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


Where the buffalo roam again.

And now a feel-good story for a change. For the first time since the 19th century, when wild bison were hunted to near extinction, Parks Canada, Canada’s federal national parks agency, has released 16 adult bison, mostly pregnant females, into Banff National Park.
Banff is Canada’s oldest national park, having been established in the Rocky Mountains in 1885.

©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

At 2,500 square miles (6,600 square kilometres), it remains one of the world’s most pristine wildlife areas close to a major city, just70 miles (110 kms) west of Calgary, Alberta. The terrain glaciers, ice fields, coniferous forest and — most importantly for the bison — seasonal grasslands. Resident mammals include grizzly bears, mountain lions, white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk and bighorn sheep.

This isn’t an empty-headed exercise in wishful thinking. Nor is it a rush job, the result of little forethought and next to no planning.

©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

Despite Banff’s range and relative wildness, the park remains a sensitive ecosystem. Banff’s mountain passes and crested valleys experience harsh winters. Not every species survives, even with good intentions and modern-day science and technology. Just seven years ago, an avalanche is believed to have wiped out the then last-remaining family group of wild caribou.

Still, bison are tough and resilient.

The move is a throwback to a time when — it’s said — plains buffalo, as they’re more commonly known in the U.S., were so thick on the ground, they turned the plains black.

©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

That’s hard to believe, of course, but hopes are high that with time and patience, a viable population may establish itself again. In their heyday, plains buffalo numbered some 30 million across the continent. The Alberta herds were long gone, though, by the time Banff was gazetted in 1885.

Reintroducing bison is liable to be less controversial to ranchers in the surrounding area than, say, reintroducing gray wolves to Yellowstone. 

The conservation team moved the bison from a protected herd in central Alberta, and transported them by truck and helicopter to the snowy passes that bisect Alberta and its western neighbour province, BC. The bison were tested for bacterial infection and have been cleared of any communicable diseases.

©2017 Parks Canada

©2017 Parks Canada

For now, they’re penned in a sprawling enclosure in Banff’s remote Panther Valley, far from the main tourist routes. The plan is to release them into the true wild by the summer of 2018, when they’ll be free to roam the 460 square miles (1,200 square kms) that encompass the Red Deer and Cascade River valleys.

If successful, project manager Karsten Heuer said, the Banff herd will be one of only four plains buffalo herds in North America that compete with other herbivores and their predators for survival.

The animals are not tame, or idle: The conservation team taped rubber hoses to the bisons’ horns to prevent them from injuring each other while in transit to their new home.

Fasten your seatbelts — this is about to get real.

 


Dangerous Planet: The places most likely to kill you.

The diverting survival handbook The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook offers useful pointers on how to deal with runaway camels, UFO abductions, high-rise hotel fires and leeches — human and animal. There’s only so much use one can get, though, out of learning the phrase May I borrow a towel to wipe up the blood? in German (“Darf ich ein Tuch borgen, um das blut abzuwischen?)”) or this useful bit of advice for travelling to dangerous regions: “Check beforehand.” (No kidding.)

While your chances of being snatched by a UFO might not seem as likely as some other scenarios outlined in a section headed “People Skills” — not as likely as, say, “How to survive a riot,” “how to pass a bribe” or “how to foil a scam artist,” there are useful pointers nonetheless on how to find your way in unfamiliar territory in a section called “Getting Around,” which includes bonus advice on “how to jump from rooftop to rooftop,” “How to ram a barricade” (too many viewings of The Year of Living Dangerously, no doubt) and “How to escape from the trunk of a car.” You never know when that last one may come in handy, whether you took a wrong turn into Vila Cruzeiro in Rio de Janeiro or decided to windowshop at the corner of W. Mulberry and N. Fremont in Baltimore, Maryland.

Nature and the natural world poses its own risks, as a more sober — and grounded — article recently noted on BBC World News’ main website. The piece, headed “The places on Earth where nature is most likely to kill you,” doubled a kind of anti-Planet Earth. Sure, the world is full of natural hazards, writer Ella Davies noted, from volcanoes to floods and storms. But where is the risk to human life greatest?

Don’t laugh. This is every bit as topical and relevant as knowing what to do if you’re buzzed by a UFO while driving a lonely strecth of highway at night. And if you live the life of a nature photographer, it’s much more likely to, um, bite you in the ass.

Hurricane Isaac nears Haiti. ©NASA

Hurricane Isaac nears Haiti. ©NASA

The piece breaks the subject into four basic elements, a subliminal nod, perhaps, to the ‘70s R&B soul-funk band Earth, Wind & Fire: water, air, earth and fire, in that order. 

So, while little more than 1,000 deaths were recorded at sea in the year 2012, according to the International Maritime Organziation, water on dry land is a much greater force to be reckoned with, whether from rising sea levels and storm surges (the Maldives, Kiribati) or spring flooding on inland rivers. The survey found that the most likely place forcasualties are the flood plains adjacent to China’s biggest rivers. The summer flood on China’s Yangtze River in 1931 is believed to have killed countless people — literally countless, as official records at the time were incomplete. It’s believed to have been in the millions, though, in large part because of heavy concentrations of inhabitants along the river banks and unseasonally heavy snows that year, followed by sudden thawing and catastrophic rainfall.

