Archive for category Conservation
My family and I have just returned from a fantastic trip to the Philippines. While the scuba diving was superb everyone’s highlight was the 30 minutes we spent swimming with whale sharks. Whale sharks are the world’s largest fish. They can grow up to 40 feet long and weigh as much as 20 tons. Despite these impressive statistics they pose no danger to humans, being filter feeders that consume things like plankton, krill and fish eggs.
The small town of Oslob, on the island of Cebu, is where our amazing interaction took place (http://www.oslobwhalesharks.com). Whale sharks used to be regarded as pests, and were even killed by locals, as their presence interfered with their fishing activities. This has now changed with these massive fish pumping significant ecotourism dollars into the local economy. However, in order to ensure that the steady stream of tourists has something to snorkel with, the locals have begun feeding krill to the whale sharks. At this point the activity is regulated so that feeding and swimming only occur between 6 am and midday.
Ordinarily I am completely against the feeding of wildlife but, in this case, I might have to make an exception. One criticism that has been levelled at the activity is that it changes the whale shark’s behaviour inducing them to stay for the free food, instead of foraging far and wide, as they normally would. Up to 50 whale sharks have been identified by local researchers, but there were only three swimming about while we were there. A whale shark consumes between 0.5 and 3.0% of its bodyweight every two to three days. An adult whale shark needs to eat about 400 kg to fill its massive stomach (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/How_much_do_whale_sharks_eat). The ones we interacted with were possibly half grown, which still translates into 200 kg of food. I cannot see it being economically viable or physically possible to tip this much krill down their throats, which means that the whale sharks still need to forage to satiate themselves, and possibly come in for a free feed when they feel like a top up. The fact that the water was not boiling with whale sharks would seem to bear this out.
Unlike the junk food that is put out in bird feeders whale sharks are at least fed a natural diet, so there should hopefully not be any nutritional issues.
A recent Australian study found that tourism had no negative effects on the whale sharks’ behaviour (http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/breaking/15561889/whale-shark-tourism-harmless-report). Admittedly these whale sharks were not being fed.
However, if the alternative to feeding and ecotourism is spearing, then it is difficult not to endorse the current activities which, at the moment, appear to be reasonably well regulated. When I say we interacted with the whale sharks this is not strictly true as they appeared to completely ignore us, swimming where they wanted, and doing what they wanted when they wanted, as is your prerogative when you weigh several tons.
The locals’ view of whale sharks has certainly changed since this tourism venture began in December 2011. This is probably motivated more by self-interest than any inherent concern for the whale sharks or their conservation. It has certainly become very trendy for zoos in particular to promote their animal encounters as a way of encouraging conservation. An interaction with a whale shark (or koala, or gorilla, or seal) will make people more likely to care about their conservation, or so the rhetoric goes. But does it? Is there any real evidence to support the statement that animal interactions foster greater conservation outcomes? Or are the people who seek animal interactions more likely to join conservation organisations, donate money and plant trees anyway? I suspect the latter is more likely to be the case.
The fact that we are prepared to spend a considerable amount of money to swim with a large fish (or cuddle a koala, or see a gorilla, or kiss a seal) shows how isolated from the natural world we have become, and how we still see nature as entertainment, instead of a vital part of our existence. Not that I am any different because I got just as much of a buzz from my up close and personal experience as everyone else did.
Dr. F. Bunny
I am currently reading a book entitled, “The Call” by Yannick Murphy. The book’s main character is a veterinarian who, oddly enough, enjoys hunting. I have never been able to understand how a person who devotes their life to healing sick and injured animals can inflict injury and death on those animals in their spare time. Unfortunately the story is not particularly far-fetched as two of my classmates were avid duck hunters. When questioned (harassed) about this their only defence appeared to be that they ate their victims. This seems to be a commonly used defence as does the “enjoying the great outdoors” one. I too enjoy the great outdoors and I enjoy seeking out and watching animals go about their business. I don’t, however, feel the need to then go and kill them. The only shooting I do involves a camera.
