What I learned from visiting Thailand’s famous elephant sanctuaries – Zafigo.com, November 22 2017

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/)

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6 tips on becoming an earth-friendly traveller

It’s normal to let routine go out the window while abroad. Leaving it all behind is what travelling is about, right? Yet, while it’s okay to ease up on your work and other grown-up responsibilities while you’re globe-trotting, it’s important to remain a responsible traveller overall. Taking a few steps to be more environmentally-friendly is one way to do just that.

1: Say no to plastic

You can easily accumulate hoards of plastic when travelling around Asia, where drinking bottled water is the norm for tourists and bagging fresh produce in the market is a given. You can quickly build a mountain of plastic rivalling Mount Kinabalu in size! Avoid this; it’s up to you to take charge of your consumer habits.

Staying hydrated is certainly important in the heat. To keep your water intake up and your plastic consumption down, why not purchase a refillable flask? In Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam, in particular, clean water stations are quite common. In Kuala Lumpur, for example, you can find water coolers at some malls and at the airport. There are also vending machines that dispense potable water at a fraction of the price you’d pay for bottled water at a convenience store. So not only will you be saving plastic, but also some tourist dollars in the process. You can also use reusable containers for takeaway coffees, juices and street food.

Saying no to straws is another way to avoid unnecessary plastic – your fresh mango juice will taste just as good, I promise! In places such as Koh Tao in Thailand, many bars offer metal straws. Support these businesses when possible.

If you’re staying in one place for a while, it’s likely that you’ll be shopping in markets, so pick up some large reusable bags. They’re better for the environment and much easier to carry on a motorbike than dozens of plastic bags.

2: Repair and wear

As a long-term traveller, I make sure that my entire wardrobe fits into my backpack. Unfortunately, wearing and washing the same things again and again soon leads to wear and tear. The easiest thing to do is replace damaged clothes but are you creating more waste in the process?

Before you say farewell to your well-travelled shirt, ask yourself: Is this mendable? If it’s simply a case of a few holes or ripped stitches, take it to a local tailor to get fixed. Bags, hats, clothes and shoes can be mended in a matter of minutes. Maybe your shorts have a stain that just won’t come out? Why not buy a few colourful patches or badges to cover them? Of course, some things cannot be saved, but that’s not to say that they don’t have a purpose. Your old t-shirt can serve as a cleaning cloth, the strap from your worn bag can become a headband – be creative!

3: Make smart moves

Whether moving by road or air, travelling takes its toll on the environment, and it’s unavoidable. But we’ve got to get to places somehow, right? By being conscious of our travel choices when route-planning, we can at least minimise the effects that our explorations have on the planet.

Air travel is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to CO2 emissions, and cheap airlines make it tempting to fly short distances. While many international flights are necessary, travelling domestically or to neighbouring countries often doesn’t require a flight. Most sleeper trains and buses are extremely comfortable and will leave you with more stories to tell than a quick plane journey.

If travelling within a smaller area, research all public transport options. Trains and buses in Asia are extremely affordable, and in some cases, even free. Taking a car or taxi may sometimes be necessary; if so, try to carpool or share a cab. Even Uber and Grab offer carpooling options in many cities.

Travelling by motorbike is another authentic experience when exploring Asia, and there’s nothing like feeling the wind in your hair as you cruise along in the sunshine. However, if you aren’t going far, why not walk or cycle instead? It may be hot, but a little sweat never did anyone any harm!

4: Get involved

Taking part in a local clean-up allows you to do your bit for the environment while soaking in the sights and sounds of a new place. During my travels around South East Asia over the last nine months, I have been pleasantly surprised to see just how many beach and river clean-ups are organised by locals and expats alike. By asking around or doing a search on Facebook groups, you’re likely to find something similar in your area. These clean-ups are also a great opportunity to socialise, as those involved often arrange to go for some food or a drink afterwards. Some of the more adventurous outings even allow you to kayak as you clean! If you can’t find a clean-up near you, why not be a pioneer and organise one yourself? Who knows what it could lead to.

5: Eat your veggies

It’s well documented that reducing the global meat consumption can benefit the environment but you don’t have to go cold turkey (or should I say cold tofu?) to make a difference. Becoming a vegetarian isn’t for everyone, and I think it’s only fair to respect everyone’s choices. However, even having one or two meatless days a week is a positive step forward. Asian countries have a huge selection of delicious vegetarian dishes waiting to be tried, from pad Thai and papaya salad in Thailand to vegetarian spring rolls in Vietnam. Fresh tropical fruit and juices are also a cheap and easy vegetarian breakfast choice that provide great refreshment in the sweltering heat. It’s quite easy to request vegetarian food anywhere if you can express your needs; learn the word for vegetarian in various languages or better still, use Zafigo’s handy travel cards.

6: Reuse and recycle

Waste collection methods differ in every country, but with a little research and effort, you can find out where to recycle plastic, glass and paper in your area. You can also ask local food businesses whether they sanitise and reuse their packaging. Peanut butter is my biggest weakness, and while living in Da Nang, I found a local company that produces and sells their own. They were delighted to take back my (dozens of) empty tubs to reuse, and many other businesses are equally keen to do the same.

When it comes to recycling clothing that you no longer want, many charities are often crying out for unwanted clean clothes. Ask a local friend if they can point you in the right direction. Alternatively, find or organise a clothes swap party with others in the area – it’s all the fun of a new wardrobe without denting your bank balance.

(First published on Zafigo.com on November 11 2017. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/6-tips-on-becoming-an-earth-friendly-traveller/)

Driving Down Pests – The Scientist, August 28 2017

 A computer model estimates that gene-drive technology could wipe out populations of an invasive mammal on islands. 

