My first experience with an elephant was pretty artificial. Being from Ireland, it was unlikely that I would find these magnificent creatures while wandering the streets or playing in a field. Unsurprisingly, my first memory of elephants is the same as most of my peers’: Watching the movie Dumbo at the tender age of four.
I remember well how I cried when young Dumbo was separated from his mother. Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything more traumatic, and failed to comprehend how humans can be so cruel towards an innocent creature. Of course, Dumbo is fiction. And as I grew older, I realised that acts of cruelty towards elephants are indeed very real. Across the globe, thousands of elephants are kept in poor conditions and forced to entertain humans through rides and performances.
Because of these realisations, I’ve long vowed to never support such acts, and I know I’m not alone. In recent years, there has been increasing awareness about the unethical treatment of elephants in riding camps, which has encouraged many tourists to avoid them. As a result, numerous ‘ethical’ elephant sanctuaries have been established in their place.
While in Thailand, I decided to pay a visit to one and after much research, settled on a sanctuary I believed held the best interests of elephants at its core. The experience was unforgettable.
We learned about their former lives as logging and riding elephants, including the horrendous ‘spirit-breaking’ process they endured to make them submissive. We were informed about the work that the organisation are doing to give them a better life and their ongoing efforts to change public attitudes. And, apart from feeding one older elephant, we simply watched them from afar. I may not have left with hundreds of elephant selfies like most, but it is because of this that I left feeling certain that I supported a good cause.
Fast forward several months to when I was in northern Thailand with some friends. The idea of visiting an elephant sanctuary arose and I jumped at the chance of seeing these creatures again. We chose to visit another well-known sanctuary, where the elephants roam free and riding isn’t an option. Yet, while this visit was also preceded by plenty of research, the outcome wasn’t so positive.
Our arrival coincided with the approach of several elephants from a nearby hill. It seemed unlikely that this was a natural response to the arrival of loud, sweaty humans but I guess it was all part of the show to come.
Then, our guide introduced himself and apologised that he must give a quick safety talk, insisting that we would have plenty of time afterwards to “play with the elephants” and “take selfies.” “We want you to have fun” was their message, though not a mention was given to how the elephants felt, where they came from and why they were there.
We were then allowed to feed the elephants, which felt okay, to a point. The handlers then encouraged the elephants to do tricks, which we were told they still remembered from their circus days. While probably true, it felt wrong to encourage them to perform these charades for the sake of a photo.
After eating, the elephants were brought down to a mud pool, many of them being tugged in by their ears. Most of the visitors opted to get in with them for a mud bath, with some lying across their backs to get a selfie.
Elephants and humans alike were then given the chance to cool down in a river. “The elephants can leave the water when they like,” we were told, but the reality wasn’t so idyllic. Observing everything from the riverbank, I saw several elephants leave the water and head uphill. When one tried to take an alternative route, I noticed a handler slip a sharp nail from his pocket and prod his head. The elephant swiftly obeyed.
Following lunch, I witnessed another act of cruelty when an elephant attempted to take some leftover rice from a pot. A handler quickly ran over and led him away, but not without smacking him with a stick when he felt he was out of eye and earshot of us.
I left feeling uneasy and with many unanswered questions, despite my attempts to learn more throughout the day. Where did these elephants really come from? Unlike the first sanctuary, these elephants were allowed to breed. What will happen to their newborns? Was I just being paranoid?
Various conversations following my visit confirmed my suspicions that not all was what it seemed. While better than a riding camp, this place was definitely more concerned with entertaining tourists than helping elephants.
Elephant tourism in Thailand is not diminishing, but simply evolving. According to World Animal Protection (WAP), there’s been a 30 per cent increase in the number of captive elephants there between 2010 and 2016. People are becoming aware that most tourists won’t support animal cruelty, and so they are slapping labels like ‘sanctuary’ and ‘eco-tourism’ on their fliers. Yet, if the animals are still being controlled and sometimes hurt to please humans and keep us safe, what’s the difference?
