Flamingos Vaquitas Reindeer Cows Elephants Nematodes Penguins Frogs and Urban Leopards

Carol:  Hi Hurst!  How has your week been?

Hurst: Well, it was spring break at my university so naturally I have been catching up on sleep instead of school work.

Carol: Naturally. Well, homework is taxing and all but I’d venture that herding reindeer during short days in the Arctic might be slightly harder. This next story is about kick ass Sámi women who are leading the fight against climate change and aggressive logging practices in Finland. These women and their families are indigenous Sámi reindeer herders, just as their ancestors were. They lead semi-domesticated reindeer through their seasonal migrations, however, recently these migration patterns are changing due to the warming climate.

Hurst: Hmmm…I can see how this is concerning since Arctic temperatures are rising more than twice as fast as the global average. How is climate change altering these migration patterns?

Carol: Well, reindeer typically feed on lichen that they sniff out in the snow. However as the climate warms, precipitation that would have traditionally been snow has turned into freezing rain that traps lichen under hard ice, out of reach. This causes herders to alter their traditional patterns in order to make sure their reindeer are being fed. In addition to a lack of food for diminishing reindeer herds, new parasites and diseases have begun spreading to the north because they can tolerate the milder climate.

Hurst: Don’t forget how devastating deforestation is as well. Forests provide reindeer herders with winter grazing lands and shelter for their animals.

Carol: Absolutely. A little over half of trees on Sámi lands are in protected areas, but that leaves a lot that are “up for grabs” so to speak. These Sámi women are fighting against clear-cutting style of logging and working with the government to preserve their way of life for themselves and those that come after them.

Hurst: Hey Carol, were Lacoste shirts around when you were my age?  You know the ones with the alligator logo on the front?

Carol: Well, since the company started in 1933 I think it’s safe to say yes, they were around.

Hurst: Cool, then you’ll love this next story. Lacoste has teamed up with International Union for Conservation of Nature, the organization that monitors and reports the status of wildlife, to bring awareness and funds to endangered species.

Carol:  You don’t mean…

Hurst: I do! They have replaced the alligator on a number of their shirts with logos representing ten endangered species that are in immediate danger of extinction.

Carol: Ah!  That’s so clever!  How many shirts are available?

Hurst: Well, that’s also clever.  And sad. Lacoste has determined the number of available shirts by the number of animals that remain in the wild. So for example, there are 30 Vaquita porpoises shirts, 50 Northern Sportive Lemurs, 150 Cao-vit Gibbons, 230 California Condors, 350 Sumatran Tigers, and 450 Anegada Rock Iguana  shirts. A total of 1,775 shirts have been made, they sell for $180-$200 each, and the money from sales will go to the species’ conservation.

Carol: I like it when famous individuals or organizations, in this case Lacoste, use their celebrity to call attention to important issues.

Hurst: Agreed. Speaking of endangered species and the acceleration of species extinction, I want to also tell you about a fantastic opinion piece I read in the New York Times.  It focused on the notion that we need to protect pre-determined large portions of land and sea in order to slow down the mind-boggling rate at which species are becoming extinct. There are several ways of selecting which areas might be protected, such as focusing on biodiversity hotspots or ecoregions, and certainly some gains have been made already toward the creation of protected terrestrial areas and protected marine areas. The author points out that two fairly well accepted estimates exist about the numbers of species with which we share the world. First, there are probably about 10 million species on the planet, and second, the ones that humans have documented and classified are around two million.

Carol: Wait, so if my math is right, there are eight million species on the planet that we don’t even know about?

Hurst:  More or less, that’s right. We don’t know enough about them to make any conservation plans to protect them. The author goes on to say that we need to learn more about these species so that we can put into place beneficial programs and policies about their habitat and he emphasizes how critical these seemingly uninteresting animals are in keeping the world humming along as a well-functioning system.

Carol: By uninteresting, do you mean animals other than mammals and birds and fish?  

Hurst: Yes, it’s natural for us to be drawn to some of the cute furry animals we share our homes with, and we are well aware of the farmed or harvested animals we eat, and we know about mega fauna wildlife like whales and giraffes and tortoises, but it’s the ones that we don’t know so well that do incredibly important functions within massive ecosystems.  The author ends the article by issuing an invitation for us to learn more about them. I’m going to quote it here because I think it is really well put: They are the protists, fungi, insects, crustaceans, spiders, pauropods, centipedes, mites, nematodes and legions of others whose scientific names are seldom heard by the bulk of humanity. In the sea and along its shores swarm organisms of the other living world — marine diatoms, crustaceans, ascidians, sea hares, priapulids, coral, loriciferans and on through the still mostly unfilled encyclopedia of life. Do not call these organisms “bugs” or “critters.” They too are wildlife. Let us learn their correct names and care about their safety. Their existence makes possible our own. We are wholly dependent on them.

