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Calculating extinction; finding ways to get children thinking

‘The sixth mass extinction is already underway’ the Guardian reports. ‘We only have 20 years to halt it’ the Telegraph adds. A new study by the University of Lund, Sweden, and the University of British Columbia, Canada has advised that the best ways to reverse the impact we are having on the planet is to stop using air travel, to give up the car, have fewer children and switch to a vegetarian or plant-based diet. Trading tumble dryers for hanging clothes out to dry and switching off lights are also factors that we can contribute, to do our bit.

It’s great when these stories come back around and remind us to think about our impact on the planet, but to me, nothing says it better than the incredible documentary; Racing Extinction. Now that the initial hype of a documentary release has died down, I found myself wondering about the impact of the school resources that I worked on whilst at my previous job at Discovery Education. Do they still have the same momentum without the film release? Because they need it!

racing extinction species campaign

Educating children is the key to improving the condition of the planet for future generations. Giving them the chance to see the mistakes of the generations before them, and empowering them to not only avoid those mistakes, but improve upon them, is an incredibly powerful tool.

For this reason, when I was approached through my job at National Geographic Kids to suggest a challenge for gifted children, as part of Potential Plus UK‘s 50th anniversary, I felt it was a good opportunity to think about what the last 50 years that the programme has been in existence have meant for natural history.

Creating a Maths challenge, I suggested a method for estimating the amount of species decline, which included researching the rapidly increasing rate of extinction — and looking ahead over the next 50 years to estimate how many more species we are likely to lose if things don’t change.

The challenge was included in the ’50 Challenges for 50 Years’ Book, which was launched on the organisation’s Family Challenge Day and given to the gifted and talented children to try at home with their family.

potential plus calculating extinction

Check out the challenge on Potential Plus UK’s website, and give it a go yourself. As well as testing your maths skills, I’m hoping it serves as a humbling opportunity to see the need to protect species — and the consequences we may face if we don’t.

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Making Nature exhibition

Making Nature is an exhibition I recently visited at the Wellcome Galleries in Euston. It provides an intriguing look at the evolving relationship between humans and nature.

Though I can’t say that I related to every part of the exhibition, I would recommend it as a welcome introduction to considering humans and their place (or rather, perceived place) within the natural world.

Organising

Separated into four themed rooms, Making Nature attempts to guide visitors through the complex journey of the last century or two that has seen us move from studying nature to ‘creating’ it. The first signpost on that whistle-stop tour was ‘Organising’.

This room was dedicated to early studies and illustrations of nature, including botanical study. It examined where and how nature was placed within those studies, early books and art work, and how that initial work evolved into more formal study of taxonomy.

Taxonomy; the science of classification – in this case of organisms – is truly reflective of how we position ourselves within a kingdom of wildlife (usually we humans place ourselves at the top of such a structure). I think that was the point being made in a darkened alcove of the room, playing video footage and rolling subtitles about humans’ search for intelligent life in outer space, and declaring that we should look a little closer to home; in parrots.

Admittedly, this display seemed a little out of place amongst all the old sketches and classification charts, but it had a good point — that parrots are vocal communicators like humans, and capable of speech, but we’ve only just begun to consider them as a species to communicate with.

This was highlighted by the story of Alex the Grey Parrot and Dr. Irene Pepperberg, who conducted research into the cognitive abilities of parrots. Find out more about them here: http://alexfoundation.org

Displaying

The next room looked at our need to ‘progress’ from illustrations to true-to-life displays of animals. Not far from the early ideals of man being at the top of the pyramid of life, the ‘displaying’ room examined various curiosities in man’s attempt to hold, house and recreate nature for our viewing pleasure.

Beginning with Crystal Palace’s famous Victorian dinosaur park — home to stone recreations of the imaginings of what real life dinosaurs would have looked like (created using fossil finds of the time; though not always accurate) — leading on to the more common displays of the day; the diorama display.