Indeed, not all elephant sanctuaries are fake. Elephant Nature Park, Wildlife Friends of Thailand, and Kindred Spirit are three world-renowned organisations that are making a difference. They are worthy of and in need of public support.
I cannot turn back the clock or forget what I witnessed, but I can encourage others to research thoroughly before they visit an elephant sanctuary. Ask questions. Choose wisely. And if it appears too good to be true, it probably is.
(First published on Zafigo.com on November 22 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/visiting-thailands-elephant-sanctuaries/)
Saving the Spanish imperial eagle was never going to be easy. This enormous bird, which once dominated the skies above Spain, Portugal, and northern Morocco, saw its numbers drop to just 380 breeding pairs in 2014, thanks to habitat loss, poaching, poisoning from farmers and hunters, and electrocution from power lines. Now, a new study highlights a potential way of restoring eagle populations to their former glory: dropping them into long-abandoned habitat.
One common approach for bringing threatened species back from the brink is to reintroduce them to the places they were last known to live. For example, the sea eagle in Scotland—which was hunted to extinction on the Isle of Skye in 1916—was successfully reintroduced in 1975 to Rùm Island near its last known breeding ground. But not all such efforts bear fruit: When scientists tried to release the same bird to its former range in western Ireland in 2007, the newcomers fell victim to the same poisoning that had done them in 107 years earlier.
“The tendency is to think that the last place that an animal was present is the best place for the species, but this isn’t always the case,” says Virginia Morandini, a biologist with the Spanish National Research Council’s Doñana Biological Station near Seville.
So Morandini and her colleagues teamed up with conservation biologist Miguel Ferrer of the Migres Foundation at Doñana to try a different approach. Along with the Andalusian government’s Spanish Imperial Eagle Action Plan, they introduced imperial eagles into a territory they last inhabited some 50 years ago, far from established populations. Their method had some strong theoretical underpinnings because relict populations that have been pushed into small, low-quality habitats—often the “last known address” of threatened species—are thought to have relatively low breeding rates.
From 2002 to 2015, the Doñana team monitored 87 eagles that had been released in the south of Cádiz province of Spain, some 85 kilometers from the nearest established eagles. Meanwhile, the researchers monitored a naturally occurring population of eagles in south-central Spain. When scientists analyzed the breeding success of the two groups—a proxy for how well the eagles might survive over the long run—they found that the relocated population produced nearly twice as many chicks, they reported last month in Ecology and Evolution. Morandini attributes their success to the ready availability of prey and breeding partners, as well as efforts to reduce threats from hunters and exposed power lines.
The results suggest such reintroductions can be helpful in recovering endangered populations, especially when natural range expansion isn’t a possibility, says Doug Armstrong, a conservation biologist at Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand. But Armstrong, who was instrumental in rehabilitation efforts in New Zealand of a honeyeater-like bird called the hihi, also warns that this method won’t work for every threatened species. Lots of factors can lead to failure: selecting an inappropriate site, unpredictable environmental factors, and stress after reintroduction.
Cornell University ecologist Amanda Rodewald says that—even with its upsides—the approach should be seen as a last resort. “With ongoing climate change and habitat destruction, we are likely to be turning to [reintroduction] methods more and more,” she says. “However, taking proactive conservation steps such as habitat protection before a species becomes critically endangered is always going to be the most cost-effective and successful approach.”
(First published by Science magazine on May 5 2017. Available online at: http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/05/parachuting-birds-long-lost-territory-may-save-them-extinction)
Electronic tracking or telemetry is a tool used to gain insight into species behaviour. Data gathered through this method helps to expand our knowledge on certain creatures and serves as a stepping stone to developing conservation strategies and informing policy. However, recent research indicates that it may be a double-edged sword.
A paper on research led by Prof Steven Cooke in Conservation Biology illustrates how poachers are using tracking technology to locate and kill the very species it was intended to protect. One method discussed is“cyber poaching”: the act of hacking into GPS collars to track down animals. The paper points to one notable – yet thankfully thwarted – attempt in India involving a Bengal tiger.
