In case you missed this heartwamer. We hear these apparent urban legends of lost animals finding their way back home after a trek of hundreds of miles. Here is the recent story of Holly, who became separated from her guardians in Daytona Beach, Florida, but found her way back home to West Palm Beach after a 200 mile, two month-long, grueling journey. The funny thing is the cat had the intelligence to navigate and survive this amazing journey, but scientists have no clue how cats or other animals have such abilities.
See video link here
Nobody knows how it happened: an indoor housecat who got lost on a family excursion managing, after two months and about 200 miles, to return to her hometown.
Even scientists are baffled by how Holly, a 4-year-old tortoiseshell who in early November became separated from Jacob and Bonnie Richter at an R.V. rally in Daytona Beach, Fla., appeared on New Year’s Eve — staggering, weak and emaciated — in a backyard about a mile from the Richters’ house in West Palm Beach.
“Are you sure it’s the same cat?” wondered John Bradshaw, director of theUniversity of Bristol’s Anthrozoology Institute. In other cases, he has suspected, “the cats are just strays, and the people have got kind of a mental justification for expecting it to be the same cat.”
But Holly not only had distinctive black-and-brown harlequin patterns on her fur, but also an implanted microchip to identify her.
“I really believe these stories, but they’re just hard to explain,” said Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist at the University of Colorado. “Maybe being street-smart, maybe reading animal cues, maybe being able to read cars, maybe being a good hunter. I have no data for this.”
There is, in fact, little scientific dogma on cat navigation. Migratory animals like birds, turtles and insects have been studied more closely, and use magnetic fields, olfactory cues, or orientation by the sun.
Scientists say it is more common, although still rare, to hear of dogs returning home, perhaps suggesting, Dr. Bradshaw said, that they have inherited wolves’ ability to navigate using magnetic clues. But it’s also possible that dogs get taken on more family trips, and that lost dogs are more easily noticed or helped by people along the way.
Cats navigate well around familiar landscapes, memorizing locations by sight and smell, and easily figuring out shortcuts, Dr. Bradshaw said.
Strange, faraway locations would seem problematic, although he and Patrick Bateson, a behavioral biologist at Cambridge University, say that cats can sense smells across long distances. “Let’s say they associate the smell of pine with wind coming from the north, so they move in a southerly direction,” Dr. Bateson said.
Peter Borchelt, a New York animal behaviorist, wondered if Holly followed the Florida coast by sight or sound, tracking Interstate 95 and deciding to “keep that to the right and keep the ocean to the left.”
But, he said, “nobody’s going to do an experiment and take a bunch of cats in different directions and see which ones get home.”
The closest, said Roger Tabor, a British cat biologist, may have been a 1954 study in Germany which cats placed in a covered circular maze with exits every 15 degrees most often exited in the direction of their homes, but more reliably if their homes were less than five kilometers away.
New research by the National Geographic and University of Georgia’s Kitty Cams Project, using video footage from 55 pet cats wearing video cameras on their collars, suggests cat behavior is exceedingly complex.
For example, the Kitty Cams study found that four of the cats were two-timing their owners, visiting other homes for food and affection. Not every cat, it seems, shares Holly’s loyalty.
KittyCams also showed most of the cats engaging in risky behavior, including crossing roads and “eating and drinking substances away from home,” risks Holly undoubtedly experienced and seems lucky to have survived.
But there have been other cats who made unexpected comebacks.
“It’s actually happened to me,” said Jackson Galaxy, a cat behaviorist who hosts “My Cat From Hell” on Animal Planet. While living in Boulder, Colo., he moved across town, whereupon his indoor cat, Rabbi, fled and appeared 10 days later at the previous house, “walking five miles through an area he had never been before,” Mr. Galaxy said.
Professor Tabor cited longer-distance reports he considered credible: Murka, a tortoiseshell in Russia, traveling about 325 miles home to Moscow from her owner’s mother’s house in Voronezh in 1989; Ninja, who returned to Farmington, Utah, in 1997, a year after her family moved from there to Mill Creek, Wash.; and Howie, an indoor Persian cat in Australia who in 1978 ran away from relatives his vacationing family left him with and eventually traveled 1,000 miles to his family’s home.
Professor Tabor also said a Siamese in the English village of Black Notley repeatedly hopped a train, disembarked at White Notley, and walked several miles back to Black Notley.
Still, explaining such journeys is not black and white.
In the Florida case, one glimpse through the factual fog comes on the little cat’s feet. While Dr. Bradshaw speculated Holly might have gotten a lift, perhaps sneaking under the hood of a truck heading down I-95, her paws suggest she was not driven all the way, nor did Holly go lightly.
“Her pads on her feet were bleeding,” Ms. Richter said. “Her claws are worn weird. The front ones are really sharp, the back ones worn down to nothing.”
Scientists say that is consistent with a long walk, since back feet provide propulsion, while front claws engage in activities like tearing. The Richters also said Holly had gone from 13.5 to 7 pounds.