China's Liujiang River floods in July, 2016  ©AFP

China's Liujiang River floods in July, 2016  ©AFP

In terms of air — hurricanes, mostly — Haiti is considered to be one of the most vulnerable regions on the planet, in part because of its geographical location in the tropical Caribbean and in part because the island nation lacks the resources to properly prepare, even when given advance warning. The most intense storms are not necessarily the deadliest: Haiti is unusually vulnerable, too, because natural barriers like forests have been stripped of their natural cover and many settlements have either been built on floodplains or in coastline areas vulnerable to storm surge.

In terms of the Earth — namely, earthquakes and other kinds of land-locked seismic activity — Los Angeles gets a lot of attention for being at risk, in part because it’s the media capital of the world and in part because of its population density and the suspicion that “the Big One” hasn’t struck yet, a concern echoed in the coastal Pacific Northwest, along the I-5 Seattle-Vancouver corridor. What the two have in common is the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” an active volcanic and tectonic belt that rings the entire Pacific Ocean.

As the BBC article notes, though, the real risk of loss-of-life lies in the less affluent parts of the Ring of Fire — not Japan, the U.S. Canada or New Zealand but rather the Philippines. 

Some 81% of the world’s worst earthquakes strike along the Ring of Fire, according to the 2015 Natural Hazard Risks Atlas. Digging deeper, though, those same risk analysts found that eight of the world’s 10 cities most at risk to natural disaster are in the Philippines, in no small part because the Ring of Fire intersects and crosses over with the Pacific’s major cyclone belt. The Philippines is at risk to both earthquakes and hurricanes, in other words. 

Flooding in Sunrise Village, Philippines. ©2012 OM International

Flooding in Sunrise Village, Philippines. ©2012 OM International

In terms of fire — namely, volcanoes — Indonesia ranks near the top, in terms of both incidents and loss of life. The World Organization of Volcano Observatories (WOVO.org) recently determined that, in all, more than 200,000 people have died as a direct result of volcanoes during the past 400 years. Mount Tambora on the island of Sumbawa killed some 70,000 people in 1815, leading to a “year without summer” throughout the northern hemisphere.

Haet wave in Dubai, UAE  ©Getty Images

Haet wave in Dubai, UAE  ©Getty Images

Interestingly, in terms of fire and air combined, climate scientists are now warning that heat waves — whether or notthey’re connected to climate change — pose the largest hazard, and possibly the greatest threat to humankind yet. Call it what you will, global warming or a global warning, the result is the same.

 

http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20170202-the-places-on-earth-where-nature-is-most-likely-to-kill-you

 


©2017 NASA International Space Station (ISS)

©2017 NASA International Space Station (ISS)

Making Planet Earth II, by the numbers.

Mike Gunton might not be the household name David Attenborough is but if there is to be a third series of Planet Earth, Gunton is likely the person who will sign off on it — just as Alastair Fothergill, a former director of the BBC’s Natural HIstory Unit, signed off on the original Planet Earth in 2003.

Gunton, the Natural History Unit’s present-day creative director and a co-producer of Planet Earth II, told UK media last December that while they would be crazy to rule out a third series, the decision is not as easy as, say, greenlightinga new sitcom or shoot-‘em-up police procedural.

Planet Earth II was timed to coincide with the original Planet Earth’s 10th anniversary, but as Gunton conceded, it was five years in the making.

©BBC One

©BBC One

If there is to be a Planet Earth III, in other words, the decision will need to be made soon. Even with new camera technology that would’ve proved impossible in 2006, filming wild animals in their natural habitat and — more importantly,  from the BBC’s point of view — capturing behaviour never seen on camera before, takes time.

Planet Earth II makes its North American debut on Feb. 18, after a successful run in the UK.

ildlife documentaries are a dime a dozen; the whole point of Planet Earth is that it be seen to be unique, something special, to stand out from the crowd.

©BBC One

©BBC One

Few wildlife programs come under such scrutiny, from casual viewers aksing themselves, ‘How did they do that?’ to dyed-in-the-wool environmentalists and animal-rights campaigners keen to spot any potential abuses and audience manipulation.

Making Planet Earth II wasn’t easy, no matter how spiffy new camera technology has become. As North American audiences prepare to see what all the fuss is about, here are half-a-dozen gee-whiz facts about the making of a documentary series some are calling the finest of its kind ever made.

1. David Attenborough doesn’t venture to far-flung locations that much anymore — he’s 90, after all — but he’s not just a mouthpiece. He phoned field producers on a regular basis throughout filming and insisted they prove his narration to be accurate, while also telling a good story.

©BBC One

©BBC One

2. Planet Earth II employed 42 camera operators, and is the first series BBC produced in ultra high-definition 4K. Filming crews had to lug 30 to 40 cases of equipment halfway around the world, but were allowed just one personal bag each.

©BBC One

©BBC One

3. Shades of Steve Irwin: During the filming of the episode “Islands,” one crew member was stung by a stingray. The team was stranded two hours from the mainland and sorequired on-site medical attention before getting the crew member to safety. On the episode “Mountains,” another crew member narrowly avoided falling into a rock crevasse while filming in the Himalayas.

4. Misadventure dogged the “Islands” team from the outset. Returning to camp after one shoot, the crew found a boa constrictor eating their supply of eggs.

5. The “Islands” episode alone was three and a half years in the making; it required 12 separate location shoots, which ranged from two to six weeks at a time. Planning and preparation alone took a full year, before a single camera was powered up.

