Be Careful What You Support

Be Careful What You Support

raisedtobekilledWild animals in Africa are threatened as never before by western hypocrisy.

Thursday two wildlife organizations, Panthera & WildAid, announced a “Cecil Summit” to plan the allocation of $1.25 billion raised annually to save the lion. This campaign is as absurd as it is distasteful, a stunt playing on good people’s feelings and essentially unmasked by its own hypocrisy.

Cecil was a trophy lion killed by a Minnesota dentist last year which brought to public attention the horrors of “canned hunting,” raising and containing captive lions specifically to be shot for sport.

The public reaction to the story of Cecil was extensive: The U.S. slapped new restrictions on lion hunting and United Airlines forbid future transporting of lion trophy parts were just two of many such actions reflecting widespread public outrage.

Donations flooded into wildlife organizations.

All this was well and good. Lions are in trouble. The world’s top lion researchers concluded in October that the population has declined 43% in the last 21 years down to around 20,000 remaining individuals. This excellent study, however, becomes nearly as hypocritical as the “Cecil Summit” when it analyzes the causes.

The study concludes that “indiscriminate killing in defense of human life and livestock, habitat loss, and prey base depletion” are the three principal causes.

Put into simpler terms: human/wildlife conflict and habitat erosion.

That’s fine and they should have ended it there. Instead, in what can be considered nothing short of pandering to African governments and rich westerners at home, the study further claimed that “trophy hunting can … be a tool for conservation but also a threat, depending on how it is regulated and managed.”

Anyone with a tiny bit of experience in Africa knows that in areas outside southern Africa the regulation and management of trophy hunting has been a joke for years. Ping-ponged between authoritarian decisions easily swayed by bribing, to flawed policies imposed by the World Bank, trophy hunting in Tanzania for example has been a corruptible mess for generations.

This duplicitous analysis takes it right from high science into abject hypocrisy.

Imagine you’re an African businessmen or farmer, the family’s breadwinner. Imagine a lion killing two of your cows. Imagine having four children and sixteen grand children with only one child having gainful employment and living next to a wilderness area with lots of bushmeat.

Now imagine that as you try to survive, by getting rid of the lion that’s killing your cows or going out to your backyard and trapping a wildebeest for food, that wildlife officials paid by Panthera or WildAid find you, fine you and imprison you … while a rich Texas businessman is blowing animals – including lions – to smithereens and pasting his trophy pictures all over the internet.

There’s little difference between canned hunting and “wild” hunting, or as it is more egotistically called, “trophy hunting.” You kill an animal. One is a bit tamer than the other, so easier to kill certainly, but the act is exactly, precisely the same.

Canned hunting is simply a more honest version of wild hunting. Each time a lion is shot there is one less lion, and that is not conservation.

Why can a rich Texan break the law? How do you explain this to the businessman or farmer trying to survive?

You can’t. And when you try to, your whole mission is impugned in hypocrisy.

Broken Tool

Broken Tool

donthuntwolvesLegal hunting increases poaching and damages conservation.

Specifically, culling wolves in Wisconsin increases the illegal hunting of wolves, according to a breakthrough study published Wednesday.

Sports hunting enthusiasts from Africa to North America are wrong: regulated hunting is not a good tool for managing wildlife populations. If it once was, it’s now broken.

I once believed that big game hunting in Africa helped conservation. I listened first-hand to wannabe poachers who refused to enter the Maswa game reserve where big game hunting was sanctioned for fear of capture.

That was thirty years ago and has radically changed. Big game hunting in Tanzania became so commercial – so competitive – that it turned political and then corrupt. Good policies that regulated big game hunting thirty years ago are no longer applied. Bush meat poaching in Maswa is now widespread.

Understandably, African government attitudes towards hunting and conservation are often linked to foreign aid and tourism. Over the last thirty years world opinion on spots hunting has moved distinctly in opposition even while the number of sports hunters increased.

So African governments are beginning to ban all sports hunting. Botswana made the decision two years ago. Kenya banned hunting in 1986.

Zambia banned hunting, then unbanned it, now is considering rebanning it, together with Namibia.

It’s not a great leap to go from the specific Wisconsin study of wolves to the broader generalization that sports hunting everywhere is hurting conservation.

The study was jointly conducted by two professors from areas with controversial wolf predation: Wisconsin and Sweden. They carefully analyzed a lot of public data collected in Wisconsin over a period that included both complete wolf protection (no hunting at all allowed), to sanctioned government culling, to proposed regulated sports hunting.

At the very least, “We’ve undermined several pillars of the argument that hunting helps conservation,” the New York Times concluded from an interview with one of the scientists.

