The Hunting Horizon

The Hunting Horizon

neitheroneorotherAttitudes towards hunting are changing in the same way that they’ve already changed with regards to the LGBT communities. In remarkably short order hunting of all kinds may be curtailed.

This is a very widespread and expansive cultural change. It applies almost equally to sports hunting as to native society subsistence hunting and even to scientific culling. It is, in fact, the scientific community evincing the most dramatic change. The driver is climate change.

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Blame or Responsibility?

Blame or Responsibility?

CingorilladeathNeither Rin Tin Tin or Baloo are real, folks. The gorilla was and it had to be killed. The mother was negligent. And the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla display isn’t safe enough.

A good portion of my life has been spent teaching the dangers of anthropomorphization: Everyone involved from the zoo to the mother and child, to the authorities now conducting investigations are guilty of treating animals like people.

A human is more important than a gorilla. It’s unfortunate that situations like this force this distinction to be emphasized, because animals are one of the best conduits for leading us to better understandings of our planet’s ecologies. But like many good things sometimes it goes too far.

As a zoo director friend told me yesterday, “That gorilla can crush a coconut with his hand.”

Criticism of the zoo’s crisis response unit comes mainly from animal rights groups with exaggerated or incorrect arguments:

Harambee was not a “mountain gorilla,” of which there are fewer than a 1000 left. He was of the lowland gorilla species, of which there are 50,000 -90,000.

That’s still a critically endangered animal but it’s not the imminent threatened mountain gorilla that many are claiming.

Harambee was not captured in a West African jungle. He was born in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. The vast majority of animals seen today in zoos have been born in zoos.

This is hardly the first time something like this has happened. The most recent was three years ago when a 2-year child fell into a pack of wild dogs in the Pittsburgh Zoo and was mauled to death.

Like with the current Cincinnati gorilla incident, the public was quick to judge the mother was mostly at fault in Pittsburgh. She sued, anyway, and the zoo settled.

Other recent incidents include a loyal animal keeper killed by the tiger she had cared for.

In all cases blame spreads pretty equally between the victim or the victim’s guardian, and the zoo. Zoos’ attempts at modernization have included better exhibits, but these exhibits probably compromise safety for entertainment.

But while the blame may spread around, the responsibility for an incident like this stops squarely at the zoo. They are the organizer, they invited the people with their children to come, and they must prepare for every conceivable eventuality.

Cincinnati did not.

I’ve written before that zoos have neglected safety for gate receipts and media. It was totally appropriate that Pittsburgh paid the family of the killed child thousands if not millions of dollars, even though they were not only to blame.

It’s an awesome responsibility zoos have assumed, and it begins by letting the visiting public understand the danger, and if that means a slightly worse view of the animal, so be it.

What is curious in this most recent Cincinnati case, though, is that it is so similar to the Pittsburgh case with the exception of the animal involved. This was a lowland gorilla. The Pittsburgh case involved wild (painted) dogs.

Wild dogs are actually more endangered ecologically than lowland gorillas, yet the outcry with this incident is considerable sharper.

I think that has to do mostly with the video. There was no video of the Pittsburgh incident. That suggests a large portion of our population doesn’t read, only watches.

That, by the way, is one of the distinctions between a person and a gorilla.

Traffic Problem

Traffic Problem

bouldersHuman/wildlife conflict isn’t limited to dangerously powerful elephants walking over an impoverished Tanzanian farmer’s watermelon field. Several days ago in a thoroughly modern city in The Cape one of the world’s most endangered animals suffered a serious blow from … car traffic.

There are few animals in the world as endangered as the African Penguin (Spheniscus demersus), sometimes called the Jackass penguin.  Just over 25,000 breeding pairs remain of a sustainable population of 1.2 million birds that existed only a half century ago.

This is a far greater catastrophic decline than that of elephants or lions, and it shows no sign of abating.

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COP21 Obfuscation Detritius

COP21 Obfuscation Detritius

COP21Today on Earth Day only one major head of State (from France) attends the signing statement at the United Nations of COP21, the breakthrough global climate agreement negotiated in Paris last year.

French President François Hollande is the star. He was instrumental in negotiating African developing countries into the deal, but there aren’t any African Heads of State here to sign with him.