The pain-staking details of many diorama displays try to capture the colours, atmosphere and scale of the natural world and have provoked a progression in taxidermy; to aim for ‘action poses’ attempting to recreate natural behaviour. Quite unlike the portrait-style emotionless taxidermy you largely find in the infamous Hall of Mammals at London’s Natural History Museum.
London’s Natural History Museum’s significant architecture was also examined in this room. Originally built as a ‘cathedral to nature‘, the outside of the building was once adjourned with a figure of Adam at the top of its arches, to signify ‘man’s place at the top of the kingdom’. The biblical figure of Adam no longer remains

Observing

The purpose of displaying is to, of course, allow for observation. As humans we moved from an interest in static displays and illustrations to the desire to observe real life animal behaviour for ourselves. And so comes an examination of the era of the zoological gardens and eventually ‘the zoo‘.

This area of the exhibit examines the early popular attractions of London Zoo, including a once much-admired performing elephant and London’s ‘infamous polar bears’ — immortalised in zoo merchandise such as postcards and plushie toys.
One of the evolutions in the history of zoo that I can never quite get my head around was the conscious movement to irradicate a sense of natural environment from the zoo enclosure. Described in this exhibition as London Zoo‘s movement to champion architecture that ‘contrasted the animals and made them stand out’, this seems like such a dark and misguided interpretation of animal observation to me.

Famous architects were employed to remove nature from the surrounds, which ultimately removes the chance to see animals’ naturalistic behaviour. The very thing the zoo was supposed to provide.

This room made me think about an episode of popular US podcast Radiolab, which examines a period in the late 1970s where zoo architect David Hancocks re-examines a gorilla enclosure after a discussion with renowned gorilla expert Dian Fossey about what the animals’ natural environment would look like. His experiment to bring a naturalistic environment into the gorilla enclosure is considered the first link between zoo enclosure and the mental health of the animal’s inside them (listen to the full episode here).
I was somewhat disappointed that this room didn’t contain any mention of opposition to zoos, or the concrete architectural designs of enclosures like the one shown in the photograph above. This snapshot of a concrete prison, devoid of enrichment and anything that even slightly resembles life in the wild was even available to buy as a postcard in the gift shop. It made me think of Born Free Foundation‘s report on elephant captivity; Innocent Prisoner.

Making Nature‘s insight into ‘observation’ also included a modern-day video about the process of landscaping a zoo enclosure to fulfil the need for animal enrichment, but also for spectators to feel ‘involved’ — as the interviewee put it, “so they can get up close enough to the animals to feel scared”.

Again, I was disappointed that there was no mention of opposition to zoos, as if the exhibition worked on the assumption that we all feel the desire to observe animals in the same way. There was even a video of a sorry-looking tiger kept in house; wandering between bedroom and bathroom, looking in the mirror and yowling. The idea was to try and decide whether the tiger recognised itself in the mirror. I couldn’t bring myself to sit down and watch.

I was also surprised to see that — although there was mention of London Zoo once having a famous performing elephant — there was nothing on circus’ and the history of observing animals in this kind of environment (and once again, a lack of seizing the opportunity to look at both sides of the argument here). It would have been good to examine some of the complexities and mistakes we have made over our history of observing wildlife, as well as simply noting our penchant for seeing animals up close. I added this feedback to the feedback wall at the end of the exhibition.

Making

The final room in the exhibition was probably the most fascinating to me; examining human impact and influence on wildlife; specifically genetic engineering, using animals in laboratories for scientific experiments and testing, and domestication.

Compared to the former examples of ‘making nature’, domestication is one that we have grown so accustomed to that it seems less ‘dark’ and extreme — that is, until I saw it laid out in such a clear and confronting manner. From rows of horses teeth, to colour coded budgies to an examination of the ‘perfect’ white rat, regarded as the desired pet of high society Victorian women; it’s weird to think how much we’ve interfered with nature.
There was also a focus on how we use animals outside of the meat, dairy and clothing industry, such as in the days of using the African Clawed Frog as pregnancy test (for 30 years the frog species was used as the most accurate and efficient pregnancy test! Eighteen of the reptiles were introduced to the US in 1937 for this purpose. If a pregnant woman urinated on a female frog, it would produce eggs within 12 hours; this provided the model for the modern day pregnancy test testing urine).

