Cost of Doing Business: Oil and Mountain Lions

Oil, the one thing that allows us to live very convenient and comfortable lives. It is responsible for creating wonderful things but it also has the ability to destroy. Time and again we have seen the damage that can happen when things go wrong such as the devastating consequences of oil spills, but besides that is there another impact the industry has on wildlife? To be honest it wasn’t something that I really thought about until I came across a series of articles in the Boulder Weekly that takes a fascinating and in-depth look at the relationship and potential motives for the killings of mountain lions and bears in Colorado.

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) approved two controversial and highly contested management plans that look at the impact mountain lions and black bears have on mule deer populations. The plan, which was implemented as of this spring, essentially calls for the killing of these predators in the Piceance Basin and Upper Arkansas River areas. It received support from ranchers, hunters, farmers and the USDA, but met with opposition from scientists, conservationists and private citizens. Lawsuits filed by the conservation group WildEarth Guardians and the Center for Biological Diversity argued that land development including residential growth as well as the oil and gas industry has had a much greater impact on deer populations than predators and that a full environmental study should be completed before any killing begins.

Mountain Lions, Colorado, big cats, wildlife, conservation, biodiversity, environmental disaster, endangered species, Extinctions,

Are mountain lions and bears the latest victims of the oil and gas industry in Colorado? – Image credit – Boulder Weekly

Joel Berger, a wildlife conservation biologist at Colorado State University told the Boulder Weekly that Instead of looking at predation, the agency should be directing its research to other more relevant questions, “such as whether the mule deer populations in question are being limited by habitat quality and food limitation.”

Through this management plan CPW hopes to provide a clear picture of the “effects on mule deer population demographics relative to changes in mountain lion density, as well as to determine their ability to manipulate mountain lion populations through sport-hunting or harvest.” The stress, cruelty and suffering that mountain lions will be subjected to is not lost on those who oppose the plan which includes the use of “cage traps, culvert traps, foot snares and trailing hounds for capture”. As of May 1 efforts have already begun to trap and remove or relocate mountain lions and bears from the Piceance Basin predator control area. Gail Keirn, public affairs official with the United States Department of Agriculture Wildlife Services said that snares were being used to trap live animals and that “CPW would determine what species was snared, if it is female with young or an adult.” Family groups would be relocated, but adult target animals will be killed with a firearm.

USDA’s Wildlife Services will be contracted $50,000 annually to assist in the killing of mountain lions and bears in the Piceance Basin area, rather than hunters, but CPW is unsure if they will use them in the Upper Arkansas River area. Overall the plan aims to kill between “15 and 45 mountain lions and 30 to 75 bears over three years in 500 square miles west of Meeker and Rifle, Colorado, as well as more than half of the mountain lions in 2,370 square miles in the south-central part of the state.” WildEarth Guardians staff attorney, Stuart Wilcox, told the Boulder Weekly that he thinks the predator management plans are being used to divert attention away from the actual cause limiting mule deer populations, which, he believes, is land use regulation. There is also a lack of data on mountain lion and bear numbers in the areas which means they have no population base line making it impossible to determine if these predators are indeed responsible for declining deer numbers or if mountain lions and bears are being “over-killed”. It was also said that CPW did not use part of its mule deer funding from the oil and gas sector to carry out proper population research prior to deciding to order the killing of an unknown part of the mountain lion and bear population.

The killing has bigger consequences in terms of upsetting the balance of the eco-system as well as disrupting the target animals social structure putting males, females and kittens at risk. Kittens risk being orphaned before they are old enough to survive on their own or become victims of infanticide and, when mature mountain lions are removed (killed) it is known to cause more human wildlife conflict as younger and less experienced males move in.

Mountain Lions, Colorado, big cats, wildlife, conservation, biodiversity, Extinctions,

“The combined cost of the nearly three-year Piceance Basin Predator Management Plan and the nine-year long Upper Arkansas River Predator Management Plan would be $4.6 million dollars“. – Boulder Weekly

There is plenty of oil and gas development in the area where CPW’s predator management plan is taking place and, mule deer naturally range among the equipment which includes drilling rigs and pipelines. While the oil and gas companies have plans to alleviate pressures on wildlife CPW does not have a proper way to determine whether or not these plans will be successful. CPW’s own research showed that oil and gas development is limiting mule deer populations, but despite this arrangements have been made “between the agency and oil and gas companies to conduct the predator-killing efforts on oil and gas company owned land.” Not only did they find the association between a decrease in deer and oil and gas development, but CPW concluded that during an oil and gas boom there were incidents of increased poaching. This is said to be another cause of decreasing deer populations and an additional factor that needs to be fully understand before putting the blame on predators.

The Boulder Weekly points out that CPW did not consider oil and gas impacts on the deer because “sportsmen” didn’t think it was necessary to include it, which is confounding except when it is pointed out that a portion of their research funding comes from hunters or an “excise tax on the sale of firearms and ammunition products.” Hunting quota’s must be increased in order to get more funding – more deer, more money.

The plan to remove predators and methods are disturbing and unscientific especially since there is no accurate population data for mountain lions and, with another gas boom on the horizon in the area it is predicted that deer populations will once again fall as more habitat is destroyed by the industry and poaching increases. This means that mountain lions and bears will become convenient and expendable scapegoats.