Carol:  I will have to try to ban the terms critters from my vocabulary and give them the respect they deserve!  On to another issue I’m sure you’ve seen in the news. Last week there was a decision made to lift the ban on importing elephant trophies from sport hunting.  What I guess I’d like to say about this is that while troubling, this certainly is a complicated issue. The recent memo issued from the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service that withdraws the ban on elephant, lion, and bontebok trophies from several African nations…Zambia, Namibia, South Africa, Zimbabwe…was spurred by a court case argued in fall of 2017 brought forward by Safari International and the National Rifle Association. The NRA and Safari International were appealing an earlier decision made about imports from sport hunting, in which the criteria for making such decisions were outlined in a memo from 2015. The USFWS website on international hunting displays the current rules, all of which are difficult to distill into one or two sentences. For now, it appears that the ban isn’t completely lifted but rather hunting permits will be evaluated on a case by case basis.  We’ll have to wait and see what effect this shift will mean in numbers of imports.

Hurst:  I will be keeping an eye on that story for sure. I wanted to mention another form of international tourism based on wildlife.  I read a story featured in World Bank’s News Forum about a new report on wildlife tourism and the positive effects that it can have for local communities. To be clear, this is not hunting but what is sometimes called “non-consumptive” wildlife tourism.  The report called Supporting Sustainable Livelihoods through Wildlife Tourism was commissioned by the World Bank Group and the Global Wildlife Program, and demonstrates that international tourism not only brings in revenue to nations and communities, but helps to finance natural resource protection and management. The report hails tourism as a market-based approach to sustaining local people’s livelihoods and protecting biodiversity.  

Carol: That’s great to hear.  You and I both know that tourism is made up of a big wide system of stakeholders so it certainly takes a lot of planning on many levels for a large scale initiative to be successful, but it is encouraging that it can be done.

Hurst: In the random news category, I’ll mention briefly a story reported in the UK’s Independent about a cow in Poland who escaped a trip to the slaughterhouse.  It seems that she was being loaded onto a truck to meet her fate when she saw her chance, rammed a metal fence and headed for a nearby lake only to swim across to a small island and ultimately, her safety.  The farmer and a nearby vet worked with local officials who all decided that the cow would be transported to a safe place to live out her life, once they could get the necessary tranquilizers to bring her back across the lake. It was a big story on Facebook for a while, at least in parts of Poland, because a local politician took up the cause to help the cow find a peaceful place to live out her natural life.

Carol:  Well, since I’m pretty obsessed with food, I’ll mention a few food related stories, and none of them involve a trip to the slaughterhouse. All of these stories came from The Good Food Institute, an organization who supports the growth of the clean meat industry and plant-based alternatives to meat.

Hurst: Wait, what do you mean by clean meat?  Have I been eating dirty meat?

Carol: Clean meat just means that it is meat produced without animal slaughter. It is typically grown from cells extracted from livestock, and it has some interesting advantages apart from breaking the tie to animal welfare issues found in industrialized agriculture. The industry is said to have enormous environmental advantages, as well as health benefits because it reduces food-borne pathogens and drugs passed along through the meat that comes from animals.  

Hurst: Ok, so what’s the food news ?  And does it really count as animal news if it is about clean meat?

Carol: I would argue it does because it profoundly affects animals.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how many millions of dollars are being invested in the clean meat production just over the last three years and how well it is being accepted by consumers. A recent survey by Nielsen reported that 23% of consumers want more plant-based proteins on the shelves, and 39% of Americans and 43% of Canadians are trying to incorporate more plant-based food into their diets.  You know Tyson, the big chicken producer? They have already invested in two start-up clean meat companies but now have launched their own line of 100% plant based “grab and go” meals under a brand called Green Street.  

Hurst: Whoa. That’s hard to get my head around.

