“Humanity’s lust for meat is killing off Earth’s large animals”
“We are living on the planet of the chickens. The broiler (meat) chicken now outweighs all wild birds put together by three to one. It is the most numerous vertebrate (not just bird) species on land, with 23 billion alive at any one time. Across the world, chicken is the most commonly eaten meat.”
The tragic life of the broiler hen has become the symbol of the Anthropocene. And the world’s taste for its flesh and for the flesh of other animals is set to cause the in-our-lifetime extinction of at least 150 megafauna species – if we persist in eating so much meat.
But hang on a minute – can that even be true? Isn’t meat-eating in decline? Don’t we keep on hearing how veganism is skyrocketing?
According to a 2018 survey, 3.5 million UK citizens identified as vegan. That’s a 700% increase from 2016. There’s a similar 600% increase in the USA. And, “As of 2016, Asia Pacific holds the largest share of vegan consumers globally, with approximately nine percent of people following a vegan diet in this area.”
Google Trends concurs: in recent years there’s also been a huge growth of interest in veganism in Israel, Australia, Canada, Austria and New Zealand.
It all sounds like great news! So where’s the problem?
The problem is, the worldwide consumption of meat is winning the race by a long mile.
It has escalated by an alarming 500% since 1961. Of course some of that 500% can be accounted for by the exponential growth in the world’s population. But much is down to globalisation and people’s increasing prosperity. Populations that were traditionally plant-based eaters started to crave a less healthy Western diet, heavy in meat.
“Overall, we eat an excessive 300 million tons of meat every year, which translates to 1.4 billion pigs, 300 million cattle, and a whopping 62 billion chickens.” Which all amounts to an infinity of suffering for each and everyone of those sentient beings, creatures with lives of their own we seem to value so little.
Humans do though appear to care a great deal more about the megafauna. So, which are the megafauna being put in danger by humans’ rapacious appetite for meat? Many of them are those animals on which we humans seem to place the highest value, the most iconic, the most popular. The infographic illustrates the results of a poll into our favourite wild animals.
Just look at those species: every one of them is endangered or critically endangered.
But why is our eating meat threatening their survival? After all, we don’t go round eating tiger burgers or hippo steaks do we?
Well yes, in effect we do. By ‘we’ I mean of course our kind, humankind. “Direct harvest for human consumption of meat or body parts is the biggest danger to nearly all of the large species” that are under threat, says William Ripple, researcher at Oregon State University. So, “minimizing the direct killing of these animals is an important conservation tactic that might save many of these iconic species” and “the contributions they make to their ecosystems.”
There are two major issues here: the first is, as we know, the illegal trade in rhino horn, tiger bones, bear bile, pangolin scales and other endangered animal body parts, much of which is consumed in the mistaken belief it is medicinal. The second is bush meat – indigenous people hunting to survive. Both these hugely problematic issues merit far more space than I can give them here right now.
The meat doesn’t have to come from a tiger or a hippo for our carnivorous ways to put iconic species at risk.
To satisfy the growing demand for meat, livestock farming is rapidly devouring land that is crucial species-rich habitat, and turning it over to grazing pasture and monoculture crops for livestock feed. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation “Livestock is the world’s largest user of land resources, with pasture and land dedicated to the production of feed representing almost 80% of the total agricultural land.”
In that hotspot of biodiversity, the Amazonian rainforest, cattle ranching accounts for 65 to 70 percent of all deforestation, and production of soya beans another 25 to 35 percent. Soya beans are “the world’s second most exported agricultural commodity.” After chickens presumably.
Rapidly losing habitat and under threat – the Amazonian jaguar, red macaw, & sloth
But before we start pointing the finger at the vegans making lattes with their soya milk, let’s note that 98 percentof soya bean production is fed to poultry, pigs and cattle, especially poultry, and only 1 percent is turned into people-food.
The 2017 World Wildlife Fund report, Appetite for Destruction identified crops grown to feed livestock as the“driving force behind wide-scale biodiversity loss.”
“By 2050, given current trends, 15 ‘mega-diverse’ countries will likely increase the lands used for livestock production by 30% to 50%. The habitat loss is so great that it will cause more extinctions than any other factor.” Our lust for meat is laying waste the habitats of the very wild animals we love the most. Habitats that are theirs by right.
We have to ask ourselves what kind of bleak and desolate wasteland, stripped bare of the most majestic of all Earth’s wondrous creatures, will be our legacy to our children, and their children. Such a stark future will be the price we’re forcing them to pay for our addiction to that meat on our fork.
If there is one thing each of us can do to give these iconic threatened species the best possible chance of survival, it has to be making changes to what we put on our dinner plates. It’s as simple as that.
“You eat a steak, you kill a lemur in Madagascar. You eat a chicken, you kill an Amazonian parrot.”
You can #EatForThePlanet starting today. Just follow the three simple steps below.
1. Replace: Try to swap animal-based products in your daily diet with vegan alternatives (milk, butter, mayo, cheese, grilled chicken, beef crumbles, sausages, cold cuts, etc. For practically everything you can think of, there is a vegan version.) 2. Embrace:Add plant-based whole foods (local and organic when possible) to your diet like greens, fresh fruits, and vegetables, whole grains, plant proteins like lentils, nuts/seeds, beans, tofu, etc. 3. Moderate: Limit consumption of your favourite meats like beef, lamb, pork, etc.
‘Devil Ray Ballet’ (Photo: Duncan Murrell/Ocean Art)
Duncan Murrell’s photograph of three giant devil rays took home Best in Show. Murrell captured the photograph of “spinetail devil rays, (Mobula japanica) engaged in rarely observed or photographed courtship behaviour with two males pursuing one female.” The shot was taken in Honda Bay on the Province of Palawan in the Philippines.
Encounter with humpback whale (Photo François Baelen)
“This unique encounter happened in September 2018 in Reunion Island (Western Indian Ocean) where the humpback whales come here to breed and give birth. The mother was resting 15 meters down, while her calf was enjoying his new human friends.
“Trust : this is what came to my mind, when this close to 30 ton-animal, still hunted today by mankind, allowed me to freedive behind her and take that shot.
“From down there, everything seemed unreal: that huge tail centimeters away from me, the calf, my friend free diving symmetrically. I knew I would not get a shot like this one again.” — François Baelen
Enope squid (Photo: Jeff Milisen/Ocean Art)
“At around 3 inches in length, it was easily the largest and prettiest sharp-eared enope squid I recall finding.
“Soon the animal fled down, so I followed. We descended past forty feet, fifty feet, sixty feet while I continued watching, studying, and shooting. At eighty feet the kraken’s dancing and squirming still entranced me. Finally, at ninety feet deep, it was time to leave my new little friend at peace.” — Jeff Milisen
‘Inside the Eggs’ (Photo: Flavio Vailati/Ocean Art)
“During a dive in Anilao, Philippines I found this nudibranch and I waited for the best time to make this shot.” — Flavio Vailati
‘So Hairy Flames’ (Photo: Edison So/Ocean Art)
“Hairy shrimp have always been one of my favourite subjects, due to the variety of colors and types of similar species of shrimps. Shooting a hairy shrimp is also a challenging task due to its tiny size and nature. They like to hop from one place to another while photographers try to photograph it. Great patience is needed to wait for the perfect moment to press the shutter, the environment, the background, the composition, and of course, the focus on the subject.” — Edison So
Giant manta (Photo: Alvin Cheung/Ocean Art)
“Another diver, Marissa, was a few meters away from me and behind her was the landmark pinnacle of El Boiler. Visibility was crystal. I thought Marissa, together with the structure of the pinnacle, might be able to create an interesting background showing both the location of the dive site and the scale of the giant manta. With luck, the manta approached Marissa for an investigation. Hence this photo.” — Alvin Cheung
Pod (Photo: Eugene Kitsios/Ocean Art)
“Before you enter the water with a pod of dolphins, you never know what the interaction will be like. Sometimes you may have a great encounter, where the dolphins will curiously swim around you or show you some kind of playful behaviour. Other times they may leave you without interest. The best way to interact with them is to let them decide. Times where you are accepted by the pod are truly a magical experience. These intelligent creatures display so much interesting behaviour and in this case they playfully and curiously swimmed by me.” — Eugene Kitsios
‘3 Baby Seahorses’ (Photo: Steven Walsh/Ocean Art)
“I started diving in March 2017. I instantly fell in love with the underwater world and I started taking a camera on dives in December 2017. I had no photography experience above or below water (smart phone aside), but the many challenges and creative opportunities involved make the steep learning curve enjoyable.