According to the study synopsis: “We show that allowing wolf … culling was substantially more likely to increase poaching than reduce it.”

The study has already raised a lot of ire and less than a week after its publication public institutions like the University of Utah are threatening to conduct studies to counter the conclusions.

Sports hunting has become so emotional exactly because public policy became so political. It’s plausible that Bernie Sanders won’t make the finish line because of his position on sports hunting and gun ownership.

So I find it difficult to present the topic within the confines of conservation, because reactions and positions become so emotive. I find myself sucked into the political arena even though I know the overwhelming motivation should be conservation.

On the other hand if my firm belief like this study is correct, that sports hunting in a modern world hurts conservation, is the politicization simply a successful ploy to delay urgent action?

Leave the whirlpool of politics then take a careful look at this study (and others). Climate change is happening so fast, wildlife management policies are so political, that never the twain shall meet … in time.

Wolves is a perfect example. Overall public policy in the U.S. in the last conservative era has seriously jeopardized the wildlife management plans that brought wolves in North America back from the brink. Now with populations regaining some health, hunters are regaining control, just as Climate Change is gaining control.

Today, in our marred and fractured world, hunting hurts conservation.

Smelly Puffball Trumpets

Smelly Puffball Trumpets

hyrax.650.jimToday, Friday the 13th, I formally apologize to all my readers and past misinformed clients. Turns out that, in fact, elephants are related to hyraxes.

Fifteen hundred rock hyraxes of average weight equals one elephant of average weight but in terms of actual volume, the tree hyraxes’ screeching call approaches the same decibel level of a juvenile elephant trumpeting.

The old safari guide’s myth, sui generis, is reborn! Let it forever prosper. Be damned further negative attempts at phylogenetic propaganda, or put another way remove the whiskey from the camp fire.

I don’t have to tell anyone what an elephant is, (except perhaps a Republican but that’s a different blog). Hyraxes, also known as dassies, are ugly looking little fat African rodents characterized by an ability to freeze in situ with no fear of predation because they smell so bad.

For years and years and years, for longer than old men prefer to recount, we safari guides delighted customers when we discovered one of these smelly unmoving puffballs on a rock.

“So what do you think that is?” we’d ask with delight.

A rat? A giant guinea pig?

“No!” we exclaimed. “The relative of the elephant!”

No!!!!!! they countered, how magical is Africa anyway!

Very magical. We can say anything we like and it’s true! Anyway, that’s the way this story seemed to end about a decade ago when genetic analysis began to clarify the real world.

But the problem is that we safari guides prefer stories to studies, and we don’t read past a scientific title: Discordant Results.

“These discordant results suggest that the species diversification event that defined the three orders of Paenungulata occurred over a relatively short evolutionary time period,” remarked the study that made us all retreat quietly back to the camp fire.

“Discordant” is a big word, but we guides understood that one. We thought, incorrectly, that it was contradicting one of the first DNA studies which did, in fact, link hyraxes and elephant.

But … it really wasn’t.

Thanks to a loyal client and friend, who also fortunately happens to be a scientist, Stephen Farrand recently sent me a phylogenetic tree reinstating the great Safari Myth. It took only a few more exchanges of emails for me to realize how stupid I had been.

Now that I’ve returned to the scientific studies that originally turned all us guides away from story-telling, armed with a real scientist’s perspective, I can affirm that science is right.

About 99-96 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period (when dinosaurs were becoming supreme) there were three animals very closely related: an aquatic thing not similar to a dugong or manatee, the precursor to the mastodon, and an ox-size hyrax.

Those three animals certainly had to have had a common ancestor. Their snouts, trunks, toes and digestive track were all similar. They were and remain in the collective grouping or clade of taxonomic categories known as Paenungulata, or “almost ungulate.”

Then there were at least two radical evolutionary “pulses.” This means there was rapid evolutionary divergence, and believe me, Donald Trump can change his position six times in a minute, so you’ve got to believe that in the ensuing 90 million years they started not to look alike.

But the vestiges of shared holidays remain: that little smelly puffball with a ridiculously screeching voice has a 6-month gestation period. It still has the same number of toes as an elephant. Its extended snout is almost a trunk.

And it is, and forever will be, one of the best stories we old guides have!

Don’t Mix!

Don’t Mix!

pantherchameleonFascinating field research in Madagascar has finally explained a long-held mystery about panther chameleons: there’s more than you think!

Panther chameleons are very likely among the most popular reptile pets in the world, particularly in America. They’re native to northern Madagascar where their habitat is seriously threatened, but there are so many pet panthers in the world and so many breeders the species was not considered threatened.