The New York TimesHolly fled a vacation with her owners, the Richters, in Daytona Beach, Fla. Two months later, a family not far from the Richters’ home in West Palm Beach found her, weak and thin, in their yard.
Holly hardly seemed an adventurous wanderer, though her background might have given her a genetic advantage. Her mother was a feral cat roaming the Richters’ mobile home park, and Holly was born inside somebody’s air-conditioner, Ms. Richter said. When, at about six weeks old, Holly padded into their carport and jumped into the lap of Mr. Richter’s mother, there were “scars on her belly from when the air conditioner was turned on,” Ms. Richter said.
Scientists say that such early experience was too brief to explain how Holly might have been comfortable in the wild — after all, she spent most of her life as an indoor cat, except for occasionally running outside to chase lizards. But it might imply innate personality traits like nimbleness or toughness.
“You’ve got these real variations in temperament,” Dr. Bekoff said. “Fish can be shy or bold; there seem to be shy and bold spiders. This cat, it could be she has the personality of a survivor.”
He said being an indoor cat would not extinguish survivalist behaviors, like hunting mice or being aware of the sun’s orientation.
The Richters — Bonnie, 63, a retired nurse, and Jacob, 70, a retired airline mechanics’ supervisor and accomplished bowler — began traveling with Holly only last year, and she easily tolerated a hotel, a cabin or the R.V.
But during the Good Sam R.V. Rally in Daytona, when they were camping near the speedway with 3,000 other motor homes, Holly bolted when Ms. Richter’s mother opened the door one night. Fireworks the next day may have further spooked her, and, after searching for days, alerting animal agencies and posting fliers, the Richters returned home catless.
Two weeks later, an animal rescue worker called the Richters to say a cat resembling Holly had been spotted eating behind the Daytona franchise of Hooters, where employees put out food for feral cats.
Then, on New Year’s Eve, Barb Mazzola, a 52-year-old university executive assistant, noticed a cat “barely standing” in her backyard in West Palm Beach, struggling even to meow. Over six days, Ms. Mazzola and her children cared for the cat, putting out food, including special milk for cats, and eventually the cat came inside.
They named her Cosette after the orphan in Les Misérables, and took her to a veterinarian, Dr. Sara Beg at Paws2Help. Dr. Beg said the cat was underweight and dehydrated, had “back claws and nail beds worn down, probably from all that walking on pavement,” but was “bright and alert” and had no parasites, heartworm or viruses. “She was hesitant and scared around people she didn’t know, so I don’t think she went up to people and got a lift,” Dr. Beg said. “I think she made the journey on her own.”
At Paws2Help, Ms. Mazzola said, “I almost didn’t want to ask, because I wanted to keep her, but I said, ‘Just check and make sure she doesn’t have a microchip.’” When told the cat did, “I just cried.”
The Richters cried, too upon seeing Holly, who instantly relaxed when placed on Mr. Richter’s shoulder. Re-entry is proceeding well, but the mystery persists.
“We haven’t the slightest idea how they do this,” Mr. Galaxy said. “Anybody who says they do is lying, and, if you find it, please God, tell me what it is.”
Frans de Waal is not an animal rights advocate but his work is more important than a million academic books on animal rights, and I’m a big fan of his research and writings. The humanist Humpty Dumpty has fallen off the wall long ago and will never be put back again in terms of the absolute uniqueness it tried to assign itself in strict opposition to all other life forms. But since we ourselves are animals, since we began a new branch of primate evolution some 7 million years ago, and since chimpanzees are our closest biological relatives, closer to us genetically than they are to gorillas and orangutans; it follows that we share quite a few traits in common including tribal behavior and a proclivity for violence, We have learned that Homo rapiens is not unique in toll invention and tool use, in using language, in having culture, or, as this article discusses, having concepts like justice (its “justice” — not “just us”). Where, after all, would we acquire such capacities, if not from evolution and our closest biological relatives. It is more than ironic that we credit ourselves with capacities that other animals invented, and we often shaped in more “sophisticated” ways, such that, we are, as Darwin argued, different from other animals “in degree, not kind.”
Elizabeth Landau, CNN, January 19, 2013
You might recognize prominent primatologist Frans de Waal from lectures he has given about his research on primate behavior, which have been popularized on YouTube.
His face is familiar to chimpanzees, too; some chimps that he knew as babies still recognize him even after decades apart, he said.
“Chimpanzees have the advantage that you cannot ask them questions, so you have to watch (their) behavior to see what they do,” says de Waal, director of Emory University’s Living Links Center, in his Dutch-accented voice that is both gentle and authoritative.
He adds, with dry humor: “With humans, you can ask questions and you get all sorts of answers I don’t trust, so I prefer to work with chimpanzees for that reason.”
Living Links is part of the oldest and largest primate center in the United States: The Yerkes National Primate Research Center, a secluded grassy area in suburban Atlanta where humans work in office trailers and other animals play in open-air compounds.
De Waal, who has been at the center for more than 20 years, has made a career out of finding links between primate and human behavior, particularly in the areas of morality and empathy.
