Rare black leopard caught on camera in Kenya. So, who deserves the credit?

Who was the first person to reach the summit of Mt. Everest? History records that it was Sir Edmund Hillary, on May 29, 1953, but purists have always wondered if his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, was the first to actually set foot on the summit. Hillary addressed this issue directly in an interview with National Geographic Adventurer contributing editor David Roberts in April, 2003, in a story titled “50 Years on Everest.”

“When we came out toward Kathmandu, there was a very strong political feeling, particularly among the Indian and Nepalese press, who very much wanted to be assured that Tenzing was first,” Sir Edmund recalled. “That would indicate that Nepalese and Indian climbers were at least as good as foreign climbers. We felt quite uncomfortable with this at the time. John Hunt, Tenzing, and I had a little meeting. We agreed not to tell who stepped on the summit first.

“To a mountaineer, it’s of no great consequence who actually sets foot first. Often the one who puts more into the climb steps back and lets his partner stand on top first.”

You may be wondering what the story of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay on Mt. Everest has to do with a series of stunning photos published in the past 10 days of a rare black leopard on Kenya’s central Laikipia Plateau, but there is a connection.

It has to do with shared credit, and what the protocol is when a hard-earned wildlife photograph goes viral on social media and becomes front-page news for major news organizations around the world.

Who deserves credit? The person who took the photograph of a rare animal, or the person who found that rare animal in the first place.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

It’s how that news was reported — on the BBC World News’ main website, for one— that the controversy started. 

Veteran UK nature photographer Will Burrard-Lucas, who leads photo expeditions of his own in Africa for avid shutterbugs and animal lovers, captured the startling image of a black panther — actually a regular leopard with a rare melanistic gene that causes the fur to appear black, though not a pure black exactly but grey, which is why the leopard’s spots, or rosettes, are clearly visible against the background fur when — using a remote-controlled trap camera. It was a local Samburu tracker and research assistant with the San Diego Zoo Global outreach NGO, Ambrose Letoluai, however, who knew where to find the leopard and told Burrard-Lucas where best to set the camera. LetoluaLetoluaii has lived his entire life in Koija, a small  village which borders Loisaba Conservancy, and was hired as a leopard researcher after recalling tales elders in his community had told him about black leopards being common on the Laikipia Plateau.

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

©Will Burrard-Lucas 2019

San Diego Zoo Global researchers, working with biologist Dr. Nicholas Pilfold, Ph.D deployed remote cameras as part of a larger-scale study aimed at understanding the population dynamics of leopards on conservation land that, like much of northern Kenya, is shared by both wildlife and pastoral cattle herders. Human-wildlife conflict is inevitable where goats and calves encounter an apex predator like a leopard, and researchers believe more needs to be known about wild animals’ habits if they are to have a chance to survive. Leopards are not critically endangered, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists them as “vulnerable” on its official Red List of threatened species.

Black panthers have always held a special place in the human imagination, in part because they’re seen so rarely and in part because they’re such a familiar symbol in popular culture.

Burrard-Lucas got wind of the Laikipia program and its trap cameras, and decided to try to fulfil a lifelong dream to capture a black panther, if not on film exactly, on-camera. Letoluai was his assigned minder — his Sherpa, if you will — and the subsequent images, part luck, part good timing and part insider knowledge, exceeded their expectations.

So far, so good.

The mainstream media like nothing better than a good story, though, and while “Night-time Photos of a Rare Black Leopard” might sound like a good story to some people, “First Black Leopard Spotted in 100 Years” sounds much better.

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

©Twitter / Will Burrard-Lucas

In a media climate desperate for some good news about the environment for a change, rare photos of an animal that hasn’t been seen for a century is a headline grabber.

There’s just one problem. It wasn’t true. Local media in Kenya, among them photojournalist and staff photographer Phoebe Okall of the Nairobi Daily Nation newspaper, had captured images of a black leopard in the wild just a few years ago.

Many Kenyans, politically sensitive toward any perceived slight by westerners in the post-colonial era of independence, saw this as a double insult: Ambrose Letoluai was being given enough credit for finding the black leopard on BBC World’s main news site, and local, Kenyan photojournalists were not being given any credit for having captured images of black leopards on not one but several occasions prior to “the first capture in 100 years.”

Burrard-Lucas, for his part, found himself caught in the middle. What should have been the crowning achievement of his photographic career — and still might — is suddenly at the centre of an increasingly noisy and fractious controversy.

He posted an immediate clarification on his website: He never said it was the first photo of a black leopard in 100 years. That was something the media added, for effect. He was also more than willing to credit Letoluai  for his work in setting up the camera trap — it’s quite common, and perfectly acceptable, for nature photographers to credit the guides who take them to the rare animals in the first place.

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

©Ambrose Letoluai 2019

Earlier this week, a reasoned, thoughtful, well-researched — and properly sourced — article in the Washington Post, by general assignment reporters Alex Horton and Reis Thebault, sought to put an end to the controversy by outlining exactly what happened, who did what, where, how, why and, importantly, when.

The damage is done, though, and the outrage on social media sites like Twitter, mostly from Kenyans proud of their heritage and the wild animals they know as their own, continues unabated, even today.

Perhaps, if and when Burrard-Lucas’ images are recognized at some of the big wildlife photo awards, such as the UK Natural History Museum’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year Awards in October — which I suspect they just may — Burrard-Lucas and Letoluai can accept together, in person, much like Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay before them.

Enough about that, for now. Here, then, are some key links to the controversy, as it unfolded.

https://www.camtraptions.com/black-leopard.html

https://naloolo.com/2019/02/14/how-a-24-year-old-samburu-warrior-captured-images-of-kenyas-black-leopard/?fbclid=IwAR10jnCgSeIiOomn8po_x1MeFEoIwzMjbvtJb-XuW9yN9AByDpkyPNRYn-E


https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/02/13/black-leopard-photos-are-definitely-not-first-years/?utm_term=.7f87481a31e1


Lawson’s choice: On penguins and filming ‘Dynasties,’ when is there a right time to intervene?

Not so long ago, I asked the producer of a prestigious,  award-winning series of wildlife programs if he was ever tempted to intervene if he and his camera crew witnessed a tragedy unfolding that they could somehow stop.

It’s the first law of journalism that the reporter must never become part of the story. Objectivity counts for everything. No professional, self-respecting journalist can allow themselves to be seen taking one side over the other.

The wildlife filmmaker faces a similar if not identical dilemma. They’re there to capture nature at its most raw and untouched, and ideally the film crew is meant to be invisible, as if not there at all.

His answer surprised me.

“Yes,” he said.

For the simple reason that, by their mere presence, a camera crew has already intruded on a natural situation. So it’s their responsibility — an obligation, some might say — to help solve a crisis if it was of their making.

This is not a question of semantics. It comes up with wildlife filmmakers all the time. (In this case, I had asked about a nature film I had seen recently, in which a lioness with newborn cubs suddenly moves her litter to a new den she presumes to be safer, despite the presence of a cobra at the den she’s moving into. The producer worried she may have been spooked into moving her cubs to a less safe den by the presence of a camera crew. They had no way of knowing.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The more prestigious production houses, like BBC’s Natural History Unit — makers of the David Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, Planet Earth and Blue Planet — have a strict code of ethics, which is rooted in non-interference.

The intention, always, is to let nature take its course.

That directive was sorely tested in Emperor, the climactic episode of the Attenborough-narrated Dynasties, which makes its US debut this weekend on BBC America (Sat. 9E/P, 8C). Filmmaker Will Lawson pulled off a first, following a  colony of emperor penguins for an entire year, including — obviously — the bitter, cold, dark Antarctic winter.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

At one point during filming, Lawson discovered a small group of penguins they had been following, chicks in tow, had inadvertently stranded themselves in an ice gully. The filmmakers realized that if they did not intervene, the penguins — every single one of them — would die. Intervention in this case was to dig a gully and ice ramp, providing a way for the penguins could escape inevitable death that, rather than being a case of nature taking its course, seemed more like a capricious twist of fate — not nature at all but rather simple bad luck.