Although some of how we use animals is incredibly uncomfortable to acknowledge, there were some extremely important examples of how we’ve intervened with nature to help humans live alongside it more effectively — such as modifying mosquitos so that they no longer spread diseases like dengue fever. And then there’s the matter of de-extinction.

I’ve read some fascinating articles in both BBC Wildlife magazine and BBC Earth magazine about scientists developing the technology to harvest DNA from specimens of extinct species and using that to create an embryo to be carried by a similar, surviving species.

Woolly mammoths are always the buzzword when it comes to the topic of ‘de-extinction‘, but as yet the capabilities of growing a mammoth embryo are not sophisticated enough to not require a surrogate mother (female elephants are not large enough for the job). It seems that that may about to change before too long however, after the success of a baby lamb grown for four weeks in an artificial womb.

 In the meantime at least, Making Nature shows us the very real and current project to bring back the passenger pigeon.

Natural History Museums around the world are collecting DNA from their specimens of passenger pigeon to try and gather enough to genetically modify an existing living embryo (presumably that of another species of pigeon). Remarkably, the exhibition included a vial of some of this extracted DNA.

The plaque beside it, written by The Long Now Foundation reads:

“This tiny vial captures an extremely unusual moment in the story of the extinct passenger pigeon. DNA samples are being collected from 19th-century passenger pigeons in museum collections, in order to assemble sufficient genetic diversity to be able to ‘resurrect’ the extinct species. While this project is in its infancy with much uncertainty surrounding it, if successful, the passenger pigeon would be the first species to be recovered from DNA alone.”

Now that truly is making nature!

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Time to teach Natural History classes? Calls for a new GCSE

There’s nothing like waking up to sunshine creeping through the window and the sound of early morning birdsong.

I love the hustle and bustle of chaotic London; it’s become my home over the last four years —but when it comes to downtime, I only want to get back to nature.
Kate on conservation sitting outside

April has been a wonderful month. It began with a week-long trip to the countryside; no phones, no internet, not even so much as a SatNav or a watch!

Now, I’m usually someone who loves technology — my job in children’s educational media is so dependent on sharing information online, and of course I love my gadgets for blogging — but making a deliberate effort to put all that aside and make room for nature is also really important to me.

I grew up in Thetford, East Anglia, so am well-versed in exploring the early signs of spring in the trees and plants of Thetford Forest. I kicked off last April with a trip to Scarning Dale, near to Thetford, and loved it so much that I had to return again this year.

A truly idyllic setting, it provided the chance to watch the birds through the window, to see tadpoles hatching in the pond at the bottom of the garden, and to take the relatively short trip to the North Norfolk coast to see colonies of Atlantic grey seals lazing at the sea’s edge with their growing young.

The changing attitudes to Natural History study

To lose myself even more in my countryside surroundings, I prepared for my trip by visiting my local secondhand book shop in London, which has one of the best Natural History sections of any book shop I’ve known!

I picked up a book called ‘Animal Lover’s Book’ by Enid Blyton, thinking that her comfy — somewhat twee — writing style that I remembered from my childhood would provide just the right level of cosy nostalgia for a trip back to where I grew up.

The book is a complete gem! Beautifully illustrated, full of information on British wildlife, quaint poems and boasting ‘full colour plates’ mixed throughout its chapters; there’s a kind of charm that’s hard to find these days.

Printed in 1957, it was of course wonderfully dated, in just the way I was looking for, but one of the things that really struck me was the level of effort and detail that had gone into providing additional information for children wanting to learn more about British wildlife.

“I am sure there will be children who want to know a few more technical details than are given in the main story,” assumes the author, “and these notes are mainly for them.”

I’m trying to imagine seeing something similar in modern day children’s books.

The author goes on to provide further facts and illustrations of every animal included in the book; badgers, foxes, mice, newts, lizards, deer, rabbits, hares, moles, shrews, etc, etc.

The illustrations show male and female sketches of the species’, and information includes everything from the family names of each species to the number of subspecies belonging to those families that reside in Britain. Pretty impressive for a children’s storybook!

