Archive for the ‘Wildlife’ Category

Can gorillas find a role in the world?

April 19, 2020

Some 40 million years ago there was a primate which was the common ancestor of all the current great apes. The primates were established first in Africa and Asia and then some found their way, somehow, across the ocean to South and Central America. They were restricted to forest areas and were not to be found in northern climes (Europe, N America, Asia). Great deserts and mountain ranges were a major barrier to their spread. They did not reach Australia even though the body of water to be traversed was shorter than that to S America.


Non-human primate range

The appearance of new species of apes was not something that happened across the entire range of the primates. In South and Central America, apes did not evolve. Gibbons and orangutans only appeared in South-East Asia. Gorillas, chimpanzees and the precursors of humans appeared only in Africa.

Knowledge about evolution has exploded in the last century especially now as genetic analysis is getting into its stride. But the common feature with the growth of knowledge is that the questions, too, grow. Why did the ancestors of all apes break away from the parent primate line? What survival advantage led to the gibbons separating from the ancestral ape line to become a separate species? The survival advantages then that caused the speciation of the gorilla ancestors are probably no longer valid now. When a species evolves and a new species appears, the parent species may become extinct, or may well continue down other, separate evolutionary paths. But not all these many paths can be successful. At any given time many of the ongoing evolutionary paths being followed will – and must – be dead-ends leading eventually to the extinction of the dead-end branches. The appearance of every new species must have been because some non-standard individuals, in that place, at that time, exhibited some survival or reproductive advantage over their more “standard” relatives. Clearly the pressures and conditions that caused orangutans and gibbons to appear in SE Asia were not of significance in South and Central America. Neither were the conditions and pressures which caused gorillas and chimpanzees and the species homo to appear in Africa of significance in other parts of the world. Equally the conditions in Africa did not give rise to gibbons or orangutans.

What then were the advantages of being a gorilla – when gorillas evolved – that are now of very little benefit?

The reasons for the splits at A, B, C, D and E are still more a matter of speculation rather than of knowledge.

The current status of a species can only be measured by its numbers. Dinosaurs may once have been of high status and were clearly successful for a long time but – as with every other extinct species – they are all, now, failed species. (Since birds do originate from the dinosaurs then they, at least, represent some very successful current species). If we consider just the surviving ape species (gibbons, orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees and humans), there is a striking difference in their current status as species.

We have to go back about 40 million years to find a common ancestor. The most striking difference is that which separates humans from all other species – the control of fire. It makes the “fire and cooked meat” theory of human brain development seem very plausible.

Smithsonian Magazine:

Thus, the unprecedented increase in brain size that hominids embarked on around 1.8 million years ago had to be paid for with added calories either taken in or diverted from some other function in the body. Many anthropologists think the key breakthrough was adding meat to the diet. But Wrangham and his Harvard colleague Rachel Carmody think that’s only a part of what was going on in evolution at the time. What matters, they say, is not just how many calories you can put into your mouth, but what happens to the food once it gets there. How much useful energy does it provide, after subtracting the calories spent in chewing, swallowing and digesting? The real breakthrough, they argue, was cooking.

I find watching gorillas (on film) compulsive. When I have seen them in zoos, they are magnificent but deeply tragic figures. They radiate a benign strength which is more than impressive. They are quite intelligent. It is claimed they have an IQ around 40 -50, though applying human IQ tests on them is largely meaningless. Their motor skills develop faster than with human infants and even if some have learned the meaning of some human words, gorillas do not have language. Gorillas are a dying species and, as such, are a failing species. “Conservation” is concerned with the survival and protection of individuals and groups. Though laudable, these efforts only freeze the species within the shrinking habitat they are comfortable with and in the unsuccessful form they have reached.

