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

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

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

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

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

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

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

Yang Yang, 18, is a multitasker, too.

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

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

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

©Daniel Zupanc

©Daniel Zupanc

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

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

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

©Scheonbrunn Zoo

©Scheonbrunn Zoo

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

©Yang Yang/Museum of Fine Art

©Yang Yang/Museum of Fine Art

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

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

©Schoenbrunn Zoo

©Schoenbrunn Zoo


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru

©Pedro Jarque Krebs/Peru


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

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

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

©Johan Carlberg/Sweden

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

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

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

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

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

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

©Petr Bambousek/Czech Republic

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

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

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

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

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

©Salvador Colvée/Spain

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

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

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

©Richard Shucksmith/UK

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

©NHM/Natural History Museum, BBC Earth

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

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

“Until now.”

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

©Alliance Earth

©Alliance Earth

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

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

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



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

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

Simple. Brilliant. Reason for hope.




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

Images courtesy of Pixabay/COO Creative Commons.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Goodall’s words:

The Human Brain.

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



The Indomitable Human Spirit.

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


The Resilience of Nature.

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


The Determination of Today’s Young People.

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

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

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

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

©Jane Goodall Institute

©Jane Goodall Institute

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

Her books have been published in 48 languages,.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

©Columbia Pictures/Sony

©Columbia Pictures/Sony


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

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

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

©Bill Lishman

©Bill Lishman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

What goes around, comes around.

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

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

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

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

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

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


Less than 15% of world’s oceans untouched by human imprint: Antarctica the last, best hope for future of our blue Planet.

Good news, bad news.

First the bad. The first systematic analysis of the world’s oceans shows that less than 15% of planet Earth’s sea reservoirs remain untouched by human hands. The study, by the University of Queensland, Australia in cooperation with the Wildlife Conservation Society, is an eye-opener, in part because even the researchers themselves were surprised by how little marine wilderness remains.

The ocean, after all, covers more than two-thirds of the Earth’s surface. So if just 15% of that remains untouched, it shows just how far-reaching — and  damaging — humanity’s effect on planet Earth really has been.

The good news is that some efforts are being made to protect what’s left.

Much of that 15% lies in Antarctica, where even some prominent, high-profile fishing companies have agreed to back a UN proposal to establish the world’s largest marine sanctuary.

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

The survey’s findings were published in the journal Current Biology. Ward Appeltans of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, run by UNESCO, noted the research focused on the ocean floor, and did not include effects on the water column above that.

Not surprisingly, the oceanographic commission is backing calls for a global ocean conservation treaty. Just 5% of the world’s remaining oceans lie within existing protected areas, a disparity former U.S. President Barack Obama tried to address before leaving office in January, 2017.

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

©Ward Appeltans/Twitter

There are other bright spots, but they are tiny — and not without their own controversy.

Remote coral gardens around the equatorial atoll of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean are still healthy, though researchers note that in part this is because more than 500 islanders were forcibly removed from their island homes in 1971, as part of an international arrangement between the UK, US, Mauritius and Seychelles, to facilitate the building of an air base.

Pragmatists may also be forgiven for wondering about the potential environmental impact of a military airbase on pristine coral reefs and the surrounding sea, given the penchant for secrecy around anything to do with national, international and hemispheric security.

Antarctica is the key to any future decisions, though.

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

©©Pixabay/COO Creative Commons

Antarctica lies within an area loosely defined in marine terms as “the high seas,” those areas beyond protected areas that individual nations can establish as part of their territorial waters.

That is why an all-nations international agreement, such as that which can only be negotiated by the UN or a similar worldwide body, is so important.

Climate change and ocean acidification, coupled with more obvious manmade activities such as industrial fishing, global shipping, pollution in coastal areas and resource extraction, are having a profound effect, not just on marine ecosystems but on the world’s weather patterns.

As David Attenborough warned in his epic BBC series Blue Planet II last December, the world’s oceans are under threat as never before.

In January, marine scientists warned that the oceans are suffocating. So-called “dead zones” have multiplied four-fold since 1950.

In February, new surveys showed that more than half the world’s oceans are now industrially fished.

Is it too late?

Perhaps not, if more nations — and individuals — accept the old proviso, Not on my watch., whether that means scaling back some $4 billion in government fishing subsidies toward fishing on the high seas or deciding against Chilean sea bass the next time you go to a fancy seafood restaurant.

“Thirty years of climate hysterics proved wrong time and time again” — What price willful blindness?

Media tycoons can be just as dimwitted, disingenuous — or downright dishonest — as the next person.

I have posted already about the frightfully stupid column by a media tycoon weeks back in a national newspaper in Canada, and its audience-grabbing headers, Thirty years of climate hysterics being proven wrong over and over again, and, There is no justification for the self-punitive nonsense of the Paris climate accord, and — yes! there’s more! — Most of our political and academic leaders are so far over-invested in defending against something that is not happening, they continue to call for the sacrifice of others.

You see, because if media tycoons are known for anything, it’s their selflessness and finely tuned sense of sacrifice, honed over many decades, centuries even, of looking out for their fellow human being.

Economic suicide — i.e. shutting down oil fields and getting off fossil fuels once and for all — is only tempting to those who have forgotten what pre-industrial life was like, it ended.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Why stop at the pre-industrial age, though? If we’re dealing with the semantics of history, why not rewind all the way back to the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction period, the so-called K-T event, some 65.5 million years ago. For many years, palaeontologists believed this event was caused by climate change that disrupted the dinosaurs’ food chain.

Scientific discoveries in the mid-1980s, based on geological findings of the rare element of iridium in rock samples taken from that time, suggest the most likely culprit was a meteor or asteroid that kicked up so much dust it effectively triggered a global blackout, ushering a new ice age. The theories are many; the proof in short supply. What evidence there is shows that the planet did slowly became cooler during that time, the late Mesozoic Era, during which the dinosaurs died out, after surviving some 160 million years in a hot, humid, tropical climate. Dinosaurs, like today’s reptiles, you see, were cold-blooded; they obtained body heat from the sun, and so would not have been able to survive a considerably colder climate.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Mammals are warm-blooded, and while it’s a stretch to say all mammals are ill-suited to adapt to a suddenly hotter climate, “economic suicide” is clearly a matter of degree. As environmental activist and marine wildlife conservationist Paul Watson once told me — though you don’t need an activist to tell you this — there’s not much point in worrying about what you do for a living if the entire planet is unliveable.

In the time between my last post and this post, this has happened:

More than 50 forest fires have broken out in Sweden, a nation more known for its cold and snow than fires which — and this is true — are now breaking out inside the Arctic Circle.

@World Health Organization/Twitter

@World Health Organization/Twitter

But wait, there’s more. Following catastrophic floods across Japan, temperatures there have now reached north of 40°C, and thousands have been hospitalized for heat-related reasons.

Toronto, a city known more for its obsession with ice-hockey than anything else, has recorded temperatures that exceeded 30°C on 18 days so far this year, well ahead of the 10 such days all last last summer.

Oh, and scorching weather across the UK has melted panels on the roof of the Science Centre in Glasgow, Scotland, as well blistering agricultural fields throughout a verdant land more known for its craggy highlands and rolling sea mists than once-in-a-generation heatwaves.

As an article in the Sunday Observer this past weekend by science editor Robin McKie noted, climate scientists point to a number of factors, not just climate change and global warming but also the jet stream, which is uncommonly weak right now. A weak jet stream causes weather patterns like high-pressure ridges in the northern hemisphere to stall, which in turn leads to substantial increases in sea-surface temperature across the North Atlantic, which in turn cause more drought on dry land. One factor feeds on the other. The more heat there is, the hotter it gets. Everything is connected, as David Attenborough keeps reminding us in his nature programs.

