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Chris Packham campaigns against ‘inglorious 12th’ shooting at Crush Cruelty protest

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This past weekend I attended the Crush Cruelty march from Cavendish Square to Downing Street — centred around protecting and supporting British wildlife.

Almost a complementary demonstration to May’s ‘Keep the Ban’ protest against Theresa May’s suggested free vote on lifting the fox hunting ban (the biggest protest of the general election time), this weekend’s march expanded out further, to put badger culling, driven grouse shooting and the dwindling numbers of hen harrier into the spotlight also.

Images from May’s Keep the Ban protest

Growing crowds (perhaps even bigger than the previous march) gathered at Cavendish Square to hear rallying speeches from the likes of writer and environmentalist Mark Avery, former Green Party Leader Natalie Bennett, IFAW‘s Philip Mansbridge, Born Free Foundation‘s Mark Jones, Nigel Tolley of Badger Trust and representatives from Hunt Saboteurs, before setting off through a busy central London spreading the word to the masses.

Natalie Bennett, Former Green Party Leader speaks at Cavendish Square

Mark Jones of Born Free Foundation addresses crowds ahead of the march

The thousands that marched chose the date especially to coincide with the so-called ‘glorious 12th’; referring to the start of the red grouse shooting season taking place in areas of upland moorland over the next few months. A practice know as ‘driven grouse shooting’.

To allow for the perfect conditions for grouse to thrive (so they can ultimately be shot for this cruel and unnecessary practice, which is masqueraded as ‘sport’), predators such as foxes and birds of prey have their numbers ‘managed’ in preparation.

The march ended opposite Downing Street, with a powerful opening speech about the impact of driven grouse shooting and the plight of hen harriers (which have declined in huge numbers due to illegal shooting) from wildlife presenter and passionate campaigner Chris Packham.

Chris Peckham delivers anti grouse shooting speech

Actor and vegan campaigner Peter Egan was next to address the crowds, followed by Born Free Foundation CEO Will Travers, representatives from Hunt Investigation Team and League Against Cruel Sports, and Badger Trust CEO and author of Badgered to Death, Dominic Dyer – showing how many NGOs really did come together to form a Crush Cruelty coalition!

Will Travers addresses the crowds outside Downing Street

Born Free’s Will Travers addresses the crowds outside Downing Street

Dominic Dyer speaks to the huge crowds

Dominic Dyer speaks to the huge crowds

Re-Christening the day the ‘Inglorious 12th‘, further anti-grouse shooting protests took place on moors across the country, including a large protest walk at Ilkley Moor. The day also saw protests outside Tesco stores across the country (including my hometown in Norfolk), calling for Tesco to sever ties with Hogwood ‘Horror Farm’ — a pig farm in Warwickshire that supplies pork to the supermarket chain — known to house over 15,000 pigs in appalling conditions.

The most glorious thing about the 12th August was the mass movement of people standing up for animals.
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Rhino’s Up: One six-year old’s fight to protect the last Northern White Rhinos

Working in conservation and education will always feel like a blessing to me. To see how children react to the issues facing the natural world around them, and to discover time and time again how they seem to intrinsically care about the environment and the wildlife they share it with — it truly fills me with hope and positivity.

One such story that’s started August off on a positive note is that of six-year-old Frankie and his fundraising mission for Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Frankie (pictured above) is on a mission to save rhinos after discovering that there are only three northern white rhinos left in the world.

He decided to launch a fundraising project called ‘RhinosUp to raise £48,000 – the amount that a poached rhino horn might fetch on the black market.

His plan is to create a living sculpture in the shape of a northern white rhino out of bee-friendly plants. Frankie hopes his flowerbed — made in partnership with Fauna & Flora International — will encourage people to think about the plight of rhinos and spread the message that poaching has to end.

Read the full story (and watch Frankie’s video) on National Geographic Kids’ website here.

National geographic kids rhinos up article

Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO said: “I am making a special trip to the UK to meet with Frankie. I am amazed at what this formidable young man has managed to achieve at such a young age.”