6. Although crews filming in the tropics were bitten by mosquitoes by day and centipedes by night, they were restricted from using insect repellent as animals might smell it and avoid the camera positions. One producer of the “Islands” episode lived in the same clothes for two weeks, despite being pooped on by one penguin and vomited on by another.

©BBC One

©BBC One

7. The new series’ signature theme was composed by noted film composer Hans Zimmer. That fact is well known. Less well known is that the Icelandic alt-rock band Sigur Ros recorded a new version of their single Hoppipolla, which was first used in the original Planet Earth. It took some doing but after rummaging through their old recordings, Sigur Ros managed to find the original track stems and crafted a new version for Planet Earth II.

8. In all, Planet Earth II took six years to film. The trap cameras used to capture rare footage of snow leopards in the wild in the Himalayas were set up for a year before they achieved the desired result. The lions-vs.-buffalo sequence in the episode “Grasslands” took three months to achieve.

Attaining a legal permit for the peregrine falcon sequence in New York City, for the final episode “Cities,” alone took nine months.

9. The widely seen — and much talked-about —  iguana-vs.-snakes sequence, which took two weeks of sunrise-to-sunset monitoring of a tropical beach, has clocked more than seven million views on YouTube.

©BBC One

©BBC One

10. Planet Earth II filmed in 40 countries, and required 117 separate filming expeditions. In all, the production recorded 400 terabytes of material, enough to fill 82,000 DVDs. Now you know.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1KQms2z3Gnk8ZLfYMPHxfBg/planet-earth-ii-in-numbers


How satellite technology is helping save the chimpanzee.

Fewer than 350,000 chimpanzees remain in the wild, down sharply from the two million believed to have roamed the rainforests of central Africa only a century ago.

These are estimates only, of course, but one doesn’t need a degree in earth science — or statistics — to know that habitat loss, illegal logging and the bushmeat trade are a continuing threat to one of humankind’s closest genetic relatives.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

What is less known — until now — is that a recent, unique collaboration between the Jane Goodall Institute and NASA is boosting knowledge of what’s happening and, more importantly, how and where it’s happening.

Behavioural scientists with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and other groups have being doing a credible job of tracking known family groups of chimpanzees, ever since Jane Goodall made her first visit to Tanzania’s Gombe region in 1960. Conservationists have mapped both chimpanzees’ territories — a family group’s immediate neighbhourhood — and their home ranges, the area chimpanzees roam outside their territories in their search for food, potential mates and other family groups.

In orbit, meanwhile, NASA has recorded the hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute changes to the earth’s surface for the past 44 years. Some of the most technologically advanced satellites have been placed in orbit in just the past two years.

Until recently, conservation groups and NASA worked at cross purproses. Information was gathered, but not shared. Thanks to the Goodall Institute, a new program of cooperation now makes it possible for primate researchers to monitor the environmental effects of habitat loss on individual family groups on a day-by-day basis.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

This is important to chimpanzees’ future survival in the wild because behavioural scientists can now predict with a degree of certainty which family groups will be affected by proposed development projects, and how. The shared information can also be used as evidence in court cases brought against illegal loggers and rogue mining operations.

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

©NASA/Goddard Scientific Visualization Studio/Cindy Starr

The bad news is that habitat loss is visible from space. The good news is that, by knowing how, when and where and environmental destruction is taking place, law-enforcement agencies and regulators now have real, tangible information on which to act.

The Landsat series of satellites, a joint mission of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has been providing a continuous record of earth’s land use for more than four decades now. Images taken from orbit have been made available cost-free to the public: the Landsat program is a truly democratic, people-driven program.

“NASA satellite data helps us understand what it means to be a chimp by overlaying distribution of the habitat with chimpanzee behaviuor and ranging data," Lilian Pintea, vice-president of conservation science for the Goodall Institute, said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

Chimpanzees once lived in an uninterrupted belt of woodland rain forests from Lake Tanganyika westward through Uganda and the Congo Basin.

In the 1970s, little more than a decade after Goodall first arrived in the region, the forest started to be cut down.

Increased population growth, driven in part by rural poverty, has exacerbated forest clearing for farmland and charcoal production.

The Goodall Institute is using the Landsat images to convince villagers in the area that conservation is in their best interests.

Goodall, now in her 80s, is still active with her namesake institute, though her primary role is now focused on education, fundraising and lecture tours around the world. She still tries to return to Gombe once a year, though. She’s noticed a direct effect the Landsat program has had on local opinion.

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

©Michael "Nick" Nichols for National Geographic

“It was exciting to see the impact of these images on the villagers,” Goodall said in a statement for the NASA-Goddard Space Flight Center.

Villagers could identify landmarks and sacred places in the satellite imagery, she added.

“It was like a piece of reality dropped magically from the sky.”

If the chimpanzee is to be saved in the wild, it will require concerted efforts on the ground, not just from space.

For now, though, the satellite images are proving to be a game changer for improving local conservation efforts.

A time travel tour through a forgotten era.

The Hungarian explorer Lászlo Almásy was the first European traveller to find the Cave of Swimmers cave paintings, made famous in Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient. Almásy found the cave on the Gilf Kebir limsetone plateau of southwestern Egyot, some 960 kilometres south of the Mediterranean and 720 kilometres east of the Nile, in 1933.

