For the Conservation Curious

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Caribbean Conservation March 20, 2017

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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.

 

 

Have You Met My Friend Charley? February 19, 2015

I gaze at the black and white plumage of an eider duck on my laptop background. I look at my daily planner and see the red head of a woodpecker. I turn around and on my wall I see a poster swimming in bright colors and shapes of animals and plants galore. These are all works of one my absolute favorite artists, Charley Harper.

Charley Harper is known for his modern interpretations of animals, especially birds. I discovered his art while working for Gorman Heritage Farm near Cincinnati, his hometown. He did a series of posters for Gorman Heritage Farm and its parent organization, the Cincinnati Nature Center.  I fell in love with the sharp lines, simple details, engaging colors, and diversity he put into each of his images.  Even with such minimal detail I could tell what each species was. His designs challenge the imagination but not in a completely abstract way.

Charley also designed posters for the National Park Service and Hawk Mountain in Pennsylvania. He illustrated the Golden Book of Biology too. Prints, mugs, and other knick knacks with his artwork on it can be viewed and purchased at http://www.charleyharperartstudio.com. I have a wish list a mile long there!

I want to show you a small sampling of his artwork here so you can fall in love with his art as I have.  His art speaks to the interconnectedness of nature, the beauty of each living thing, and a belief that nature inspires art and vice versa.

**All images are work done by Charley Harper. Please give him his due!

 

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.

 

Is There a Humane Way to Deal With Invasive Animals? May 29, 2014

I read an article today (http://maryland.newszap.com/crisfieldsomerset/132290-92/chesapeakes-marshes-may-see-end-of-invasive-nutria) about how the Chesapeake Bay Nutria Eradication Program is working well, and that the people involved in the program may actually succeed in removing all these large, invasive rodents from the Bay. It also mentions the success people have had with eradicating the invasive mute swan from the region. As someone who worked on invasive species issues for many years, albeit mostly related to plants, I applaud the efforts of these folks and am excited for their success story.

However, the animal lover in me cringes a little bit when I read articles like this, especially when they describe how the nutria are trapped and killed. The traps are similar to what people use to trap beavers for their pelts… the animal is snared by the leg and drowned. I’ve never agreed with how beavers are trapped, so I cannot agree with their use here, even if nutria are highly destructive to the wetland and marsh habitats they live in. There has to be a move humane way to do this.

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(Photo:Wikimedia.com)

Many animal rights activists oppose the culling of invasive animals on the grounds that the practice is inhumane. When looking at the issue from the 40,000 feet view, I disagree with them. Invasive species cause significant damage to habitats, in turn negatively affecting and sometimes killing other, native wildlife. Most invasives are here because of foolish or unintended consequences of human actions, so I feel that it is our duty to do something about them. But it’s how we do something about them that I may have an issue with. I used to be very opposed to herbicides, no matter what. I thought of them as a poison with which we contaminate the earth. Yet as I learned more through my job, I came to realize that sometimes herbicides are the only solution to eliminating certain invasive plant species. Herbicides shouldn’t ever be the only line of defense, and hopefully aren’t the first choice in many situations, but they do have their place.

So it is with invasive animal control. Think of the Burmese pythons that are taking over the Everglades. These are long, strong, animal eating machines. Should we just let them slither their way across the state of Florida? No, I don’t think so. The same goes for nutria, mute swans, feral hogs, snakehead fish, Asian carp, and a whole host of other invasive animal species in the U.S. Yet how we control these animals says a lot about how we treat animals in general. If someone has no problem drowning a beaver for its pelt, then of course they have no problem drowning a nuisance species by the same method. Changing this process will take considerable education.

How can we deal with the invasive species problem in a humane way? Better minds than mine will need to think about that. But I hope that someone is thinking about that. I certainly want the Chesapeake Bay to become a healthier, more productive ecology in the future, but I hope that can be achieved with less brutality in the future.

 

Bee Kind to Bees April 23, 2014

Last night at my Rotary club meeting we heard from a fellow club member, who talked about his beekeeping hobby. This is a fascinating occupation and one with a lot of conservation value, so I thought I would blog a bit about it today.

Egyptians may have been the first people to raise their own domesticated bees. Jars of honey were found within Tutankhamun’s tomb, and as stories would have it, the honey was still edible. According to my Rotarian friend, as long as no water gets into the honey, it can stay edible. If water gets in the honey ferments… although to me that sounds like a good problem to have. Mead anyone?!

Anyway, many cultures over the years domesticated bees and created different hive structures. Yet it wasn’t until the 18th century and the creation of the moveable comb hive that made apiculture (i.e. beekeeping) more sustainable. Why is that, you ask? Well the original forms of bee hives had to be destroyed in order to get at the honey, killing the bees in the process. Now you can easily open up the different combs of the hive, taking the honey you want and leaving the rest intact. In fact, I learned last night that there is a queen bee excluder, a metal grate that keeps the queen bee from laying eggs in most of the hive. This keeps the edible honey bee brood-free yet allows her to lay enough eggs in a portion of the hive. I guess I never thought that deeply about honey before, but know I am glad to know about the excluder!

