One of the wondrous moments that a mature birder experiences is when suddenly the puzzle which has been scattered in a hundred million pieces starts to come together.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The 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!
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.
It 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!
We spent two days in the park, which is what all casual visitors do. Denali attracts the serious backpacker and hiker as well, and I can only imagine what a wonderful adventure that would be, but probably 95% of its million visitors annually are two-nighters who step in and step out rather quickly.
The park is a long, narrow protected wilderness with North America’s largest peak, Mt. McKinley at its far western end. There is a single road that stretches west from the train station at the parks main entrance, about 90 miles west to the tiny town of Kantishna which is just outside the park.
Kantishna was once a roaring mining town, and in fact we would see dozens of small mining operations that still exist when we flew out of Kantishna two days later. But today the town is mainly the service depot for the three lodges that exist on this far western side of the park.
This is where I take my groups. There are only about 300 bednights here, compared to the 3000 bednights at the train depot. This is also where Wonder Lake is, and some of the most magnificent hiking a “casual visitor” can undertake.
Most visitors staying on the eastern side buy a park pass for a day. This allows you to ride the regular park buses between the four ranger stations along the route, where you can disembark and hike as well as enjoy park ranger presentations.
For those of us staying in the west we take a lodge bus that picks us up at the depot and travels across the entire park, making stops at ranger stations and for wildlife. The ride takes about six hours.
No matter what month of the summer that I travel this route: June, July or August, my experience has been pretty much the same with regards to wildlife.
We’ll see a dozen or caribou, usually at several hundred yards. We’ll see 3-5 bears, often much further away, and dozens of dall sheep, but sometimes miles away on a distant rockface. In my many trips here I’ve also seen wolf, wolverine, pica, porcupine and fox, but only a couple times and this is considered rare.
The closest animal seen is the moose, and we saw our requisite couple, although last year I remember a third one practically sticking its nose through our bus window.
Unlike Africa, the buses – whether lodge or park – are all school bus types, not very comfortable and not particularly good for photographing, although their height off the ground is helpful.
So seeing wildlife should not really be an object of your visit to Denali. It doesn’t have to be!
The scenery is well undescribable. The stops at ranger stations where you can go wandering for a few minutes take you into an unbelievable land, a primeval cartoon as I see it. Distances are unfathomable. The sky – even when overcast, which is mostly the case – is spectacular.
And for our full day at the far western end, most of us went hiking. Excellent guides take small groups in a variety of directions, but wherever you go, however strenuous you wish to make it, the concept of panorama takes on new meaning.
So much of our planet must be like this. I’ve seen it, of course, in the remote parks of Africa and many lucky souls experience in even more remote places like Antarctica. Why this seems beautiful to us is a question that has plagued me all my life, because it is essentially not a quest for understanding as much as an acceptance of the foundation of the definition of what beauty is.
The closer you come to grasping this natural immensity, the more insignificant your person becomes. And frankly, I can’t really think of a better result for any of us.
As is almost always the case, our weather was not sunny and clear. It was heavily overcast and often misty. But it stopped none of us from thrusting ourselves into the wide open spaces and refreshing our souls.
Tomorrow we’ll try to fly around that great mountain! Stay tuned!
Like kudzu, loose strife, wolves and coyotes, garlic mustard, Asian beatles and now even Asian carp, this week poorly trained biologists are focusing on the newest of the worst “invasive” species, the “Asian Common Toad.”
“Invasive Species” is bad nomenclature. Most of what hyper, reactive biologists refer to as “invasive” is intended to mean “bad.”
In other words, if some form of life begins to dominate an ecosystem, it’s wrong and “invasive” when its doing so perilously threatens other established species in that ecosystem.
And that’s the rub. “Perilously” is subjective and darn it, give me several examples where so-called “invasive species” have radically and lastingly altered an ecosystem.
You’ll have a very hard time. There’s no question that there are “super” specious, like the toad I discuss below that scientists worry is now threatening Madagascar, but rarely have the alerts proved as prescient as they appear when announced.
(The best example of invasive species is native Americans wiped out by the smallpox brought by European colonists, and even historically I haven’t heard much of an argument that we shouldn’t have come.)
