Friday, July 24, 2015

Lost Instincts, Domestication, the new Evolution of Migratory Geese

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Changed Migratory Behavior of Candaian Geese


In the past few years there's been a growing number of increasingly strident petitions in our local community about the "infestation" of Canadian Geese. The complaint - they're everywhere, they make a mess of our nice clean paved sidewalks with their droppings, they pose a danger to kids, pets etc. etc.Some have even called Animal Control to come take the birds away. To no avail. The birds are here more frequently, stay longer and are growing in numbers.

What got me curious, was the recency of this phenomenon. The area around here has been inhabited by species homo sapiens for many decades, and I myself dont remember this being an issue a few years ago, so why this sudden outcry?

So of course I started researching it. And figured out that it's happening because of marked changes in the geese's behavior. And what caused that you may ask? Wait ...take a wild guess... surprise, surprise, WE DID!

Canadian Geese as the name implies were native to Canada and the extreme north eastern territories of the US. Wild geese would spend their summers in their native habitat, where they bred and lived until their goslings were able to fly. They spent those months close to natural water bodies that they could escape to, if threatened by predators like foxes, bears, wolves etc. It was also when these herbivores found abundant food supplies. Come the fall, following their instinct they would fly south to avoid winter food shortages.

Now all of that has changed -
1. Global warming has changed the patterns of freezing winters in the north. Since many areas have become warmer, in some cases by as much as 5 degrees, Geese don't need to fly as far south as they used to.

2. As more of the wilderness was lost to development, most of their natural predators have been killed or restricted to very isolated pockets. Since there is less fear from them, and there are more artificial water bodies everywhere (should they need to escape), they can land and live anywhere their heart desires.

3. The growth of suburban areas with parks, golf courses and cultivated vegetation has created a year round source of food, again making migration unnecessary.

Most importantly, many of the geese we see today, may not be wild Canadian geese at all. In the mid part of the 20th century, this species was almost extinct. Overhunted by humans for meat and their soft down, only a small group of the original breed struggled to survive. So the government swooped in, moved them into protected areas and started breeding them in captivity to bring their numbers back up.

Even though the goal was to reintroduce them to the wild, over the course of a few generations, all their natural instincts  - to migrate north or south, where their original breeding grounds were, etc. - started fading slowly. The very hospitable conditions created by human settlements, no predators (even human ones, since hunting is restricted), plentiful food and water set the seal on their memory loss.

What we are left with now is a "human aware", non indigenous bird that continues to breed at an accelerated pace and is changing the environment wherever it goes. And this is just one bird species. There are hundreds of other species of living organisms - plant, animal, even single cell,  that are also metamorphosing as they adapt to the changing conditions caused by human development.

The question is, what will the future of this planet be when all these changes accelerate and come together? A new state of balance that is yet to be established or an imbalance that will lead to destruction?


Friday, July 10, 2015

Tiger Conservation in India, The Case for Government Involvement in Species Protection.

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Tiger Conservation, Habitat loss, Poaching, Government, Project Tiger
Photo courtesy National Tiger Conservation Authority / Project Tiger, India
In my opinion one of the key success factors in conservation efforts is the role of government, as illustrated by the Tiger conservation effort in India.  "Whoa, whoa, hang on there," you say... "what are you about, complimenting the government for anything, especially something that is not self-serving? are you crazy? or worse yet a government stooge?" But I assure you I'm neither, I just believe in giving credit where credit is due.

Let me backtrack a little so I can tell you how I formed this opinion, and hopefully you'll see things my way.

When I was in India a few months ago, I saw several stories in the media about the successful resurgence of the wild tiger population, a species that was close to and is still on the brink of extinction across the world.

Here are some stats to understand how dire the situation is -
  • Over the last 100 years, the global tiger population in the wild has dropped by 97%, from close to 100,000 to a mere 3200 today. *
  • In fact of the 9 originally identified subspecies of tigers, three - Bali, Caspian and Javan - became extinct in the 20th century. **
  • India has traditionally been home to about 40% of all wild tigers, What was 40,000 a century ago dropped to an estimated 1,827 in 1973. (these numbers are disputed, some claim the number was as low as 268, suffice to say it was very low)
The primary threats to tigers are the same as those faced by other species and are all man made.
  • Habitat loss - Tigers have lost over 93% of their habitat to human development, leading to fragmentation of the species in small pockets, surrounded by human habitation. This in turn leads to way too many incidents of human-animal conflict and often their death.**
  • Poaching continues to be one of the deadliest and most challenging threats to tigers. Almost every part of the tiger - skin, bones, even blood is in high demand especially in Asian countries where they are believed to have medicinal properties.
Conserving the species is all about mitigating these threats and this is where I think having government oversight or even just active involvement is key. In 1973, the Indian Government launched "Project Tiger", which was governed by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, which is part of the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate change. Since its creation, Project Tiger has had some ups and downs in its achievements, but more recently, the tiger numbers have been growing steadily, with a reported count of about 2,226 in 2014