My trip down memory lane brought home the changes in attitudes towards the natural world even more, when I returned from my holiday to read a Guardian article published at the start of April, which highlighted the view that:

“a majority of children no longer climb trees or play by streams and ponds, have become largely unfamiliar with even common wildlife, and are leading enclosed lives that are potentially harmful for their emotional and physical development.”

The article draws attention to a recently launched petition calling for the development of a GCSE in Natural History, referencing the fact that words such as ‘acorn’, ‘adder’, ‘ash’, ‘beech’, ‘bluebell’, and ‘conker’… (the list goes on), have been removed from the Oxford Junior Dictionary to make way for words such as ‘analogue’, ‘broadband’, ‘bullet-point’, and ‘chatroom’. My, times really have changed since Enid Blyton wrote that book!

Calling for a Natural History GCSE

The petition, started by nature writer and radio producer Mary Colwell, emphasizes the UK’s outstanding nature writing, art, poetry and film, and how integral to our culture and heritage this has been.

Of course, I completely agree with the concept that “it is vital to understand the contribution nature makes to our lives physically, culturally, emotionally and scientifically both in the past and today”, as written in the petition’s blurb.

natural history GCSE petition

It reminds me of working with Discovery Education to promote the incredible documentary Racing Extinction. After working with a team to edit the film into manageable, self-contained clips suitable for classroom projects (mainly aimed at secondary school students; i.e. those preparing for their GCSEs), I delivered an assembly to primary school children to introduce them to some of the endangered species present within the documentary.

A simple set of questions where pupils had to choose the correct answer between ‘manta ray’ and ‘polar bear’ provided a great ice breaker for getting pupils to think about the environments that these animals might live in and the characteristics / adaptations they may possess.

Kate on Conservation racing extinction assembly

To focus on British wildlife, as well as the exciting exotic animals seen in Racing Extinction, I invited Dominic Dyer of Born Free Foundation to talk about the wildlife that children can experience in their own daily lives. And it captivated them.

The experience of directly educating children in this way about the incredible natural world around them really cemented in me the desire to continue working in children’s education.

I have been fortunate enough to spend the last six months doing just that — creating primary school resources for National Geographic Kids, including a wealth of material about animals and the natural world.

These free lesson resources provide information about wild animals from across the globe, and I really hope that they are able to one day contribute to a stronger Natural History study within the school curriculum.

Nat geo kids website animals resource

If you would like to sign the petition to see a Natural History GCSE introduced into the school curriculum, please follow the link here: https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/176749

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Save The Asian Elephants: Tourists, temples and traditions

STAE save the asian elephants

This month kicked off with World Wildlife Day, and for me, the weekend immediately following meant an opportunity to visit the Animal Welfare Bazaar in Ealing. It was my first opportunity to attend the event, which has been running for 39 years(!), and I must admit, it was a treat to see some of my favourite charities and causes coming together.

A particular highlight of these kinds of events is discovering charities I know little or nothing about. In this case, it was Save The Asian Elephants (STAE).

STAE team at Ealing Animal Bazaar

Now, the plight of elephants in Africa is widely recognised — I’ve written several blog posts on the ivory trade and the rate at which African elephants are poached — but far less is known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% that of African elephants — with a huge decline from estimates of a million or more in the late 19th century to scarcely 40,000 today! Around 10,000 of these are captive.

Mali the elephant in the zoo

While the majority of Asian elephants are found in India and Sri Lanka, there are small populations in countries such as Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Indonesia, and (among others) Thailand. I mention these countries specifically because they are all places where I have see photographs of elephant rides and ‘elephant painting’ for tourists.

I recently watched the incredible BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise, and learnt about some of the terrible ordeals these animals face when they are snatched from their forest homes to supply tourist attractions and festivals. Often the young elephants’ mothers and other adult herd members are slaughtered as they try to protect their young.

Elephant sanctuary BBC series Thailand: Earth's Tropical Paradise

Elephant sanctuary to rehabilitate captive Asian elephants featured in the BBC series Thailand: Earth’s Tropical Paradise

The Asian elephant, which has been classified as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) since 1986, faces a bigger threat from the tourist industry then it does the ivory trade, as a lifetime of tourist rides are more lucrative than the one-off sale of its ivory.