Like my strong but nuanced argument that poaching elephants isn’t the main problem, this takes some intellectual juice to understand, and the best example right now is the alarm that conservationists are raising against the Duttaphrynus melanostictus.
Nature called the event a looming “ecological disaster.”
The toad is native to much of southeast Asia where it evolved. It’s toxic, so when eaten by other animals (and lots of other animals eat frogs and toads), they get sick and some die.
Discovered recently at a port in Madagascar, conservationists went ape. Madagascar is one of the most precious, unique ecosystems on earth, with up to 90% of the species found there endemic.
There’s no doubt that if left to prosper, Mr. Toad will impact Madagascar’s ecosystem. Just as the Lutherans did on the Iroquois. My point is that these alarms soliciting urgent responses to “control invasive species” are pointless, unnecessary and a scandalous misuse of resources.
“Pointless” because they don’t work. You might have been successful keeping garlic mustard out of your flower garden, but you’ll never get it out of your forest.
“Unnecessary” because mainly it’s pointless. Our failures to control invasive species have consistently and increasingly been spectacular defeats. And even if you believe that this series of defeats is reversible, would it be good for the planet?
Would the world have been better had kudzu really been eradicated? Would teepees be better than arched bell towers?
There are a couple examples in the world, the Galapagos being one, where I concede had the rat not gotten into the shed, or had been exterminated quickly enough, things would be better. But those examples are confined to rare and very small ecosystems of which the world just isn’t mostly composed.
Whereas the alarms of invasive species are overwhelmingly rung in large ecosystems, like North America.
Yet the resources allocated to these efforts, and the machismo with which it infuses the conservationist is not simply unbecoming and unscientific, it’s nonsense.
Take the toad.
The toad “invaded” Australia in the 1930s from climes north.
The fear then, as now in Madagascar, is that birds, snakes and everything precious would eat the toad and die. And many did.
Rachel Clarke and other scientists commissioned by the Australian Government to finally conclude what the toad actually did to Australia in the last century, decided that it had done really very little.
Paraphrasing the scientific report, a frog advocacy group in Australia claimed that Clarke and colleagues basically concluded that it was the “Yuk Factor” rather than any real threat to the ecosystem that drove the initial alarms.
“What’s the evidence for all this talk of ecological catastrophe and biodiversity impacts?” the organization asks then answers, “surprisingly little.”
Yes, many snakes died when eating the toads at first. That resulted in an explosion in the native frog population that was very positive for many other species as for a while there were fewer predators of them. And then, the snakes stopped eating the toads and prospered.
Yes, birds ate the toad and died. And then birds learned to eat only parts of the toad and didn’t die. And some birds, like the sacred ibis, developed an ability to eat the toad and not get sick.
In fact up to 90% of the species of some animals were initially wiped out by the toad in Australia. But then? They came back, learning or evolving how to live with them.
Madagascar is 13 times bigger than the demarcated political land and water area of the Galapagos Islands, but it is no less precious an island ecology. I think it reasonable to try to inhibit the invasion of the toad.
But there are a host of other more serious problems facing Madagascar, both ecologically and socially. If the toad is not stopped, Madagascar will not over time be considerably changed.
And it just isn’t unseemly, it’s unscientific, to scandalize what is actually the virtue of successful natural selection.
Long live the toad!
All over the world developed communities flirt with the wild areas they erase. Of the 25 “greenist cities” in the world, Vienna is at the top followed closely by Singapore and Sydney. Hong Kong is 4th. Rio is 5th and London is 6th.
London is actually the largest city in area of that list above, so its nearly 40% green space is impressive. (There are five American cities on the list of 24: New York, San Francisco, Portland, Los Angeles and Chicago.)
But all that “green space” isn’t exactly what Africans are trying to save. London’s exquisite gardens are mostly maintained by progressive income taxes and as with the taxed’s ancestral gameskeepers, thousands of green space workers hired by the city clip, fertilize and weed with the precision of a diamond cutter.
‘If a fox don’t belong in Burnham Common, best get the damn thing out a’ there.’
It’s much different in Africa.
Nairobi National Park, which is a growing favorite of the sentimental generation of which I consider myself a part, has no grass mowers. Very little intervention management occurs.
