For the Conservation Curious

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Caribbean Conservation March 20, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — newdomino @ 1:23 PM
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I arrived home from a week in St. Kitts to see over a foot of snow on the ground. That was quite a rude awakening. It made me long for the warm, breezy days on the beach, watching the palm trees gently sway. St. Kitts is a beautiful place and a welcome respite from the winter blahs, but there were a few things that made me pause.

Monkey Business

St. Kitts is home to vervet monkeys (also known as African green monkeys), which ended up there via colonists from France and/or England sometime in the 17th century. I saw many of these monkeys roaming free along the beach and in the mountains. I also saw them in cages along the roadside, where signs said to pay a donation for taking a photo. There were also men walking the public beaches with baby monkeys in diapers. They charged tourists for a photo op with the monkey on their head.

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One of our cab drivers (you need to rely on these guys to get just about anywhere on the island) told us that the baby monkeys are stolen from their mothers (who are tranquilized) when they are very young so that they then “attach” themselves to their human captors. Most people are unaware of this, so I want to share that anyone who pays for a photo with these monkeys is helping to fuel a cruel practice. Give your kids a better gift than that. The Animal Rights Foundation of Florida also says that these monkeys are rounded up and shipped to the U.S. for animal testing. They offer humane solutions for keeping the monkey population in check. Visit their website for more info.

Dwindling Corals?

One day we spent an hour snorkeling near shipwreck bay, toward the southern portion of the island on the Caribbean side. I’ve only snorkeled one other time in my life – near San Juan, Puerto Rico, so I can’t vouch for home bad or good the snorkeling was there. I loved it anyway, as I saw myriad species of fish, a few different types of sea urchin, and a few lonely coral. It was the lack of corals that I found unusual. I wondered why that was. Walking along the beach later on, I noticed a lot of dead coral pieces, including whole brain corals and large pieces of staghorn corals. It was a bit disheartening. St. Kitts is not alone in experiencing coral bleaching and death. The Ocean Agency tracks global coral bleaching events. Their website does not paint a pretty picture. The bleaching is due to several factors, among them ocean acidification from climate change. Now may be the time to visit extensive corals like the Great Barrier Reef, as they may lose their splendor in the future.

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Staying Optimistic

I am a pessimist by trade but I’m trying to keep an open mind to the fate of islands like St. Kitts. They have some national parks, eco centers, and eco-tourism that are helping to preserve beautiful places like their rain forests, rocky shores, and beaches, as well as protect the many bird and reptile species from introduced predators like the mongoose. I added six new bird species to my life bird list (out of 10 total species), and probably would have had a few more if I was better at identifying bird calls. St. Kitts’ landscape was dominated by sugar cane as recently as the early 2000s. It is slowly growing back into a more natural state. If people continue to care about the land and all the creatures and plants that inhabit it, hopefully it will continue to thrive and impress tourists and natives alike.

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All photo by Jessica Sprajcar Aiello, 2017.

 

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Goods News / Bad News for Species December 23, 2016

Although it’s the holiday season and I should write about cute puppy dogs with bows and ribbons, there were two stories I saw in the last week that I am compelled to write about. One is rather dreary, the other gives me a bit of hope. Since you’re supposed to tell someone two nice things before you break the bad news, I’ll start with the positive story…

Many news outlets discussed the discovery of many new species in the Greater Mekong Area of China. These included a frog that sings like a bird, a blind fish, a walking catfish, and 123 others. So to me, the fact that in 2016 we are still discovering new species is amazing, especially those on land. I’m sure there are thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of new species in the deep sea… but those will be much more difficult to find and catalogue. There are most likely myriad insect species that we don’t know about too, but again, their small size makes them more elusive. The world is still ripe for discovery.

And yet, Nick Cox, manager of the World Wildlife Fund’s Greater Mekong Species Program said, “The good news is new discoveries. The bad news is that it is getting harder and harder in the world of conservation and environmental sustainability.” Just as these species are discovered, they are under threat. That is downer statement number one.

Number two is that scientists are warning that the species extinction crisis is far worse than previously thought. CNN has a great interactive story (videos, charts, etc.) about it here. They discuss the five causes that are speeding up the process: climate change, agriculture, wildlife crime (i.e. poaching), pollution, and disease. That’s a lot to keep you up at night if you care about animals.

However, they offer solutions to help us slow the crisis. And I’d like to offer a thought or two as well.