You might think of “morality” as special for humans, but there are elements of it that are found in the animal kingdom, says de Wall — namely, fairness and reciprocity. His latest study, published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that chimpanzees may show some of the same sensibility about fairness that humans do.
The popular belief that the natural world is based on competition is a simplification, de Waal says. The strength of one’s immune system, and the ability to find food, are also crucial. And many animals survive by cooperating.
“The struggle for life is not necessarily literally a struggle,” he said. “Humans are a highly cooperative species, and we can see in our close relatives where that comes from.”
Mammals such as wolves, orcas and elephants need their groups to survive, and empathy and cooperation are survival mechanisms. De Waal discusses these mechanisms in his 2009 book “The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society.”
“We think that empathy evolved to take care of others that you need to take care of, especially, of course, between mother and offspring, which is universal in all the mammals,” de Waal said.
What it means to be fair
De Waal isn’t sure that his monkeys have what a philosopher would call a “concept of justice” in an intellectual sense. But the emotional reactions researchers have observed indicates that there is, at a more basic level, a sense of justice among them.
Among the questions he investigates: If an animal gets more than another, is there is a feeling that this is somehow unjust? And if one shares food with another, is there an expectation of returning the favor?
In a 2008 study, de Waal and colleagues put two capuchin monkeys side by side and gave them a simple task to complete: Giving a rock to the experimenter. They were given cucumbers as a reward for executing the task, and the monkeys obliged. But if one of the monkeys was given grapes, something interesting happened:
As observed in a popular video that de Waal showed in his TED talk, after receiving the first piece of cucumber, the capuchin monkey gives the experimenter a rock as expected. But upon seeing that the other monkey has grapes, the capuchin monkey throws the next piece of cucumber that it is given back at the researcher.
Like children, the monkeys feel they “need to get the same thing as somebody else,” de Waal said.
Based on experiments such as these, de Waal came to believe that the sense of fairness observed in monkeys is egocentric. The capuchin monkeys were upset, selfishly, when they didn’t get the grapes that their neighbors received. De Waal believed this model of fairness would apply to chimpanzees also. Chimpanzees are so closely related to us that they share 99% of their DNA with humans.
But the new study, which compares chimpanzees to young children, makes de Waal rethink that view.
“Now with this experiment, we are thinking that they have a higher level, where they worry about reward division in general,” he said, “and it’s now unclear how they differ from humans.”
The new study: A human sense of fairness?
In the new study, de Waal and colleagues had chimpanzees and, separately, young children, play an “ultimatum game.” This is “the gold standard of fairness for humans” because it has been played all over the world, by people in different cultures, to show that, universally, humans appear to have a sense of fairness.
The basic structure of an ultimatum game is that there are rewards that can be divided between two individuals. One proposes how to divide them and the other accepts or rejects this offer. If the receiver rejects, no rewards are given out.
Human trials have shown that people usually propose a generous division of the goodies, such as half and half or 60% and 40%, de Waal said.
In the version used in the new experiment, six adult chimpanzees and 20 human children, between ages 2 and 7, participated.
The setup was such that a token could be traded for equal rewards for both partners, and a token that would give more goodies to the partner who made the choice.
In some trials, one partner proposes a reward division to the other via a token, and the receiver must accept the token in order for both parties to get rewards. In others, the partner’s acceptance is not required.
The researchers found that chimpanzees and children both tended to make decisions about splitting rewards similarly to adult humans. In the situation where the responder could accept or reject the division of rewards, both chimpanzees and children tended to split the rewards with their partners. But when the partner was not given the opportunity to reject the proposal, chimps and kids tended to choose the selfish arrangement — a token that favored the chooser.
So, does this mean that chimpanzees show the same sense of fairness as humans? Keith Jensen of the University of Manchester, who has conducted similar experiments in the past, isn’t so sure. His results did not show that chimpanzees have a sense of fairness.
Jensen is concerned about the results of this new study because it’s not clear that the responders knew that they could reject offers. None of the participants, human or chimp, ever rejected the offers of their partners.
“The fact that responders never rejected nonzero offers suggests that they were not sensitive to unfairness but were only motivated by getting food for themselves, regardless of the intentions of the proposers or the consequences for them,” he said in an e-mail.
But de Waal said that responders did display negative reactions in response to some offers. Chimps would spit water and the children would say something like “You’re getting more than me” in response to a selfish offer. “That indicates that they know what’s going on,” he said.
Jensen also criticized the design of the experiment because participants were primarily interacting with the researchers, not each other. Although one chimp had to pass a token to the other, this could be just a necessary step to get food, not a sign of agreement with the offer, he said. But de Waal stands by the study.
There are very few studies of this nature on chimpanzees compared to in humans, and more research should be done to explore the nature of the sense of fairness of human relatives.
The secret lives of primates
There’s still a lot that humans don’t know about their close relatives.