John Kerry signs for the U.S. Obama is not here as he’s telling Cameron who’s not here, either, not to leave the EU.

Should we worry?

COP21 is good, but its worst part is another acronym, INDC, Intended Nationally Determined Contributions, that was created at the behest of the developing world and negotiated principally by Hollande.

The premise is that development cannot be compromised in the poorer countries of the world.

As Bolivia and Ecuador explained in a joint statement during the negotiations, “These climate reparations would give to economies relying on progressive extractivism the necessary resources to transition to clean energy without having to sacrifice their social and redistributive policies.”

Translate: pay us not to burn fossil fuels. The implementation in nicer language will be written in each country’s INDC.

In other words, Kenya will forge head with additional solar, wind and other non-fossil fuel methods of making power, but primarily only if Britain, the U.S. and Japan – its principal aid givers – pay them to do so.

I think this is remarkably fair. But it’s politically dicey.

Most Americans (69%) now support efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, BUT … they do not believe (45%) that climate change is a “serious problem.”

What was that?

That’s the same position in 10 of the major 17 countries who pushed through COP21. Only in India, Germany, Canada (only barely, 51%), Mexico, Brazil, Italy and France does the public accept that climate change is a “serious problem.”

So that’s how dumb the world is, and that’s why Hollande is at today’s signing ceremony. France, he is saying, is not as dumb as America or China where (get ready to scratch your head) 71% of the public supports international treaties to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but only 18% believe that climate change is a serious problem!

I would love for some data from Africa, but except for South Africa (56% support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but only 45% believe climate change is a serious problem) polling in other African countries doesn’t exist.

You see if you stripped out the motive for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, climate change, then what replaces it?

In developing countries it’s pollution. Pollution is as much an issue in Nairobi as Beijing.

In the developed countries it’s … what? Support for fracking? I just don’t know.

Here’s another take. It’s likely today that most Africans, and maybe even most Americans, recognize that climate change is real. Whether you elevate climate change to a “serious problem” is the key.

There are so many problems in Africa with greater priority, like food and water and poverty, that even if it’s plausible climate change contributes to these, it isn’t as important so the moving goal post of “serious” might not be reached.

In America I think it’s more contentious: it’s political.

Alas for the straight-talker Trump and the clear-headed Sanders, our only solutions to sweeping away the detritus of obfuscation?

Conservation vs. Development

Conservation vs. Development

Mom.gorillaIs conservation just? Not always, according to a study in Uganda’s Bwindi National Park.

“Conservation [needs] to get serious about environmental justice,” a September study from the University of East Anglia claims, one of the world’s top universities for developmental studies.

This is just one of lots of recent intellectual fistfights between sociologists and conservationists. Conservationists, on the one hand, are presumed to want to protect the earth at nearly any cost. Sociologists, on the other hand, put people first and claim that contemporary conservationists don’t.

The argument surfaced at the beginning of this decade but by 2014 the New Yorker called the debate “vitriolic.”

Finally at the end of 2014 the highly respected scientific publication, Nature, allowed two scientists to publish an article about the fight: “We believe that this situation is stifling productive discourse, inhibiting funding and halting progress,” they wrote.

Stop whining. This is an important debate and nothing that I’ve seen is offensive or immature. Quite to the contrary: The East Anglia study continues this debate on the side of sociologists, and I believe appropriately so.

I know Bwindi pretty well. It is the Ugandan section of the volcanoes national park in which the mountain gorillas live. Like the other sections in Rwanda and the DRC-Congo, mountain gorillas have enjoyed a wonderful rebound from near extinction at the end of the 1970s.

The main reason is tourism. It will cost you a hefty $750 for one permit to be with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda for one hour, and one of the 56 daily permits are often hard to get.

It’s less expensive in Bwindi, but that reflects the unsettled political situation in Uganda. But even in Uganda’s untroubled days, Bwindi’s operations were never on the up-and-up.

Bwindi was terribly corrupt. If you had trouble getting a permit, the right bribe to the right ranger would get you one, and if in fact the day was truly booked up, someone would find a way to take you to a gorilla research group which was technically off-limits to tourists.