Rather, most efforts are concentrated in simply keeping the wild area from shrinking. Since much of developed Africa like Texas is grassland or scrubland, dainty-ing-up the hedge row isn’t one of the chores.
No, the principal focus in Africa is not with the green space, but the wild space.
East Africa sits about in the middle of the Great Rift Valley, and this is earth’s cornucopia. A fifth to a quarter of all animals (excludes birds and fish) are found in the Great Rift.
More and more protecting this biodiversity means expertly treating orphaned animals and refining ways to reintroduce them into the wild. Dame Daphne Sheldrick’s famous elephant orphanage at Nairobi National Park is the most well known, but by no means the largest or most important.
Almost all the largest animals found today in Kenya’s Nakuru National Park have been reintroduced or are descendants from reintroduced animals.
That’s quite impressive and includes dozens of rhinos, giraffe, buffalo and more. They live a totally unmanaged, wild existence, despite the massive fence that confines them to the 73 sq. miles, larger than the city of St. Louis.
These animals are as essential to the African ecosystem as the bromelias are to Hyde Park. So Africans have a bit more of a challenge than London gardeners.
Genius comes from challenge, and as counterintuitive as it seems, researchers at a monkey sanctuary in Kenya have discovered ways to “train an animal to be wild.”
“Clicker Training” is right out of Pavlov, behavior modification. An orphaned monkey at the Colobus Conservation Centre in Kenya is “taught” to be “untaught.”
After being nurtured to health, the monkey learns to do what its trainer wants for the reward of a peanut. The animal subsequently learns that the peanut reward occurs when there is a “click” from a relatively unoffensive clicking device.
Once ingrained the peanut reward can actually be removed, and the monkey continues to behave as managed by the click alone.
Slowly, the trainer clicks the monkey higher and higher into the canopy of the forest, where it begins to find its own food. The clicks can even be directed to move the monkey away from curious visitors.
Ultimately, the clicks can train the monkey to ignore the clicks.
From unwild to wild.
Lammergeirers over the Narok plains, elephants into Tsavo, hyrax into the frontier, chimps back to the Kafue … dozens and dozens of organizations in Africa today are doing everything they can to protect the continent’s treasured biodiversity.
And if the great metropolis of Nairobi can tower over Nairobi National Park without destroying it, Africa will become as modern as New York but remain as wild as the Congo.
Misreported elephant poaching, a changed attitude against big game hunting, enduring corruption, a radical change in how safaris are bought and sold, and the end of the “Black Jews” in Ethiopia are my last big stories for 2013.
#6 is the most welcome growing opposition to big game hunting.
It’s hard to tell which came first, public attitudes or government action, but the turning point was earlier this year when first Botswana, then Zambia, began to ban big game hunting.
Botswana banned all hunting in December, 2012, and a month later Zambia announced a ban on cats with an indication they would be going further. Until now big game hunting revenues in Zambia were almost as much as tourism’s photography safari revenues, that’s how important these two countries are to hunting. (Kenya banned all hunting in the 1980s.)
The decision to ban a traditional industry is major. While some animal populations are down (lions and elephants) many like the buffalo are thriving, so this is not wholly an ecological decision. Rather, I think, people’s attitudes are changing.
Then in October a movement began to “list lion” on CITES endangered species list, which would effectively ban hunting of lion even in countries that still allow it. There was little opposition in the media to this, except surprisingly by NatGeo which once again proved my point the organization is in terrible decline.
The fact is that public sentiment for big game hunting is shifting, and from my point of view, very nicely so.
#7 is the Exaggerate story of elephant poaching. I write this way intentionally, to buff the hysteria in the media which began in January with a breaking story in Newsweek and the Daily Beast.
Poaching of all animals is showing troubling increases, and elephants are at the top of that list. But in typical American news style that it has to “bleed to read” the story has been Exaggerate to the point that good news like China’s turnaround is ignored and that the necessary remedies will be missed.
Poaching today is nowhere near as apocalyptic as it was in the 1970s, but NGOs are trying to make it look so, and that it infuriates me. Poaching today is mostly individual. Unlike the horrible corrupt poaching that really didn’t nearly exterminate elephants in the 1970s and 80s.
Poaching today also carries an onerous new component that has nothing to do with elephants. It’s become a revenue stream for terrorists, and the hysteria to contribute to your local NGO to save elephants completely masks this probably more urgent situation.
