Birds, turtles, dragonflies, sharks and elephants. So many animals travel long distances, in many cases thousands of miles, year after year. How do they find their way? I went to London to attend the tri-annual conference on animal navigation held by the Royal Institute of Navigation in April. Here's the story about the search for the animal compass and the scientists racing to prove two very different theories about how many animals navigate with such awesome precision across the planet. Read at newyorker.com
A visit to the American Museum of Natural History’s frozen-specimen collection, adapted from Resurrection Science, published in The Harper's Blog. "In an era of anthropogenic global warming, preserving life in man-made freezers is both prudent and ironic, not a solution in and of itself, but a last resort."
I took a departure from science and nature writing to report on the 20-year + saga of Stephen Flatow, a lawyer and father in New Jersey whose oldest daughter was killed in a suicide bombing in Gaza. The story was published with The Atavist Magazine and dives into the intersection of idealism and real politik in the 1990s, a period of tumult and violence in the Middle East but also hope for a peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians. Flatow's vindication for his daughter was getting legislation passed in Congress that gave individual Americans the right to sue state sponsors of terrorism in U.S. courts (Flatow succesfully sued Iran), an issue that is now being debated again as the families of victims of 9/11 fight for the ability to sue Saudi Arabia for its role in the attack. Read the whole story here
Earlier this year, a motorist driving near Picayune Strand State Forest, in southwestern Florida, spotted a dead panther on the side of the road. Although the entire population of Florida panthers numbers fewer than a hundred and eighty, this was not a particularly unusual sight. In 2014 alone, twenty-two panthers were killed by automobiles. This animal, it turned out, had not been hit by a car. When wildlife officials conducted a necropsy, they found that it had died from a gunshot wound. It was the second such attack in six months. The previous October, a different driver on the same road had spotted a two-year-old male panther behaving strangely. When the animal was captured, officials discovered that he had been blinded by buckshot. Because Florida panthers are endangered, intentionally killing one is a federal offense, punishable by up to a year in jail and a hundred-thousand-dollar fine. Nevertheless, at least five panthers have died this way since 2008. In the couple of cases that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has solved, the perpetrators were hunters—people who didn’t like the cats competing for the same prey. Florida has a panther problem. Read the rest at newyorker.com
There are many things in the world that we cannot see with our eyes, including the hundreds of millions of birds that migrate in the spring and fall under cover of darkness. I wrote about radar ornithology, a field of study that uses weather surveillance radar to track birds at night, and a group of scientists who are using artificial intelligence to try and interpret the data and glean the relationships between ecology, climate and migration for the goal of conservation. The piece is here at Nautilus magazine's issue on "Dark Matter."
The emotion and outrage at Cecil the lion's killing by an American hunter in Zimbabwe has ebbed in the last week. So I thought I would take an opportunity to add my two cents to the debate that has emerged over trophy hunting.
Everything that has been reported about Cecil's killing indicates it was not only illegal, but also ill conceived and poorly-executed, starting with the guides who lured the lion out of its preserve to the hunter who initially wounded the lion instead of achieving a fast and humane kill. Despite this, I find that I can’t join in the widespread condemnation of trophy hunting. The reason is I strongly suspect that most trophy hunters place great value on animals and the conservation of nature, perhaps even more than many "animal lovers" (myself included) who don't hunt. In fact, trophy hunting is arguably a component of effective conservation policy for some species and in many places around the world.
Here's a basic question: what is the value of animal or species? It's been the subject of much philosophizing since the early 1970s. As countries began extending legal protections to threatened animals and species, environmental ethicists tasked themselves with articulating and debating their source of moral value: Is it their rarity? Scientific interest? Aesthetic beauty? Ecological significance? Cuteness? Because they just….exist?
For most of the world this debate isn’t nearly so abstract. The value of an animal or species is utilitarian and related to survival: an animal that assists in survival is valuable; one that hurts survival or is simply inconsequential is less so. In these terms, if a lion kills the livestock of a farmer in Africa, it is not only a physical threat but threatens the livelihood (and safety) of their family and community. If the protection of a bird keeps local villagers out of the forest, it prevents them from extracting natural resources like timber, food, and medicine.
Consider the case of an extremely rare species of Tanzanian frog that became extinct in the wild due to a hydroelectric dam. The value of a Kihansi spray toad changes depending on whether you are an amphibian-lover halfway round the world, or a mother whose children will benefit from electricity generated by a new dam. Many complicated cases of endangered species today have this sort of ethical knot at their core. You could even say that the mass extinction we are currently facing had been driven by the individual humans’ prerogative for survival.
