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BBC Earth Magazine’s launch night in London

This week I was invited to the launch of BBC Earth Magazine, a new monthly publication about the natural world, courtesy of LiveLikeAVIP.com.

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I have followed BBC Earth’s online articles for a while, as they have previously featured vEcotours — the VR app that allows users to take virtual tours of different conversation locations around the world — so I was pretty excited to hear that they would be getting a printed publication.

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The magazine will feature news, about the latest discoveries in nature, science, astronomy and anthropology and will include commentary and opinions from experts, including Sir David Attenborough and Professor Brian Cox.

The Sea Life London Aquarium played host to the launch of BBC Earth Magazine with drinks flowing to the back drop of sea turtles and shoals of fish. Read my full post on the launch night here.

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Harambe the silverback gorilla and the question of captivity

Every so often, an individual animal comes along, whose plight opens up a big debate concerning how humans react to, interfere with, or ‘manage’ animal welfare.

Last year, it was Cecil the lion; the year before, Marius the giraffe; this week, it’s Harambe the silverback gorilla. For those who missed the story of Harambe (and I suspect you didn’t), the 17-year-old male silverback was shot and killed at Cincinnati Zoo this weekend after a child entered his enclosure, crawling through bushes and falling 15 feet into the gorilla’s moat.

Harambe gorilla and boy

Online footage showed the gorilla moving the young boy through the enclosure’s moat — though there are varying reports as to the nature of this (some news outlets are reporting he dragged the boy through the water, while other suggest he was ‘protecting’ the boy). Of course, without being there, it’s difficult to speculate.

The animal response team tasked with dealing with the situation chose to destroy the gorilla, supported by Cincinnati Zoo Director, Thane Maynard, who confirmed the boy was not under attack, but felt it a ‘life threatening situation’ where the gorilla was ‘agitated’, ‘disoriented’, and ‘behaving erratically’.

Perhaps the reason that so many have hit out at the decision has something to do with the previous publicity that gorilla-human interactions have received. By coincidence, the last article I posted on this blog referenced the gorilla group who infamously interacted with Sir David Attenborough.

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But these weren’t the only gorillas to win the public’s heart, and show a softer side to these strong and powerful beings. Made popular by the rise of YouTube, the 1986 incident in which a five-year-old boy fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo has been viewed literally millions of times!

The gorilla in question, Jambo, is seen gently investigating and apparently comforting the boy:

Fast forward 10 years, to a three-year-old boy falling into the Western Lowland Gorilla Pit at the Brookfield Zoo. (Seems like rather a lot of gorilla enclosures have proven to be a little too accessible over the years!).

This 1996 footage shows a female gorilla named Binti Jua approach the child, lift him into her arms, and carry him to an access entrance where staff could get to him.

 

One of the world’s leading gorilla experts, Ian Redmond OBE, posted online immediately following the incident:

My immediate response to the killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, is a deep sense of regret and sadness. Watching the shaky mobile phone video: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-36407643, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the BBC News website, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing… but the video does not show the whole incident so I am not in a position to judge. I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision but there were other possible outcomes. In two other incidents where children have fallen into zoo gorilla enclosures (in Jersey and Chicago) neither the gorillas nor the children died.
Aside from the ethical issues of keeping apes in captivity, the key question is: how is it possible – yet again – for a child to gain access to any zoo enclosure? Especially when zoos are primarily a family attraction?

Harambe

To me, this is indeed a huge public safety issue! One that, had the public safety (particularly that of a child) been put at risk elsewhere in the tourism and entertainment industry (I’m thinking theme parks), would have caused mass criticism, a very public court battle and calls to close the place (just look at the bad press Alton Towers received when guests were injured on a rollercoaster ride).

But zoos are so entwined with education that they’re publicly branded as existing ‘primarily for children’s benefit’ and as such, it’s hard to separate them. This is an issue I’ve discussed before, challenging the notion that zoos are ‘a vital tool’ in getting the next generation interested in nature (for those who’d like a more in depth view of the modern day issues with zoos — and probably a more balanced view — I would recommend the BBC2 documentary: Should We Close Our Zoos?)

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

Zoos and education are presented to us hand-in-hand

But whether their PR depends on the link with education or not, it’s worth questioning how the security of zoos keeps getting breached? Just last month alone, a Santiago Metropolitan Zoo in Chile killed two of its lions after a man scaled the fence, removed his clothes (which reportedly contained a suicide note) and goaded the animals to attack him (23rd May 2016). Just the day before, a man entered the lion enclosure at Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad, India, allegedly to ‘shake hands with the lions‘. Though the man and the lions survived the encounter, he was reported to have been intoxicated at the time.