The East Anglian study touches on this but in fact sticks mostly to the non-corrupt, stated policy issues. Their main criticism is that the original peoples of the area, the Batwa, have been intentionally excluded from the benefits of Bwindi’s growing gorilla population.

The main benefit to the growing gorilla population is tourism: revenues from the permit tax which supposedly go directly to the government; and jobs created in the tourist industry: staff for lodges and transport and guides.

The Batwa do not benefit from any of these. The Ugandan government has always been openly hostile to these progeny of “pygmies,” their land was never properly deeded to them so they were unable to participate in the leasing arrangements for the tourist lodges, and few if any tour companies hire them at any level.

Prior to the interest in conserving the gorillas, the Batwa’s lifeway was bush meat hunting in the forest – not gorillas, but mostly monkeys, and also duikers and other small forest creatures. This is now prohibited in the interests of gorilla and ecological conservation.

So without benefitting from the growth of tourism and conservation while being restricted from the forest which was their traditional lifeway, the Batwa have grown more poor and more estranged from modern society. Implicitly, of course, it’s presumed they become poachers.

“Successful” conservation policies lead directly to poaching.

The East Anglia study suggests that scientists should adopt certain principals of manifest justice that could delimit conservation goals, but which in all cases would ensure justice for the local peoples like the Batwa.

This no-brainer is often neglected, the authors claim, because conservation goals appear “to be driven by faith in a particular (utilitarian) model of justice that holds that conservation consequences justify their means.”

I’m glad to have this “vitriolic” debate: I’ve always believed in Africa that people must come first, that conservation is not anathema to that at all, but that stitching the two together is imperative.

Imperative to conservation, not to the peoples’ will and that’s the key. The people have the sovereignty. Conservationists do not. It’s clear who must sew the seam.

Vizuka Mara

Vizuka Mara

maraghostsOne of Africa’s most iconic prides of lions were poisoned last week in the Maasai Mara, and it’s now time to implement Richard Leakey’s dream to consolidate all Kenyan wilderness under a single federal government agency.

Eight of the magnificent “Marsh Pride” were poisoned by Maasai herders, according to officials who have arrested two men.

Animal poisoning in The Mara is not new, but this killing is receiving unusual attention since this is the pride featured in the BBC documentary, “Big Cats.” The pride has resided for my entire 40 years of guiding outside Governor’s Camp near the Mara River.

Many Maasai believe that protecting the Mara for wildlife/tourism is an unfair usurping of their traditional pastures. This conflict grows at the margin of seasons (which is now) when new rains sprout nutrient grasses.

The problem is not endemic to The Mara or Kenya but exists throughout all the rapidly developing lands of Africa. Ironically, the problem may be exacerbated by Kenya’s faster and broader development compared to many other African countries.

The situation unique to The Mara, though, is extraordinary. It’s a mess: an entanglement of personalities, politics and corruption the likes of which belong in a TV sitcom.

First of all, there really isn’t “A Mara.” Elsewhere in the continent there is “A Serengeti” or “A Sabi Sands” surrounding “A Kruger.”

“The Mara,” instead, is a collection of government and private reserves each separately managed and funded. The map looks like a gerrymandered set of 10 districts in my dysfunctional state of Illinois.
“The Mara” is not a Kenyan national park: the main responsibilities for it rest with the county of Narok in which the wilderness is located. This is an freakish historical legacy of the local Maasai unwilling to share power or land.

Richard Leakey tried to change this decades ago when he was the country’s wildlife czar. He failed miserably, succumbing at the time to a very powerful Maasai politician, Ntimama.

Ntimama is today a very old mzee out of favor with the younger, more progressive regime in Nairobi. But it was only a few months ago that the old man resurrected the land issue of which the Mara is front and center.

The rectangular portion which borders Tanzania to the south is the “government” county reserve, but even that is divided into three administrative sections. The area to the north of the county land is made up of nine private conservancies, more than doubling government land.

It was the development of these northern private areas in the last 25-35 years that contributed so substantially to the increase of animal populations including the great migration.

(A similar situation exists with private reserves like the Sabi Sands which surround South Africa’s Kruger National Park.)

