A New Hope in the Battle Against Poaching

Besides their size, elephants are extraordinarily intelligent animals known for their memories. Their brains have an especially large hippocampus, which means they have highly developed emotion processing abilities and strong memories. Elephants also have specialized neurons, present in human brains, that give them the ability to feel empathy and even develop social awareness.

Elephant poaching has long been a serious problem, but it seems that in recent years it has worsened. In 1989, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) banned international ivory trade. This did help bring about a decline in poaching. However, a one-off sale of ivory in 2008 by the governments of Botswana, Namibia, South Africa and Zimbabwe sparked new demand.

Today, poachers are slaughtering entire families of elephants using technology such as sub-machine guns, night vision goggles, even helicopters. And the ivory trade has not only impacted elephant populations. It has also spawned large amounts of organized crime in Africa. 1,000 rangers have been killed over the past 10 years trying to protect these elephants.

In Sierra Leone and Senegal, elephants have already gone extinct. At the current rate of one elephant being killed every 15 minutes, there will be none left in the wild by 2025. This would be extremely damaging to the ecosystems elephants are a part of because they are a keystone species – meaning they play a critical role in keeping an ecosystem healthy relative to their biomass or abundance.

When David Sheldrick, founding warden of Tsavo East National Park and prominent naturalist, died, his wife Daphne created the David Shedrick Wildlife Trust (DSWT), a group that is now working to push elephants back from the brink. The organization boasts over 150 successful releases. Young elephants orphaned by poaching come in sick, tired, and malnourished. The caring keepers at the DSWT “nursery” care for and rehab them for eventual release back into the wild. Sometimes the calves are so traumatized that they refuse to eat and cannot sleep because of nightmares.

Raising these calves is made more difficult by the fact that in the wild, calves drink their mother’s milk until they reach 2 years of age, and are not fully weaned until 4-5 years of age. Sheldrick herself had to craft a milk that the calves could stomach (they are unable to digest the fat in cow’s milk). Her secret formula, discovered after years of trial and error, includes coconut milk and human baby formula.

The calves also need emotional support and are with their keepers 24 hours a day. Keepers sleep with the young ones to feed them throughout the night. After being released into the wild, one elephant, Eleanor, recognized her keeper 37 years later. The love the elephants have for their caretakers is further evidenced by the fact that former nursery elephants bring their own calves back to show them off to the keepers. Clearly, the DSWT is doing something right.



Pristine Seas: “We want to put ourselves out of business – as fast as we can”

When I initially read the tagline for Pristine Seas (different from the quote in the title), I believed the ideology behind the project was erroneous. I realized my mistake, however, after thinking about it for a bit. The short description for the project reads, “Pristine Seas is an exploration, research, and media project to find, survey, and help protect the last wild places in the ocean. These pristine places are unknown by all but long-distance fishing fleets, which have started to encroach on them. It is essential that we let the world know that these places exist, that they are threatened, and that they deserve to be protected.” My thinking was that by sharing these places with the world, they would become tainted – subject to abuse that they had not previously faced. But, the world is getting smaller, and the threat is looming. By preemptively exposing these places to the public, National Geographic is hoping to garner support and love for these areas before serious encroachment.

Nat Geo has also rounded up some glamorous sponsors: Davidoff, luxury tobacco goods; and Blancpain, luxury watchmakers. I do believe that, behind substance, advertising is an important way to promote an idea or project and these sponsors are definitely contributing significantly to this vital project.

Trip leader Enric Sala, an eminent marine ecologist, remarked, “The unprotected ocean is like a checking account where everybody withdraws but nobody makes a deposit; marine reserves are savings accounts. What he is describing is tragedy of the commons, a theory that states that individuals sharing a common space will act only with self-interest. What results is that each individual uses too much, despite that being again the interests of the group. This happens because looking what is best long-term is difficult to do in a shared setting because each is worried someone else will take their share. Unfortunately, this theory does apply well to our planet’s oceans, in terms of both pollution and fishing.

Pristine Seas has visited 10 locations around the world and conducted research to help prevent tragedy of the commons from reaching the corners of the ocean that remain unspoiled. Blogs for each detail fascinating and strikingly beautiful discoveries, as well as conservation efforts and progress. Check them out here.


The Vanishing of Norwegian Whaling

The Lofoten Island archipelago of Norway, which lies within the Arctic Circle, is steeped in lore and famed for its raw beauty.  It will always be the land of the Vikings.  It is here, however, that a tradition is dying.  This is not due to any political or environmental concern.  Children growing up here have stopped dreaming of being fishermen and whalers.  Instead, they leave their hometowns to seek out urban jobs.  On the Island of Røst, children are forced to leave the community early if they wish to attend high school, something that their tiny community cannot offer them.