“If only the world were made of more people like him, we would not be facing the extinction crisis that we currently are. The northern white rhinos need all the help they can get, and what Frankie is doing will make a huge difference in how we protect them and for the survival of the species.”

Well done Frankie!

For more information on Frankie’s ‘RhinosUp’ project, and to donate online, visit www.rhinosup.com

 

Want to know more about rhino horn poaching?

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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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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 lesser known, and spoken of, are the desperate threats facing Asian elephants.

Astonishingly, the surviving population of Asian elephants is barely 5% of 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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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 dolphin shows in captivity, and most destined to make their way into the meat trade.

Dolphins in captivity performing for the general public

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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A homage to the memory of Tilikum, and a promise to myself

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It’s easy to think, after all the media coverage of ‘2016: the year of death’, that it was the worst start to a year that we have had in this country for a while; kicked off by the passing of David Bowie on the 10th January, two days after his 69th birthday. 

Though I felt terrible sadness at the loss of a musical hero, who will tie quite deeply into this story later (more on that to come), I remember the previous year starting off far worse. 

On the Wednesday 7th January 2015, at approximately 10.30am I had just finished signing off that week’s Primary School news bulletin at Discovery Education when my BBC breaking news alert pinged. The story read that the office of a satirical French newspaper had been stormed by gun men. Returning to work after their Christmas break, heads full of January thoughts and imminent news deadlines (just like mine), the editor and staff at Charlie Hebdo barely had time to register what was happening, let alone react. 

One eyewitness account said that someone thought the gunman was a person staging a ‘joke hold up’ and laughed, before gun shots and screams broke the mood. Ten journalists and two policemen were killed that morning.

Journalists and news editors, people like myself, were angry. They killed the messengers. The public was outraged ‘they killed the cartoonists, they killed the funny guys!’ was one quote that stuck out to me. If memory serves, the Big Issue penned that one.

‘We won’t let terrorists win’, ‘pencils are stronger than bullets’, ‘Je Suis Charlie’ were some of the protest slogans I remember reading. 2015 had started with a very literal bang, and for one moment in time; we all stood up, stood together

and gave a shit.

charlie-hebdo

What does this have to do with the passing of Tilikum, I hear you ask? 

The mood of Britain was rocked and on edge. People gathered in their masses four days later at Trafalgar Square, pledged their allegiance to France, shouting their right to free speech. The streets of London felt alive with the absolute opposite of apathy. 

Six days later; one weekend on from London’s Unity March, and once again London’s streets were filled with angry people of all ages, exercising their right to speak up and be heard. This time it was a different kind of terrorist in the firing line. A terrorist that uses ropes, hoists, imprisonment in glass tanks, and funds their work with a cashflow from unsuspecting tourists. We stood once again on the steps of Trafalgar Square, and this time called out ‘Je Suis Tilikum’.

IMG_6832Me, at the anti Sea World protest in 2015

“I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”

Empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove. These were our messages that day. Riding a wave of protest that my fellow journalists; slaughtered at their day jobs, had created. We rode that wave for Tilikum, a whale who hadn’t ridden a wave himself in 32 years at that point. 

I was 24 years only at the protest. Tilikum was 34. He has 10 more years on me. And I thought about that a lot. All the great things I’d done in my life. 

Tilikum came to Sea World in 1992, when I was two years old. I was probably just getting to grips with walking a few steps and talking a few simple sentences back then. All the things I’ve done in my life since then… and Tilikum has been in the same tiny part of Sea World‘s Florida park, in the same tank, swimming in the same circles with the same view, day in, day out. All. That. Time.

A wild orca can swim up to 100 miles a day in the wild. A wild killer whale with 10 extra years on me should have a hell of a lot more life experience.

kate snowdon photoA wild orca I encountered in South Africa

I encountered Tilikum once. In real life, in person. Summer 1999, and I was nine years old, on a family holiday to Orlando. These were the days before social media ruled the Internet, before I could sit and read National Geographic from cover to cover, before Blackfish was a documentary that existed to be watched and shared hundreds and thousands of times. 