When we bought our rural property it was overrun with rabbits, and still is unfortunately. I had grand ideas about shooting all the rabbits and providing the meat to the local zoo to feed to the carnivores. I even went out shooting a few times, but my heart just wasn’t in it. While I can certainly see the need to remove the rabbits and other feral species, such as foxes, I take no pleasure in the activity and so have left it to those friends who do seem to enjoy it.
The inconsistency in this approach is not lost on me and other conservationists who routinely work with hunters. Unfortunately this dance with the devil is a necessary evil as, ironically, hunters can be a force for good when it comes to conservation. At a wildlife management conference I attended, the pros and cons of hunting were widely debated, and the final consensus was that hunting brings in far more money than ecotourism. This is money that can be ploughed back into conservation and local communities. For example, instead of rangers culling a rogue elephant a hunter will gladly pay for the opportunity to add the pachyderm to his trophy cabinet. Revenue raised from hunter related activities in California paid for the acquisition of a helicopter by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Controlled legal hunting has the potential to decrease poaching as local communities benefit from hunting but not from poaching. As I recall only the Indians objected to hunting on ethical grounds.
While I acknowledge that the end can justify the means, what I still cannot grasp is that people kill animals, not for food, not because they damage the environment or other species, not because they are a danger to people, but because they enjoy it.
Dr. F. Bunny
I confess to finding this article somewhat disturbing: http://www.pressherald.com/news/College-students-turtle-project-takes-dark-twist.html.
The student in question put a realistic rubber turtle on the road to see what would happen. Over the next hour seven drivers swerved in order to deliberately hit it, while several more tried to hit it but missed. As Hal Herzog, a Western Carolina University psychology professor said, “Sometimes humans feel a need to prove they are the dominant species on this planet by taking a two-ton metal vehicle and squishing a defenseless creature under the tires.” This activity has been credited with being at least partially responsible for the slow decline in box turtles, who can take 10 minutes to get across a road.
According to the article these turtles take “seven or eight years to become mature enough to reproduce, and in that time, they might make several trips across the road to get from one pond to another, looking for food or a place to lay eggs. A female turtle that lives 50 years might lay over 100 eggs, but just two or three are likely to survive to reproduce.”
Dr. F. Bunny
In a world of climate change we are all (well, maybe not the coal and oil companies) looking for alternative ways to generate energy that do not produce greenhouse gases. It seems ironic that the nuclear industry has seen this as a potential opportunity to appear green and a viable alternative to coal power. Apart from the fact that plutonium is still deadly for 250,000 years and countries like Germany appear to be winding their nuclear programs down in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, nuclear is no more sustainable than coal or oil. Uranium will run out just like all the fossil fuels, so why go down a potentially lethal path for the sake of a few years of power? Forget the nuclear nonsense and head straight to the technologies that will keep my computer alive and active long after I’ve nourished a few thousand worms.
Which brings me to wind farms and turbines. As usual, a lot of nonsense is being spouted by both sides. One memorable newspaper article described opposition to turbines because they would negatively affect the migrating orange-bellied parrot, with a lovely full colour photo of the parrot accompanying the article (http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2006/04/05/1143916574751.html). Interestingly these turbines were destined for a site east of Melbourne, in an area not visited by OBPs, who prefer the saltmarshes west of Melbourne for their overwintering grounds.
Nevertheless turbines do kill birds and bats, 100,000 to 440,000 birds each year according to the US Fish and Wildlife Service (http://www.nature.com/news/the-trouble-with-turbines-an-ill-wind-1.10849), generally through direct collisions. This is, however, considerably fewer than are killed by cars (60-80 million), building strikes (100,000 to 1 billion), power lines (up to 175 million) and our old friend, the pussy cat (365 million to 1 billion). Very rubbery figures to be sure, but significant nonetheless.
Bats, however, die in a more interesting way. The movement of the propellers generates a significant area of low pressure behind the turbine (five to 10 kilopascals less than the surrounding air). As nature abhors inequality, when the unsuspecting bat flies into this low pressure region the relatively higher pressure inside its body attempts to equalise with the lower pressure outside its body. It does this by expanding outwards, which leads to ruptured blood vessels and lungs filled with blood (http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=wind-turbines-kill-bats). I can certainly attest to this, having necropsied affected bats. There are no external signs of damage but their chests are certainly full of blood, caused by this barotrauma.