“Each spring a unique event occurs at Blairgowrie Pier, in Victoria, Australia. In the cool 15°C water, Big-belly seahorse fry appear in large numbers. They cling to loose sea grass and weeds near the water’s surface, where they hunt in the shelter of the pier. This particular photo is the outcome of 4 hours of diving between night shifts as a firefighter.” – Steven Walsh
‘My Babies’ (Photo: Fabrice Dudenhofer/Ocean Art)
“I have been fortunate enough to have a Japanese guide who showed me a couple of clownfishes with their baby eggs. I never had the chance to shoot this type of interaction before so it was a big challenge for me. The adults swam endlessly around the eggs in order to oxygen them. Because of their endless movements it was difficult to get the perfect moment. To achieve the perfect shot I needed patience and a big part of luck. The guide and I stayed more than half an hour and I took more than 50 photos. I really wanted to show how some parent fishes cared for their babies. In this regard these clown fishes are not so different from us.” — Fabrice Dudenhofer
‘Cannibal Crab’ (Photo: PT Hirschfield/Ocean Art)
“Each year I eagerly await the return of the spider crabs en masse as they gather to shed their old shells, presumably finding ‘safety in numbers’ from predators such as stingrays, angel sharks and octopuses as they all moult in close proximity together. In reality, the most fierce predator of spider crabs is other spider crabs. I have occasionally seen them ‘on the march’ prior to settling to moult the old brown shells they have outgrown, snacking on another crab’s leg as they wander with thousands of others in massive circles around and beneath the pier. Once the crabs have moulted, they become extremely vulnerable as it takes approximately three days for their new, orange shell to harden. Often they climb the pylons of the pier, hoping the height will keep them out of predators’ reach. Some survive the ordeal of the moult only to become an instant soft-shelled meal for another hungry animal. I stumbled across this harrowing sight which I both filmed and photographed a ravenous unmoulted spider crab, fiercely feasting upon a freshly moulted crab. It dug its claws deeply into its victim’s back, pinning it down before transferring the fresh threads of still living crab meat into its merciless mouth. Between bites, the Cannibal Crab and its hapless victim stared back into my lens — one seeming defiant but justified by its need to feed, the other in all the resigned pathos of the final miserable moments of its life. The survival rate of crabs after they moult is quite low as the hundreds of thousands who have gathered steadily reduce to those lucky hundreds who will live long enough for their shells to harden before heading back out into the depths of the bay before the cycle continues the following year.” — PT Hirschfield
“This is my first time to meet jellyfish in Taiwan NorthEast Coast for shore dive! When I did night dive in 2018 summer time, I saw this beautiful jellyfish dancing in the dark! I followed her for a while and took many shots when she transformed into different shape. Suddenly, my diving buddy who is also my husband, Stan Chen, was so creative and used his torch to make the backlight for this unique jellyfish. In order to make good shots, we followed her over 1 mile and against the current. When we finished the dive, it’s already sunrise time at 5:30 am but we made it! We got the beautiful pose for the dancing jellyfish with an unique spotlight!” — Melody Chuang
‘Disco Nudi’ (Photo: Bruno Van Saen/Ocean Art)
“I was trying to create an image right out of the camera using special own-made backgrounds. But at the end, it was the photoshop filter ‘swirl’ which helped me a lot to end up with this creative image.” — Bruno Van Saen
‘Hairy Shrimp’ (Photo: Sejung Jang/Ocean Art)
“Before this trip, hairy shrimp were on my wish list. Fortunately my dive guide found it for me and my friends. It was my first time to see red hairy shrimp. It’s not easy to take photos of it, because it jumps a lot. After this photo, my camera didn’t work at all. I’m so lucky at least this nice shot came out of it!!!” — Sejung Jang
‘Chimaera’ (Photo: Claudio Zori/Ocean Art)
“The spotted rat fish, a resident of the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean, usually lives between 50 and 400 meters and prefers temperatures no higher than 9 degrees. However, it tends to approach in shallow water during the spring and fall. While swimming, it can perform rotations and twists as if it were flying. The photo was taken in a night dive in front of God’s Pocket dive resort.” — Claudio Zori
‘Mangrove’ (Photo: Yen-Yi Lee/Ocean Art)
“A beautiful soft coral anchors and grows on mangrove roots. Two remote strobes were used to highlight the details of mangrove roots in the background, which also provided water surface reflection.” — Yen-Yi Lee
‘Grey Seal Face’ (Photo: Greg Lecoeur/Ocean Art)
Can’t you just feel the photographers’ excitement at managing to capture these awesome images! These are a reminder of what we look to lose if we don’t act in time to save them.
If you haven’t already, take Conservation International’s pledge to be a #VoiceForThePlanet #NewDealForNature
Cover photo: Endangered Steller Sea Lions VLADIMIR BURKANOV / NOAA
If the 6th Age of Mass Extinctions we have now entered as a result of our own activities, sees off the human race along with all the other species on the planet, our epitaph might read (should there be a handy alien around to carve it in stone) “They thought theirs were good ideas at the time ….”
In The Magnificent Seven, this was the answer Vin (Steve McQueen) memorably gave to Calvera (Eli Wallach) when the bandit was so puzzled why a man like Vin decided to take the job of protecting the lowly villagers from his pillaging gang: “It seemed to be a good idea at the time ….”
In that instance, things turned out well – mostly. But so many of humankind’s bright ideas that did seem good at the time, have in the longer term proved to be runaway nightmares.
For all our cleverness, when it comes to gazing into the crystal ball to foresee where our handiwork might be leading, our talent is zero. Our remarkable human ability to turn every bright idea into concrete reality is matched by our singular inability to predict where those bright ideas might take us. Perhaps we are just eternal optimists, blind to any possible downsides.
Whatever, that blindness has sadly brought us to a point where 26,500 endangered and critically endangered species of plant and animal find themselves on IUCN’s Red List, thanks entirely to us.
Endangered: the California Condor, the Great Frigate bird & the Whooping Crane
Take that once-bright idea very much in the environmental spotlight recently. That material without which life as we know it is unimaginable. Plastic. Invented 1907. I know, I couldn’t believe it either. So useful it’s insinuated its way into every nook and cranny of our lives: from swimsuits to spaceships; cars to clingfilm; windows to wipes; aircraft to astroturf.
Plastic certainly has always seemed not just like a good idea, but a brilliant one. This ultra-handy substance managed to sneak well passed its centenary before we woke up to precisely what we’d let loose on the planet. How were we to know?
Futurology – the science of anticipation
Enter the futurists, those whose task it is to gaze at that crystal ball for us and forecast what kind of world new developments are propelling us towards. More than two dozen of these horizon scanners have got together with environmental scientists – William Sutherland, professor of conservation biology at Cambridge University at the helm – to put their collective finger on which emerging trends are likely to make an impact on Nature and biodiversity in 2019. Perhaps it’s not so surprising that they are hedging their bets on the outcomes of the trends they’ve identified, conscious that any one of them that seems like a good idea right now, may have unintended, unwanted, or even unforeseeable repercussions.
Emerging Trend for 2019 No. 1
And heyho we’re back to plastic
Remember when yellow plastic ducks first started washing up on beaches across the globe?¹ The thought of these tiny bath ducks ‘escaping’ and navigating the vastness of the oceans seemed no more than an amusing story at the time. There were actually 28,000 of them out there, a whole container load, lost overboard in the North Pacific in 1992.“That flotilla of escaped plastic ducks joins millions of Lego pieces, sneakers, styrofoam insulation, plastic crates and a plethora of other items lost at sea.“ It’s reckoned that containers lost overboard every year number in the thousands, and many of them filled with items made of plastic. Items that never even get to be used. A single container can carry 5 million plastic shopping bags.
After all this time, we’ve finally woken up to the environmental devastation our love of plastic has wreaked, and the trend the futurists identify is: people coming up with solutions.
An obvious one is to re-use plastic trash to produce something else we need. An ingenious professor of engineering in India has come up with a highly original use of plastic waste: turning it into hard-wearing, long-lasting roads.
“To date, thousands of kilometers of highways in India have been paved using the process he invented.”
Another approach is to make plastic plant-based and biodegradable, and NatureWorksbased in Minnesota, is doing just that. Their eco plastic ‘Ingeo’ is already in use in everything from 3D printing, through building construction and landscaping, to food packaging. Here’s how they do it.
The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is proposing a more fundamental shift – an economy based on better design, manufacture and recycling. At present we run on a linear economy – buy something, use it, throw it away. Some of our plastic trash does get recycled, but each time it is recycled, it becomes less and less usable. The Foundation would like to see a circular no-waste economy where items such as cellphones are designed and made so that at the end of their useful life they can be easily broken down into their component parts (glass, plastic, metal) ready to be recycled into equally high quality goods.
“Yay!” we say. All these ideas are impressive, aren’t they? But our futurists are cautious, unwilling to come down off the fence on one side or the other. Because how can they be sure that years down the line, we will not be repeating that refrain, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
As the futurists say,“From changes in recycling approaches, to the use of biological agents to degrade materials, to the manufacture of substitutes for conventional plastics from plants, [which as of now only makes up half a percent of all plastic produced] all alternatives will have ramifications of their own for food security, water use, ecosystem integrity and more. Not only that, but the promise they offer — whether it’s realized or not — could defuse other efforts to reduce rather than shift plastic consumption.”
