27 June 2012

Sneaky sleepers snatch snoozing seals

Researchers were confused when they found the remains of seals in the stomachs of  sleeper sharks, aka the  Greenland shark . This shark is incredibly slow moving, in fact it leads a very slow life, so there is no way that it could catch a swimming seal. The researchers think that the only way the sharks could catch the seals is if they were sleeping in the water. Many Arctic seals sleep in the water rather than on the ice where they can be caught by polar bears. Now the researchers are working out how they can get evidence to prove their theory is correct. 

Greenland sharks have an interesting biology. Not only do they live in icy water and move very slowly, but their flesh is poisonous! No animal eats the body of a Greenland shark, even when it is dead, but many Arctic people eat the meat. The meat has to be boiled several times before it is safe to eat. The poison makes people feel very drunk.

Another interesting fact. Most Greenland sharks have a parasite living on their eye. The parasite is a small animal called a copepod and it latches onto the outside of the eye and starts feeding on it. In time the parasite causes the shark to be partly blind.

image  Ecoscene / Andy Murch VWPics

26 June 2012

The accidental killing of Sharks

I suppose the battlefront between humans and the sea is actually concentrated in the harbours scattered around the globe and if the fish and marine life wanted revenge they would bomb the harbours – it would stop almost all of the human predation on marine life.

I am not sure what the situation is in your part of the world but here in South Africa photographers are not allowed in harbours unless the apply for a permit for a specific day and time. It is supposedly a conforming to international regulations to prevent terrorism in harbours. An unfortunate side-effect is that you have no conservation conscious photographers around who might see and photograph anything interesting happening in the harbours like these two giant Mako Sharks that I spotted in the back of a bakkie (utility vehicle in the rest of the world).

Their story is both interesting, ridiculous and unfortunate. They are apparently legally caught as accidental by-catch by trawlers which is quite ridiculous as the trawlers are targeting sardines and other small fish. How can catching a 7 foot long shark be an accident? Anyway that is how it is. The sharks die accidentally and get cut up and sold in local fish and chip shops and also get made into pickled fish and fish balls. You might notice that the jaws are cut out of the carcass. These are cleaned and either made into a lamp fitting (gory and ugly) or the teeth are used separately as decorative items (what exactly I am not sure).

I seldom go into the harbour nowadays as the schlep for getting a permit is about as fun as going to the dentist and have no idea what is going on. Hope the fisheries inspectors are doing their job.

19 June 2012

The Earth Summit - 20 years on and has anything changed?

The Earth Summit takes place in Rio on 20-22 June 2012, 20 years since that first ground-breaking summit in Rio. The 1992 summit grabbed the world's attention. It was attended by 108 world leaders and other senior officials, plus thousands of representatives of NGOs and the world's press.  There was some tough talking and out of the conference came agreements and directives that have influenced the world ever since:
  • the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development,
  • Statement of Forest Principles
  • The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, from which sprung the Kyoto Protocol
  • The United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity
  • Agenda 21 
But have they made any difference?

In 1992 there was widespread water pollution, both fresh and salt water,  raw sewage was regularly dumped  into our rivers and seas, fisheries were being overfished and tropical rainforest deforestation was happening at an ever increasing pace. CFCs and ozone depletion was being tackled and scientists were getting worried about climate change.Things were looking a bit brighter for biodiversity. Governments had signed up to the UN Convention on Biological Diversity which declared that biological resources were to be shared and managed sustainably (this was at a time when people were concerned that large companies would grab the genetic resources of less developed countries).  In 1990, CITES had put a ban on ivory in place and elephant numbers were beginning to creep up.

Agenda 21 probably had the greatest impact on our daily lives. Many governments endorsed this whole-heartedly, and local governments and NGOs appointed their Agenda 21 officers. Agenda 21 was about sustainable development, beating poverty, helping developing countries, protecting natural resources through the reduction in deforestation and pollution control, and, importantly,  thinking local.

Here are some of our images from the early 1990s.

 Trees killed by acid rain from the burning of lignite were a common sight, like these in the former East  Germany (Ecoscene / Sally Morgan)

In Brazil, deforestation of the tropical rainforest was happening at a great pace, especially the Atlantic Forest behind Rio itself (Joel Creed / Ecoscene)
Deforestation was happening in Malaysia and Indonesia too, here in Malaysia the forest was cleared for new rubber plantations (Erik Schaffer / Ecoscene).

