equus africanus), which was coloured a solid brown, as with most horses and donkeys.
Zebras have white or grey stomachs — another reason we tend to think of them as having a white base with black stripes— but many darker coloured mammals have light or even white-coloured underbellies, including predators like lions and leopards that prey on zebras.
Black is the predominant pigmentation in the zebra’s coat; white contains very little pigmentation.

It’s believed white stripes may have evolved as a way to shield the zebra’s skin base against the harsh African sun, as suggested by the fact that zebras from more temperate, high-altitude regions, such as the Hartmann’s zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) and mountain zebra (Equus zebra), tend to be darker than their savannah cousins. Darker pigmentation in zebras shows itself as thin white stripes and larger, fatter black stripes. Not all zebras are alike, in other words, just as pandas are unlike other bears.

It’s believed white stripes may have evolved as a way to shield the zebra’s skin base against the harsh African sun, as suggested by the fact that zebras from more temperate, high-altitude regions, such as the Hartmann’s zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae) and mountain zebra (Equus zebra), tend to be darker than their savannah cousins.
Darker pigmentation in zebras shows itself as thin white stripes and larger, fatter black stripes.
Not all zebras are alike, in other words, just as pandas are unlike other bears.


Earliest yet signs of life-on-Earth found in Canada.

Scientists could have been forgiven for thinking when, six years ago, paleontologists examining rocks in Greenland found what they believed to be the oldest fossils on Earth. The remnants of life dated back to a time when scientists believe Earth’s skies were orange and the seas green, when massive tectonic plates splt apart in giant seas of molten lava.

©Laure Gauthiez/Australian National University via AP

©Laure Gauthiez/Australian National University via AP

That changed earlier this week with University College London’s revelation that an international team of researchers in Quebec unearthed the fossilized remains of a creature that lived some 3,7 million years ago. The remains could even be as old as 4.3 million years, researchers say.

One link between the two finds is climate change. The 2012 fossils were found in a newly melted part of Greenland, where a team of researchers examined terrain that had been unexposed to open air for tens of thousands of years.

The new findings were made in a northern clime as well: the Nuvvuagittuq Supracrustal Belt in Quebec, on the eastern shores of Hudson Bay. There may well be more, similar finds as the polar ice caps melt and recede.

The newly discovered fossils aren’t easy to spot. These aren’t woolly mammoth tusks or the skeletal remains of one of humankind’s early ancestors, but rather microbes, microrganisms individually too small to be seen with the unaided eye. The Nuvvuagittuq fossils are tiny fialments and tubes formed by bacteria that live on iron. The researchers would have had to know what they were looking for, and some idea where to find them.

The fossils may be small, but they’re meaningful — especially in a time when global news events are most depressing than enlightening.

UCL PhD student Matthew Dodd, author of the study published in the journal Nature, said the fossils support the idea that life emerged from hot, sea-floor vents shortly after the Earth formed. The evidence fits with other evidence — the Greenland findings, for one — of microorganisms believed to have formed the foundation for early life forms.

©Matthew Dodd, University College London

©Matthew Dodd, University College London

The Nuvvuagittuq Belt, much like Africa’s Great Rift Valley, has proved a boon for paleontologists studying the originis of life. This part of Quebec is home to some of Earth’s oldest rock formations, dating back some 4.28 billion years. Earth is believed to have formed some 4.6 billion years ago. What are towering rock formations today once lay on the sea floor, when Earth and Mars would both have been covered by water.

Dodd said the find suggests there may have been life on Mars as well, some 4,000 million years ago.

If not, he wrote in Nature, it would suggest Earth was unique — an exception amond exceptions.

Dodd’s research for University College London was supported by NASA, Carnegie Canada and the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The findings have since been reported by BBC and in the Washington Post, Wired and Chicago Tribune, among others.

©Brian Harig

©Brian Harig

Why does it matter? For one, the discovery shows life may have formed more quickly than once thought. Scientists originally believed it would take life nearly a billion years to gain a toehold once the molten Earth cooled enough to sustain life.

Now it appears life may have formed virtually overnight, in geological terms.

The study is likely to be contentious. Claims about early life often are. Either way, though, it’s one more potential piece in the puzzle of life on Earth. 

“This discovery answers the biggest questions mankind has asked itself,” Dodd told the BBC. “It’s very humbling to have the oldest known lifefroms and your hands and be able to look at them and analyze them.”