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress

That makes the recent discovery of extraordinary images of 19th century North Africa buried deep within the archives of the U.S. Library of Congress all the more remarkable. Not photographs exactly and not lithographs but something in between, the faded colour impressions of everyday life in a land of neo-classical columns, rococo arches and desert-scorched minarets date from roughly 1899. some 25 years before Almásy, played by Ralph Fiennes in the film, made his discovery of the ages.

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress

The authors are unknown. The photocroms, as the images are called, are a form of photolithography that has long fallen out of fashion. They were the Kodachromes of their time. The Library of Congress images provide a unique and evocative record of life in colonial North Africa — as London-based CNN writer-producer Thomas Page described them recently, “a time travel tour through a forgotten era . . . and not always the innocent postcards they may seem.”

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress

The photocrom process was originally developed in Switzerland, in 1890, following 10 years of often painstaking trial and error. Photocroms stood out because they were some of the earliest known images in colour; nearly all photography at the time was black and white.

The process involves taking a negative from a camera and exposing it on a flat surface of stone or zinc which has been treated with a coating of light-sensitive chemicals. The chemicals harden as light is filtered through the negative, creating a print.

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress

Photocrom images are distinctive, even today, because each print required up to 24 separate colour plates. Each plate was ascribed with a different colour; printed on top of one another, the ink would bleed and create the photocroms’ distinctive earth-tone effect. 

The North African photocroms appear to be designed for a captive audience in Europe, an early form of marketing Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Morocco to would-be travelers — the 19th century equivalent of a tourist brochure, rather than a way for local people to record history at the time.

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress

Inadvertently, the photocroms recorded the end of an era. The First World War changed photography as it changed society, even in regions as far-flung as the outer edges of the Sahara Desert. “These images,” Page wrote, “nostalgic but containing a rich and sometimes dark subtext, were now objects of a past epoch.”

©Library of Congress

©Library of Congress


Cats v. dogs: Which is smarter? The ages-old question answered — sort of.

Science has spoken, after a fashion. Cats are just as proficient on certain memory tests as dogs, according to a new study by scientists in Japan.

That’s telling because, a number of years back,  when I asked noted dog expert Stanley Coren the ages-old question  — are dogs smarter than cats? — he gave a cagey but nonetheless accurate answer.

© BBC 2017

© BBC 2017

Dogs perform better on those tests we humans have devised to measure intelligence, he said. Dogs are not necessarily smarter, in other words; they simply think differently from cats.

The new study from Japan’s Koyoto University was based on a control group of 49 cats, if “control” is the right word.

Kyoto psychologist Saho Takagi found that cats, like dogs, often rely on memories from a single past expertience to modify their behaviour. That suggests they have episodic memory similar to that of humans, and dogs.

Dogs may or may not be smarter overall, but their social skills make them seem to be the personable companions, Coren said. Cats tend to be more aloof, which doesn’t go over well with most people. Dogs are more needy, but that implies a certain intelligence, too, Coren said: Dogs understand that any relationship is based on mutual trust and reciprocity.

© Stanley Coren

© Stanley Coren

Coren is not just another dog fancier and canine know-it-all. He earned a doctorate in psychology from Stanford University. He served as a professor of psychology and a neuropsychological researcher at Vancouver’s University of British Columbia (UBC) until retiring in 2007, and was director of the school’s Human Neuropsychology and Perception Laboratory for several years. He continues to lecture and conduct occasional research as a professor emeritus at UBC, and moonlights as an instructor at Vancouver’s Dog Obedience Training Club.

So far, no one has had a burning desire to establish a Cat Obedience Training Club, but that doesn’t mean cats are hopeless.

It’s just that, on a fundamental, personal level, they probably perceive obedience training as being beneath them.

Of cats, Coren did say — and this says as much about us and our own biases about our fellow creatures — that because cats have a lithe, lissome way of moving and are supple, graceful and physically adept, they may appear to some onlookers as being brighter than they really are. Pre-judging intelligence by the way an animal moves is a very human concept, Coren said.

Coren has little doubt that cats are very, very smart. It’s just that we haven’t yet figured them out the way we have dogs.

The Japan study isn’t just another an exercise in alternative facts: BBC News reports that the original research has been published in the peer journal Behavioural Processes.

Cats are the Kate Moss pf the animal world, UK Daily Mirror writer Polly Hudson insisted — “aloof, laid-back, nonchalant. They never complain or explain, as they couldn’t care less what anyone thinks of them.”

Then again, dog boosters would argue that caring what your benefactor thinks about you is a mark of intelligence in itself.

Either way, one thing is now certain, thanks to the research. Cats have been proven to have just as long memories as dogs.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-38665057

https://www.journals.elsevier.com/behavioural-processes/



 

 

Murky waters: It’s whaling season. Again.

Why is Japan still whaling in the Southern Ocean? It’s a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is: because they can, despite a 2014 ruling by the toothless International Court of Justice that the then newly modified Japanese whaling program was illegal. Japan’s original whaling program claimed some 6,800 whales over an 18-year period, ostensibly for “scientific research.” Japan rewrote and resubmitted its program in 2014; the International Court rejected it, and Japan ignored the court’s ruling.

©Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

©Sea Shepherd Conservation Society

It’s the Antarctic summer right now, and once again the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society is doing its best to harrass, interfere and do what little it can to prevent the whale slaughter — no thanks to Australia and New Zealand, who, if you choose to believe Sea Shepherd founder Paul Watson on his Facebook page, have chosen to stand by while the Japanese whaling fleet sails unimpeded through the southern nations’ territorial waters.