The gorilla as a species has reached an evolutionary dead-end. I don’t want gorillas to disappear, but to keep them in their frozen, unsuccessful, evolutionary state in zoos or reserves or protected habitats does not seem right either. The conservation practiced today, which makes no provision for the further development of a species, is both unethical and immoral. Other species which adapt and find a role to play in the world of today are not threatened. It is not necessary for a species to find that role within human society as livestock and household pets do. But the survival of livestock and pets is as slaves to humans. Birds and insects remain free of human control but have adapted to varying degrees and continue together with humans. Fish and sea-creatures don’t compete for habitat with humans but do constitute prey. Foxes and rodents and even urban leopards are adapting to continue in freedom and in parallel with humans. It is more difficult for primates. The challenge is to find a way for a species to develop and move forward in the reality of a world dominated by humans. When conservation denies reality and merely tries to go back to some scenario from the past it does no service to any species.

How then can we find a free and meaningful, role for gorillas (or tigers) in a world dominated by humans but which is not an evolutionary cul-de-sac?


Unicorns were real

February 8, 2017

The Siberian Unicorn could have been alive some 29,000 years ago. Elasmotherium sibiricum was thought to have become extinct 350,000 years ago, but the discovery of a skull in the Pavlodar region of Kazakhstan suggests they were around till fairly recently.

Siberian Unicorn - painting by Heinrich Harder

Siberian Unicorn – painting by Heinrich Harder

The Harappan Unicorn was of course around much more recently (less than 10,000 years ago).

Harappan Unicorn seal

Harappan Unicorn seal

Big animals, living in small groups rather than in a herd, not very aggressive, and herbivorous rather than carnivorous with the single horn as their defense against predators?

A furry unicorn for Siberia and a summer-adapted, tame one for the Indus-Saraswati Valley?


Burning ivory only increases poaching

May 3, 2016

Some 105 tons of contraband ivory was burned by Kenyan authorities last week in their effort to curb illegal poaching. I find their logic flawed. All the ivory that was destroyed was what had been recovered from poachers or traders who had been caught. The ivory came from elephants already killed. But I don’t see how destroying this ivory will save a single elephant from being targeted by poachers.

BBCKenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta has set fire to a huge stockpile of ivory in an effort to show his country’s commitment to saving Africa’s elephants.

More than 100 tonnes of ivory was stacked up in pyres in Nairobi National Park where it is expected to burn for several days. The ivory represents nearly the entire stock confiscated by Kenya, amounting to the tusks of about 6,700 elephants.

Some disagree with Kenya’s approach, saying it can encourage poaching.

ivory burning

Suppose even that some – say 10% – of this contraband ivory – if it hadn’t been destroyed – would have found its way back to the illegal market. To that extent the price of ivory would have been held down. Now the price will have increased in  response to the shortfall in supply. And any increase in the black market price will only increase the incentive for the poachers. That part of the ivory destroyed – which would have found its way to the black market – will now have to be replaced by additional poaching.

The ivory comes mainly from African elephants for markets in Asia. The producer countries are primarily Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda and the consumption is in China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Elephant poaching is driven by the demand for ivory and the price the consumer is prepared to pay. Around 20,000 elephants are killed by poachers every year (from a population of about 500,000). That is driven by the demand for about 1,000 – 1,500 tons of raw ivory every year. Currently the price of raw ivory – I am told – is about $2,500 per kg (from around $1,500 for small tusks to over $3,000 for large tusks). In 2010 this was less than $1,000 per kg. Most of this price increase reflects an increase of demand and not a scarcity of supply. As long as this demand holds up (overwhelmingly from China), it is worthwhile for poachers and traders to risk being caught.

The only way poaching will stop is when it is not worthwhile for a poacher to ply his trade. Either because the risk of being caught is too high or because the return on the enterprise is too low. The price for illicit ivory has to crash if poaching is to be curtailed. The volume of the demand can only be addressed by education and that is a slow process. The other factor which could help would be if a reducing demand could be met by “legal” ivory. Around 30,000 – 40,000 elephants, I estimate, die of natural causes every year. Their tusks are usually destroyed. But they could form part – or even all – of a “legal” trade which serves to depress the price of raw ivory. Mammoth ivory recovered from the Siberian permafrost could also form a useful addition to the “legal supply”.

Preventing poaching and prosecuting traders is all very well, but ultimately the consumer demand has to be educated out. Raw ivory price has to be brought down to a level where poaching is just not worthwhile.