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

©Reanalyzer/Climate Change Institute/University of Maine

Again, you don’t need a science degree to understand this, but constantly rising global carbon emissions — man-made or not, regardless of whether you think they’re the whole cause or only part of the cause — DO. NOT. HELP.

As events of the past week and the summer so far  suggest, heatwaves are becoming more frequent and more intense, and, as one marine scientist (with the Scottish Marine Institute, Oban) told the Observer: “That is something . . . we should be very worried about.”

You know, on second thought, any economic fallout from the Paris Agreement may be a small price to pay.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

“Thirty years of climate hysterics being proved wrong time and time again.” Oh, balls. Seriously, now — balls.

The headline was one of the most stupid declaratives I have seen in quite some time, but it’s worth mentioning because it shows, better than anything I can think of, the scale of the problem facing climatologists, environmentalists and anyone concerned about the future health of Planet Earth. Thirty years of climate hysterics being proven wrong over and over again.

That heading appeared in a national newspaper I shall not dignify by naming. It was accompanied by a column written by a bellicose newspaper magnate and unapologetic climate denier, who I shall also not dignify by naming.

Every sane person is opposed to the pollution of the environment, it continued — an exercise in distraction if ever there was one, considering the words to follow — but there is no justification for the self-punitive nonsense of the Paris climate accord.

Said national newspaper is a tireless advocate of fossil fuels, Big Oil and, specifically, the Alberta tar sands, the filthiest, dirtiest, most ruinous-to-the-environment form of extracting fossil fuel there is. Jobs — or, more importantly, the quarterly profit statements of mining companies and Big Oil matter more than the future health of the planet, to cut to the chase.

Never mind that, though. Take another look at that comment: Thirty years of climate hysterics being proven wrong over and over again.

Pixabay/Creative Commons

Pixabay/Creative Commons

Never mind the past 30 years. Let’s look at the last 30 days.

The past month has seen power shortages across California as record temperatures — 47.2°C one recent weekend in Los Angeles — drove a surge in the use of air conditioners. A prolonged heatwave across the UK melted the roof of a science centre in Glasgow, Scotland, a nation state more renowned for its damp and drizzle damp than blistering heat. Ouargla, a remote desert town in Algeria’s Sahara,  experienced the hottest temperature ever recorded on the entire continent of Africa: 51.3°C on July 5th.

Night-time provides little relief — in itself an anomaly — in some hot spots around the globe: Quriyat, on the gulf coast of Oman, recorded minimum overnight temperatures of 42.6°, set a new mark for the highest “low” temperatures ever recorded on Planet Earth.



A “heat dome” over much of Eurasia culminated in dramatic higher-than-average heat-wave temperatures throughout Russia during the World Cup; the post-match ceremony at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow was interrupted by a sudden deluge of near Biblical proportions. French president Emmanuel Macron was forced to wring the rainwater out of his suit jacket after the World Cup trophy was presented to Les Bleus; Russian president Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, was allowed to retain his dignity after a minder present a black umbrella to shield him from the torrential downpour of a Moscow monsoon. (Note to climate deniers: Moscow is not particularly renowned for its monsoon rains, not even in July.)

©FIFA World Cup 2018

©FIFA World Cup 2018

But wait, there’s more. Torrential flooding across Japan, four times the monthly average, led to more than 150 deaths in one of the most technologically advanced, climate-aware nations on the planet. A lethal heat wave across southern Quebec, prompting dozens more deaths (54 to be exact , as of July 14th). Montreal set a new record high temperature of 36.6°C on July 2nd.

Western Siberia, which noted climate denier Sarah Palin can see from her living room, recorded five straight days of temperatures rising to more than 30°C this past month. 

That’s a big deal because climate scientists, environmentalists and field biologists worry this will accelerate the melting of permafrost, which — science again — will release vast amounts of methane, a more problematic and potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere.

heat3 wave usa heat graph.jpg

The issue is not just wild fluctuations in hot and cold but rather that weather fronts — both hot and cold — are stalling or being blocked by shifts in the jet-stream. That causes droughts and storms to linger longer in one place, which exacerbates the damage. Recent high temperatures, intense rains and slow-moving fronts are becoming the rule, not the exception. And scientists — those wieners — warn these weather changes are in line with their predictions of how increased, and constantly rising, gas emissions are likely to affect the climate.

Weather is not the same as climate, of course, but the two are related. One is short-term, the other is long-term. The expression “global warming,” now out of favour with most climate scientists, is misleading because it implies that heat is the primary indicator of Planet Earth’s deteriorating health, when it’s climate extremes — wild, unpredictable swings between extreme heat and extreme cold — that is the more serious and hard-to-isolate problem.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Every issue, especially one as complex and (unnecessarily) controversial as climate change, needs a snappy picture or viral video to bring the message to the public. Just such a video emerged this past week from western Greenland, where a huge iceberg that drifted close to the coastal town of Innaarsuit, prompted a mass evacuation, in case the iceberg calved in such a way that the resulting wave, likened to a tsunami, would swamp people’s homes.

This is not a joke: Last summer, four people died after waves swamped houses in northwestern Greenland, following a seaquake.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Climate scientists have coined a new term, “extreme iceberg risks,” which they say are becoming more frequent, because of climate change.

Back to that screed in a right-wing national newspaper in Canada.

Alongside that declaration about how Thirty years of climate hysterics (are) being proven wrong over and over again came this what newspaper people call “nut graph:” “No ice has been lost by Greenland, other than what melts every summer and then forms again, and water levels have not moved appreciably.”

Yes, indeed! And here’s the video to prove it.

Not all right-leaning media outlets believe climate change is simply the fevered dream of hand-wringing hysterics and unrepentant lefties.

The UK’s Daily Mail, not exactly a bastion of Guardian or Independent-style progressive thinking, warned in no uncertain terms on July 4th that global warming — climate change by any other name — is to blame for all-time heat record being set worldwide, even as the experts — those wieners — warn that these already stifling temperatures will continue to soar.

I don’t know about you, but I’m with the climate hysterics.

Hunting the hunters — when animals bite back.


The philosophy of action, no less an authority than the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi famously said, is that no one else is the giver of peace or happiness. One’s own actions are responsible to come to bring either happiness or success or whatever.

The answer in this case, as it turned out, was “whatever.”

Suspected rhino poachers broke into a South African game reserve late at night this past week — hoping,  no doubt, to bag themselves a couple of rhinos. Rhino horn fetches more than its weight in gold or cocaine on today’s black market, and that has led to a thriving illegal trade in the horn.

The poachers no doubt expected to make an easy killing — rhinos, after all, are near-sighted, none too bright and make a tempting target. The poachers were looking to make a quick buck — but lions got them instead.


It sounds like one of those apocryphal tales the African wilds are famous for, but anyone with even a rudimentary knowledge of bushcraft knows that truth is often stranger than fiction where lions are concerned.

©Sibuya Game Reserve

©Sibuya Game Reserve

The story was first reported by local news outlets near Sibuya Game Reserve in South Africa’s Eastern Cape Province, but anyone assuming it was just another case of fake news was quickly disabused of the notion. The reserve’s on-duty veterinarian darted the offending lions so that police forensic investigators could isolate the evidence — this, after human remains were found last Tuesday, alongside discarded wire cutters, a high-powered rifle, three pairs of boots and three pairs of gloves.