Skating on thin ice: Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf.

Winter is coming — not here, perhaps, but in Antarctica. For those increasingly worried about climate change, the Antarctic winter can’t come a moment too soon.

Earlier this month, researchers with the British Antarctic Survey released new aerial video showing the widening crack in the Larsen C ice shelf — a chasm so deep and so long it stretches to the horizon.

February is high season for scientistswho monitor the ecosystem of the planet’s coldest, windiest, most remote continent, so this is the time of year when the most important, telling scientific findings are made.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

In all, the Larsen C crack is 160 kilometres (100 miles) long and some 460 metres (1,500 feet) wide at its widest point. Left unchecked, the rift will cleave off a monster iceberg the size of Wales — or Delaware, if you’re thinking in U.S. terms — in the foreseeable future.

If, or more likely when, it happens, the iceberg will represent 10 percent of the entire ice shelf. As recent findings in the Arctic have shown, ice melts increase more rapidly in pace once they begin. Today’s 10 percent will be tomorrow’s 25 percent, and so on.

There is precedent, even in Antarctica. The Larsen A and B ice shelves collapsed in 1995 and 2002 respectively. The Antarctic research group that monitored the Larsen B collapse at the time noted that the event followed a sudden and unsustainable band of warm air in one of the world’s fastest warming places.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

Ice shelves play an important role in Antarctica’s ecosystem, scientists say, because they act like bookends, holding together massive stores of loose ice on the continent.

If those bookends collapse, it will cause land ice to melt and glaciers to split off into the ocean, boosting sea levels. Since the Larsen B shelf’s break upglaciers behind it have flowed into the sea at a rate six times faster than before the shelf’s collapse.

Satellite imagery shows the western edge of Antarctica is also developing cracks, including the Pine Island Glacier ice shelf. 

Not all ice melt can be spotted from the surface. Massive meltwater lakes deep inside ice fields can flow out to sea through tunnels deep under the ice, making them harder to spot. 

Ice breakup in the Arctic has been measured more closely than in the southern continent, for obvious reasons.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

©Jeff Orlowski, Chasing Ice.

The Arctic is closer to major population centres, and more exposed to warming air in the more populated Northern Hemisphere. Melting ice has given rise to the real possibility that the Northwest Passge will be ice-free during the summer in just a matter of years. That will open the entire region to shipping, not to mention oil drilling. Before long, the Northwest Passage will a realistic geographical and economic alternative to the Panama Canal. International shipping lanes will be affected, and along with them the economic prospects of Panama, Russia and Canada, among other countries.

The recent findings in Antarctica have prompted renewed interest in the work of nature photographer James Balog and filmmaker Jeff Orlowski’s 2012 documentary Chasing Ice, in no small part because Balog photographed a massive ice calving in the Arctic while on assignment for National Geographic.

Video footage of an ice shelf the size of a small city cleaving off into the sea off  Greenland's coast went viral. A four-minute excerpt of the largest glacier calving ever filmed has 46 million views on YouTube.

What makes Chasing Ice particularly relevant today is that Balog was initially a climate-change skeptic when, more than 10 years ago now, he took on his first National Geographic assignment in the far north.

©James Balog, National Geographic.

©James Balog, National Geographic.

It wasn’t long, however, before he became convinced of the impact humans are having on the planet. He has been working ever since to get the message out.

This past November, the Arctic was 20 degrees warmer than average, warmer even than the most liberal projections had predicted.

No one can predict with any degree of certainty, of course, what effect melting sea ice will have in the immediate, short-term future, let alone future generations.

One thing is immediately clear, though: The planet is skating on thin ice.



Sometimes a picture is worth more than a thousand words.

Judging competitions is subjective. And nothing is as subjective, it seems, as photography. I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve sized up the winner of a major photo competition and been struck by how much better — more emotional, more trenchant, relevant and eye-catching — one of the honourable mentions is, when compared to the chosen winner.
Everyone has an opinion, and no two opinions are likely to be the same.
Sometimes, though, as in the case of the recent World Press Photo of the Year award, the argument is about more than mere semantics. In a break from protocol, World Press Photo head judge Stuart Franklin penned a passionate, persuasive and, for me, telling essay in The Guardian newspaper about how he disagreed with his fellow jurors’ final selection.
The winning photo, by Turkey-based Associated Press photographer Burhan Özbilici, showed the assassin of the Russian ambassador to Turkey standing over his victim at an Ankara art gallery and shouting in triumph.