It felt like an innocent day of family fun, and my overwhelming feeling was that I loved this incredible killer whale and the way he could perform with his ‘carers’ so carefully and gently. I don’t think you can get away with that level of naivety in today’s Information Age. Tilikum was driven mad by his captivity and is now known to have killed three people.

Including his Sea World trainer, in the pool, in front of an audience.

001A family holiday snap from 1999.

Dominic Dyer addressed the crowds back at Trafalgar Square in January 2015, and quoted the words of Charlie Hebdo’s murdered editor “I would rather die standing, than live on my knees”.

I felt the fire in my belly and I vowed to stand for that poor, disturbed, incredibly intelligent orca that I’d seen behind the glass all those years ago.IMG_6843See Dominic Dyer’s full speech and my coverage of the march that day here. 

“Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

There’s a second part to this story. Fast forward one year from the empty the tanks protest, to January 2016. Almost a year to the exact day, David Bowie passed away after a private battle with cancer. 

About a week on, we were back on the streets of London again, this time protesting outside the Japanese embassy.

A crowd, as big as the year before, marched through the streets once more with the message: empty the tanks; close down Sea World; stop the slaughter of dolphins at Taiji Cove.

These three causes are completely interlinked; Taiji Cove is where wild dolphins are rounded up in Japan every year and killed by spears for meat consumption, or the most handsome specimens are captured to be sold into a life in tanks at marine parks like Sea World. 

imageFor those who know little about the annual dolphin slaughter at Taiji, Japan, I would highly recommend watching the Academy Award-winning documentary; The Cove. 

As powerful as Blackfish, this tells the story of the other marine mammal that’s most commonly associated with captive performances alongside human trainers; the bottlenose dolphin. 

Significantly, just before the credits on this powerful documentary roll, the song ‘Heroes‘ by David Bowie concludes the film. 

“I, I wish you could swim. Like the dolphins, like dolphins can swim”

I’m reliably told that the artist, knowing the activist film makers were on a low budget, charged as little as he could get away with for the licensing of the song to be used in the film. Despite his affection for Japan, he risked his reputation with the country for the cause of the dolphins.

See my full coverage of the 2016 march here. 

As January kicks off once again with a personally significant loss; this time the passing of creature whose gaze I once met through thick glass many years ago, I vow to stand up once again, and let my voice be heard.

The annual Taiji dolphin drive slaughter is in full swing once more its season running from September to March, and once again the waters of the Cove will run red with blood, and the ‘lucky’ dolphins who survive the massacre will be sold on to marine park shows across the world to face the same fate as Tilikum. Driven mad in a tiny glass prison.

I promise, to Tilikum, that as long as marine mammals are kept in tanks, I will continue to stand against it.

I will stand, until they can swim free. 

3

Taking the lions’ share: Cecil the lion’s legacy

CITES 2016 has drawn to a close. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora held its 17th meeting in Johannesburg over the last month, and the conference — heralded as the most critical meeting in its 43-year history — delivered some surprising results.

Good news for pangolins (the most trafficked wildlife species, owing to their scales being used in traditional Asian medicine), who were uplisted to receive Appendix 1 protection, i.e. a total ban on international trade except for non-commercial import, such as scientific research.

A mixed result for elephants, as although they were not uplisted to Appendix 1, further talks to open the case for legalising the sale of ivory were quickly closed down, with parties unanimously voting to prevent a decision making mechanism for future trade.
cites-bannerI have previously written about the debate surrounding rhino horn, and, happily, CITES parties rejected Swaziland’s request to trade in white rhino horn, which to me was supported simply to allow rhino farmers to profit from long collected stockpiles of horns.

But in this Born Free Foundation’s Year of the Lion, I was particularly tuned in to the plight of lions. In the lead up to CITES, there were calls for the 182 Member Countries to uplist lions to Appendix 1, which would effectively ban all commercial international trade in lions and parts and products derived from them, and place far greater restrictions on the trophy hunting industry.