Hacking GPS systems takes “serious computing abilities”, but Cooke said it is relatively easy to tamper with basic devices.
“With a simple radio tag, you can buy a receiver for $300 (€280) online, turn the dial until you hear the animal, and go and find it,” the biology professor at Ottawa’s Carleton University told The Irish Times.
Cooke and fellow researchers also looked at how other groups can abuse tracking devices. An example occurred in Banff National Park, where photographers used personal telemetry equipment to locate wildlife in their quest for a perfect snapshot. As a result, Parks Canada implemented a public ban on VHF radio receivers.
Data gathered through telemetry is often made publicly available by researchers, particularly online. The paper describes how open-access data can prove problematic, with the researchers stressing the need to “share data in forms that do not facilitate abuse”.
“Telemetry provides data that people find interesting and easy to understand but there are ways to tell a story without telling exact animal positions,” said Cooke.
Since the paper was released, many people have come forward with examples of tracking and data misuse. A conference on the issue will be held in Australia in June. “We wanted to get the community talking like this so we can act before it is too late,” said Cooke.
Chairman of the Golden Eagle Trust Ronan Hannigan said tracking is an extremely useful tool, especially for monitoring re-released birds. Though he does not view hacking as a threat here, the trust guards sensitive data, particularly with highly-persecuted animals such as peregrines.
To avoid interference, the Golden Eagle Trust strives to keep nest locations private. If information is leaked, however, they find it safer to make it completely public. “Most people become natural custodians for animals if they know they are there and so it becomes too risky for poachers to target them,” said Hannigan.
When deciding to reveal an animal’s location, Dr Colin Lawton from the NUIG zoology department, says he believes it should be treated on a case-by-case basis.
“It depends whether an animal is particularly sensitive to interference,” says Dr Lawton, who has used radio tracking to monitor squirrels without major issue. “We want to be open without causing a problem to the species. Overall though, I’ve a lot of faith in the public.”
While acknowledging that sharing animal locations on social media can prove problematic – an issue touched upon in Cooke’s paper – Lawton finds the tool beneficial for disseminating and collecting information.
Lecturer in wildlife conservation and zoonotic epidemiology in University College Dublin Dr Barry McMahon says that preventing the abuse of telemetry and data requires the management of people.
“It’s not about the management of data but the management of how humans respond to having specific information,” he said.“Before researching a species, you must carry out studies to see where stakeholders are, how they feel about the creature and how they are being treated.”
Whether studying Irish wildlife or a threatened species abroad, he feels this strategy is effective. “If a species is being poached, you must ask, Why are people poaching? They are probably in a terrible situation,” he said.“You would hope that, through working with these groups, they might find an alternative, more sustainable option.”
McMahon is a firm believer in open-access data. Though recognising its drawbacks, he feels legislation will eventually adapt to prevent abuses of this model.
Director of the National Biodiversity Data Centre Dr Liam Lysaght is “not aware” of examples of the abuse of telemetry in Ireland but he too stresses the need for risk assessment studies prior to research or disseminating information. While there is a “small suite of species” for which he feels the need to “blur data”, overall, he says that withholding data does more harm than good.
“Over the last 30 years, nature conservation has suffered tremendously in Ireland,” he said.“Data on rarer species has been restricted as people feel making it available might threaten them. This policy hasn’t helped conservation.”
In recent years, he has witnessed researchers becoming more open. This has raised the profile of certain species and is also key in issues such as informing planning decisions.
“Open access is the only way forward,” he said.“The transition from a protective attitude to an open one has been fundamental to what we do.”
Irish researchers may not view poaching as a concern for most native species, but it is a threat to others worldwide, particularly those perceived as valuable such as rhinoceros and elephant. In an effort to conquer poaching in South Africa’s national parks, global defence and aerospace company Paramount Group decided to aim high – literally.