But this crafty little creature might have fooled scientists, after all!

It may not be a crafty little creature. It might be 11 different crafty little creatures! And one of them, say that blue one with turquoise stripes and beady orange eyes — yes, it, indeed, may be seriously threatened!

Field scientists from the University of Geneva, working on a hunch motivated by a curious practice of the commercial reptile breeding trade, are suggesting that there’s not a single panther chameleon with lots of different colors.

Rather, contends Prof Michel Milinkovitch, there are 11 separate species whose very rare hybridization always produces an infertile offspring.

For years chameleon breeders and commercial traders have known that chameleons of different colors ought not be mixed up:

“Due to the extreme color differences of the species, we use locale info to identify the wide variety of panthers. This helps in keeping locales pure when breeding and avoids unwanted crosses,” is one breeder’s subtle way of saying don’t mix and match. You won’t get any little creatures tapping around your breederie if you mix red with blue. “Unwanted crosses” probably have never happened in the pet store.

For years and years no one’s questioned this mystery even though it’s been well understood that color differentiation is geographical.

It seems to me that this could have been a high school science project, but it’s taken all this time before adult scientists finally decided to test the hypothesis that color differentiated species.

It does. Two drops of blood from each of 324 panther chameleons across the upper part of Madagascar revealed in DNA analysis 11 separate species of creatures.

“Each of the new chameleon species requires individual management, given that they each constitute a different part of the biodiversity of the whole,” Prof Milinkovitch chides scaly pet owners around the world, and he’s right of course.

His report goes on to suggest that the harvesting of panther chameleons from Madagascar, which the government currently caps at 2,000 annually, needs to be more minutely regulated, as certain of the species might be in more trouble than others.

On the one hand this is a marvelously wonderful story that expands even more our understanding of Madagascar’s incredible biodiversity.

On the other hand the government of Madagascar seems incapable of stopping the entire deforestation of its island nation and it just emerged from a long period of violent civil strife. Who’s going to care about these little guys, anyway?

Remember, every new paint that you add to the mix makes the color duller. Remember that curious grade school fact: mix all the colors together and what do you get? White, how boring!

Poof! Thar She Goes!

Poof! Thar She Goes!

PoofEleNo, do not believe that the elephant population in Tanzania has declined 60% in 5 years. Read the science not the headlines.

A couple weeks ago the Paul Allen Foundation and the Frankfurt Zoological Society turned over their elephant census numbers to the Tanzanian government.

The Tanzanian Minister for Natural Resources and Tourism then held a press conference to announced the results:

A total head count of just over 40,000 elephant. Actually I had to add up his numbers which he released piecemeal, but not even clever Tanzanian politicians can alter arithmetic.

The last census, also conducted in part by the Frankfurt Zoological Society, put the country’s 2009 elephant population at around 110,000.

A 60% decline.

Some of the more sexy conservation organizations like NatGeo reacted like a London Daily Mail:

100,000 elephants killed” NatGeo reported in 72-pica type (or its relative equivalent in my 13″ CRS).

Still believing that some NatGeo products are better than the “Alaskan State Troopers,” a few reputable news media like Britain’s Guardian echoed the “catastrophe.”

The Washington Post cited the press conference as proof of a “catastrophic decline.” (This one really bothers me.)

Moving a tad closer to the truth, some better organizations were more measured:

The Wildlife Conservation Society in its ‘Response to … Elephant Census’ first noted the hefty increase in elephant numbers in the north of the country before three paragraphs down reporting the numbers in Ruaha, which is the component that brought the overall census numbers so low.

The Frankfurt Zoological Society, the lead organization for almost all wildlife conservation in Tanzania, was equally measured in reporting the results.

Like WCS it noted the success with elephant populations in the north before reporting the dire figures but further qualified them by suggesting there was hard evidence from the “carcass ratio” in The Selous that indicated “unnaturally high mortality“ not necessarily related to poaching.


“Government, Wildlife Experts and Conservationist [are] baffled by the sudden disappearance of more than 12,000 large elephants from Southern Tanzania even though they were neither poached nor died,” reported the Arusha Times.

Oh, my goodness, it’s Babu at work. This is getting spooky isn’t it?

Here’s what’s happening, folks.

These elephant statistic are at long last some of the most reliable numbers ever obtained in elephant counting. I have often written about how confused and contradictory elephant censuses have been.

Many other more credential organizations have, too.

Maybe now, thanks to the Paul Allen Foundation, we’ll start getting it right.

It was Allen’s $900,000 which paid for this census, and it was the most exact, most scientific census of African elephants north of the Zambezi ever done.