De Waal has made some fascinating inroads, however, including a study showing that chimpanzees can look at the behind of another chimpanzee and match it to the corresponding face, provided it’s a chimp they know. This shows that the chimps have “whole-body knowledge,” a concept that has not been rigorously tested in humans, he said. The research won him a 2012 Ig Nobel prize, honoring research that is both humorous and thought-provoking, shared with Jennifer Pokorny.
And he has also studied yawn contagion, the phenomenon of one person yawning in response to another person’s yawn. Those who are sensitive to yawns tend to be more empathetic people, and friends and family members yawn more with each other than with strangers. This has also been shown in chimpanzees, who will yawn if another chimp they know yawns too.
But de Waal isn’t sure, for instance, why three females were patrolling their compound when CNN visited in October. Males, though, have a clear purpose in patrolling: In the wild, they do it to protect their territory, de Waal said. Perhaps, he postulates, the females are mimicking the males.
Chimp males compete with each other regularly, but also come together to repair their relationships, de Waal said. This pattern of behavior is seen in human families and in the workplace — these cycles of one-upmanship and reconciliation.
“There are many animals who are very good at cooperation, and I’m personally not convinced that we humans are necessarily best at that, but we are very good at it, that’s for sure.”
His next book, coming out this spring, is called “The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates,” which brings together evidence that there are biological roots in human fairness and addresses the role of religion in society.
A disturbing update from the front lines of the war on animals, with elephants and rhinos the principle targets, certainly in Africa, and headed rapidly for extinction. A new study described below confirms one’s fears that the inexplicable fetish for ivory, its high monetary value aside, still principally driven by Chinese market demand (the same country also in midst of revolutionary change in its views toward animals reflected in scores of liberations of cats and dogs headed for slaughter and rise in animal advocacy generally).
There is no measure too costly, no action too extreme, no coordinated effort too large to stop this escalating holocaust of rhinos and elephants, It is clearly high time to defend these majestic animals by any means necessary by shutting down lines of demand and supply, through a ruthless counter-war on poachers, via draconian penalties for consumers and peddlers of ivory, through drone attacks on crime syndicates descending from helicopters for their unconscionable kill, and with crackdowns on state complacency or complicity anywhere in Africa and Asia.
This is a dramatic window into the sixth extinction crisis in the history of the planet unfolding before our eyes; may we do more than watch this continuing saga of rhinos and elephants dropped by guns and machetes until all are wiped off the continent, with nothing remaining of their millions of years of evolution but macabre carvings and statues and graveyards.
The articles linked below are well worth reading, and anyone who doubts the vicious and implacable greed and violence driving the war on elephants and rhinos should read through the valuable New York Times archives.
Jaymi Heimbuch, Tree Hugger, January 17, 2013
If you’ve been following ivory poaching in the news lately, you may be wondering if there is any hope at all for elephants.
Just yesterday, the Washington Post reported, “Custom officials seized 638 pieces of illegal elephant ivory estimated to be worth $1.2 million at Kenya’s main port, evidence of what wildlife officials described Wednesday as a growing threat to East Africa’s elephants.”
And just two weeks ago, on January 5, eleven elephants were killed in one massacre by a gang of poachers at Bisadi area of Tsavo East National Park.
The problem is vast and complex, but part of the reason for the growing crisis is the booming economy in China. As the BBC reports:
“China is the main buyer of ivory in the world,” said Dr Esmond Martin, a conservationist and researcher who has spent decades tracking the movement of illegal ivory around the world. He has recently returned from Nigeria, where he conducted a visual survey of ivory on sale in the city of Lagos. His findings are startling.Dr Martin and his colleagues counted more than 14,000 items of worked and raw ivory in one location, the Lekki Market in Lagos.
The last survey, conducted at the same market in 2002, counted about 4,000 items, representing a three-fold increase in a decade.
It is enough to make us wonder if there is any possibility of saving elephants as a species in the face of such rampant killing and rising demand for ivory. Save the Elephants, a prominent nonprofit working to bring attention to poaching issues and Africa’s elephants, just released a 14-year study of elephants in northern Kenya, concluding that adult elephants are more likely to be killed by humans than to die from natural causes.
“Clearly it is the most detailed and comprehensive demographic analysis undertaken for any elephant population, and perhaps any wildlife population, at least in Africa,” says Norman Owen-Smith, an ecologist at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. It provides a base “for modeling the potential impacts of increased poaching” on other African elephant populations, which are also suffering from illegal killing.
The study notes that in 2000, there were 38 males over 30 years old in the study population, but by 2011 there were just 12, with seven males maturing into that age group. That means only five of the original 38 males over 30 years old were still alive 11 years after the study began. And by the same year, 56% of the elephants found dead (and few elephant carcasses are actually found) had been poached.
The rise in poaching is not only a concern of conservationists, but also tour operators. The loss of elephants in Kenya means a loss of revenue for people running sight-seeing and safari tours. And the businesses are responding to events like the massacre in Tsavo East National Park. AllAfrica reported this week, “The umbrella body Kenya Association of Tour Operators wants a new wildlife bill to be drafted and the government to take major steps to address the poaching menace.”