NatureWorks though is in the early stages of a process to make biodegradable plastic straight from greenhouse gases without even using plants. Can this be anything but good?
And surely the futurists will applaud this brilliant idea from TerraCycle. It’s called Loop, for obvious reasons, and it’s based on the manufacturers of goods retaining ownership of containers and packaging. The consumer buys the products inside and then returns for free the packaging to be refilled. Zero waste!
If we can make drastic improvements in our plastic use, on an individual as well as corporate and international level, there may still remain sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, sea birds et al, to thank us. They have precious little to thank us for right now.
No. 2 Sunscreen
In 1938 a Swiss chemistry student Franz Greiter got a touch of sunburn while climbing Mount Piz Buin in the Alps. So guess what he did – yes, he went home and invented the first sunscreen. And for decades since, sunscreen’s been protecting us from turning an uncomfortable shade of pink, as well as more serious health issues.
Then in 2016, sunscreen joined the ranks of those brainwaves that seemed so good at the time, but might actually have been a huge environmentally-costly mistake. In that year a scientific study was conducted to ascertain if oxybenzone, an active ingredient of the stuff, was damaging coral reefs. The researchers concluded that it was. And several islands and states in the world have already banned it.
Oh, if only there were something ‘greener’ we could use to block those harmful UV rays!
Well, there is. We can harvest it in small quantities straight from nature, from algae to be precise, and it goes by the appealing name of Shinorine. As of now scientists have proved they can synthesise it. The next step is to scale up production.
Once again, our futurists are reluctant to come down on one side or the other. Is Shinorine going to be good for the environment, or prove as harmful as oxybenzone? All they will tell us is, “Widespread adoption of shinorine without sufficient research could expose corals or other aquatic and marine organisms to a new substance with unknown impacts.”
They are undoubtedly right to err on the side of caution. If only we had been so wise before we unleashed all our agrochemicals, our agro-waste, and yes, our plastic, our fossil fuel gases, our nuclear power, and indeed a superabundance of ourselves on to suffering Nature.
No. 3 Making rain
Last week, “the Department of Royal Rainmaking and Agricultural Aviation said it was preparing to deploy two planes for cloud seeding between Tuesday and Friday, if conditions are suitable.” Right now Bangkok is shrouded in a pall of smog, and Thailand’s Department of Royal Rainmaking hopes a downpour of the wet stuff will clear the air. (On the website there is a tab called “The King and the Royal Rain”)
Meanwhile in Tibet, China is poised to send up a battery of rockets to release silver-iodide particles in the clouds, with the aim of making it rain over 1.6 million square kilometres of land, a vast area almost the size of Mexico. In 2017, northern China suffered its worst drought on record, With their rockets they hope to ensure water security for their own people, especially farmers, downstream.
Cloud-seeding has been around since the 1940s, but nothing on this kind of scale has ever been attempted before. Unsurprisingly, this is worrying our futurists. They fear such a dramatic alteration to the weather will damage Tibet’s rare alpine steppe and meadow ecosystems, in turn threatening its rare endemic species.
Photos from Wild Animals on the Tibetan Plateau²
Tibet is already the one of the largest sources of freshwater in the world, in third place after the North and South Poles. 46% of the world’s population rely on water originating in that country. Tibet, the Roof of the World, high in the Himalayas, lies three miles above sea level, its water feeding 10 major riversacross 11 countries of South-East Asia.
There are no simple certainties about the Chinese plan. It could all go horribly wrong, and have who knows what consequences, not just on the Tibetan plateau, but across a vast expanse of the globe. It certainly has the perturbing potential to be yet another bright idea that seemed like a good idea at the time…
No. 4 Fishy oilseed crops
The possibilities of genetic engineering are endless. So advanced are we as a species, we now have the knowhow to redesign almost every living thing to our own requirements. So why not modify oil-producing crops to produce “the omega-3 fatty acids that are normally found in fish and prized for their health-promoting capabilities.”Fantastic, especially for vegetarians and vegans. And the wild fish populations.
But… Why does there always have to be a but! The modification will displace some of the plants’ natural oils. How will this affect the insects that feed on them? If one study showing caterpillars metamorphosing into butterflies with deformed wings is anything to go by, the answer is “badly”.
It’s a zero-sum game. Benefitting one side of the equation (us) automatically means disadvantaging the other. This is true of so many of our bright ideas from the past. Yet we still don’t seen to have grasped that disadvantaging other animals, the environment, Nature, in pursuit of our own ends is only a short-term fix that is certain to boomerang back on us. And time is running out.
Other trends the futurists identified
that will make themselves felt one way or another in the environment this year include:
microbial protein for livestock
deeper sea fishing
modification of plant microbiomes
the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s decision not to regulate the use of gene editing in plants
Insect mass-rearing, though in its infancy is apparently a fast-growing industry. The unfortunate cricket can be fed on nothing but weeds and agricultural by-products, making it a source of protein far more sustainable than the animals we more usually associate with farming.
“Reared insects are increasingly seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to meat, even by the United Nations. The future food for a growing world population.” And a readily available source of protein for malnourished children.“Even very poor people would be able to rear crickets.”³
b. Biodiversity offsets
We’ve grown familiar with the idea of carbon offsets. If you need to take a flight somewhere, you can buy yourself enough carbon creditto offset your own portion of the plane’s emissions. Then the money is used in climate protection projects.
Biodiversity offsets work on a similar principle. Setting aside protected areas for Nature to compensate for and minimise the impact of large-scale industrial projects like new mines or dams, or at the other end of the scale, new housing. Recent research discovered 12,983 of these set-aside habitat projects across 73 countries occupying an area larger than Greece. “153,000 square kilometres is a big chunk of land.” And in spite of its being a relatively new idea, it’s catching on fast.
“This is the start of something major,”says researcher Dr Bull, “‘Biodiversity offsets – ‘No Net Loss’ policies, seeking to protect our natural environment, are being implemented very quickly.”
One final trend the futurists have hope for – Insurance for Nature
The futurists picked up on a joint project involving the Mexican government, the Mexican tourist industry, The Nature Conservancy, and – of all things – the insurance industry. Between them they have set up a trust fund to protect the Mesoamerican Reef in the Caribbean. The fund can be called upon for restoration projects in the case of damage to the reef. In effect, the reef is insured.
The futurists think schemes like this have potential for the insurance industry to “play a role in protecting natural areas and helping damaged habitat recover from disasters.” The model could be replicated worldwide to preserve and restore Nature.
Are they right? Where will it all end? Can our clever innovations save the planet and us with it? Or will they just turn out to be more of our brainwaves that seemed like a good idea at the time? Any crystal ball gazers out there?
¹“Many of these toys inadvertently became part of a massive scientific study: beachcombers have been finding them ever since, helping oceanographers refine their models of ocean surface currents.” The Science Museum
² Clockwise – the Tibetan antelope, the pika, the Tibetan blue bear, the Tibetan wild ass, the snow leopard and the Tibetan wolf
³ This one is not for me as a vegan. But then, I’m fortunate enough not to have to live in poverty with malnourished children
Recycle your plastic bottle tops with Lush –here’s how
Wow, these images are beyond stunning, aren’t they? How lucky are we to have these super-talented photographers capture for us the kind of close encounters most of us would never have the good fortune to witness in person – breathtaking, touching, awe-inspiring, and tragic. What a wondrous place is the Planet Earth we share.
Curious Encounter (Photo: Cristobal Serrano/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Any close encounter with an animal in the vast wilderness of Antarctica happens by chance, so Cristobal was thrilled by this spontaneous meeting with a crabeater seal off of Cuverville Island, Antarctic Peninsula. These curious creatures are protected and, with few predators, thrive,” Serrano wrote in his submission for his photo seen above.
This year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition held by the Natural History Museum in London selected a group of images for its annual LUMIX People’s Choice Award. More than 45,000 entries were submitted from professional and amateur photographers from 95 countries, and the selections have been narrowed down to 25 entries.
“The images showcase wildlife photography as an art form, whilst challenging us to consider our place in the natural world, and our responsibility to protect”
the museum’s organisers wrote in a press release.
Last year’s People’s Choice Award winner captured a particularly poignant and compelling moment when a female lowland gorilla lovingly embraced a man who had rescued her from poachers who wanted to sell her for bushmeat.
In its 54th year, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year is the oldest competition of its kind. “Inspiring audiences to connect with the natural world is at the heart of what we do as a Museum, and that’s why we’re so proud to run this competition. The LUMIX People’s Choice Award is special to us because it gives the public the chance to choose the winner, and I’m looking forward to seeing which of these beautiful photographs emerges as the favourite,” wrote Ian Owens, director of science at the Natural History Museum and member of the judging panel.