Mountain Lions, Colorado, big cats, wildlife, conservation, biodiversity, Extinctions, predator killings

“CPW is required to balance oil and gas extraction with wildlife and its habitats; a balancing act that is proving impossible.” Boulder Weekly

While it is acknowledged that the connection to the oil and gas industry via funding is evident it does not necessarily mean that CPW is “exhibiting funding bias on behalf of the oil and gas industry.” However the Boulder Weekly goes on to say that with regards to the plan to kill mountain lions and bears where CPW’s previous non-oil and gas funded research concluded that “oil and gas extraction and suburban development, not predators” were the main reason for declining deer numbers, does make the plan look highly questionable.

The lawsuits are still pending and in the meantime mountain lions and bears continue to be targeted for declining deer numbers. While our dependency on oil and gas seems here to stay at least for the foreseeable future this leaves us with more to consider on how companies, cities, countries and governments will address the impacts of the industry on both our wildlife and environment.

Excerpts have been taken from the six-part Boulder Weekly series Off Target which can be read in full by following the links.

Cost of Doing Business: Rubies and Water

Around the world there are numerous projects that have already or will impact the environment and wildlife. While Arizona grapples with the possibility of a yet to be built copper mine, across the world in Mozambique a ruby mine operates near to one the largest wild areas in the province, the Niassa Reserve.

Gemfields mining company has become tied to conservation in the reserve even though  they are outside of the protected area. The company has become a sponsor of the Niassa Lion Project and Dr. Collen Begg Director and Founder of the project says it sets a bench mark that a company from within the country is supporting conservation efforts as it demonstrates an interest and concern for the wilderness area that neighbors their operation. While ruby mining in this circumstance appears to be less harmful to wildlife, it’s the illegal gold mining that is said to be the greatest threat to the Eco-system, by poisoning rivers with mercury and destroying wildlife conservation efforts. In a country like Mozambique the answers to solving these problems are not so clear especially when issues like poverty and high unemployment are taken into consideration. Can this type of positive association set an example of how wildlife conservation and big mining companies can co-exist and work together? Perhaps these rubies will one day carry a ‘wildlife friendly’ guarantee similar to that of true ethically sourced conflict free diamonds.

Large projects with the potential to have adverse and destructive consequences for wildlife can be connected to moving massive amounts of earth as in mining or by diverting large amounts or bodies of water. Man-made shipping canals appear to be in a class all their own as they forever alter the landscape and those living on it by flooding vast areas of land with water and impacting surrounding areas with corresponding infrastructure. The Nicaragua canal is one such recent controversial project that if built will be “three times as long and almost twice as deep” as the Panama canal and would require the removal of more than 4.5bn cubic meters of earth which is “enough to bury the entire island of Manhattan up to the 21st floor of the Empire State Building.”

Jaguars, big cats, wildlife, conservation, Nicaragua Canal, biodiversity, environmental disaster, endangered species, Extinctions,

Nicaragua-canal a $50 billion dollar project – A shipping route to connect the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean. It will be able to handle supertankers that are too big for the Panama canal transforming the area into a hub for global trade.  Image – The Guardian

By sheer size alone the impact and damage caused by this mega-project is perhaps greater than that of a mine as it would literally change the lives of people and wildlife across an entire continent. The canal would cut through forests and jungles threatening endangered species causing major disturbances to aquatic life which will be affected by dredging, noise and pollution of increased traffic on the Pacific and Caribbean coastlines. Victor Campos, director of the Humboldt Centre, a leading Nicaraguan environmental think tank, told The Guardian that “If the canal is built, then the Mesoamerican biological corridor is finished.”

A study by researchers at Panthera, Global Wildlife Conservation (GWC) and Michigan State University, warns that by cutting through a critical ‘biological corridor’ it would be a disaster for jaguars and other large mammals. They said that in the middle part of the country it is vital to have another stepping stone for jaguars to travel from north to south.  It was determined that the entire northeastern section of Nicaragua, an area considered to be the country’s wildlife stronghold, would experience the largest impact from the canal. The study concluded that an artificial lake used to fill the canal would flood most of the remaining habitat for the three endangered species including the jaguar creating a huge barrier essentially cutting off mammal populations in southern Central America from those in the north preventing vital gene flow. Loss of connectivity for these species would ultimately be disastrous for their long term survival.

Jaguars, big cats, wildlife, conservation, Nicaragua, Canal, biodiversity, environmental disaster, endangered species, Extinctions, deforestation

A rushed Environmental and Social Impact Assessment was done but failed to include a comprehensive biodiversity study looking at threats to wildlife.

There have been suggestions for mitigating the impact of the canal to help animals including putting small islands between the canal’s artificial lake to allow them to move and, ensuring the remaining forests in the area are strongly protected. The canal is set to be one of the largest infrastructure projects on the planet and what is at stake is the Nicaraguan wildlife corridor and extinction of endangered species.