But there are 2 major problems with concluding “a catastrophic decline” from the first set of reliable numbers we’ve ever had, beyond the simple common sense that reliable numbers can’t be compared with unreliable ones to make any conclusion:

First, this well done census was confined to protected or near-protected wildernesses. There are vast areas of Tanzania, particularly not far from those characterized as having the most “catastrophic” decline, that are not densely populated and perfect habitat for roaming elephants.

Second, the areas of Tanzania that have been very carefully studied pretty well for almost a century, the northern wildernesses, showed an increase in populations in the same study period.

Those northern areas are much more densely populated by people, with all their problems and daily activities and everything else that contributes to human/elephant conflicts. If there is any place where poaching can be documented, it will be in these areas.

I disagree vehemently with those who claim the human unpopulated vast wildernesses of Ruaha and Rukwa are prime poaching areas because nobody can see you do it. Balderdash. They can’t see you do it in the middle of the Serengeti National Park, either! At least not when you do it with the skill of a real poacher.

These guys aren’t going to waste their resources on the long-distance, sparsely populated, thorntree forests of the vast interior. They may, in fact, be less watched there, but it will be exponentially harder to poach then transport the goods to market from Ruaha than from Tarangire.

So thank you FZS and Paul Allen for at long last starting us on the right track, but those flashy so-called scientific organizations with their hands out … time’s up.

I just can’t wait for the 2019 census!

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

woolycircusElephant hysteria has reached a new high, and I left Botswana amazed at how dangerously unorganized elephant protection is.

The almighty and by this writer much revered CITES seems wobbling. African research organizations nip at each rather than cooperate to gather much needed facts. Positive moves in China get ignored so the country can be bashed still again. Meaningless grandstanding gets the headlines.

And so, we clone a wooly mammoth?

I’m not kidding. Within four years we’re going to have a live wooly mammoth, with DNA from a permafrosted 3300 year-old baby slipped into the DNA of a healthy modern elephant by Harvard researchers.

Zimbabwe is among the best places to traffic ivory, and now even live elephants. In blatant disregard of CITES, Zimbabwe is sending 34 baby elephants to Asia and Arabia.

The outcry was formidable, but not a single country in CITES asked that the treaty enforcement provisions be applied to Zimbabwe.

It’s a circus, folks. At least for three more years. That’s when Ringling Brothers has announced they will discontinue using elephants. Jump to hashtag #3YrsTooLong.

What you have is a mess. Nobody really knows how much poaching is going on. The reported figures are so disparate as to be laughable.

The once respectable Save The Elephant Fund issued a critical news release claiming that 50,000 elephant were poached annually, while the also once respectable National Geographic said 25,000.

Think one of them’s wrong? Or both?

We have no idea how many elephant are being poached, for the same reason that we have no idea how many elephant there are. African government wildlife agencies don’t undertake counts or can’t be trusted, and not-for-profit wildlife NGOs refuse to cooperate because it might jeopardize their fund raising.

One of the most respected government wildlife agencies, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, sacked five top officials last year for involvement in the ivory trade. Hardly a day after one of Kenya’s most notorious wildlife traffickers was arrested on an Interpol warrant, the man jumped bail.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Government – probably among the top conduits for illegal ivory – won headlines worldwide for burning ivory and proclaiming a “Zero Tolerance” for wildlife poaching. But no journalist noticed that the entire top of the pyre was actual carved ivory sculptures and trinkets. Ivory isn’t carved until it gets to Asia. Where did that come from?

You confused? Join the pack.

His Excellency the honorable Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, told a conference in Botswana last week that any elephant problem that exists doesn’t come from Botswana elephants, but “ensues from elephants that migrate from neighboring countries,” which – he then deduced for us – means that those countries have serious problems.

We just finished a successful safari in Botswana, and we didn’t see all that many elephants, but I’m told more elephants exist in Botswana than anywhere else on earth.

Do I believe that?

Jim filed this from Arusha, Tanzania.

Lion Realities

Lion Realities

Excellent photo by Rich Mattas on my March Great Migration Safari.
Excellent photo by Rich Mattas on my March Great Migration Safari.
Never ‘in my life’ would I have expected to be concerned about declining lion populations in Africa, but despite grossly misunderstood and badly used statistics, they are definitely in decline.

I always thought of lions, I suppose, like kitty cats: They’re ubiquitous! In fact, they are more of them than my birder friends think there should be, and where I live feral cats likely outnumber deer.

At the top of the food chain, what could possibly threaten lion?

The framing of my question reveals the mistaken notion of trying to figure out what’s happening to a wild animal strictly by what’s happening in the wild.