Unlike the African elephant, only male Asian elephants grow tusks — meaning the enslavement and exploitation of these creatures for tourist attractions brings in money where it otherwise wouldn’t be found. However, the Wildlife Protection Society of India still reported that over 121 elephants were lost to poaching between  2008-2011.

Asian elephants are smaller and less aggressive than their African counterparts making them ‘easier to tame’. Their gentle nature sees them stolen from the wild, forced into a pen and tied with ropes to prevent them moving. Deprived of water, food and sleep, they are brutally (sometimes fatally) beaten with bullhooks, rods, chains and other implements of torture.

The ‘breaking in’ process, known as “pajan” ends in the death of 50% of the elephants it intends to ‘domesticate’.

Captive Indian elephants + trainers

The life of pain, fear, dehydration and abuse that a captive elephant faces is something I have witnessed firsthand in Indonesiasomething I have written about in the past.

I have seen Sumatran elephants intimidated with wooden sticks into performing circus-style ‘tricks’; such as balancing (i.e. walking along a relatively thin bench), throwing a basketball into a hoop and using their trunks to paint using a paintbrush. It was awful. Sickening.

Most holidaymakers are unaware that many elephants have been captured from the wild, trained through fear and beaten into continuing their work: often carrying heavy loads of 2-4 tourists on metal seats on their backs. Their tusks are often blunted with chainsaws; the ends removed in a stressful and terrifying ordeal.

This cruel and harsh life — often spent with legs bound in short, tight chains — is not dissimilar to that experienced by ‘temple elephants’.

Chained to tradition by Emily Garthwaite

I remember seeing a photograph of a temple elephant at a previous year’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. ‘Chained to tradition’ by photographer Emily Garthwaite shows a desperate, pained-looking elephant with bound legs, looking as though it’s literally crying out for help.

These captive elephants are used for religious ceremonies and rented out for festivals. Often their legs are chained to posts in such a way that they are prevented from even turning round, and throughout their lives they are subjected to the chaos and confusion of crowds and noise — even firecrackers during festival season (December to May).

Like captive elephants used for tourist attractions, temple elephants are forced to carry heavy loads; sometimes up to four men and given very little access to water and shelter.

Other threats to Asian elephants

It’s not just temples and the tourist industry that are having a detrimental impact on this beautiful but fragile species. Population numbers are being devastated by human-elephant conflict (up to 200 elephants are killed annually and around 60 people), and many elephants die from other means of forced contact with man, such as electrocution from power cables and collisions with trains.

Urban development, which results in human activity encroaching on the natural lives of these elephants, has also left migratory paths obstructed; meaning herds are more likely to come into contact with man — thus allowing for situations of human conflict that result in animals being shot or poisoned.

The disruption to migration also means a disruption to gene flow, as naturally Asian elephants migrate to find mates and this distribution of genes over large geographical distances improves genetic strength. When elephants can’t travel to breed, their offspring becomes less genetically diverse and therefore more vulnerable to diseases.

STAE Asian elephants

How does STAE help?

Save The Asian Elephants works to end the terrible cruelty and brutal conditions suffered by this wondrous and ancient species. With Asian elephants facing extinction in our lifetime and by our hands, STAE believes that Asian elephants don’t just “belong” to a country or region, but have an intrinsic right to exist in the wild.

By influencing governments, politicians and the tourist industry to adopt solutions (such as captive elephants being returned to the wild where they can play their natural role in forests, or in extreme cases — where wild release is not an option — being kept in genuine sanctuaries), they hope to see the psychological wellbeing of elephants improved and respect for these creatures realised, so that an increased understanding can be developed, leading to the better management of human-elephant conflict.

They believe that with a global imagination, global funding, and global planning, there can be a future where wild elephants and humans can co-exist peacefully, in a way that supports and respects local communities, as well as Asia’s rich ecosystems, and the world’s forests. They look to achieve this by informing public opinion on the truth behind this collision of commercialism and custom that Asian elephants currently find themselves in the middle of.