Carol: Tyson spokespeople said something to the effect that they didn’t want the food market disruption to happen to them; they wanted to be part of the disruption.  Another growing trend is substitutes for animal-based dairy products.  There’s a new company called Perfect Day who just raised $24.7 million in their first round of investment-based fundraising. According to Perfect Day public relations, the advantages of their dairy over cow-based dairy include an 84% decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, 98% less water use, and 91% less land use.  I don’t know if that is measuring gallon for gallon but those are certainly stats that get your attention. And in the final bit of non-animal food news, Sonic is going all in on a new mushroom burger they’ve been testing. According to the article I read “The secret to Sonic’s success is two-fold. On the one hand, it turns out that mushrooms provide – and perhaps improve upon – the powerful umami flavors of beef for a fraction of the calories. Secondly, these blended burgers are cost-competitive both for consumers and for the chain itself. With economies of scale, it’s highly likely that mushroom-blended burgers could be vastly more cost-efficient to produce than their 100% beef counterparts in the near future.”

Hurst:  Hmm…I might just have to get a Sonic Mushroom Slider for lunch and wash it down with some Perfect Day milk.

Carol: You do that.  

Hurst: In a bit of adorable animal news, some penguins in Antarctica recently took some great selfies using a wildlife camera.

Carol: So they’re Millennial penguins?

Hurst: I don’t think you can really fit penguins into generational stereotypes. But anyway, in this video you can see two Emperor Penguins knock over a camera set up by scientists trying to collect data on the animals. The two birds proceed to call out to announce their discovery while the camera captures it all, from a less than flattering angle.

Carol: I didn’t think that the below-the-chin-angle looked good on anyone, but I must say these penguins made it work.

Hurst: On the opposite end of the happy animal news spectrum, the outlook isn’t good for vaquitas. We mentioned them in one of the first editions of Creature Feature, but a recent report states that there are only twelve known vaquitas left. It seems that policy that the Mexican government put in place to protect these small porpoises, such as restrictions on the nets that accidentally catch and kill them, have not been followed.

Carol: Twelve does not seem like it would be a big enough population for these unique animals to bounce back, which is very sad.  I am hopeful that we can learn from this so it does not happen again to any other endangered marine mammal species.

Hurst: Well in a bit of a change, I have a story about animals killing humans, instead of the other way around. According to a recent report, the animals that are most likely to kill humans are not sharks and snakes as some might think, but are farm animals, dogs, and stinging insects like hornets, bees and wasps. Apparently you are much more likely to be lethally kicked by a farm animal, fatally stung by a bee, or killed by a dog than an animal in the wilderness.

Carol: Well that is morbid but provides a relevant segue into my next story. Urban leopards in Mumbai, India are playing a surprising role in human welfare by preventing rabies and saving taxpayer dollars.

Hurst: Wow, they should run for office! Also, how are they living in such a big city? Do they even have jobs? How can they afford that rent?

Carol: Those are good questions, but I’m going to ignore most of them. Approximately 40 leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which backs up directly to the city. The leopards here kill about 1,500 dogs that could possibly be carrying rabies.  FYI, rabies kills about 20,000 people in India each year. Since it is illegal to kill a dog in India, the government stepped in by paying for a large sterilization program but because leopards are killing these dogs, they are saving the government about $18,000 annually.

Hurst: That is impressive. It would be interesting to see how this parallels to cougar populations in the United States. Those populations have declined greatly because people do not like the thought of living in the same space as a predator. However, this information on leopards could change the way we view these situations.

Carol: I read an interesting story this weekend about flamingos and their status as a native or non-native species in Florida. I don’t know about you, but I have always thought of these pink birds as something exotic, not American.

Hurst: I agree, I thought flamingos were only naturally occurring in South America.

Carol: Well according to a recent study, the modern flamingo populations in Florida are considered native. In the 1800’s the flamingo was widely considered a native bird until the 1900’s when they were hunted to near extinction. Since these birds had disappeared from the wild, any later sightings were considered to be escaped captives from zoos. However research shows that flamingos in Florida today are not escapees, but a rebounding population of native fauna.

Hurst: This is important because if Florida flamingos are considered native they become eligible for protection from state and national agencies, which could greatly help the recovering species.

Carol: Moving on, how are you preparing for the big day?

Hurst: Uh… what big day is that?

Carol: World Frog Day of course! It’s the hoppiest day of the year, or at least that’s what I’ve been toad. This is especially pertinent since there are 787 endangered species of amphibians in the world and amphibians are especially prone to negative effects due to climate change and pollution.

Hurst: Hoppy holidays I guess. See you next week!

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