Traditionally all of these lands were used as pastures for cattle and goats by the Maasai. Had none of the lands been protected, the cattle and goats and Maasai would likely have eaten themselves out of house and home by now, identical to what you see today in so many other parts of Africa where overgrazing ends in societal suicidal.

From the point of view of the people living there, though, that’s not such a bad outcome if what comes next are highways and factories. IBM is still in the throes of a fraction-of-a-billion dollar deal to build a high-tech industrial park in what was once Kenya’s Tsavo wilderness.

I doubt you’ll find too many young Maasai today who will lament herding cattle for pennies a day if the alternative is writing computer code and driving to work in a Benz.

Equally sad, private tourism stakeholders are just as mercenary as the Narok Maasai. There have been periods of vicious competition among businessmen, some foreign nationals, vying for the best spots. In this management mayhem developed the private reserve map we see today, with little scientific or management rational and little or no interaction between the competing areas.

That spells disaster. BBC has the exposure to wander between reserve boundaries unimpeded, and thus the “Marsh Pride” became very special. But I’ve known several young field researchers who would have loved to work in the Mara ecosystem, but who turned to Tanzania instead because the politics and restrictions of working trans-reserve were too difficult.

The private reserves do everything themselves: anti-poaching, rules for wildlife management and intervention (several of the Marsh Pride that were recently poisoned were then treated by vets), fees and marketing. But the land has never been actually transferred from Maasai ownership: it’s leased, and that’s the private reserves greatest flaw:

Maasai owners could only be encouraged to compromise their age-old historical life style as pastoralists if they could be paid enough. For a while, they were. The revenues from tourism throughout the 90s were greater than the revenues from cattle farming.

But with political instability followed by terrorism which effected Kenya so seriously from 2007-2012, tourism revenues fell precipitously. Although safari revenues in neighboring Tanzania have planed or shown a slight increase, this has yet to occur in Kenya.

In their heyday the private reserves became extremely sophisticated, bettering the government reserves in anti-poaching and educational efforts. Like all bureaucracies, though, their appetite for capital grew well beyond the simple lease payments to the Maasai owners. Since 2008 virtually all the private Mara reserves have fallen into arrears.

Stefano Chile, the chairman of the second largest private conservancy, the Mara North Conservancy, wrote to supporters recently that “our ability to pay and cover all these costs is seriously challenged.”

He said the conservancy needs $355,000 to become sustainable, again. The first appeal for donations launched at least a month ago has raised only $13,000.

Cheli is one of the most creative and long-time entrepreneurs in the East African tourism industry, perhaps best known for building Tortilis Camp in Amboseli. But in my estimation this is way beyond his or any other excellent tourism manager’s job.

For one thing were a campaign like this successful it would hardly be the last time private reserve officials came to us hat in hand. Which of the nine reserves would you decide to support? I have a hard enough time juggling contributions to two public radio stations serving my area. If appeals came from nine of them, a distinct impression is created that nobody knows what they’re doing.

Collectively that’s the point, they don’t.

Private wildlife reserves have been a very important part of Africa’s conservation efforts for more than a half century.

But nowhere else in Africa is a collection of hodgepodge private reserves so terribly organized and so terribly suspicious and competitive with each another as in the Mara, and trying to treat them as charities is overwhelmingly impossible.

What will work is the Kenyan government getting serious. The photographer Jonathan Scott reported on his blog two days ago that may be happening.

From my point of view there’s only one answer. The government must take over the whole kitandkaboodal. This will really freak out the private reserve stake holders.

But it’s time they listened to themselves: if wildlife conservation is the goal, then look at Amboseli. Look at the Aberdare. Look at the heroic efforts in Nakuru. Look at all the other wonderful national parks in Kenya.

Frankly, it’s time the Maasai of Narok, and the stakeholders of the private reserves were all sidelined, and that the Kenya Wildlife Service takes the whole thing over.

Richard Leakey’s dream was right then, and it’s right now: The Maasai Mara National Park.

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

EleRoverElephants do not have souls, and countenancing this myth is a sure fire way to accelerate their extinction.

The brilliant and stunning film, “Soul of the Elephant,” which aired on PBS’s Nature yesterday evening was rife with untruths and speculative science. It was as bad a nature documentary as a Fox News report.