To help you choose your favourite, we present all 25 entries, with information about how each photographer captured the image.
Family Portrait (Photo: Connor Stefanison,/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A great grey owl and her chicks sit in their nest in the broken top of a Douglas fir tree in Kamloops, Canada. They looked towards Connor only twice as he watched them during the nesting season from a tree hide 50 feet (15 meters) up.” — Connor Stefanison, Canada
Bond of Brothers (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“These two adult males, probably brothers, greeted and rubbed faces for 30 seconds before settling down. Most people never have the opportunity to witness such animal sentience, and David was honored to have experienced and captured such a moment.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Painted Waterfall (Photo: Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“When the sun beams through a hole in the rock at the foot of the La Foradada waterfall, Catalonia, Spain, it creates a beautiful pool of light. The rays appear to paint the spray of the waterfall and create a truly magical picture.” — Eduardo Blanco Mendizabal, Spain
Under the Snow (Photo: Audren Morel/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Unafraid of the snowy blizzard, this squirrel came to visit Audren as he was taking photographs of birds in the small Jura village of Les Fourgs, France. Impressed by the squirrel’s endurance, he made it the subject of the shoot.” — Audren Morel, France
One Toy, Three Dogs (Photo: Bence Mate/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“While adult African wild dogs are merciless killers, their pups are extremely cute and play all day long. Bence photographed these brothers in Mkuze, South Africa – they all wanted to play with the leg of an impala and were trying to drag it in three different directions!” — Bence Mate, Hungary
Sound Asleep (Photo: Tony Wu/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This adult humpback whale balanced in mid-water, headon and sound asleep was photographed in Vava’u, Kingdom of Tonga. The faint stream of bubbles, visible at the top, is coming from the whale’s two blowholes and was, in this instance, indicative of an extremely relaxed state.” — Tony Wu, United States
Three Kings (Photo: Wim Van Den Heever/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Wim came across these king penguins on a beach in the Falkland Islands just as the sun was rising. They were caught up in a fascinating mating behaviour – the two males were constantly moving around the female using their flippers to fend the other off.” — Wim Van Den Heever, South Africa
Teenager (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Franco was free diving off Dominica in the Caribbean Sea when he witnessed this young male sperm whale trying to copulate with a female. Unfortunately for him her calf was always in the way and the frisky male had to continually chase off the troublesome calf.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
Red, Silver and Black (Photo: Tin Man Lee/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Tin was fortunate enough to be told about a fox den in Washington State, North America, which was home to a family of red, black and silver foxes. After days of waiting for good weather he was finally rewarded with this touching moment.” — Tin Man Lee, United States
The Extraction (Photo: Konstantin Shatenev/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Every winter, hundreds of Steller’s sea eagles migrate from Russia, to the relatively ice-free northeastern coast of Hokkaido, Japan. They hunt for fish among the ices floes and also scavenge, following the fishing boats to feed on any discards. Konstantin took his
Otherwordly (Photo: Franco Banfi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A school of Munk’s devil ray were feeding on plankton at night off the coast of Isla Espíritu Santo in Baja California, Mexico. Franco used the underwater lights from his boat and a long exposure to create this otherworldly image.” — Franco Banfi, Switzerland
The Orphaned Beaver (Photo: Suzi Eszterhas/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A one-month-old orphaned North American beaver kit is held by a caretaker at the Sarvey Wildlife Care Center in Arlington, Washington. Luckily it was paired with a female beaver who took on the role of mother and they were later released into the wild.” — Suzi Eszterhas, United States
The Bat’s Wake (Photo: Antonio Leiva Sanchez/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“After several months of field research into a little colony of greater mouse-eared bats in Sucs, Lleida, Spain, Antonio managed to capture this bat mid-flight. He used a technique of high speed photography with flashes combined with continuous light to create the ‘wake’.” — Antonio Leiva Sanchez, Spain
Unique Bill (Photo: Rob Blanken/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The pied avocet has a unique and delicate bill, which it sweeps like a scythe, as it sifts for food in shallow brackish water. This stunning portrait was taken from a hide in the northern province of Friesland in The Netherlands.” — Rob Blanken, The Netherlands
Gliding (Photo: Christian Viz/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“With conditions of perfect visibility and beautiful sunlight, Christian took this portrait of a nurse shark gliding through the ocean off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas. Typically these sharks are found near sandy bottoms where they rest, so it’s rare to see them swimming.” — Christian Vizl, Mexico
A Polar Bear’s Struggle (Photo: Justin Hofman/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Justin’s whole body pained as he watched this starving polar bear at an abandoned hunter’s camp, in the Canadian Arctic, slowly heave itself up to standing. With little, and thinning, ice to move around on, the bear is unable to search for food.” — Justin Hofman, United States
Shy (Photo: Pedro Carrillo/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The mesmerizing pattern of a beaded sand anemone beautifully frames a juvenile Clarkii clownfish in Lembeh strait, Sulawesi, Indonesia. Known as a ‘nursery’ anemone, it is often a temporary home for young clownfish until they find a more suitable host anemone for adulthood.” — Pedro Carrillo
Fox Meets Fox (Photo: Matthew Maran/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Matthew has been photographing foxes close to his home in north London for over a year and ever since spotting this street art had dreamt of capturing this image. After countless hours and many failed attempts, his persistence paid off.” — Matthew Maran, United Kingdom
Resting Mountain Gorilla (Photo: David Lloyd/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The baby gorilla clung to its mother whilst keeping a curious eye on David. He had been trekking in South Bwindi, Uganda, when he came across the whole family. [As he was] following them, they then stopped in a small clearing to relax and groom each other.” — David Lloyd, New Zealand/United Kingdom
Clam Close-up (Photo: David Barrio/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“This macro-shot of an iridescent clam was taken in the Southern Red Sea, Marsa Alam, Egypt. These clams spend their lives embedded amongst stony corals, where they nest and grow. It took David some time to approach the clam, fearing it would sense his movements and snap shut!” — David Barrio, Spain
Isolated (Photo: Anna Henly/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“Snapped from a helicopter, this isolated tree stands in a cultivated field on the edge of a tropical forest on Kauai, Hawaii. The manmade straight lines of the ploughed furrows are interrupted beautifully by nature’s more unruly wild pattern of tree branches.” — Anna Henly, United Kingdom
All That Remains (Photo: Phil Jones/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“A male orca had beached itself about a week before Phil’s visit to Sea Lion Island, Falkland Islands. Despite its huge size the shifting sands had almost covered the whole carcass and scavengers, such as this striated caracara, had started to move in.” — Phil Jones, United Kingdom
Ambush (Photo: Federico Veronesi/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“On a hot morning at the Chitake Springs, in Mana Pools National Park, Zimbabwe, Federico watched as an old lioness descended from the top of the riverbank. She’d been lying in wait to ambush any passing animals visiting a nearby waterhole further along the riverbed.” – Federico Veronesi, Kenya
Ice and Water (Photo: Audun Lie Dahl/Wildlife Photographer of the Year)
“The Bråsvellbreen glacier moves southwards from one of the ice caps covering the Svalbard Archipelago, Norway. Where it meets the sea, the glacier wall is so high that only the waterfalls are visible, so Audun used a drone to capture this unique perspective.” — Audun Lie Dahl, Norway
These are the 25 images from the Natural History Museum of London contest showcasing animals and landscapes in the running for the People’s Choice Award. To cast your vote, click here, and then on an individual image, and follow the prompts there. Voting is open until Feb. 5, and all images are currently on display at the Natural History Museum of London.
Update 14th February 2019 The winner of the People’s Choice Award is David Lloyd with his ‘Bond of Brothers’, the lions. (Coincidentally, the one I voted for!)
And clink on this link for the heart-melting pic that was People’s Choice last year:
How are your ears? Are you up for a bit of citizen science listening to the song of the whales? You are invited to “help explore and conserve marine life around the globe, starting with studying and saving the southern resident killer whales of the Pacific Northwest.”That’s some invitation, an invitation hard to refuse.
The Orcasound project app sends the sounds picked up by a network of underwater microphones (hydrophones) located in the Salish Sea off the U.S. state of Washington, straight to your laptop, tablet or phone. The idea is to gather data to raise awareness of the damage noise pollution is doing to marine wildlife, particularly the pods of orca for whom the Salish is home territory. And then use that data to better protect these beautiful and iconic creatures.
AI algorithms are being developed to analyse the underwater sounds, but they only get us so far. Nothing beats the human ear. “We actually have some listeners who will sleep with the hydrophones on in their bedroom,”says Scott Veirs, Orcasound’s lead researcher, “and their brains can wake up when they hear a killer whale sound, even if it’s just a faint killer whale sound in some ship noise. That sort of signal detection is right at the cusp of what machines are struggling to do.”