Instead of Appendix 1, however, a compromise agreement was reached banning only the trade in bones, teeth and claws from wild lions. Therefore, those coming from captive-bred lions can still be legally sold — which means the export of trophies from lion hunting, or canned hunting, remains legal.

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I must admit, I’m shocked at this decision, not just because of the all PR that the shocking practice of trophy hunting received via Cecil’s story, but because the population numbers of lions speak for themselves.

In 1900, there were as many as 1 million lions across Africa; today there are thought to be less than 20,000 wild lions across the whole continent. There are fewer than 2,000 wild lions left in Kenya, only 2,800 in South Africa, and numbers have declined 66% in 15 years in Tanzania.

When reasoning that both elephants and rhinos are wildly recognised as under threat, and their population numbers are at 40,000 [wild elephants] and 25,000 [wild rhinos] across Africa, it seems crazy to think that lion numbers are at 20,000 individuals, and yet hunters are still invited to kill thousands every year and vast tracts are reserved for hunting.

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The species is under so much pressure that — in a silver lining to the CITES outcome — Botswana announced it would voluntarily treat its lions as though the Appendix 1 vote had been approved; making trade in all lion parts illegal within the country. The Environment Minister of Botswana, The Honourable Tsekedi Khama, released a statement during CITES, before the plight of the lions was formally discussed saying:

Botswana currently hosts a fair number of lions and we have made a conscious decision that we will not entertain holding any captive carnivores in the country. And the decision was made because it just becomes a habit, an easy area of trade. The more we don’t manage and protect our wildlife, the more they are subject to abuse. My concern is that if we don’t uplist lions to Appendix 1 we run a very real risk of lions eventually being hunted and traded as body parts by unscrupulous people around the world, into extinction.”

The thing that struck a chord with me the most from his statement is the idea that Botswana will not have any captive carnivores within their country. I recently read an interview with Born Free Foundation President Will Travers in Geographical Magazine in which he suggested that wild lions, as we might traditionally think of them; roaming free within protected areas, stalking their prey, etc. could be entirely replaced with lions that exist within fenced areas where every aspect of their lives is intensively managed.

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Within the same interview, Travers seemed to have forecast the outcome of CITES 2016; in explaining that the conference does not concern itself with conservation threats, such as habitat fragmentation, conflict resolution or loss of prey base — it can only apply itself to the impacts of international trade. “There isn’t enough evidence that international trade is the threat”, Travers is quoted as saying, “As we see lion populations decline, so we’re seeing trade in lion parts and derivatives, both legal and illegal, going up significantly from both wild and captive-bred lions.”

After CITES

Looking ahead, I’m interested in knowing what we can do to help protect and preserve lions in the wild, as they should be, between now and the next CITES meeting in 2019. I interviewed lion expert Brent Stapelkamp, who spent nearly a decade working on the Hwange Lion Research Project with the University of Oxford’s WildCRU and whose study subjects included the now infamous Cecil the lion.

Brent saw Cecil the lion’s killing as a chance to talk about conservation efforts to tackle the many threats that lions face, and with a small team of equally passionate individuals, re-visited a concept born 15 years ago, by chimpanzee expert Dr NishidaWorld Heritage Species.

The concept is for UNESCO to create World Heritage Species in the way that it establishes World Heritage Sites for areas of historical significance and/or outstanding natural beauty. “Basically, it’s a global recognition that lions have been too much part of our evolutionary and cultural history to lose,” he explained, “and for that recognition to be used to protect them and generate the massive international funding needed to save their landscapes.”

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It would mean “hands off, this animal belongs to the world and is too precious for a select few to hunt or appreciate,” Brent added. “A long lasting sense that at least somethings are sacred.”

The advantage to investing in an apex predator like a lion is that they are an umbrella species and their survival will mean the survival of their prey and habitats too.