Kenya would have done better to flood the market with this ivory. It would have prevented or at least delayed the poaching of some 5,000+ elephants.


Another alarmist meme bites the dust – UK study shows neonicotinoids don’t harm honey bees

November 2, 2015

The EU is almost a perfect example of an organisation which makes all its actions subservient to fear (which also happens to be my definition of cowardice). They banned neonicotinoids two years ago as a result of alarmist hype about their feared catastrophic effects on honey bees. It seems the fears have probably been grossly exaggerated.

HCJ Godfray et al, A restatement of recent advances in the natural science evidence base concerning neonicotinoid insecticides and insect pollinators, Proceedings Royal Society B

Farmers Weekly:

Honeybees are avoiding any significant damage from neonicotinoid insecticides according to an academic review of all in-field research carried out so far.

With the European Commission’s two-year ban on neonicotinoids to be reviewed soon, and new trial data about to be published, a number of academics were asked to study the current data.

“The evidence so far points to a lack of effect on honeybee colonies from neonicotinoids,“ Professor Charles Godfray, Oxford University Professor of Entomology, told a news briefing. He and his colleague Prof Angela McLean were two of the academics asked by the UK’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport, to review the data as the European Commission (EC) considers whether to extend the ban.

The EC imposed a ban in December 2013 on three neonicotinoids that were used as seed dressing on bee-attractive crops such as oilseed rape, due to their perceived harmful effect on bees. Prof Godfray said although there was no field data so far to show neonicotinoids had any effect on honeybee colonies, a Swedish study led by Dr Maj Rundlof had shown they have a harmful effect on bumblebees.   ……

He and Prof McLean are members of the Oxford Martin School, a research arm of Oxford University, and they were asked to review more than 400 scientific papers on the topic. Prof McLean said they looked to act as an “honest broker” to give a summary.

The EC ban covers three neonicotinoids – clothianidin, used in Bayer CropScience’s Modesto, thiamethoxam, used in Syngenta’s Cruiser, and also imidacloprid.

The seed dressings were used to control cabbage stem flea beetle and without the treatment, 3.5% of the nation’s oilseed rape crop was lost to the pest in autumn of 2014, according to an AHDB survey.

This season, growers in four flea beetle hotspot counties – Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire – were allowed to use neonicotinoids on up to a maximum of 30,000ha or about 5% of the national crop.

The UK government has always opposed the EC ban, as has the agrochemical industry, which has agreed to fund an independent trial run by the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, due to be published before Christmas.

The summary of recent evidence surrounding neonicotinoids and bees is published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

I note also the statement by the authors in their paper that:

An analysis of the historical shifts in the ranges of European and North American bumblebees showed that they have failed to track climate warming at their northern range limits, while southern range limits have contracted.

They wouldn’t be able to track a non-existent warming now, would they?

Evolutionary story of the giraffe’s long neck does not convince

October 8, 2015

A new paper from the New York Institute of Technology reports on fossil studies of the giraffe’s neck vertebrae which show that (press release):

…. the evolution likely occurred in several stages as one of the animal’s neck vertebrae stretched first toward the head and then toward the tail a few million years later. The study’s authors say the research shows, for the first time, the specifics of the evolutionary transformation in extinct species within the giraffe family. ..

“It’s interesting to note that that the lengthening was not consistent,” said Nikos Solounias, a giraffe anatomy expert and paleontologist at NYIT College of Osteopathic Medicine. “First, only the front portion of the C3 vertebra lengthened in one group of species. The second stage was the elongation of the back portion of the C3 neck vertebra. The modern giraffe is the only species that underwent both stages, which is why it has a remarkably long neck.”

…. “We also found that the most primitive giraffe already started off with a slightly elongated neck,” said Danowitz. “The lengthening started before the giraffe family was even created 16 million years ago.” ….

….. the cranial end of the vertebra stretched initially around 7 million years ago in the species known as Samotherium, an extinct relative of today’s modern giraffe. That was followed by a second stage of elongation on the back or caudal portion around one million years ago. The C3 vertebra of today’s giraffe is nine times longer than its width — about as long as an adult human’s humerus bone, which stretches from the shoulder to the elbow.