Could the canal actually help wildlife? There are some that seem to think that it may actually help slow down the already underway environmental degradation, such as deforestation and loss of wetlands, taking place in the country. If the canal is properly managed and money from the project is used to help pay for protecting nature reserves and re-forestation it would help to alleviate some environmental damage and ensure the corridor is not lost. However Roberto Salom, the Mesoamerican coordinator for Panthera’s jaguar program, said that they would need a lot more support to guarantee that, and there has been very little interest from the government or the canal company.

The Nicaraguan government is hoping they will be able to finally eradicate poverty, create jobs and a create a source of income for the country with the canal. As of May this year it has been reported that the green light has been given to begin construction, but nothing has been done due to financial issues leading to speculation that the canal may not be built at all.

Jaguars, big cats, wildlife, conservation, Nicaragua, Canal, biodiversity, environmental disaster, endangered species, Extinctions,

Jaguars and the wildlife corridors they use to move through Central America is threatened by the canal. Image – Wikimedia Commons

The benefit, quicker travel time, that canals provide to the shipping industry is not obvious to the general consumer, nor is the amount of goods that are transported and arrive via ships. Time is money and when shipping companies save money the savings get passed on to the consumer who ideally benefit by cheaper goods. Like mines, man-made canals are not likely going anywhere so perhaps there should be stricter protocols put into place so that wildlife like jaguars are ensured a future and companies are required to consider both wildlife and the environment in their development plans. The other option is that nothing is done and losing wildlife along with entire ecosystems like the one in Nicaragua, is considered the price paid for doing business as usual.

The final part of the Cost of Doing Business takes a look at the impact of a product that is literally in almost everything and, one we would have a hard time living without.

Cost of Doing Business

Some would say wildlife is priceless, but do the same animals still hold ‘value’ when deemed an inconvenience or in the way of human progress? Take predators for example, who seem to become scapegoats or expendable when their interests and needs conflict with ours. Do we on a subconscious level see them as direct competition for space, food and resources? Can we co-exist with them and share or must we, by our actions or lack of, eliminate the competition?

big cats, jaguars, ocelots, living with wildlife, conservation, habitat loss

Whatever the reason they become one of two things – the forgotten victims, or in some cases the ‘poster animal’ for the cause helping to create awareness and positive change. We now know that everything in our environment is connected and all species including predators are vital for helping maintain a healthy balanced Eco-system. Organizations, researchers and even the average citizen are working harder than ever to ensure that these animals are given a voice and a chance to co-exist despite our continued pressure upon the natural world and their habitat. Along with the encouraging stories of progress we have made, are there cases in which the loss of wildlife is simply another cost of doing business?

A few years ago when I was writing the story about an ocelot who was photographed in the Santa Rita Mountains outside of Tuscon Arizona I started reading up on how a Canadian mining company HudBay Minerals Inc. was planning on building the Rosemont Mine, the third largest open-pit copper mine in the U.S., in the same area where the ocelot was discovered and where later the now famous jaguar El Jefe would be photographed. The discovery of the endangered ocelot would prompt the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to re-evaluate their original report (biological opinion) on the impact of the mine. Conservationists said that there would be no way species like the ocelot and jaguar could survive, or co-exist if their habitat was destroyed by the mine.

Ocelots, Dwarf Leopards, Endangered Little cat, Leopardus pardalis, Ocelot Conservation Day, Rare Cats, South America Ocelot, Ocelots in Texas, Ocelots in Arizona, Ocelots in South Amercia, Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Ocelots endangered due to pet trade, Ocelots endangered due to Fur Trade, Habitat Loss, Osa Wildlife Sanctuary, Rare Ocelot Kittens,

Male ocelot, photographed on May 14, is the fifth to be documented in Arizona over the past five years.

Fish and Wildlife Services would later issue their final biological opinion coming to the conclusion that the mine would cause “significant adverse impacts on many of the species” threatening not only predators but also endangered birds and fish. They went on to say that despite this, the number of measures that would be put in place by the mining company, such as the hiring of biologist to monitor effects on wildlife and creating permanent protected areas of conservation lands, it would “not jeopardize the continued existence of any of the 13 affected listed species” or hamper recovery of species like the jaguar despite destroying part of their habitat.

There has been mixed messages among the agencies tasked with reviewing the mine. An EPA report stated that the mine would have adverse consequences on the water system as well as several endangered species including fish, frogs and birds that reside near local streams. The Army corps of Engineers concluded that any measures taken would not fully make up for the “unavoidable adverse” impact of the mine even with appropriate measures taken. The U.S. Forest Service said that due to the 1872 Mining Law, which is still applicable today, the project cannot be denied.

Government agencies weren’t the only ones in disagreement with each other on the mine and, the value of a single jaguar seemed to be something that divided wildcat conservation groups. Panthera’s CEO, and leading expert on jaguars, Alan Rabinowitz wrote back in 2010 that the occasional cat crossing the border from Mexico does not mean they have established territory or that there is even suitable jaguar habitat left in the U.S. Southwest. His feelings remained the same and he told The Star that other reasons should be found to save the landscape especially when resources are needed elsewhere where the data supports evidence of concrete jaguar recovery. Wildcat researchers Aletris Neils and Chris Bugbee who had been studying El Jefe are on the other side and disagreed saying that every single jaguar was important and that the focus should be on recovery of the species to its former range. They believe jaguars can be brought back to the area and that the public must weigh in on the decision.