The exquisite beauty of the film, the rhythmic narration and the beautiful background music including outstanding African-like acapella created a media poem of the finest sort. I wish it had been a feature film, because the main proposition that elephants are like people is something that can ultimately never be proved or disproved but as a fictional piece it would have been very strong.

Unfortunately, it’s untrue.

Before I list errors of fact, let me remind you why this is such a mission for me: Anthropomorphization in my view does more to harm African conservation than wars or poison. Films like this hasten the end of the African wilderness and its wondrous wildlife.

As I’ve written numerous times before, the almost exclusively western attempt to anthropomorphize Africa’s wildlife draws a red line with emerging intellectuals in Africa who are dedicated to the development of their social and political fabric in an extremely stressed part of the world.

It’s akin to America’s own political battle with the Citizens United/Campaign Finance controversy where corporations are treated as people.

If animals are considered people, inalienable rights attend them that make compromise if not impossible considerably more difficult with issues of land and agricultural development, highway construction, potable water reservoirs and innumerable other absolute necessities for human development.

But it isn’t just the outcome that bothers me. The proposition that elephant are “sentient beings, thinking thoughts, having ideas” and that they “think” — all of which is quoted directly from the film — is wrong. There is no science whatever to support this, only media poems.

The world of life is composed of a myriad of wondrous forms, each in my view essential to our fabric of existence. Biodiversity is the only goal we have left that can preserve our understanding of our own existence, but biodiversity resides in the notion that some living things “think” and some “don’t.” Elephants and virtually the vast majority of all other animals don’t either.

Man thinks.

Many of the Joubert’s errors are not egregious, but the plethora of them evidences their lack of scientific diligence. They created a wonderful poem, not a nature documentary:

They claimed there were once 5 million elephants. We’ll never know, because paleontologists have not yet collected enough evidence of prehistoric times to create population statistics. What we do know is that before the atrocious elephant poaching of the 1970s, there conceivably had been a population that “might” have approached a million.

Ivory harvesting by Arab traders began as early as the 13th Century, so it’s plausible that the apex of the population was prior to then. But even the 7 centuries of Arab harvesting on the scale that was possible back then could not have possibly eroded a 5 million animal population down to a million.

The exaggeration of numbers in the film continued to discussion of the Selina Spillway and that of Botswana itself. It was only this August, well after the film was near completed, that the first elephant count of the continent ever was done.

“There are no credible estimates for a continental population prior to the late 1970s. Thus for the continental (global) population, an extrapolation back to the beginning of three generations is plagued with high levels of uncertainty,” writes the Bible of Biodiversity, the IUCN Red List.

Exaggerating bad situations into catastrophes is a technique of terrorists and fools.

In one section alone Joubert claimed that “Seventy years ago a little baby [elephant] had less than a 10% chance of surviving.” That would have been in the 1940s, long before poaching ramped up and is an absurd proposition. Nearly as absurd as his claim that where he was filming “was a 5-day drive from the nearest town.”

I have often been in various parts of the Selinda Spillway. EWT will lead a Botswana trip there next March. There is no place that is more than 2-3 days from Kasane and possibly less from Maun. These are modern if rural towns.

Joubert concludes at some point that his love of elephants is best reflected by the “eyes that shine with a deep intelligence” which stretches poetic license to the limits, since many elephants eyes close perpetually after they reach their teen years.

I think what bothered me most about the film was trying to tell a story that didn’t exist. There was no baby elephant that was drowning. The film showed a baby elephant frolicking in the mud; it was not drowning.

It then cut to lions, that were not shot in the same vicinity. It then cut to the attack of a lion on a baby elephant. That was still a different set of lions and a different baby elephant altogether. The editing wasn’t even good enough to equalize the lighting that revealed deeply different seasons in the three different scenes, purported to be one.

I actually laughed when he suggested that the aggression the elephants were causing might have to do with the memory of the two dead elephants in the vicinity. The elephants were aggressive because he was too close! And imagine how many other pontoons and boats and canoes and cameras were there shooting him shoot!

It’s OK if it’s just a story. This is not a documentary. Elephants do not have souls. Elephants must be protected along with their environment, and Africa must have the freedom to grow and develop, and that is a puzzle that this film does everything in its power to prevent from being solved.

