Wildlife Selfie Code

A wildlife conservation charity called World Animal Protection is asking people to pledge to follow their Wildlife Selfie Code, which aims to educate tourists on how best to interact with wild animals. The growing trend for taking selfies with wild animals is having a devastating effect on the animals captured for photographs and for threatened species as a whole.

There has been a 292% increase in wild animals selfies posted on Instagram since 2014 to the present day, with the majority of the photographers apparently unaware of the harmful effects this activity is having on wild animals. Not only are many of the animals kept in cruel conditions, having been stolen from the wild, they are treating inappropriately and won’t survive long.

Sloths have become an obvious target of this trend; and with their perpetually smiling faces and slow movements they are the ideal subject for selfies. But they are captured from their natural habitats, kept in noisy and unsuitable conditions, and endlessly exploited and passed around between tourists. It is expected that sloths kept in such conditions do not survive more than 6 months living such a miserable existence.

I’m sure the majority of tourists who take wildlife selfies are well-meaning animal lovers who don’t realise what’s going on and don’t anticipate that the shock and stress of human contact can kill a wild animal. Just read about this dolphin that died when tourists dragged it from the water to take selfies.

If this kind of story sickens you then please sign up to the Wildlife Selfie Code here and help World Animal Protection spread the word by sharing your pledge on social media.

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A September day at Strumpshaw fen

Today we went for a trip out in the windy autumnal weather to Strumpshaw fen in Norfolk. It’s an RSPB reserve famous for its bitterns, kingfishers and swallowtails (though of course no swallowtails this time of year). It’s largely a broadland habitat, with reedbeds and marshes, loved by bitterns, marsh harriers, otters and wader birds, but it also has an extensive woodland area and large meadow grazed by cattle.

Today in the Fen Hide we watched a bittern flying for quite a few minutes, marsh harriers circling way up ahead, and a water rail scuttling around in the shallows in front of the hide. Later in the Tower Hide we were impressed by a juvenile cormorant stretching its vast wings out. Fleetingly we saw a kingfisher flying along the river Yare and a few hobbies in the sky. Finally, near the end we came across a delightful little mole, who looked a bit lost on the gravel path and was trying to find out way back to the safety of the soil.

 

 

5 interesting new species we discovered in 2016

It’s not all doom and gloom and the Sixth Mass Extinction – scientists have been discovering new species as well as pronouncing their imminent demist. As our knowledge and technology improves, researchers are able to access more and more remote areas and discover interesting species that are completely new to science – before it is too late. Here’s a round up of my favourites.

  • The Ziggy Stardust Snake – for good reason this is my favourite new species, and for good reason they named it after the late great Bowie’s alter personality Ziggy, with it’s striking iridescent rainbow head.

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  • The Seadragon – OK, so I seem to be making a list of species with the coolest names. A relative of the seahorse, it has a long narrow body, with dorsal and pectoral fins.

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  • Harry Potter Sorting Hat Spider – again, the cool name theme. It was discovered in a mountainous region of south-west India and it mimics foliage to hide from predators

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  • Four-penised milipede – such a thing exists. 414 legs, 200 poison glands, 4 penises, and no eyes. So it goes.

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  •  Klingon newt – one of 163 new species, along with the Ziggy snake, that were discovered in 2015 along the Mekong delta, a hugely ecologically diverse.

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Corruption and the illegal wildlife trade

A new report published by The Guardian yesterday has exposed key wildlife trafficking crime groups and the corrupt government officials enabling them.

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The investigation was carried out by Freeland over 14 years and identifies through Thai government surveillance the main crime networks and individual traffickers who have profited around $23bn through illegally trading in animals, including endangered species, such as elephants, tigers and rhinos.

‘The Bach brothers’, two Vietnamese siblings, allegedly control one of the main trade routes in endangered species and are some of the key suspects in the report.

Why and how is this criminal trade so lucrative? It is the fourth most profitable illegal trade, after drugs, people and arms trafficking. A pair of rhino horns, for example, can sell for 200 times the original price in Vietnam and 400 times in China. Around 5% of rhinos are alive today compared with four decades ago, and around 1,000 are killed by poachers each year. Just to be clear – the rhinos are ‘detusked’ and left to bleed to death.

Rhino horns have been used for centuries in traditional Chinese medicine, and used to treat rheumatism, fever, gout, headaches, and all sort of other ailments, despite having no scientific basis in fact. Rhino horn is mainly made of keratin and has no proven ability to cure anything.

The Guardian report reveals that the known wildlife trafficking kingpin, Vixay Keosavang, has apparently brought his operations to a close, since the US put a $1m reward on his capture. This is the only monetary reward historically offered for a wildlife trafficker, and seems to have been almost instantly effective in halting his business. Since then, however, new players have taken over – the Bach brothers, who are:

well-known locally for their criminal activities, which also include vehicle smuggling; the Bachs run legitimate businesses in wholesale agriculture and forest products, construction materials, electrical equipment, hotels, and food services.