In a federally financed three-year study by the University of Arizona study tracing the paths of jaguars and ocelot across Southern Arizona, researchers placed remote cameras at 250 sites across 16 mountain ranges capturing photos of a jaguar, ocelot, bobcat and mountain lion at two sites in the northern Santa Ritas. Both times, all four species were photographed within a 24-hour period, the researchers said. Melanie Culver, the study’s principal investigator and Susan Malusa, the study’s project manager told Tucson online that the habitat in the Santa Rita’s should be protected but they could not fully comment on the proposed mine as it wasn’t part of their study. Malusa said it would change things but they weren’t able to predict how.

David Chambers, an environmental consultant, told The Star that there was no definite answer as to whether the mine was “good or bad and, that it comes down to determining if the economic benefits outweigh the environmental and social costs.” Jessica Moreno of Sky Island Alliance said that not everyone cares about a jaguar named El Jefe. The critical issue of the water permits may be the best way stop the mine.

Jaguar, El Jefe, Arizona, Santa Rita Mountains, wildlife, conservations, big cats, Rosemont Mine,

El Jefe in 2014 – Image USFWS – As of early 2017 it has been about a year since El Jefe has been seen leading to speculations that something has happened to him or he has returned to Mexico.

Here are a few things to think about. Copper is in everyday items that we use from cars to cellphones, what are we wiling to give up or eliminate from our lives in order to protect our environment and wildlife? Do we invest more heavily in the technology to recycle and reuse existing copper or are we forever stuck having to mine for it and risk diminishing precious Eco-systems for materials like copper? As the human population grows demand for copper and other materials will increase and if it must be mined, who determines where the copper comes from? Kathy Arnold, Rosemont’s director of environment said in the article from The Star that if the demand for copper continues to grow it will have to come from somewhere and with about “30 percent of what we need being imported another country pays the environmental price for our consumption”. She goes on to say that it’s better to have someone like her watching out for the environment than in places where there are less or no proper controls.

What can be expected with a mile-wide, half-mile deep open-pit mine that is set to border the Santa Rita Mountains in the Coronado National Forest? It would bury 3,000 acres of surrounding public land generating more than a billion tons (1.25 billion tons) of toxic mine waste that will be dumped into 700-foot high “earthforms” and, it is expected to require “6,000 acre-feet of water per year”. It is clear that the mine will disturb, stress, disrupt and possibly become an additional form of mortality for wildlife in addition to the impact it would have on the environment, water supply and local people.

According to Rosemont Mine Truth, who continues to monitor this highly controversial project, there is a “possibility that HudBay could mine up to an additional 591 million tons of copper-bearing rock after mining in the pit is completed” further impacting the landscape, threatened and endangered species, water resources and ecotourism.  As it stands now a Clean Water Act permit issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and, final approval from the Coronado National Forest are required before construction could begin. A final decision is expected soon.

For updates and details on the mine’s progress, please head over to Rosemont Mine Truth on Facebook.

The Cost of Doing Business continues looking at few other projects elsewhere that are, or have the potential to impact the big cats and wildlife.

Building Walls

Building border walls is not a new concept but the impact they have tends to focus on the human element, of how the walls or fences will be used to keep people out, rather than the toll they take on the environment and wildlife. The first time I was introduced to how fences impact wildlife was many years ago while reading Cry of the Khalahari, which touches on Botswana’s veterinary fences that were erected to “stop the spread foot and mouth disease to cattle” and to meet strict EU regulations for the beef trade. The impact these fences had on wildlife was undeniable and brutal “many wild animals including giraffe, elephant, zebra and many species of antelope, became ensnared, cut off from migratory routes and from vital resources.” In short, many species perished as a direct or indirect result of the fences.

Botswana wasn’t the only country to erect fences for the purpose of protecting livestock, Australia put up a fence in the 1950’s to keep sheep safe from predators like dingos and wild dogs. The fence didn’t work out exactly as planned and it ended up also protecting kangaroos which turned out to be more of a problem for sheep due to the fact that they competed with them for pasture.

More recently the effects of the anti-refugee wall between Slovenia and Croatia was studied. The report showed how the barrier is hurting gray wolves, Eurasian lynx as well as possibly threatening brown bears. Suggestions to help alleviate the pressure at the fences includes: using new alternative forms of high-tech monitoring methods that would allow selected sections of a border to remain unfenced while still providing security; more carefully thought out fence alignment that would reduce it effects; and, design that minimizes the chance of wildlife entanglement and death similar to border fencing that has been “retrofitted between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to enable the saiga antelope to pass between the two nations.”

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, bobcats, Eurasian Lynx, Lynx, Europe, Asia

Habitat fragmentation caused by the fence interrupts gene flow and threatens the already small population of Eurasian Lynx – Image Wikipedia

While the report recognizes that many fences are permanent, it says the role of conservationists is critical and that our knowledge and understanding about border fences and their effect on wildlife needs to be improved. Interestingly it was found that in some cases the fences, “may unintentionally actually help conservation by preventing animals from roaming into countries with low degrees of law enforcement, by creating well-guarded spaces where human impact is minimal and by preventing the spread of wildlife diseases.”

