Animal Matters

I thought I would share some recent stories about wildlife that crossed my path.  The first comes from NPR’s Weekend Edition.  I was running my payday weekend errands yesterday and had a “driveway moment” in the parking lot of my grocery store.  Rebecca Davis was reporting on her trip to Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.  She was there to see gorillas in the wild.  I couldn’t pass up a chance to experience, vicariously of course, a visit to a group of wild gorillas.  The icing on this cake, this group had a pair of young twins.  You may not know that twins are rare for most large mammals, so this was a chance of a lifetime for the reporter and me! Listening to the quiet whispers of the reporter and guide transported me into the forest along with them.

When I decided to change my major from mathematics as an undergraduate, I chose zoology.  I had long been awestruck by the incredibly magnificent animals of Africa.  Elephants, giraffes, rhinos, lions, cheetahs, what’s not to love?  As a child, after seeing the film Born Free, I read all of the books written by Joy Adamson and her husband, George.  I dreamed of going to Africa, if for no other reason than to visit the grave of Elsa the lioness.  PBS’ Nature had an episode last year entitled Elsa’s Legacy. I have to admit that I cried, nearly uncontrollably watching this episode, mourning once again Elsa’s death. Both Joy and George met tragic ends with Joy being murdered by a former employee and George being killed by poachers.

At the same time I switched to my zoology major, something remarkable was taking place in the scientific world. Dr. Louis B. Leakey, the renowned archaeologist and anthropologist, had sent three young women into the field to study primates; Jane Goodall to study chimpanzees, Dian Fossey to study gorillas and Birute Galdikas to study orangutans. Tragically, Dian Fossey, author of Gorillas in the Mist, was murdered by poachers in 1985.

My major professor and advisor in college was Dr. Llewellyn Ehrhart. Although he was a vertebrate zoologist and mammologist, he chose to focus his field work and research on sea turtles. His mentor was the renowned turtle biologist, Dr. Archie Carr. Check out the links to find out more about Dr. Carr and the group he founded, the Sea Turtle Conservancy and the National Wildlife Refuge named for him I came across a report on leatherback turtles on Treehugger yesterday. Several species of sea turtles nest on Florida’s coasts. Each species is listed as endangered, and leatherbacks are of particular concern. I have closely followed the efforts here in Florida to protect these species, where volunteers patrol the beaches to locate nests, cover and mark them. In addition to human poachers, which are relatively rare along America’s coastlines these days, there are natural predators. Raccoons, in particular, dig into the nests for the eggs. The volunteers put wide spaced wire grates over the nests to keep the raccoons from destroying the incubating eggs. The leatherback story has some wonderful photos that accompany it.  You can see how enormous these prehistoric creatures are in comparison to humans in a couple of the photos. Sea turtles evolved during the late Jurassic period, while dinosaurs (oh, my!) were still walking the earth.

Treehugger, once again, has a video of a polar bear in a zoo in the Netherlands who used a stone to fracture the glass in the pool habitat of his enclosure. Possibly the bear was just trying to get the attention of the two zoo visitors who were standing in front of the glass. Who knows? It certainly made me wonder why those guys were even there in the first place, since they obviously weren’t interested in the magnificent animal right in front of them. I couldn’t find any other recorded instances of a polar bear using a “tool” which is what makes this incident so fascinating. I will save my opposition to zoos and marine parks for another post. I will say that many larger, well funded zoos have improved the once bare and small enclosures with larger and enriched habitats. These changes have certainly improved the lives of captive animals during their lifetime imprisonment.

This link is to a sad, but not unusual story, also from Treehugger. The story entitled Half of Republic of Congo’s Forest Elephants Killed in Past Five Years naturally caught my eye.  There are other links on the page to other stories about recent assaults on the elephant populations in Sumatra, Cameroon and the Eastern Congo.   This information from Scientific American will give you an idea of how much damage has been done to African elephants in the past 80 years.

 In 1930, there were between five and 10 million wild African elephants, plying the entire African continent in large bands. Just 60 years later, when they were added to the international list of critically endangered species, only about 600,000 were scattered across a few African countries. Today that number is likely less than 500,000.

This massive decline in African elephant populations is due to a combination of poaching for ivory and habitat loss.  With an ivory ban still in place, but might not be for much longer, and stepped up conservation efforts in many areas, some countries are seeing a slight increase in numbers of individuals.  Unfortunately not every country or areas within the countries are on board with protecting this magnificent species.  Population declines of 50% for already endangered species can spell their imminent extinction.  When the size of the gene pool is dramatically reduced, rare traits or mutations are more likely to occur and, thus, weaken the species.

A final dose of science geekiness is an interview with Dr. Sylvia Earle, featured on the American Public Media radio show, On Being. Dr. Earle has been at the forefront of ocean exploration and discovery for about 50 years. She will be 77 later this year, and Krista began the interview this way:

Sylvia Earle: That’s the joy of being a scientist and explorer. You do what little children do: you ask questions. Like who, what, why, when, where, how? (laughs). And you never stop and you never cease being surprised. It’s just impossible to be bored.

Ms. Tippett: And you’re still diving, aren’t you?

Dr. Earle: Well, yeah. I breathe. So I can dive. (laughter)

Dr. Earle is the only person who has walked on the bottom of the ocean,in a specially designed, pressurized suit, similar to the suits worn by astronauts. She is one of the leading voices on protecting the Earth’s oceans. As I listened to the interview, the child like sense of wonder and excitement in her voice was uplifting and helped me recall that same feeling within myself. Despite the fact she has witnessed the decline of species and habitat in oceans around the world, there is no despair in her voice or her message. If you do nothing else today, please listen to this delightful, informative and hopeful discussion with a truly amazing woman. I seriously doubt that the phrase I CAN’T has ever been a part of her vocabulary.

Whether it is development, a need for fuel or simply money, so many species are on the brink of extinction worldwide at the hands of humans. For me, a world without non-human animals is not a place worth living in. Our species’ need to commodify and conquer everything around us must stop. Science is how our eyes will be opened, which is why science education is so critical now more than ever. Will we learn to appreciate the wonders and marvels of the natural world surrounding us before it is too late?

I will leave you with my favorite quote, one which sums up my feelings toward our planet and all the life upon it. It’s from Henry Beston’s book The Outermost House:

We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature, and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein we err, and greatly err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”