None of this is new, of course. Anyone who has seen even a few minutes of Animal Planet’s Whale Wars program knows the drill by now: the ships Nisshin Maru, Ocean Warrior and Steve Irwin have practically become household names.

@Animal Planet, Whale Wars

@Animal Planet, Whale Wars

What is new this time is that the bottom may be about to fall out of the whale-meat market in Japan and other Asian countries. That’s because — cue irony klaxon — the toxins in whale meat have now reached a point where the meat may no longer pass inspection in many countrues. Iceland’s largest whaling fleet did not leave port this past summer because the market has dried up.

Commercial whaling was banned in 1986 — some 30 years ago — but Japan’s whalers continue to exploit a loophole that allows whaling for scientific research purposes. (If you’re wondering why countries like Iceland, Norway and the Faroe Islands are still whaling, that’s because another loophole allows a certain amount of whaling for indigenous subsistence. Mind you, if toxicity levels are so high that many people won't eat whale meat, the whole subsistence argument becomes moot.)

Interestingly, the whalers of the mid-19th century kept copious notes — you might even say “research” — of their activities and whale behaviour, as evidenced by the historical records at whaling.oldweather.org.

Moby-Dick illustration by Everett Henry

Moby-Dick illustration by Everett Henry

For now, the whale wars go on — though now it’s as much a PR war as anything else. Earlier this month, in a confrontation with the makings of an international incident, Sea Shepherd  spotted — and photographed — a Japanese ship with a dead whale on board, in violation of international law.

Photos taken from a  helicopter show the crew of the ship in question, the Nisshin Maru, trying to cover up a dead minke whale with a blue tarp as the whirlybird flies overhead.

©Sea Shepherd

©Sea Shepherd

CNN reported that the whaling division of Japan’s official Fishery Agency was withholding comment until it received  a report of its own from the Nisshin Maru. So far, no word.

Japan inssts it’s allowed to cull roughly 330 Antarctic minke whales a year as part of a research program to “study the best methods of managing minke populations.”

Australia has a keen stake in this. Australia’s Ministry for the Environment and Energy released a statement just days after the Sea Shepherd photos were made public expressing “deep disappointment” at Japan’s decision to return to the Southern Ocean to undertake so-called scientific whaling.

“Australia is opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called ‘scientific’ whaling,” the statement read in part. “It is not necessary to kill whales in order to study them.”

Japan Fisheries Agency

Japan Fisheries Agency

Australia has established a whale sanctuary of its own. The sanctuary covers Australia’s Excclusive Economic Zone, which extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometres) from the country’s coast.

As Watson has pointed out on his Facebook page, though, enforcement is everything. Sea Shepherd can’t be expected to save the whales on its own.

Then again, if the bottom falls out of the market, it will no longer be financially feasible for Japan, Iceland — or anyone — to hunt whales, for meat, sport or any other reason. We can hope. 

The Photo Ark: critically endangered species’ last stand?

Joel Sartore, born June 16, 1962 in Ponca City, Oklahoma near the Arkansas River, is a 20-year contributor to National Geographic magazine. 

Arguably, though, none of his projects — not his 1993 story on the trail of ruin left by Hurricane Andrew, not his 2003 story on B.C.’s embattled Clayoquot Sound, not even his self-explanatory 2009 story “Vanishing Amphibians” — can hold a candle to the substance, scope and potential significance of the Photo Ark, an A-to-Z portrait record of critically endangered species that are still with us. 

©National Geographic, Joel Sartore

©National Geographic, Joel Sartore

 

Since October, 2013 Sartore has labouriously tracked down living specimens of critically endangered animals — sadly, nearly all of them in zoos, aviaries and botanical gardens — and photographed them the way Annie Liebovitz might, in solo poses, against a plain backdrop that forces the eye to focus on the subject and nothing else.

© Joel Sartore

© Joel Sartore

Sartore’s passion for nature was kindled when he was a child, when he learned about the last passenger pigeon from one of his parent’s Time-Life photography books. Last year, he had a brief cameo in the film Racing Extinction, photographing the last known Rabb’s fringe-limbed tree frog (Ecnomiohcyla rabborum) at the Atlanta Botanical Grounds in January, 2013.

That frog, which Sartore dubbed “Toughie,” has since passed away. It was the last of its kind.

Over a lifelong career in journalism and nature photography, Sartore has contributed to Audobon Magazine, GEO, Sports Illutsrated, Newsweek, and, bringing his life’s calling full circle, Time-Life, but it’s his National Geographic work that has made his name.

And it’s the Photo Ark, for all the right reasons — and wrong reasons — that will stand the test of time. “No matter its size, each animal is treated with the same amount of respect and affection,” Sartore explains on the National Geographic Society’s main web site. “The results are portraits that that are not just stunningly beautiful, but also intimate and moving.”

Sartore’s efforts have seemed especially relevant in recent days with the discovery — and concerns — that snow leopards and common leopards have been found sharing the same territory for the first time, owing to pressures from climate change and human expansion. 

In North America, red foxes are now commonly seen in territories previously occupied by Arctic foxes. Rival predators don’t get along: They compete for food and so invariably the less adaptive of the two dies out. By definition, that favours the invasive species, not the endemic species. It’s an invasion that snow leopards, like Arctic foxes, may not be able to stop.