After National Geographic’s impressive expose, Blood Ivory, a renewed attention has been brought to the serious issue of poaching, a problem on the rise and reaching a disturbing level of intensity as Save the Elephants has proven with their study.
But there is a glimmer of hope. Elephants have proven that they can recover their numbers if given a chance. The elephants studied by Save the Elephants experienced a small baby boom after the intense poaching of the 70s and 80s lessened.
However, the renewed pressure of poaching has stopped that rebuilding of numbers, and could have a long-term impact on the species, with the loss of important information passed down from older generations of elephants to younger generations, including where to find water, food, and other vital resources in a harsh landscape.
In a recent conversation with National Geographic, Iain Douglas-Hamilton notes that losing older elephants means the loss of the “memory bank” and a lower potential for survival for younger elephants:
Studies elsewhere in Africa show that families which lose large numbers of matriarchs do much less successfully in later life. They have a low survival rate. In the time of drought, for example, the really smart and experienced matriarchs may take their families to a completely different place, only because they’re experienced. Maybe they remember their mothers took them to a place like that when they were young. That means sometimes that they have to take a counterintuitive decision. Like maybe in a really drought-stricken area you’d have to go deeper into the worst area to get through to the other side. That’s actually happened in Tarangire, as reported in a study which showed that the really old matriarchs knew what to do. Young elephants tend to have a higher rate of survival if they have good leadership.
So, are elephants doomed? The fact is, there is hope. There is always hope. But unless something changes, and fast, to protect elephants from poaching, that hope is dying with the older generations of elephants.
The facts of catastrophic climate change have become so alarming that growing numbers of scientists feel they can no longer hide behind inscrutable jargon, masks of neutrality, professional decorum, and robotic objectivity. When paragons of affectless detachment and Spock-speak begin dropping F-bombs at prestigious conferences, undertake civil disobedience, and call for mass resistance movements to overtake the forces of planetary destruction, there is a sea-change in the scientific world, appropriately so, something that far transcends “value-laden” research to become thunderous calls for action, anger, and uprising.
It seems the top experts know something pacifists and delusional vegans (who can only talk of the temporary reduction of meat consumption IN THE US while ignoring soaring global rates and remaining mute about the severity of climate change) don’t — the earth is fucked, time is running out, ivy league vegan outreach adds insult to injury, and it’s too late for education. The courage and integrity of the new generation of activist-scientists to speak truth to power and lay their careers on the line also puts 99.999% of academics to shame, narcissists and cowards who would rather lose species and ecosystems over a career advance any day.
The choice is mass rebellion or catastrophic collapse. Despite the false impression given by the final sentence of this article, while vocal, confrontational, and politicized climate scientists could emerge as key forces of change, the true catalysts will be mass resistance movements erupting globally. But of that, we have no guarantee and as of yet, little hope to avert impending disaster on an unimaginable scale.
Why Earth and Atmospheric Scientists Are Swearing Up a Storm and Getting Arrested.
By Jonathan Mingle, Slate, Friday, Dec. 7, 2012
NASA scientist and climatologist James Hansen takes part in a mock funeral parade during Climate Change Campaign Action Day in 2009 in Coventry, England
Many of us have wondered at some point in almost precisely these terms: “Is Earth Fucked?” But it’s not the sort of frank query you expect an expert in geomorphology to pose to his colleagues as the title of a formal presentation at one of the world’s largest scientific gatherings.
Nestled among offerings such as “Bedrock Hillslopes to Deltas: New Insights Into Landscape Mechanics” and “Chemical Indicators of Pathways in the Water Cycle,” the question leapt off the pages of the schedule for the American Geophysical Union’s fall meeting. Brad Werner, a geophysicist at the University of California, San Diego, is one of the more than 20,000 Earth and atmospheric scientists who descended on downtown San Francisco this week to share their research on everything from Antarctic ice-sheet behavior to hurricane path modeling to earthquake forecasting. But he’s the only one whose presentation required the use of censorious asterisks. When the chairman of Werner’s panel announced the talk’s title on Wednesday, a titter ran through the audience at the naughtiness of it all.
Why shout out the blunt question on everyone’s mind? Werner explained at the outset of the presentation that it was inspired by friends who are depressed about the future of the planet. “Not so much depressed about all the good science that’s being done all over the world—a lot of it being presented here—about what the future holds,” he clarified, “but by the seeming inability to respond appropriately to it.”
That’s probably an apt description of legions of scientists who have labored for years only to see their findings met with shrugs—or worse. Researchers from the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research at the University of East Anglia, for instance, published a paper in Nature Climate Change this week showing that carbon emissions have reached record levels, with a 2.6 percent projected rise in 2012. In another AGU presentation, Pieter Tans of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration posed the question: “Will realistic fossil fuel burning scenarios prevent catastrophic climate change?” He did not seem optimistic. “We might end up burning 900 billion tons of carbon” from oil, gas, and coal, he announced. “We can have a managed path to lower emissions—or do it by misery.” A guy next to me in the audience gave a kind of hopeless snort. The head of NOAA and polar experts held a news conference at the conference entitled, “What’s going on in the Arctic?” This year broke all sorts of records: the lowest recorded sea-ice extent, the lowest recorded snow cover extent and duration, and the most extensive recorded melting event on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, among other milestones. “I’ve studied Greenland for 20 years now; I’ve devoted my career to it,” Jason Box of Ohio State University intoned somberly, “and 2012 was an astonishing year. This was the warmest summer in a period of record that’s continuous in 170 years.”
