Toast What Study

Toast What Study

What actually did the scientists at Oxford University tell us last week about the catastrophic decline in lion populations?

We’ve known for some time that lion populations are in trouble. The world’s preeminent scholar on wild lions, Craig Packer, issued a number of striking studies before his retirement several years ago. Packer was sounding the alarm a decade ago and just before retiring was so moved by his own data that he shook loose from his life-long support of sports hunting.

But nothing happens in vacuum. If you’re the vacuum cleaner man then it may seem so, and it seems to me the researchers from Oxford University are acting like vacuum cleaner men.

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Elephant Controversies

Elephant Controversies

When I defend zoos to my clients on safari I point out the structural shift zoos began three or four decades ago away from public entertainment. Most zoos have shrunk in physical size. Most now have fewer animals on display and most spend increasing amounts of their revenue on field conservation and scientific research.

I enjoy telling safari visitors that almost all animals born today in zoos come from parents that were born in zoos. There is an exception, elephants, and that’s erupted into a major controversy.

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Elephant Woes

Elephant Woes

The Botswana elephant story is out of hand. Elephants Without Borders (EWB) has gone bazonkers, the Botswana government is unnecessarily defensive, October elections are driving false emotions, and exaggerated claims on all sides have damaged elephant conservation for years to come.

Animal rights activists were always easily ticked off by any poaching, but the current tense global situation has managed to raise their decibel level to unheard levels. Usually good media like the BBC aren’t telling enough of the story, thereby just making things worse.

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A Better View

A Better View

A better viewAlmost all wild carnivores and most omnivores give birth in secrecy. The mother senses imminent birth and removes herself from her normal group to safely hide away. She rejoins her group with her infant(s) several days to several weeks later. We now think we know why.

Childbirth is among the starkest behaviors that even the wildest animal shares with us. Childbirth was rarely welcomed in primitive human societies. It was considered bad luck, and a variety of reasons were explored immediately after birth to trigger infantacide, including twins and physical deformities.

The new chimp behavior reported last week may shed light on this grissly behavior.

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Jumbo Jangles

Jumbo Jangles

eleClarity on how badly elephants may be declining is at hand. Wednesday scientists began the “2017 Selous-Mikumi Large Mammal Census” which will be conducted over a huge area of nearly 43,000 sq. miles in central Tanzania.

It will be the first such careful animal census of the area since 2014 but more importantly will help determine the much debated viability of the “Great Elephant Census (GEC)”, which tore through the continent a year ago. One of the great criticisms of that inflammatory report was precisely that it ignored areas that the current census will now sample.

Why believe this one?

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White Blindness

White Blindness

leucismA video going viral was given leave to emerge into the public consciousness because of the news gap between Irma dissipating and Trump beginning to, again. It was of two stately white reticulated giraffe found in an unusual forest in Kenya.

The excitement provoked a massive use of smiley emoji not used so often, anymore. How ironic this isn’t really good news. So sorry, folks, white animals aren’t unusual. And it’s anything but good news.

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Lucky Leopard

Lucky Leopard

LionNursesLeopardPolitics are changing lightning fast and climate is changing lightning fast, and now it seems that wild animal behavior is also seriously changing.

I’ve written about the catastrophic decline of lions, but recently we learned of one of the weirdest wild animal behaviors ever: inter-species nursing! Combined with several years ago, when a lionness adopted an oryx (!) in Samburu, I think we’re seeing nature desperately trying to evolve as fast as earth’s temperatures warm.

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The Monster Rests

The Monster Rests

rhinoNPR’s fuzzy wuzzy reporting in the last few days about the northern white rhino is high school journalism. I’m not suggesting that this story needs the due diligence of Jared Kushner’s Russia contacts, but what is an important battle between science and performance NPR has reduced to a smiling emoticon.

NPR reported as if it were new a crowdfunding campaign for in vitro fertilization to save the last three known surviving northern white rhino. In fact the campaign has languished for more than sixteen months. And there are good reasons it’s languishing.

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Lion Lessons

Lion Lessons

LIONS ON NAIROBI ROADThe great King of Beasts might soon be something less. It’s not just the statistical decline. It’s losing its glamor. It’s important that we outsiders don’t force this issue. Africans are handling it just fine.

But you’d never guess which Africans.

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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!