Lawson chose as my producer friend had chosen: He knowingly broke the “cardinal rule” of non-interference, rationalizing that the penguins would find the exit ramp on their own, and if they didn’t … well.

It was not a straightforward decision, “by any stretch of the imagination,” he admitted in an interview with ITV’s Lorraine Kelly on the breakfast program Lorraine! last November, shortly after the episode first aired in the UK on BBC One.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

In a situation like that, he said, you have to look at the facts in front of you. Which is what he did. Attenborough himself would have done the same, BBC insiders have since said. The penguin episode makes its US debut this weekend, and will arguably reach the largest audience Dynasties has yet seen.

“Film crews have to capture events as they unfold, whatever their feelings,” Attenborough himself noted. (Programming alert: A special hour-long “Making of” program, hosted by Attenborough, will air exclusively on BBC America in 10 days time, on Feb. 23, and will feature behind-the-scenes moments from all five Dynasties programs, including the penguins in Antarctica.)

“I know it’s natural,” Lawson said of his to-do-or-not-to-do dilemma, “but it’s bloody hard to watch.”

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Decisions are never easy, and there will always be those who disagree, no matter how one decides. An informal poll on YouTube found that while 700 viewers agreed with Lawson’s choice, 40 disagreed. (“You’re not intervening, guys,” one assenting viewer posted. “You’re doing a very humane thing. You’re helping poor creatures get a second chance in life.”)

It’s contrary to the better angels of our nature to allow animals to die needlessly. And that’s as true of penguins in Antarctica as it is of any living creature anywhere else. Our job as a species should be to act as stewards for the planet. After all, as more than a few viewers have noted on various Dynasties message boards, we have caused so much death and destruction — inadvertent or otherwise — that helping the inhabitants of this planet, even if unnatural, seems the least we can do.

https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/articles/1rBMlBtJzVvfJWXJ6rjfhJ1/a-filmmakers-dilemma


Of painted wolves and African wild dogs: ‘Dynasties’ most emotionally wrenching hour yet.

Life in the wild is hard. We know this.

From the first hour, the David Attenborough-narrated nature program Dynasties has been unflinching in its depiction of survival.

Even so, the fourth episode in this exquisite — and intensely personal — series, airing this weekend in the US for the first time (BBC America, AMC Networks, Sat. 9E/P, 8C), is harrowing and emotionally wrenching. The episode Painted Wolf, filmed along the banks of the Zambezi River in Mana Pools National Park, a remote, relatively untrammelled region of wilderness area in Zimbabwe, made director and cameraman Nick Lyon physically ill at one point, as he stood by helplessly as a painted wolf pup, part of a family group the filmmaking team had followed for two years, was grabbed by a crocodile from a riverbank.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Painted wolves — once known as African wild dogs, before conservation groups decided that the name “wild dogs” was unhelpful in raising awareness of the plight of one of Africa’s most rare and critically endangered predators — are social animals. For the purposes of storytelling, the filmmakers followed two groups in rival territories. As the program begins, one of the competing groups is led by a wise but aging matriarch, nicknamed Tait; the other group is led by her estranged daughter Blacktip, who is young and healthy and looking to stake out her own territory. Murder and mayhem ensue, in arguably the most bloody and brutal hour in Dynasties’ entire run.

Complicating the already complicated family entanglements are other predators — lions, hyenas and the prehistoric, monstrously sized crocodile that caused filmmaker Lyon such distress. Predators are conditioned by nature to kill other predators when and where they can, in part to alleviate competition for a limited and often dwindling food supply.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

The wrenching scene, in which one of the pups is snatched unsuspecting by the paw and dragged into the water, flailing helplessly, made Lyon, a veteran cameraman and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, sick.

“When you follow animals as long as we did,” he told The Telegraph, via BBC, “you get to know them and care what happens to them.

“It becomes an emotional experience when you see one of the characters having a bad time, or having real success. I loved the puppies. I remember when they were out of the den for the first time at just three weeks old. They were so tiny, with oversized heads, that would overbalance on their front legs.”

Lyon described the rivalry between mother and estranged daughter as Shakespearian, both in scale and in the intensity of its rivalry.

From a natural history point-of-view — and from the perspective of the casual viewer who watches nature programs from time to time — the hour is a reminder of just how challenging life in the wild really is, even in the most ideal of climatic and environmental conditions, and the fine margins between life and death. It’s hard enough to survive, let alone thrive. It’s impossible to watch Painted Wolf and not be moved by what’s unfolding on the screen.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Away from the screen, if real life, painted wolves, African wild dogs, Cape hunting dogs or whatever you care to call them, face an uncertain future. As a nation, Zimbabwe is beset by genuine real-world problems that involve real-world hardship for countless people, problems that range from poverty, drought and hunger to corruption, bad governance and a failing economy. As pristine as the Mana Pools wilderness appears to the outside eye, the entire ecosystem is in peril, besieged on all sides. It’s hard to imagine how even an adaptable charismatic animal like the painted wolf can cope, and yet cope they must if they are to survive as a species.

Lyon estimates he and his camera crew drove through some 82,000 kms — 51,000 miles — of miombo woodlands while tracking Tait, Blacktip and their respective aunts, uncles, offspring and more distant relatives. The insights they gleaned along the way were extraordinary.

In its three outings so far during its US debut, Dynasties  has established itself as a unique, compelling and hypnotic document of natural history, even by the lofty standards of other such BBC Attenborough programs as Planet Earth and Blue Planet. Tough to watch, yes, but unforgettable at times.




Strange days: Scientists discover ‘void of nothingness’ beneath Antarctica’s biggest glacier.

Strange days have found us / Strange days have tracked us down.

These are strange days. It will strike some of us as an exquisite irony that, in this age of climate denial and fake news, we’re also living in an age of new and unique discoveries. Science continues to open a window onto new frontiers and open a door to new finds. Less than 10 years after scientists discovered evidence of a prehistoric megalake  beneath the sands of the Sahara Desert — a lake formed some 250,000 years ago that, at its highest level, covered some 42,000 square miles (109,000 square kms) over the eastern Sahara where the Nile River burst its banks and pushed through a new channel in Egypt — now NASA scientists have discovered a growing void of emptiness deep inside Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier, planet Earth’s most important glacier.

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay-COO Creative Commons

The hollowed-out section of ice, somewhat misleadingly dubbed a “hole” by much of the world’s media, is two-thirds the size of Manhattan and 1,000 feet (300 metres) tall, and represents some 14 billion tons of missing ice. That might not sound like much, considering the glacier itself is the size of Florida, but scientists are alarmed that it is the most pronounced sign yet that rapid ice melt caused by climate change is happening much faster than even the most pessimistic climate models suggested.

thwaites map.png

The Thwaites Glacier is critical to earth science because it’s the largest outflow channel in the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, already considered to be vulnerable to ice melt.

If the glacier melts entirely — and that’s no longer seen as a big “if” — sea levels could rise as much as 10 feet over the next 50-100 years. That could, in theory, flood every coastal city on Earth, possibly within the lifetimes of many people who are alive today.

Climate deniers will argue, of course, that this is simply more alarmism from conservationists looking to feather their fundraising nests and justify their existence — an argument that conveniently overlooks the fact that if, any side in the debate is driven by financial considerations, it’s the big oil and energy companies that have vowed to continue extracting fossil fuels, no matter the cost to the environment, and despite clear  evidence that man-made carbon emissions are the big driver behind rapidly accelerating climate change.

©Science

©Science

This is the height of the Antarctic summer when, for obvious reasons, most of the important scientific surveys are being conducted. The Thwaites Glacier has come under heightened scrutiny in a month when temperatures across Australia have soared to a record-breaking 50°C in some towns, and much of the US Midwest is locked into a deep freeze where an Arctic  polar vortex has caused temperatures to plummet as low as minus-60°C, once wind chill is factored into the equation. (It might sound counterintuitive, but actually record cold is also a sign of “global warming,” which is why that term has fallen out of favour with those who know what they’re talking about. “Climate change” is a more accurate description, and some — myself, for example — prefer “climate emergency,” if only to inject a sense of urgency into the debate.