A pride of half a dozen lions was found to be resting nearby — one likes to think well fed and sunning themselves under the winter sun.

Sibuya is a private reserve; owner Nick Fox told local media that one of his security staff heard a loud commotion coming from the lions sometime late last Sunday night or in the early hours of Monday morning.

©Sibuya Game Reserve

©Sibuya Game Reserve

Fox concluded the poachers must have stumbled onto the lions in the dark, never to be seen or heard from again. Lions, unlike humans,  can see well in the dark — their night vision is six times sharper than that of humans — and do most of their hunting under cover of darkness. Daylight is for sleeping, where lions are concerned.

Once police confirmed the evidence and entered the incident into the official record, the story was quickly picked up by the international news agencies Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, and from there to BBC, CNN International and al-Jazeera, among other cable-news outlets. ( )

This isn’t the first time hunted animals have had their Day of the Triffids moment, of course, nor will it be the last.

In May of this year, South African big game hunter and prototypical fat man Theunis Botha, 51, died after being crushed by an elephant that had been shot on a private reserve in Zimbabwe. Botha cashed in his chips — and I am not making this up — at the aptly named Good Luck Farm, near Zimbabwe’s world-famous — and now infamous — Hwange National Park.

Theunis Botha

Theunis Botha

Hwange was where Cecil the lion met his end at the hands of a fat American dentist, Walter Palmer, in July, 2015.

In February of this past year, a poacher hunting big cats was mauled to death by lions at a private gamed reserve in South Africa. The unidentified poacher was killed at the 3,000-hectare Ingwelala Nature Reserve, an hour’s drive outside Hoedspruit, in South Africa’s Limpopo province.

The incident happened just months after a poacher in Namibia, identified as Luteni Muhararakua, was charged and killed by a rhino he was hunting for its horn.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

This past January, a Russian man was shot dead by his own dog during a winter hunting trip on the banks of the Volga River in southwestern Russia. Sergei Terekhov, 64, died after letting his two hunting hounds out of his car. As the dogs began to frolic, one of the dog’s paws caught the trigger of Terekhov’s hunting rifle, which was on the ground at the time, with the barrel pointed toward his chest.

According to a story in the UK newspaper The Independent at the time, investigators told the Russian Vzglyad-Info news agency, and I quote, “An experienced hunter was killed. He was sober. There was a permit for weapons. Everything was OK. There was an accident.”

Also in January, a Croatian hunter, Pero Jelenic, 75, was killed by a stray bullet while hunting lions during a so-called canned hunt at South Africa’s Leeubosch Lodge, a four-hour drive from Johannesburg about 50 kms. from the Botswana border. A friend of Jelenic’s told Croatia’s Jutarnji List newspaper that Jelenic, “died doing what he loved — his office, a hunting hall, was full of trophies, deer and bear specimens and everything that could be hunted in Croatia and Europe.”

Clearly, Africa proved too big for him.



Then there was the young bull elephant that crushed professional hunter and Ian Gibson to death after Gibson, 55, tried to shoot it in Zimbabwe’s Zambezi Valley little more than a year ago, in June, 2017.

©Zimbabwe Today

©Zimbabwe Today

Would it surprise you to learn Gibson was a little on the heavy side?

Think of it as a recurring theme.

As late-night comedian Bill Maher said at the time, “You know the elephant is the nobler of the two because, when the hunter wins, it’s the greatest moment of his life, and when the elephant wins, it’s, ‘Eww, what did I step in?”

These karmic moments are few and far between, of course, given the scale of the destruction being wreaked against the natural world today.

Still, every little moment counts. There’s always room for hope.

Sand mining — the global environmental crisis you’ve never heard of.

As incredible as it might seem, the world is running out of sand.

Depending on who you talk to, whether in academia or in the conservation community — or with anyone who keeps up on the news and reads between the lines —sand is the new gold, the new coltan, the new diamonds.

The New Yorker, The Guardian, al-Jazeera English, The Economist, Business Insider, the journal Science and countless others have weighed in on the looming sand crisis.

As headlines go, though, this one is decidedly unsexy. Sand doesn’t have its own lobby group. Sand isn’t an icon animal on the brink of extinction, nor does it seem as immediate and far-reaching in our day-to-day lives as the precarious state of the world’s oceans. Not even David Attenborough, probably,  could pull off a cautionary documentary series about sand, and get people to watch.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

I’ve enclosed a couple of links below to the more authoritative, recent — and reliable — media accounts of what for all intensive purposes looks like a looming existential crisis.

Here at a glance, though, are the big-picture issues, facts, questions and arguments, whittled down to a few brief, basic pointers.

• The problem, as always, is overpopulation — too many people, with more arriving all the time — coupled with overheated economies competing for a finite and ever-dwindling supply of natural resources.

• Sand is vital for use in construction. It is one of the  primary ingredients of concrete.

• The world’s largest, ever-expanding deserts contain huge deposits of sand, it is true, but it’s the wrong kind.

• Desert sand is composed mostly of tiny, finely rounded grains, sculpted and smoothed by wind erosion. The sand used in concrete is of a more jagged, rough-edged kind — the kind found, ideally, at the bottom of riverbeds.

• Riverbed sand is prized because it has the right texture and purity, and is constantly washed clean by running water. Freshwater, not salt.

• As the sand needed for construction becomes more sought after, there’s a growing black market in sand that’s illegally obtained.

• Demand drives the market, as always. Sadly for the environment, a hollowed-out riverbed in a protected, environmentally sensitive area can take decades, generations — centuries, even — to recover.

• In the meantime, illegally dredged sand leaves  environmental ruin in its wake. Sand barriers and coral reefs that protect coast communities can collapse; drinking water is polluted; and habitat that sustains fish, turtles and other riverine life is destroyed.

• Illegal sand-dredging is conducted on an industrial scale, with hundreds of trucks filled, often late at night, in a matter of hours. 

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Strange but true: The world’s tallest skyscraper, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, is surrounded by sand, part of the Arabian Desert, a vast desert wilderness that stretches from Yemen in the Persian Gulf to Jordan and Iraq in the heart of the Middle East. And yet, the Burj Khalifa was constructed with concrete incorporating “the right kind of sand” — imported from Australia. Everything comes at a cost.

Sand may not be a headline grabber, but the numbers are truly vast. 

Consider this: In 2014, the most recent year for which hard figures are available, sand accounted for 85 percent of the total weight of minded material on Planet Earth that year. That’s an issue because, according to published reports, sand is replenished by rock erosion over thousands years.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

High demand inevitably leads to scarcity, which in turn means money — and money means trouble. The world sand extraction market is estimated to be worth some USD $70 billion a year; a cubic metre of sand can fetch as much as USD $100 in areas of high demand and short supply.

Sand mining is unsustainable over the long term. More and more, scientists insist this is a hidden ecological disaster in the making. We’ll be hearing a lot more about sand in the coming years, they say.

Life’s a beach, it seems, in more ways than one. To paraphrase the late great Jimi Hendrix, even castles made of sand, fall into the sea, eventually.

Tourism and cheetahs: When too much of one can lead to too few of the other.

Think of it as an “eco” challenge for uniquely modern times.

Recent research by Oxford University shows what wildlife behavioural scientists have long suspected — and told anyone who will listen. Namely: Unchecked, unregulated wildlife tourism can be detrimental to those animals most vulnerable to having their hunting and breeding cycles disrupted by swarms of safari vehicles all jostling to get an ideal position from which to get that perfect picture.