Today, the Guardian has also revealed  that senior officials in Laos have profited through a 2% tax on trade involving tigers, rhinos and elephants. For over a decade, the office of the Laos prime minister has cut deals with three leading traffickers to move wildlife through borders. The statistics are truly shocking:

In 2014 alone, these deals covered $45m (£35m) worth of animal body parts and included agreed quotas requiring the disabling or killing of 165 tigers, more than 650 rhinos and more than 16,000 elephants.

This trade is illegal and prohibited by the International Trade in Endangered Species.

Laos continues to be a full member of Cites, despite having been suspended in 2015 for failure to produce a plan to tackle the ivory trade, and again this year for failure to implement a plan to tackle the ivory trade. This new evidence proves that not only has Laos shown little interest in confronting the illegal trade in wildlife, it has actually profited substantially from taxing the trade.

You can read about the WWF’s efforts to stop the illegal wildlife trade here.

If we are to end this horrific trade in wild animals, we need an international approach that must involve robustly tackling the demand, enforcing the laws, and investing in the areas that are targeted by poachers, to promote education about the ecological need for diverse habitats and species, and to enable local communities to protect wildlife on their doorstep.

Most importantly, we need to kill the demand in Asia and China.

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On The Importance Of Insects

Insects are the most common of all animals on the planet, totally around 1.5 million types of insects – that’s three times more than any other animal population combined!

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They are especially important to all ecosystems because they serve two functions: to pollinate and to clean. Many of the foods we rely on are pollinated by insects, and insects also provide an efficient service in cleaning up decaying matter and decomposing animals.

Insects are also eaten by many species, including reptiles, amphibians, other insects, mammals and, of course, birds, so they are a substantial foundation in the food web that most species simply could not do without.

Since the 1950s, however, insect populations have been declining, and conservationists are particularly concerned about the falling numbers of bees, moths, and butterflies. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust suggests that this decline in bee populations is due to a combination of factors but mostly we look to the loss of wildflowers in the countryside and new agricultural techniques. They estimate that we have lost around 97% of flower-grassland since the 1930s, resulting in the extinction in the UK of two species of bees – so far. They also suggest that:

Through the pollination of many commercial crops such as tomatoes, peas, apples and strawberries, insects are estimated to contribute over £400 million per annum to the UK economy and €14.2 billion per annum to the EU economy.

A very important insect, then. But it’s not just bees that contribute to the UK economy; ladybirds, for example, eat aphids, which feed on farmers’ crops.

But those are the cute, fluffy, colourful bugs – what about the ugly bugs? Cockroaches are probably universally despised, yet the 5,000+ known species that do not inhabit urban areas provide a significant ecological service in forests by cleaning up indigestible leaf matter, and by being a food source to desert lizards and some endangered mammals. Mosquitoes, too, despite being potentially deadly to humans, are a vital food source to birds and mammals.

There are some excellent resources on the internet to learn about the valuable role of insects in all ecosystems:

National Insect Week

Amateur Entomologists’ Society

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Birding Diary #1

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I’m a (very) amateur birder, so it makes sense to record my birding adventures on this blog. It will mean I can remember what I have seen and where I’ve seen it – mostly this will have been in Norfolk, as this is my stomping ground. These ‘birding diary’ entries will mainly be about the locations, the background, and, of course the birds. Don’t expect expert knowledge – I am just muddling through!

Today we went to RSPB Titchwell Marsh, a nature reserve in Norfolk, that houses sand dunes, salt marshes, and a freshwater lagoon. Historically, this is an interesting site because artefacts from the Upper Paleolithic period have been found, as well as military paraphernalia from the world wars. (Yeah, I Wikied it….)

A pair of Montague harriers were spotted nesting on the marshes back in the 1970s, prompting the RSPB to purchase the land, and since then it has been home to all kinds of sandpipers, birds of prey, water voles, plovers, goldeneyes, godwits, oystercatchers, and all sorts.

What I saw:

 

** We couldn’t work out which, but tend towards the opinion that it was most likely a curlew. This video from the BTO has been very helpful in IDing this mysterious bird.

First ever bird extinction in the Galapagos

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The idyllic islands of the Galapagos have been thought of as paradise on earth ever since Charles Darwin studied its creatures when he traveled there on The Beagle. It has a vast array of long-lost species, endemic to the archipelago, making it one of the most species-rich habitats on earth.

But the Galapagos have recently reported its first ever extinct species.

The California Academy of the Sciences (CAL) have re-evaluated the status of two subspecies of Vermilion Flycatchers, a songbird found only on these islands. The San Cristóbal Island Vermilion Flycatcher was last spotted in 1987 and is believed to be the first modern extinction recorded on the islands. It hasn’t been seen in decades, but importantly CAL’s recent study has shown it to be not a subspecies but a distinct species in its own right, and therefore this is the first bird extinction.

First – but could it be the last? The Galapagos islands face huge threats from invasive species and from the destructive changes of tourism. You can read here about how the Galapagos Conservation Trust is trying to preserve its endemic species that are so fascinating, so scientifically important, and so culturally valuable.