  • People have the capacity to do great harm to the planet, but we have as equally great a capacity to help and heal the earth.
  • By recognizing the problems, we can develop solutions for them.
  • Iconic species like the rhino and elephant, and even the giraffe, which scientists say are in a downward population spiral, grab people’s attention and pull on their heart strings. By protecting them, we protect other less charismatic species too.
  • No matter how gloomy the news has been this year, and it has indeed been downright apocalyptic at times, we have to keep faith that things change… sometimes at a glacial pace… but they do change. I’ll hope for the best.

(Photo collage from The Telescope)

 

When is Human-Wildlife Interaction too Much? October 10, 2014

Filed under: Science — newdomino @ 11:58 AM
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On the National Geographic website today I saw a post about a shark photo that has gone viral – it was taken by a school teacher, Amanda Brewer, in a cage off the coast of South Africa. The story asks whether or not these close encounters are dangerous for the sharks. Will they start to associate the smell of bait fish with humans, thus becoming less fearful of us and perhaps more aggressive? Will our actions change the natural behavior of a species? And if it happens with sharks, does it happen in other circumstances too, like when tourists swim with dolphins or manatees, or in areas with frequent whale watching boat tours?


Photo credit – Amanda Brewer

That made me wonder… can we be so interested in seeing and learning about a species that we ultimately cause its demise? I’ve heard stories about people loving an area until it’s ruined – a popular hiking trail through a forest can become so degraded by too many people using it that the reason why people came there in the first place is destroyed. It’s easier to envision a specific location becoming degraded, but think about the behavior of an animal in a zoo. I can recall trips to the Pittsburgh Zoo in the early 80s, when the bears and other large animals were still behind bars and visitors would feed them popcorn and other junk food. Those animals no longer acted like their wild counterparts… they would pace back in forth in front of the bars, or sit up and beg for scraps. Unfortunately there are still non AZA-accredited “zoos” in the U.S. that look like that (I’ll be nice and not name names… at least in this post).

That is a very confined scenario, with thousands of human-animal interactions, so looking at it from a nature standpoint isn’t a one-to-one correlation, but I think there could be some parallels. People flock to certain places in Florida to swim with manatees. If you do a quick Google search you’ll find many companies there that offer the opportunity. The list of rules shown below is from the VisitFlorida website. How likely do you think people are to obey all these rules, or do some visitors bend them? Manatees are gentle, slow moving mammals. If they become habituated to the presence of humans the worst thing that will happen to them – and it’s bad, no lie – is that they could have more collisions with boats, possibly resulting in their injury or death. But if a great white shark becomes habituated to people, the tables are turned… it may be us that are at greater threat of death.

I love manatees, dolphins and even sharks. I love pretty much any animal I can think of, although some more than others certainly. But I can love them at a distance. If I’m going to see a manatee in the wild than I expect it to act that way, wild. The same goes for any wild creature. Let’s not love a species so much that it becomes unnatural. We have our domesticated animals for that.

 

Green Czech Republic October 3, 2014

On Tuesday I received some excellent news… I was selected as the team leader for the Rotary District 7390 Group Study Exchange trip to the Czech Republic and Slovakia this coming spring. I’ll lead four communications and journalism professionals on a one-month educational visit to these two countries, visiting Rotary Clubs and cultural sites along the way. I went on a similar trip, as a team member, to Germany five years ago and it was a life-changing experience. I know this will be similar, although more challenging with the added responsibilities as leader, but I’m looking forward to it all.

In honor of this upcoming adventure, I wanted to blog a bit about the environmental and conservation-related aspects of the Czech Republic. I ran across some of this information as I prepared for my interview, and have added further information that I found since then:
• According to the Czech Republic’s environmental agency, the Czech people ranks sixth in the European Union in packaging recycling and are the leaders in the EU for reusing materials from new products and energy generation (a whopping 68%!!).

• They have six UNESCO Biosphere Reserves, which are areas of the country set aside for natural resource management. There are more than 600 reserves in 119 countries across the globe.

• Unlike our country, they have ratified the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and ratified the Kyoto Protocol, committing their country to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and acting against climate change.
• They are above the EU average for the number of acres of organic farms in the country (10.5% of their total ag lands).
• More than 71 percent of the forests in the Czech Republic are certified as sustainably managed.

Not everything is rosy in terms of the environment there. No country is perfect. They deal with air and water pollution from industry, habitat loss and impacts to species, and other issues, but those are common to just about every developed nation. But they are trying hard to clean up sins of the past and move into a more sustainable future.

Of course there is so much about the Czech Republic that I am excited to see. Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, and since it wasn’t bombed during WWII, much of the old architecture remains intact. In Germany I saw a lot of restored churches, castles and other buildings… now I’ll get to see the real deal. Plus the Czech Republic is the birthplace of pilsner beer, so I won’t go thirsty while I’m there. My trip is still many, many months away, so my excitement will continue to blossom. Na shledanou (goodbye in Czech)!