Germany’s Cold War barriers of fences and walls that separated East and West later became an accidental nature preserve and is now part of a green belt that runs through central and eastern Europe. In China the Great Wall was found to have no major effect on wildlife as it was not one solid piece of construction but rather consisted of a series of different builds including mounds of pounded earth which later became degraded from use. However, in specific areas where the wall is truly solid a team of Chinese scientists, who conducted a study of plant species on both sides, confirmed that in these areas it was indeed a physical barrier to gene flow.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction,

Arizona section of the U.S.-Mexico border wall – Via Northern Jaguar Project – Photo by Jay J. Johnson-Castro, Sr.

Connectivity and wildlife is a hot topic these days when it come to urban planning and building roads and freeways, but it is very unlikely that an extension of a wall at at the U.S.-Mexico border would take into account concerns for wildlife, habitat fragmentation, or gene flow for endangered species like the jaguar.  While humans can and will generally find ways around walls, wildlife from snakes and frogs to jaguars, pumas, bob cats and big horn sheep will not be able to move freely. They will be forced to adapt to smaller territories which will ultimately prove deadly to them especially when their access to food, mates and water, is cut off.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction,

Mountain lion at border wall U.S. Border Patrol – Image Northern Jaguar Project

In 2006 the Secure Fence Act, which was responsible for the 1,000 kilometers of impenetrable barrier along the Mexico–U.S. border, had environmental laws waived for its construction. The impact of these walls on wildlife has been studied along with the effects it has had on the highly endangered ocelot. The solid metal and concrete fence further fragments ocelot habitat and kept the small population in Texas separate from the larger and more genetically diverse population in northern Mexico. Even though there were about 100 openings incorporated in the fence for wildlife they were much to small to allow larger animals like bobcats or coyotes through.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction,

Ocelot

Wildlife biologist Mitch Sternberg told Nature that “bobcats don’t go out looking for holes in fences as they travel back and forth through brushy habitats. Overall, wildlife connectivity does not exist in these sectors anymore.” It was also noted that there were major shifts in territory due the construction for the 20 bobcats that had been collared and studied. Some simply abandoned their home range and others became trapped on one side of the wall and were eventually killed on highways while looking for new territory.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, bobcats

Bobcat at US-Mexico wall. Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

In 2014 a report was released that stated the fence had little to no impact on human travel and most native species, however it had a great impact on pumas and coatis. While pumas had greater capability to roam farther in search of territory the fence meant there were less of them. With regards to coatis who are unable to move home ranges easily, researchers concluded that this could lead to a “possible collapse in their populations”. It also pointed to the fact that any impact the wall had on the behavior and populations of pumas and coatis could have serious implications for those species with whom they interact.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, Arizona, Wildlife isolation, coyote,

Coati – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

It is estimated that the border wall has the potential to impact 111 endangered species, 108 species of migratory bird, four wildlife refuges and fish hatcheries, and an unknown number of protected wetlands.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction,

Puma – Image The Dodo – Jamie McCallum University of Bristol – U.S. Mexico Border

El Jefe, the male jaguar who caused a stir of excitement when captured on trail camera in  2016 along the Arizona side of the border, would undoubtedly be cut off from any females attempting to come from Mexico. Even though a possible new jaguar has been photographed in the U.S. it is not considered enough to help re-establish the species. Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity told EcoWatch that “walls don’t stop people from crossing the border, but Trump’s plan would end any chance of recovery for endangered jaguars, ocelots and wolves in the border region.”

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, bobcats

El Jefe, is believed to have crossed the U.S.-Mexico border before making his home in Arizona. (Conservation CATalyst/Center for Biological Diversity)

In December 2016 a conservation plan was released for the jaguar, a species that was systematically exterminated in its former historical habitat, by the USFWS in which they hoped to work more closely with Mexico. The plan, which is supposed to “make it easier for agencies and organizations in the U.S. and Mexico to align their efforts at restoring jaguar habitat along the border” includes keeping corridors intact so the cats can move back and forth freely. The proposed wall along the entire 2,000 mile border with Mexico would essentially be the end to the jaguars recovery in America. It would also be an ecological disaster—ripping populations and fragile ecosystems apart. Louise Misztal, biologist and executive director of conservation non-profit Sky Island Alliance in Arizona tells Motherboard that “wide-ranging mammals like mountain lions, bears, jaguars, ocelots, need to be moving between these different mountain ranges to get to food resources and water.”

Saving predators like jaguars go beyond a feel good story about bringing an endangered species back from the brink – they like other apex predators are invaluable in their ability to help regulate, naturally, other species and the ecosystem in which they reside. When apex predators disappear from the landscape trophic cascades, the top-down regulation of ecosystems by predators which is an essential aspect of ecosystem function and well-being, are disrupted.