Clearly one evolutionary pathway has given us the modern giraffe with its ridiculously long neck, but there was also a pathway which led to the shortening of the neck

As the modern day giraffe’s neck was getting longer, the neck of another member of the giraffe family was shortening. The okapi, found in central Africa, is the only other living member of the giraffe family. Yet, rather than evolving a long neck, Danowitz said this species is one of four with a “secondarily shortened neck,” placing it on a different evolutionary pathway.

But I find the story that the elongation of the giraffes neck was due to natural selection, as a consequence of a survival advantage for longer necked individuals in time of drought, somewhat unsatisfactory. The idea that it was sexual selection at play (a longer neck providing the males with better fighting ability) is even more unsatisfactory.

Let us suppose that a prolonged drought led to all middle size shrubs dying out or at least becoming unavailable to ancestral giraffes through competition. It would have had to have been a very selective drought that allowed only grasses and very low shrubs to survive along with the leaves of taller bushes and trees. We need to remember also that for such a natural selection to work, all the shorter necked giraffes needed to die out and thus be de-selected. It is not impossible that the shorter necked animals were just crowded out by more efficient herbivores which led to the longer necks opening up a niche not available to the other herbivores. But I find the arguments for the extinction of shorter necked giraffes while other herbivores prospered somewhat unconvincing.

The evolutionary pathway to the longer neck is still a mystery.

Why not longer legs? I like this homage to Gary Larson by

Brian Switek reviewed the various theories a few years ago and pointed out

… significant neck elongation began around 14 million years ago during the Late Miocene — after the lineage to which the relatively short-necked okapi split off — and by about 5 million years ago giraffes of modern proportions had evolved. ……..  it appears that the elongation of giraffe necks occurred during a global pattern of aridification in which grasslands replaced forests.

For the moment, the question of “How did the giraffe get its long neck?” must be answered with “We do not yet know”

Switek wrote that five years ago – but it still applies.

We still don’t know.

The Cecil Hypocrisy: Tourists (mainly American) kill 600+ lions every year for trophies

July 29, 2015

Cecil in life – image BBC

Walter J. Palmer, a Minnesota dentist, allegedly baited Cecile the lion out of a national park by dragging a dead animal behind a car at night. Palmer shot it with a crossbow. The wounded lion escaped and wasn’t found by Palmer and his fellow hunters until 40 hours later, when they killed it with a rifle.

There is uproar on the internet. Palmer is the subject of much abuse and even threats. I find this kind of slaughter (and it can hardly be called hunting) quite pathetic but this uproar about Cecil is just a little hypocritical. As the WaPo reports, tourists legally kill over 600 lions every year. The US Wildlife Service – with no doubt some lobbying from the trophy hunters – has lions only as a “threatened” rather than an “endangered” species, so that makes it all OK. There are some 30,000 lions alive, so 600+ is only a little over 2% and quite sustainable. (Translating that into human numbers, it would be perfectly justified for alien hunter-tourists – in the name of conservation and maintaining a healthy human population – to take trophies from the killing of about 140 million humans every year).

This would all be perfectly legal had the lion not been a resident of Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park, a protected area. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that trophy-hunting tourists legally kill some 600 lions each year. Jane Smart, the global director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group, said in an interview that the 600 figure is several years old and the actual number is probably a little bit higher than that. Given that there are only about 30,000 lions left in Africa, this represents an annual loss of roughly 2 percent of the total lion population to legal hunting, and a considerably larger share of the population of healthy adult male lions, which hunters typically prize.

American tourists — wealthy ones, given the high costs involved — account for the majority of lions killed for sport in Africa. ……… Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declined to list African lions as “endangered,” which would have banned the importation of recreational lion trophies to the United States. Instead they listed lions as “threatened,” which allows the domestic trade in lion trophies to continue.

Needless to say the hunter-tourists argue that they are helping conservation.

