Long Live The Toad!

Long Live The Toad!

longlivethetoadQuick! Hide! The toad’s approaching!

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.

That alarm is sounded by none other than National Geographic, Nature, and pointedly, the BBC.

Nature called the event a looming “ecological disaster.”

It isn’t.

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!

Clicked into The Wild

Clicked into The Wild

reintroducingThe pressure of rapidly growing human populations has stimulated exciting new research on how to keep Africa wild.

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.

Important Stories for 2013

Important Stories for 2013

Important 2013 StoriesMisreported 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.

Vultures & Other Vermin

Vultures & Other Vermin

Dead vulturesIt’s been a generation or more since certain animals considered vermin were proudly exterminated in the U.S., and the concept of bounty on nuisance animals is in welcomed, serious decline.

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.

Read more

Equatorial Success

Equatorial Success

nestingtropicbirdThe short-term, visible effects of climate change on equatorial Africa are destructive to human populations but seem to be less damaging to overall species survival than elsewhere in the world.

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 most critical of these declines is in the northern hemisphere. Puffin populations, for example, in Maine and tern populations in northern Britain are in currently very critical conditions.

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 War by Climate

The War by Climate

climatecalamityThe 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?

NOAA estimates Hurricane Sandy’s final economic destruction approached $65 billion. Originally, Bloomberg estimated it at $20 billion.

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.

Ban East African Hunting

Ban East African Hunting

LionHuntSports hunting has long been characterized as a conservation tool. That is absolutely not the case in East Africa, where all trophy hunting should be outlawed.

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.

Stay tuned.)

HUNTING

HUNTING

HuntOrNot“This is the first in a series of articles aimed at showing how wealthy American hunters are a force for evil in the third world.”

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.”

Stay tuned.

Beware Mami Wata

Beware Mami Wata

westafricanmanateeSome very deep West African superstitions may be the last great barrier and yet also the last great hope for saving the rare African manatee, a creature on the brink of extinction.

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.

For the last seven years saving the West African manatee has been led by a single woman, Lucy Keith Diagne, born, raised and educated in Florida among the State’s prized marine mammal.

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.

The Most Precious Discovery

The Most Precious Discovery

turkanawaterSlowly we are discovering a deeper layer inside earth that is renewing oil and gas, and now, the most important resource of all, water. Africa is jubilant.

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.

If estimates are correct, Kenya’s reserves of clean water have just been multiplied by ten. The daily consumption potential of Kenya’s current fresh water will be doubled.

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.

Cranes & Other Conservation

Cranes & Other Conservation

Wattled Crane - Copyright © Grant AtkinsonAfrica’s beautiful cranes have become a maypole for world conservation, but I don’t believe the birds – or the world – will be saved by private initiatives.

Recently I had the privilege of visiting the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Founded on the fairy tale conservation story that saved the Whooping Crane, the Foundation today extends its work around the globe, protecting fifteen species of crane worldwide.

I was particularly interested in their work with the four African breeders, the Black Crowned, Grey Crowned, Blue and Wattled.

Each of these birds is incredibly spectacular; the crowned and the other two types have distinct behaviors, and they all get the attention of my clients even those who are not birders per se.

And all of us guides have watched their decline… and, in the case of the wattled, the promise of a comeback.

Hardly a decade ago, flocks of black crowned cranes were common on every grassland wilderness. Although they peal off in pairs to nest, large flocks were common before nesting and among the fledglings.

Their funny low-decibel honking, very much like a goose, often introduced them long before the explosion of colors and ballet of flying together got everyone’s attention.

But the crane in general is an indicator of much more than beauty alone. Cranes are wetland birds. Like so many birds in a variety of ecosystems, cranes indicate the health of the world’s wetlands.

And wetlands – at least for the time being until new technology is developed – is the way the world cleans itself while simultaneously producing more clean water.

Now Africa’s cranes are often found as I’ve seen in near desert environments – they’ve adapted nicely to the desertification of Africa. But they tend to nest in as wetland an environment as possible.

So we might deduce that Africa’s cranes are in the forefront of the decline of wetlands, managing to adapt historical behavior to the decline of good water resources, because Africa’s wetlands are in a more serious decline than elsewhere on earth.

But we may have reached an untenable point in that decline. Over my forty years I’ve watched the crowns “come and go,” so to speak in terms of their anecdotal visible numbers. But in the last 3-5 years they’ve been going and not coming back.

And this stands in marked contrast to the Wattled Crane of southern Africa, which while more threatened to begin with than the crowned, seems to be making progress, albeit slowly.