These moral scales shift, however, when a species has value for many people, even if the source of that value is different. For instance, mountain gorillas. Tourists spend millions of dollars in Rwanda for the experience of seeing these endangered animals in their natural habitat, which has in turn increased the species’ value for many local communities who have reaped the benefits of new schools, roads, and health centers as a result. The tourist values the gorilla for its awesomeness; the local Rwandan values it for the resources it brings.
The price that trophy hunters will pay to kill an animal can counter intuitively raise the value of a species and even achieve conservation goals. For example, as reported in Conservation Magazine, when white rhinoceros hunting was legalized in South Africa, the country’s population increased from around one hundred to more than 11,000. Hunting became an incentive for the species' preservation on private land. No one would argue that a similar policy would work for northern white rhinos, of which there are only five left today. But there is much evidence that in some cases, regulated, controlled hunting can be a tool in helping multiple stakeholders achieves goals whether those be survival, conservation, or sport.
When my own grandfather killed a polar bear with a bow and arrow in the Arctic, he paid tens of thousands of dollars for what he considered a great privilege. Much of the money he paid went to the Inuit community that had an annual quota to hunt the bears for subsistence. And when he went to Africa to hunt the Big Five, he shot a rhino with a tranquilizer that allowed a veterinarian to conduct an exam of the animal’s health. These are small examples of how trophy hunting, again, when legal and controlled, can support both local communities and conservation. These hunts are also some of my grandfather’s most-cherished memories because he deeply values animals and wilderness, and has sought direct experiences of them since he was a boy.
Even as we condemn the circumstances and illegality of Cecil’s killing in Zimbabwe, we might take this opportunity to ask some questions about our ethical convictions. What is the source of the moral value we extend to animals and species? Can we challenge ourselves to make room for other perspectives and a diversity of values in a complicated world? And can we find commonalities with one another in order to achieve a vision of broad, effective conservation for species all over?
I watch a fair amount of nature shows and documentaries but lately I've been totally captivated by one called The Last Alaskans. I've never quite seen anything like it. This may be the quietest TV show ever made. Only The Yule Log has less dialogue. Somehow this eight-episode "docuseries" from Animal Planet manages to create the same ruminative, even meditative, state of mind as staring into a fire while being infinitely more fascinating. The Last Alaskans is about people who live in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, 19 million acres of wilderness in northern Alaska. As the opening sequence explains, the U.S. government banned new human occupation in the refuge in 1980 and only seven families remain—their permits will run out when their youngest children pass away. It has been accurately been described as "hypnotic" and "cinematographic" but that's really only a small part of why it's so unique: this is reality TV that actually manages to reveal something amazing and powerful about people and wilderness.
The format of The Last Alaskans is recognizable—the show’s producers weave back and forth between characters, splicing in interviews and the characters' commentary to build narrative in each episode. But the story lines are unrecognizable from any show out there. They are about judging the integrity of new ice, setting trap lines, tracking caribou and wolves, the psychology of solitude, hunting animals, scarcity, the change of seasons, and the nature of change itself. We meet Heimo and Edna Korth, a tender couple who raised four daughters in refuge, as they begin their 40th year living in a one-room cabin and hunting and gathering food. We follow Ray Lewis, tall, mustachioed and in possession of a quietly philosophical nature, trapping beaver to help his family through the winter. And we meet Bob Harte, the oldest of the group at 65, whose struggles with aging coincide with a string of misfortunes—an invading bear, a bush-plane crash–that threaten his cherished-isolation and freedom. These aren’t the stable of freaks (Alaskan Bush People), hippies (The Legend of Mick Dodge), or adrenalin junkies (Running Wild with Bear Grylls) presented to us in wilderness shows by television networks attempting to grab viewers. These are people who have chosen lives of solitude so far from our own, so astonishingly different in their day-to-day concerns, that it will make you look anew at your trip to a grocery store or car ride down the freeway. The Last Alaskans immerses us in a world without roads or stores or media, and in the process reveals how far modern society has departed from a mode of existence directly dependent on nature.
Because this is a reality TV show there is still the predictable creative editing and sound design intended to build drama and tension into scenes and the infrequent flashbacks. But for the most part there’s a remarkable amount of restraint. This might be because the risks of encountering winter bears or crashing a bush plane don’t really need to be fabricated. They’re real enough on their own. “It’s easy to die up here,” says Harte in Episode Two, “everything else is work.” The exquisite visual aesthetic of The Last Alaskans is remarkable too. The episodes are full of long shots and slow-motion close-ups. The camera people, who spent five months filming, capture images of shadows on sandbars or pike thrashing in the air. There are stunning aerial shots and what's communicated is the starkness of the Arctic landscape, its incredible changes in light, and overwhelming quiet. More about this quiet: a few episodes in, I began to notice that nearly everybody seems to have some sort of vocal tic—a faint stutter, a halting cadence. This struck me as strange until it occurred to me that what all the characters have in common is they probably don't talk a lot. Whole scenes The Last Alaskans are frequently conducted in hushed whispers. Lewis describes how it takes several weeks for his ears to stop vibrating after returning to the refuge from "town."