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, bobcats, amphibians, toads

Camera trap data from Arizona found that the wall did not prevent illegal immigrants from crossing into the United States, but wholly stopped wildlife movement. Toad looking through the metal bars of part of the existing border wall. Credit: Anonymous. Image –  Seeker by Dan Millis

A number of groups and organizations have released statements opposing the proposed wall including the National Wildlife Federation and Panthera. Jesse Lasky, an assistant professor of biology at Pennsylvania State University told Live Science that “If Trump’s wall is built, it could push endangered animals and native animals with small habitats over the edge…and If the populations on the border start disappearing, the functioning of these ecosystems could be reduced.” Bryan Bird, director of the Southwest Program for Defenders of Wildlife tells Seeker that “fences are only appropriate directly adjacent to urban areas and should not be used in wildlife corridors or other ecologically sensitive areas” and, alternative monitoring devices, which minimize the impact on wildlife, such as “virtual high-tech fencing options like unmanned aerial vehicles, motion-sensors, laser barriers and infrared cameras ” should be employed to provide security.

In addition to what the wall means for wildlife, the construction of it will have a further impact on human health and the planet as it has the potential to release about “2 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.”

Fence, Border Wall, U.S. Mexico, wildlife, pumas, ocelots, coati, jaguar, environment, biodiverstiy, extinction, bobcats, amphibians, toads

The U.S.-Mexico border is the largest human construction that has been made to divide two countries since the great wall of china.” US-Mexico wall arial – Image via Triggerpit.com – Photo: ILCP photographer

It is widely accepted that it is a negative prognosis for wildlife and ecosystems when man-made barriers are introduced, unfortunately even with this knowledge border walls and fences are on the rise. Wildlife at the current U.S.-Mexico border wall has been documented acting confused and stressed due to their daily routines being disrupted and, without further environmental impact studies, or incorporating designs in fences that allow animals to move through, researchers will not know the extent of damage or long-term implications. Along with undoing decades of conservation efforts and work any new fences will increase the number of species at risk by further isolating them on either side, pushing wildlife like the jaguar and ocelot even more precariously close to extinction while degrading our ecosystems in the process.

Paper Wildlife

For your caturday viewing pleasure – a miniature world of paper wildlife with an important message.

From the National Geographic Short Film Showcase: “Paper predators and prey spring to life in this visually stunning short from directors Dávid Ringeisen & László Ruska. An ordinary desk and typical office supplies are the backdrop for this micro-universe that carries the macromessage of wildlife conservation. While humans are left out of the piece, their impact is still present in a discarded cigarette butt that sparks an imaginary forest fire and an overflowing wastebasket that pollutes a fantastical rolling-chair river. This piece is part of the filmmakers’ MOME thesis project, the animation department at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design in Budapest, Hungary and was created for WWF Hungary.”

Click here or on image to view video

National Geographic, Short Film Showcase, Miniature World of Animated Paper Wildlife, conservation, wildlife, big cats, art

Image: National Geographic. Short Film Showcase: Step Into a Miniature World of Animated Paper Wildlife

The Zoo Dilemma

There is a very good chance that at some point, almost every person either as a child or adult has visited a zoo and, held the belief that zoos were a good thing, acceptable ways in which to educate people about wild animals that they could never hope to see outside of the confines of a man-made world created to house them. We have learned that zoos help ensure the survival of certain species in captive populations that are both genetically diverse and stable, and a captive animal is better than an extinct animal.

zoos, captivity, wildlife, conservation, Future of zoos, Surplus zoo animals, zoos breeding to kill, lions killed in denmark zoo, Simpson Zoo, Zoo humor,

Over the years opinions on zoos have greatly changed, as has the belief that forever in captivity is acceptable while we allow species to go extinct in the wild. While natural extinction events have occurred throughout the earth’s history we are currently in the 6th mass extinction, and this time around the cause is directly related to humans. If the current rate of extinction continues and we cannot save habitat or preserve wildlife in their natural environment, is it beneficial to continually breed species into a life of captivity?

A male lion at a Japanese zoo was filmed trying to pounce on a little boy with his back turned, and in this video the lion can be seen crashing into the protective glass wall. Similar videos have been shared and deemed “cute” or “funny” when in fact it is not as lions like most big cats, see small kids similar to prey. This lion is acting on instinct but meets with frustration when he cannot fulfill his natural tendencies. It is now excepted that keeping predators like lions in zoos is not only cruel but potentially dangerous.

Are zoos really doing something positive or are they having the opposite effect on people, and can zoos ultimately survive as people change their views of them? The Toronto Zoo, which has been in operation since 1974, has seen a drop in visitors as well as revenue in recent years. Typically that’s when they make changes, bring in new animals or start new programs to attract visitors. Bringing in new animals or making changes costs millions, which the zoos will hopefully make back, but do any of these initiatives truly help conservation?

Among the many other moral and ethical issues surrounding zoos, one stands out in particular – that is the dirty secret of Surplus animals. It is the hidden world of what happens to animals when they are considered ‘non-essential’ either from a genetic or profit standpoint. These surplus animals are euthanized, traded to other zoos or worse, sold to private individuals, game reserves, canned hunting facilities, circuses and even roadside zoos. The lucky ones may end up at a proper sanctuary, where they are cared for for life, but many do not.

Zoochosis is another well documented problem whereby animals are impacted psychologically by being in captivity. This stereotypic behavior includes repetitive swaying, pacing and licking or biting of walls and bars. It is all abnormal behavior and clearly demonstrates that animals in zoos suffer. Even the best zoos cannot ever hope to fully duplicate what animals would experience in the wild, all they can do is try to prevent this behavior by providing proper enrichment.