What threatens lions is development: people, roads, buildings, dams … all the things that make for a modern world.

Development impinges on lions directly, but by also constricting the freedom and growth of lion food – other animals – it’s a doubly whammy.

I’m astounded by the inability of research organizations to get a firm number on lion declines in Africa. It ranges from popular charities like NatGeo’s low balling to many others suggesting twice the number. Either way it’s a serious, rapid decline, but why no consensus on actual numbers?

The best researchers, like Craig Packer of the University of Minnesota, refuse to deal with the issue in the aggregate, assuring me that compiling trusted aggregate numbers is too difficult.

LionAlert was my guide for many years, but they’ve been unable to make a prediction beyond the 35,000 they published for 2012.

NatGeo among many other organizations is appealing to your pocketbook to fund their missions to stem the decline. It’s a waste of money.

Although the actual numbers in decline might not be known, the reasons are.

Craig Packer’s many scholarly articles and popular publications sum it all: His 2004 study in Ngorongoro started the news that lions were in serious decline, building on an earlier 1996 study about how lions were growing increasingly vulnerable to viruses.

By 2005 Packer had the lions in the Serengeti well understood, and it’s really on the basis of this detailed although localized research that I think we can generalize to the continent as a whole.

Subsequent reports and studies would confirm that serious human/animal conflict was the driver of decline, not just building roads.

By 2009 researchers were no longer reticent about blaming the Maasai’s poisoning of lion as a major contribution to decline in East Africa.

Don’t put too much emphasis on that, though, because it’s really all a part of the same problem. Lion attacking livestock occurs not simply because lion have decided it’s easier than pulling down a wildebeest.

It’s as much because there are fewer wildebeest and the lion’s range is declining because of overall human spread.

Maasai poisoning lion is identical to Montana farmers poisoning wolves.

This decline will not stop by contributing to NatGeo, and once again I’m infuriated by so-called conservation organizations driving their general fund with appeals of imminent catastrophe that they claim to know how to stop.

Much better to support the more difficult-to-understand but lasting attempt by Kenya to list lions as an endangered species.

That was set back this summer when efforts to do so were curtailed, in this case mostly by NRA-driven hunting groups that would be most effected immediately. As a result, South Africa – a powerhouse in determining African conservation policy but also one of the last easiest places to arrange a lion hunt – declined to support the listing.

But Kenya battles on and so should we. I can’t suggest that human development be held hostage to protecting lions. But I can definitely tell hunters to go take a walk.

Caring or Counting?

Caring or Counting?

TodaysLionScoreThe ongoing battle to “list lions” as an endangered species is heating up: notably NatGeo in an embarrassing flip-flop and FWS cowering in the shadows.

A year ago the conservation world was rattled when America’s Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) agreed to consider whether the African lion should be placed on America’s Endangered Species List.

It would be a revolutionary approach to dealing with the decline in lions documented in Africa over the last decade.

Revolutionary, because whatever African animal goes on America’s Endangered Species List means that CITES will definitely consider interdicting it globally as well. And among all the other ramifications, hunters would no longer be able to bring their lion trophy home, and in some cases, not even hunt them.

What is a Big Game Hunter without a Lion?
In my opinion, a Bully without a Victim.

So you can imagine what a storm that decision last year caused. Hunter organizations around the world descended on the FWS like the NRA descended on Congresspeople trying to do something about the Sandy Hook massacre.

So guess what? The normal 90-day review period that FWS imposes on itself once a decision to consider listing is made, has come and gone, come and gone, come and gone… Kudus to FWS for not yet caving, but here’s all they’re saying at the moment: click here …. not 90 days after announcing their decision to consider, but 406 days after.

I guess it doesn’t look good for lions.

Meanwhile, more and more studies are coming out trying to explain the continuing decline. I’ve written about the human/lion conflicts in increasingly urbanized Africa, about increased poisoning by farmers, and even a brilliant scientist’s study that found a virus in buffalo that lions kill to eat was migrating into lions and killing them.

One of the newest and most intriguing studies is that global warming in particular is hitting the population hard.

I imagine it’s a combination of all the above. And when a species decline is attributed to so many separate factors, it doesn’t look good. You can work on one of the problems, then another, and find in the process that the solution to one is exacerbating the other.

Whether or not hunters should be allowed to shoot lion and hang their trophy above their fireplace is, in fact, rather incidental to the problem of saving them. Relatively speaking there are so few lions shot each year compared to those dying of all the other dreaded reasons, it’s fair to recognize this as a distraction.

On the other hand, it is a moral debate that won’t go away.

When a species is in decline, do you allow a recreation that hastens it, however incrementally?