And this little bit of evidence is why I don’t believe that despite the invaluable work of organizations like the Crane Foundation, the cranes – or for that matter, any world ecosystem – will be saved without massive government involvement.

A lot of people don’t agree with me. Another recent visitor to the Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Carl Gibson, wrote recently in the Huffington Post, “Cranes and Climate Change: Why Our Survival Depends on Local Solutions.”

In a somewhat convoluted way Gibson claims that private initiatives like the Crane Foundation can ultimately control climate change, which he correctly faults for much of the world’s current conservation crisis.

Gibson lauds “small business” and business green initiatives for being “ahead of the federal government … find[ing] ways to generate our own power, run our businesses sustainably, and conserve natural resources and biodiversity if we’re to survive extinction as a species in the next century.”

Like the leadership of the Crane Foundation and many other good conservation organizations, there’s a belief that government either can’t or won’t address the problems they do.

They’re wrong, and it’s time that we change this destructive attitude that’s arising between well-meaning conservationists and their governments. I find so often today a nihilistic attitude by private conservation organizations towards governments. This has got to change.

The reason the Wattled Crane has a current better trajectory for long-term survival than the crowneds is because the governments of southern Africa have more aggressively dealt with wetland issues. It’s that simple.

The remarkable effort by the Botswana government to create boreholes in the dried up Ngami River and its tributaries … for 26 years until they refilled two years ago!… is a case in point. And it’s just one of dozens and dozens.

Now to be sure the Crane Foundation and similar conservation organizations perform just that type of work. But they are uncoordinated with overall environment strategy and often fall well short of what a government-funded project is capable of.

The Crane Foundation is an outstanding organization. And like many others like it, one of its greatest legacies is the scientific expertise that it builds over the years. That is critical to saving the world.

But so are governments. And Carl Gibson is wrong. Our personal resources and initiatives should be directed first to guiding and controlling our government then towards private organizations.

Without government involvement, there is no hope.

Tit for That

Tit for That

The Obama Administration may have hastened rhino extinction in order to achieve political capital in Wisconsin.

Charity begins at home, and there’s no more powerful example of this than for Americans interested in saving rhinos and no greater reversal in my life time than what the Obama Administration has just done.

For the first time since U.S. laws then international treaties prohibited international commerce of rhino, the Obama Administration has issued a waiver to David Reinke, a big-game hunter from Wisconsin allowing him to import the rhino he shot in Namibia in 2009.

This is the first ever waiver issued by any administration since America’s Endangered Species Act became law in 1973, and may in fact put America in violation of the world-wide CITES treaty of which America was so instrumental in creating.

The action by the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has raised numerous eyebrows and not only among wildlife advocates, and occurred right when the European Union enacted even tougher bans on the trade of rhino within EU country borders.

Fish & Wildlife’s explanation is pitiful. It invokes a moral platitude that sport hunting can support conservation, which while sometimes true is absolutely not in the case of any endangered species. And it cites as a positive reason for issuing the waiver the more than quarter million dollars Reinke spent on his rhino hunt in Namibia.

To many of us, this action is patently political: Trade rhino for political capital in the contentious arena of Wisconsin by wooing over a major Republican supporter. This time I’m not only joined by the Huffington Post that suggests as much. So does Scientific American.

Tuesday’s blog about the American Wade Steffen and today’s blog about the American David Reinke and the Obama Administration illustrate how misplaced American support for saving the rhino may be.

Every single save-the-rhino (or save-the-elephant, or save-the-groundhog) group on earth presumes, and correctly so, that commerce of any kind in that animal increases exponentially its black market thereby massively increasing the threat of its extinction.

If Fish & Wildlife argues that Reinke’s quarter million dollars will save the rhino, why not just issue hundreds of waivers each for a quarter million dollars? Or thousands of waivers?

It’s a child’s tease while the Obama Administration plays god with politics. Once a single international transaction of commerce has occurred — as it now has — subsequent transactions become easier and easier.

As my own experience in Africa developed over the years, “charity begins at home” grew increasingly important to me, but in an usually straight-forward manner: Yes, there’s horrible poverty in Africa, but there’s also horrible poverty in America.

What’s worse is that poverty in Africa is declining; poverty in America is growing. I’m an American, not an African. Ought whatever talents or skills I have to mitigate poverty be directed first at home?

But what about saving big-game wilderness, a concern much more African than American?

You have your answer in this blog and my last one, “Dumb Roper Nabbed.”

It doesn’t matter how much money you’ve sent to rhino-saving charities, or how much time or other resources your zoo or conservation society has allocated to rhino protection, your political leader has just reversed much of what you thought you were doing.