Werner’s title nodded at a question running like an anxious murmur just beneath the surface of this and other presentations at the AGU conference: What is the responsibility of scientists, many of them funded by taxpayer dollars through institutions like the National Science Foundation, to tell us just exactly how fucked we are? Should scientists be neutral arbiters who provide information but leave the fraught decision-making and cost-benefit analysis to economists and political actors? Or should they engage directly in the political process or even become advocates for policies implied by their scientific findings?
Scientists have been loath to answer such questions in unequivocal terms. Overstepping the perceived boundaries of prudence, objectivity, and statistical error bars can derail a promising career. But, in step with many of the planet’s critical systems, that may be quickly changing. Lately more and more scientists seem shaken enough by what their measurements and computer models are telling them (and not just about climate change but also about the global nitrogen cycle, extinction rates, fisheries depletion, etc.) to speak out and endorse specific actions. The most prominent example is NASA climatologist James Hansen, who was so freaked out by his own data that he began agitating several years ago for legislation to rein in carbon emissions. His combination of rigorous research and vigorous advocacy is becoming, if not quite mainstream, somewhat less exotic. A commentary in Nature last month implored scientists to risk tenure and get arrested, if necessary, to promote the political solutions their research tells them are required. Climate researchers Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows recently made an impassioned call on their colleagues to do a better job of communicating the urgency of their findings and to no longer cede the making of policy prescriptions entirely to economists and politicians.
Lonnie Thompson, one of the world’s foremost experts on glaciers and ancient climates, framed the dilemma in a speech he gave to a group of behavioral scientists in 2010:
Climatologists, like other scientists, tend to be a stolid group. We are not given to theatrical rantings about falling skies. Most of us are far more comfortable in our laboratories or gathering data in the field than we are giving interviews to journalists or speaking before Congressional committees. Why then are climatologists speaking out about the dangers of global warming? The answer is that virtually all of us are now convinced that global warming poses a clear and present danger to civilization.
That’s the sound of serious-minded scientists fretting out loud to the rest of us that the earth is indeed fucked, unless we get our shit together. More and more are willing to risk professional opprobrium to drive that message home.
Box is a prime example. A veteran Arctic researcher, Box was arrested alongside more than 1,000 others in 2011 outside the White House while protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring oil from Canadian tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico for export, thus facilitating the liberation of a vast quantity of climate-warming and ice-sheet-disintegrating carbon. “Taking that stand was arguably the most important thing I’ve done,” he told me, and that includes a highly regarded body of work on Greenland ice-sheet dynamics. “I’ve taken a number of perceived political risks. The groupthink was, ‘You’re wasting your time, you’re risking your career,’ ” he said. Such actions might one day keep him from membership in the National Academies of Science, he mused aloud, but he didn’t seem too concerned. As he sees it, he can pursue rigorous science and be an engaged, concerned citizen at the same time. “I have a 14-month-old daughter,” he explained simply.
The bulk of Werner’s talk, as it turned out, was not profane or prophetic but was a fairly technical discussion of a “preliminary agent-based numerical model” of “coupled human-environmental systems.” He described a computer model he is building of the complex two-way interaction between people and the environment, including how we respond to signals such as environmental degradation, using the same techniques he employs to simulate the dynamics of natural systems such as permafrost, glaciers, and coastal landscapes. These tools, he argued, can lead to better decision-making. Echoing Anderson and Bows, he claimed it as a legitimate part of a physical scientist’s domain. “It’s really a geophysics problem,” he said. “It’s not something that we can just leave to the social scientists or the humanities.”
Active resistance by concerned groups of citizens, analogous to the anti-slavery and civil rights movements of the past, is one of the features of the planetary system that plays an important role in his model. If you think that we should take a much longer view when making decisions about the health of the “coupled human-environmental system”—that is to say, if you’re interested in averting the scenario in which the Earth is fucked—then, Werner’s model implied, resistance is the best and probably only hope. Every other element—environmental regulation, even science—is too embedded in the dominant economic system.
I asked Werner what he sees as scientists’ role in contributing to this kind of resistance, the kind of direct action taken by researchers like Hansen and Box. Werner views his own advocacy as separate from his scientific work. “To some extent, [science is] a job, and a job I really like, and I have the good fortune and privilege to have,” he told me. “In my other life, I am an activist, but there’s a line. Both sides inform the other. And I think that that is healthy. But when I’m doing geophysics, I’m a geophysicist. When I’m doing activism, I’m an activist.”