In reality, lion hunting doesn’t appear to require much in the way of skill. As the photos above show, many hunter-tourists are guided by teams of locals and professionals. Adult lions are not particularly afraid of humans, making it relatively easy to get close to one. They spend the majority of their day sleeping.

Hunting groups like Safari Club International maintain that hunting lions helps conserve them. They promote the positive effects of hunting in African communities. They argue that “hunting plays a role in raising the value of the African lion and discourages poaching.”

I don’t much care for false (and often mindless) conservation, but I like hunter-tourists even less.

The silence of an owl

April 24, 2015

Soundless flight


Galapagos conservation project prevents the evolution of ninja turtles

January 19, 2015
Adult Galápagos tortoise

Adult Galápagos tortoise

Giant tortoises are to be found only on the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles and on the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador.  Pinzón Island is home to the giant Galápagos tortoises of the endemic subspecies Chelonoidis nigra duncanensis. Pinzón is a tiny island covering 18 km2 right at the geographical centre of the Galapagos chain.

Galapagos Islands

The basic story is simple and just another example of a misguided conservation project where a successful species is exterminated to ensure the survival of an unfit species. The unfit species in this case is a reptile, the giant Galapagos tortoise which has been threatened by rodents of the black rat variety. Of course, black rats are politically incorrect and nasty and “vermin”, while the giant reptiles are seen as “cute” and “amusing” and “loveable”, even though the species is proving incompetent to adapt. (If rats had only been white they would probably be protected).

The rats preceded Darwin

By the time Darwin arrived in the Galapagos in 1835, the rodents had long since settled in. Mice and black rats were probably the first to arrive, introduced by pirates or whalers in the seventeenth century; since the 1980s, Norway rats have found their way there too.

Since 2012 a “conservancy project” has spent some $3 million to eradicate the rats and this now seems to have succeeded since new tortoise hatchlings have been observed for the first time in 150 years. That’s all very well, but there does not seem to be any one speaking up for the persecuted, murdered rats who, after all, have been present for over 300 years. They have been attacked by conservationists for over 50 years and -against all odds – have still thrived. Why this species-discrimination? Whatever happened to rodent rights?

In fact the rhetoric used by the conservationists reminds me of the language used by extreme, right-wing, anti-immigrant political parties:

“I just hated the immigrant killers because I could see what they were doing,” says Felipe Cruz, a lifelong conservationist who grew up on Floreana, one of four inhabited islands in the archipelago. In the early 1980s, Cruz spent nine months of the year camped in the Floreana highlands deploying a cocktail of rodenticide …… 

I find the analogy between conservationists as “specists” and right-wing, nationalistic, anti-immigration political parties as racists, quite revealing. Just as with conservationists who support politically correct species and try to exterminate the politically incorrect, right-wing extremists also support certain politically correct human races and try to exclude and remove the politically incorrect races. It is no great secret that even among immigrants in Europe there are “politically correct” races and those which are “politically incorrect”. The politically incorrect races are to be kept out. And conservationists all over Europe try to protect the unfit but politically correct species while destroying or keeping out the immigrant species.

But what conservationists are forgetting in their euphoria over killing all the rats on Pinzón is that without the rats there is no chance of the mutation needed to create Master Splinter and without Master Splinter there is no possibility that the Ninja Turtles will ever become a reality.

The Turtles’ sensei and adoptive father, Splinter is a Japanese mutant rat who learned the ways of ninjutsu from his owner and master, Hamato Yoshi. ……… Splinter was Hamato Yoshi mutated into a humanoid rat instead of being just Yoshi’s pet.

Master Splinter


Further Reading:

Wolves which adapt to humans will be the wolves which survive

December 19, 2014

The endangered species on earth are mainly those which are failures. Species which fail to adapt to the loss of habitat as the human species succeeds. Natural selection is incapable of ensuring survival of these species when their environment changes so rapidly. But humans represent one of the few species which has demonstrated the ability to handle rapid change. We have adapted by constructing artefacts to maintain optimum conditions in which to live, by the use of medicine and also – though this is in its infancy – by genetic manipulation. We effectively maintain a “tropical” climate around ourselves wherever we are. In our homes, in our transport vehicles, in our work places and in our public places, we maintain benign conditions of temperature, wind speed, humidity and pressure. Whether living in the Arctic circle or in equatorial deserts, we maintain “comfortable”, tropical conditions around us. We use medicine to fight debilitating diseases. And now we are moving towards the prevention of the birth of individuals with faulty genes but also towards the intentional selection of desired genes.

