Wednesday, November 9, 2011

How Extremists are Killing Our World

We've all heard them... the extremists. These are the people that cry wolf so loud and so often that we find ourselves tuning them out. I posted on twitter that extremists are like a snowball with a rock core... a lot of puffery with a painful nugget of truth buried within.  The problem is that extreme views propose extreme fixes in many cases.  The typical trend is that the left runs the television while the right rules talk radio.  Both sides have valid points on many issues and I don't intend on going into a political rant.  I care about lots of things, but one of the things that tops my list is my home. I don't mean the one made of lumber and stone with an address on the front.  I don't even mean the city in which I live.  I mean the planet that has, through eons, provided for the species that inhabit it.

Where is the middle ground?  Why can't people have a sense for capitalism AND a sense for environmentalism?  There's a reason that we all study history when we're growing up - not to memorize facts and dates, but because people who forget what happened are doomed to repeat the same failures.  It's a lesson we're taught through life.  So why is it so hard for humans - as a species - to take the tiniest of glimpses to our past and realize that we apparently aren't capable of policing ourselves when it comes to the world we live in?  We use and abuse the land.  Sure, dump stuff in the drain rather than pay to have it taken care of the right way.  Strip mine.  Clear cut.  Do things that provide the most amount of profit with the least amount of work.  Predators kill livestock?  Screw 'em; kill them all.  Does private property really mean we have the right to do anything we want with it?  We seem to think that because we have evolved and harnessed energy and technology that we are the culmination of what defines evolution.  We are the pinnacle and the only concern.  Conquer nature.  Tame wilderness. Exploit what can be exploited, regardless of cost, for profit.
We eradicate species we don't like or ones that are profitable.  It's not Americans I point an ecological finger at, it's humans.  Here's some facts: 
  • When humans first migrated to North America, we played the key role in extinction of some of the coolest animals that ever lived. North America had lions bigger than the African Lion!  We had giant turtles.  We had camels.  We had three different species of elephants.  These animals were large and had never encountered humans; know what that made them?  Sitting ducks.  Kill off the giant herbivores and then the, through competition and hunting, the predators were dead species, too. (Of note, happened everywhere, I just liked our megafauna the best.)
  • When America started to 'shrink' (through easier transportation and communication), we saw the resources on this great continent as an inexhaustible resource.  Bison were eradicated in the wild.  Beavers - a keystone species - were hunted to near extinction because of the value of their pelts.  Certain birds were driven to the verge of extinction not because we ate them, but because their feathers were pretty in hats. Passenger pigeons, which had an astronomical population, driven extinct due to being easy targets.
Why do they go extinct - what did people do?  Hunting**.  Habitat change (the big one).  Introduction (whether accidental or on purpose) of invasive species. And of course the token few that go extinct due to natural causes.  Here's some animals that you probably grew up with that are on the list: 
  • Eastern Box Turtle (vulnerable, decreasing)
  • Polar bear (vulnerable, decreasing)
  • Mexican Long-nosed Bat (endangered, decreasing)
  • Red Wolf (critically endangered, increasing)

So tell me, is it impossible to have a "meeting of the minds" in regard to capitalism and conservationism? I know a lot of brilliant - non-extreme, even - people who could likely think of ideas.  I don't agree with regulations merely for the sake of regulating, but there's some aspects that warrant it.  There's so many brilliant people... I hope that they have a few ideas and I solicit them to share.  I'm tired of extreme-minded people constantly directing the way things are going to be. Don't get me wrong - I'm pointing my finger both left and right.  I'm tired of 'right and left'.  I want circular, well-rounded!

**By hunting I do not mean to infer any fault to responsible hunting/hunters.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Human Predator Perception

Some of my hockey fans will be depressed that this post isn't hockey related... Half the time when I say "predators" I mean the Nashville NHL team and the other half of time I mean the literal carnivores.  I'll try to use a certain Inuit player to mesh hockey with nature... but it's a far reach to tie both predators together, I promise.

Human perceptions play a pivotal role in predator management - whether you're discussing current populations or reintroduction.  Humans have an inherent fear and bias towards apex predators that really needs to be looked at.  The success or failure of a reintroduced species, for example, relies on how the humans of the area perceive the predator and whatever posed threat they may bring.  I'm one of those 'idiots' who goes out of my way to find predators - bears, cougars, ...even rattlesnakes.  I don't do this because I have some death wish (nor do I try to interact with the animals) but I really want to see them, their behavior, and study them.  Fact of the matter is that around 125-145 people a year are killed in deer-human accidents.  Rattlesnakes? 5.5 people on average.  Bears? Average 1 person a year, so admittedly this is a high year.  Cougar? Again, about 1 person a year.  Shark? 1.  How about the virtually eradicated wolf?  Try 0.1 people a year.  The odds are far higher for a bee sting to kill a person (53 average) than a predator.  Or, if you'd like, a horse (20 per year).  So why, then, the unrealistic fear that predators in your 'local habitat' are going to stalk and kill YOU.  It's statistically minuscule odds (Historylist, 2008).

The funny thing is that predator perception varies based on many different factors.  For example, people living in rural areas have a utilitarian view and tend to favor exploitation or subjugation.  People with advanced education lean toward naturalistic and conservationist mentalities.  Young people and women tend toward moralistic and humanistic values with a lot of affection for an individual animal or species (Reading, Keller, & Clark, 1993 & 1996).   In most cases the instilled fear of predators likely has less to due with human-predator interaction and more to due with human-predator conflict due to livestock loss.