The four-year study, authored by Oxford zoologist Dr. Femke Broekhuis from 2013-2017, focused on cheetahs in Kenya’s world-renowned Maasai Mara National Reserve, site of the annual wildebeest migration that moves through the protected wilderness area every July, August and September. 

©Jan Broekhuis

©Jan Broekhuis

(The rest of the year, the migration winds its way through the larger, more expansive Serengeti National Park, across the border in Tanzania.) The Mara, as Kenya’s part of the park is known to locals and area residents alike, is especially popular with overseas tourists because Kenya is more conducive than its neighbour to mass tourism, thanks to better facilities, more competitive pricing.

Also, the aptly named Mara River, for which the reserve is named, provides the sight of yearly “river crossings,” featuring some 1.3 million wildebeest in total, which in turns acts as a magnet for the reserve’s resident predators, including big cats like lions, leopards and cheetahs.

©Pixabay/Cheetah Conservation Fund-CCF Namibia

©Pixabay/Cheetah Conservation Fund-CCF Namibia

Most predators are nocturnal, but cheetahs are diurnal, meaning they hunt during the day.

Cheetahs are easily intimidated, because of their light build — they’re built for speed, as befitting nature’s fastest land mammal — and show a tendency to flee from a perceived threat rather than stand and fight. Lions will kill cheetahs whenever they can, as nature has conditioned lions to see cheetahs as competition for a finite supply of food. Cheetah cubs are especially vulnerable, as they’re born basically defenceless. 

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Cub mortality is exceedingly high among cheetahs — it’s one reason they have such large litters — but it’s especially high in the wide, flat, short-grass savannahs of East Africa, where the very terrain that makes it easy for cheetahs to find and chase down food also makes them vulnerable to being spotted by other predators.

The crisis comes when too many tourists — Broekhuis’ study cited as many as 30 vehicles crowding around a single cheetah at the same time during one sighting — disrupts a cheetah’s hunting pattern.

©©Africa Geographic

©©Africa Geographic

If a mother cheetah doesn’t make a kill during daylight hours, the time when tourist vehicles are most active — obviously — she may starve. 

Also, because cheetahs often have their kill stolen by larger, more aggressive predators, including hyenas, large numbers of tourist vehicles crowded together often sends a signal to other predators that an easy meal may be in the offing. Cheetahs may even be intimidated by packs of jackals or vultures in large enough number.

Since even a slight injury to a leg is tantamount to a death sentence for an animal that relies on speed to chase down food, nature has conditioned cheetahs to back down rather than stand and fight. The hungrier a cheetah is, however, the more it might be inclined to take foolish risks, especially if hunting has been hard and it has cubs to feed.

©Mara Cheetah Project

©Mara Cheetah Project

“Studies from about 10 years ago by the Kenya Wildlife Service showed an average of 19 vehicles,” Dr. Laurie Marker, founder and director of the Namibia-based Cheetah Conservation Fund ( told Dispatches in a Facebook message. “So, yes, this is very bad for cheetahs.”

None of this is new to anyone who has studied cheetahs in the wild, or even read about them and seen them in animal documentaries. What makes the Oxford study different, though, is that this time researchers have hard numbers to back up their claims.

The study found that the average number of cubs raised to independent adulthood in the Maasai Mara was just 0.2 cubs per litter, meaning a mother cheetah in the Mara would have to give birth to five litters just to raise a single cub to adulthood. The average birth-to-adult success rate in more remote, less heavily touristed wilderness areas is 2.3 cubs per litter.

The Maasai Mara is renowned for its big cat populations; it’s one of the reasons so many tourists choose that park over any other. The Mara has been featured in countless TV documentaries, and provided the setting for BBC-TV’s popular Big Cat Diary series, which followed specific family groups of lions, leopards and cheetahs every year over a period of a dozen years between 1996 and 2008, creating a snapshot view of individual cats’ entire life cycles, from birth to death.

©Pablo Marx/Flickr

©Pablo Marx/Flickr

Big Cat Diary promoted and popularized the Maasai Mara as a travel destination for wildlife enthusiasts, more so than any other park in Africa, including the Serengeti and South Africa’s world famous — but very different — Kruger National Park.

Broekhuis is enough of a realist — and honest enough — to know that wildlife tourism does a great deal to help endangered animals, especially icon species like cheetahs. Catching even a glimpse of a cheetah in the wild is a more stirring and profound experience than a lifetime of seeing them in zoos. One of the more overlooked, less-reported unintended side effects of wildlife tourism, especially in Africa’s magnificent game parks, is that it can shape a child or young person’s outlook and future career choice for life.

The question, Broekhuis argues, is not whether tourism is a benefit or a hazard, but a matter of degree.

The Maasai Mara is popular for a reason, but 64 vehicles over a two-hour period — the most vehicles Broekhuis recorded at a single cheetah sighting during her four-year study — is untenable.



Broekhuis says the solution is strict viewing guidelines  and enforcement of the rules, whether it’s a ban on off-road driving (in effect in the Mara, and in virtually every other official national park on the African continent) a limit on the number of vehicles around a cheetah at any one time (Broekuis recommends five) at a minimum distance of 30 metres.

The study’s timing could not be more apt: July, just days away, is the beginning of high season in the Mara.

©Wildlife Conservation Research Unit/University of Oxford

©Wildlife Conservation Research Unit/University of Oxford

World Giraffe Day 2018 — the long and the short of it.

On this summer solstice, please spare a thought for one of the world’s most recognizable animals. Today’s as good a day as any to recognize and celebrate the longest-necked animal on the planet — the longest day (or night, depending in which hemisphere you happen to be right now) of the year.

Celebrate but, hopefully, not commemorate.

Because one of the more underreported, overlooked environmental stories of the year is that the giraffe, that iconic animal and the stuff of countless fables and children’s storybooks, is now on the endangered species list.

According to the world-respected wildlife biologist and giraffe expert Dr. Julian Fennessy, giraffe populations have crashed by nearly half in just the past three decades, numbers even a Trumptard can understand.

Giraffes are now extinct in seven countries in which they used to thrive. Since a giraffe only has one offspring at a time, and the gestation period is 13 to 15 months, it doesn’t take a mathematician to figure out the entire species might be facing the immutable law of diminishing returns.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The Australian-born Fennessy is co-founder and executive director of the Namibia-based — yes, Namibia again — Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) ( and co-chair of the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Giraffe and Okapi Specialist Group.

Fennessy initiated genetic research that found there are four species of giraffe in Africa, of which two — the Northern giraffe and the Reticulated giraffe — are among the world’s most critically endangered mammals. Even the familiar, and relatively common,  Maasai giraffe isn’t out of the woods entirely.

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Taken as a whole, the giraffe — as defined as a single species — is now listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered animals.

Oddly, despite the giraffe’s profile in popular culture, little was known about them, let alone giraffe conservation, when Fennessy first founded the GCF as a modest, UK-based NGO in 2009, with just a handful of staff members.

“There had never been a full-time giraffe person before,” Fennessy told the South China Morning Post’s Tessa Chan earlier this month, before a Royal Geographical Society lecture in Hong Kong on the plight facing this gentle, graceful mammal.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The GCF has been conducting extensive population surveys in Uganda in cooperation with that country’s Uganda Wildlife Authority, using individual photographic markers and computer files. Population surveys used to be done from the air, using planes and helicopters, a process which is notoriously unreliable, Fennessy says, even with an animal as large and easy to spot as a giraffe.

“They have a (coat) pattern like a fingerprint,” Fennessy explained, “so we can ID them and over years build up a database.”