And so important and completely missed in the headlining is that there are too many elephants. Don’t mistake me! I don’t mean we should kill them off. But in the huge difference in the size of African people populations in the 1970s and those of today, the stress of too many elephants can lead to easy local poaching, and that’s what’s happening.
#8 is a tectonic change in the way safaris are being bought and sold.
The middle man, the multiple layers of agents inserted between the safari and its consumer have been eroding for decades. But in one fell swoop this year, a major South African hotel chain sold itself to Marriott, leapfrogging at least the decade behind that Africans were in selling their wares.
Most African tourism products are not bought by Americans, and so how safaris were are has mostly been governed by buying habits in such places as Europe. America is far ahead of the rest of the world in direct tour product buying, and the sale of Protea Hotels to Marriott signals to all of Africa that the American way is the world trend.
#9 is a depressing tale. After a number of years where Africa’s overall corruption seemed to be declining, last year it took a nosedive.
The good news/bad news flag came in September, when France’s President Hollande ended centuries
of deceitful collaboration between corrupt African leaders and the Élysée Palace.
Many of us jumped on this as a further indication of Africa’s improving transparency, but in fact, it was just the reverse and Hollande beat us to the punch. In November the European union gave Tanzania a spanking for being so egregiously corrupt.
And then Transparency International’s annual rankings came out. It’s so terribly disappointing and I’d like to think it all has to do with declining economies, but closer looks at places like Zimbabwe and South Africa suggest otherwise. I’m afraid the “public will” has just been sapped, and bad guys have taken advantage … again.
#10 is intriguing and since my own brush with “Operation Moses” in the 1980s, I’ve never stopped thinking about it. The last of Africa’s “Black Jews” were “brought home
” to Israel October 31.
A tribe in Ethiopia referred to as the “Falashas” has an oral history there that goes back to the 3rd century. Israel has always contended they were migrants from the land of the Jews, possibly the lost Tribe of Dan. Systematically, through an extreme range of politics that included the emperor Selassie, to the Tyrant Mengistu to today’s slightly more democratic Ethiopia, Israel has aided Ethiopia.
For only reason. To get the Black Jews back home. And whether they all are or not, Israel formally announced that they were on October 31.
Rather, state governments have undertaken more scientific hunting seasons that try to achieve an ecological balance deemed appropriate. So, for example, this year Iowa added more hunting days for deer because the first “harvest” was considered too low.
I think this is rather presumptuous if not outright arrogant. Call a spade a spade.
Not sure that’s good news, but recent reports from such places as the Seychelles on current equatorial seabird populations suggests they are doing much better than seabirds in northern and southern climes.
Seabirds provide good evidence for relatively short-term effects of climate change. This is because they are most closely associated to the most effected natural phenomenon on earth, the sea temperature.
Worldwide as we would expect, therefore, seabird populations are in a steep decline. In fact, of 346 seabird families almost a third (98) are “globally threatened,” an IUCN term suggesting that intervention will be needed soon to stop extinction.
The opposite of these declines — although it’s hardly robust growth — are the seabirds found in the equatorial regions, and in Africa the Seychelles provides an excellent place to study them.
This August count of the white-tailed tropicbird and other seabirds that nest in the Seychelles was encouraging, although the study has yet to be published.
The group performing the study did release an interesting single statistic, though, that 57% of the nesting population survives. This is the most critical period in the life cycle of any bird, because once fledged survivability increases dramatically.
It’s also particularly interesting for the tropicbird, which like many seabirds doesn’t actually build a nest. With feet incapable of balancing the bird (they are designed for swimming and flying), the bird must nest on the ground.
Seabirds choose island nesting sites that are as safe from predation as possible. In Hawaii, for example, the white-tailed tropicbird nests on high cliffs. In the Seychelles, where the islands are mostly predator-free, it nests right on the ground.
This dynamic that’s possibly being clarified by how seabirds are adjusting to rapid climate change, gives us a good insight into the workings of natural selection.
Given enough time, environmental changes allow species to evolve and reposition themselves, and as a general theory, increase. As slow change allows for niche exploration, more specialized species arise.