I was appalled last year when National Geographic said YES.

NatGeo has truly morphed from what it originally was. Anyone who flips to their cable television shows about Arizona cops or reality TV understands they’ve moved from caring to counting.

And that backlash that editorial referenced above caused was enormous. So today, guess what? They’ve flipped:

“Why Are We Still Hunting Lions?” a NatGeo editorial of July 31 asks, advocating an end to hunting lion and a listing by FWS.

Well, they could answer themselves with their editorial last year, but I doubt they will.

Here’s a more credible answer: The International Fund for Animal Welfare has just completed an exhaustive study that concludes that the big game hunting of lions contributes meaninglessly if at all to any form of conservation.

The report also shows that the big game hunting industry is actually supported more by hunting species like buffalo than lion, and that any obstacle for hunting lions that would result from FWS or CITES listing lion would be insignificant.

So you have your answer. It’s morally wrong to hunt an animal in decline and economically insignificant to stop hunting them.

So NatGeo, what do you say about this … now … this time?

On Safari: Mastodon to Muskox

On Safari: Mastodon to Muskox

muskoxmastadonThe ecology of Planet Earth’s Far North is mysterious and often perplexing, sometimes hilarious but more often terrifying. Our first full day in Fairbanks introduced us to the remarkable biology of this Far North.

I love to start in Fairbanks, and most of my clients spend a full two nights here, and quite a few, three nights. There’s plenty to do, and it’s an important introduction to the Far North ecology of this remarkable part of the world.

It’s also an active scientific point where climate change is more readily observed and terribly respected. We’re going to Kantishna tomorrow, the west side of Denali national park, where one of the three lodges was washed out by record floods and rain only a few weeks ago.

Chief Curator Angela Linn, Pam Lopes, Becky Krantz & Sara Taylor.
Chief Curator Angela Linn, Pam Lopes, Becky Krantz & Sara Taylor.

Here’s where the ice cap and glaciers are disappearing, where the coastline is eroding fast, where oyster farms are dying because the water’s getting too hot.

Here’s where today I got lost inside the University of Alaska campus because of another sink hole detour (they’ve had three this year), as a result of the permafrost melting.

In addition to the flashy but fun tourist attractions like the Riverboat Discovery, today we went a bit deeper and more academic.

Curator of Collections, Angela Linn, gave us a special behind-the-scenes tour of the University of Alaska’s remarkable collections: more than 1½ million items! We were able to feel mastodon fossils and gaze through security alleys filled with ancient Inuit sleds and snowshoes.

The Museum is a centerpiece of the university, a real research station for anyone doing Far North science. The part which is open to the public, the Museum of the North, is one of the finest and most digestible science museums I’ve ever visited.

Afterwards Dr. John Blake, the university’s veterinarian and director of its Large Animal Research Station (and 9 other life animal research stations) walked us through the station’s extensive grounds describing the work being done on reindeer, caribou and muskox.

Dr. John Blake describes the muskox habitat.
Dr. John Blake describes the muskox habitat.
Reindeer are originally Russian caribou that have been domesticated for a long time. But it was interesting learning about their differing biologies: the reindeer are much more biologically precarious, growing antlers sometimes at the rate of 2″ per day! The mystery is why, and how relatively rapid domestication produces such variance with the wild animal.

Dr. Blake then told us the remarkable story of what may be the most interesting of the Far North animals, the muskox.

Now farmed for its exquisite qiviut wool, the muskox was probably extinct in most of the Arctic by the 1900s, probably a mixture of over hunting and disease. Today there are nearly a half million and many are farmed for their extraordinary wool, a dozen times warmer (more insulating) than sheep’s wool and softer than cashmere.

There are few animals that thrive at -40F and get sick at 50F. That’s the muskox, and needless to say may be as threatened as the polar bear by global warming.

Tomorrow we head into Denali. Stay tuned!

Zoo Excess

Zoo Excess

somethingdontdoLast week’s settlement between the Pittsburgh Zoo and a family whose 2-year old boy was killed by the zoo’s wild dogs has restarted the conversation about the roll zoos play, today.

In November, 2011, a Mom lifted her 2-year old onto a railing above an exhibit of wild dogs. The boy lunged forward out of the mother’s grip and fell into the exhibit where he was fatally attacked by the dogs.

The zoo had complied with industry and national safety regulations but did increase the barriers following the incident. That was one of the key points used by the parents in suing the zoo for negligence.

The details of the suit remain confidential, but the debate has widened beyond whether African predator exhibits are safe, to whether they’re humane or even necessary.

Zoos have been transforming themselves over my lifetime from institutions that display wildlife to institutions that study and conserve the wilderness.