“Understanding the details of how the ocean melts away this glacier is essential to (measuring) its impact on sea-level rise in the coming decades,” Eric Rignot, one of the study’s co-authors, said in a prepared statement.

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

©NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL)

Science may be unfashionable to some, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. As the famed astronomer and advocate for science education Neil deGrasse Tyson — often described as “America’s preeminent badass astrophysicist” — is fond of saying, science doesn’t much care what you or anyone else thinks. “The thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

The reason a void — or a cavity or a hole, or whatever you care to call it — under a glacier is worth measuring is because the more heat and water that seeps under a glacier, the faster it melts.

©COO-Creative Commons

©COO-Creative Commons

The void at the heart of the Thwaites Glacier wasn’t stumbled over by some adventurers in a sea kayak, either. The find is the result of intensive data analysis of ice-penetrating radar readings taken from space by the European Space Agency, in cooperation with NASA’s Operation IceBridge (established in 2010 to measure the connection between the polar regions and the global climate) and scientists at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. Study results were published Jan. 30 in the journal Science Advances.

The discovery comes at the same time the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition has intensified its search of the Antarctic seabed for the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance, which was crushed by pack ice and sank in 1915,  and at the same time UK and US scientists are launching their own five-year research project, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, which will use artificial intelligence, seafloor ROVs (Remote Operated Vehicles), ocean-based weather stations and — get this — more than a dozen warm-blooded seals fitted with sensors designed to measure and gather readings of glacial ice and the surrounding water.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

©University of St. Andrews, Fife, Scotland.

“Thanks to a new generation of satellites,” Rignot said, “we can finally see the detail.”

That detail might not be entirely what we want to see.

Strange days have found us / And through their strange hours / We linger alone / Bodies confused / Memories misused / As we run from the day / To a strange night of stone.

— ‘Strange Days’ by The Doors, 1967.








Tiger, tiger, burning bright in the forest of the night, in this week’s outing of ‘Dynasties.’

There is nothing like the thrill of walking through the jungle looking for a tiger and knowing they could be watching you already, Ashlan Cousteau once said.

That watchful gaze — ever aware, always alert — may not be enough to save it, though. Jungles and tigers both are in trouble, in this hot mess of a world. 

And the tigress Raj Bhera in Bandhavgarh Tiger Reserve, in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, has it particularly hard in Tiger, this weekend’s Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C). She has newborn cubs, and everything from Indian sloth bears to other tigers seems to want them out of the way.

Never mind that Bandhavgarh, as indefatigable narrator David Attenborough takes pains to point out in his voice-over, early in the program, is a tiny — and shrinking — green island surrounded by a very human problem: over-population. The small, 105 sq. km. park in Shahdol District has a tiger population of roughly 45 tigers, which means that each cat has a territory of less than five square kilometres. The better-known Kanha National Park, by contrast, is home to some 60 tigers over an area of 950 sq. km, more than twice as much territory for each tiger than in Bandhavgarh.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

It wouldn’t matter so much, except that — as Attenborough stresses in Tiger — these cats, the biggest of the big cats, are notoriously particular about their territory, which they go out of their way to mark. Trespassing on another tiger’s territory can lead to fights, even death. And it doesn’t help if one of the tigers, like Raj Bhera, has a litter of newborn cubs to protect.

Watching Dynasties, not just Tiger but all the episodes, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the filmmakers, who followed each of their subjects over a four-year period, have gone out of their way to edit each hour to end on a positive note — if not a happy ending exactly, at least not on a nihilistic note. Animals, predator and prey alike, lead a hard life in the wild, wherever they are. And one of the things that makes Dynasties so compelling, if hard to watch at times, is that it doesn’t sugar-coat the tension, or the threats to its subjects’ existence — even if those endings do seem shaped in some way. (Last week’s episode Chimpanzee, for example, left out the bit where an expedition team returned Senegal’s Sahel region several months after filming ended, only to learn that the researchers’ primary study animal, and the episode’s lead character, clan leader David had been killed after all, beaten to death, most likely by his quarrelsome challengers Jumkin and Luthor, and Jumkin was now clan leader and facing an insurrection of his own.)

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

As with the other episodes, Tiger’s making demanded meticulous attention to detail and no small amount of time, sweat and dedication from the production team. Episode director Theo Webb, an eight-year veteran of BBC’s Natural History Unit (1997’s Land of the Tiger, which aired on BBC Two, is among his many credits —  gave viewers a hint of the day-to-day jungle routine, writing on BBC’s website late last year, when Tiger made its debut in the UK (this weekend marks Tiger’s US premiere).

“Each morning at sunrise, we’d drive into the park and head straight to the territory of our tigress, Raj Bhera. Tigers are very site-specific and we knew the rough boundaries of her territory. She wasn’t radio collared and so to find her, we’d look for tracks in the dusty roads that criss cross through the park. It’s not only the tourists and us that used these dust roads. A lot of the animals also use them, because it’s much nicer to walk on soft sand rather than twigs and thorns.

“This was incredibly useful to us because you can see what’s happened during the previous night — for example, whether the tigers moving in that area were an adult male, female or cubs.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

“If the tiger is moving through the jungle you can actually hear the alarm calls (of other animals) moving, as it passes through. . . .

“Tigers are very unpredictable, so you never know what’s going to happen, or when. Sometimes a deer would walk right past, and they’d continue sleeping in the middle of the day. Other times they’d get up and start stalking right in the middle of the day.

“We’d often sit and wait for an entire day with nothing happening. But you could never zone out. One day there was only a tiny window through a piece of vegetation where I could see the tiger’s tail occasionally flick. I had to have my binoculars on my eyes for hours because I knew that if she left, she’d move off silently and we’d lose her, and we’d be left waiting by an empty piece of grass.”

A tiger’s life in Bandhavgarh is beset by the ever-present threat of poaching and the inevitable human-wildlife conflict that breaks out when a small and shrinking wilderness area is hemmed in by ever-expanding agricultural plots and growing villages.

Alpha predators like tigers are the reason you don’t see old animals in the wild, biologists say. You don’t see sick animals in the wild. You don’t see lame animals in the wild. The predator — the tiger, the lion, the leopard, the wolf — sees to that. That’s why, as more than one field biologist has pointed out, a healthy predator population is invariably a sign of a healthy ecoystsem. It’s not just that the fittest survive. Those survivors procreate and pass on their genes.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

Tigers are special, yet they’re vanishing, slowly but surely. It would be a terrible shame if the world loses them.

The Malays only speak of them in whispers, the 19th century explorer, writer and naturalist Isabella Bird, the first woman elected a Fellow of Britain’s Royal Geographical Society, wrote in 1883, in Sketches in the Malay Peninsular.

Malays only speak of them in whispers because they believe the souls of certain human beings who have departed this life have reincarnated themselves through these beasts, Bird noted, “and in some places, for this reason, they will not kill a tiger unless he commits some specially bad aggression.”

Over the centuries, the definition of what “specially bad aggression” really means has proved to be malleable,  shifting, morphing and shape-shifting with the times. The tiger has been able to adapt for the most part — until now. How much longer will the immortal hand or eye frame its fearful symmetry? 




‘Endurance’ beckons — 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is on the cusp of history, as you read.

Endurance went down entombed in ice, “in a sea of other people’s expectations,” as the saying goes. Men had drowned in seas like that. The year was 1915 and the place was Antarctica, and there — but for Sir Ernest Shackleton, photographer Frank Hurley and a small group of men determined to survive, damn the odds — no more would have been said, heard or told about it.

And yet, here we are.

Just days ago, on 27 January, 2019, the Weddell Sea Expedition and the 13,700-ton South African icebreaker SA Agulhas II, with some 30 climate scientists, geologists, historians and polar explorers aboard, started to break their way through 75 miles (121 km) of sea ice in their effort to reach the final resting place of Shackleton’s ship.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

It’s midsummer on the far side of the world, and while climate deniers have complained all week about it being colder in Chicago — minus 30°C — than it is in Antarctica — minus 25°C — the fact is that, even in midsummer, this part of Antarctica is still entombed in ice. Expedition members have spent the last few weeks taking measurements of the Larsen C ice shelf, together with climate readings of the Weddell Sea, parts of which remain covered in ice up to 3 metres thick.