But when change happens as unnaturally fast as it’s occurring, today, the normal mechanics of natural selection are compromised. Water temperatures are just increasing too fast for the northern hemisphere puffin to adapt or be replaced by other species. So instead, it just dies out with nothing replacing it.
Whereas in the equatorial belt the decline is not as dramatic. Basically, warmer is better than colder for our petri dish of life on earth. But at the fringes of ecological system, the great norths and the great souths where our life forms have specially adapted to colder temperatures, a rapid warmer is dangerous.
In the equatorial regions, it’s almost ho-hum.
At least until some threshold of warmth is reached, of course. But thanks to the Seychelles field workers, we know it isn’t happening, yet.
The season is changing all around the world. Unusually heavy rains are pounding sub-Saharan Africa. It snowed early at my home near the Mississippi River. Typhoon Haiyan may be the world’s biggest storm. Is Africa, or any of the developing world, ready for climate change?
Today Bloomberg estimates that Typhoon Haiyan will destroy 5% of the Philippine annual economy, which if adjusted to America’s economy would represent more than a half trillion dollars. If Bloomberg’s current estimate is as low as it was for Sandy, the representative destruction to America by a similar situation would approach a trillion dollars.
It’s a simplistic comparison, I know. Half of Sandy’s destruction was insured; less than 10% of Haiyan’s destruction is insured. Virtually none of sub-Saharan African destruction outside South Africa is insured.
And climate destruction in the developing world is far more devastating because there is so little preparatory relief, so much difficulty in rebuilding much less just clearing the debris.
November is when the monsoon changes in sub-Saharan Africa. The change ends a long dry season, not so completely different from spring in the northern hemisphere ending the relatively dry winter.
Every year we waited with utmost impatience for the rains in November. We were ready to plant our gardens, the endless heat which grew steadily was tedious, and I remember sitting on a small boulder behind my house looking up hopefully at the sky.
The first rain was usually a good, hard rain. There was immediate change. Temperatures dropped, as did tempers. The dust was cleared from the air. We had to close the doors to keep the snakes out, and literally overnight new grass grew.
But it’s much different, today. The “good hard rain” is now a torrent.
Robin Pope Safaris in Zambia reported yesterday that Zambia’s Luangwa National park “received an inch in just over an hour – a lot of water created a lot of mud!”
In Rwanda, unnaturally high winds combined with excessive rain Friday destroyed 120 homes.
An area that normally gets very little rain all year long in northern Kenya was so flooded over the weekend, relief efforts are stalled.
And in another desert area of Somali, 100 were killed by rain and wind over the weekend by a freak cyclone that made it up the Red Sea.
Any one of these stories would be unnaturally big news ten years ago. Now, it’s just one of dozens if not hundreds of news reports of climate calamity. Nothing is “freak” anymore.
It snowed at my home, yesterday. This is two weeks earlier than normal. No big deal, right? The temperature was 13F when I walked the dog at dawn. The normal low is 31F. Nothing to worry about, right?
Maybe not in northeast Illinois. Maybe not even in New York City right now with its elaborate weather disaster plans and remarkable disaster insurance.
Not quite the same for the guy who would like to get his millet planted in Somalia, or the young businesswoman in Tacloban. Or for the child trying to go to school in Mfuwe.
There are other ways to dominate your adversaries than by war.
Kenya banned all hunting in 1977, then later allowed some bird hunting. But the other nations of East Africa promote sports hunting.
This article shows why sports hunting throughout all of East Africa should be banned. I think it likely with time the ban should extend throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa.
Botswana recently banned hunting, and Zambia recently banned the hunting of cats. I think it inevitable even the big hunter destination of South Africa will finally also ban trophy hunting.
But right now the evidence is so compelling to end hunting in East Africa, that’s where this article focuses.
The power of the sports hunting industry and the gun manufacturing industry cannot be overstated as we approach this debate. Sports hunting, even big game hunting in Africa, is far less contentious than gun control in the United States, for example. But the industries and lobby of wealth organized to promote gun ownership has virtually fused itself with the issue of sports hunting.
Americans constitute the largest single group trophy hunting in Africa. So American institutions, money and lobbying are integral to this African debate. “Americans are by far the most keen to spend around $60,000 on trophy hunts in Africa,” writes Felicity Carus recently in London’s Guardian.