The Johannesburg-based group recently began training dogs in their Anti-Poaching and Canine Training Academy to parachute from planes and helicopters in tandem with a handler. So far, one dog has been trained, with many more set to follow.
“With the African bush being such a vast wilderness and sometimes inaccessible via vehicle, it became clear that alternative methods of insertion must be considered,” said a spokesperson.“Parachuting enables getting the dogs on the ground as fast as possible.”
Though the parachute initiative is in its infancy, the canine anti-poaching unit has already seen success. One dog, Killer, and his handler have been responsible for the arrest of 115 groups of poachers in Kruger.
“These dogs have proven to be the most effective tool . . . [for] stopping or finding poachers,” said the spokesperson.“Before the use of dogs in anti-poaching operations, the success rate was extremely low due to the vast and dense bush. Today, almost every anti-poaching unit has dogs assisting them.”
(First published in the Irish Times print edition on April 13, 2017. Also available online at: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/science/is-tracking-technology-putting-creatures-in-danger-1.3035028)
Five hundred Greenland white-fronted geese touched down in Wexford last week following a treacherous 15 hour flight.
The visitors are some of the first of this year’s migrants to flock to Wexford Wildfowl Reserve, with an estimated 7,500 more of the species expected to fly in over the next few weeks.
‘It was a great sight to see them coming in,’ said Education Officer at Wexford Wildfowl Reserve John Kinsella. ‘At about half seven or eight in the morning, we could see them in the air flying over the Raven Woods before they landed next to the pond here.’
It was no easy feat for the birds to get here. According to John, the birds were subjected to strong winds, a non-stop flight and significant weight loss to reach their winter home.
‘They burn off half a kilo on the flight. That’s like us losing two stone,’ he said.
Over the next eight weeks, the remaining white-fronted geese will arrive in Wexford, where they will settle down until March. However, they cannot begin their journey until the wind direction changes to blow from the north.
‘The flight takes from 15 to 18 hours so they need the wind behind them to be able to do it,’ said John.
The Greenland white-fronted goose breeds in west Greenland and migrates via Iceland to winter in Ireland and Britain. They winter at less than ten sites in Ireland and the Wexford Slobs record the highest numbers.
Several thousand brent geese are also expected to arrive in the coming weeks and at peak time, John expects there to be a total of ’25 tons of geese’ on the lake at the Wildfowl Reserve.
In honour of the arrival of the birds, several events as part of Goose Week were organised by the Wexford Wildfowl reserve. These included dawn and evening watches and a walk at the Raven to see geese rise from their roost.
Hen harriers, godwits and plovers are some of the other birds observed.
(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/geese-flock-into-wexford-for-the-winter-35176442.html)
Three young otters made quite a splash when they arrived in their new home in North Wexford recently.
Released by conservationist Ronan Hannigan, the orphaned animals were hand-reared in Limerick before they were released back into their natural environment. Over the past few weeks, Ronan has been helping them to find their feet in the wild.
‘We have to do a thing called a soft release where the animal is slowly acclimatised to the wild. I try to do it over three weeks,’ he explained. ‘One day, they are just going to be gone.’
The new residents symbolise some good news for local farmers. According to Ronan, otters play an important role in controlling the mink population.
‘Dog otters are very territorial and they don’t tolerate mink who can do a lot of damage to fish stocks and wildfowl for example,’ he explained. ‘Studies show that when otters were reintroduced in rivers in England, the mink numbers declined.’
Otters can live in a combination of habitats but can only survive in clean water. Though pollution problems on Ireland’s east coast in the past caused a decline in numbers, Ronan said that improving water quality should help them to bounce back.
‘It’s good to have otters present as it means the water is clean,’ he said. ‘A selling point of Ireland should be its clean water and an otter is a symbol of that. They are like blue flags for rivers.’
Unfortunately, though pollution problems have decreased, otters are also faced with the danger posed by road traffic. As the creatures travel for lengthy distances across land, they can often be struck by passing motorists. Ronan said that overpasses and underpasses on motorways are proving to be beneficial in countries such as Germany and Canada.