Charity begins at home.

Elephant in a Texas Circus

Elephant in a Texas Circus

It’s likely there is a greater percentage of Chinese who wish to end the ivory trade and save elephants than there are Texans who believe in evolution.

Think about that, please.

Yesterday, the Chinese actress Li Bingbing – who has 20 million followers and counting on her social media – made a highly public visit to an elephant orphanage in Nairobi and then called on her fellow Chinese to stop buying ivory.

She joins a growing list of Chinese celebrities aggressively supporting conservation issues, and it makes me so damn mad the way current media again and again is blaming the Chinese for a crisis they’ve also made up: elephant decline.

The same organization for which Bingbing is an honorary ambassador is also one of the few to use realistic numbers regarding elephants. You might have heard of this organization: the United Nations.

The press statement released with Bingbing’s conference referred to “data [that] shows that 17,000 elephants were illegally killed in 2011.”

Contrast that with CNN that described the “slaughter of elephants” at an “alarming rate” and blamed it on the Chinese.

As I’ve pointed out again and again in this blog, animal poaching is horrible. Using the UN’s numbers (see link to the report, below) there are probably a half million or more elephant in Africa, today, and a low estimate of their annual reproductive rate increases that population automatically by 25-35,000 annually.

There are too many elephant. Elephant/human conflict is Africa’s single-largest conservation problem. So even with the illegal poaching, the troublesome population is growing larger and larger every year.

And the notion that it is all due to the Chinese is racist.

Yes, most of the illegal ivory goes to Asia, but Asia is not China. There is huge market in Thailand almost equal to all of China, and another huge market in South Korea. Anyone ever talk about those countries? And a huge portion of the Chinese market comes in through Hong Kong, which is as little Chinese as possible. The next conduits are Indonesia and the Philippines.

But do we ever hear negative things about those capitalist ally mean guys?

This whole made-up story about the imminent doom of elephants is horrible enough in itself. The elephant problem is not with its likely demise, but with the demise of our entire conservation efforts in Africa as young populations of modern Africans get sick and tired of being stepped on by animals preserved for rich foreigners.

Go ahead and let the beast bulldoze your child’s primary school at night and decimate your watermelon crop, so that South African tourism chains can charge $800 per American per night to see them picking their teeth and wagging their tails the next morning.

Look folks, we’ve got to climb down from inaccurate media that’s turning real world conflicts into soap operas. I’m so exasperated not just with CNN, but a whole range of media, each one feeding on the American public’s craven need for apocalypse.

The best factual report about the elephant situation you can read by clicking here. Be patient and refresh your viewer often, because it’s a huge report with many charts and tables and it’s created for CITES by CITES and the UN. Unfortunately it’s skewed towards the apocalyptic angle, for political reasons anticipating the upcoming CITES battle about sales of regulated ivory. But its numbers are solid and absolutely support my ranting and raving.

It’s a real problem, but we aren’t thinking about it correctly or working to resolve it. We’re just using it to titillate us.

Get real. Thank you, Bingbing and UN.

Killing Two Birds with A Bird

Killing Two Birds with A Bird

The great rice fields of western Kenya are ready for harvest. But the battle that will determine who eats the rice is only now playing out. It’s man versus bird, and the rules of engagement are not pretty.

This is such a perfect example of the folly of man trying to tinker with nature. I’ve seen it play out time and again in America mostly by campaigns against “invasive species” which have essentially proved laughably unsuccessful.

But a time comes when human society gets itself properly organized and funded, to do such things as eradicating malaria, and then the consequences are considerable:

The eradication of malaria, typhus and other mosquito vector human diseases was successfully accomplished in America by the end of World War II through the use of DDT. The ramifications of that continue.

We all know about the near extinction of the bald eagle, and how DDT so weakened the outer shells of bird eggs that many species were threatened. But the effect on the environment was much greater than just an effect on avifauna. Scientists continue to argue, today, that DDT is a carcinogen that effects a wide range of species, and will do so for centuries.

But it did succeed in accomplishing its mission. Although there’s some concern malaria could reappear in America, today, because of global warming, certainly we can conclude that America has been essentially malaria-free since the 1950s.

So it is a cost-benefit argument. Today, most African governments argue that DDT should be allowed greater use than current world treaties allow. Today the use of DDT in Africa “within confined buildings” is allowed, but the widespread spraying that effectively ended malaria in the U.S. outdoors is prohibited.

This weekend a conservation organization working in western Kenya reported that the raptors it works to protect were being poached then preserved as scarecrows in order to protect rice fields from a pestilent bird, the quelea.