Make no mistake, this is very much a 21st century expedition. Team members are using satellite imagery, drones, autonomous robotic submarines and underwater Remote Operated Vehicles (ROV’s) in their effort to find what remains of the 145-foot (44 metres) three-mastered barquentine which sank to the bottom of the Weddell Sea in the polar spring of November, 1915 after being trapped in sea ice for 10 months.

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

©Frank Hurley/Endurance c/o Royal Geographical Society (RGS)

We may be living through troubled times, but in this tiny corner at the far end of the earth, hope springs eternal.

“We hope to achieve what we thought was impossible,” 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition director-of-exploration and maritime archaeologist Mensun Bound said in a prepared statement. “Although the odds of success were initially against us, the mood within the team is upbeat, given the favourable ice and weather conditions, which we think will allow us to reach the search area.

“We now view this as the best opportunity to locate Endurance and we are relishing the chance to be involved is a search of such significance.”

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Thanks to the obsessiveness and penchant for detail of Shackleton’s master navigator and skipper Frank Worsley, the Agulhas II is not operating in the dark as it were. Worsley took great pains to record the exact coordinates of where Endurance went down, never dreaming of a day more than a century later when autonomous robot submarines could scan the sea floor.

This past Sunday, just 72 hours ago, the expedition was in the Erebus and Terror Gulf — named after Sir John Franklin’s two ships in Franklin’s own, ill-fated effort to find his way through Canada’s Northwest Passage in the high Arctic, at the other far end of the earth— calibrating high-precision acoustic positioning systems, which is a high-falutin’ way of describing the use of modern-day technology to track down a century-old shipwreck.

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©John Shears/2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Agulhas II scientists and crew members have shared moments of unalloyed joy in their weeks so far, from an impromptu game of pick-up soccer on making first landing on the Antarctic Peninsular — recreating a game played by Endurance crew members a century earlier, before they realized the hardships and terror that lay before them — to bright-eyed selfie videos in front of walls of ice, shared in real time, on Facebook and Twitter. Before turning their attention to finding Endurance, the scientists spent the better part of a month collecting ice samples and surveying the effects of climate change near the Larsen C ice shelf carved an iceberg four times the size of Greater London in July, 2017. Satellite images from the European Space Agency have since revealed that the iceberg, dubbed A68, has moved away from the ice shelf and is floating out to sea.

This may be the Age of Trump, but the fact is that the 2019 Weddell Sea Expedition is making real discoveries in the name of science, in fields that include oceanography, glaciology, biology, geology — and now, potentially, history.

Endurance beckons.

https://weddellseaexpedition.org

http://www.rgs.org/wse

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition






‘Dynasties’ and chimpanzees — “The Garden of Eden is no more.”

Cometh the weekend, cometh the summoning hour. 

This weekend, the David Attenborough-narrated program Dynasties (Saturday, BBC America at 9E/8C) focuses on a war for power and succession among a chimpanzee clan in the eastern Sahel region of Senegal, where the Sahara Desert is making inexorable inroads against the cool, green forests the chimpanzees call home.

Chimpanzee first aired on BBC One in the UK last November, and its harrowing tale of an aging but wise and decent clan leader threatened by adolescent anarchists in the clan played like equal parts Macbeth and King Lear

Dynasties, from many of the same producers who brought the world Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unrelenting in its violence and tension, both implied and actual. The filmmakers followed the clan leader David and his bumptious sons Luthor and Jumkin for the better part of four years as a cohort of younger males challenge the alpha male and threaten to tip the troop into chaos as they fight to gain the upper hand. “This is a story of power, politics, and the fight for survival,” Attenborough intoned in his familiar dulcet tones in voice-over.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit

For the filmmakers who followed the troop for four years, it was all that and more.

Episode producer Rosie Thomas, a 13-year veteran of BBC Studios’ Natural History Unit, gave casual viewers insight into the day-to-day routine of following a chimpanzee clan in the wilds of Senegal in a compelling essay for BBC One’s main website, that shows quite a different picture to the one seen on the screen. 

“It’s 3.45 am,” Thomas wrote. “With the ping of the alarm we drag ourselves out of bed, pull on our field clothes, assemble in the kitchen and try to stomach some coffee and gloopy porridge. No one speaks other than the briefest of ‘mornings’ to each other. It's too early to think straight, let alone try and have a conversation. . . .

“Every trip the road looked different: the rivers might have filled or dried up, the grass could be completely burnt or even two metres high and looming well over the height of the car. So each time we had to relearn the roads. 

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

©BBC Natural HIstory Unit

“We followed the chimps last night until they built their nests so we know where they are located now, but we must reach the troop before dawn to make sure we’re there before they wake up. The temperature is already high, and by the time you’ve walked for half an hour you’re dripping in sweat. If the chimps are in a difficult area you may have to wade through thick vegetation, or even across a river. And all this before the sun is even up. 

“We locate the individual we want to focus on for the day (usually David), set up the camera and wait. We walk and we film, we walk and we film. It’s getting very hot now. We walk, we sit and we wait.”

Not for long. Because when something happened, as it inevitably did, they would see the kind of things that stay with one for a lifetime.

There are never happy endings in the wild kingdom, only temporarily satisfactory outcomes. The chimpanzees’ future is inexorably tied to that of planet Earth, and it’s still an open question as to how that story will end. 

Chimpanzee ends on a solemn grace note, with David temporarily back in control of his clan. As with any Shakespearean play, though, there are more acts to come.

©BBC Natural History Unit

©BBC Natural History Unit




‘Dynasties’ and lions — it’s not always good to be King.

Finally. The curtain is about to go up on Dynasties in the US, on BBC America (Saturday, Jan. 19 at 9E/8C, and subsequent weekends).

And while the audience is likely to be nowhere near as sizeable or far-reaching as that which watched Dynasties’ debut on BBC One in the UK last November, viewers in the most crowded, competitive media market in the world will finally be exposed to Dynasties’ tough, uncompromising look at the animal kingdom. (True to form, BBC America’s five episodes will air out of sequence with their original BBC broadcast; BBC America is opening with Lion (this weekend, on Jan. 19), followed by Chimpanzee (Jan. 26), Tiger (Feb. 2), Painted Wolf (Feb. 9) and finally Emperor (penguins, on Feb. 16).)

Dynasties, from many of the same producers and  filmmakers who brought you Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II, is unique for two reasons.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

One, each episode revolves around a single animal family or clan and tells a tale of succession. Each hour-long episode focuses on a clan patriarch, or matriarch, as they fight for survival against a variety of threats, from the elements and climate change to human-wildlife conflict and —  shades of Shakespeare — murderous family members determined to usurp the throne and upset the natural order of things.

Secondly, each episode of Dynasties has a pointed environmental message, missing from many earlier David Attenborough-narrated nature programs, in which we learn that many of the threats facing the wild kingdom today are the result of our own actions, whether it’s contributing to climate change through our voracious consumption of the Earth’s dwindling resources or, more directly, as in this weekend’s opening episode, Lion, pastoral herders in Kenya poison a pride of lions to stop the lions from preying on their cattle, a critical source of income in many impoverished local communities.

Camera crews, field biologists and anthropologists followed each family group — lions in Kenya, tigers in India, painted wolves (African wild dogs) in Zimbabwe and penguins in Antarctica, over a period of four years, and witnessed some remarkable, never-seen-before behaviour over that time. It is the first time so many different, disparate variety of animals have been followed so closely over such a long period of time in their own environment, and that alone sets Dynasties apart from the other Attenborough programs.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

It also means, inevitably, that countless hours of film footage didn’t make it into the final broadcast version. The filmmakers’ behind-the-scenes stories are compelling in their own right, and that’s one reason I’ve decided to share some of them here, each week, before that week’s episode airs.

That means starting with Simon Blakeney, self-described dad and producer with BBC’s Natural History Unit, who followed a pride of lions in Kenya’s Maasai Mara National Reserve as part of the team that put together this weekend’s opener. (“Spent the last few years working on Dynasties with an amazing group of Lions,” Blakeney tweeted at @simon_blakeney. “All opinions my own!”)