© Joel Sartore

© Joel Sartore

The snow leopard report was followed just hours later by a New York Times story that suggests most of the world’s remaining primates are threatened by extinction in the wild, according to a recent scientific study by 31 primatoglosists that, like the Photo Ark, is unprecedented in its scope.

“The typical nature photograph shows a butterfly on a pretty flower,” Sartore has said. “The conservation photograph shows the same thing, but with a bulldozer coming at it in the background.”

Sartore made that comment to conservation writer Jaymi Heimbuch on the Mother Nature Network’s web site (www.mnn.com) in 2014, in a story headed, “How One Photographer’s Foolishness is Saving Endangered Wildlife.”

The world could use a little more foolishness like that.

 

http://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/photo-ark/

 

Circus’ closure a sign of changing times

Forlorn-looking lions and tigers with dead eyes will no doubt still pace in tiny cages in roadside attractions in many countries around the world, off-the-books and in many cases illegally.

Still, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey’s begrudging announcement this past weekend that the Ringling Bros circus is to close the “Greatest Show on Earth” after 146 years in business is big news.

Coupled with the closing last year of Thailand’s so-called “Tiger Temple” and the more recent decision by SeaWorld to phase out its increasingly controversial killer whale shows, it means the institutionalization of animals performing before a “captive” audience on an industrial scale is no longer a going concern.

Barnum & Bailey’s decision is not universally popular. A CBS News report earlier today blamed the internet” and “animal rights activists” for the move, labelling them “culprits” in the call to close the world’s most famous circus. There are more diplomatic — not to mention accurate — words that could have been used.

Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey itself cited declining ticket sales and high operating costs as the real reason behind the move. Kenneth Feld, CEO of Feld Entertainment, the family business which has run the circus since the late 1960s, said in a statement that the Branum & Bailey circus will stage its final performance in May.

Activists who have campaigned for decades against the travelling circus’ animal acts from welcomed the news, regardless of the reasons behind the decision.,

After all, for many people, the closing of an international entertainment industry that uses performing tigers, acrobatic elephants and dancing bears to make money is simply part of a larger trend against the forced use of animals to, quite literally, perform for their supper.

Ringling Bros already stopped its elephant shows last May, following a string of legal battles with activists; the circus’ remaining elephants were sent to a conservation centre in central Florida to live out their remaining years.

With endangered species facing an increasingly uncertain future in the wild, the focus of late has been more on captive breeding programs, especially for large, familiar predators like lions, tigers, leopards, cheetahs, polar bears — and elephants.

Circuses long ago dispensed with any pretence of being part of largescale captive breeding programs, however. New investigations have shown quite the opposite: that for every animal performing in captivity, many animals died along the way so that that one individual might reach its final destination, whether it be a zoo, a private owner or a circus. The exotic animal trade and illegal trafficking of critically endangered cheetah cubs has been shown to be the single biggest threat facing the world’s fastest land animal today.

Zoos may be the last stand for many of our most recognizeable and iconic animal species — heaven only knows what future faces polar bears, for example, given the catastrophic, and accelerating, loss of sea ice in the high Arctic. Zoos are not immune from criticism, though. Not all animals in zoos came from other zoos, or were bred in captitivity. For that reason, some more nelightened countries around the world, Namibia being a most notable example, have banned the export of its wild animals, particularly those on the IUCN endangered species list.

Circuses are on a whole different level ofresponsibility, though. Wildlife trafficking is now a multi-billion dollar business that rivals the drug trade in some countries. Barnum & Bailey’s decision means one less arena that caged lions and tigers will perform in for profit. The days of using big cats as cash cows are clearly numbered. Good riddance.

 

http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-38627073

 

Planet Earth II: A clarion call to action, or a threat to wildlife in its own right? You decide.

By most accounts, David Attenborough’s Planet Earth II was a resounding success. Viewers watched in droves. The critics hailed the program’s never-before-seen footage of animals in the wild and wrote rapturously of Planet Earth’s depiction of a prsitine, untamed wilderness few will hve the privilege of actually seeing with their own eyes.

©BBC

©BBC

Despite that — and not for the first time — a handful of ardent conservationists have sounded a note of alarm. Anger, even. Planet Earth and programs like it — Blue Planet, Life on Earth, The Hunt and others —  do little to help the natural world, these detractors say, because they breed a sense of complacency about the ongoing destruction of our planet. If Attenborough’s filmmakers can capture such beauty, the argument goes, it implies there’s nothing wrong with planet Earth, when the truth is that the natural world has never been more in trouble.

©BBC

©BBC

Even as Planet Earth aired in the UK, a survey found that the world’s remaining population of giraffes has crashed, this on the heels of similar surveys that found that elephants, rhinos and lions face an ever-increasing threat. As Planet Earth prepares to premiere in the US (BBC America, starting Jan. 28), a revent survey has found that the world’s remaining cheetahs now number no more than 7,000, despite efforts to save them. Less than a decade ago, there were thought to be 10,000 wild cheetahs remaining.

You won’t see anything about that in Planet Earth, though, veteran BBC Springwatch presenter Martin Hughes-Games wrote in an op-ed piece this past weekend in The Guardian.

©BBC

©BBC

“No hint of the ongoing disaster is ever allowed to shatter the illusion,” Hughes-Games wrote. The pretty pictures are there just for pretty pictures’ sake, in other words.

Attenborough himself has faced these criticisms before, and at age 90 he’s probably grown a tad tired of constantly having to face them down.