 

Would You Eat an Insect to Save the Planet? August 27, 2014

In my last two blog posts I discussed eating a diet more closely attuned to vegetables and fruits, rather than meat. In the U.S., where fruits and veggies are plentiful (unless you live in an urban food desert, of course), it’s easy to live a vegetarian lifestyle. However, what are people to do in places where droughts, expensive fertilizers and lack of viable seeds make growing their foods a challenge? How can they obtain enough protein for their family members when raising livestock is a privilege of the more affluent?

If the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has its way, those people will eat more insects. And perhaps we in the U.S. will follow suit?

In 2013, the FAO published a report, “Edible insects: Future prospects for food and feed security”. In the report they estimate that at least two billion people worldwide make insects part of their regular diet. Eating insects, known as entomophagy, is practiced from Australia to Africa to Asia, but tends to skip places like Europe and North America, aside from novelty snack items like cricket lollipops. Are we missing out on a diverse and tasty source of protein? The report notes that 1,900 different kinds of insects have been documented as being edible, from caterpillars to grasshoppers to flies and ants.

The FAO wants more people to eat more insects for a variety of reasons, but the underlying reason is this – the population continues to grow and unless we find new ways to feed people, more and more people will go hungry. Eating insects is a way to fill those hunger gaps. Insects are an inexpensive source of protein that doesn’t come with the high cholesterol, fats and other harmful substances that meat may have. If insects were grown on farms like other livestock, the environmental impacts would be much lower than those animals. The greenhouse gas emissions from insect rearing are lower, the waste generated is less damaging, the inputs needed to feed the insects are much fewer, and they can be raised on a much smaller scale than animals like cows, thus reducing the amount of land converted.

Yet how can we get past the “gross factor”? If eating insects is to take off in any way in the developed world, that is a significant hurdle to jump. Insects are viewed as creepy and dirty. They are a pest of our foods, not a food themselves. The report does address what they call the “disgust factor” and ways to overcome it. They believe that the opposition to eating insects stems in large part from the western view that eating insects is a desperate act of the very hungry, not a conscious decision of people to eat well. They note that arthropods like lobster and shrimp were once seen as “poor man’s food” in the West, but now are sought after. I’d like to point out that spiders are arthropods… so really, are we that far away from eating insects if we eat relatives of spiders?

I ate a couple meal worms once in a chili. I don’t think I chewed them, and I tried not to think too hard about what they were as they went down. It was a novelty act; something done so I could say I did it. Would I eat insects on a regular basis, given that there are so many other choices of things to eat? I’m not sure. I appreciate the fact that they are more environmentally-friendly than other sources of protein. I like that they are lower on the food chain, so they are healthier for me and don’t raise the moral guilt issues as much as I get from eating fish. But I think they would have to be highly disguised in order for me to eat them with any enjoyment. For instance, there is a product called cricket flour, made from ground up crickets. If that was added to a brownie, that might be ok, but could I eat a fried cricket, legs and all, doubtful!

If you’ve eaten insects and enjoyed it, let us know. What was it and how was it prepared? Were you on vacation overseas or somewhere in the U.S.? I’m curious to know your impressions. Thanks!

To read the full FAO report, go to http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/i3253e/i3253e00.htm.

 

Don’t Cross the Extinction Threshold August 7, 2014

Over the past few weeks I have read articles about some species on the brink of extinction, their numbers dwindling in the low thousands or even hundreds. At what point does a species have no chance of recovery? Does it vary depending on whether the species is a mammal, bird, plant or otherwise? I thought I’d look into those questions and discuss what I’ll call the “extinction threshold” – the point of no return for a species.

Small populations of any species are generally at a much greater risk of extinction than large populations for several reasons. With fewer individuals there is a greater chance of inbreeding and the issues that creates. Small populations feel random variations in birth and death rates much more significantly than a large population would. And environmental fluctuations like predation, disease, and natural disasters take a much greater toll on small populations than large ones. Imagine if one wolf died out of a population of 100, that’s 10 percent. In a population of 1,000 wolves, however, that’s only 0.1 percent. Quite a difference! It’s like a slippery slope… once a species starts to decline those factors weigh more and more heavily on the population, leading to even greater declines.

So is there hope for a species that is sliding quickly down the slope towards extinction? Shaffer (1981) coined the term “minimum viable population” (MVP) to refer to the “smallest isolated population (of a given species in a given habitat) having a 99 percent chance of remaining in existence for 1,000 years. Populations smaller than the MVP are at significant risk of sliding down the slope to extinction. It can be difficult to determine where that MVP line is… and that is far too technical to get into here… but just know that it exists.