Junked Java

Junked Java

climatechangecoffeePerhaps this will help Senator Inhofe wake up: coffee.

Coffee prices are escalating in part because coffee production worldwide is taking a nose dive.

Some of the finest coffee in the world comes from the Kilimanjaro highlands. Or did. According to Reuters, “hundreds of farmers in the region are abandoning … coffee and cotton.”

The Reuters report is less provocative as to why than the Union of Concerned Scientists: “Climate change is threatening coffee crops in virtually every major coffee producing region of the world.”

UCS explains that coffee in particular is very sensitive to a slight increase in temperatures. Coffee also requires more stable climates with regular amounts of precipitation.

All that’s changing, and particularly in the Kilimanjaro highlands. The Tanzanian government announced a 29% decline this year in coffee production.

Farmers didn’t need the study released recently by a prestigious university in South Africa correlating the decline in coffee production to an increase in the highlands’ night time temperatures.

“Coffee beans are no longer profitable as my harvests keep on falling,” a villager in the Kilimanjaro highlands told Reuters: “I need fast-growing crops I can sell for a quick income.”

Coffee is a long-term agricultural investment. It takes at least three years, and usually five, for a new coffee tree to produce beans. After that it can continue producing for up to 50 years, but the orchard requires lots of water and constant tending.

The South African study documented an increase of a little more than 2 degrees F over a decade, enough to reduce the harvest by a third.

Large numbers of farmers throughout the East African highlands are therefore abandoning coffee for quick growing and quick selling vegetables … and flowers. The “cut flower” industry is growing in leaps and bounds in East Africa as the demand for them grows in Europe. Major European airlines now make their scheduling decisions more on the cargo of cut flowers than on passengers.

Many other farmers are turning to crops like sunflowers and casava which are less sensitive to climate change.

For the time being the crop changes will not likely effect the Tanzanian economy. The cut flower market like coffee requires high initial investment but pays off much more quickly.

Demand for food throughout Africa grows by the minute, and Tanzania remains a net exporter. The agricultural sector of its economy is growing the fastest.

So perhaps the major effect of this current news will be on Senator Inhofe, reported to love his coffee … even during droughts and floods and tornadoes.

Cape of Good Hope Not Enough

Cape of Good Hope Not Enough

FiresInTheCapeGlobal warming disrupts my landmark Cape/Botswana safari, but compared to what may happen a decade from now, I don’t think anyone will complain.

A 12,000-acre wildfire has closed one of the Cape’s most spectacular coastal highways and today threatens Table Mountain National Park.

These areas are not simply major tourist attractions, but arguably the most precious of the world’s six floristic kingdoms.
The Cape is about 35 degrees south longitude. So is much of Australia and South America. California is about the same, but north. All these coastal areas in their summers are experiencing record-breaking hot temperatures, high dry winds and … unprecedented fire.

“Unless there are rapid …reductions of greenhouse gas emissions …Australia will experience more heat waves and bush fires,” a climatology professor at the University of Melbourne has warned. 2014 and 2015 were the worst years for wildfires in Australia’s history.

The 2014 Chilean wildfires nearly destroyed the port city of Valparaiso.

The Brazilian government has warned of a 160% increase in wild fires as endless lines of flames destroy huge portions of the Amazon.

We all know what’s happening in California.

Light rain yesterday slowed the fire’s advance in The Cape and there’s hope that “heroic” (many volunteer) fire fighters will get control, today.

But the spectacular Chapman’s Peak drive into The Cape Peninsula from the city is closed, and it’s likely to remain closed long after the fires subside.

The destruction of the foliage on the steep cliffs that rise from Chapman’s is now compromised, and rock slides are more likely.

Chapman’s Peak is one of the main tourist attractions and in a very personal way it displays how global warming is lasting and destructive. Everyone remembers catastrophes in personal ways: Saturday 35,000 bicyclists convene at The Cape for the world’s largest timed marathon race. The route has been slashed to less than half its original 70 miles.

We pay attention to the catastrophe of an event, but then we move onto the heroes who ended it never paying enough attention to the long term trends and destruction.