All this comes after the undeniable, global coverage of Blackfish; the documentary about SeaWorld’s Tilikum the killer whale (or orca), known for having ended the lives of three people, including a man who trespassed on SeaWorld Orlando’s property, apparently evading security to enter the orca tank. When will these locations that house captive animals be recognised as potentially dangerous to the public? It seems that massive security failings are occurring across the globe, and have been for a long time?!

6 ways to appreciate gorillas, without visiting the zoo:

How about some alternatives then, that won’t inadvertently put your family or the lives of animals at risk? Here are my top 5 ways to enjoy watching, feeling close to, and even supporting the conservation of gorillas!

  1. Check out the BBC documentary; Gorilla Family & Me, for which cameraman and filmmaker Gordon Buchanan travels to the Democratic Republic of Congo to spend time with a rare family of Grauer’s gorillas.You’ll get to follow the story of Chimanuka and Mugaruka. For more information on the show and future broadcasts, click here.gorilla family and me
  2. Adopt a gorilla through Born Free Foundation. If you enjoyed the above mentioned documentary, and want to continue being a part of Chimanuka and Mugaruka’s wild story, you can adopt the pair and receive a personalised adoption certificate, a photo of the gorillas, the pair’s full story and regular updates about the gorillas; courtesy of Adopt! magazine. You can even get a cuddly toy gorilla, to help satisfy the need to give the creatures a cuddle! To find out how, click here.adoption pack
  3.  Take virtual tour of the gorillas habitats with vEcotourism.org! Continuing on the story of the Chimanuka group, vEcotours offer an immersive, 360-degree virtual tour of Kahuzi-Biega National Park in Rwanda, where Chimanuka and his family live. They also feature a tour of the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group’s home on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi; this features the last living gorilla from the group that met Sir David Attenborough all those years ago! To take a tour, click hereSusaGroupHeader-1024x512
  4. View a GoGoGorilla art piece. Now, this one might require a bit more work, but seek, and ye shall find! These guys are mostly still planted around businesses and tourist locations in Norwich, and I had a whale of time discovering them all when they were used as an art trail around the city, and then auctioned off to raise funds for the Born Free Foundation and local charity Break. I’m pretty sure this guy still resides at the Norwich City Football Club ground!20130724_202257
  5. Buy a gorilla print. Many thanks to an incredible digital artist, Danielle Adams, who supported my World of Wildlife art exhibition last year, for creating this beautiful piece of gorilla art in memory of Harambe. Prints of this artwork will soon be available, so keep an eye out on her website, www.danielleadamsart.com.Harambe by Danielle Adams
  6. Dine with a gorilla table guest at the Rainforest Café! I absolutely love this place, and it offers a great chance to feel like your in a real forest surrounded by animals… except, they’re all animatronic! But hey, at least you know it means none are going to get hurt! And if any children wander off to go and touch a gorilla, they’re not going to get hurt either! To visit the Rainforest Cafe, click here.

Like this? Read more about Ian Redmond and Gorilla Safari VR here.

What happened when Ian Redmond and David Attenborough reunited?

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Revisiting Sir David Attenborough’s Great Ape playmate

In the wake of Sir David Attenborough’s 90th birthday celebrations, the BBC has curated a fantastic collection of programmes from Sir David’s incredible, extensive catalogue of work, available on BBC iPlayer. The collection includes the brand new programme; Attenborough at 90, which sees a number of colleagues, friends and admirers of Sir David come together to celebrate his milestone year.

Of course, the birthday broadcast included one of the most celebrated (and remembered) moment of David’s on-screen history, which is…

NB: Since the making of these films, the practice of human interaction with wild gorillas is no longer permitted, due to further understanding of the human diseases we may pass on to them. 

Born Free Foundation supporter and ambassador of vEcotourism.org, Ian Redmond OBE, was on hand for the programme, filmed in front of a live audience, to reminisce the infamous gorilla introduction between Sir David and the gorillas.

redmond attenborough

As Dr Dian Fossey’s research assistant, it was Ian who took David and the BBC crew to meet the gorillas. The incredible moment has been the subject of a new BBC Earth article, which goes on to explain what happen to the gorillas after that magical moment; written by Ian.