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

©Giraffe Conservation Foundation/GCF

Fennessy believes conservation efforts have gained ground in Uganda, thanks largely to his group’s efforts, and in GCF’s home country of Namibia, but giraffes still face a poaching crisis in other African countries where they’re clinging to life — Ethiopia, South Sudan, Cameroon and the constantly war-torn  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Giraffes are sometimes killed just for their tail, for use as a fly swat.

“So they kill a whole giraffe and leave it, just for the tail,” he told the Morning Post.

People can become actively involved beyond being simply an armchair conservationist through donation, by sponsoring a giraffe or by helping with funding efforts.

giraffe pixabay inset.jpg

Just as importantly — perhaps even more so — Fennessy asks that anyone considering a safari in Africa can support responsible ecotourism by asking the travel company what they do for conservation on the ground and — and this is the critical part — how they support local communities that live with and around wild animals.

The Johannesburg-based NGO African Parks actively vets safari companies and is willing to share information with anyone who asks.

If there’s one benefit to living in these times, Fennessy says, it’s that the world has become a small place: It’s easy to share information and learn new things at the click of a mouse.

As African Parks’ Andrea Heydlauff told a National Geographic-sponsored audience at the Half-Earth Day 2017 conference in Washington, DC, “what’s fantastic is that wildlife can rebound. Nature knows what to do. They just need to be given the space and security in order to thrive. And where wildlife thrives, people thrive.”

Reason for hope.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Of angels and demons: How humankind changed the planet and created the Anthropocene epoch.

Humankind’s footprint on planet Earth is now so deep that scientists argue we need to have our own epoch named after us: the Anthropocene.

Epochs are traditionally measured in terms of millions of years — longer than an age, but shorter than a period. Since humankind has been living on the planet for little more than a blink-of-an-eye in geologic time, that’s saying a lot. According to the Cosmic Calendar, an eye-opening chart that distills the 13.8 billion year history of the universe down to a single year, humankind’s early ancestors first walked upright at 10:30pm on the final day of December. Modern humans evolved at 11:52pm; the early human migrations out of Africa happened some time between 11:56pm and 11:59pm.

anthro1 Cosmic_Calendar.png

Everything we know and have achieved — from the early cave paintings to the beginnings of agriculture, permanent settlements and so on, to reading, writing, art, music, the Industrial Revolution and the age of the Internet, has happened in the final minute of the last day of the 12th month of the Cosmic Calendar year.

That’s a pretty sobering thought when you consider that roughly 1.2 seconds ago in geologic time, Columbus arrived in America; everything from overpopulation and human-influenced climate change to the despoiling of the rain forest, fouling of the oceans and mass extinctions has unfolded since then.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Geologists don’t just identify epochs out of thin air. An epoch has to leave a geological imprint in solid rock — in sediments buried below the ground, in ice glaciers (now melting) or on canyon walls, if you like. The Anthropocene epoch, many of these geologists now argue, is an actual thing because evidence of human activity is now being imprinted in geological formations. “We are mining the planet’s surface, acidifying our oceans, creating new rock layers laced with plastic, and exterminating many species,” science editor Robin McKie wrote this past weekend in London’s Sunday Observer. “The consequences of these actions will be detectable in rocks for millions of years.”

A new study by University College of London researchers Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin identifies colonialism — the way guns, germs and steel shaped the New World — as the prime mover behind the tectonic shift on the geologic timescale; other scientists cite the detonation of the first atomic bomb as the moment when the Anthropocene epoch dawned (their argument being that the earliest atomic bombs left a radioactive record in Earth’s rocks), while still others point to the proliferation of plastics, which are forming their own geological layers by becoming embedded in rocks.

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

The real question, of course — and the great unanswerable — is how the Anthropocene epoch will shape and change planet Earth, and whether our home world can survive it, or whether, as geological time has shown over the ages, epochs and periods, nothing is forever and all life changes eventually, even life itself.

“We have become a new force of nature, dictating what lives and what goes extinct,” Maslin told the Sunday Observer. “Although, in one crucial respect, we are unlike any other force of nature: Our power, unlike plate tectonics or volcanic eruptions, is reflexive. It can be used, modified or even withdrawn.”

“It would be wise,” Maslin and Lewis wrote later on the BBC’s website, “to use this immense power to give the best chance for people, and the rest of life, all to flourish.”

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

©Pixabay/Creative Commons

Anthony Bourdain on a life hard-lived: ‘Another thing you did . . . another place you’ve been.’

Is it possible to be both shaken and stirred at the same time?

I know that feeling today.

I never met Anthony Bourdain in person, but I feel like he was in the seat beside me while I was winging my way to Namibia, literally halfway around the world from where I live, a few years back.

I had loaded my iPad with Africa-centric episodes of Bourdain’s lively, live-and-let-live CNN series Parts Unknown, and I knew enough about Mozambique,  Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal, Ethiopia and Tanzania — all countries Bourdain passed through during his 11 seasons of making Parts Unknown — that, and there’s no delicate way to put this, he was no bullshit artist.

Whatever he was, and he was plenty, he did not take fools gladly. And he wasn’t about to sing the praises of a travel destination if there were no praises to sing.

He had a way of winning the hearts and minds of those he broke bread with, and he was both a lively TV host and, more importantly, a lively and entertaining dinner guest. He was incurably curious, even toward the end, and that’s rare in those who’ve succeeded beyond all expectations, and in the public eye at that. He had every right to be jaded, even at age 61, but as those who’ve watched his most recent  sojourns through Uruguay, Armenia and Hong Kong know — all episodes that aired earlier this season on CNN, with episodes based in Berlin, Bhutan and “Cajun Mardi Gras” yet to air — he still had the wide-eyed curiosity of a little boy flipping through a world atlas for the first time and wondering whether they serve fries with that, whether it’s in the French Alps or Southern Italy, on “the Heel of the Boot,” as he put it.



He could be loud, abrasive, outspoken and in-your-face — he famously banned a certain New York real-estate mogul, blowhard and leader of the free world from his restaurant in the nation’s capital — but he was a terrific listener.

Many TV hosts don’t bother with listening, but Bourdain not only listened; he genuinely cared. As I say, no bullshit artist. I frankly doubt he could have lied to spare someone’s feelings even if he wanted to.

Anyone who watched Parts Unknown — whether regularly, like a habitual pilgrimage to a favorite restaurant, or on-and-off, like an off-the-cuff, impromptu sampling of the dishes at an unfamiliar buffet — is likely to have come away with favorite moments.

As I try to come to grips with Friday’s news that Bourdain is no longer with us — he was only 61, for crying out loud — I’ve narrowed my choice memories down to two, that for me encapsulate everything I enjoyed about Bourdain, his travels, his personality, his countenance, and the way his mind worked. (Personal confession: I am arguably the world’s worst stay-at-home cook, an avid believer in takeout and an unapologetic junk-food junkie, and so whatever appeal Bourdain’s programs No Reservations and Parts Unknown held for me, pretending to be a worldly chef is not among them.)



First, Bourdain was a fine writer — another attribute not particularly common among either celebrity chefs or TV presenters — and he always tried to frame his programs around a singular narrative that reflected the place or culture of the place he was visiting. This wasn’t contrived or forced, either; an avid book reader and dedicated follower of pop-culture, he had a way of viewing even an unfamiliar place through a familiar lens, but without appearing to be patronizing or condescending. He reminded me most of the fine travel writer, essayist and novelist Paul Theroux, one of my favorite writers, and it was a thrill to see Bourdain swap tales with Theroux in person during a 2015 tete-a-tete over Hawaiian stew in Honolulu, near where Theroux now makes his home.