If this isn’t enough to sway your opinion on zoos, then the two very recent and disturbing events of the past few months should. The first one was the killing of two lions in a Chilean zoo after a man jumped into their enclosure in an attempt to commit suicide, then not long after Harambe the Gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo was shot and killed after a young boy got into his enclosure. Animals subjected to a life in captivity by humans, then killed because of human error and oversight. Sadly these were not the first cases of animals to be killed at zoos due to breaches, and they will likely not be the last.

Then there is the purposeful killing of animals like Marius the giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo, and a 9 month old lioness at Denmark’s Odense Zoo who were both publicly dissected for ‘educational purposes’. This is also the zoos way of doing population control on surplus animals. It’s important to remember that lions are a species on the verge of collapse in the wild so the idea that any zoo would be breeding and killing healthy animals is simply preposterous.

Lion publicly dissected at Denmark's Odense Zoo. Image Vice

Lion publicly dissected at Denmark’s Odense Zoo. Image ViceNews

The case against zoos is growing and more main stream media outlets are picking up on it, the tone mirrors the way many people now view zoos – that there days may be numbered and we need to start looking at alternatives. In an article written about Orca’s in captivity, David Hancocks, ex-director of Woodland Parks Zoo in Seattle tells BBC News that he imagines “zoos of the future with fewer big charismatic animals, giving attention to small species that do well in captivity, in environments that are stimulating for them, and even with very small life form exhibits that showcase the interdependence and interconnectedness of the natural world”. He also says that it as it becomes more clear that most of the standard big star attraction animals in zoos shouldn’t be in captivity and he expects the public to “react in similar ways to the way they have reacted to the revelations about what was happening in SeaWorld.”

We also need to ask ourselves if we are really learning that much from zoos? My personal experience says not much, a few zoo visits didn’t teach me anything that I wasn’t able to learn on my own via other sources like reading or watching TV programs. Once I finally fulfilled a life long dream of seeing my first lion in the wild I knew that I could never look at a captive zoo lion again and feel right about it and, I believe deep inside most of us know it is wrong. In his book, Raising Kids Who Love Animals, child psychiatrist Sujatha Ramakrishna wondered whether a trip to the zoo is an educational experience, or if it only encourages them to treat animals with disrespect. He came to the conclusion that even the good zoos were bad after visiting different ones and noting behavior of the animals and people viewing them.

Though I hoped to find evidence to the contrary, I must conclude that zoos continue to be detrimental to animal welfare, and that they do not teach children positive lessons about animals. Kids who watch leopards pacing in mindless patterns get a completely inaccurate picture of what large predators are all about. They also learn that making sentient beings suffer for human amusement is acceptable. We want to teach kids to show kindness towards animals, not stare at their misery while eating popcorn.” – via Global Animal

Ideally in a perfect world all types of zoos would be abolished and only sanctuaries of the highest standard would exist, places where animals can live out their natural lives with the best care and environments possible. Sanctuaries will unfortunately be a necessity as there will always be wildlife to rescue and rehabilitate, but unlike zoos, they do it without breeding or exploiting animals. Reputable sanctuaries work to ensure the animals mental and physical well-being are a priority and can also play a role in educating the public.

Zoos have been around for a long time and date as far back as ancient Greece, their history is bloody and disturbing and while in some places they can be considered to have come a long way, in many countries the horrors continue to this day. Surely the case for abolishing zoos where they are literally death camps for animals should be a priority, and working to phase them out everywhere a future goal.

In the meantime what does the future hold for zoos? This is where technology can help with something called a virtual zoo. This would bring the experience of being at a zoo without the captivity and suffering that comes with it. Landmark Interactive Virtual Experience (L.I.V.E), a company behind entertainment experiences such as Universal’s ‘Jurassic Park: The Ride,’ and ‘The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman 5D’,  is planning on creating a virtual zoo and aquarium in China. This will be the first of its kind and is set to open in 2017 or 2018.

zoos, captivity, wildlife, conservation, Future of zoos, virtual zoos, technology,

L.I.V.E  image of a virtual zoo

Landmark Entertainment Group CEO Tony Christopher told Fortune magazine that they will have the ability to “put you in the African savannah or fly you into outer space.” Besides entertainment it also has the ability to educate without causing harm, and although it can never be a substitute for conserving animals in the wild the technology could be a big step in helping reduce the number of animals kept in zoos. While widespread use of technology like this may be a long way out, it is still good to know that one day people of all ages will be able to have the ‘zoo’ experience without the negative aspects associated with traditional zoos.

Even with technology, nothing beats the real thing and conservation of wildlife and habitat should remain a key priority going forward, perhaps the virtual zoo of the future will one day help financially benefit conservation directly. Until that time when we have finally moved away from the traditional model and no longer have wildlife in captivity, we are left faced with the zoo dilemma that can be either solved or perpetuated by the choices we make.

If you are looking for activities to do with or without kids that doesn’t involve a trip to the zoo, here is a list of six ideas that will give you all the benefits and help animals at the  same time!