What to do? Do we sacrifice some birds and bats on the altar of climate change, because none of us want to return to pre-electricity days but we also don’t want our planet to heat up? You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and all that. Rather than scrap a potentially important source of sustainable power one suggestion is to be smarter about placing wind turbines away from bird and bat flight paths in the first place. While this is sensible in principle we don’t know enough about their pathways to make this work reliably.
What shows more promise is redesigning the turbines themselves. On a recent ski trip to Copper Mountain in Colorado I saw some wind turbines on the very top of the mountain. But these turbines were different to the traditional horizontal axis turbines we are all familiar with. They were vertical axis turbines. Instead of having a big propeller spinning on a pole, they had vertically orientated blades which spun around the central pole. I had never seen this design before, but it could be the answer. According to a report these vertical turbines are less dangerous than the horizontal ones because they don’t use propeller-like blades to capture the wind, but rotating open-framed cylinders (http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/44627832/ns/technology_and_science-innovation/t/upright-turbines-breathe-new-life-wind-farms/). The downside is that they don’t generate as much electricity as the traditional turbines. However, according to the article, “putting windmills upright and spacing them more tightly together can generate more electricity on less land, and kill fewer birds or bats than traditional horizontal rotating wind turbines.” These vertical turbines are also only 30 feet high, which is below the migratory level for birds and bats.
It is amazing how resourceful we can be when we have to. It’s just a shame that resourcefulness only materializes when we are faced with a catastrophe. But that is how we operate, I guess. Why waste time on things that might happen, like Y2K, when there are so many things that are happening to worry about? It does make preventative medicine particularly hard to sell, however.
Dr. F. Bunny
Zoos spend a lot of time trying to find the right match between males and females, not to pair those individuals that like each other, but to maximise genetic diversity in what is often a very small population. This is important to minimise the effects of any deleterious genes on the population as a whole. Many physical characteristics, behavioural traits and diseases are genetically determined. There is a condition in humans called sickle cell anaemia. Affected people have abnormal red blood cells. To develop the disease the person needs to have received a sickle cell gene from both their father and their mother. If the father carries the gene and has children with one of his relatives, chances are that relative will also carry the gene and so any children will be much more likely to receive both genes and develop the disease. If he had children with someone else those children may carry one of the genes but probably not both and will live and be well. Interestingly people with one sickle cell gene have increased resistance to malaria compared with people that have no sickle cell genes, which is probably why the gene has not disappeared from the human population.
Similar problems can occur in zoo animals once the genetic pool is too small. This can happen naturally in the wild if species pass through severe population bottlenecks, as occurred with cheetahs, or live on islands where there is minimal influx of new genes, such as the Chatham Island robin. This reduced genetic diversity is why the Tasmanian devil is in so much trouble with its facial tumour. Because they are all so genetically similar if one devil is susceptible to the tumour then they all are. If individuals were more genetically diverse there would be more chance of encountering resistant individuals.
How perverse then is our desire for purebred dogs, cats, cattle, horses, etc. These animals have been created by doing exactly those things that zoos desperately try to avoid: brother/sister matings, father/daughter matings, etc. because misguided breeders are trying desperately to select for certain specific traits they deem important. The trouble is when one trait is selected other traits tend to fall by the wayside. Dairy cattle are selectively bred to produce huge volumes of milk to maximise profits. What they are not selected for is an ability to deliver calves naturally resulting in more and more veterinary interventions. Belgian Blue cattle are selected for an ability to lay down mountains of muscle, so much so that they cannot give birth naturally any more. Every birth needs a caesarean.