They have combated habitat loss by expanding the number of tiger reserves from 9 at inception to 47 today. Additionally they created corridors that connect the reserves and allow unrestricted movement of the animals across, a key behavior of tigers that in the past led them into great danger. This type of commitment of land is only possible with the power of the government. They have relocated human populations and seized private land where needed for the effort, something private organizations have little control over and have to fight almost unwinnable battles to get implemented in other countries or for other species in India.

While poaching continues to be a big concern, the government has also paid for and equipped a trained forest patrol staff to monitor the reserves and dissuade poachers. Again a fairly daunting task for private non profits to fund and manage, is made easy by political will.

Now don't get me wrong, I don't think that Government involvement is the cure all, nor do I think that the current level of effort put in, is either comprehensive, or optimized. But I do believe that the small wins in India shine a light on the importance of political involvement to facilitate the process. Governments of other countries, like China, Russia, and Laos are seeing the results of this initiative and reaching out to Indian authorities for advise on managing their own conservation efforts.

If governments across the world would all sign up to make wildlife and environment conservation a priority, maybe all those little shining lights of success will eventually light up the whole planet.

Sources
http://www.savetigersnow.org/problem
** http://www.panthera.org/species/tiger

Friday, July 3, 2015

Human settlements come at the cost of habitat loss for ALL creatures.

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insects and small creatures displaced by human development


A sudden screech..."Eeeek!", followed by a vigorous flailing of arms or stomping of feet... now that would be the normal reaction. Instead this morning I gently picked up in my hands and saved two "ugly" brown bugs while swimming laps in our pool. I see them often, struggling to get out of the water before they drown. I know many who see me doing it probably think I'm crazy. My response to anyone who would ask; not that anyone does, they just stare at me weirdly and look away, probably wondering when the men in the white coats are coming to take me away to a padded cell; is because they matter, and because we owe it to them.

Here's another similar story I saw on the news today, yesterday, almost everyday. A local reporter interviewing a panicked family as they recount the fear of what they experienced. A bear/coyote/deer broke into their backyard/house/garbage, scaring the kids and causing general panic until help arrived in the form of uniforms with tranquilizer guns/traps etc.The news segment commentary usually includes a reference to the growing number of animal incursions into human habitats.

Now you may ask, what could possibly be similar about these two stories, one about brown creepy crawlies drowning, and another about large "scary" forest mammals intruding into someones backyard.I say everything...! These stories and many others I hear and see every day astound me in their illogicality and factual inaccuracy.

Because the real story as I see it, is as follows -" humans raze local forest, grassland, or undergrowth; displacing or destroying millions of living creatures in the process and then complain when those same creatures try to return to their original homes/hunting grounds/food stores".


Animals, insects, all creatures follow a natural and habitual path everyday. When they wake up, they usually go to the same places seeking food, water, mates or just a cool place to nap. When we destroy that place that is so familiar to them, they can't just say 'oh well, lets make a detour' and find another spot. They are driven by instinct to go back there, only to face unknown dangers like cars, weapons and physical violence sometimes even leading to death.So those brown bugs I save every day, that black bear rifling through your garbage, the geese nesting in the local park, they are all following their instinct to return to what was once a familiar part of their natural habitat, only to fall into man made swimming pools, stumble confusedly into unfamiliar human structures, get yelled at, attacked, and more.

Imagine what your reaction would be if suddenly one road on your regular route to work was shut down... denial, anger, maybe even a desperate hope that if you keep going it won't be true. Not so fun hunh? Now think about that being a frequent and permanent change to many roads on your way and you having to figure out a new path every time.


The fact is, that these creatures that we find so disruptive are the original inhabitants of this planet, many of them have been around millions of years. We as humans are the newbie squatters, usurpers ... whatever you may call it. While clearly we need the space to support the growing population, maybe we can treat that space with respect, understanding, and concern for the creatures who have always ,and still do live there. And next time one of them wanders into our path, maybe we acknowledge their right to be there, help them find a new path and thank them for giving up their home for us.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Case for Verticalization

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New York Skyline

I was in India a few weeks ago, home with my family, which came with so many simple pleasures; being pampered by mom's cooking, dad's chauffeuring, and a nostalgic sense of freedom from having grown up on those streets. It also came, however, with some jarring moments of shock and unfamiliarity at the rapidly growing & congested skyline. What used to be a sprawling green city of well to do retirees, was now a "bursting at the seams" urban behemoth.