Find out more by visiting: stae.org

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Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots Awards on World Wildlife Day

Yesterday was World Wildlife Day, an important day in the calendar for promoting campaigns and causes concerning wildlife across the globe.

I had the absolute pleasure (and honour!) of attending the Jane Goodall institute‘s Roots & Shoots Awards 2017. Jane Goodall’s Roots & Shoots is a youth service program for young people of all ages to foster respect and compassion for all living things; to promote understanding of all cultures and beliefs and to inspire individuals to take action to make the world a better place for people, other animals, and the environment.

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I have huge respect for Dr Jane Goodall, one of Lewis Leakey and National Geographic‘s ‘primates‘ (she studied chimpanzees, while Dr Dian Fossey studied gorillas and Dr Brute Galdikas studied orang-utans), and it was amazing to see the way that she is still inspiring and encouraging children today.

I arrived at the Barbican, where the Roots & Shoots Awards were held this year (thanks to sponsors Love Nature) to a room full of school displays by the Roots & Shoots winners, absolutely bubbling with energy! Children of all ages showed off their skills as gardeners, greenhouse-builders, photographers and documentary makers.

Humberstone Junior Academy Roots and Shoots

Humberstone Junior Academy explained their focus on wildlife, including how they had adopted a pangolin with Born Free Foundation

I took a good couple of hours to speak to all the children about their schools’ initiatives and the eco-friendly activities they have devised. Below are a few examples of the amazing work I saw — but there were certainly many more, equally impressive displays and models (I just didn’t have enough space on my phone to photograph them all!)img_5853Humberstone Junior Academy Roots and Shoots masksChowbent primary school roots and shoots

Sir Jonathan North Community College Roots and Shoots

After viewing the room of beautiful exhibits, it was time for lunch in the Barbican Centre‘s greenhouse conservatory, before moving on to the auditorium for the much anticipated award ceremony and the handing out of prizes! Winners received a trophy, a cuddly Jane Goodall ‘Mr H’ monkey, a book and a free subscription to National Geographic Kids Magazine.

Roots and shoots award presentation

Roots and shoots award presentation humberstone junior academy

Congratulations to all the schools who won these prestigious awards. It was a real treat to see such happiness and celebration! Additionally, I got to present two very talented winners the award for ‘Outstanding Photograph‘ on behalf of National Geographic Kids:

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

Rachel from the University of Salford (pictured above) won with this fantastic photograph of three Barbary macaques.

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

The second winner was Claudia from James Allen’s Girls’ School, who won with the beautiful photograph below.

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

Her award was collected by her teacher, who said she was very proud of Claudia’s work. Claudia will have the chance to be an National Geographic Kids reporter for the day!

National geographic kids photography award roots and shoots

The day concluded with a heartfelt speech delivered by Dr Jane Goodall herself, encompassing the message behind Roots & Shoots of inclusion, tolerance and love and respect for the planet and one another. She praised the teachers who guide and encourage their students in programmes like Roots & Shoots and the people like her mother, who never crushed curiosity or stopped her from making mistakes and learning all the life lessons she need to become a scientist.

Jane Goodall Roots and Shoot address

“I hate hearing that ‘we’ve not inherited the Earth from our parents, we’ve borrowed it from our children’; I hate it because it’s a lie. We’ve not ‘borrowed’, we have been stealing, and we’ve made so many mistakes and it’s not the young peoples’ job to put it right. We have to work with them to fix it. We have been stealing, and now we’re holding your hand so that together we can make it better.”

Listen to more of Jane’s speech by clicking here.

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Talking the talk: let’s have a conversation about Taiji Cove

This ‘dolphin drive’ season, more than 150 bottlenose dolphins have been rounded up and taken from Japan’s Taiji Cove, forced into captivity, and most destined to make their way into the meat trade.

These latest figures, released by activist group Sea Shepherd less than 24 hour ago, were accompanied by the statement: “Although we are in the final days of the dolphin drive hunt season here in Taiji, there is no reprieve for the captive dolphins held in the harbour pens. This morning the banger boats left the harbour in quick succession, searching in their final days for pods of dolphins to desecrate, destroy and profit from.”