This lunacy has reached its pinnacle when it comes to dog breeds. Every breed of dog has its own specific inherited genetic abnormalities caused by this inbreeding. Bulldogs can’t breathe because they have been selected for pushed in faces. Shar Peis develop horrible skin diseases because they have been bred to have insanely wrinkly skin. A large number of Dalmatians are deaf and develop kidney stones. Many Dobermans suffer from a bleeding disorder called von Willebrand’s disease. Up to 25% of Bedlington terriers develop chronic hepatitis because they cannot metabolise copper. The list goes on to the point where it is almost impossible to buy a dog that does not have some form of genetic defect (For a complete list of inherited dog diseases check out http://www.upei.ca/~cidd/intro.htm). Your best chance of getting something reasonably healthy is to stick as closely as possible to the original wolf model. After all this was developed over centuries of natural selection for hardiness, ease of breeding and no genetic problems. If you are a wolf that can’t breathe, gets a skin condition or bleeds to death if someone bites you then you are not going to last long enough to pass that trait on to your offspring.
Unfortunately all these ridiculous dog shows, like Crufts, just perpetuate this sort of nonsense. It seems ironic that, this time, zoos are actually trying to do the right thing by encouraging outbreeding and maximising genetic diversity. It’s a pity that our domestic animal breeders refuse to do the same thing.
Dr. F. Bunny
Hear that? Neither do I. That is because the bees of the world could be in a spot of bother. A United Nations Environment Programme report notes bee number declines in Europe and North America (http://www.unep.org/dewa/Portals/67/pdf/Global_Bee_Colony_Disorder_and_Threats_insect_pollinators.pdf). Initially this could be seen to be a good thing, especially by those of us that were stung regularly as kids during the summer months. However, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations of the 100 crop species which provide 90% of the world’s food 71 of these are bee pollinated. In Europe 4000 vegetable varieties exist thanks to bee pollination. In North America honey bees pollinate nearly 95 kinds of fruit such as almonds, avocados, cranberries and apples, as well as crops like soybeans. As indicated in my “Economics of Nature” post, we may take these services for granted and assume they incur no cost but in Europe bees are responsible for crops worth between €22.8 and 57 billion. In 2000, the value of crops pollinated by bees was estimated at US$14.6 billion in the USA.
The reasons for this decline are many and varied and include habitat destruction resulting in a reduction in the number of flowering plants, infection with Varroa mites (not found in Australia at present) and other pathogens, and exposure to insecticides and air pollution.
Solutions include habitat conservation and putting more flowering plants into the ground. As well as benefitting your bees this will also help the local bird populations much more than a few handfuls of mouldy seed on a bird feeder will. Farming without insecticides is also likely to be beneficial. If you are really keen you could always establish a hive yourself and listen to Noah Wilson-Rich’s TED talk focussed on establishing urban bee hives (http://www.ted.com/talks/noah_wilson_rich_every_city_needs_healthy_honey_bees.html), which will brilliantly complement the urban vegetable gardens mentioned in my previous post.
Dr. F. Bunny
Recently I participated in one of those “fun” runs. I must admit that I used to think the term “fun run” was an oxymoron but I appear to have been converted and can feel myself getting quite twitchy if I don’t go out and hit the pavement at least a couple of times a week.
All the participants at this particular event were handed a plastic drink bottle that was labelled, “Be Smart, Choose Tap” which started me thinking about the bizarre bottled water industry.
I can understand bottled water in countries full of Giardia, cryptosporidium, Salmonella and who knows what else, but to purchase bottled water in Australia seems to be the height of lunacy. It has been a brilliant advertising and marketing scam to convince us that somehow water in a plastic bottle is superior to water out of a tap.
There is, however, no evidence to support this and I, for one, can’t see why I should pay for something that I can get for free. Apart from being ripped off by the bottled water merchants there is also the issue of depleting the aquifers that contain the stuff along with producing mountains of plastic waste. While it would be nice to think that water bottles are all recycled, apparently that only happens to 36% of them, with the rest going to landfill (http://www.yvw.com.au/Home/Inyourcommunity/ChooseTap/index.htm).
The irony is that the people who buy bottled water are probably concerned about their health and environmental health. Unfortunately, while they are not harming their own health they are certainly acting in a way that is detrimental to environmental health. So, like the slogan says, “Be Smart. Choose Tap.”
Dr. F. Bunny