The Cecil legacy

I asked Brent what he thought it was about Cecil, who he had tracked for years, that captured the world’s attention when he was hunted. Cecil had been radio-tracked and studied by Oxford University’s team since 2008 as part of a long-term wild lion research project. But he was lured away from the protection of Hwange National Park, shot by a bow and arrow and reportedly died 40 hours later.

“Cecil’s demise was not a unique event and indeed I saw maybe a dozen such hunts during my decade. I think what made it “blow up” was that those that work around here, be they safari guides, lodge owners or researcher, just said enough is enough. Not again! This hunt was the straw that broke the donkeys back and a lot of people worked very hard to make sure the story saw the light of day. The world just needed to hear it and the rest was, I believe, a natural manifestation around the global attachment to lions.”

The sentiment of this was recently echoed by Mark Jones, Associate Director of Wildlife Policy at Born Free Foundation, who is quoted as saying: “until very recently, everybody seemed to think that there were loads of lions in Africa. What the Cecil incident did was bring to people’s consciousness the reality that these animals are actually being shot by rich Westerners paying lots of money”.

Cecil the Lion

Cecil the Lion

Several countries have been inspired to take significant action since Cecil’s death. France announced a ban on lion trophy imports in November 2015, and in April 2016, The Netherlands announced a ban on the import of hunting trophies from around 200 species, including lions. In January 2016, the US Fish and Wildlife Service added lions to the Endangered Species Act, making it more difficult for American lion trophy hunters to ship their trophies home.

But even Cecil’s story is not without its conflict amongst conservationists. Stapelkamp explained in our conversation that it was common practice to name their study subjects at Oxford. “It was based on the fact that it was easy to speak about Cecil or Jericho than MAGM1 or GUVbM2; their database identities. Guides and members of the public wouldn’t know what you were on about. We enjoyed naming them too. Some had a lot to do with each personality of the story behind them.”

The concept of naming animals has always divided opinion. Renowned ecologist and lion expert, Craig Packer finds the whole idea of naming lions bizarre. “Normally lions are called things like MH3T or lion LGB,” he said in a recent Guardian article.

“The Cecil story tells me that we, as a species, can only show empathy with individual organisms.”

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

Craig Packer chairing a debate at the Royal Geographical Society in London

But nonetheless, Cecil’s story has helped Packer to lobby the US and EU for control of trophy imports, and he has asked the EU to take into account the corruption in Tanzania and consider banning all trophies from there.

The canned hunting dilemma

“The hunting industry is scared to death they’ll lose the lion.” This sentence, said by Craig Packer at the 2004 CITES conference — where he argued against animal welfare groups that trophy hunting has an indisputable impact on population numbers of wild lions — pretty much sums up the conflict that prevents lions from gaining Appendix 1 CITES protection.

“While your arguments may be flawed, I agree that trophy hunters should be kept on a tight leash.” He reportedly added, back at that 2004 meeting.

Packer, who has since been banned from entering Tanzania for speaking out against corruption in the trophy hunting industry, first went there to study baboons with legendary primatologist Jane Goodall. Since then, he has dedicated his life to study lions.

His book, Lions in the Balance: Man-Eaters, Manes, and Men with Guns, reflects on studies of lions carried out to see whether the trophy hunting industry harms the local populations with its continuous removal of adult males: causing frequent takeovers and infanticide (killing of other males’ cubs) by replacement males, who in turn live only until the next hunting season, and are then shot and replaced themselves.

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He champions regulating hunting using a minimum age (a male should be at least 6 years old before it is hunted) instead of quotas. “In the long term, there is no conflict between business and conservation,” he writes in his book. “Lions are like a crop. Look after them properly, and you can harvest more of them, making lots more money. Just be patient and let the lions grow up.”

To me personally, the exploitation of lions in this way leaves the door open to the same amount of animal welfare issues, as selling off rhino horn stocks and farming rhinos. But Packer believes hunting could provide the best incentive for conserving vast tracks of land.

This is something that Born Free’s Mark Jones has drawn attention to, citing in Geographical Magazine that we don’t understand animal populations well enough to understand what the value of an individual is to its population — regardless of its breeding age — as breeding isn’t the only thing that social animals, like elephants and lions, bring to their population.