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Some time in the ’90s, when terrestrial television ruled, I remember watching an episode of The Simpsons in which killer dolphins rise up to take over the planet.

The Simpsons is smart, very smart  I’ve read an essay or two about the incredible mathematical problems and references snuck into series after series  and I think with their killer dolphin takeover, they were onto something.

dolphin army

No, I don’t believe that dolphins are going to rise up, find a way to walk on land and wipe out the human race (though occasionally I wish they would…), but I think the interesting thing is that something as (unfortunately) flippantly dismissed as a comedic cartoon, was actually educating children that dolphins have language. And to have language  not just calls for mating and warning – one must have independent, free thought.

simpsons dolphin

It’s easy to relate to species that look like us. Species that have two arms, two legs, fingers and thumbs. Great apes where we can trace our common ancestry; chimps and bonobos especially, where we can recognise a language in their utterances and teach them how to use basic signing to ‘talk’ with us.

During my time as an English Language and Communications undergrad, we studied in great detail an entire module on the successes and failures of scientist teaching chimpanzees, like the well-documented Nim Chimpsky, how to communicate the human way.

I can’t help but think that although this doesn’t bring a blanket safety to the species from atrocities such as poaching for the bush meat trade or to supply Chinese medicines, it does help us in western societies relate to the creatures and recognise them as sentient beings.

But pound for pound, relative to body size, dolphin’s brains are larger than those of chimpanzee’s. They are, in fact, among the largest in the animal kingdom.

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As well as an impressive flair for problem-solving and a capacity to plan for the future, dolphin’s varied and complex language at least equals our own. They not only whistle and click, but they also emit ‘burst pulses’ to discipline their young and defend themselves against sharks.

They even eavesdrop on the echo-locating clicks of other dolphin pods to figure out what they’re looking at.

But without arms and hands and fingers, such highly communicative beings have only been taught to respond to human commands when they could have so valuably had their articulations studied and dissected to reveal the exact nature of their intelligence.

I wonder if a different physical form and a different means of language would have saved them from the fate of hundreds of thousands that will now be facing slaughter from September 1 in a place called Taiji Cove in Japan, in the name of ‘cultural tradition’.

dolphin-slaughter-taiji

After watching the shockingly powerful and effecting documentary The Cove (available to view here), I felt compelled to act in some way, and in January 2015, joined one of the biggest protests against the Taiji slaughter of recent years. As another killing season commences this month; as do the protests.

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Throughout last year, and in doubt with documentaries such as The Cove at the helm, I’ve seen the public and media interest in dolphins soar, which is wonderful for helping to understand the complex multi-layered nature of these creatures.

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For example, similarly to humans — as I believe anthropomorphism helps the cause of compassion towards these animals — dolphins seek the fun, playfulness and social interaction of natural highs; in their case using the secretion of pufferfish toxins to get their fix.

That’s not all dolphins use their fellow ocean-dwellers for though, according to National Geographic Magazine:

“In Shark Bay some bottlenose dolphins detach sponges from the seafloor and place them on their beaks for protection while searching the sand for small hidden fish – a kind of primitive tool use. In the shallow waters of Florida Bay dolphins use their speed, which can exceed 20 miles an hour, to swim quick circles around schools of mullet fish, stirring up curtains of mud that force the fish to leap out of the water into the dolphins’ waiting mouths”

I believe that this high intelligence and ability to use tools, as well as their highly effect methods of communication, stem from their social structures, which are also integral to their well-being.

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Lori Marino, biopsychologist and executive director of the Kimmela Center for Animal Advocacy explains: “A dolphin alone is not really a dolphin. Being a dolphin means being embedded in a complex social network. Even more so than humans.”

Dolphins’ communities require intimate social and emotional bonds that reveal the highly developed way they process emotions.