If there’s a trend, it’s actually for fewer zoos and fewer displayed animals, although the zoos that exist are becoming larger and their displays are becoming much more elaborate.

Wild dog, relevant to this story, have likely been saved from extinction by U.S. zoos. They were in a dramatic decline several decades ago when conservation organizations led by zoos worked up a dramatic master plan to save them.

Numerous initiatives began, including habitat preservation, but unique to the wild dogs’ situation emerged a remedy that was specially effective.

Pet dogs living at the edges of wild dog habitat were transmitting common diseases that were wiping out the wild dog population in exactly the same way early American colonists wiped out native Americans with smallpox.

Inoculating pet dogs may have saved the wild dogs from extinction but it also contributed to a somewhat unexpected increase in the health of the people living nearby as well. The Lincoln Park Zoo discovered that its dog inoculation program prevented 250 human deaths annually from rabies.

The two decades long initiative to save wild dogs from extinction worked, and it is understandable that these organizations want to celebrate their success.

One of the ways is by displaying wild dogs to the public. In a healthy state, the dogs are prolific breeders and like almost all predators, their numbers are approaching saturation in the captive animal population.

So many zoos are newly trading them around, and many more zoos are beginning to display them.

It’s very difficult for me to appreciate the displaying aspect of a zoo, and I struggle to do so by recognizing that very few people in the world have the opportunities that I do to experience the wild.

But that mantra which has maintained my esteem for zoos over my life time is increasingly challenged by the massive advancements in technology. Whether it’s YouTube or online learning, holographic or 3-D projection, the modern world has increasingly better ways to “display” a wild creature.

The “display” of a real life creature always falls short of the awesome reality. But how short is short is becoming the increasingly important question.

In Zoo Miami, only a pane of glass separates little boys from angry beasts (see blog photo above), and frankly I think that’s an unprofessional leap to reduce the difference between “display” and “real life.”

But if adequate protection of observers from the instincts of predators ends up creating such a barrier, then it might just be better to get the kid an xBox.

Or, more to the point, perhaps the zoo should replace its display with a giant xBox.

Crocs vs. Crazies

Crocs vs. Crazies

creationistsFor literally hundreds of years we thought there was only one kind of crocodile in Africa, the great Nile beast. Anyone care there are really seven kinds?

Univ. of Florida researcher Matthew Shirley recently announced the fourth new species of crocodile to be found in Africa in the last five years.

As explained to the common man by Scientific America, it was “discovered in plain sight.”

What the magazine means is that the slender snouted Guinean crocodile was not stealthily uncovered in a long forgotten grotto. It had been known for centuries. It was just wrongly classified as the same beast regularly seen as far as a half continent away.

Using the increasing DNA technology that is developing a lot faster than improvements in the Dreamliner, more and more animals thought to be the same thing are being shown as diverged species.

But who cares? Does it really matter?

Very much. It adds each day to the already overwhelming evidence of evolution and some day the threshold must be reached where naysayers are simply laughed at and fade away.

It is been a continual embarrassment to me traveling often abroad to discuss one of my most favorite topics, evolution, because I’m an American. Of the most recent survey of the world’s most developed countries, the U.S. and Turkey were the least to believe in evolution.

Dig deeper and you’ll find in more comprehensive studies that in Muslim countries there is little support for evolution. In other words, our evangelicals and Iran’s jihadists are bedfellows.

The simple-minded and stubborn, clinging to a dying past, embrace a fantasy that their own personal creation was divine. That way, they don’t have to think about it. And unfortunately for America it’s a very stubborn situation.

Why, I’m being newly asked, is American coming round to support same sex marriage but not evolution?

Because evolution doesn’t vote. It has no lobbying group in Congress. Most simply, it’s not alive.

It’s not possible to see and contrast evolution in the moment. So the less educated person is let off the hook. Evidence is not instantly observational. It’s more subtle and in fact, profound.

So thank you Matthew Shirley for continuing to expand the bulging libraries of evidence for evolution.

Some day it will become big enough for even the smallest of minds to grasp.

No Pennies for Wonder

No Pennies for Wonder

killinggiraffeHave you ever wondered if it’s worth living?

Think about that phrase, carefully, especially the verb: “Wondered.” To me after all the science and experience of organic mechanics, “life” passes out of the threshold of clear understanding into absolute “wonder.”

Don’t peg me wrong. I’m radical pro-choice and don’t believe a fetus of any age has more will than the mother carrying it. I’m a staunch advocate for specific cases of euthanasia and the right of an individual to end their life.