Orcas communicate to each other in a language of whistles, screams and squeaks, as in this video
They also use a clicking noise to echolocate prey. Both their talk – keeping them with their pod and passing on information – and their clicks – finding food – are critical to their survival. Underwater noise pollution could so disrupt this natural behaviour as to wipe them out.
Minky whales and humpbacks as well as harbour porpoises frequent the Salish Sea. So before we make a start at listening to orca song, to help us distinguish one underwater sound from another Orcasound features an interactive image of Salish sealife. We can click on any of the ‘objects’ in the image, animate or inanimate, and hear the different sounds each produce. Now we’re all set to go.
If anyone knew a thing or two about mountain gorillas it was the remarkable Dian Fossey. Ms Fossey, the first to study gorillas at close quarters, loved these animals with a passion. Humans – not so much. Her every breath, her every ounce of energy, her life’s blood, was spent protecting the gorillas by keeping humans at bay.
In the Rwanda national park where she established her research station, she had 4 of her own staff destroy 987 poachers’ snares in 4 months. (In the same period, Rwandan park rangers destroyed none. A desperately poor local community makes its livelihood where it can, and if that means poaching gorillas, so be it, was their thinking.)
Apart from fighting a war against one kind of humans, the poachers, Ms Fossey was fierce in her hostility to another kind – wildlife tourists. She had three seemingly incontrovertible reasons for her opposition to ecotourism. Firstly, humans would damage the habitat. Secondly, humans could infect the great apes with anthroponotic diseases (diseases which could jump the species barrier from us to them) such as TB, flu, the common cold, chicken pox, measles and herpes. With no natural immunity to these infections, gorillas could, and did die. And thirdly, the very presence of humans would affect the great apes’ natural wild behaviour.
I wonder how she would react today if she knew that the International Gorilla Conservation Programme now actively promotes tourism to her precious primates’ habitat. The charity’s rationale is simple: tourism provides a living for the impoverished locals living around the national parks and gives them a vested interest in protecting rather than poaching the animals. And the Rwandan government runs a scheme ploughing back 5% of income from gorilla tourism into local development projects like road construction, clean water supplies, sanitation, and health centres accessible for all. What better incentive could the local population have to see that the gorilla tribes thrive?
Good news story
This policy does indeed appear to be working. Kirsten Gilardi, director of Gorilla Doctors is adamant, “Gorilla tourism revenue has absolutely saved them from extinction.”(Her team of medics attending the gorillas with hands-on health care for four decades is also a beneficiary of ecotourism cash.) From the desperate level of only 240 remaining in 1978, and Ms Fossey fearing they would be extinct by the year 2000, the apes now number 1000 – still on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) Endangered list, but no longer Critically Endangered. It’s a reason for “cautious optimism”, says the IUCN, a good news story of ecotourism directly benefitting wildlife.
And there are others:
Money from tourism was used to expand the habitats of cheetahs and African wild dogs, slowing population decline
Ecotourism funded the restoration of hoolock gibbons’ and golden lion tamarins’ habitat, reversing human-inflicted environmental degradation, and boosting growth in their respective populations
Wildlife management staff are safeguarding the future for African penguins and the great green macaw by using ecotourism money to control the birds’ predators – natural animal predators and human poachers
Around the world, national parks and nature preserves receive 8 billion visitors a year at a conservative estimate, in all probability many more. Ecotourism generates in excess of $600 billion, so researchers discovered in a first-of-it–kind study.
As with most things in life, there are no easy answers, and the jury remains out.
Of those billions of dollars generated by tourism to national parks and preserves, how much is actually spent on conservation of these amazing habitats and their wildlife? A small fraction. Less than $10 billion – and nothing like enough.
“These pieces of the world provide us with untold benefits: from stabilising the global climate and regulating water flows to protecting untold numbers of species. Now we’ve shown that through tourism nature reserves contribute in a big way to the global economy – yet many are being degraded through encroachment and illegal harvesting, and some are being lost altogether. It’s time that governments invested properly in protected areas.” -Andrew Bainford Professor of Zoology at Cambridge University.
So what about the rest of the money from ecotourism? If governments aren’t investing it in protected areas, where is it going? According to USA Today“Corrupt governments frequently take a large cut of the profits from ecotourism, leaving little or none for local communities that are directly affected by the influx of visitors.”
And as we’ve already seen, benefit to local communities, giving them a stake in protecting their local wildlife, is a vitally important desired outcome of ecotourism. Without it, poaching will continue. But all too often corrupt governments allow “international corporations and developers from outside the area into popular destinations. Their hotels and stores take money away from the local economy. In addition, the original residents have to pay the same inflated prices for food and water as tourists do, putting a greater financial burden on them.”
And Ms Fossey was 100% right about some of the other downsides of ecotourism
Land gobbled up for visitor centres, cafes, tourist lodges, and toilet blocks for the growing numbers of visitors, and the roads to reach them
Wildlife accidentally killed by cars
Wildlife deliberately killed by hunters and fishers
Tourists passing on disease
As for that last point, it seems tourists are far more concerned about contracting a disease from contact with wildlife than they are about themselves passing infection to the animals. Anthropologist Dr Michael Muehlenbein found that though as many as 86% of tourists knew they could pass disease to wildlife, they clearly didn’t care too much because two thirds said they would still touch or feed wild primates if they got the chance.
“Imagine you’ve spent $2,000 to go to Malaysia to see the orangutans and you’ve got a cold. Are you going to stay away? It becomes a complex moral question: How much do you respect the life of other animals over your vacation experience?”
Personally I don’t see it as that ‘complex’. A tough decision naturally, but not a complex one. Though it’s ‘only a cold’ for us, it could kill that animal we would so like to see up close and personal. When we are watching wildlife, let’s be the responsible ones and follow the advice here.
What if we travel on foot to see the wildlife and keep ourselves to ourselves?
What could be less harmful to wildlife than rambling quietly along a woodland trail, soaking up the forest scents and listening to the birdsong? Sad to say, even this most gentle activity is not as innocuous as it seems. Just the fact our being there has an effect. A recent study found that the longer a forest trail is used, and the bigger the number of people walking it, the greater the adverse effect on forest birds. “We show that forest birds are distinctly affected by people and that this avoidance behaviour did not disappear even after years of use by humans.”The birds simply never get used to our being there.
“This is important to show because pressure on natural habitats and nature protection areas is getting stronger and access bans are often ignored,” says Dr Yves Botsch of the Swiss Ornithological Institute.
And an earlier study found that the mere presence of humans is more terrifying to smaller prey animals like badgers, foxes and raccoons – who we may have thought were habituated to us – than the presence of apex predators like bears and wolves. And that we “may be distorting ecosystem processes even more than previously imagined.”
When you consider that at least 83 percent of the Earth’s land surface is directly affected by the presence of humans and human activity in one way or another, this particular piece of research is not good news.
Overall, human disturbance detrimentally affecting animals’ survival and mating behaviours can lead straight down the path to extinction
Take the New Zealand sea lion for example. The habitat disturbance and fishing brought by ecotourism is killing young sea lion pups. This animal is predicted to be extinct by 2050, a direct victim of ecotourism.
On land, nature preserves can have well-defined boundaries, theoretically easier to protect. Yes, we do have marine conservation areas, but the thing about water is that it flows. No oceanic conservation area’s boundaries can keep out pollution or stop rising sea temperatures. Marine animals are also disproportionately affected by humans’ plastic waste. The dead sperm whale washed up on a beach in Sulawesi this week had 1000 pieces of plastic in its stomach: 115 plastic cups, plastic bags, bottles and even flipflops. On top of that animals such as whales and dolphins are badly affected by underwater noise from shipping.
All of these problems are far more likely to be exacerbated than mitigated by ecotourism.
In the Arctic, for example, 53% of 80 populations of Arctic animals in the ‘open-water’ period of September when the ice is at its minimum are adversely affected by ship traffic, by collisions, by noise disturbance, by the changes these trigger in the animals’ behaviour. Most of these animals are found nowhere else on Earth.
And Arctic ice is shrinking. “Summer sea ice cover has shrunk by over 30 percent since satellites started regular monitoring in 1979.” And less ice means more ships.
Less ice, more ships. More ships, more harm to the animals.
It’s as simple as that. Whales and walrus are among the most vulnerable, and narwhals most vulnerable of all. So you may want to rethink your Arctic cruise. And, as if the harm shipping does to Arctic wildlife were not bad enough, cruise ships also take the trophy when it comes to being the most environmentally-unfriendly way to view wildlife – one cruise ship releasing fuel emissions equivalent to a million cars, in one day.
The last thing we want is to harm the very wildlife we love going to see. So how can we nature-lovers see nature without destroying it?
In spite of all the negatives, there can be no doubt that ecotourism makes animals more valuable in money terms alive than dead. That gives it huge potential to protect nature and save endangered species. But the responsibility of making that happen lies with each of us individually. Planning a trip? Do some thorough research. For potted advice check out The Essential Guide to Eco-Friendly Travel, and Five ways to be a responsible wildlife tourist.
