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Taking big steps for elephants

So far, this month is shaping up to be an important month for elephants. On the 6th October the UK Government announced plans for a total ban on ivory sale, including pieces pre-dating 1947 — and in the days that followed, Action for Elephants UK led a powerful visual protest outside parliament to urge them to enforce the proposed ban.

Under the newly proposed ban the sale and export of almost all ivory items would be illegal in the UK, with ‘some exemptions’ for musical instruments and items of cultural importance, according to the government.

Although a similar ban was proposed in 2015; earlier this year, changes were announced to exclude antique ivory produced before 1947. To ensure this doesn’t happen again, animal rights campaigners staged a demonstration last weekend to urge Environment Secretary Michael Gove, to maintain his promise of a consultation to end the trade of ivory of all ages.

Activists also used the opportunity to raise awareness of the poaching crisis that is pushing rhinos and elephants to extinction.

african elephant in Shamwari

The striking silent protest saw hundreds of campaigners standing silently in London’s Parliament Square, wearing the same shirts and black arm bands for all the elephants and rhinos that have lost their lives to poaching and the ivory and horn trades.

The event was also attended by Save The Asian Elephant (STAE)’s CEO Duncan McNair, Born Free Foundation’s Will Travers, Angels for the Innocent Ambassador Dan Richardson and Director of powerful new documentary ‘Gods in ShacklesSangita Iyer – all of whom addressed the crowds, alongside Action for elephants UK – who organised the protest.

Duncan McNair from STAE leading silent protest for elephants and rhinos – photo by Antony March

After the demo, the speakers delivered a letter to 10 Downing Street representing over 200 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and MPs concerned for elephant preservation.

The Prime Minister was also addressed in a separate covering letter to express thanks for DEFRAs latest announcement on the ban, and to reiterate the need to enforce it.

“[The covering letter] says we will be working to ensure no watering down of a ban by those pressing for exemptions, such as the antiques trade, and also asking the UK government to take further steps to end the global Ivory trade that has decimated the elephants,” STAE’s Duncan McNair (pictured above) explained to me the morning of the protest.

“And to ensure it can stand at the head of nations at the 2018 conference on the illegal wildlife trade.”

He added “STAE welcomes the good news of a consultation on a UK ban on the ivory trade, but must emphasise that we wish to make sure all goes on track through the consultation to a ban, but moreover that government and all of us must exert influence here but abroad too to ensure all the other desperate dangers that threaten Asian elephants – torture, elephant tourism, destruction of their habitat, etc. – are finally addressed.”

“Our government has enormous influence still and should exert it before it’s too late, and should honour the 2015 manifesto pledge to help India to protect its Asian elephants, reaffirmed in David Cameron‘s Joint Statement with PM Modi at the London Summit in December 2015.”

Dan Richardson leads silent protest for elephants and rhinos at Parliament Square

Also concerned with the plight of the endangered Asian elephants (whose biggest threat is not ivory poaching, but the tourist industry, human-elephant conflict, forced contact with man and urban development – something I have written about previously) is campaigner Dan Richardson (pictured at the protest above).

Dan hosted the European premiere screening of feature-length documentary film Gods in Shackles at the Royal Geographical Society on the evening the protest, joined by filmmaker Sangita Iyer, who was born and raised in Kerala, southern India.

Gods in Shackles is an exposé revealing the dark side of Kerala’s glamorous cultural festivals that exploit temple elephants for profit under the guise of culture and religion.

Temples benefit the most financially from captive elephants in India, and the film showed harrowing scenes of elephants in temples chained so tightly that the injuries from their shackles have wounds on top of wounds – and one elephant was shown to be tethered so forcefully, that he couldn’t even put his foot on the ground.

As Dan stated after the screening; “I believe Gods in Shackles is the turning point”

Gods in Shackles offers hope to the thousands of endangered captive and wild elephants in India by exposing the abhorrent torture they suffer – one particularly gut-wrenching scene from the film showed painful and primitive ‘medical care’ given to one female elephant as her eye was pulled open and popped out by a mahout (elephant keeper) to administer eye drops to an injury consistent with a bull hook to the eye.

By highlighting their suffering, Sangita hopes to inspire key stake holders and policy makers to enhance the living conditions of India’s heritage animal.

Although I had some awareness of the ways that festival elephants are exploited, there were several points in the film that I’d never even heard of before – such as male festival elephants being chemically castrated to stop the production of musth hormones, which can make them a danger to the public and themselves.

From 2012 – 2015, 75 people and 167 elephants were killed during the festival season due to elephants breaking from their mahouts’ command.