The balance of American money and power supporting hunting is woefully unfair, and it isn’t just the NRA. Sportsmen’s Alliance and the National Shooting Sports Foundation are both funded by multiple large foundations whose donors are kept secret. Journalists shy away from reporting negatively about these monoliths and politicians give them a wide bay.
My intention, here, is not to take on sports hunting per se, nor gun ownership. The issue of big game hunting in Africa specifically has reached a uniquely critical threshold. In Africa – right now – big game hunting is a threat to conservation and rural development.
I fervently believe there are philosophical and ethical arguments against many types of sports hunting. But that is actually secondary to the more compelling reasons today in Africa that big game hunting should be ended.
The main reason big game hunting should be immediately ended throughout almost all of Africa is corruption and bad policy. The same reasons that conservatives use to deplore even humanitarian aid to emerging nations is grossly evident in Africa’s management of sports hunting, today.
We’re reaching a critical point in Africa’s wildness. It’s a tipping point. The growth of African societies is exceptional, and basically good. Bigger human populations are developing at breakneck speed. It’s hard for an American to imagine how fast, for example, Kenya is developing.
Many of my clients are repeat visitors to Africa. It’s amazing to watch their jaws drop when they return after even as few as five years. Highways, factories, residential developments .. it’s an unending serious of hopeful and modern progress.
And at what cost? At the cost of the wild, of course. That’s not a surprise and it’s not new. But it is changing.
Only a decade or two ago, safari tourism was critical to the economic health of Kenya, vying with the production of coffee and tea for the top spot on Kenya’s GDP. Today, tourism overall in Kenya represents only 5.7% of GDP (2011) and arguably half that is non-animal, beach tourism.
And while it’s likely Kenya’s tourism is falling behind other sectors of its economy because of recent terrorist acts, neighboring and quite peaceful Tanzania’s trends are even more exaggerate.
Tourism as a part of the Tanzanian economy is expected to drop to 7.9 per cent by 2020 from 8 per cent recorded in 2010. Like Kenya, by the way, it is likely that the single biggest growth within tourism in Tanzania is the beach, not animals.
This emphatically doesn’t mean that safari tourism isn’t growing. What it means actually is that so many other sectors of the economy, like oil production, are growing much more rapidly.
Oil is more important than lions. It wasn’t in Teddy Roosevelt’s day.
So the threat to the wild is severe in Africa. While the U.S. continues to debate whether the keystone pipeline should be laid over our wild lands, there’s not a moment’s hesitation about a new dam project cutting a chunk out of Africa’s largest wildlife park or slicing away protected marine environments for deep-sea drilling.
It is not surprising, then, that in most of the protected wildlife reserves in Africa, animal populations are falling, often because those reserves are either being reduced in size or because the pressures on their periphery are growing so great.
Sports hunting in Teddy Roosevelt’s day hardly disturbed the ecosystem. The technology of guns was far more limited than today. Animals in rural areas at home and in Africa were truly pests, because there were so many. Most sportsmen (including TR) killed very much for the meat that was essential food for them.
But as societies developed, as Africa is developing today, hunting too quickly began to deplete animal numbers (bison, pigeons, wolves, etc.). Wild environments were protected, and most hunting banned within them. And where it isn’t completed banned, it’s heavily regulated.
The reason is terribly simple: there’s little contest between a hunter and a wild animal, and over time, wild animals lose the number’s game.
Africa has proved itself incapable of banning or regulating. Well managed (regulated) hunting is often considered a buffer against poaching, and so it was in Africa thirty years ago. The outskirts of protected areas were declared hunting preserves, and the symbiotic relationship with the protected area was a healthy one.
Along or within some protected areas in Africa hunting was used as the culling tool, as wildlife managers tried to establish a carrying capacity balance within an areas biodiversity. Hunters paid royally to kill “excess elephants” that lived at least part of their time in Kruger National Park in South Africa, for instance.
All of this worked, once. It doesn’t, now.
“Presently… the conservation role of hunting is limited by a series of problems,” according to two African and one French conservationists writing the definitive scientific paper against hunting published in Elsevier six years ago.
After meticulously detailing all the potential good that sports hunting in Africa could do, the authors take a fraction of the article to document how it sports hunting in Africa fails because of government mismanagement and corruption.