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National Geographic also states that there is strong evidence to suggest dolphins even have names, using distinct signature whistles to call one another:

“It turns out that there is strong evidence to suggest that at least one kind of dolphin sound, studied extensively over the past decade, does function as a kind of referential symbol. Dolphins use distinct “signature whistles” to identify and call one another.
Each dolphin is thought to invent a unique name for itself as a calf and keep it for life. Dolphins greet one another at sea by exchanging signature whistles and seem to remember the signature whistles of other dolphins for decades.
Though other species, like vervet monkeys and prairie dogs, make sounds that refer to predators, no other animal, besides humans, is believed to have specific labels for individuals.”

dolphins

If we cannot recognise the importance of this species and the wealth of what we can learn from them, then I can’t help but feel all those hours I spent during my degree learning about the scientific study of chimp’s engagement with language were wasted. Because science requires growth; new thinking and challenge before it can progress. And progress cannot be made, and it our knowledge not broadened, if we cannot consider an animal’s mind, brain, communication and intricate system of utterances just because they do not possess two arms and two legs.

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If you’re interested in learning more about the dolphin’s ability to learn, and their incredible intelligence at large, Born Free Foundation have released a book on their successful rehabilitation of Britain’s last ever dolphinarium-captive dolphins, Misha and Tom back into the wild. Find out more here.

An extract of this article first appeared in Big Issue Magazine, viewable here: LIKE APES, DOLPHINS ALSO ‘TALK’ – AND NEED PROTECTION.

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Reflecting on a gentle nature

Lately, I have found myself in a reflective state of mind. Reflecting on my work, my goals, the small successes of the campaigns I’ve joined (Sea World agreeing to end the breeding of its captive whales); the near misses (the slow progress of the UK government in deciding whether to close the domestic trade in ivory); and the complete misses (never getting to see Tilikum free of his Sea World enclosure, CITES not delivering lions with Appendix I protection, etc.).

I suppose it can weigh heavy.

In need of a little pick-me-up, my thoughts went to the beginning —in fact, before the beginning —to the chain of events which began the ripple that would eventually flow into the creation of this sea of words; articles; posts.

It begins with the memory of murdered photographer Julie Ward, whose book, ‘A Gentle Nature’, I won in a raffle many years ago.

Below is a vlog I made a few years back, explaining who Julie Ward is and a little bit about her tragic story.

 

This is the book mentioned, which captured my interest in the Born Free Foundation and wildlife photography and was one of the inspiring factors which made me travel to South Africa to volunteer.

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I had chosen to volunteer at Shamwari Game Reserve because it is home to two Born Free Foundation sanctuaries for rescued big cats, and one of these rescue centres was opened in Julie Ward’s memory.

Shamwari friends with Kate

Celebrating a job well done with my fellow Shamwari volunteers at the Born Free Foundation”s Julie Ward Education Centre.

Since that vlog was filmed, a further development arose in the Julie Ward murder case, where new DNA evidence brought detectives a step closer to finding her killers.

The following video shows a news report from BBC News in the East of England. I must apologise for the quality of the video and give pre-warning that to get the most from the video, it will require viewers to turn the volume to full. It was recorded on simple digital camera by my ever-supportive parents, and emailed to me during my year in Australia, so that I could watch it online from overseas.

 

Back in 2013 I even designed my own mini Go Go Gorilla to send out to Born Free‘s Julie Ward Education Centre at Shamwari.

The basic elements of my design were my Shamwari work t’shirt from my time as a volunteer there, the Born Free Foundation logo, and an image of Julie ward herself. Such were the reaches of their influence.

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It’s wonderful to reflect on my own locality, and how where I grew up ultimately had an influence on ‘how’ I grew up. There are so many wonderful figures who have inspired my path into gentle nature and compassion conservation.

Those that I’ve followed throughout my life are: the late Joy Adamson (writer of the Born Free autobiographical tale of Elsa the lioness, and its sequels) and George Adamson (Joy’s husband, who had a lifetime of incredible conservation work in his own right, rehabilitating captive lions, such as Boy and Christian back into the wild) and the late Bill Travers and Virginia McKenna (who founded the Born Free Foundation with their son Will Travers, and whom played the roles of Joy and George Adamson in the Born Free movie).

I would also, like many people, have to cite David Attenborough in my list of conservation heroes whose footprints I would love to walk in. I am so grateful that, in blogging, I have found a way to honour those idols and to continue to grow in the shared goals; in all their triumphs, near misses, and total knock-outs.