By showing the natural world as it is, Attenborough argues, the audience will become interested in the natural world. If viewers are interested enough, they will eventually care enough to do something about it.

©BBC

©BBC

There’s little proof to show that’s actually what happens, though, Hughes-Games insists.

Actually, he put it a little more harshly than that. “Unfortunately,” he wrote in The Guardian, “the scientific evidence shows this is nonsense.”

Planet Earth and programs like it are entertainment, pure and simple, he says.

Meanwhile, even as Planet Earth was airing in the UK, the Zoologicial Society of London and the World Wide Fund for Nature’s 2016 Living Wildlife Report found that there was a 60 percent decline in veterbrate population abundance from 1970 to 2012, roughly encompassing the time Attenborough’s natural history programs have been on the air. (Life on Earth bowed in 1979.)

That alone suggests Attenborough’s programs have done little to stem the tide, Hughes-Games insists.

At first glace, it looks as if he has a point — though probably no one was churlish enough to point out that while Jacques Cousteau was encouraging a worldwide fascination with sea life with his nature programs, the world’s oceans were taking a battering.

No one questions that the decline in the world’s veterbrates is due to ourinsatiable need for space, humankind’s habit of destroying and degrading wilderness at a perilous pace, not to mention the threats posed by over-exploitation, climate change, pollution, invasive species and illegal hunting and trafficking of wild animals — none of which is mentioned in Planet Earth.

Attenborough himself, though, has said this is by design.

©BBC

©BBC

In a feature interview several years ago for 60 Minutes, Attenborough said he conciously avoids lectures in his films because, “no one wants to be told the natural world is going to hell in a hand basket, and it’s all your fault.”

©BBC

©BBC

Far better, he said, to show the natural world as it is, and still remains, in some untouched pockets of the world, untouched and unaffected by human hands. His idea, he said, is to show viewers the bigger picture and let them decide on their own what,if anything, they want to do about it. If they don’t care enough to do anything, Attenborough said, then he judges that his life’s work has failed.

Hughes-Games argues that programs like Planet Earth reflect a deceptively simplistic view of nature. They’re filmed in rapidly shrinking parks and game reserves, isolated green spots that don’t reflect the planet as it really is in the 21st century. The result is a portrait of a beautiful, beguiling fantasy world, “a utopia where tigers still roam free and untroubled, where the natural world exists as if man had never been.”

Hughes-Games is not arguing that these programs shouldn’t be made, he says, but rather that their fantasy should be balanced with a healthy dosereality, as hard as that may be to take.

Attenborough argues — and I happen to think he’s right — that we already know the natural world is in trouble. We don’t need to be constantly reminded, not if we have eyes to see with and brains to think with. By showing the natural world in its original, idealized state, Attenborough isshowing us not just the present but a possible future — what the future could be. He’s challenging us to do what we can to ensure that what little remains of the natural world stays that way. He says as much, in the closing moments of Planet’s Earth’s final episode, “Cities,” imploring viewers to be vigilant, to be aware, to plug in and get actively involved.

©BBC

©BBC

Attenborough is doing what few other program producers have even tried, by creating a visual record that may one day be all we have to remember earth’s heavenly creatures by.

There are many Racing Extinctions out there, after all, but there is only one Planet Earth.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2017/jan/01/planet-earth-ii-david-attenborough-martin-hughes-games-bbc-springwatch

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jan/01/bbc-planet-earth-not-help-natural-world

 

2016’s finest hour for the environment

And now for something completely different: a feel-good enviro story.

Buried in all the doom and gloom of 2016 year-end summaries is one undeniable success story — U.S. President Barack Obama’s unilateral decision in August to create the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

I’m filing this post from the Kapaa coast of Kauai, Hawaii’s oldest island, geologically speaking, and one of its least visited, owing to a reputation for rain and a quirk of geography that placed it on the “wrong” side of the Hawaiian chain, alone to the northwest of Honolulu and Oahu.

Coincidentally, Obama is in Honolulu right now, meeting Shinzö Abe, Prime Minister of Japan, at the site of the USS Arizona Memorial, the spiritual and literal memorial to the Pearl Harbor attack on Dec. 7, 1941.

Obama is taking a break in Hawaii with his family , where he grew up. It’s an annual tradition for the Obama family, but it will be his last Christmas as U.S. president.

The ocean reserve he established in August is twice the size of Texas. It sprawls across the Pacific to the northwest of Kauai, this very island, and the legal protection language has been written in such a way that — perhaps — not even “In Trump We Trust” and Trump’s incoming cabinet of climate deniers will be able to dismantle it.

Hawaii is firmly Democrat, in any event, thanks in no small part to the late Sen. Daniel Inouye, a Hawaiian of Japanese descent — there’s that connection, again — who represented the state of Hawaii from 1963 to 2012. Inouye fought in the Second World War as part of the 442nd Infantry Regiment. While in combat, he lost his right arm to a grenade. He didn’t let it end there. Upon his return to civilian life in Hawaii, he earned a law degree and was elected to Hawaii's territorial House of Representatives in 1953, and to the territorial Senate in 1957.

Obama himself grew up in Hawaii, and always felt a strong attachment for the sea and environmental protection. Growing up in Hawaii, he could scarcely know he would one day be in a position to actually do something about it. Last August, though, he did exactly that.

The Pacific reserve is a 583,000 square mile “no-take” zone that effectively quadruples a pre-existing marine reserve.