‘When building motorways, it is important that we plan for wildlife passes,’ he said. ‘Creatures like otters follow the river and sometimes these intersect with roads. They need underground paths so that they can safely avoid traffic.’
(First published in the Gorey Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/young-otters-dive-into-wexford-home-34727098.html)
Conservationist and lawyer Ronan Hannigan recently released two long-eared owls in the Gorey area, several months after they were found injured elsewhere.
Ronan, who is the founder of various conservation charities such as The Curlew Trust, also hopes to release barn owls in the near future. According to him, owls can prove very beneficial to farmers who wish to keep rat numbers at a minimum.
‘By encouraging rat-eaters such as owls onto our land, we will be able to keep rat levels low and in turn, enjoy these beautiful birds,’ he explained.
However, rat poison, also known as rodenticide, remains a constant threat to owls and other birds who may ingest contaminated prey. According to a recent study on 70 Irish barn owls conducted by Birdwatch Ireland, over 80 per cent had detectable traces of the four main toxic chemicals used in rat poison. In an effort to preserve this species and other birds, Ronan is calling on local farmers to reduce or eliminate the use of rat bait in favour of ‘natural’ control methods.
‘We should allow natural controllers to do their job. To do this, one can buy barn owl boxes which will attract various species of owl, along with other rat predators such as kestrels,’ he said. ‘They are already being used extensively in the UK.’
Other animals including buzzards, red kites and pine martins are also praised by Ronan as ‘good ratters’.
‘Buzzards are beginning to come into Wexford and I actually recently saw two in Gorey,’ he said.
Ronan isn’t against all commercial methods. According to him, live traps can be also be used alongside natural control methods.
‘They are very effective,’ he said. ‘Live traps ensure that dead rats aren’t being left around the place and contaminating things. People can catch them and decide themselves what they wish to do with them.’
John Lusby, Raptor Conservation Officer with Birdwatch Ireland feels that there are certain circumstances that require the use of rat poison such as cases of serious infestation. However, he believes that the public need to change their attitudes towards the substance as it is often misused.
‘Overuse may have a negative effect on our wildlife,’ he explained. ‘Also, overusing poisons may cause rats to become resistant to them.’
For John, rat poison should be the last resort for farmers or others with a vermin problem.
‘First, people should reduce the suitability of their environment for rats by doing things such as clearing any spilled foodstuffs, introducing predators such as cats and using live traps,’ he explained. ‘These methods won’t have knock-on consequences for other species.’
Together with Michael O’ Clery, John conducted a study on Irish barn owls in 2014 which found that rodenticides are one of their biggest threats. He advocates that
‘increasing best practice rodent control’ is absolutely essential in reducing the threat of secondary poisoning to the species.
The Campaign for Responsible Rodenticide Use (CRRU) was established in response to such calls for a more responsible use of rodenticides. While supporters of the code are aware that rats spread disease and must be controlled, they are also conscious of the harm that poisons can cause for wildlife. According to Éanna Ní Lamhna, Communications Officer with CRRU, a balance can be made by following the CRRU Code.
‘The CRRU code contains seven steps for people,’ she explained. ‘We want to encourage them to be proactive.’
These steps include planning, recording where poison is placed, using multiple baiting points, responsible disposal of bodies, hiding bait from other creatures, inspecting bait regularly and removing bait when necessary.
GLAS – the new Agri-Environment Scheme – specifies that participants should comply with the CRRU Code in their daily farming activities. Teagasc also recommends that farmers follow the CRRU Code to ensure that the threat of secondary exposure to wildlife associated with rodent control measures is minimised.
A leaflet detailing the CRRU Code was distributed to over 27,000 Irish farmers in July.
(First published in the Wexford People newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: http://www.wexfordpeople.ie/news/conservationist-urges-wexford-farmers-to-embrace-owls-in-a-fight-against-vermin-31426430.html)