©Burhan Özbilici/The Associated Press/World Press Photo handout

©Burhan Özbilici/The Associated Press/World Press Photo handout

Franklin, a London, England-born photographer former president of the Magnum Photos agency (2006-’09), is himself a past winner of the World Press Photo award, having won for his image of “the Tank Man” for Time magazine during the uprising at Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Franklin was narrowly outvoted by his fellow jury members, he told The Guardian, even though he argued in favour of Özbilici’s winning the spot news prize, which Özbilici, also won.
Franklin’s reasons for arguing against its winning the top prize, though, raise important questions for any serious photographer aiming to get that one image that, without meaning to sound precious or pretentious about it, can change the world.
Özbilici showed composure, bravery and skill to take the photo, Franklin said, because what happened was so unexpected — a split-second of violence at a tedious, done-it-a-hundred-times-before press conference at an art gallery — followed by utter chaos and mayhem.
A split-second image of an assassination has won the World Press Photo of the Year Award three times, Franklin pointed out, most notably Eddie Adams’ classic 1968 image of Saigon national police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan’s summary execution of a Vietcong sympathizer.
Adams’ photograph was one of several that would turn popular opinion against the Vietnam War, in a time when a still photo really could shape the public’s perception of a divisive, complicated moral issue.
Unlike the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo — an event many historians say touched off the First World War — the assassination of Russian ambassador Andrei Karlov in Ankara had thankfully limited political consequences, Franklin said. There’s no question Özbilici’s has real impact, but there were more worthy candidates for Photo of the Year, Franklin suggested.
“It’s a photograph of a murder, the killer and the slain, both seen in the same picture, and morally as problematic to publish as a terrorist beheading,” Franklin wrote in the Guardian.
Franklin argued that giving Özbilici’s photo the spotlight of Photo of the Year is a tacit invitation to other would-be crazies to stage similar stunts.
“It reaffirms the compact between martyrdom and publicity,” he argued.
That said, he added, chairing a jury — any jury — is all about recognizing divergent views and accepting the outcome.
Here’s the part every serious photographer can agree with:
Photography is capable of real service to humanity, by prompting empathy and striving to initiate real change. Franklin looks for “an empathetic eye,” mindful that photographers go to great lengths — “often putting their own lives at risk” — to break the silence, speak truth to power and enlighten us, all of us, through pictures on the off-chance that “they might, just might, inspire change.”
Franklin said that by writing about the issue in the Guardian, he hoped to celebrate and draw attention to some of the other photographs from the past year to win World Press prizes.
I’ve included some of them here, so you can judge for yourself.

©Vadim Ghirda/AP

©Vadim Ghirda/AP

Migrants attempt to reach Macedonia from Greece.
‘Vadim Ghirda’s empathetic photograph lends pathos to a challenging event,’ Franklin said.
©Vadim Ghirda/AP

©Ameer Alhalbi/AFP  

©Ameer Alhalbi/AFP

 

Syrian men carry babies through the rebel-held Salihin neighbourhood of Aleppo.
‘Ameer al-Halbi [not his real name] deserves respect for his courage in documenting the relentless bombing of Aleppo.’
©Ameer Alhalbi/AFP

©Jonathan Bachman/Reuters-EPA

©Jonathan Bachman/Reuters-EPA

Taking a Stand in Baton Rouge by Jonathan Bachman. The image captures what became for many the defining image of the Black Lives Matter rallies that swept the US last year.
©Jonathan Bachman/Reuters-EPA

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic  

©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

 

Brent Stirton won first prize in the nature stories category for his image of a dead black rhino, poached for its horns less than eight hours earlier at Hluhluwe Umfolozi game reserve, South Africa.
©Brent Stirton/National Geographic

 

©Tom Jenkins/The Guardian  

©Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

 

Tom Jenkins topped the sports singles category for his picture of jockey Nina Carberry flying off her horse during the Grand National steeplechase.
©Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

© Matthieu Paley/Reuters  

© Matthieu Paley/Reuters

 

China’s Wild West, shows a Uighur woman carrying money in her stockings, a common practice.
© Matthieu Paley/Reuters