The problem arises when humans have a "humans first and only" mentality that disregards the eventual outcome of so many species.  Did you know that in the next 50 years it's estimated that HALF of the world's current species will be extinct?  I'm a learned girl, so I am aware that we're in the midst of the world's sixth mass extinction, but what is disconcerting about this one is that it's primarily caused by one species: US.  (Of note, about 3% of the extinctions have/will be due to natural causes... so saying "we didn't do it all" isn't comforting when we cant take responsibility for about 97%.)

Asking "how did we get here" garners one of the simplest yet most complex answers in the history of our time.  We cared about us most.  Some people say "that's to be expected" but many others think that we're depriving our children - not even our children's children, mind you, but OUR children - to seeing far less of what we had the pleasure of. Isn't it time, then, that not only the left and right wings came together in understanding but that we figure out how to help on a global basis?  Rainforests, for example, cover a tiny percentage of land (1.8%) on earth... yet they are continually harvested.  Timber companies don't exercise the same responsible land use policies as other agrarians and clear cut old growth forests.  Our rivers and streams and ponds and lakes - ALL of them - have suffered the worst.  We all say 'sure, I care about the environment' but, like with so many other things, we merely SAY it.  We don't do anything actively about it.  I guess we expect the 'other guy' to stand up and do something.

To bring this blog full circle (and tie in to the Nashville Predators, as promised), here's a snapshot of how historic Inuit versus current Inuit mentality on polar bears - a predator often in the world's view due to climate change.  Of note for non-hockey fans, Jordin Tootoo is the first Inuit in the NHL and from Nunavut - he was also unavailable for comment.

  • Historically, Inuit saw Nanuk (polar bear) as a species garnering great respect.  If Nanuk was killed in a hunt, it provided clothing and food (the only thing discarded was the liver).  To show respect for the takoit (soul of the bear), the skin was hung in a place of honor for a few days.  Ancient Inuit legend shows a coexistence and respect for this greatest of bears.  Now, the Inuit officials don't even want the great Nanuk even added to Canada's list of protected species.  "Protect us, not the bear" (CBC News, April 2010). The logic? Threat to people, property destruction, and killing of their people.  Of note, a look at polar bears international discusses the very rare cases where humans are killed by polar bears.  I did a look on the net globally and found a case recently in Norway... but historical numbers were drastically low. Granted, maybe the Inuit people don't report these? Or, perhaps, it has more to do with hunting restrictions and less to do with Nanuk attacking people.  I really don't know but this is a great example of human perception on a species... the politics involved and the opposition and facts.  
In closing... I know that I'm working to practice what I preach - and I put my money and/or time where my mouth is in support.  Where do you stand?

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The world calls them "Siberian"... but really, they are...

Panthera Tigris altaica.

I was doing some homework on my favorite species and, on IUCN I was a bit surprised when, in the search bar, I keyed “tiger” and a whopping 112 species with “tiger” in the name appeared.  What is it that the world has against "tiger" beauties regardless of class/order/family?! 

For actual Panthera Tigris, 9 species, 3 of which are already extinct, appear. 

Most of the world knows this fine animal as the Siberian Tiger, though the more appropriate name is the AmurTiger.  This cat isn’t indigenous to the entire geographic range of Siberia, but rather merely the Amur river region where Russian and China converge.  While many subspecies of tiger are endangered or threatened, this cat is my most favorite animal of all.  The Amur tiger is different from any other cat in the world – including being the largest feline on the planet!  Throw that with the usual human fears of predators, some myths about tiger bones and ancient Chinese health tips, the enormous home range, and the fact that this feline has devastatingly beautiful fur and it’s a poster-child for the Endangered Species list. 

Because of the size of the mature adults and the vast ranges they require, many of the tiger conservation areas set up for this cat are really too small to retain a viable population.  Low recruitment rates also hurt their chances for increased populations. IUCN states two factors which increase the tiger's vulnerability to extinction are their low densities (relative to other mammals, including their prey species) and relatively low recruitment rates (where few animals raise offspring which survive to join the breeding population) (Smith and McDougal 1991, Kerley et al. 2003). 

Officially the Amur tiger is decreasing in population due to high rates of habitat loss and fragmentation which even occur inside protected areas.  There are also high levels of human-tiger conflict (including being struck by trucks on a logging road that goes right through the middle of a habitat area) and illegal trade in tiger parts (fur for trade and the bones for ancient Chinese medicines for male ‘enhancement’).  Lastly, they also suffer from prey depletion.

Conservation efforts are generally in habitat conservation and education.  Recently actor Leonardo DiCaprio founded the Save Tigers Now and is attempting to garner more support using his personal celebrity status as a springboard.  In addition, many tiger foundations exist to help the futures of all remaining tiger subspecies.  Illegal poaching of tigers still exists.  Between 1998 – 2002 at least 51 tigers were killed  with 76% being for illegal trade and 15% being human-tiger interactions.  With drastically low numbers for some of the remaining subspecies, one sincerely hopes this is not a case of “too little, too late”.  

To see more on the IUCN Red list for tigers, go here; for the Amur Tiger, go here.