He also argues against giving value to trophy hunting outfitters, as he believes that land management will inevitably then prioritise providing trophies over benefiting wider biodiversity — which is essentially what the entire ‘canned hunting’ industry is (i.e. shooting lions in the ‘can’; enclosed areas of unregulated conditions).

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Packer, at a recent event I attended at the Royal Geographical Society in London, also confessed to having seen photos of lion farms where conditions are ‘far below the reasonable minimum standard’.  “Whatever you think of someone who pays to shoot a lion,” he said, “the conditions those lions are kept in have no regulation and should have a minimum standard.”

Even though Packer doesn’t agree that trophy hunting has to necessarily impact the population of wild lions, he does suggest that the hunting industry greatly exaggerates its ‘positive’ impact on wildlife conservation, stating that ‘hunters lie’.

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 “A lot of clients head off into the bush believing that their $50,000 will save the world — when in fact virtually none of that money goes to conservation and the true costs of conservation are far higher.”

According to Mark Jones, the actual data suggests that only around 3% of the money generated by trophy hunting  actually ends up at the community level for development. During one area of Craig Packer’s research, he surveyed 26 villages from Mount Kilimanjaro to the shores of Lake Victoria, and found almost no benefits to local communities from either ecotourism or trophy hunting.

Other threats to the African lion

Canned hunting isn’t the only threat that lions face. Habitat loss has caused the numbers of traditional ‘lion prey’ — herbivores such as zebra, wildebeest and buffalo — to drop by as much as 52% in East Africa, and 85% in West Central Africa.

As prey becomes harder to find, some lions have instead turned to preying on livestock, which can have a major impact on small-scale African farmers. To these people, cattle can represent a life’s savings — creating a direct human-lion conflict, which often leads on to retaliatory killing.

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Packer has encountered lions poisoned with rat poison as intolerance grows. The people poisoning the lions live in fear, or hatred, as the predators have eaten their husbands, wives or children.

As a result, he favours the South African system of conservation, with wildlife effectively kept behind fences and strict regulation. Indeed he ‘unwild’ wild that Will Travers predicted may be the future for the African Lion. “It may feel controlled and over-managed, but it works”, Packer says “and people do not get killed.”

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Solutions

After viewing the issue from all angles, it seems that over the next few years, there will be tough times ahead for Africa’s most iconic predator. “I do think that academia sometimes gets lost within itself and the production of papers, etc. can distract from conservation work,” Stapelkamp contemplates, “that has to be guarded against”.

He has set up a new initiative, The Soft Foot Alliance trust with wife Laurie to help mitigate conflict between man and lion, hyena, elephant, baboon and honey-badger. The aim is to improve local people’s everyday lives with conservation outcomes cleverly designed into each action.

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The positive is that even scientists who remain at odds in their approach ultimately reach a very similar solution. Brent and the World Heritage Species initiative position themselves as neither an organisation, nor an NGO (non-governmental organisation, i.e. non-profit, or charity), but a grass roots, ‘citizen campaign’ and believes that NGOs, such as the Born Free Foundation and research scientists, like Packer can successfully work together under a common goal, like the WHS movement.

“Unless we find a common direction we speak different languages and aim for different targets, and to be quite frank, we can’t afford to waste time anymore.”

Even Packer, who has expressed that ‘animal groups tend to seem religious’, concedes “There are two sides to every argument and both sides are right on certain points.”

“The wider solution is for the world to recognise that the great African wildlife reserves are true world heritage sites and that their protection should be paid out of global funds. They are world treasures yet UNESCO gives no money – there’s no revenue at all. A lot of people have been duped into thinking that just by being a tourist or a hunter, it is enough. It’s not.”

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If you want to sign the petition that calls on the United Nations to establish a World Heritage Species program, you can do so HERE. Keep up-to-date with WHS by following them on Facebook.

Learn more about CITES 2016

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