Werner agreed that more and more scientists are now engaging in advocacy than in the past. “Even if you say, ‘OK, I’m not going to advocate anything. I am simply going to make sure that I am going to produce results which are useful and available to a broad range of people,’ that’s a decision that researchers have to make.” This is not just an academic question. Anderson and Bows’ work, for instance, suggests that economic growth in the short term is simply incompatible with the (nonbinding) commitments made by most U.N. member states to keep temperature rise below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit). This, of course, is not a message that is making any headway with the leaders of those countries. “The elephant in the room sits undisturbed while collective acquiescence and cognitive dissonance trample all who dare to ask difficult questions,” Anderson and Bows write. Getting relevant information into the hands of those more likely to ask those questions is, Werner said, part of his responsibility as a scientist.
Box agrees and is launching a new initiative called the Dark Snow Project, which aims to conduct the first crowdsourced scientific expedition to the Arctic, measuring how soot from North American wildfires might be accelerating Greenland’s ice melt. He and his colleagues plan to make their results publically accessible via video and other online tools, and he sees the project eventually growing into an organization that does rapid-response field science in the public interest.
As for the big question—is Earth fucked?—Werner announced in his talk that he has done some preliminary runs of his model. At this point I could sense the audience lean forward collectively on their seats. First he simulated the global economy proceeding into the future without the drag of environmental management decisions. “What happens is not too surprising,” he told us evenly. “Basically the economy fast chews up the environmental resources, depletes those reservoirs, resulting in a significant amount of environmental damage.”
Then he factored in some environmental management, presumably of our standard, EPA cost-benefit-analysis-driven variety, and found that “it delays the environmental damage but it doesn’t prevent it.”
That’s not too surprising either. But it also implies we’re eventually, definitely fucked. Still, there’s a choose-your-own-adventure element to the story that has yet to play out. Resistance, Werner argued, is the wild card that can force dominant systems such as our current resource-chewing juggernaut onto a more sustainable path. Werner hasn’t completed that part of his model, so we’ll have to wait to find out what happens. But during the Q-and-A session, he conceded that “even though individual resistance movements might not be fast enough reacting to some of these problems, if a global environmental movement develops that is strong enough, that has the potential to have a bigger impact in a timely manner.”
In other words, according to at least one expert, maybe the Earth is not quite fucked yet after all. But the ultimate outcome may depend on how much, and how many, scientists choose to wade into the fray.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Record rhino poaching death statistics released by the South African government Friday reveal a grim picture – 668 rhinos lost their lives to poachers in 2012 – up from 14 rhinos killed by poachers in 2005. Conservation scientists report that corrupt game industry insiders are now poaching rhinos alongside other criminal groups – all well organized, well financed and highly mobile.
Rhino horns taken from a carcass
The 668 rhinos killed across South Africa in 2012 is an increase of nearly 50 percent from the 448 rhinos poachers killed in 2011. Five more rhinos were killed by poachers just since the beginning of this year.
A 2012 report by the international wildlife trade monitoring network TRAFFIC, calls these rhino killings “an unprecedented conservation crisis for South Africa,” which until recently has had a stellar rhino conservation record.
TRAFFIC is a strategic alliance of the global conservation group WWF and the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, IUCN, which maintains the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
The methods used in the most recent rhino killings show a new, very worrying dimension, says the TRAFFIC report, “The South Africa – Viet Nam Rhino Horn Trade Nexus,” co-authored by Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator with the South Africa chapter of WWF, and Tom Milliken of TRAFFIC.
“Typically, rhinos are killed by shooting with guns, usually AK-47 assault rifles. More recently, however, a growing number of rhinos have been killed by a single shot from a high-calibre weapon characteristically only used by wildlife industry professionals or, less frequently, have been darted with immobilization drugs and had their horns removed,” Shaw and Milliken report.
“The use of such equipment, and other evidence that has even suggested the presence of helicopters at crime scenes, represents a completely “new face” in terms of rhino poaching,” they write.
“Such developments underscore the emergence of corrupt game industry insiders into rhino poaching. Rogue game ranch owners, professional hunters, game capture operators, pilots and wildlife veterinarians have all entered the rhino poaching crisis and become active players,” write Shaw and Milliken.
“This is a unique and devastating development in South Africa, severely tarnishing the image of a key stakeholder in the rhino equation even if the majority of private rhino owners and wildlife industry personnel remain committed to protecting rhinos and supporting rhino conservation.”
A majority of the 2012 rhino deaths, 425, happened in Kruger National Park, South Africa’s premier safari destination, the new government statistics show. Poaching incidents in this park rose sharply from 252 in 2011.
In the TRAFFIC report, Show and Milliken write, “…the complicity of South African national and provincial officials undertaking or enabling illegal trade has been documented.”