 “There is the unforgettable moment when Pablo, a playful youngster in Group 5, sits in David’s lap and sprawls back wriggling, making David grimace slightly despite his evident delight – I suspect that was because gorillas do have rather bony bottoms!” — courtesy BBC Earth.

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Ian Redmond observing the gorillas. Photo taken by DR Dian Fossey, courtesy of Ian Redmond.

Happily, Poppy, the then two-year-old infant who played alongside Sir David Attenborough, is now an elderly matriarch in the Susa Mountain Gorilla Group, which can be visited, virtually, at close range on the flanks of Mount Karisimbi, courtesy of vEcotourism.org. For full details and more information, click here or the picture below:

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Conservation: the cons, count downs and continuations

Unsurprisingly, BBC Wildlife magazine is a favourite of mine.

I’ve long enjoyed the columns and comments from BBC animal activist favourites, such as Simon King, Chris Packham and formerly Bill Oddie.

imageIn the summer, I read the magazine’s list of Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes with much interest and curiosity, furiously researching the names I hadn’t heard yet. I even managed to get my prized copy signed by number 4 on the list, Sir David Attenborough.

imageAttenborough found himself two places behind Chris Packham, who sat in 2nd place. A regular on Springwatch, a vocal opposer of the abuse seen on television shows such as I’m a Celebrity Get Me out of Here!, and a staunch campaigner against the bird hunting season in Malta, Packham seems to represent a great example for the generation who will eventually step into the giant footsteps of the likes of Attenborough and list-topper Jane Goodall.

imageBut something didn’t sit quite right for me.

In the very same issue, which contained bold statements from Sir David (he suggested that human beings are a plague on the planet), Packham is given an entire page to air the comparatively main stream and highly anti-conservationist view that zoos work well to educate the masses.

Zoos. Work well. To educate the masses?

10410128_321599458004605_7335837426737654323_nAs someone who KNOWS, first hand the damage that zoo environments inflict upon animals and the hard work that organisations such as the Born Free Foundation have to do to reverse just some of less-long lasting psychological effects these creatures are left with (and sadly most of the damage IS long-lasting and irreversible), I couldn’t believe Packham could advocate such things?!

Until I read his admission that his wife runs a zoo.

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Within his own blurb, on the same list that places him as the 2nd greatest conservation hero at present, Chris is quoted as saying “The worst are those putting the ‘con’ in conservation; organisations that care more about blindfolding their members than making a real difference.”

imageWould that not be zoos then, Chris?

I’ve written before about the way that zoos and safari parks are unquestionably entangled with education, and how, perhaps, it’s about time that relationship is subjected to a little questioning after all; and so, I felt that rather than repeat myself, I should shed a little light on where we could be focussing our conservation efforts instead.

Did you know that there is not one sustainable shark fishery on the planet? Why does education not teach us that? I never learned it from a zoo either.

shark fisheryOr that we’ve lost over half Africa’s lions in last 30 years. If we carry on at this rate, the African lion will be wiped out in 35 years.

So what can we do to enhance children’s education that’s not just a trip to the zoo to understand the relative scale of an adult male lion, regardless of environment and lack of opportunity to exercise natural behaviours?

imageTeach the message of Racing Extinction for a start. The documentary is already making its way into classrooms up and down the country, alongside various classroom resources and teachers’ aids, and in my (independent) opinion, that’s progress.

imageSecondly, we could improve schoolchildren’s knowledge of the work that’s being done to counteract some of the problems being faced in the natural world.

Will Travers joined a host of special guests at the London premiere of Racing Extinction last month, and discussed his own involvement in these areas…

This is exactly the kind of thing we could do with starting a conversation on.

Will Travers is the President of Born Free Foundation, which he founded with his mother, actor Virginia McKenna and father Bill Travers 30 years ago, and so his involvement is hands on. But there is also the important fact that everyday people are tackling conservation issues in everyday ways.

IMG_0118Just before Christmas, I joined the final 2015 instalment of the ongoing demonstrations against Taiji Cove.

This time, over a hundred people gathered outside the Japanese Embassy for most of the day and evening of the 18th December, culminating in a Racing Extinction-style building projections, in what could be seen as a call to arms for the next protest.

imageI will be joining this movement on the 16th January, alongside others who feel they want to make a difference (come say hi if you find yourself there – it’s open to anyone!), because the big changes really can start with ‘the little people’.

imageContinuing to look ahead to January and beyond, I will be focusing my attention on studying the concept of “StableCon” (Conversation through Stabilisation), so please keep an eye out for further info on this – perhaps most excitingly, however, I have joined Born Free’s Activate team, so perhaps my writing will begin to have wider impact (one can only hope).