One of the show’s unforgettable scenes takes place in Episode Five, when Tyler Selden, a young man who came to the refuge six years ago with his wife, catches a lynx in a trap. When Selden reaches it, the animal is snared but not dead. The cat’s back is arched, its teeth bared, it’s almost shockingly wild and alive. Selden kills it by strangling it with a wire noose on the end of a birch pole. It’s almost unbearable to watch but the camera never flinches. It’s one of the most honest things I’ve seen on television at a time when nature shows abound but rely on anthropomorphizing (Meerkat Manor) or sensationalizing (World’s Deadliest Animals). “It’s just part of it. I mean, I just killed an animal, right?” says Selden after. “A lot of people would feel bad about that…it’s a heavy thing to do. It’s not something I enjoy." The show repeatedly returns to this subject as if challenging our distaste as well as our hypocrisy. And we get the benefit of hearing the moral logic of individuals who have chosen to make explicit their dependence on animals for survival by killing them with their own hands. “It’s not the pursuing or the killing of the game that makes me happy,” says Lewis in Episode One. “It just gives you a perspective how everything is connected together. You have to study the terrain, the country, you really have to study the habits of the animals, you get to the point where, you know, you’re a part of it.”
I think the real reason I fell so hard for this show is it made me reconsider a long-held assumption that television about nature mediates our experience of the real thing to great detriment. The Last Alaskans is still a mediated experience but it gets a lot right that other nature shows barely attempt. Rather than distort or degrade a natural landscape by packaging it to fit into human dramas, The Last Alaskans is all about showing humans trying to fit themselves into a landscape impossibly bigger than them. The thoughtfulness and skill required to survive in the refuge is truly impacting to watch, you start feeling grateful that these folks let you in for a little bit.
The fact that these are indeed some of the very few remaining individuals who will live in this place is powerful. It reminded me that while delineating wilderness from civilization and protecting it from its impacts is good conservation, much is also lost when the vital relationships between people and wilderness are severed. "I hope this life doesn't go extinct,' says Bob Harte in Episode Eight. In James Campbell's' book about Heimo Korth, The Final Frontiersman, he writes: "The Arctic is a wilderness, but it has been inhabited for perhaps as long as 10,000 years by descendants of those who crossed the Bering Land Bridge. Modern definitions of wilderness won't allow for the presence of people, however; in fact, they demand their absence."
A new piece at NewYorker.com about the stars, GPS, and a physicist: "As a species, humans lack many of the biological gifts that allow other animals to get around. A loggerhead turtle, for example, begins to take its bearings within a couple of hours of hatching, using magnetite crystals in its brain to sense Earth’s magnetic field. (Spiny lobsters, monarch butterflies, and termites have similar compasses.) Honeybees get from nectar to hive and back in part by judging the position of the sun, which they can sense, even on a cloudy day, from patterns in polarized light. Where biology has failed humans, we have substituted culture. Throughout our evolutionary history, we have created ad-hoc systems of knowledge that organize environmental information and make it transmissible to the next generation. Often, difficult and monotonous landscapes—desert, sea, ice—resulted in more intricate systems. Several thousand years before the magnetic compass was invented, Pacific Islanders had worked out how to navigate by star compasses and read ocean swells for information about nearby land." Read the rest...
I'm getting closer and closer to seeing my first book published, which is really the realization of a fantasy I've had since I was a little itty bitty bookworm. At the same time, I'm in the midst of one of those uncanny, serendipitous spates that can occur as a reader when every book you buy or randomly discover is just amazing. So for these reasons and in the spirit of celebrating and appreciating the written word, I decided to start a gallery here of the books I've recently read or am reading now (to be found to your right). Jeff Vandermeer's trilogy, of which this book Acceptance is a part, not only has the best designed covers of 2014 but are among the weirdest, most provocative things I've ever read: a sci-fi/natural history genre mash up.
Last spring I was reporting on the last Northern white rhinos in Africa and I had an interesting conversation with a bush pilot on the veranda of my host's home on the outskirt of Nairobi. I had been explaining how in the future, stem cell technology might be used to recreate Northern white rhinos in surrogate rhinos, when he asked me, "Why don't they just use stem cells to recreate rhino horns and sell them to stop poaching?" I went home and set out to find anyone else who had the same idea and sure enough, I found the bioengineer and entrepreneur Garrett Vygantas. My piece in The Atlantic focuses on how Vygantas is launching a company to produce and sell artificial rhino horns to Asian markets, and the ethics of this endeavor.