My two memories — yours will no doubt be different — are of Bourdain’s sixth-season return to Borneo, after a 10-year absence, and his eighth-season sit-down at a noodle shop in Hanoi, Vietnam (“one of these classic, funky, family-run noodle shops you find all over Hanoi, where dinner and a beer cost about six dollars”), when a fleet of black SUVs pulls up and he’s joined by that other leader of the free world — you know, the one who was born in Kenya — who complains, in a free-wheeling, free-ranging conversation, about uncouth eating habits, over a bowl of bun cha (pork patties and pork belly, served in a broth of vinegar, sugar and fermented fish sauce, with chillies and sticky cold noodles, “and get ready for the awesomeness”).



First, though, my fondest memory is of one of the very first Parts Unknown’s I happened to see, Bourdain’s return to Borneo, which first aired on Nov. 1, 2015. “When I first went up this river,” Bourdain opened his voice-over with, in an Apocalypse Now-inspired opening up a jungle river, “I was sick with love. The bad kind. The fist-around-your-heart kind. I ran far, but there was no escaping it. It followed me upriver, all the way. That was ten long years ago. A previous episode of a previous series, of a previous life. Yet here I am again. Heading up to that same longhouse in the jungle.”

That’s instructive to remember today, the day Bourdain’s sudden passing was announced, because while he was always clear about his drug taking and boozing in his misspent younger years, it was on that Colonel Kurtz-Marlon Brando inspired journey up a jungle river in Borneo that he exposed his heart of darkness to the world watching on CNN.

Far up the river, far removed from civilization, thunder rolls and a gray sky descends. Bourdain must kill a pig for the night’s feast — as the honored guest, it’s a village tradition — and Bourdain, shades of Apocalypse Now, has mixed emotions about it.



“I’d like to tell you that this is never easy, that I felt this time like I did the first time: sad, nauseated, complicit, aware that I’d crossed a line, been changed by the blood, the violence and the awful noise,” he told the camera. “But that would be a lie. This time, I plunged the spear in without hesitation or remorse.”

Cue dark, electronic music, and blood mixing in the river water.

“When the pig dies,” Bourdain continued, “finally gives it up, I feel only relief. I had been hardened by the last 10 years. I don’t know what that says about me, but there it is.”

Later in the hour, Bourdain is back at the booze, downing shots of homemade river hooch with his village companions. “At this point, I think, my body is like an old car. Another dent ain’t going to make a whole lot of difference. At best, it’s a reminder that you’re still alive and lucky as hell. Another tattoo, another thing you did. Another place you’ve been.”



Fast forward two years, and Bourdain was sitting at that noodle shop in Hanoi, across the table from the previous leader of the free world, over a bowl of bun cha.

Is ketchup on a hotdog ever acceptable, Bourdain asked.

“No,” was the reply. “And I mean that. That’s one of those things that . . . let me put it this way: It’s not acceptable beyond the age of eight. I’m sorry. It’s not acceptable.”

Bourdain’s daughter was eight, he told his lunch companion, and the other day she asked if she could put ketchup on her hotdog.

The then-leader of the free world laughed gently.

“That isn’t happening,” he said.

And this is where Bourdain, and Parts Unknown, soared; the conversation turned to weightier issues, including the fact that they were eating lunch together at a roadside noodle shop, unmolested by their fellow lunch companions, despite sitting in the middle of a tiny room on rickety chairs at a rickety table, the kind of place where working people eat on-the-fly and mind their own business.

“Seeing how other people in the world live seems useful at worst,” Bourdain said, “and pleasurable at best.”



His lunch companion concurred.

“It confirms the basic truth that people everywhere are pretty much the same. The same hopes and dreams. When you come to a place like Vietnam and you see former American Vietnam vets coming back, and you see somebody like a John Kerry and a John McCain, two very different people politically and temperamentally, but who were able to bond in their experience of meeting with their former adversaries. You don’t make peace with your friends. You make peace with your enemies.”

As the father of a young girl, Bourdain wanted to know: “Is it all going to be okay? Is it all going to work out?

“Is my daughter going to be able to come here, five years, ten years from now, and have a bowl of bun cha and the world will be a better place?”

Bourdain’s daughter Ariane is, today, just 11-years-old.

“Sure,” the then-leader of the free world replied. “Progress is not a straight line. There are going to be moments in any given part of the world where things are terrible. But . . . having said all that, I think things are going to work out.”

“Thank you so much,” Bourdain said. “Cheers.”

And they clinked glasses.

No, Anthony Bourdain, thank you. It was good getting to know you. Even if it was from afar, on an iPad, somewhere over Africa, at 30,000 feet.




Rhinos — born to be wild, not farmed.

The curious conservation conundrum surrounding rhino rancher John Hume and his 1,500 rhinos has been in the news for some time now in his native South Africa. Hume hopes to harvest their horns — made of keratin, the same substance as human fingernails, the horns can be cut off and harvested without causing pain or harm to the animal — and in theory help save the species, by flooding the black market with legally sourced rhino horn and — in theory — put black market profiteers, and rhino poachers, out of business.

That’s the theory, anyway. Alarmed conservationists say flooding the market with supposedly legitimate rhino horn would only boost demand. It would be difficult if not impossible, they say, to distinguish legal horn from illegal horn. It would send a message, too, that rhino horn is a perfectly legitimate product, provided it’s sourced properly.

©CBS News

©CBS News

Any number of conservation laws and protections would have to be lifted for Hume to turn his idea into a long-term, thriving business, and so far lawmakers have been doubtful — not just in South Africa, but throughout the world.

Hume has argued that if something isn’t done soon to make rhino horn legal, he’ll go out of business, since keeping and breeding 1,500 rhinos isn’t exactly cheap.

Irony aside, a major part of his expenses is hiring security for his ranch, to ensure that rhino poachers — heavily armed and well organized — don’t whack his own farm animals to turn a quick buck on the black market.

The story, with all its twists and turns, would have stayed in South Africa and a handful of European countries but for the top-rated US TV news program 60 Minutes, now in its 50th season. Last weekend, 60 Minutes aired a 15-minute segment on Hume’s rhino ranch and the attending controversy.

The segment, ironically enough, was reported by 60 Minutes veteran Lara Logan, herself a native of South Africa, having been born and raised in Durban.

©CBS News1.png

Hume, perhaps mindful of the present occupant of the U.S. presidency — the U.S. president’s a two sons are both avid big-game hunters and, what’s more, proud of shooting animals in Africa, whether those animals are on the endangered species list or not — talked a good game. He equated the legal ban on rhino horn to Prohibition, pointing out that when Prohibition was finally lifted, organIzed crime was squeezed out of the booze business.

No one thought to mention, least of all Logan, that the economics of scale don’t quite fit: Booze can be distilled relatively inexpensively — at least, compared to farming rhinos — and distributed relatively easily, across a wide area, to an expansive and and growing market that includes, well, just about everyone.

Raising rhinos, on the other hand, is expensive, slow and time-consuming. A rhino’s gestation period is 18 months, and rhinos, both the northern black and southern white rhinos, have just one baby at a time. They don’t breed like rats, in other words, or even cows or horses.

Besides, not everyone is in the market for rhino horn — even if it is worth more per gram than gold. The appetite is so great for rhino horn is now so great that it fetches up to USD 100,000/kg.

©David Chancellor/Kiosk-National Geographic6

©David Chancellor/Kiosk-National Geographic6

There may be many, many people in Vietnam, China, Laos and Thailand, but even there, not everyone believes rhino horn will cure cancer (it doesn’t) or make one’s erection bigger and last longer (it won’t).