Walking through once familiar streets, suddenly everything looked different. The population explosion as a result of rapid economic growth, meant that space was at a premium and beautiful sprawling bungalows with large natural gardens and orchards were being replaced by tall, narrow concrete apartment buildings and commercial structures. While nostalgia bemoans these changes, missing the charm and the space that once was, the practical conservationist applauds the long reaching benefits of such vertical growth.

Verticalization is an urban planning system characterized by a focus on expansion of high rise structures, creating a dense vertical ecosystem. Development experts and conservationists alike support this approach to the growth of infrastructure and habitation for the rapidly growing global population.

The rationale is pretty simple -

1. Vertical growth reduces the need to destroy or encroach on forests, wilderness and other natural ecosystems.
2. It protects existing farmland that is urgently required to support the growing population.
3. Because of the population density per square foot and the resulting growth in mixed use spaces (residential, commercial, retail etc.all in one space), travel is minimized or made more efficient and therefore less energy intensive. High rises in many large cities now boast rooftop gardens, greenhouses and even vertical farms, that increase the independence and efficiency of the space used.

Over the past few decades, there has been a drastic and noticeable shrinking of natural ecosystems. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that every year we cut down forests, with a cumulative area equivalent to the size of Greece.  Here are some additional stats -
  • The World resources Institute estimates that only 15% of forest ecosystems on the planet remain intact. 
  • An alternate perspective from the European Commission's Joint Research Centre, in a global map published in the World Bank’s World Development Report 2009, finds that only 10% of the world's land area can truly be classified as remote. Ninety percent of the earth's land mass is within 48 hours travel radius from a large city. Wilderness untouched by humans is restricted to the most inaccessible areas like Antarctica, the highest peaks in Tibet etc.
But why is this important?

Scientists across the world are in agreement that the rapid loss of natural ecosystems, and climate change, which is further destabilized by deforestation and ecosystem destruction, will lead to a drastic reduction in earths biodiversity. This in turn will lead to a severe impact on the resources we depend on to support life - fisheries, forests, access to clean water and more. It is a documented fact that all populations of living things are interrelated, and a severe impact on any one, will have a cascading impact on others around it. The World Resources Institute also reports that more than 1 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods.

If we don't start to think vertical, and not horizontal, growth, we will soon be left with no forests, coral reefs, or prairie land left uninhabited and untouched. Just more square borders, divisions and subdivisions, perfectly manicured soulless lanscaping, interspersed with highways, malls and tech parks...I for one would hate to live on such a homogenized, cookie cutter planet. And more importantly...should that be allowed to happen, the impact on the future of the human species will be significant and irreversible. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Commoditization of Killing - Canned Lion Hunting

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Canned Lion Hunting


Wildlife hunting in Africa is suddenly big news. Thanks to a tweet by Ricky Gervais (albeit almost 5 years late) about Rebecca Francis and her killing of a giraffe in 2010, and followed closely by news stories of the US's approval of a black rhino hunting license won in a Dallas auction last year, there's now a spotlight on the issue of trophy hunting. While this controversial subject and its often misleading claims to helping conservation efforts is getting its day in the sun, there is another more deadly practice hiding and growing in the shadows in Africa - Canned Lion Hunting.

Peter Barkham of the Guardian likens canned lion hunting to "shooting fish in a barrel". Adult lions raised in captivity and often drugged,  are released into an enclosed area, with no room to run. Hunters, on the back of pick up trucks are able to pick them off with almost guaranteed success. I say almost, because even with all the odds stacked in favor of the hunter, amateurs often miss, just wounding the lions and causing a slow and agonizing death.

This inhuman and unfair sport is a rapidly growing business in South Africa, with revenue in 2012 estimated to be as high as $70 million. At last count there were over 160 lion farms or ranches focused on canned lion hunting and associated industries. They start by capturing lion cubs and then breeding them. Not unlike factory farms for food animals across the world, female lions are separated from their cubs within an hour of birth to quickly retrigger their fertility and ability to breed repeatedly. Cubs are raised in crowded pens and are brought out only to interact with humans in the form of tourist attractions like "petting and walking with lion cubs". An additional source of revenue, these attractions are also used as false claims towards conservation efforts, often misleading volunteers into working on the farms for free.

If it isn't enough that the lions are exploited at every stage of their life for profit, ranchers have found ways to monetize them further even in death. Once the lion is killed, hunters mostly take the head and sometimes the skin of the adult as trophies. The bones of the animal left behind are sold to Asian markets, where big cat bones are still considered to have medicinal properties, creating a vicious cycle of demand and supply with no end in sight.