The list of corruptible acts linked to sports hunting in Africa would take a month of blogs to document. Whether it’s Loliondo in Tanzania, where land has been arbitrarily taken from both the Serengeti and Maasai farmers for Arab hunting, or ranches in South Africa recently unmasked as poaching rhinos, the list seems endless.
There are so many pressures on Africa’s wild, today, that it is nonsense to continue to allow a contentious one, sports hunting. The trophy hunting industry is tiny, in monetary terms, compared to overall tourism.
Its effect as explained in the Elsevier article is negative. So why continue it? Just so people can get a rush killing an animal? What other reason remains?
We are fighting the dam in The Selous, uranium and gold mining in the Serengeti, off-shore drilling in Lamu and highways through Nairobi National Park. There is absolutely little reason we shouldn’t also be fighting sports hunting, which provides even less benefit to Africa or its wilderness than mining natural resources or moving morning rush hours.
The time for Africa trophy hunting is over.
(Tomorrow, I discuss a very specific sports hunting issue that is now Africa’s hottest wildlife topic: should hunting lions be ended by listing them as an endangered species.
Those are not my words. They were published recently by two of the most respected South African conservationists alive today, Bev Pervan and Chris Mercer.
Big game hunting as a useful conservation tool in Africa, in my opinion, has run its course. In my 40-year career I have mostly defended hunting though never hunted myself, but I’ve changed my mind. Its use as a conservation tool is no longer viable.
To many people, probably to the majority of people, hunting worldwide from everything as tiny as pygmy ducks to Africa’s elephants is considered a sport, and a rightful one at that. I suppose the genesis if not historically at least of the idea is that vermin threatened home and livestock, ranchers shot vermin to protect themselves and skill cured by professionalism became sport.
I just finished again reading my first edition copy of TR’s “African Game Trails.” I read it for the between-the-lines insight to the man and the times, because the tome is literally otherwise nothing but a journal of what big game animal he killed where and how.
But so much has changed since Teddy’s time, and in fact, so much has changed just during my own life time, that I think we need to rethink hunting altogether.
First, the manhood and physical fitness of the accomplished sportsman in day’s past has been replaced by rich, fat-bellied voyeurs. No one goes to Africa – indeed, no one goes out to the Wisconsin woods – to hunt to prove their manhood or physical stateliness.
Manhood is reached today by mastering the IRS website, not by tuning your Chevy’s carburetor.
Physical fitness is available at every corner gym, the increased running trails and sports centers and by such simple things as watching your diet.
The skill of a good sportsman comes not from being able to down a ten-pointer at 200 yards but from navigating Class V rapids or scaling Mt. Kilimanjaro. The technology has advanced so ridiculously since TR’s times, that “shooting” is little more than telling Siri to kill it.
I fully expect a barrage of hunters to protest otherwise. And to be sure, the tracking aspect of hunting remains a wilderness skill that takes concentration to learn and time to master. But the ultimate killing of the animal today is little more than abject waste.
It’s why, guys, we do catch-and-release. Try that with a lion.
And where Ducks Unlimited was once a champion for conservation, it and other organizations like it are no more.
The non-hunting so-called “conservation programs” by organizations like Ducks Unlimited today are too little, too late, meager attempts at white-washing.
It didn’t use to be like that, here or in Africa.
But it is, now, and my next several blogs will examine these issues about hunting more carefully. And by refusing to confront these issues, we endanger not just “sport hunting” but the wild in whole:
“Lions have become alternative livestock,” Mercer writes. “Trophy hunters and useless … conservationists have allowed the ‘wild’ to be taken out of our wildlife.”
The manatee and elephant share a common ancestor they evolved from about 100 million years ago. Their evolutionary story is pretty well known, but unlike the South American (Trichechus inunguis) and West Indian (T. manatus) cousins, the West African manatee (T. senegalensis) has only recently attracted conservation efforts. In part this is because so little was known about the animal and some scientists had long ago thought it extinct.
The South American manatee lives in fresh water; the other two in salt water, and it’s the West African manatee’s habitat mostly among coastal mangrove swamps and inland marshes that so threatens it.
All three types are slow moving and big, so easily hunted. They feed on certain vegetation also preferred by a number of other marine species that are widely harvested for food, so are usually considered competitors with local fishermen.