Blakeney penned a handful of short essays about filming Lion, for BBC One’s main website when the series first aired, including a trenchant analysis of the perils facing Africa’s remaining wild lions today. (Little-known fact: Just 2,000 wild lions remain in Kenya, the land that made Born Free famous, but more sobering than that is the knowledge that Kenya, and the Maasai Mara, the northern extension of the world-renowned Serengeti ecosystem, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is one of the few remaining strongholds for wild lions left in the world. Period. End of story.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Naturally, Blakeney hopes the lions’ story doesn’t end there, and Dynasties is designed in part to shed further light on the lion’s plight, to an audience that might not otherwise realize just how perilous the situation is — as well as showing directly, day-by-day, how tough a lion’s life is, even at the best of times. One of Dynasties’ great strengths, as television and as mass  communication, is that it’s unflinching and uncompromising in its view. When a pack of two dozen hyenas decide to annihilate a young, inexperienced lion who’s wandered too far away from the safety of his pridemates, or an otherwise tough, self-confident lioness is forced to abandon her ailing, sickly cub, to move on with that same pride, Blakeney and his team of fellow filmmakers were there to record every moment — and a lot of that ends up on the screen, whether it’s painful to watch or not.

Some of the most memorable footage he got didn’t make it into the final cut, Blakeney admits. That’s just  one of the harsh realities of documentary filmmaking. An hour might sound like a long time — actually, each episode clocks in at just 48 minutes, give or take — but in a format where every second counts, four years of filming inevitably means a lot of compelling footage won’t see the light of day.

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

Decisions about what to leave in and take out invariably come down to subjective opinion and the vision to see a project through to its end, in a way that is coherent, disciplined, tightly focused and communicates something vital and important to the audience.

A personal favourite of Blakeney’s, in which lions exercise a peculiar habit of hunting wart hogs during those times of the year when their regular food source, the annual wildebeest migration, moves on to greener pastures — which is about six months of the year. (Lions are territorial, unlike some predators which simply follow the wildebeest across national borders from Kenya into Tanzania and back again, depending on the rains; lions stay where they are. Also, there are other lions, in other prides, with territories of their own, who will fight any intruder, great or small, to the death — literally — to protect their own.)©BBC/Natural History Unit

“The warthogs live out on the savannah and they’re very quick,” Blakeney posted on the BBC site. “They would outrun lions in a straight race. If they’re being chased, the warthogs will often bolt off into one of their many burrows, usually old aardvark burrows or similar. . . . This could involve a lot of digging. The cubs in particular weren’t very good at digging because they were smaller and not as strong as the adults. The warthogs would get pretty disgruntled and they’d scoop up big facefuls of mud with their snouts, and then chuck them at the lions as they were trying to dig them out.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

For all the hardship and tough times Dynasties’ lions went through, Blakeney had some fond memories, too. The filmmakers found themselves getting close, sometimes uncomfortably close, to their subjects, even thought they consciously tried to be as unobtrusive as possible, for ethical reasons as well as reasons artistic. (It never ends well for a wild lion who becomes habituated to human contact, intentional or otherwise.)

“On another occasion, about nine months in, one of the adolescent males walked round the back of the Land Rover I was sitting in,” Blakeney recalled, “and just appeared right beside me. If I’d wanted to, I could have reached out and stroked his mane as he walked past. I was on the radio at the time, which had quite limited range, so I was sitting right at the edge of the seat and hadn’t seen him coming. I jumped out of my skin when he suddenly emerged on the open side of the car. It’s easy to forget how big they are until you are up that close.”

©BBC/Natural History Unit

©BBC/Natural History Unit

The picture facing Africa’s wild lions is concerning. The IUCN Red List of threatened species officially lists lions as “vulnerable,” which is to say their future is far from assured.

Small-scale conservation groups, such as the locally-organized Ewaso Lions group in Kenya’s northern, semi-arid Samburu district, are doing what they can to lessen human-wildlife conflict, but the issue is complex and the problems are many.

Dynasties, in its own small way, hopes to spread the message to as many ordinary, everyday people — people who will probably never be able to see a wild lion in their lifetimes — as possible. If for no other reason, that makes Lion worth watching.

50082527_2149056225173995_6514856705266810880_o.jpg



Ni! He’s a lumberjack — and now a knight — so he’s OK.

It was his presidency of the Royal Geographic Society what done it, as the English say.

That, and the James Joyce Award, bestowed by Dublin, Ireland’s Literary and Historical Society, not to mention the Livingstone Medal from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and — just so the (ex) colonies aren’t shut out entirely — a gold medal for achievement(s) in geography from the Royal Canadian  Geographical Society.

Also, by all accounts he’s a swell guy, judging from his self-description as being a man of “amenable, conciliatory character.”

Perhaps this charter member of Monty Python’s Flying Circus troupe can wear the mantle of “Sir Michael” after all, despite being a willing participant in some of Monty Python’s most irreverent — and anti-establishment — sketches, including the Lumberjack song (“I’m a lumberjack and I’m OK; I sleep all night and I work all day” / [chorus] “He’s a lumberjack and he’s OK; he sleeps all night and he works all day”) and the Parrot sketch, arguably Monty Python’s most famous — certainly the most readily quoted — sketch, inspired by Michael Palin’s trip to an auto mechanic who refused to accept there was a problem with his car.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

In my previous life as an entertainment-industry reporter, I talked to Palin a couple of times — most notably when he was promoting Sahara, his 2002 BBC docuseries account (film and book, both) of his transect of the Sahara Desert, “meeting people and visiting places.” There was the pink touring bus in Libya, his remark on revisiting Tunisia that this is where he was crucified (in Life of Brian, filmed in part in Tunisia 12 years earlier), and his sheepish admission that his Sahara expedition almost ended before it began, when he twisted his ankle while playing a pick-up game of beach soccer with street urchins in Morocco. When I asked him about possible future expeditions, in 2003, he seemed ready to admit that, at age 58 and with considerable prodding from his wife of 37 years and growing objections from BBC’s in-house travel insurance advisor, it was perhaps not a good idea to keep returning to war zones for the sake of a TV show. 

(How to stay married for 49 years, Palin told The Telegraph in 2015: “Sex has nothing to do with it.” How English!)

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

Why not follow in the footsteps of the early English explorers’ search for the source of the Nile, I suggested. I’m sure Sudan is a safe place to travel, BBC camera crew in tow, I told him. As for Uganda, how bad can the Lord’s Resistance Army be? They’re with the Lord! They’re doing the Lord’s work, where it’s most needed — in the wetlands of northern Uganda and South Sudan. Your wife would be thrilled. I suggested.

Once a Python, always a Python: He laughed.

He never did do Search for the Nile, but he still racked up the travel miles, camera crew in tow: the Himalayas in 2004, “new Europe” in 2007, Brazil in 2012, and this past year, North Korea.

He admitted his fellow ex-Pythons were somewhat mystified by his sudden post-Python wanderlust: In their eyes, truth be told, it was kind of weird.

No matter. Fast-forward to the New Years Honours list, the 2019 edition, when Palin, already made a CBE in the year 2000 (Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire), became the first member of the Monty Python comedy troupe to be given the full knighthood. Sir Michael it is, then. Palin, now 75, was knighted for his services to travel, culture and geography, and for being a global “Ambassador for Britain.”

©BBC/Michael Palin

©BBC/Michael Palin

Palin took the honour with characteristic British understatement. What, you were expecting him to go the full Mick Jagger? (When the Mick became Sir Michael Phillip Jagger, knighted for his 40 years of service to popular music at Queen Elizabeth II’s official birthday bash at Buckingham Palace in 2002, Rolling Stones biographer Philip Norman sniffed, “Jagger does not deserve a knighthood.”)

The Queen personally avoided bestowing Sir Mick with the honour, because she believed him an inappropriate candidate for the honour, owing to his anti-establishment views — or so it was said at the time.

The Monty Python comedy troupe wasn’t exactly pro-establishment in its day, but that geography thing — Pole to Pole in 1992, Around the World in 80 Days in 1992, going Full Circle around the Pacific in 1997, following in the footsteps of Ernest Hemingway in Hemingway Adventure in 1999 — helped tip the scales of atonement for his sins of irreverence during the Python years.