  • Visit an animal sanctuary
  • Get outside to observe wildlife habitats and learn about local flora and fauna
  • Visit local parks and hiking trails
  • Watch education documentaries
  • Walk dogs or help out care for cats and animals at your local shelter
  • Read or share books on wildlife or animals with kids

Update: on June 15, since posting this piece a lion named Zawadi was injured at the Oregon Zoo while children watched. Footage shows the lion entering the training area through a hydraulic door, which then shuts chopping off the tip of his tail. The show only came to a stop because the audience started yelling.

Gorongosa Reborn

The National Geographic Live Lecture season will be soon be wrapping up in Toronto and so far the series has been great. Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal with Emmy Award-winning natural history cinematographer Bob Poole, has been the one lecture I have been looking forward to most since the series line up was announced last year.

The lecture centers around Bob’s recent six-part PBS/Nat Geo International series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’, in which he has documented the come back of Mozambique’s Gorongosa National Park.

Gorongosa has been referred to as one of Africa’s most treasured national parks that in its heyday was home to thousands of animals including some 6,000 elephants and about 500 Lions. Scores of people, including international celebrities, once flocked to the park to view its prolific wildlife up until civil war broke out in 1977. By the time the war ended, in 1992, the wildlife in the park had been all but wiped out, and what hadn’t been destroyed by the war trophy hunters managed to finish off. After the dust had settled in the mid-90’s, the park was surveyed again – they counted a mere 100 elephants. Almost all of the large grazers as well as the predators were gone from the landscape.

Thankfully things were set to turn around for the better, and the rehabilitation of the park officially began when the Gorongosa Restoration Project created a 20 year public-private partnership with the Government of Mozambique to jointly manage the park. Then in 2007 lions were photographed for the first time since 1960 at the ‘Lion House’, wildlife was very slowly and cautiously beginning to return.

Lions, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, Africa, Gorongosa Reborn, Bob Poole, National Geographic Live, Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, Africa, Wildlife, PBS,

Originally built as a tourist camp on a floodplain, the ‘Lion House’ was abandoned due to flooding in the rainy season and later taken over by Lions who were often seen lounging on the roof– Photo by Whitney Leonard/Gorongosa.org

Bob Poole had already spent two years living and filming in Gorongosa and was eager to take on the PBS project, he tells Mother Nature Network that the experience fulfilled a life-long dream for him “I was able to combine my passion for animal conservation with my love of documentary filmmaking.” He goes on to say that Gorongosa is a prime example of what can be done and that is possible to reverse the damage humans have caused, that with effort, “nature can be saved.” A rather positive and hopeful message at a time when we are bombarded almost daily with much of the opposite.

Bob’s love of the park and enthusiasm for his work is infectious, his story telling and passion translates in person and on-screen for an informative and at times very entertaining presentation. It is guaranteed to leave you wanting more, if not determined to visit the park for yourself one day.

Lions, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, Africa, Gorongosa Reborn, Bob Poole, National Geographic Live, Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, Africa, Wildlife, PBS,

Bob Poole films sunrise over the floodplain. Photo credit Gina Poole – Gorongosa.org

Gorongosa Reborn: A Cameraman’s Journal is for anyone who loves wildlife, Africa, conservation and the idea that people can come together to fix what was once broken if we choose. Among other things you can expect to hear about elephants who haven’t forgotten the war; species reintroduction and breeding programs; and of course the come back of the parks great predator – lions.

Having been very fortunate to visit Gorongosa the presentation brought back great memories, especially the excitement of being in the park knowing the history and seeing what was being done. In particular, it is was wonderful to hear a mention of one very special lioness called Tripod, who at 15 years old is still going strong.

Lions, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, Africa, Gorongosa Reborn, Bob Poole, National Geographic Live, Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, Africa, Wildlife, PBS,

View of Tripods back leg where she lost part to a snare. Image © Tori Dileo

She lost part of one of her legs to snaring and managed not only to survive but to hunt, raise cubs and remain a vital and successful part of her pride. In a way her strength and resilience is very symbolic of Gorongosa and the parks potential for the future.

Lions, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, Africa, Gorongosa Reborn, Bob Poole, National Geographic Live, Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, Africa, Wildlife, PBS,

Tripod resting and waiting for one of the males off to the side. – Image © Tori Dileo

While Gorongosa is a story of hope and transformation the park and its wildlife face threats from poaching and snaring; illegal mining and logging; human settlements inside the park; and, the potential of conflict caused by political instability. However even with these challenges, the good news is the park is currently open for business and by supporting tourism there you are helping the park, its restoration, local communities and wildlife. I hope to be able to go back again one day and would recommend it for anyone who is looking for a truly magical and unique place in Africa to visit.

Lions, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique, Africa, Gorongosa Reborn, Bob Poole, National Geographic Live, Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise, Africa, Wildlife, PBS,

Meeting Bob Poole after the lecture at Toronto’s Roy Thomson Hall.

If the story of Gorongosa intrigues you be sure to check the National Geographic Events page to see when Gorongosa Reborn is coming to your city. For those in the U.S. you can catch the full episodes of Bob’s series ‘Gorongosa Park: Rebirth of Paradise’ online at PBS.