But for in depth information go to Responsible Travel which the Guardian rates “The first place to look for environmentally friendly holidays.”The Responsible Travel website is packed to the brim with information on how to be a wildlife-friendly ecotourist. Find out Responsible Travel’s stance on wildlife, and wildlife tourism issues here.
In the end it’s all down to us as individuals, our choices. Just as we shape the kind of world we want to live in with our eating, shopping and everyday living choices, so with our travel. Our choices are making the difference between life and death for the animals.
“Scientists are experimenting with artificial intelligence in order to decode and interpret animal vocalizations such as barks, growls or howls into a language which humans can understand.”*
“So many people would dearly love to talk to their dog or cat or at least find out what they are trying to communicate. A lot of people talk to their dogs and share their innermost secrets. With cats I’m not sure what they’d have to say. A lot of times it might just be “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone”
Professor Slobodchikoff of Northern Arizona University speaking to The Guardian.
Rapunzel the Conversational Cat
My brother has proper conversations with his cat Rapunzel. Not unusual among those of us who have companion animals, you might think. When I say ‘conversations’ though, I mean proper two-way, back and forth discussions on matters of serious import, along the lines of “What do you think of Theresa May’s handling of Brexit, Punzel?”
Punzel: “The woman doesn’t know what she’s doing. Please don’t talk to me about Brexit. I’m depressed enough as it is by the state of the world.” And so on.
Of course Rapunzel doesn’t actually say that. She’s a real cat, not one in a fairytale, in spite of her name. My brother helpfully speaks her lines for her. He thinks she’s a socialist, but maybe he’s got her all wrong. When she does meow for herself, what is she saying? It could well be, “you idiot, just feed me and leave me alone.” She may even be a closet Tory. Without the key to unlock cat-speak, no-one will know.
Dr Dolittle & Zoolingua
For those of us who couldn’t live without animals somewhere in our lives, the tale of animal-loving Dr Dolittle is particularly captivating. The story goes that Dr Dolittle’s parrot Polynesia teaches him the language of the animals. The good doctor opens his home to an ever-growing menagerie of animals whose speech only he can understand, until – the final straw for his long-suffering sister who keeps house for him – the arrival of a crocodile. A creature too far. She gives her brother an ultimatum – me or the animals. I love it that he chooses the animals!
Don’t we all want to be Dr Dolittle? What if we really could understand every word our cats, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits utter? Well now maybe we will be able to do just that, thanks to something called Zoolingua, a project born from Professor Siobodchikoff’s work with other furry little creatures.
Meet the Prof & the ‘Villagers’
It’s true to say Con Siobodchikoff is the world expert on North American prairie dogs, having studied them closely for 30 years. Prairie dogs are not dogs at all of course. They are rodents, but every bit as fascinating as the canines in our homes. What Prof Con discovered over three decades is that the animals use “a sophisticated communication system that has all the aspects of language”.
These engaging little creatures live in ‘villages’ of underground burrows, and take it in turns to stand guard, watching out for predators. With hundreds of hours of recordings of prairie dog chatter, the Prof and his team discovered that whoever is on lookout uses particular calls for different predators, and the other ‘villagers’ respond according to the type of call.
Deciphering Prairie Dog-ese with AI
Using advanced artificial intelligence to analyse the recordings, they found that the little rodents have specific ‘words’ for ‘human’, ‘hawk’, and ‘coyote’, and their language is sophisticated enough to distinguish between coyotes and domestic dogs.
Professor Con noticed that there were interesting individual variations in calls about specific dangers. So although there was a distinct call for ‘coyote’, for instance, there were also varying elements around the call. He began to wonder if the calls might be doing more than specifying the threat as a coyote. Could they actually be describing the coyote?
The Prof had four human volunteers walk through the prairie dog village in identical clothing except for the colour of their shirts: one wore blue, the next yellow, then green, and finally grey. Analysis of the rodents’ calls revealed they were indeed describing each individual human, and not just in terms of shirt colour:
“Essentially they were saying, ‘Here comes the tall human in the blue,’ versus, ‘Here comes the short human in the yellow,’”says Slobodchikoff.
The prairie dogs’ linguistic ability turns out to be astonishing. When the team placed a picture of a large black oval near the village, the animals created an entirely new alarm call for it. The team took the picture away, and later brought it back. The little rodents all voiced exactly the same alarm call in response to it. It appears the components of the new call are describing the size, shape and colour of the oval in ‘words’ already part of their rich vocabulary. If that is not language, I’d like to know what is.
Prairie dog villages in different locations have their own dialects. The Professor says that the animals he has studied for so long in Gunnison AZ are unlikely to understand Mexican prairie dogs, and vice versa. But then, it’s pretty unlikely they will ever need to!
Prairie Dogs Love to Chat
Most fascinating of all, it seems they love a good gossip. “Prairie dogs also have what I call social chatters, where one prairie dog will produce a string of vocalizations, and another prairie dog across the colony will respond with a different string of vocalizations.
“If animals seemingly as simple as rodents have a language replete with nouns, adjectives, syntax and dialects, think what higher-order animals might be saying”
But thankfully we are now beginning to grasp that, in the words of evolutionary biologist Seeder El-Showk:
“Like every other kind of life on Earth, we may be unique but we are not special”
– even when it comes to language. All nonhuman animals that live in social groups exhibit complex behaviours. And complex behaviours require complex communication. Thankfully we are starting to take, can I say, a more respectful approach, attempting to unlock the secrets of the nonhumans’ own languages, their conversations with each other. And, being fascinated, and humbled, by what we are finding out about their complexity and sophistication, thanks to the work of dedicated zoologists like Prof Siobodchikoff.
Not Quite There Yet
“We know a lot more than we knew a few decades ago, but we’re still a long way from two-way communication,” says Stan Kuczaj, director of the Marine Mammal Behavior and Cognition Laboratory in Mississippi.
So best not get too excited just yet at the prospect of understanding your enigmatic feline as well as he/she gets you. Perhaps a read of Professor Slobodchikoff’s book, “Chasing Dr Dolittle: Learning the Language of Animals” can give us a few pointers. As yet we don’t have access to the kind of sophisticated AI that is helping him unravel the secrets of the prairie dog. Wait till the Prof has succeeded in converting his system into a handy pocket-size translator of dog-, cat-, or guinea pig-ese. Won’t that be a wonderful thing – a bestseller for sure.
It has to be said though, his Zoolingua is still very much a work in progress. Even the Prof thinks it might take 10 years. But watch this space!
One man thinks we should. Stop worrying about what is happening to the planet – just kick back and enjoy the ride. That is the message of ecologist Chris Thomas’s new book ‘Inheritors of the Earth, How Nature is Thriving in an Age of Extinction”. “It is time” he writes,“for the ecological, conservation and environmental movement to throw off the shackles of a pessimism-laden, loss-only view of the world.”
We’ve now become all too unhappily familiar with the ‘Anthropocene’, the word coined by Dutch Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen to describe this new age, the age in which Man has played havoc with the entire functioning of the planet. We’ve altered the make-up of the atmosphere, the chemistry of the oceans, changed the climate itself. Glaciers are melting, sea levels rising. We’ve depleted biodiversity, plants and animals, and messed up their distribution. We’ve rerouted rivers, drained lakes, razed forests and covered the Earth in highways and cities. And all the while our own population has exploded, 7.4 billion today and an expected 9.7 billion by 2050.
What is there not to be alarmed about?
Anthropocenists (by that I mean the vast majority of ecologists who are concerned about the repercussions of human activity) propose that if we have the technology to so damage the planet, why can’t we turn technology to its healing? Hi-tech geo-engineering such as air cleaning plants, altering ocean chemistry to absorb more carbon, or capturing carbon emissions from power stations and factories. Maybe we could even modify the weather. A luxury travel company that promises perfect wedding weather for the big day thinks we can. Expert opinion says otherwise: “The scale of the Earth’s atmosphere is far too great to tamper with—at least for now.” according to meteorologist Bruce Broe.
But Professor Chris Thomas’s thinking runs on altogether different lines, and he’s nothing if not a glass-half-full man. In this age of mass extinction, he says, nature will do what it always does – fight back.
A quick summary of his thinking –
Man is an animal and just as much a part of Nature as a bird or a fish
Contrary to what we are constantly being told, Nature is thriving. There are biodiversity gains as well as losses, and “the number of species is increasing in most regions of the world”
The essence of life is eternal change – everything lives, evolves, dies. There is no stasis in Nature. We need to embrace the change and forget about trying to hold back the hands of the clock
Taking each of those points in turn:-
Man is part of, not outside Nature
All life forms on Earth including humans, Chris says, are the result of natural physical, chemical and then biological processes. “I take it as a given that humans have evolved and everything we do is directly or indirectly a product of human evolution. We are part of nature, and in that sense we are part of the force of nature, rather than altering it.”