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

©BBC/Michael Palin/Photo by Basil Pao

After learning that he had made the Queen’s New Year Honours list, Sir Michael hinted to the BBC that he’s getting a little old to trash a hotel room, Mick-style.

Instead, he told the Beeb, he may “just have a quiet celebration, just myself and a glass of Horlicks, and then go to bed.”

Horlicks, for those not in the know, is a malted hot drink developed in the early 20th century by founders James & William Horlick and sold as “Horlick’s Infant and Invalids Food,” with “Aged and Travellers” added to the label later. 

Don’t buy this “Ready for Retirement” act for a second, though. Sir Michael always knew the value of a good sound bite.

Instead, look to an admission made earlier in his career — but not so long ago that it’s forgotten by now — when he said, “Once the travel bug bites there is no known antidote, and I know that I shall be happily infected until the end of my life.”

There are some miles to go yet on that particular road. Think of it as a road less travelled.

“I enjoy writing, “ he wrote in Michael Palin, Diaries 1969-1979: The Python Years. “I enjoy my house, my family and, more than anything I enjoy the feeling of seeing each day used to the full to actually produce something. The end.”




Weddell Sea Expedition 2019: All begins well that (sort of) ended well.

As you saw in my last post, the 2019 expedition —months in the planning — has made landfall, if you will, on its way to one of the harshest regions in Antarctica. Their official mission is to gather vital data on the rare and little-studied species of marine life which call the icy western Weddell Sea home, and to monitor the effects of rapidly accelerating climate change.

The unofficial mission is to find the remains of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance,  which could only endure so much before it was crushed by pack ice and abandoned at 5 p.m. local time on Oct. 27, 1915 — this, after Shackleton and his crew of 27 had survived nine months trapped in the Antarctic ice, four of those months in winter darkness.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

On this past New Year’s Day, while countless partygoers around the world nursed a hangover from the night before, the roughly 30 scientists and 138 crew members aboard the expedition ship SA Agulhas II played an impromptu game of soccer on the Antarctic ice — 104 years to the day after Shackleton and his crew played a New Year’s Day soccer game of their own, even if they called it football. (That event was photographed for posterity by Shackleton expedition photographer Frank Hurley — who, it’s often noted, deserves much more credit than he’s received over the years for making a record of Shackleton’s exploits for future generations.)

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©Frank Hurley/Royal Geographic Society

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

The Weddell Sea expedition is enthralling stuff, especially as it comes in cynical, jaded times, when global anxiety and an all-pervading sense of gloom rule the day. Social media gets a bad rap — it probably wouldn’t be as bad if only users learned how to use it, but that’s an argument for another day — but the age of instant communications has its upside: Not only are events from the Weddell Sea expedition being shared around the world in real time via Twitter (@WeddellSeaExped) but the UK Royal Geographical Society, one of the expedition’s primary sponsors, has made teaching resources available for educators, presumably for those public schools that haven’t trashed their history and geography programs.

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

©2019 Weddell Sea Expedition

Why do we care about Ernest Shackleton more than 100 years later? Perhaps it has something to do with courage. And competence. After all, in an age when little of social or political consequence ever seems to get done — when more people are concerned about who got voted off The Voice last night than finding a way to fix Brexit, the polar ice melt, species extinction and our growing climate emergency — the idea that, with cool heads and strong leadership, more than 20 human beings can survive nine months trapped in polar ice and then navigate their way to safety in lifeboats across 1,300 km (800 miles) of open water — in Antarctica, no less.

And then there’s the place itself. Even as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft discovery of the most distant object ever explored at the edge of the solar system continues to make news headlines, Antarctica remains the last great unknown in the annals of contemporary exploration of the world’s land masses. Much like the snowman-shaped, 33-km (21 mile) long asteroid 2014 MU69 orbiting the edge of the solar system, well beyond Pluto, much of Antarctica remains unchanged since the beginning of recorded time, in no small part because of the desolate conditions.

“There’s no way to make anything like this . . .  type of observation without having a spacecraft out there,” New Horizons deputy project scientist Cathy Olkin told reporters in a press conference just days ago.

The same could be said of SA Agulhas II and the Weddell Sea Expedition. It’s hard to beat being there.

http://en.mercopress.com/2019/01/04/falkland-islander-in-expedition-to-locate-shackleton-s-stricken-endurance-in-antarctica

http://geographical.co.uk/people/explorers/item/1365-on-this-day-1915-shackleton-abandons-endurance

https://www.rgs.org/about/the-society/what-we-do/teachers/weddell-sea-expedition/

Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.29.35 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.48.44 AM.png
Screen Shot 2019-01-04 at 8.57.46 AM.png



From ‘Terror’ to ‘Endurance,’ a New Year’s Day expedition for the ages.

On this New Year’s Day, fresh off sea trials, the SA Agulhas II, one of the largest and most modern polar research ships in the world, will quietly weigh anchor and set sail for the Weddell Sea in Antarctica.

As with oceanographer Robert Ballard’s historic search for the Titanic, the mission is two-fold. There’s a main mission — science and research into the real-world effects of our growing climate emergency — and a less publicized but no less worthy mission, to find the remains of polar explorer Sir Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated ship Endurance

It was thought unlikely, if not  impossible, for example, that anyone would find Sir John Franklin’s HMS Terror, which was abandoned to heavy sea ice in the high Arctic — together with Franklin’s flagship, HMS Erebus —  in Britain’s disastrous the mid-19th century expedition to find a way through Canada’s Northwest Passage.

SA Agulhas II/handout

SA Agulhas II/handout

All 129 men on the Franklin expedition died, making it the worst disaster to strike Britain’s Royal Navy during its long history of polar exploration.

And yet, little more than two years ago, a diving team on the non-profit Arctic Research Foundation’s research ship Martin Bergmann found the Terror in virtually pristine condition, its three masts broken but still standing, at the bottom of the aptly named — and previously uncharted — Terror Bay, just south of Victoria Strait, in Canada’s Northwest Territories. 

Nearly a century later, the Irish-born polar explorer Ernest Shackleton found himself mired in similar circumstances on the other side of the world — literally — when his ship Endurance became  trapped in sea ice during an attempt to make the frist land crossing of the Antarctic continent.

Endurance was slowly crushed in the thickening ice; the crew escaped certain death by camping on the sea ice until it, too, disintegrated.

Unlike Franklin, however, Shackleton managed to lead much of his crew to safety and eventual rescue, by sailing 1,300 kilometres (800 miles) from the Antarctic to South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic in a seven-metre (23 feet) lifeboat, in one of the great tales of survival in maritime history.

©NASA

©NASA

Fast-forward to Jan. 1, 2019, and the SA Agulhas II is about to set sail on a 45-day scientific expedition deep into those areas of the Weddell Sea that are still covered in ice, despite it being the height of the Antarctic summer.

The Agulhas crew will study the effects of climate change and global warming. 

In July, 2017, a giant iceberg twice the size of Luxembourg  — or four times the size of Greater London, if you prefer — calved off the Larsen C ice shelf on the Antarctic Peninsular, the northernmost arm of Antarctica and a hotspot for research because its retreating glaciers are a significant contributor to the global rise in sea levels.

The expedition includes more than 30 international scientists in numerous different fields. The 13,500-tonne, 135-metre (450 feet) icebreaker  Agulhas is equipped with drones, Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs) and deep-diving Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) for collecting data well below the sea’s surface.

National Maritime Museum/archives  - Photo by Frank Hurley

National Maritime Museum/archives - Photo by Frank Hurley

The Endurance is there, just waiting to be found, as the 2016 discovery of Terror proved.

The bigger picture though, appropriate to the increasingly heated conversation about climate change due in the coming year, is all this melting ice — in both polar regions — and what it means to the planet’s future, in both the medium and long term.

As Martin Siegert, professor of geosciences at Imperial College London told The Guardian just days after the iceberg A68 calved off the Larsen C ice shelf in July, 2017, “There is enough ice in Antarctica that if it all melted, or even just flowed into the ocean, sea levels [would] rise by 60 metres.”