I remember the 1996 Yosemite Ackerson Fire which burned 60,000 acres and may actually now stand as one of the markers of global warming. But at the time it was rationalized as a necessary ecological event, just today as many in The Cape are viewing today’s fire.
The Cape is arguably the most precious of the six floristic kingdoms on earth for little more reason than how small it is. The Ackerson fire was 60,000 acres large. This Cape fire is currently 12,000 acres, a fifth the size of the Yosemite catastrophe.

But Yosemite sits in the world’s largest floristic kingdom, the boreal. The fire was infinitesimal over that immense area.

The Cape’s precious floristic kingdom is less than 800,000 acres large and this fire could destroy almost two percent of that kingdom, an area with a remarkable 8,700 species of plants of which two-thirds are endemic. This rivals the Amazon’s biodiversity and dwarfs the boreal biomes in which Yosemite is found.

A good friend here told me yesterday that “we’re just going to have to learn to live with this” as she repeated the mantra of the importance of fire in rejuvenating plant species.

It’s true that the fynbos biome requires fires more often to remain healthy than the great pines of Yosemite. Most scientists think the optimum for any fynbos plant is 7 years.

But I disagree substantially with my friend’s shrugging off this occurrence. When understood globally we begin to see how sinister global warming has become.

This Cape fire is not a singular event. It’s part of the longitudinal band we can now clearly call the planet’s “Ring of Fire.”

Caused by global warming, increasing fires reduce the plants that produce our oxygen while the actual combustion contributes to increased greenhouse gases. This is precisely the exponential advance that scientist have been warning us about for years.

Yes, heroes should be applauded and firefighters are among the most laudable. But it’s time, folks, to start focusing on the villains.

And among the most notorious of today’s villains are the climate change deniers like our own Senator Inhofe who now chairs the American Senate’s most important environmental committee.

Can you believe that? But I doubt Senator Inhofe even knows what a floristic kingdom is. His cronies in Kansas and Texas have been doing everything in their power to eradicate such nonsense from the public school textbooks.

Delta Destruction

Delta Destruction

DeltaDestructionThe battle between fossil fuel mining and the environment has moved into Botswana’s main tourist attraction, the Okavango Delta.

The photo above of a painted frog was taken by EWT client, Melissa Michel, this year. The background of a mining waste dump is compliments of Rio Tinto.

Tourism in the Okavango Delta is the second largest source of Botswana’s GDP, after mining (which dwarfs it, by the way: 40% vs 12%).

Exact figures are hard to confirm, because the government has not defined how government and ancillary industries like educational training and direct contributions contribute to or diminish the tourism and mining sectors. But clearly mining is 3 to 5 times as important as tourism.

Historically most of this was with diamonds. Botswana is the world’s largest diamond producer, but several years ago the government recognized that “diamonds aren’t forever.”

This led to increased fossil fuel exploration and bingo, there’s a lot of it. Relative to diamonds, coals lasts forever.

The largest Botswana owned company, Tsodilo, listed on the Toronto stock exchange, recently announced plans to mine more than 440 million tons of iron ore, and with less fanfare, a rather sizeable amount of coal.

Botswana’s chief mining official said that Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining company, would be the principal in coal extraction.

“The future of Botswana mining is going to be the coal and iron ore resources…,” he said before adding as an afterthought, “and of course diamonds.”

Botswana is already the 65th richest country in the world. This will likely push it up further.

Unfortunately, much of the iron ore discovered is underneath or close to the Okavango Delta.

Although Botswana has a variety of big game habitats, it is the Delta which is the draw. Unique on earth, it’s where a desert seasonally floods. This produces extremely unusual habitat as well as major deterrents to human settlement.

Over the eons vast numbers of endemic species have arisen in The Delta, many which remain to this area alone. These are mostly plants, amphibians and fish, but the area is also outstanding for more notable, rare and larger animals like sitatunga and wild dog. Many water fowl absolutely depend upon the Delta and many are extremely rare, like the Wattled Crane.

The world’s growing appetite for fossil fuels is as undisputed as the fact that most of them will come from Africa.

Why should Botswana be denied compromising its ecosystem for greater wealth, as Alaska and California did big time last century?

The answer is usually that the world’s just come too far. Time is not on their side, as it was with the Rockefellers and early gold diggers: The global warming apocalypse takes precedence.