The Earth is estimated to be 4.54 billion years old, with Homo sapiens a relative newcomer emerging approximately 200,000 years ago. But our planet has never known another species like ours in terms of our exponentially developing technological abilities, which have enabled us to colonise all corners of the globe, and make momentous changes to the environment.
The biggest dead zone ever in the Gulf of Mexico courtesy of toxic waste from America’s industrial meat production, pesticides and herbicides poisoning the land, plastics polluting the oceans, failed nuclear power plants irradiating entire continents* – I see all these as the unforeseen and unwelcome backwash from acclaimed-at-the-time ‘advances’ intended to improve our efficiency, and make our lives easier and better. Yet for Prof Chris all the damage and pollution is ‘natural’, because all result from innovations emanating from the evolved human brain. And evolution is the law of Nature.
Furthermore, the Prof argues, “most of the ways we are changing the world are not completely unprecedented.” They are already present in some form, apart from human activity. To back up his point, he cites background radiation; beavers building houses; and leaf-cutter ants farming fungi. “Most of the things we are doing are kind of comparable to normal ecological processes.”
At first glance this idea seems preposterous. How can you compare Fukushima and Chernobyl with natural background radiation, a few beavers’ lodges with our megacities, or ants’ fungi with factory farms? But a new article in Chemical & Engineering News gives a measure of credence to Chris’s point. Apparently certain living organisms can and do make their own versions of as many as 6,000 chemical pollutants, some the exact equivalent of man-made chemicals now banned because of their toxicity. “You could call them naturally produced persistent organic pollutants,” says Reddy, a marine chemist at WHOI. There’s a public perception that humans have produced more halogenated compounds than nature has, he says. “That’s not necessarily true.”
Nature is thriving
It takes a brave man to make a statement like that when the world is on track to lose two-thirds of wild animals by 2020. But the Prof maintains that while it cannot be denied the overall number of species is declining, there are actually a greater number of species in many parts of the world. Take the UK for instance, he says. In addition to our native species, we are host to nearly 2,000 non-natives, like the house sparrow and the poppy.
(I’m not sure how wisely he’s picked his examples, since the house sparrow, with a population declining since the 1970s – by 50% in the country and by 60% in towns and cities – is on the red list of ‘species of high conservation concern’. The poppy isn’t threatened, but we’ve yet to see fields of golden wheat lavishly stippled with the poppy’s vivid red as we once did pre 1950s and the advent of industrial farming)
But, in support of the Prof’s ‘Nature thriving’ contention, there is the so-called ‘cocaine hippo effect’. By that is meant the flourishing colonies of animals in unexpected places – animals that may well be endangered or even extinct in their native habitats. Why ‘cocaine hippos’? Because there’s a small population of wild hippos in South America, offspring of animals who escaped the abandoned hacienda of Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Every cloud has a silver hippo lining.
“In fact, thanks to introduced populations, regional megafauna species richness is substantially higher today than at any other time during the past 10,000 years’, according to a new study.
“Worldwide introductions have increased the number of megafauna by 11% in Africa and Asia, by 33% in Europe, by 57% in North America, by 62% in South America, and by 100% in Australia.
“Australia lost all of its native megafauna tens of thousands of years ago, but today has eight introduced megafauna species, including the world’s only wild population of dromedary camels.”
And in their new environments, these translocated species are often creating new beneficial trophic cascades. Take burros for example:
“In North America, we have found that introduced wild donkeys, locally known as “burros”, dig wells more than a metre deep to reach groundwater. At least 31 species use these wells, and in certain conditions they become nurseries for germinating trees”, say the lead authors of the study.
“Everywhere you look, there are species that are doing very well in the human-modified world. That is what I mean by nature is thriving,” says the Prof.
But though every cloud has a silver lining, every silver lining also brings with it its cloud. The cocaine hippos, though thriving thousands of miles from their native habitat, are creating a little havoc of their own. With the damage to the environs they have decided to call home, and disturbance to native wildlife, they’re giving Colombian conservationists a few nasty headaches. Not to mention the threat to people – the hippos seem quite at home in town, as you will see from the video.
The thriving colony may thrive for this generation only, if Cornare‘s neutering program is successful.
The moral of the tale is surely, that though pockets of threatened species may flourish far from their native habitat, will we be able to say the same in 50 or 100 years time? We’d better not be relying on the cocaine hippos for the survival of their species. And there’s a reason why megafauna fit so well in their native habitats.
The essence of Nature is change. Embrace the change. We can’t hold back the tide
I can’t put the Prof’s point better than he does himself:
“We must become accustomed to thinking that the world will continue to change, rather than hankering after some rose-tinted past that it is no longer possible to return to.
“The idea that we are somehow keeping the world in a pristine natural state is a kind of mirage because the entire planet has already been transformed by humans. The reality is that the world is dynamic and the distributions of species are changing. You can try to intervene and keep things as they are, but this is not how the biological world works. With climate change set in motion, it will be impossible to keep things just as they are. What I’m saying is, go with the flow a bit more and choose carefully which fights you are going to fight because otherwise you are going to throw good money at losing battles.
“The rate at which we are moving other animals and plants around the world is the greatest it has been for at least the half-billion years. It’s like we have reunited all the continents into a new version of Pangea. We are connecting up the world. This is an unprecedented experiment. But the outcome will be that the most successful animals, plants, fungi and microbes will rise to the top. And with more robust species, you can expect future ecological systems to end up being more robust as well.”
It’s certainly true that many species are adapting themselves to a human-dominated world. Foxes, raccoons, coyotes and Canada geese are among the many species moving into cities. Coyotes too – one has even made a Chicago graveyard his home. There are wild boar in Berlin, peregrine falcons in the centre of London. Many of these animals are seeking refuge from hunting and persecution. Cities have become a safer place for them. And they are adapting to city life fast. Pavement ants appear to be thriving on discarded junk food. And in Britain, birds’ beaks have lengthened noticeably in the last 40 years, a true genetic, evolutionary adaptation to the prevalence of urban and suburban garden bird feeders. “That’s a really short time period in which to see this sort of difference emerging,”says Professor Jon Slate.
Professor Chris’s message is beguiling – he’s like a kind uncle patting us on the head and telling us not to worry, everything is going to be just fine. But I’m not ready to be that easily placated. I have profound misgivings. He may have hit the nail on the head with his prognostications for the future of the planet, but is that the planet we want to see? Three thoughts:
1 Am I wrong to think there’s a danger the professor’s contentions could do a lot of harm? If the message we’re receiving is you can’t hold back the tide, why should we bother doing anything? Let Nature and Fate take their course. After all, Nature is thriving, Nature will keep adapting and Nature will survive. So why trouble trying to check carbon emissions, why trouble banning plastic bags, why bother saving the tiger? Let’s just kick back and “go with the flow.” Life would be so much easier, wouldn’t it?
2 The Prof dubs life on Earth “an unprecedented experiment”, which he watches unfolding before him as if from on high. But it is an experiment in which animals, human and nonhuman, are getting hurt. Is sitting back and watching with fascinated scientific detachment an appropriate response to the sight of a slaughtered elephant with flies crawling over the congealing pools of blood where his tusks should be? Or a polar bear on shrinking ice, starving and unable to feed her cubs. Or the terror in the eyes of an orangutan infant, orphaned by human cruelty and greed. Creatures are suffering – now, today, and will keep on suffering if we don’t make every effort to put the brakes on this cruel ‘experiment’.
3 I’ve said this before, and no doubt I’ll be saying it again because I believe it to be true: “The mysteries and marvels of Nature we will never fully fathom. Nature is an irreplaceable treasure, and to lose even the smallest scrap of it is tragic beyond measure.”
So I’m afraid I cannot echo the Professor’s optimism. The future of the Earth he foresees where only the toughest few survive is a planet desperately diminished in richness and complexity. Species at threat right now have their own unique and vital roles within the complex web of life. We do not know all the ways their loss will impair our own survival. But we do know we will lose our delight, our constant surprise at their dazzling beauty, their awesome abilities, from the humblest woodlouse to the blue whale, king of the oceans. Every day we discover more wondrous beings we never knew shared our planet with us. And we’ve barely even begun to uncover the complexity of their thoughts and feelings, the secrets of their lives.
Above all, they too have a right to their life and a place to live it, untrammelled and free.
The good Prof says, “Appreciate the world for what it is, rather than spending time being sad that the world isn’t how you think it was supposed to be…”
But I’m with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we most need to do is to hear within us the sound of the Earth crying.”
20 year old Cecilia is famous. So much so, she will surely go down in history. Marcelino, her ‘boy next door’ at Sorocaba Great Apes Sanctuary in Brazil, is turning on all his charm for his sweet neighbour. He thinks she’s pretty special but he, like Cecilia herself, has no idea just how special.