“In terms of killing rhinos, four government rangers were arrested in Kruger National Park in 2012 and, at the Atherstone Nature Reserve in Limpopo, the reserve manager committed suicide after allegedly being implicated in five rhino deaths. Provincial administrators have repeatedly turned a blind eye to “pseudo-hunting,” especially in North West and Limpopo provinces, and allowed rhino hunts to transpire that violate TOPS [Threatened or Protected Species] regulations,” the TRAFFIC report states.”
A White Rhino, Ceratotherium simum simum, cow and calf
“The most shocking aspect of the illegal trade in rhino horn has been the poaching of live rhinos on a brutal scale. For 16 years, between 1990 and 2005, rhino poaching losses in South Africa averaged 14 animals each year.”
“In 2008, this figure rose to 83 and, by 2009, the number had reached 122 rhinos. In 2010, poaching escalated dramatically throughout the year, nearly tripling the toll and reaching 333 rhinos killed. In 2011, the total again climbed to a new annual record of 448 rhinos lost,” they report. Last year, 668 rhinos were killed across South Africa.
Arrests of suspected poachers and smugglers in South Africa also increased in 2012, with 267 people now facing charges related to rhino crimes.
In November, a Thai man was sentenced to a record 40 years in prison for conspiring to smuggle rhino horns to Asia.
Rhino horns are believed to have medicinal properties and are seen as highly desirable status symbols in some Asian countries, notably Vietnam, whose native rhinos have recently been pushed into extinction.
While rhino horn is composed entirely of keratin, the same substance as hair and nails, and no medicinal value has been proven, the increased commercial value placed on rhino horn has drawn well-organized, well-financed and highly-mobile criminal groups into rhino poaching.
“Vietnam must curtail the nation’s rhino horn habit, which is fueling a poaching crisis in South Africa,” said Sabri Zain, TRAFFIC’s director of advocacy.
“Viet Nam appears to be the only country in the world where rhino horn is popularly gaining a reputation as an aphrodisiac,” the TRAFFIC report states, adding that the use of ground powdered rhino horn by wealthy Vietnamese to detoxify after drinking too much alcohol is “probably the most common routine usage promoted in the marketplace today.”
“Rhinos are being illegally killed, their horns hacked off and the animals left to bleed to death, all for the frivolous use of their horns as a hangover cure,” said Zain.
Vietnamese man drinks from a rhino horn grinding bowl
In December, Vietnam and South Africa signed an agreement aimed at bolstering law enforcement and tackling illegal wildlife trade, including rhino horn trafficking.
The agreement paves the way for improved intelligence information sharing and joint efforts by the two nations to crack down on the criminal syndicates behind the smuggling networks.
“Whilst we commend South Africa and Vietnam for signing a Memorandum of Understanding regarding biodiversity conservation, we now need to see a joint Rhino Plan of Action being implemented, leading to more of these rhino horn seizures,” said Dr. Jo Shaw, rhino co-ordinator with the South Africa chapter of WWF.
“There is also an urgent need to work closely with countries which are transit routes for illicit rhino horn, specifically Mozambique,” said Dr. Shaw.
Two Vietnamese men were detained in separate incidents earlier this month in Vietnam and Thailand for smuggling rhino horns, which were believed to have been exported from Mozambique.
Both Mozambique and Vietnam have been given failing grades by WWF’s Wildlife Crime Scorecard for failing to enforce laws meant to protect rhinos.
The TRAFFIC report explains that all animals alive today of the southern subspecies of White Rhinoceros Ceratotherium simum simum originate from a remnant population of 20 to 50 animals that have been protected in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Game Reserve since 1895.
South Africa now conserves 18,800 White Rhinos, which represents nearly 95 percent of Africa’s total White Rhino population.
“The remarkable recovery of the Southern White Rhino via Natal Parks Board’s “Operation Rhino,” which pioneered wildlife translocation and other important management strategies, remains one of the world’s greatest conservation triumphs,” write Shaw and Milliken.
The report credits the country’s private sector who account for a growing proportion of the national White Rhino population. Estimates from 2010 indicate that approximately 25 percent of all White Rhinos in South Africa are privately owned.
The Southern White Rhino is now listed in the IUCN Red List’s Near Threatened category and, although conservation dependent, the subspecies is no longer regarded as a threatened or endangered species.
But Africa’s other rhino species, the Black Rhinoceros Diceros bicornis, has been nearly wiped out. The estimated 100,000 Black Rhinos in Africa in 1960, before the first catastrophic rhino poaching crisis, were reduced to just 2,410 animals by 1995, the report explains.
Since then, numbers have more than doubled to 4,880 animals in 2010, but this species is still listed as Critically Endangered in the IUCN Red List.
In South Africa, Black Rhino numbers have shown a steady increase since the 1980s. South Africa now conserves an estimated 1,915 Black Rhinos – more than any other range state – and nearly 40 percent of all wild Black Rhinos alive today. Again, the private sector has played a major role in Black Rhino conservation, holding approximately 22 percent of South Africa’s current population.
“But the country’s superlative conservation record of more than a century is under threat,” write Shaw and Milliken.
They recommend that South Africa ensure that those arrested for rhino crimes are prosecuted and punished.