It’s been an uphill battle for Lucy, particularly because much of the manatee’s West African range extends into politically troubled areas.
Lucy and others have discovered, though, that the population might be protected at a critical bottom level by local superstitions.
West African spirit beliefs and myths are still very powerful forces in most rural cultures. In ancient times they provided the basic beliefs to all the early societies along the Niger River, which became the basis of Brazilian voodoo, for instance.
So while war is the most formidable obstacle to researching and protecting a wild animal, Lucy discovered that superstition might be, too, but in a surprisingly positive way.
“Mami Wata” is a complex female spirit in West Africa that remains powerful throughout much of the manatee’s range, and frankly, the manatee looks a lot like what I would imagine Mami Wata to be!
Mostly positive and protective, Mami Wata can nevertheless be angered and raised into terribly destructive engagements with people, cursing them to death. For this reason she is mostly left alone and intentionally ignored.
In many parts of rural West Africa it’s presumed the only people who dare to engage Mami Wata are fugitives, renegades and show-offs who usually meet a dire fate.
For this reason, few in these rural areas of West Africa will help researchers locate much less study a manatee, but at the same time the attitude affords a natural protection for the animal.
It will be a long time before this barrier to greater understanding might be developed into sustainable conservation the way Florida has. Manatee in Florida are most often associated with Disneyland and other family fun vacations where certain attractions advertise swimming among them.
They are gentle if bumptious creatures, sometimes called underwater Teddy Bears. In the numerous places in Florida and the West Indies where they’ve been habituated to human swimmers, they are curious enough to produce exciting encounters, but too slow moving to be considered anything but gentle despite their size.
Declining populations in Florida and the West Indies were turned around by making the animal a tourist attraction rather than a hunted animal. The State of Florida designated the manatee as its state marine animal in 1975 and since then a number of programs have so well protected them that the population is now stable.
But it will be a long time before traditions change enough in West Africa that an estuary owner will agree to bring tourists into his pond to swim with Mami Wata.
But that may also be the reason Mami Wata still exists.
February’s initial discovery in the far northwest deserts of Kenya was officially announced yesterday, and it is quickly becoming the most important story in Africa.
Fresh water is one of Africa’s greatest problems. More than a third of the estimated 884 million people worldwide without access to clean water live in sub-Saharan Africa.
The aquifer of 250 billion cubic meters of water lies a thousand feet under one of the most inhospitable places on earth, and is similar to and even smaller than an aquifer discovered five years ago under the Sudanese desert.
That aquifer in Darfur has not been developed because of the violence in the area. Although the area in northwest Kenya is not wholly peaceful (my novel, Chasm Gorge, to be published soon is set in this area) there is little indication that tribal squabbles will impede this massive development.
The area is a sparsely populated one and diminishing resources is the friction between three hostile groups, the Turkana, Pokot and Borana. Their enmity has existed for centuries and has been exaggerated by population growth facilitated in part by better services and a modernizing government.
Quick access to large amounts of fresh, clean water in Turkana is likely to ease tribal hostilities in this case, and so would stand in marked contrast to what is happening in Darfur where hostilities have long ago matured into all out war.
Although distant, remote and very deep, the water discovery is so profound that Kenyan officials are looking into the possibility of creating a river as a method of transporting the discovery to more populated areas further south in the country.
But long before that happens, it’s clear that the people of Turkana will have new and sizable access to fresh water. While currently daily water needs in Turkana are almost exclusively for personal and urgent use, this new discovery raises the prospect of significant agricultural irrigation.
As with the earlier discovery in Darfur, it seems the aquifer is renewable and while the process is not wholly understood, the vast desert area may be sponging what moisture does fall onto it rather than give most of it up for evaporation, as previously thought.
The Kenyan discovery was a joint effort between UNESCO and several private companies whose technologies are normally used to discover deep-earth oil reserves.
Without UNESCO’s lead on the project it is likely it would never have happened. These new technologies are being monopolized for the discovery and extraction of oil. Once again, it’s the international community and its organized institutions that are saving lives and working for the ordinary soul.
We must wonder what is happening to Mother Earth as her insides are gutted out. But for the time being, there is only reason for celebration.