Of course, as the Shackleton expedition proved — not to mention the disastrous Robert Falcon Scott “Scott of the Antarctic” expedition just three years earlier, Antarctica has a way of dashing the best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

“Antarctica is a place of extremes,” John Dowdeswell, director of Cambridge University’s Scott Polar Research Institute and the Weddell Sea expedition’s chief scientist, told Guardian science editor Ian Sample just days ago.

“But if we are that close to one of the most iconic vessels in polar exploration, we have got to go and look for it.”

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/26/expedition-scientists-map-larsen-c-ice-shelf-weddell-calving-




 



How newly discovered cave art is changing our perception of early humankind’s story.

Human pre-history keeps changing. Buried down on the list of year-end science stories that grabbed headlines in 2018 — somewhere between the growing impact of livestock on planet Earth’s increasingly fragile ecosystems and speculation about how Bajau ‘sea nomads’ deep-diving the waters off southern Philippines have changed the way we think about natural selection — was newly discovered evidence that Europe’s hegemony on humankind’s story may be misplaced.

In November, a newly uncovered cave painting of a wild banteng, a kind of wild cattle, on Borneo was found to be 40,000 years old, older than the prehistoric Lion-man ivory sculpture discovered in a limestone cave in southern Germany’s Hohlenstein cliffs region, in 1939.

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

©Pindi Setiawan/The Guardian

The Lion-man, dubbed Löwenmensch, was important to science because, until this past year, it was believed to be oldest-known animal-shaped sculpture in the world and, more importantly, the oldest-known uncontested example of figurative art — proving that, while humankind’s early ancestors might have walked out of Africa, it was in Europe where those same ancestors first learned to appreciate art.

That was the theory, anyway.

It was always bound to be controversial, and not just because it caters to a specifically Eurocentric view of civilization but because of nitpicking over artistic interpretation. Carbon dating determined a flaked stone found in Blombos Cave in South Africa — a stone with hashed patterns made by an ochre crayon — was at least 70,000 years old, but the experts decided the markings “fell short” of being identifiable art.

©Wikimedia Commons.

©Wikimedia Commons.

Evidence of identifiable art is important to palaeontologists and art historians alike because it supposedly shows the emergence of minds like our own — civilized, if you will, and reflective of behavioural modernity. Modern-day Homo sapiens are smarter than Homo neanderthalensis — Neanderthals — the thinking goes, because we can tell Michelangelo from Andy Warhol. (Even by this reckoning, early Neanderthals may not have been not as dumb as they looked: a cave wall discovered on Spain’s Cantabrian coast in February of this past year revealed abstract paintings of mysterious figures dating back some 65,000 years; the only people known to be living in northern Spain at the time were Homo neaderthalensis.) As Dr. Adam Rutherford, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science, remarked in a year-end essay for a UK news site, “Neanderthals were simply people, too.”

As human population expands and northern glaciers recede, more and more previously unexplored quarries and caves are being examined and scrutinized. Who knows what hidden tales the coming year will uncover?

Humankind’s history has not been written just yet. Only the early chapters.

https://www.theguardian.com/science/2018/dec/23/the-science-stories-that-shook-2018-genetics-evolution-climate-change-artificial-intelligence


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Finding light in the darkness: An elephants’ tale for Christmas.

Christmas. An uncertain ending to a bleak year. And, to those who pay attention to such things, signs of more bleakness to come. Hurricanes, cyclones. Droughts, forest fires. Dying oceans. Shrinking glaciers, melting polar ice caps. A climate emergency in the present, and a looming mass extinction in the future. Feckless leadership. Unquestioning followers. In the kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is King.

Christmas is traditionally a time of hope and spiritual renewal, regardless of one’s social, political and religious affiliations, but this Christmas seems empty somehow — a throwback to Dickensian times, perhaps, this time with the added distraction of frenzied technology and the ever-present threat of Big Brother, looming over us, driven and enflamed by social media.

And yet.

There are still good, kind people out there. Science and technology is still capable of producing surprises. And miracles. There have been scientific advances in the past year that take the breath away.

Earlier this month, a 15-year-old, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, and a 92-year-old, Sir David Attenborough, stood and delivered before an international conference on climate change, and the world listened.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

NASA landed a space probe on a predetermined, precise spot on the red planet, Mars, after a journey that lasted seven months, over 300 million miles.

The true wonder, which would’ve been unthinkable just a few years ago, was that NASA’s InSight probe beamed pictures from a neighbouring planet, in real time, in such a way that you could watch them on a screen the size of your hand, on your phone.

And in an early Christmas present for anyone who cares about elephants and the health of the world’s remaining wild creatures, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) in the African country of Zambia, together with the conservation NGO Elephant Connection Research Project ( ECR), provided long-awaited proof of the viability of “wildlife corridors” that connect far-flung populations of wild animals across national, political boundaries. Wildlife corridors for animals such as elephants are essential for the revitalization of threatened and endangered species.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

In the case of the Zambia elephant, the pleasure lies in the details. An elephant bull was fitted with a remote tracking collar in 2017. In the past year, he was shown to have walked a long, circuitous route from his original home in in Zambia’s Sioma Ngwezi National Park to neighbouring Kafue National Park, a distance of 390 kilometres, in 14 days, accompanied by six other elephants, through another country.

In moving to Kafue from Sioma Ngwezi through the broader Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA), this elephant and his companions demonstrated that restless tuskers wander in and out of neighbouring countries whenever the mood suits them.

Elephants have been known to wander back and forth between Namibia, Zambia, Angola, Botswana and even neighbouring Zimbabwe and South Africa. The regional transfrontier park system, as represented by the Kavango-Zambezi Transfrontier Conservation Area, recognizes the right of wild animals to travel across national boundaries in protected areas, regardless of any political tensions that may exist between countries. The transfrontier park system was originally proposed in part, co-developed, established and enforced by one of the region’s great elder statesmen. Perhaps you’ve heard of him. His name was Nelson Mandela.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Information and knowledge are vital not just to existing wildlife populations, but for future populations as well. WWF Zambia’s communications officer, Nchimunya Kasongo, noted in a press statement that this isn’t just about elephants. Information gleaned from the satellite-collaring of elephants in Zambia — 15 collared to date — is crucial to understanding the right and wrong way to use land in such a way that subsistence farmers won’t be terrorized by seven-ton elephants, and the elephants in turn won’t be shot by angry farmers. It’s all about lessening the chances for human-wildlife conflict.

The future of the world’s large endangered wild animals, not just elephants but also rhinos, lions, gorillas, jaguars and polar bears wildlife is not only tied to climate change and habitat loss but also making sure the animals who call the wilderness home and the people who live there don’t come into conflict.

Why does this matter? We’ve trashed the planet in recent decades, in thrall to the demands a miserable, insecure society, even as the language of environmental protest has changed. A new, younger generation is involved, and they are engaged in ways we never were. Many of them know, even if we have forgotten, that economics and the environment are inextricably interwoven, in the same way an elephant from Kafue, Zambia is connected to another elephant from Khaudom National Park in Namibia.

Here’s one final thought to leave you with, on this Christmas Day 2018, this one brought to you by Natalie Bennett, former leader of the Green party in Wales and England, writing in The Guardian:

“History is not pre-written, or destined to repeat itself. Offering the hope that with political, economic, social, educational and environmental transformation we can build a society that works for the common good, within the physical limits of this one fragile planet, is politically essential. The politics of the far right is built on fear and we must not feed that.

“Business as usual isn’t an option. But then that is one thing that certainly is not going to happen. That’s good news, for our planet and for its people.”

Merry Christmas, good people of Planet Earth.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons


“Gross worm creatures,” manatees and climate watchdogs — the Week that Was.

It was a Demophis donaldtrumpi kind of week. What was up one minute was down the next.

A newly discovered amphibian that buries its head in the sand joined a growing list of creatures named after the self-styled leader of the free world. Ridicule ensued.

A climate conference ended with a watered-down resolution that vowed to recommit to resolutions promised in the 2015 Paris Agreement and stay the course. The conference ended in a kind of mutual, uncomfortable muted silence, followed quickly by protests that point out that “good enough” is no longer good enough: Climate change is no longer climate change per se but a full-on climate emergency. Not for future generations. Now.