Water pollution was another problem in developing countries. The white foam on this river in East Germany was a result of detergent, now less of a problem as most detergents are biodegradable. (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

Another of the topics discussed in 1992 was the improvement of air quality in cities through the use of unleaded petrol  and use of catalytic converters on engines (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

And who could forget the iconic shroud of smog lying over LA, created by millions of cars pumping out fumes combined with the local atmospheric conditions. (Andrew Brown / Ecoscene)

So, 20 years on. The leaders of more than 130 countries are expected to turn up, along with their teams of advisors, and thousands of NGO representatives. What has been achieved in the last 20 years?

Deforestation continued to get worse during the 1990s reaching a rate of loss of about 16 million hectares a year. Since 2000 the rate has slowed down, with the loss of 13 million hectares of forest being lost a year.  There is a lot of forest planting going on, especially in China and Vietnam but when losses and gains are taken into account, there is still an annual decrease in forest area the size of Costa Rica. Its not good news for biodiversity, as the losses are mostly virgin forests with a high biodiversity and they are replaced by plantations that support far fewer species.

Most people agree that Climate Change is really happening and that levels of greenhouse gases need to be reduced. Kyoto has been and gone and there has been a lot of talk and not a huge amount of action. However, with rising costs of fossil fuels, there has been an uptake of renewal energy sources, especially in the more remote places of the world where a traditional electricity grid is not economic, such as this school in India which relies on solar energy. (Chinch Gryniewicz / Ecoscene)

Biodiversity is now a common word and 2010 saw the launch of the UN Decade of  Biodiversity (2011-2020). The aim is to achieve the 5 goals of the Aichi Target, namely
  • to address the underlying cause of biodiversity loss
  • reduce the pressures on biodiversity and promote sustainable use
  • improve biodiversity status by protecting ecosystems, species and genetic diversity
  • enhance the benefits to all from biodiversity
  • enhance implementation through planning and management
In North America and Europe, water quality is much improved  and ecologists report seeing species that are sensitive to pollution, returning the rivers. However water pollution remains an issue in many other parts of the world, where there are fewer controls. Take the Yamuna River in India, for example, This river flows  beside the iconic Taj Mahal and very few visitors are aware that just a few hundred metres from this World Heritage Site, is the most polluted river in India, a product of uncontrolled industrial development along its banks combined with the waste from millions of people. 

In a world with a growing human population and an ever increasing demand for clean water, water resources will continue to be an issue, especially against the backdrop of climate change, disrupted weather patterns and extreme weather events.

Having heard the press release from Tusk this morning about the transport of a couple of rhinos from Aspinalls in Kent to Tanzania, I can't finish without mentioning the plight of the rhino. Twenty-odd years ago the future looked quite bright for the rhino with poaching under control and numbers increasing. Sadly, a few idiots believe that rhino horn is a miracle cure, and the value of powered rhino horn has been pushed sky-high, threatening the very survival of all the rhinos. This gory image of a dead rhino was taken by Karl Amman many years ago.

Now rhinos have to be protected 24/7 or have their rhinos removed so they are not the target of poachers. Here a female rhino in South Africa is drugged so that her horn can be remove. (Luc Hosten / Ecoscene)

13 June 2012


I suppose all you can see in the picture is a darker dot with lighter stuff around it. I am told by an expert that the black bit in the middle is the growth point.  Well I suppose it is basically a giant finger nail consisting of keratin. You could make your own one if you saved all your fingernail and toenail clippings and found a way to compress them into a solid piece. If you chose to do this you can ask your family and friends to save their clippings as the end product, if made correctly, could be valuable.

It was interesting to sniff the thing. The dark outside bit smells strongly of animal with a bovine cow like aroma and the inner bit reminded me of oil or diesel, probably from the chainsaw that was used to amputate it.

So what is it good for? Not much really.

In the Middle East it is very fashionable among men to have it fashioned as a handle for a curved dagger – apparently it ages well and turns black.

Medicinally there is a lot of myth and mystique but fortunately there is no scientific foundation for any use. I suppose I most mention that some research found it was able to reduce fever in rats. It would be better to give your rats willow leaf to chew as that contains the ingredients of aspirin which does have scientific backing.

As a cure for cancer I am afraid I can find no proof. If you are given some the person treating you is a quack and the only thing that is being cured is his or her bank balance – it is amazing how false beliefs can drive up the value of a useless object.