But before I depart to pastures new in 2016; let me leave you with this one thought – A wildlife hero of mine once told me that to make the biggest impact on the issues faced in conservation and the natural world, all we’d need to do is have a conversation. If we talked to three people, and they in turn talked to three people, and each of those three talked to three more people – we could reach the ears of the whole world with 103 conversation starters. Whatever I do in 2016, I hope to be one of those conversation starters… Who’s ready to be one of the other 102?!

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Reflections on BBC’s ‘Africa’

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“Africa: in the 4 years of making this series we’ve been to some astonishing places and seen animals behaving in ways that have never been filmed before. But Africa has another story to tell. The wildlife of this continent has seen more changes in the last 50 years than it has in the last two million. Changing landscapes and changing climate; today’s animals are facing unprecedented challenges, whilst around them the human population is growing at nearly double the global rate. There is an increasing urgency to understand and, crucially, to conserve the wildlife of this great continent. Today, there is a new generation of naturalists and scientists who are fighting to save the wild places and the animals that live in them. This is the greatest wildlife continent on the planet and what happens here is relevant to us all.” Sir David Attenborough, BBC Africa.

I know it’s been a couple of weeks since the last episode of BBC’s Africa aired (episode 6 – The Future), but to be honest, with my hectic work schedule at the moment, I’ve only just had the chance to sit down and enjoy it.

As a conservationist, this episode with its hugely important message was my favourite episode yet. By taking a look the plight of the Black Rhino – how it’s vanished from Uganda, Rowanda and the fact that there are now less than 600 in Kenya – the show highlighted the fact that poaching for its horns is a senseless act, as the keratin that horns are made of (same material as our hair and nails) is found to have no medicinal value.

My own lucky encounter with 2 black rhino

My own lucky encounter with 2 black rhino

The episode looked also at a triumph of a story – that of the Masaai and lions finding a way to live side by side. The Masaai, who once hunted lions as a rite of passage, have now changed their traditions to protect wild lions. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, another story of human destruction, followed by triumph: that of the last mountain gorillas left on earth. Although there are only around 800 of these gorillas left in the wild, which doesn’t seem a lot, it is a huge increase from the 250, which population numbers were down to at one point. The reason for the animals reaching the brink of extinction like this was the way that farmland was encroaching gorilla territory, and the fact that gorillas have no natural resistance to human disease. The solution therefore was human intervention, funded by Eco-tourism and global donations. This included enforcing boundaries of farming by use of patrol forces, and allowing vets to step in and care for animals where necessary.

Health checks on Lions in Shamwari were of vital importance.

Health checks on Lions in Shamwari were of vital importance.

By looking again at the story of that tragic episode of elephants in times of drought, it showed that the biggest problem for elephants is that during drought times they are left penned in and stuck. In the past, during times of drought elephants would have moved to areas of more water, but as human population grows migration routes have been cut. With education and action, people have stepped in and have come to the rescue. By understanding behaviours and having the will to help, projects have been put in place to link national parks by creating a safe route (in this case an underpass) for elephants to pass through.

Sometimes human intervention is necessary to save elephants

Sometimes human intervention is necessary to save elephants

Finally, the episode looked at the trees of the Congo basin. This section of the programme was very educational to me. I am usually quite aware of animals and wildlife but flora is not my area of expertise.

I was surprised to learn that the whole of the world’s weather is affected by the huge forest there. The vapour from the tropical forests is transported around the world, and that is why the programme calls this a ‘powerhouse behind the planet’s wind and rain’. However, hard wood from the forest is in demand particularly in Europe and China, and so 50% of forest has been allocated for logging.

Africa's landscape is changing

Africa’s landscape is changing

It is evident that the message of this awesome series, ultimately was to appreciate Africa and understand the changes that have to be made to preserve it. We have watched some amazing scenes of never-before-seen animal behaviour during the course of the series and surely that must have reached people far and wide. By witnessing the awesomeness of these animals in a new way we must surely begin to get a sense of wanting to keep them on the planet? The parting message from Sir David Attenborough was that “Saving eco-systems is the key to saving wild Africa” and to me that was the most important message of them all.