I was also surprised to hear of ‘celebrity’ elephants, revered in the temple and festival circuits, which evoke a fierce culture of rivalry. One ‘celebrity elephant’ had razor blades hidden in its food after being targeted over the demise of another elephant.

As someone who grew up in Kerala (which is home to 500-600 captive elephants alone), Sangita explained during an audience question and answer series that she sees her role in making and promoting this film as ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

She wants to empower people with resources to make a change to this situation.

Interestingly, one of the locals in Kerala interviewed in the documentary compared India’s deep cultural connection to elephant festivals with that of slavery in the United States; “The US felt that slavery was part of their culture and it took a war under Abraham Lincoln to end it,” the interviewee says to camera. “Indians feel that this [treatment of elephants] is part of their culture too. It’s not.”

When asked whether children in India are being educated about how elephants are treated, Sangita explained that the state government is going to screen Gods in Shackles through the state channel into every single school in Kerala! Which sounds like an amazing achievement in ‘bridging the cultural gap’.

As Will Travers passionately explained; “Just look at Blackfish; we can change the world through film.”

Grey Future

Also screened at the Royal Geographical Society that evening was the short film ‘Grey Future’, which looks at a future world in which elephants and rhinos have been declared extinct. This powerful piece can be viewed below:

The film’s Writer / Producer Carla Fraser was on hand at the panel talk to advocate the powerful of film, and encourage others to share their conservation messages through this medium.

Find out more about Gods in Shackles, and how you can support campaigns to educate the suffering by visiting godsinshackles.com

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Wetnose Day 2017: A good reason to get tongues and tails wagging!

September holds a very special event on the animal lover’s calendar… I’d like to tell you all about Wetnose Day.

In support of animals in desperate need in the UK, Wetnose Day is the animal-focussed equivalent of Red Nose Day, and sees fundraising events and crazy challenges taking place up and down the country on September 29th – October 1st 2017 — as well as plenty of ‘poses with noses‘!

Posing with noses at the PR launch of Wetnose Day 2017

Wetnose Day was established in the year 2000, to help promote the issue of animal welfare and to raise much needed funds to cover essential food and medical treatments for animals in desperate need in the UK.

It serves as an annual event to draw attention to the year-round work of Wetnose Animal Aid; which helps the lesser well known rescue centres and small groups are the country that get little publicity.

Sir Paul McCartney lends his support to Wetnose Animal Aid

Wetnose Day aims to encourage schools, workplaces, vets, groomers, dog clubs, riding schools (in fact everyone!), to pose with a nose and raise over £100,000 for dedicated rescue centres nationwide and the animals they care for.

Celebrating Wetnose Day 2017 with dog rescuer Gary Edwards, author of ‘Tales of an underdog

Many of these vital rescue centres need support, as there is no government aid, or lottery grants or any other financial assistance, and many do not have £5,000 worth of funds to be become Registered Charity.

Andrea and Gavin Gamby-Boulger set up the unique not for profit organisation having themselves run a boarding/dog rescue centre for 13 years in Norfolk; they sold the kennels to set up Wetnose Animal Aid.

Founder Andrea Gamby-Boulger speaks at the PR launch of Wetnose Day 2017.

Since then Wetnose Animal Aid has raised close to £50,000 and given to small animal rescues centres all over the UK, as well as organising award events to celebrate those otherwise unsung heroes across the UK who dedicate their lives to care for abused, sick and unwanted animals.

“Our team is committed to raising funds to help the animal rescue centres who do wonderful work caring for sick animals, including wildlife, but never get the recognition they truly deserve,” Wetnose Day Founder Andrea Gamby-Boulger says.

“As an ex-kennel owner, I know how stressful it is to care and rescue animals and work 24/7 with no holidays — and to be called out at a moment’s notice.”

The cause has received strong support from leading celebrity and animal campaigners, such as Paul McCartneyBrian May, Tom Hardy, Chris Packham, Paul O’Grady and Amanda Holden, which enabled them to raise thousands of pounds for small and medium-sized animal sanctuaries; ensuring food costs were covered and veterinary treatment went ahead for animals in desperate need.

Britain’s Got Talent’s Pippa Langhorne and her sing-a-long pooch, Buddy, performing to promote Wetnose Day

“Society in general has, for a number of years, been under severe financial stress, which in turn has seen animal welfare suffer as some people may no longer be able to afford to look after their pets,” Andrea explains.

“Wetnose Day plays its part in highlighting animal welfare in the UK and providing vital help and financial support for small animal welfare groups who are at the forefront of animal rescue and care. The knowledge and skills these animal rescue teams have is phenomenal and now is the time to help them.”

Find out how you can get on board to help fundraise — or buy your very own ‘wet nose’ by clicking here.

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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’.

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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.”

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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.