Lion numbers in the wild are declining rapidly; from over 450,000 in Africa in the 40's to an estimated 20,000 today, the species is on a very dangerous path to extinction right now. More critically the practice of canned lion hunting has shifted the proportion of captive vs. wild lions to almost 3:1. In the US, which is the single largest importer of wildlife and animal trophies, the African wild lion is not on the endangered species list. As a result not even the limitated licensing and oversight policies that are part of the endangered species act, apply to lions and the practice continues unabated. Many African countries too are complicit, by legalizing the industry and those involved. While policymakers and citizens in countries like the UK & Australia are taking action through policies again Canned Lion Hunting, it woukd take significantly more widespread international understanding and support to end this despicable practice.


photo credit: photo via photopin (license)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Celebrating Earth this day... almost speechless!

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Today is Earth Day (if you didn't already know that). It felt important that I say something. But after thinking about it a while I realized I couldn't possibly say it all in one post. In fact, if anything, this entire blog and all the posts I write are a celebration of Earth Day. Every day is Earth Day on www.speckonadot.com.

So I decided instead to dedicate this post to showing you why its so important to celebrate and protect the earth. Every time we travel, my family asks for pictures of my husband and I. Usually that's a tough task, because we almost never take pictures of ourselves. For us, its all about the space we're in and celebrating its uniqueness. Now I can put all those pictures to work, to share the beauty I see everyday, all around me.

Here's the earth in all its glory - sunrise to sunset, seasons changing, creatures big & small. After seeing this, how could you not want to have it live on forever....

Sunrise over the Freedom Tower
Dawn of a new day, sunrise over the Freedom Tower

Birds nest with egs
New Life Begins
Baby birds just hatched
First peek at the world, wheres mommy, I'm hungry...
Iguana in the sun
Iguana Getting some Sun, let's be very clear who's king here.
Malachite butterfly
Malachite spreading its wings, getting ready to feed on the sweetness
South American Parrot
South American parrot flutters its wings to warm them up for the day

Caterpillar
Beautiful to beauty... Caterpillar to a butterfly

Cirrocumulus clouds, Manhattan skyline
Cirrocumulus clouds in a fall sky reaching out long fingers towards Manhattan

Altocumuls clouds - Hawaii
So many shades of Blue and white, who would have thought...

Yellow-throated Euphonia
Wait....don't move.... is that....LUNCH!

Howler Monkey
Napping in the afternoon sun

Java Sparrows
Sunbathing

Fungi in Cloud Forest
A beautiful symbiotic partnership

Pacific Dolphin
Dolphin in the ocean, still friendly and curious...

Sunset over ocean
Sunset on the Western Shore

Sunset over ocean
The colours!

Storm clouds over Manhattan Skyline
Storm Clouds Brewing

Centipede
What I could do with so many legs... WOW

Red crested Cardinal
Crowning Glory

Fish in shallows
Shallow water school of fish

Squirrel eating
Too busy eating to run from the two legged monsters

Fall Colors
Fall colors, seasons change

Spider on glass
Sheer Beauty, in the details

Seagulls on Ice
Seagulls on ice shelf

Snow on tree branches
frozen water lacing all visible surfaces

Antarctic penguins
The most beautiful swimming birds, highly endangered by the rising temperatures




Thursday, April 16, 2015

Last Rhino Standing...

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If there was ever any question about why saving the Rhinos was so important, the story out on major news channels recently, should eliminate all doubt.

There is only one... count that... just one male northern white rhino left in the entire world. In fact there are only 5 of the species left in total, two females in zoos in the US and Czech Republic and 2 other females who live with Sudan, the single bull at a conservancy in Kenya.

The situation is so dire, that Sudan, the bull, and his two female comoanions are under 24 hour armed guard and wear monitors to prevent poachers from getting to them. Demand for rhino horn, which is believed to have medicinal properties, continues to grow, and is estimated by some experts to be worth more than drugs.

In addition to protecting him for as long as needed, frantic efforts are underway to help the two females breed. With age and urgency be in a factor, alternative options like in vitro fertilization and surrogacy with a different white rhino species are also being concerned.

A few people asked me after my post two weeks ago, why I was focused on rhino poaching and conservation. While I am passionate about the conservation of every species big or small, this news more than ever, makes the emphasis on the rhino necessary. If we all don't wake up and collectively care enough to take action soon, this very visible species will be extinct in the next few decades. If we don't start taking a stand now,  what happens to all the other not so prominent or well known animal species then?