It’s important because, as climate change wreaks havoc with the jet stream, causing erratic bulges and shifts in weather patterns that can result in sudden, unexpected deep freezes in southern U.S. states and southern Europe, followed by unseasonal warming periods and an unpredictable wave of floods intermingled with droughts, the equatorial Pacific is one of the world’s few remaining potentially stabilizing influences.

The equatorial Pacific is home, too, to some of the sea’s most critically endangered — and iconic — species, from Hawaiian monk seals to blue whales and numerous species of sea turtles.

Hawaii itself is ironically home to one of the world’s most serious mass extinctions: rats, mongooses and mynah birds imported by visiting whalers and other seafarers of the 19th century wiped out many of Hawaii’s indigenous bird species — and yet, spread on remote atolls scattered across the western equatorial and southern Pacific, indigenous, one-of-a-kind seabirds still cling to a precarious existence, far from human interference, despite 21st-century development and an ever-expanding world population.

And while the Arctic ice blackens and melts, and sea levels rise ominously in various corners of the globe, the central Pacific has remained relatively unaffected. So far.

©Alex Strachan 2016

©Alex Strachan 2016

The most encouraging thing about being on Kauai — quite apart from the proximity of the new marine reserve — is the seemingly fierce determination of the local people who live here to protect the oceans and environment at all costs. The feeling is intense, and palpable, from state and county officials all the way down to local streetstand sellers and working class Hawaiian-born families whose idea of a Christmas get-together is a frolic in the surf followed by a beach picnic — or, for the older, more actively inclined, a hike into some of the world’s oldest known jungles, and along vine-choked sea cliffs that rise 4,000 feet (1,200 metres) above the sea in some places.

Obama’s decree was timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, but it has the potential to be a lot more meaningful than that.

The Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument — the reserve’s official handle — is unlikely to become a household name, now or ever.

The reserve is important, though, because it contains many of the world’s northernmost species considered most likely to survive in an ocean warmed by climate change. According to a National Geographic survey, these waters are believed to be home to some 7,000 species in all, including sea creatures believed to have lived for more than 4,000 years. A quarter of all living creatures in the reserve are found nowhere else on the planet, including the white ghost octopus and the Laysian albatross.

The marine reserve has not proved popular with everyone. Local fishermen note that they’re being asked to sacrifice their day-to-day livelihood for the long-term benefit of humanity as a whole. Ironically, despite the bounty and proximity of fishing resources, Hawaiian fishermen say it’s becoming increasingly difficult — impossible even — to earn a decent living from a centuries-old tradition.

Historian Douglas Brinkley, author of a biograpphy of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt, told National Geographic that, on one level, he was not surprised Obama did what he did. Presidents facing their final weeks in office often think about their legacy, Brinkley said. “It’s no longer about ‘what I can get in the last year.’ It’s about the long term view.” The very definition, in other words, of conservation.

 

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/26/obama-to-create-worlds-largest-protected-marine-area-off-coast-of-hawaii-papahanaumokuakea

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/26/looking-to-his-legacy-barack-obama-creates-largest-protected-nat/

 


Would you stop a bullet for an elephant?

Would you stop a bullet for an elephant, asks a modest sign placed offroad,  deep inside Tsavo East National Park, a stone’s throw from Kenya’s Galana River. The sign is not too far from where a pair of lions, the infamous “Maneaters of Tsavo,” stopped construction on the Kenya-Uganda railroad dead in its tracks, around the turn of the 20th century.

This is wild Africa — and the sign is a reminder that, the romanticism of colonial days aside, protecting the continent’s threatened wildlife is a dangerous, sometimes deadly job.

That was thrown into relief yet again little more than a week ago, after a park ranger was killed by poachers and another seriously injured in Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Virunga National Park while protecting one of the last surviving family groups of the world’s few remaining mountain gorillas.

The attack underscores the threats that those on the front lines of conservation face every day, often for little pay, far away from the world’s media centres. When a park ranger is killed, he — and, increasingly, she — often leaves behind a family to support.

The name Patrick Prince Muhayirwa is not as easy to remember as George Adamson or Richard Leakey, but perhaps it should be. 

© Brent Stirton, Getty Images, for National Geographic Special Investigations Unit.

© Brent Stirton, Getty Images, for National Geographic Special Investigations Unit.

As one can see from the links here, once again it was left to The Guardian and National Geographic to report the inconvenient truth that wildlife conservation isn’t all glamour and starry nights.

This isn’t meant as a downer, but rather a reality check. This is a time of year for reflection as much as it is anything else.

© Brent Stirton, Getty Images, for National Geographic Special Investigations Unit.

© Brent Stirton, Getty Images, for National Geographic Special Investigations Unit.

A small but growing trend in gift-giving is support, in a family member or friend’s name, for the efforts of nongovernmental groups doing good works in parts ofr the world that resemble and occasionally are, as these articles suggest, actual war zones.

Would you stop a bullet for an elephant? Probably not, if you’re like pretty much anyone else.

Fortunately, though, for what remains of our living planet, there are those who would. And they’re on the front lines every day.


The year that was: Google searches for the year 2016

Often, one can't see the forest for the trees. Seeing the year flash by like this has an eerie, unsettling effect. It's surface detail only, of course, and yet there's something to be said for big, complicated events being compressed into little more than two minutes.

YouTube has archived Google video of users' annual Google searches dating back to 2010, so now — if one is so inclined — you can revisit seven years of history in little more than 10 minutes.