An important UN agency calls quelea “Africa’s most hated bird.”

The small, sparrow-like creature lives in enormous flocks. On my last safari about a month ago we encountered them just as they began to nest in Tarangire National Park. It’s as thrilling a sight as spotting a leopard in a tree.

The “mumuration“ of quelea is not unique. Many birds do this, though most simply as a precursor to mass migration. The quelea does it … to eat.

The dark clouds of quelea descend on farmer’s fields more powerfully than locusts, and a 10-acre rice field can be laid bare in an hour.

Consistent with nature’s laws, as more and more farms in Africa concentrate grain production like rice and wheat, and as the equatorial regions of Africa get wetter with global warming and these fields grow larger…

…so do the flocks of quelea.

Farmers in western Kenya have found a deterrent they like. Poach a raptor that eats quelea, and hang it in the field preserved.

A live raptor makes a kill and is satisfied for a whole day. Its effect on mumuration is short. A scarecrow raptor – at least so far – produces a longer effect.

Of course there’s no reason not to believe the quelea will pretty quickly learn how they’ve been tricked. But for the time being, it seems to work.

And so … raptors are now threatened. And the easiest way to kill a raptor today in western Kenya is with the easily obtained, relatively inexpensive and terrifying pesticide, Furadan. I’ve written about this scourge in western Kenya, before.

It’s particularly aggravating because the drug is American made and marketed, but banned here in the U.S. That’s a global disconnect I feel verges on racism.

Because we’re using Kenya as an experiment, again. Just as we do for human medical drugs. As if this is a dispensable part of god’s kingdom.

My greater point, though, is that it won’t work. Nature can’t be bullied. We can’t tinker with nature, whether it’s trying to remove garlic mustard from prairies or kudzu from highways or curing bees of a virus or massacring deer to end CWD.

It doesn’t work. It never has.

We must learn in this world to accommodate nature not try to control it. I don’t for a minute suggest we shouldn’t battle locusts over millet fields in Senegal or quelea over rice fields in Bunyala.

But the battle must be with nature’s own. An organic battle, if you will. Or at the very least a much more highly regulated pesticide industry: Pesticide use today is out of control and dangerous to humankind. Furadan is devil’s brew.

And Bunyala is no less important than Iowa.

On Safari: Never Discount Junior

On Safari: Never Discount Junior

There are few true big game reserves so close to large metropolitan cities as Arusha National Park, and it’s holding its own against an onslaught of peripheral farms and shops.

The park was exceptionally green and beautiful and lived up to its reputation for us as “Giraffic Park.” We probably saw 100 giraffe in the course of the afternoon game drive.

There are no cats, and elephants use it strictly as a corridor. We saw evidence of elephant but no animals. What we did see was the usual and beautiful groups of zebra, waterbuck and warthog, with the frequent peppering of lovely bushbuck in the sides of the forested hills.

But we also had a stroke of incredible luck and saw quite a few smaller forest creatures, including the spectacular colobus monkey with its gigantic white flowing tail. We saw a family of 20 grouped in a single tall tree in the distance – in the middle of a low bushland that I’m sure was of little interest to these strictly arboreal monkeys.

But perhaps they were enjoying afternoon tourist sightseeing!

And the grand find of the day was the red-flanked duiker. I personally haven’t seen one of these in Arusha for over ten years, and it’s just the type of species that is threatened both by elephants destroying the forest and human development on the outskirts.

We caught only a glimpse of it, but everyone in my car did see it, and it was really a joyous event recognizing that the forest is still holding its own. We also saw quite a few suni, another smaller but less endangered rodent/antelope and of course, the ubiquitous dik-dik.

But the farms are encroaching, and we literally drove on the edge of a corn farm on one side of the road and a meadow with giraffe and waterbuck on the other. There were regularly spaced new blue tents throughout the field, with machete armed lookouts to protect the crops.

That’s the challenge of Africa’s wilderness, today, to become relevant, meaningful and productive to African populations. Arusha’s holding its own, and it was a lovely first game drive in Africa for my clients.

And what’s more: never discount the little bits of wilderness that remain, either because the pressure to develop them is so large or because their size jeopardizes their being able to sustain real biodiversity.

The pressures on Arusha are enormous. And with extreme weather, like last year’s drought, I become certain that it won’t survive. Then the rains return and the wilderness flexes its muscle and shows us animals (the duiker) we haven’t seen for years.

Nature is resilient. That shouldn’t make us less vigilant, but we should respect and admire its own healing itself.

Arusha National Park is the perfect example of this.