Why is beekeeping important for conservation? There are more than 20,000 species of wild bees out there, but they’re not doing so well. With the way we tend to grow crops in the U.S. and elsewhere – a monoculture of genetically-engineered corn or soy, with lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers, for example – native bees can’t find enough pollen to bring back to their hives to make honey. No honey, no food for any of the bees, the hive dies. We have also paved and built over a lot of prime bee food habitat – meadows and other grasslands – further reducing their pollen supply.

Colony collapse disorder is a major concern for bee colonies. It was first documented in 2006, according to the USDA, and showed up to 90 percent mortality among affected hives. The population of managed honey bees in the U.S. has declined from five million in the 1940s to less than 2.5 million today. What causes colony collapse disorder? While no one has an exact answer, scientists believe that it is a combination of Varroa mites, fungi and viruses, pesticides, lack of food and other stressors. It may be the perfect storm of problems for honeybees worldwide. And since honeybees and their pollination skills contribute $15 million annually towards the economy, losing the bees will harm us in our stomachs and pocketbooks. Like almonds? Then you should really be concerned… all almonds must be pollinated by bees. No bees, no almonds!

Beekeeping is a challenging hobby, but also very rewarding. Not only do you get tasty honey, but you can help support populations of healthy honeybees for the future. Don’t have the room or desire to have a hive or two of your own? Not to worry… you too can assist native bees by planting native, flowering plants like bee balm, purple coneflower, goldenrods and milkweeds. To learn how to plant a pollinator garden (that will attract butterflies as well as beneficial bees) go to http://beespotter.mste.illinois.edu/topics/beegarden.

Bees are fascinating insects. From the queen to her female worker bees to the male drones, the hierarchy of the hive and the important tasks each bee is born knowing how to do will astound you. I encourage you to learn more about both native and imported bees so that the next time you see one you won’t be so quick to squash it. Instead admire it from a distant and thank it for the great job is does pollinating our flowers and crops. Without that little bee, your dinner wouldn’t be quiet as diverse and tasty.

 

Human – Animal Interface April 4, 2014

Sometimes the people most passionate about wildlife conservation are accused of not caring about the human element that lives side by side with the animals in question. Critics say that these conservationists would rather have the people lose their homes and way of life, rather than negatively impact a species and its habitat. Yet rarely is it that black and white.

Yes, in many cases a species comes under threat because of the actions of people. Indigenous people hunting rare animals for bush meat, villagers killing animals that threaten their livestock or agricultural fields, poachers hunting animals for traditional medicine, farmers withdrawing too much water from a river… the list goes on and on.

Many times conservationists do come into a country from abroad, with the plight of an endangered animal in the forefront of their mind. But if they don’t take into consideration the views, lifestyles and concerns of the surrounding populace, their efforts are almost certainly doomed to fail. The conservationists will leave that country at some point; the locals will remain. They can either be allies in the conservation effort or undermine it every step of the way. A heavy hand is not always the most effective means to get your way.

Conservationists need to think about the reasons behind the threat and ways to deal with those reasons. Why are villagers relying so heavily on bush meat? Are they having a difficult time raising their own livestock? Are they too far away from other villagers where they can buy and trade food goods? Is it a tradition that is passed down from generation to generation? Once these problems are identified the conservationist should work with some of the well-respected locals to create solutions that both aid the people and the animals. Can someone come in to teach them animal husbandry techniques? Can they focus their hunting on more common, non-threatened species? Can they find hand-made goods that would be marketable for trade with other local villages?

The solutions won’t always be easy but they will be more effective in the long-term than when a conservationist comes in laying blame and accusations at the locals’ feet without offering realistic ways for the people to live in harmony with the natural world. There will always be a balancing act between people and all other animals and plants on the planet. We have the brain power and strength to dominate the natural world, bending it to our will, but we also have the resourcefulness and creativity needed to get what we need from the planet without destroying it for all other life forms. We just need to be willing to use that creativity for the greater good.

 

Conservation Wish List for 2014 January 2, 2014

It’s 2014, which means it’s time to create a list of things I hope to see happen (or not happen) in the coming year. I like to think about my sustainability and natural resource conservation dream list… if the sky’s the limit, what could we see take place in 2014? Here are some of my desires, in no particular order…

The Sustainable PA Program will be rolled out to the public and embraced by municipalities across the Commonwealth

New York will keep its moratorium on fracking

Orcas can no longer be held in captivity

Genetically modified foods will have to be labeled if they are sold in the U.S.

More people will embrace the use of native plants in their gardens and yards

Dolphins and whales would not be killed for food or “research”

No new invasive species will enter the country

More municipalities will embrace “green” storm water management strategies like porous pavement, rain gardens and bioswales

Pennsylvania gets a new governor

More climate change deniers are shown the light and start spreading the word about its dangers

When someone abuses an animal they get more than a slap on the wrist

More people decide to live a vegetarian lifestyle or at least cut way down on their meat consumption

Do you have any conservation-related hopes for 2014? If so, let us know about them. Thanks!