That’s such a subjective argument it falls on deaf ears in Africa. South African environmentalists, however, are trying more clever answers.

Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Desmond D’Sa recently explained that the argument that mining will “create wealth for the people” was fallacious. “We’ve seen the mining industry in South Africa, hundreds of years, has created impoverishment and poverty… The majority, the 99 percent of us in the country, are poor, are living in abject, poor conditions.”

And that’s true and compelling … for the instant. But what happens if – as many of us hope – this changes and there is a real redistribution of wealth? Like in China?

Reversing the world’s poverty is going to take a lot of industry. Protecting the unique ecosystems under which that industry is fired will be no small task.

On Safari: Glacier Bay

On Safari: Glacier Bay

stellarsealions.GB.670.jul14A week intimate cruising within Glacier Bay National Park on our beautiful little yacht reaffirmed all the lofty maxims of the many wonderful people who had the foresight to preserve such a treasure: our souls were refreshed!

My Alaskan safari began with The Far North in Fairbanks in the wide-opened tundras of Denali and ended in the unbelievably lush rain forests of Glacier Bay.

kayakiing.McBride.670.Jul14The six days private cruise began with a splash as we took our first of several kayaks. Over the course of the week we’d kayak in secret little coves among towering mountains, along intertidal cliffs laced with starfish colored like a rainbow, among icebergs crashing down from great glaciers and through literally tens of thousands of seabirds!

I can’t imagine exploring Alaska without a kayak. Even for the uninitiated, it’s simple and safe and our group chose mostly to go in two-man kayaks, although I stuck to a single one. It doesn’t take long to learn to push instead of pull, and once achieved you sail through the waters like a dolphin.

Several of our group even kayaked among humpbacks. Glacier Bay is famous for its whales, and we learned of tails of joy and misery with them. On the path leading to the dock at Bartlett Cove is the skeletal remains of “Snow,” a 40-year old whale killed by a cruise ship. Our leader, Kimberly Owen, told us numerous stories of whales including some spiritual stingers precious to the First Nation Hoonah peoples who inhabit Glacier Bay.
We probably saw 20 whales or more, including one group of three that just wouldn’t stop breaching! I counted a dozen breaches in less than fifteen minutes!

Every day we hiked. Some were longer and harder than others, but everyone made it and returned without sore joints! Hikes were up mountainsides, above glaciers, through rain forests, on beaches and among great pieces of ice!

We saw dozens if not hundreds of fabulous sea otters and learned about their near extinction and recovery, one of the great (and few) stories of successful wildlife reintroduction.

At one haul-out of stellar sea lions, I counted more than 750!

And we saw bears, and experienced the narrative of a four we saw on a beach that included two juveniles that just couldn’t leave Mom even as Mom was laid out on her back nursing a new cub.

Sea birds galore. Tufted and horned puffins. Marbled and Kittlitz murreletz. Even murres! Thousands and thousands of kittiwakes, and many glaucous winged gulls and oyster catchers. And of course many grand eagles. We kayaked under goofy pigeon guillemots that treated us like welcomed guests and sailed among loons and cormorants!hikinginfireweed.GB.670.jul14

But I think the grandest wildlife experience was as we sailed beneath some steep cliffs looking for mountain goats.

We found them, high up but close enough to see clearly even without binocs. They went about the terrifying cliff edges nibbling away, and we watched a little one following mother having just learned that a large percentage are lost to slipping!

Then someone noticed a goat freezing. They’re not hyper but usually constantly on the move, if for no other reason than to maintain constant balance. But this one froze as if we’d taken a picture.

amongtheice.GB.670.Jul14It stared in one direction and we knew something was going on. Following the goat’s line of sight, we then saw a hoary marmot racing onto the top of a rock, standing up and looking towards us, then quickly twisting around and looking away, and then racing to the left, then to the right as if it just couldn’t figure out what to do.

We sailed slowly around the tip of the peninsula and there was a wolf! Obviously what had happened was the marmot saw the wolf and freaked, then the got saw the marmot and froze. It was a wonderful example of how everything is marvelously connected!

Our trip is coming to an end. Stay tuned as we sail into our final hours!