Curiously, the market in rhino horn for making dagger handles in the Arabian peninsular and Gulf oil states has fallen on hard times of late, perhaps because oil sheikhs and idle Saudi princes have found more malleable, sought-after materials to show off as status symbols, or perhaps it’s that rhino horn’s reputation as an aphrodisiac and cure-all for every disease known to humankind — not to mention it works wonders for hangovers! — now outweighs mere vanity in the futures markets.

Hume insists he’s been teetering on the edge of bankruptcy for years now and that his financial situation is growingly untenable. The truth is that no one can predict with any degree of certainty whether suddenly flooding the market with legitimate rhino horn would have any effect on poaching, up or down. A similar, even more hotly contested debate over ivory and elephant poaching keeps flaring up at international wildlife meetings, including the meetings last year of the international regulatory boards CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) and IUCN (the International Union for Conservation of Nature). The evidence would seem to lean toward the conservationists’ argument that lifting sanctions on the sale of rhino horn, whether legitimately sourced or not, would only lead to the killing of more rhinos.



Since rhino populations have taken an absolute pasting over the past several years, that is not good environmental science, no matter which way you slice it.

And by the time consumers in China and Vietnam realize that, sadly, rhino horn will not cure cancer or make one’s erection bigger or last longer, there may be no rhinos left to disprove the theory.

There’s also the inconvenient truth that rhinos are warm-blooded, sentient beings; as much as Hume would like us to believe that farming these holdovers from the late Miocene era (that’s 6 million years ago, if you’re keeping count) is no different than farming pigs and cows, the plain fact is that rhinos were born to be wild.

There was a moment during last weekend’s 60 Minutes segment when Hume called dozens of rhinos onto a dusty, desert-like plain to feed on handouts of alfalfa feed in stone troughs; it was as close to a vision of animal hell as I ever hope to see. Logan, a veteran war correspondent who was embedded with US forces during both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, looked horrified. It was about as far from seeing a rhino — a largely solitary, often unsociable animal — in its natural surroundings as it’s possible to imagine, and still be looking at a living rhino.

If this is the future of the species, one can be forgiven for thinking it’s not worth it.

©CBS News3.png



Jane Goodall and ‘The Wild Immersion’ — a potential watershed moment for wildlife film-making.

Have you ever experienced the roar of a jaguar standing in front of you with nothing restraining him?

“The Wild Immersion” aims to make that not just possible but a virtual reality.

With the blessing of Dame Jane Goodall, French film-maker Raphaël Aupy and a small team of dedicated film professionals asked that question just last week of the assembled throngs at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival, along with a challenge to, and there’s no subtle way to put this, “Trade the sunglasses for VR helmets.”

Film is one thing; the VR experience quite another. Goodall is determined to not only make younger people see and hear what’s left of our wild world, but experience it and feel it, in their bones and in their soul, as if they were there, in person.

First, the bare bones behind the project. This is the boring part. The explanation of what it is. Why it matters, why you should care — and why Goodall is injecting so much of her personal passion into the project — comes after this.

©Wild Immersion

©Wild Immersion

Simply put, The Wild Immersion is a virtual-reality entertainment production company whose stated aim is to produce, recreate and present immersive experiences in wild, natural surroundings, whether it’s staring up from a blade of grass at a pride of prowling lions or soaring through an African sky while flying with a flock of flamingoes, looking down on the pristine waters of a primordial lake not far from the volcanic highlands where humankind was born.

©Wild Immersion

©Wild Immersion

Goodall, the Bournemouth, UK-born primatologist, anthropologist, ethicist, author, behavioural scientist, mother and human being who founded the Jane Goodall Institute, has been spreading the word of conservation for half a century now, in the trail of her pioneering studies of chimpanzee behaviour at Tanzania’s Gombe Stream National Park in Central Africa’s “Great Lakes” region.

In 2007, when asked why, if chimpanzees are so much like us, why are they endangered, she famously replied,

“Well, in some ways, we’re not successful at all. We’re destroying our home. That’s not a bit successful.”

And then there was this admission, a few years before that, 

when asked by the New York Times’ Tamar Lewin why she had exchanged her calling as a behavioural scientist to that of an environmental activist:

“I feel a desperation to make people see what we are doing to the environment, what a mess we are making of our world. At this point, the more people I reach, the more I accomplish . . . I do miss Gombe and my wonderful years in the forest. But if I were to go back to that, I wouldn’t feel I was doing what I should be doing.

“If you look into their [chimpanzees’] minds, you know you’re looking into a thinking mind. They teach us that we are not the only beings with personalities, minds capable of rational thought, altruism and a sense of humour. That leads to new respect for other animals, respect for the environment and respect for all life.”

©Wild Immersion/Jane Goodall Institute

©Wild Immersion/Jane Goodall Institute

The first three 12-minute films in the Wild Immersion film series  — depicting the African savannah, underwater and polar habitats — were unveiled at Cannes, but that’s just the beginning.

Future screenings — or immersions, if you will — are planned for China, the U.S. and across Europe. There are plans, too, to introduce The Wild Immersion in schools through headset-maker Lenovo’s “VR Classroom” project, via “virtual field trips.” The Wild Immersion project is designed to raise money for nature reserves — that’s the conservation part — based on 80 minutes of VR footage captured by Aupy and his team of technicians following 120 days of filming on five continents.

In an interview with The Guardian’s Steve Rose earlier this week, Goodall, 84, explained why she refuses to give up in the face of what seems like impossible odds.

“There was one time, years ago, when [David Attenborough] was going to give up. When I talked to him, he was totally depressed and feeling hopeless. Then something happened and he dived back in.”

That something, it seems, was Jane Goodall.

“I (just) did my usual spiel,” Goodall told The Guardian. “‘We can’t give up.’”

Most ordinary people can be forgiven for thinking just that, Goodall said, but there always room for hope. That’s one reason — one reason only — why she titled her 1999 book Reason for Hope.

“Most ordinary people . . . feel, ‘What can I do to help?’ So they do nothing. My life mission is to give people hope. Because, without hope, you don’t bother. Being abusive is not going to get you anyway. You need to reach the heart. Once you’ve reached the heart, you’ve got somebody for good.”

Based on the early evidence — and just take a gander at the images below, if you doubt that — The Wild Immersion is going to touch a great many hearts, possibly more than any two-dimensional film or TV program can hope to do.


GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

GWild Immersion

‘The World’s Most Wanted Animal’ eye-opening, heart-rending — and urgent.

Cute — but doomed. That, at least, was the gist of a cranky review in The Independent of the BBC Two TV special Pangolins: The World’s Most Animal last week. “I’m not sure how many more wildlife documentaries along the lines of World’s Most Wanted I can cope with,” The Independent’s Sean O’Grady wrote, no doubt keeping in tune with his publication’s stated penchant for, erm, independent thinking.

“This sub-genre conforms to a template roughly as follows,” O’Grady continued: “Sir David Attenborough narrates; attention is focused on an endearing critically endangered creature; but also on some plucky humans trying to save them from extinction; heart-rending scenes of the human conservationist encountering the bagged-up corpses of their smuggled favourite creature at some airport terminal, usually in East Asia; plus, at the end, some scant hope represented by the work of the hopelessly underfunded endangered species reserve.”

But wait, there’s more.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

“I was sort of ready for the pangolin to get the usual moving treatment, and sympathetically so, but, as I say, it’s just so overwhelmingly depressing and the battle to save these creatures so plainly unwinnable I feel like just letting the poachers get on with it and save us all more upset.”