A new civil-disobedience group, Extinction Rebellion, aka XR, renewed calls to take to the streets. The UK-based group has blocked bridges, bolted themselves to government offices and closed roads, all in the name of blocking climate change. Extinction Rebellion’s include zero net carbon emissions by 2025 and a citizens’ advisory panel — a national Citizens’ Assembly — to monitor environmental policy. The movement is not just limited to the UK: Since the group’s inception in October, it has spread to 35 countries. A “national day of protest” is planned for New York on Jan. 26. The group is planning an international week of rebellion in April, timed to coincide with 2019 Earth Day. During this past weekend’s second wave of civil disobedience, thousands of ordinary, everyday people in towns and villages across the UK staged peaceful direct action protests. A demonstration is planned Friday outside the London headquarters of the BBC.

Google Images

Google Images

During UN climate talks in Poland this month, David Attenborough — representing citizens’ voices — warned that unless action is taken soon, “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world is already on the horizon.”

Greta Thunberg, a 15-year-old student from Sweden, seized the spotlight at the UN climate conference with a defiant call to action, coupled with accusations that world leaders are “stealing” children’s futures. They’re not the only ones, to borrow a line from John Lennon.

https://www.eco-business.com/news/9-quotes-that-made-headlines-in-2018/

There were glimmers of hope. Florida’s embattled manatee population appears to have stabilized, if not entirely recovered: Population estimates, based on a two-year study published this past week, pegs the state’s manatee population at 7,500 to 10,000 animals, up from the 5,700 to 8,000 found in a 2011-’12 study, the last time manatees were counted in a proper population survey. Even that news comes with a caveat, however: Scientists found that more than 700 manatees died in the past year alone, mostly from Red Tide and collisions with boats.

https://www.tampabay.com/environment/new-manatee-population-estimate-hits-7000-to-10000-but-more-than-700-have-died-this-year-20181218/

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Nepal’s tiger population has increased as well, despite a worsening crisis in neighbouring India, brought on not so much by poaching and trafficking in body parts as big-picture concerns like climate change, environmental degradation, habitat loss and human overpopulation.

For sheer wackiness, though, few events this past week topped the recently discovered earthworm named after planet Earth’s most notorious destroyer.

EnviroBuild, a green-minded sustainable building materials company headquartered in London, paid $25,000 for the privilege of naming the blind, limbless, newly discovered worm, which buries its head in sand and exhibits behaviour that bears “striking resemblance” to the U.S. Commander-in-Chief’s attitude toward climate change. The money is being put toward a fundraiser for the Rainforest Trust, a nonprofit group dedicated, as the name suggests, to preserving and protecting the world’s remaining rain forests.

EnviroBuild co-found Aidan Bell insisted his company is not overtly political, he said in a prepared statement. “But we do feel strongly that everyone should do everything they can to leave the world in a better way than they found it. . . . As Demorphis donaldtrumpi is an amphibian, it is particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and is therefore in danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of its namesake’s climate policies.”

That namesake famously bragged about his “very high levels of intelligence” and how thinking bigly with his giant brain led him to not believe in climate change.

He rejected the findings of his own administration’s climate change report.

EnviroBuild’s Bell told The Guardian that the worm’s name is “perfect.”

Caecillian, you see, is taken from the Latin caecus, meaning “blind,” perfectly mirroring the, erm, strategic vision (DJT) has consistently shown toward climate change.

It’s been that kind of a week.


Google Images

Google Images



Small is good: How community-based micro-efforts give the environment reason for hope.

So much for digital detox. I return from the tropics — just in time for CoP24 — and find little has changed. Climate change is now a full-on climate emergency, but then if we’re being honest with ourselves, we’ve known that for some time now — long before Mango Circus Freak was elected Leader of the Free World by 63 million low-information voters and climate deniers.

It’s hard to find light in all this darkness — Sir David Attenborough has certainly done his part, even at age 92, with his stirring Planet Earth and Blue Planet films — but as Jane Goodall reminds us in her self-reflective book Reason for Hope, there are always glimmers. We just have to look for them.

And behind every glimmer of light, there’s invariably a small group of committed difference makers who swim against the tide of apathy and willful ignorance, working their hardest to preserve, protect and restore their own small corner of planet Earth.

One such glimmer of hope exists in Mumbai, India — one of the most benighted, overcrowded and polluted metropolises on the entire planet — where, three years ago, activist lawyer Afroz Shah convinced Mumbai residents to clean up pollution-choked Versova Beach. The cynics said he was a fool, a latter-day hippy and would-be cult leader looking to take advantage of gullible locals and convince well-to-do, guilt-laden outsiders to part with their donor money.

He proved the cynics wrong.

versova tweet.jpg

Versova Beach remains a success story today, three years later, albeit the success is mixed. Versova is perhaps not the Utopian ideal and semi-permanent breeding colony for sea turtles some hoped for in the campaign’s early days, but despite the return of some garbage — owing to dumping in surrounding creeks around Mumbai that feed into the sea, Versova today is nowhere near the environmental calamity it was in 2015. (Nature has shown over and again that it doesn’t take much for an ecosystem to recover, given enough time and the concerted efforts of ordinary, everyday people to clean up their act, but many activist organizations prefer not to accentuate that fact, fearing — perhaps quite rightly — that misleading information coupled with willful misinterpretation will lead to complacency and the wrong-headed idea that, no matter what we do to the environment, it will always find a way to recover.)

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.10.51 PM.png

Shah has been in the news again lately, in part because he’s turned his attention to a 17-km stretch of Mumbai’s Mithi River. As the activist who led the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) campaign to remove more than 5.7 million kg. of waste over 90 weeks starting in 2015, he notes that some two million Mumbai residents live along the banks of the Mithi River, choking the river with everything from human waste to everyday household trash.

https://www.hindustantimes.com/mumbai-news/mumbai-s-versova-beach-is-dirty-again-here-s-why/story-fYBkgQXhnHTXnXdqRCQ01H.html 

Shah has been involved in three previous river rejuvenation projects and has been a featured speaker at NGO environmental conferences in Washington DC, and other cities around the world. He estimates that cleaning even that relatively short stretch of the Mithi River will take five years, but it can be done. Of that,  he’s certain.

“The water at all these places is clean,” he told the Times of India this past week. “But (it’s) full of solid waste like plastic, that ultimately floats down to the beaches and oceans.”

https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/afroz-shah-it-will-take-us-five-years-to-clean-mithi-river/articleshow/66709174.cms

In an echo of Attenborough’s series-defining caution in Blue Planet II, Shah says plastic is the real problem.

Versova Screen Shot 2018-12-15 at 3.11.10 PM.png

If we can somehow find a way to wean ourselves off plastic, planet Earth might have a chance.

In the meantime, it’s the small, grassroots community organizations working at the local, grassroots level — not the bureaucracy-heavy NGO multinationals with their high media profiles and slick advertising campaigns — that seem to be making the most difference. Micro is often better than macro, where environmental programs are concerned. It’s those small, community organized efforts that, time and time again, provide tiny glimmers of light that give the wild world reason for hope.




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

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

Back in two weeks.




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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

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


https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07332-x


©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons





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

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

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

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

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

There’s more.

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

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

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

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

• Choose products that require little or no packaging.

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

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

©Pixabay 2018

©Pixabay 2018

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

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

  • Stay informed, and spread the word.

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

It’s never too late, until it is.



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

Mit der Dummheit kämpfen Götter selbst vergebens.

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

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

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

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

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

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

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

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

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

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

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

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

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

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

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

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

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

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

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

©BBC Natural History Unit 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Es nidditmir de neshuma, as they say in Yiddish.

“My soul is vexed.”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/04/attenborough-dynasties-ecological-campaign

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/07/david-attenborough-world-environment-bbc-films

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






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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons


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

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

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

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

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

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy

©Justin Hofman / SeaLegacy


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

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

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

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

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

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

http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy/community/peoples-choice/2018/index.html

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

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54

©Natural History Museum / WPOTY 54