I think using animals in some human medical research is necessary, and I see a need to embrace large animal culling in cases of serious human/wildlife conflict (and this can’t possibly ever include protecting someone’s roses from deer or trash cans from racoons!)

And I support completely the controlled breeding of captive wild animals in order to protect their gene pool.

But that doesn’t mean killing an 18-month old giraffe in front of TV cameras and cutting it up in front of primary school children.

That’s exactly what Danish officials at the Copenhagen zoo did Sunday afternoon.

Zoo officials in Denmark didn’t just get rid of an unwanted animal. They “dissected” it in front of children to demonstrate animal anatomy, and then they fed the pieces to their lions in front of TV cameras.

I don’t doubt both acts have educational value, but I “wonder” where Danish wonder has gone. What they did is dead wrong.

Here’s the important background:

Over my life time zoos have transformed their purpose from showing off unusual animals to researching ways to protect them.

Zoos came into their own in the 17th and 18th centuries when it became possible to transport weird and rarely seen beasts large distances and then keep them alive in habitats not natural to them. Zoos began to replace museums as the places people would visit to increase the “wonder” of their world, especially the distance places they’d never get to see.

In the 19th and 20th centuries in particular zoos grew immensely important to the world’s main cities.

It was one thing to buy a bag of popcorn and watch Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers wiggle into their aluminum foil tights and fly to the moon. That was “wonder”ful but you knew in your heart it wasn’t real.

It was quite another to walk into a zoological park and actually see King Kong glare at you!

Well into the end of the 20th century zoos were considered a public service. They were funded by the cities they served, and almost always free to all. The Great Conservatism that so decimated public service in the last half century reversed that, and most zoos are now mostly private institutions. And even public ones, like Copenhagen, face reduced public financing.

By the end of the 20th century the “wonder” of seeing a gorilla in a cage had seriously diminished. There was Animal Planet and Planet of the Apes.

The urgency was no longer just to display King Kong for grade schoolers who could see the king in the wild on their iPhone. It was to protect the king’s still wild relatives in distant jungles so that the life form didn’t disappear forever.

Species survival is today what zoos are all about.

The Species Survival Program in the U.S., and the European counterpart that played a role in the recent giraffe incident, are the preeminent missions for world zoos.

Among the many other things they do is to regulate the specific animals that zoos can have, breed and trade with each other.

The giraffe that was killed in Copenhagen last weekend was a subspecies of the reticulated giraffe, which is among the rarer forms still living in the wild in Africa. Its habitat is much more threatened than the habitat of the ordinary giraffe and so it is much more endangered.

One of the first things that happens to wild animals with a diminishing habitat is to become inbred. I’ve seen these giraffe in Samburu in Kenya already showing evidence of serious inbreeding in the wild, often in the form of splayed feet, irregular hide patterns, asymmetrical horns and more recently, many more benign tumors especially on the belly.

Inbreeding accelerates extinction in the wild. The pie-in-the-sky theory is that as wild animals go extinct, zoos can protect a healthy gene pool in the captive population, and then release these animals back into their natural habitats once the habitats become protected enough.

But if those captive animals are as inbred as the ones that went extinct in the wild, it would be pointless.

Alas there is a lot of euthanasia in zoos all over the world, including the U.S, and especially of big headliners like lion. In the U.S., however, all sorts of efforts are made prior to actual euthanasia.

It begins by limiting breeding to begin with, since all the animals’ genomes are pretty well known. The science isn’t wholly exact, but usually exact enough that animals that are abundant enough in the captive population need not be placed together so that they breed.

That was the first giant mistake that Copenhagen made although we haven’t yet been told the whole Copenhagen story. There are legitimate arguments “on the other side” that suggest breeding is as necessary to maintain the health of a female and the sire of an offspring, as to just create an offspring.

But once an inbred is born it is a liability to the long-term survivability of its species.

In the U.S. zoos will do everything possible before killing the animal. As in Denmark there are plenty of people willing to pay for it. That comes with a bevy of other problems, though, including whether proper care would be available.

Often big wild animals as pets end up being treated so poorly that I believe euthanasia is preferred.

Why not just separate the animal from the others and keep it at the zoo?

There’s the point, folks. Because there’s not enough money. Because there aren’t enough cages and space and employees, because zoos are no longer in the public domain but in private hands. Capitalism governs the mission no matter how compelling the science is. There are no pennies left for “wonder.”

It’s hard to imagine that the cold-hearted antic of this past weekend was the culmination of all these otherwise extraordinary attempts to find alternatives. The zoo officials seemed absolutely blindsided by their mission to protect the gene pool.

If all we need is science and wonder is expendable, what’s the point?