Alrighty, then! Plainly, this is not the kind of program where a grinning, exquisitely coifed Jim Carrey is going to pop up as Ace Ventura, animal detective, pulling Courteney Cox, Sean Young and former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino in tow behind him. (For the record, it’s worth noting that the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective received “generally unfavourable reviews” from the critics when it was released in theatres in midwinter in 1994; made for $15 million, it went on to gross $107 million worldwide, proving that, while critics talk a good game, their opinion is often worthless.)

This is instructive because Pangolins: The Most Wanted Animal gets its North American debut this week, Wednesday on PBS, as the season finale of Nature — now in its, and I’m not making this up, 36th season. Nature’s 500-plus episodes puts it in the same league as The Simpsons, where longevity is concerned. Nature bowed in 1982; The Simpsons bowed in 1989. Pangolins may be doomed, but if they are, they’re not about to pass by unnoticed.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

And when a writer for The Independent ends by saying, “Sorry, pangolins, elephants, rhinos, orang-utans, gorillas, pandas, sea cows, sh=now leopards, butterflies and bees, but I reckon you’ve all had it,” it’s hard to know whether he’s being deliberately facetious or whether he’s plugging for a leading role in the new Lars Von Trier movie. 

“We’ll miss you, though,” O’Grady admits, “if only for all the nice footage.”

Alrighty, then! Why not give up altogether — just stand idly by while pangolins and everything else marches off planet Earth into oblivion, shortly to be followed by the 91-year-old Attenborough and all hopes of a future, greener, better world.

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/RE$ST Namibia

Despite the crabby review in the UK Independent, The World’s Most Wanted Animal struck a chord with viewers across Britain. As the reaction to Planet Earth II and Blue Planet II showed, natural, history programs do better with a UK TV audience than they do in the US and Canada, but that’s not to say they don’t have an effect. 

Anyone who reads this space already knows about Maria Diekmann’s Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST, website and the crisis facing pangolins, scaly anteaters, the world’s only scaly mammal, who are now being trafficked at a faster rate than elephants, rhinos and tigers combined, for quasi-medicinal use in China, Laos, Vietnam and Thailand, and because their scales 

Pangolins are often labelled, “the most endangered animal you’ve never heard of,” but — crabby reviews in The Independent aside — that’s exactly why programs like The World’s Most Wanted Animal serve a purpose, quite apart from filling empty hours on BBC Two and PBS’s prime-time schedules.

Years ago, while at a Television Critics Association get-together in Pasadena, Calif., I asked long-time Nature executive-producer Fred Kaufman what he looks for in a Nature documentary, considering his program has been a staple for public broadcasting in the US for nearly four decades now.

Kaufman replied that he’s always looking for new stories, stories that haven’t been told before — or, if they have been told, told in a new way. The World’s Most Wanted Animal fills the bill in both respects.

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

©Maria Diekmann/REST Namibia

The crisis facing the world’s endangered animals — climate scientists and wildlife biologists are now talking about our present time as being the latest and potentially most serious in a series of mass extinctions — is an old, all-too-familiar story, but Most Wanted throws a new spin on it, despite The Independent’s gripe about it following a time-tested template of endearing, critically endangered animals and plucky humans, voiced-over by the sonorous tones of the great Sir David Attenborough.

A quick look at REST’s Facebook page, in the hours and days after The World’s Most Wanted Animal aired in the UK, 

shows that, in actual fact, many people don’t know what a pangolin is — or at least they didn’t, until they watched the program.

Now you know.

Pangolins: The World's Most Wanted Animal premieres in the the U.S. and Canada on Wednesday, May 23, on PBS Nature at 8E/7C.

Global warming? Food insecurity? Overcrowding? I saw it at the movies — 45 years ago.

No fewer than five stories recently made news headlines, one after another. 

The remote Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica is melting at a faster rate than even the most pessimistic scientific projections suggested it would.



Another pipeline leak, this one in a remote northwestern corner of the Canadian province Alberta, proves Big Oil still hasn’t mastered the technology of constructing a pipeline that won’t leak — despite the oil lobby’s defensive, relentless and increasingly shrill claims to the contrary.

The self-explanatory “Garbage Patch” floating and bobbing in the north-central Pacific is now the size of France. The country, that is, not the town in Kansas.

The United Nations reports that, in Asia, there will be “no exploitable fish stocks” — no wild fish, in other words — by 2048. With the world's already overstretched population growing every day and food insecurity a growing concern, many marine biologists warn we could run out of wild fish in our lifetimes.

But wait, you say, surely “sustainable seafood farms” will make up the difference.

Well, they would — if only, as the salmon farming fishery off Canada’s west coast keeps showing, they weren’t constantly leaking biotoxins into already threatened coastal waters.

©Alexandra Morton/Typepad

©Alexandra Morton/Typepad

Piscine reovirus, aka PRV, causes heart and skeletal muscular inflammation, aka HSMI; recent research suggests that PRV cause the disease HSMI, as evidenced by mortality rates of up to 20% in salmon farms in Norway. PRV in turn affects migrating wild salmon, owing to the effluent from processing plants and farm hatcheries. This is not rocket science, as Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) senior veterinarian Dr. Ian Keith told a colleague in an email, as reported earlier this year by the Canadian news site The “This is 19th century thinking.”

Melting glaciers, leaking pipelines, a growing garbage problem, drained fish stocks and a worrying over-reliance on artificially processed food naturally made me think of Soylent Green.



Soylent Green was a 1973 post-apocalyptic sci-fi movie starring Charlton Heston and Edward G. Robinson (in his final film role) set in an overcrowded, smog-choked cityscape in the not-too-distant future, where people are reduced to eating tasteless, protein crackers — ostensibly made from “high-energy plankton” — are doled out in tightly controlled rations by an all-powerful conglomerate called the Soylent Corporation. Soylent Green was loosely adapted from futurist Harry Harrison’s 1968 novel Make Room! Make Room! that posited a world in which overcrowding, pollution, global warming and rampant industrialization have created a society in which homeless people fill the streets and those with jobs are barely scraping by.



Soylent Green was no Star Wars. It won a smattering of boutique, sci-fi film awards, but it wasn’t exactly a hit with audiences, not in a year when The Sting, American Graffiti and The Way We Were topped the box-office charts. Critics’ reviews were mixed. Time’s Jay Cocks called it “intermittently interesting,” adding that the film, will be most remembered for the last appearance of Edward G. Robinson.” The New York Times’s A.H. Weller found that Soylent Green “projects essentially simple, muscular melodrama a good deal more effectively than it does the potential of man’s seemingly witless destruction of the Earth’s resources.”

Some 45 years later, Soylent Green is not remembered as a great movie — truthfully, it was never that — or as Edward G. Robinson’s farewell performance, but rather as an eerily prescient vision of a hellish future that now seems more like cautionary news documentary than science-fiction.



It’s hard not to respect a film that, in 1973, had Robinson’s angry, aging character Sol Roth rage against the dying of the light, saying things like, “You know, when I was a kid, food was food. Before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil. Decimated plant and animal life.

“Why, in my day, you could buy meat anywhere. Eggs, they had, Real butter. Fresh lettuce.”

And fresh salmon. Not the farmed kind.

“There was a world once, you punk,” Sol Roth told Charlton Heston’s detective character, Frank Thorn.

“Yes,” Thorn replied, “so you keep telling me.”

“I was there,” Roth said. “I can prove it.”

“I know, I know. When you were young, people were better.”

“No. People were always rotten. But the world was beautiful.”

It was. It still is. Time to wake up.