Lots of people believe that it is regarded as an aphrodisiac in the East but this is not so – it is used to treat fevers and convulsions and, as I have said before, there is no scientific backing for this. If you suffer from impotence do look in your inbox as there is bound to be a mail that offers you Viagra at a discount rate. It is guaranteed to work better than shavings from this thing.

There is an interesting historical use from Africa – always something new and exciting from the Dark Continent! Yes, in the early days they were used as door-stops. The weight is about right and the shape quite suitable for picking up when closing the door. Of course this use has stopped as this useless thing has become too valuable. Because the trade is not legal there is a lot of stealing of them from many places and sadly many have died trying to steal them or while trying to protect them.

Interesting too that some people have accumulated hundreds of these things and they stand to become millionaires should trade in it become legalized. Luckily trade is illegal for the moment. Obviously those who have many want the trade legalized while those who worry about the original owner want the current status quo to remain.

This is such a useless thing except to the real owner. Sadly it had to be removed to protect him from poachers although ironically it is the only thing he has to protect himself. It is rather useless for self-defence against automatic rifle fire or a tranquilizing dart if you are large, lumbering and myopic White Rhino Cerototherium simum.  

This White Rhino was bought to the Kragga Kamma Game Park near Port Elizabeth in South Africa and his task will be to ensure that there is a next generation that comes from the three other female Rhinos who stay in the park.

(I would like to thank the Cantor family (especially Mike and Ayesha Cantor) for inviting me to see the new rhino arrive, the stay in the boma and being allowed to watch his release into the park. Let’s hope we hear the pitter-patter of baby feet rhino feet soon!)

7 June 2012

World Oceans Day

World Oceans Day

Friday 8 June 2012, A celebration of the world's oceanic wildlife featuring the work of many of our photographers  including Reinhard Dirscherl, Phillip Colla, Luc Hosten, Steve Kazlowski,  and photographers from VWPics.

5 June 2012

World Environment Day - 5 June

There is plenty going on today. For those of us in the UK, the Diamond Jubilee has dominated the media, but it's World Environment Day too.

WED was established 40 years ago and this year the theme is the Green Economy.So what is a Green Economy? According to UNEP it is one that results in improved human well-being and social equality, while signiticantly reducing environmental risks and ecological scarcities. The three keywords are: low carbon, resource efficient and socially inclusive. WED focuses on 10 main sectors for  greener planet and outlines some of things you can do.

1. Buildings - reduce your impact by looking to low-carbon construction and landscaping firms, make your home and office as resource-efficient as possible.

2. Fisheries - overfishing is depleting world fish stocks to look for fish caught using sustainable fishing practices
3. Forestry - deforestation accounts for more than one-fifth of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, so look for sustainably managed forests  (e.g. FSC) when buying timber products, reduce your use of paper products and recycle your paper waste.

4. Transport  - car sharing to reduce your personal carbon footprint, walk or ride a bike instead, use public transport.

5. Water - billions of people have no access to clean water or sanitation and as the world's population grows it is going to become in even shorter supply, so use it wisely. Don't waste clean water by running the tap, or having a long shower, make sure the washing machine and dishwasher have full loads, don't clean the car and save rainwater to water your garden.

6. Agriculture - there are more mouths to feed, so support sustainable farming systems, grow your own fruit and veg, buy local, don't buy more food than you need, compost all the waste.

7. Energy - our modern lifestyle is energy-hungry and we use fossil fuels to produce most of our energy needs which contributes to global warming, so save energy. Turn off lights, appliances, turn down the heating and air conditioning, install PV and other renewable energy system.

8. Tourism - tourists can have a large footprint so think carefully when choosing a holiday. Support local business and local people, try to limit your impact on fragile environments,  question resorts and hotels about the green policies (where does the waste go, what about clean water, recycling, source of food etc)

9. Waste - everything our buy, eventually becomes waste so where will it go? So recycle, re-use and recycle. Think before you buy - do you really need it, can you re-use something rather than throw away, and if you have to throw away make sure you recycle as much as possible.

10. Manufacturing and industry -  this part of the economy produces much of the world's pollution, so be a wise consumer - buy green wherever possible, support green industries, ask questions of those that pollute.

Coming soon  Earth Summit Rio+20 - the 20th anniversary of the very first Earth Summit.