Some species have successfully adapted to the expansion of humans and their changing circumstances. Many bird species, rats, urban foxes (who now differ genetically from “wild” foxes”), urban polar bears, baboons, langur monkeys and even leopards are examples of species which have adapted to take advantage of the changes and thrive in the new conditions. Domesticated species are dependent upon their usefulness to, and the goodwill of, humans. Much admired species such as, rhinos, tigers and elephants have not adapted and face extinction – as all failing species do. From the beginning of life on earth, the rule has been “Adapt or die” and it it still applies.

In the long run traditional “conservation” which is based on trying to freeze a failing species in an unviable genetic pattern, within artificial habitats which are merely prisons, is meaningless and counter-productive. Helping a species has to be about adaptation to the new conditions and not about genetic stagnation in new prisons. It is time we helped these species adapt and stopped just stuffing them into zoos.

A year ago I observed

Perhaps Siberian neo-tigers could be evolved genetically to help herd reindeer and develop a mutually beneficial partnership with man. An occasional reindeer kill would then be quite acceptable. It would be so much more constructive if neo-wolves were helped not to stagnate genetically, but instead to evolve the behavioural characteristics that allowed them to find a way of co-existing with humans and human flocks of sheep.

And now this story suggests that some wolves have already realised that “if you can’t fight the humans it is better to join them”!


Villagers in Kazakhstan are increasingly turning to an unusual animal to guard their land – wolves, it’s been reported.

“You can buy a wolf cub for just $500 (£320), they say, and hunters are adamant that if treated well the wild animal can be tamed,” the KTK television channel reports. Nurseit Zhylkyshybay, from the south-eastern Almaty region, tells the channel he bought a wolf cub, Kurtka, from hunters three years ago, and the animal is perfectly happy wandering the yard of his house. “He’s never muzzled, I rarely put him on a chain and do take him for regular walks around the village. Our family and neighbours aren’t scared of him at all,” Mr Zhylkyshybay insists. “If the wolf is well fed and cared for, he won’t attack you, although he does eat a lot more than a dog.”

Nurseit Zhylkyshybay and his wolf

The face of wolves to come

Maybe these wolves will just become another line of dogs or perhaps they are the particular species of neo-wolf which will succeed in developing a mutually beneficial relationship with humans.



Winter time tomorrow and the elk are in the garden

October 25, 2014

We change to winter time tonight.

This evening at dusk we had the privilege of two elk (moose) visiting the garden. A mother and a rather large calf it seemed. It was getting quite dark but I managed to get this blurry picture on my I-phone through a window. The calf was just about 2 m from the window. They stayed for about half an hour till they got spooked when I came out of the house.

elk in the garden 20141025 1802

elk in the garden 20141025 1802

I am no hunter and the elk are quite welcome to whatever they can find in my garden. The hunting regulations for this season in our county are:

The moose hunt begins on the second Monday in October, according to Appendix 2 of the Hunting Ordinance (1987: 905)

Hunting for moose calf Monday, October 13 – Wednesday, October 15 2014
(unregistered area)
Licensed area Monday, October 13 – Saturday, February 28 2015
Moose fostering area Monday, October 13 – Saturday, February 28 2015
1. Cows with calves should not be culled  unless the calf or calves have been shot before the cow.
2. At least 50-60% of the shoot should consist of calves. 
3. Avoid posted restrictions limiting calf shooting.
4. Of the total shoot of adult animals no more than 30% should be males.
5. The variation in moose density and injury rate in different geographical areas should be clearly reflected in the shoot. Avoid assigning the moose shoot solely on an acreage basis.
6. The shoot in January-February should primarily focus on calves

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