What really matters in terms of the long-term viability of small populations is their ability to disburse. If individuals from a small population can leave their habitat and find a new population of the same species to breed with, then there may be a chance for survival. This immigration brings more genetic diversity to both populations. However, given how habitats are fragmented by roads, transmission lines, housing developments and other man-made structures, many small populations don’t have the luxury of moving to find new mates.

Back to my question about “does it depend on whether a species is a mammal, plant, etc.”, well it depends. It depends on where that species is located, more than anything. But a bird would more easily be able to fly to a new habitat than a small rodent could crawl to one, and a lizard can get up and go far more easily than a plant (obviously plants can’t move, but they can spread their pollen and seeds, thus spreading their genetics on the wind or water). The more easily a species can get around in general, the greater are its chances in beating the “extinction threshold.”
Then there is the species’ charisma factor. Think about a cute, fluffy pike (a small, bunny-like create of alpine habitats) versus a poisonous snake. If you could only protect one of them from going extinct, which one would you choose. A majority, I will guess, would choose the pika, even though they will probably never see one in real life. Why is that? Because it is cuddly and charismatic. So if a species is attractive people may be more likely to try and help it survive, which would keep it above the “extinction threshold,” at least for a little while longer.

 

Wine for the Conservation Curious July 16, 2014

I am a big fan of wine – reds in the winter (Malbec and Cab Sauv. being my favs), whites in the summer (Pinot Gris. and Sauv. Blanc preferred). I like craft beer too but drinking more than a couple of those can leave me feeling so heavy and full. Wines are a much lighter feeling, more easily drinkable alternative and they go better with a nice meal. Sometimes I wonder though about the environmental impacts of drinking wine. Am I contributing to some horrible habitat impacts when I down a glass of the alcoholic grape juice?

So I decided to do a little digging that will clue me in and perhaps educate you as well…

Wine Spectator magazine had some helpful information that I have summarized here:

There are two types of organic listings on wine bottles. Wines can be made from certified organically grown grapes, avoiding any synthetic additives, or, to take it a step further, “organic” wines are made from organically grown grapes, and are also made without any added sulfites (though naturally occurring sulfites will still be present).
The term “biodynamic” is similar to organic farming in that both take place without chemicals, but biodynamic farming incorporates ideas about a vineyard as an ecosystem, and also accounting for things such as astrological influences and lunar cycles. A biodynamic wine means that the grapes are farmed biodynamically, and that the winemaker did not make the wine with any common manipulations such as yeast additions or acidity adjustments. A wine “made from biodynamic grapes” means that a vintner used biodynamically grown grapes, but followed a less strict list of rules in winemaking.

“Sustainability” refers to a range of practices that are not only ecologically sound, but also economically viable and socially responsible. Some third-party agencies offer sustainability certifications, and many regional industry associations are working on developing clearer standards.

Got that? You may also see the term “natural” on a bottle of wine but that’s about as helpful as seeing it on a box of crackers or a tube of toothpaste. The term “natural” is unregulated so it lacks any meaning. Sure, lead is natural but I certainly don’t want it in any product I ingest or put on my body. So don’t fall for the greenwashing there.

I haven’t noticed a large number of organic or biodynamic wines in the local liquor store, but there does seem to be an emerging niche for them. Just because a wine comes from organic grapes doesn’t necessarily mean that is environment-neutral (the vineyard could have been placed on prime habitat for wildlife or the wine was shipped a thousand miles via aircraft to get to your door) but it can be a better alternative than one made from traditionally-grown grapes. According to an article in Slate, the best bet to be environmentally-friendly when drinking wine is to avoid purchasing any wine in a bottle that had to be flown to get where you live. You would think that would make it quite difficult to enjoy a wide variety of wines if you live on the east coast of the U.S. but that’s actually not true. Most international wines are shipped via container ship, so it’s better to purchase a bottle from Europe than it is to buy one from California, where it would have been shipped, most likely, via airplane or truck – both of which have higher emissions and greater carbon footprint. That’s excellent news for Bordeaux lovers!

Another way to balance your wine consumption with your environmental footprint is to purchase wine in bulk… and yes, I mean via the box. Boxed wine doesn’t have the heavy glass bottle that contributes to more carbon emissions. The box itself may be recycled in some areas. You get more wine for your buck so you don’t have to drive to the store as often. The wine stays fresher much longer so there’s less chance of waste. And nowadays the wine in those boxes can be just as high quality as many bottled wines. What’s not to like?

Now that I’ve given you plenty of reasons to enjoy some wine, why not grab a box of biodynamically produced wine, call some friends over, and enjoy?! Can I come too?