Whaling, an activity formerly central to the Norwegian way of life, is fading in Lofoten.  The Minke whale population in the North Atlantic is healthy at 130,000 animals and the yearly catch, around 500, does not even make a dent in this number.  It is not the scarcity of the whales causing the decline.  There just isn’t the interest that there used to be.  In addition, the market for whale meat is thinning.  Norwegians see the meat as a “Depression-era food” that’s un-environmental.  CITES means that the international export market is also restricted.

In Røst, only two men in the past decade have decided to pursue a career in fishing.  One young man, unable to afford a proper fishing boat, pulls cod in one by one.  Similar to the whaling situation, the quantity of animals in the wild is plentiful, millions of cod come here to spawn, and the Lofoten climate is ideal for drying fish in open air to make stockfish, a kind of cod “jerky” that Vikings used to bring on their seafaring voyages.  But, again, the interest is just not there.

Even the environmental activist groups that waged eco-war on these fishermen and whalers are now sitting quietly, waiting for the inevitable end.

Source: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2013/06/viking-whalers/smith-text#close-modal



“Blackfish” Revisited

Below is my original post, “Controversy Surrounding ‘Blackfish.'”  I wrote this piece before having seen the movie, and my opinions have changed since seeing it.  The new writing is in bold. 

There is no record of an orca attacking a human in the wild. In 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a veteran trainer at SeaWorld, was killed by an orca during a show. The orca, Tilikum, had already been involved in two deaths. Now a controversial documentary on Tilikum and the death of Brancheau, “Blackfish,” is in theaters.

To fully understand Tilikum’s journey, we should start at the beginning. Each year, many orca follow Atlantic Herring to the rugged fjords of Iceland. It is here that Tilikum was netted and pulled alongside a boat with other members of his pod. The youngest and smallest orca were chosen to be taken into captivity. Tilikum was hauled onboard and stored for the duration of the journey in a “module,” a small, dark holding cell.

This brutal beginning, especially when added to all the ways orca are unfit for captivity, may explain the violence displayed by Tilikum. Orca in the wild travel hundreds of miles per day and are extremely gregarious. In captivity, the lack of room to roam and the absence of a pod cause significant stress. The sensory deprivation imposed on the orcas is enough to cause a human to become mentally disturbed.

Although SeaWorld has entertained and enthralled the public for nearly five decades, animal rights advocates hope “Blackfish” will help bring about a change that seems long overdue.

As I mentioned in the old post, orcas are highly social.  When they are placed in different SeaWorld enclosures, which are essentially concrete boxes, families are not kept together.  The resulting social structure, stemming from the random placement of the orcas, can be extremely upsetting to the animals.  SeaWorld has even separated mother from calf.  

In these enclosures, the orcas’ lifespans are significantly reduced from the 30-50 year lifespan for orcas in the wild to late teens-early 20s. In the wild, female orcas sometimes live up to 80 or 90 years, males to 60 or 70 years. 

Though Tilikum was involved in two deaths prior to even beginning training with Dawn Brancheau, he was used in artificial insemination and fathered many SeaWorld calves.  Even from an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to see how this is dangerous.  Just as with dogs or any other species, animals that have demonstrated aggression should not be used in breeding. 

What my original post failed to stress was that SeaWorld is at fault.  The whales are unhappy and mistreated, resulting in unnatural aggression that has already led to multiple deaths. 

Please read more here: http://blackfishmovie.com/news/blackfish_seaworld_bites_back/15297



New Species Report

Olinguito (Bassaricyon neblina)

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The newest member of the raccoon family, and the first mammalian carnivore to be discovered in the Americas in 35 years.



Pirate Ant (Cardiocondyla pirata)

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Named for their eye patch-like marking, believed to spend their entire lives underground.


Dwarf Goby (Eviota santanai)


First new species found off of Timor-Leste, different from other gobies in their unique coloring.


Mystery Bug

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Found in Suriname, may not actually be a new species, but an insect in the nymph stage of a known species.

Cowboys of the Arctic

Deep in the wilderness of Finnish Lapland, far above the Arctic Circle, brothers Aarne and Lasse Aatsinki herd the last wild reindeer.  The filmmaker, ethnobiologist Jessica Oreck, has gained renown for her study through film of the way humans interact with nature.  The documentary is not yet available to the public, but was nominated for best documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival.  A short clip is available here, and I highly recommend taking a look and considering seeing it in its entirety when it comes out!