 

Buzzards are now fair game for gamekeepers

One man in England has been given a license to shoot 10 buzzards which, he claims, are interfering with his pheasant-shooting business. That one license will enable others to seek licenses to shoot legally protected species in this country, and it makes a mockery of the huge conversation success that was the protection of the buzzard.

Birds of prey have been legally protected in the UK since 1954, but just one license will undermine that; not only will it set a precedent for more licenses, but it will make the continued illegal killing of raptors by gamekeepers even easier.

Buzzards were hunted to near extinction in the 19th century and, although there are now around 30 to 40 thousand in the UK, there are still reports of illegal killing and they are still a recovering species. You can read about the buzzard’s story on the RSPB website here.

Once again, economic interests have been placed before the survival of a species, despite the evidence that buzzards pose very little threat to pheasant populations. Those that escape the barrel of a gun are usually discovered squashed by the roadside.

45 million gamebirds are released into the countryside every year for the sanguinary enjoyment of those who pay to kill animals for fun. Some of those birds will inevitably meet their fate instead at the claws of a bird of prey. BECAUSE NATURE.

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And where does it end? Licences to shoot hen harriers and peregrine falcons? This is the precedent that will open the floodgates to allowing further licenses that could threaten the buzzard with extinction yet again, or decimate struggling populations of other birds of prey.

Will the post-Brexit apocalypse enable thousands of EU environment-friendly laws to be crossed out? This is the first step.

Angry? You should be. I know how you like to sign a petition.

Getting into Birding

I am gradually becoming a birder. It only occurred to me in the last year of so that birds are interesting – interesting because they are everywhere, yet at the same time so elusive.

I did some Comms volunteering last year with the RSPB and that was really the impetus I needed, though I have always been aware of birds and birding because my mother has always been into birdwatching. And so I spent many long and confusing hours perched in hides, failing to spot creatures that others had identified but had only appeared to me to be a blur of feathers in the corner of my vision.

The RSPB bird book my boyfriend got me has been indispensable, as has the time we put in to visiting our local reserves and having a go. Now the good weather is here (hottest day of the year today has been unbearable) I can get out more into the countryside and have some nature days.

So far I can count the number of interesting birds that I have seen on my hands: bittern, marsh harrier, cetti’s warbler, lapwing. There are more but without a detailed list I have forgotten them. I need to buy some kind of log book!

I also need to learn not only to ID birds but to recognize their calls because this is frankly half the battle. Maybe I should turn this briefly into a birding journal? In the meantime, here’s a photo of an egret I took in the south of France recently.

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The Incredible Likeness of Chimps

This month brought us the news that chimps might be religious.

This bizarre conclusion is hard to draw from the episode that provoked it; however, we can say, fairly confidently, that chimps sometimes display behaviours that have no clear purpose or function.

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Scientists from the Humboldt University of Berlin set up camera traps in chimp territory in the Republic of Guinea, and found the the chimps placed rocks in the hollow of a tree, and bashed the tree with rocks.

It is not clear what the chimps are doing this for, but it’s possible that the footage demonstrates chimps engaging in ritual; this could be the evolutionary origin of religion.

This is by no means the first time we’ve seen chimps behave strangely, in ways that possibly demonstrate symbolic behaviours we did not expect them to be capable of. In 2010, the New Scientist reported that chimps in Uganda’s Kibale National Park had been spotted using sticks as toys. The behaviour was more common in females, and seemed to indicate that chimps selected doll-shaped sticks and treated them as dolls, playing with them and making nests for them to sleep in. Sonya Kahlenberg of Bate’s College, Maine, remarked that this could reasonably be assumed to be practise for motherhood.

So what purpose could placing stones in trees possibly serve the chimp family? How can we interpret this bizarre behaviour? Banging the rocks against the tree makes a loud noise, so could be a way of showing dominance or communicating to other chimps; but why store the rocks in the hollow – convenience, perhaps? Chimps are expert tool-makers and they are capable of using a variety of objects to accomplish some function to aid the survival of the group, but it is hard to see what functional purpose this apparently ritualistic behaviour could serve.

Although chimps have frequently been observed using stones to crack open nuts, or to display dominance and demonstrate their place within the group, this footage does not seem to fit within these establish behaviours; they are not doing this to gain food or status.

Laura Kehoe, who took part in the research, suggests the following theories:

 The behaviour could be part of a male display, where the loud bang made when a rock hits a hollow tree adds to the impressive nature of a display. This could be especially likely in areas where there are not many trees with large roots that chimps would normally drum on with their powerful hands and feet. If some trees produce an impressive bang, this could accompany or replace feet drumming in a display and trees with particularly good acoustics could become popular spots for revisits.

On the other hand, it could be more symbolic than that – and more reminiscent of our own past. Marking pathways and territories with signposts such as piles of rocks is an important step in human history. Figuring out where chimps’ territories are in relation to rock throwing sites could give us insights into whether this is the case here.

Even more intriguing than this, maybe we found the first evidence of chimpanzees creating a kind of shrine that could indicate sacred trees. Indigenous West African people have stone collections at “sacred” trees and such man-made stone collections are commonly observed across the world and look eerily similar to what we have discovered here.