Last November (2016) chimp Cecilia became the first animal ever to have been adjudged a nonhuman person in a court of law.
The judgement by the court in Mendoza Argentina granting Cecilia habeas corpus meant release, finally, from the cramped zoo she’d been confined in her entire life. Up until that memorable day it was all she had ever known, a miserable life made even more wretched by the deaths of her lifelong friends and companions, Charly and Xuxa. Can you imagine it. Cecilia was left heartbroken and alone.
It’s little wonder then, even after four months at Sorocaba she is still depressed. It takes more than a few short months of freedom and loving care to obliterate the emotional scars of 20 years imprisonment.
Cecilia, though special in terms of legal history, is just one of the many traumatised chimps, trafficked and mistreated in circuses and zoos before finding a safe haven at Sorocaba. “It is very important to talk to them so they don’t feel lonely,” says Merivan Miranda, one of the 30 carers. “So that they know there is someone there who understands them.”
When she first arrived, Cecilia “used to spend all her time lying down and did not interact with anyone,” says sanctuary vet Camila Gentille. Before handsome Marcelino moved in as her neighbour, the sanctuary staff had already tried a bit of matchmaking with Billy, but Billy was “too impulsive” for sad Cecilia.
But she is slowly getting better. And now, when Marcelino calls to her, she is starting to show him some interest, and even joining in the conversation.
Pedro Ynterian, director of the sanctuary, is certain that with time Cecilia will overcome her depression.“That is what she is seeking to do, so that she can partner with someone, and stop living alone.
“And she will manage to do it.”
Cecilia – now a person, no longer property.
Tommy, Kiko, Hercules & Leo
You may already know these guys as the chimp clients of the altogether awesome lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project. Unlike Cecilia though, their right to be designated nonhuman persons under the law has been denied by a succession of presiding judges in New York courts.
Woeful as this is for the 4 chimps – and all the others for whom the precedent would be set – Steven though disappointed is undaunted. He remains utterly convinced that advocacy for legal personhood and not advocacy for welfare improvements is the way forward for the animals.
Here is the upbeat opening of his keynote speech at the recent Animal Rights National Conference 2017:-
“It’s the beginning of the end of the age of animal welfare and animal protection and the end of the beginning of the age of civil rights, true legal rights, for nonhuman animals.
“It is the beginning of the end of activists having to beg and plead and cajole other human beings in an effort to get them to do the right thing for nonhuman animals, to get them to try to respect the fundamental interests of nonhuman animals, whose interests are presently invisible in courtrooms, invisible to civil law. And it’s the end of the beginning of the struggle for personhood and the civil rights of nonhuman animals for whom we demand those fundamental legal rights to which justice and equity and scientific fact entitle them.”
Steven continues (my paraphrasing):
There have been laws to protect animals’ welfare in America since the 1641 Massachusetts Body of Liberties which stated, “(n)o man shall exercise any Tirranny or crueltie toward any bruite Creatures which are usuallie kept for man’s use.” But to what extent, if at all, things have improved for animals “usuallie kept for man’s use” in the last 376 years is open to dispute. In spite of animal welfare laws working their way on to statute books in most countries and states, they remain, in Steven’s words, “pathetically ineffective”)
And there are other problems with pushing for improvements in animal welfare. One is that those who make money from them, the meat companies, the farms, the labs, the circuses, the zoos, the puppy mills can always, and often do, choose to ignore our advocacy on the animals’ behalf.
Another is that even if the owners of the animal ‘property’, or their political representatives do yield to public concerns, what has been conceded can as easily be revoked. Take the hard won successes for animals former President Obama signed into federal law. Along comes Trump – no friend of animals he, nor indeed of anything else much except money – and with one stroke of the pen, he can strike them out. Indeed, some are already consigned to the presidential trashcan, and more look like heading that way.
High welfare or low, protected or not, the animals still have “the problem of being a thing versus being a person.”
“For years I have talked about a great legal wall that exists, and has existed, for 2000 years between things and persons. On the ‘thing’ side of the wall, today, in 2017, are all the nonhuman animals of the world. You have to understand what a legal thing is.
“A legal thing is an entity that lacks the capacity for any kind of a legal right. It lacks inherent value. It only has instrumental value for legal persons.
“It is a slave to the master. A legal person is a master to the slave. All of us here are legal persons. We are the owners of things, whether that thing is an elephant or this podium.”
But you don’t have to be a human being to be a legal ‘person’. A corporation can be a person. In india a mosque, a Hindu idol, the Sikh holy books are all legal persons. In New Zealand a river and a national park are both persons under that country’s law.
Let’s not forget Cecilia. And in July this year the Supreme Court in Colombia declared a bear a person and issued a writ of habeas corpus. Habeas corpus gives the right to bodily liberty and can only be granted to a legal person.
Today the NhRP is working with lawyers in 13 countries on 4 continents “to help them win personhood for as many nonhuman animals in as many countries as we possibly can.”
In the USA the NhRP will shortly be filing a lawsuit for elephants, and moving against the captivity of orcas at SeaWorld San Diego.
Steven finds a parallel between US courts denying his nonhuman clients personhood, and personhood being denied in the past to black and Native Americans, and women – unthinkable as that is to us now.
“They were wrong then. They are wrong now”
“With respect to the judges who are ruling that way now, at some point they, or their children, or their grandchildren are going to be embarrassed by the fact that they said such things in cases involving such extraordinary beings as chimpanzees or orcas or elephants.”
I am certain Steven is right. But much as I wish for it, I cannot see how this is going to help all the myriads of other animals in the world. Steven and his team have based the arguments they bring to court on the basis of the autonomy of their (at present captive) clients. The NhRP’s plaintiffs are “members of species who have been scientifically proven to be self-aware and autonomous: currently, great apes, elephants, dolphins, and whales.” In their natural state, in the wild, a chimp, an elephant, a dolphin and an orca are all animals, it is universally agreed, who make their own decisions and determine their own lives. That autonomy NhRP says, is more than sufficient for them to be deemed persons. (Remember, you have to be a person to have the right to bodily liberty)
But what of other wildlife – pigeons, rats, frogs, fleas? Aren’t they autonomous too? Don’t they have a right to bodily liberty? But what judge is going to concede their personhood?
And what of the billions and billions of farmed animals? There are massive vested interests determined that cows, pigs, hens and sheep should never be considered autonomous and entitled to legal rights as persons.
Take this, for example, from the Animal Agriculture Alliance‘s home page: “Radical activist organizations are leading the fight to grant animals the same legal rights as humans and eliminate the consumption of food and all other products derived from animals. The ideology of the animal rights movement- that animals are not ours to own, enjoy, or use in any way- is a direct assault on farmers and pet owners.”
In June last year Canadian MPs voted down Nathaniel Erskine-Smith’s Bill C-246 — the Modernizing Animal Protections Act. Mr Erskine-Smith was not proposing animals should be designated persons in law. Nevertheless, Tory MP Robert Sopuck voiced the strong concerns of many about the idea of moving animals out of the property section of the Criminal Code and placing them into the public morals section. He said such a step would have “drastic implications” for farmers, hunters, trappers, anglers, and medical researchers. Clearly many of his fellow MPs agreed. The bill was defeated 198 to 84.
How will these nonhuman animals ever cross that wall that Steven talks about from property to personhood? Humans, especially those who exploit nonhuman animals for profit, will never be willing to give up the power bestowed on them by ownership. And unfortunately, it’s humans who make the laws that decide on the status of animals, and humans who enforce them.
“The Nonhuman Rights Project now, and we hope others in the future, are no longer going to ask. We are going to demand the rights that nonhuman animals are entitled to. The day of animal welfare and animal protection is passing and will soon be over.”
Fighting talk Steven, fighting talk. I so wish it could be true.
What makes this one so special is that it will cut diagonally across the entire USA from Oregon down to Charleston and beyond. The last time a total solar eclipse swept the entire breadth of America was 1918, beyond the memory of anyone alive now, I suspect.
So, a particularly exciting and dramatic event for the American people. But what about the nonhuman animals? And plants? Some of the ways nonhumans react to this strange disruption of the normal day is already known to scientists. Birds fall silent and some go to roost. Cows lie down, crickets start to chirp. Whales and dolphins have been seen to swim to the surface 5 minutes before the eclipse begins, and stay there for totality and 5 minutes after. Other animals also seem to know beforehand what is coming.
But now the California Academy of Sciences needs you!
Any observations of animal behavior you make during the eclipse will become highly valued data. Whether you notice squirrels in your yard, bats, owls, horses, pigs and cows, plants, or even your own dog or cat – at CAS they want to hear about it. For starters you will need to install the iNaturalist app on your phone or tablet. Then please click on this link for full instructions on how to participate in the Life Responds Project. It’s easy.