The government of New Zealand has a goal: to wipe out the most damaging introduced predators in the nation by the year 2050 through the Predator Free 2050 program. At present, rats, possums, and stoats have pushed native species such as the kakapo to near extinction and cost the country NZ$70 million (USD$50.5 million) in pest control measures and NZ$3 million (USD$2.2 million) in agricultural losses annually.
Acknowledging that the existing pest-control methods are not going to be enough for this ambitious project, scientists involved in the program have placed their hopes in engineered gene drives: a technology that involves meddling with the rules of inheritance and increasing the likelihood a deleterious gene will be passed to the next generation of a species. With the advent of the gene-editing tool CRISPR-Cas9, which allows scientists to alter DNA at precise locations using a single guide RNA and a DNA-cutting molecule called Cas9, the idea of using gene-drive technology to turn populations on themselves is now within reach.

In a study published August 9 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, researchers at the University of Adelaide have provided modeling evidence that gene drives could indeed be an effective means to wipe out entire populations of invasive vertebrates on islands.

“The most obvious potential advantage to using gene-drive technology for this purpose is species specificity,” says Luke Alphey, a genetic pest management expert at the Pirbright Institute in the U.K. and a cofounder of Oxitec, which is commercializing other genetic-modification methods to control insects. “Genetic approaches are transmitted through mating, so the direct effect is only on the target species.”

“That aspect alone is phenomenally powerful if we are talking about working in an ecologically fragile environment,” notes Alphey, who was not involved in the study. He says the current approach for managing invasive species consists predominantly of “harmful mass poisoning.”

In this recent study, the scientists chose to test gene-drive strategies on a simulated island population of 50,000 mice that they constructed in silico. Invasive rodents are likely responsible for the greatest number of extinctions and ecosystem changes on islands, according to a 2006 study. The house mouse (Mus musculus) in particular has been shown to have a devastating effect on seabird colonies in places such as Gough Island in the South Atlantic and New Zealand’s Antipodes Islands.

“We also focused on islands because in the long term . . . if this technology is deemed a good idea and acceptable by society, islands will be the first place it is carried out as it is easier to control,” explains coauthor Paul Thomas. “There’s a long way to go before we think about using it, but we wanted to conduct this study to see if it could be a possibility.”

Using a mathematical model, the scientists tested four CRISPR-based gene-drive strategies that could be readily developed based on what is within the current literature. The “heterozygotic XX sterility” strategy, also known as the “daughterless strategy,” involves using the gene drive to spread a male sex-determining gene so that all carriers develop as males regardless of their sex chromosomes. As a result, there will be a deficiency of females and the population will eventually crash.

“Heterozygotic XX sex reversal” is a similar technique, but contains additional genetic cargo that enables XX males to transmit the gene drive. “Homozygotic XX sterility” achieves population suppression through the infertility of homozygous females. The final strategy, “homozygotic embryonic non-viability,” causes embryonic fatality through gene mutation. All of these strategies were based on the basic CRISPR-Cas9 system using a single guide RNA.

The heterozygotic XX sterility strategy failed to present itself as a viable method, the researchers found, as carrier XX males are infertile and therefore unable to pass on the gene drive. The paper notes that this method would only prove effective on the basis of a continuous release of gene drives into a population, a process that would be costly and time-consuming.

The remaining three strategies proved capable of causing rapid population decline to the point of elimination. The researchers conclude that a single introduction of just 100 mice carrying one of these gene drives could destroy an island mouse population of 50,000 individuals within four to five years.

The researchers acknowledge that, for all of these strategies, the potential for the formation of resistant genes poses a problem, as has been observed in laboratory studies of mosquito gene drives. However, by conducting further tests that involved targeting several different DNA sequences with more than one guide RNA, they found that the possibility of this resistance is reduced.

Michael Wade, who studies population genetics and mating at Indiana University, is not convinced that this solution to resistance comes without consequence. He says that by using multiple guide RNAs as the authors suggest, one could increase the risk of targeting the genome at unintended sites, which may lead to other problems.

“Release of this type of construct raises the risk of reducing the target specificity of CRISPR-Cas9 and increasing the possibility of it jumping to a different species, possibly an endemic relative of the invader species targeted for eradication,” he writes in an email to The Scientist.

Concerns have been raised by members of National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a consensus study report about the potential consequences of using gene drives for species eradication, including the unintentional spread to other populations, unpredictable negative effects on the ecosystem, and ethical implications. Thomas and his colleagues are “very conscious” of these worries, he says.

“I think this method definitely has potential but we do need to do more studies, have the conversation around whether it is safe to use, and see if the benefits outweigh the risks. We are keen to engage with all members of the community,” he says. His team has now begun conducting a mouse-based gene-drive experiment in the laboratory.

 

T.A.A. Prowse et al., “Dodging silver bullets: good CRISPR gene-drive design is critical for eradicating exotic vertebrates,” Proc Royal Soc B, doi:10.1098/rspb.2017.0799, 2017.

 

(First published on The Scientist online on August 28 2017. Available online at: http://www.the-scientist.com/?articles.view/articleNo/50180/title/Driving-Down-Pests/)

What is the best antidote for a jellyfish sting? (Clue: it’s not urine) – The Guardian UK, May 9 2017

What should you do if a jellyfish stings you? Scientists have found that applying vinegar is the best solution, and that popular remedies including urine, lemon juice, and shaving foam could make the situation worse.

A recent study in Toxins, which investigated the efficacy of various remedies for stings from the Portuguese man o’ war (Physalia physalis) concludes that rinsing with vinegar before applying heat is the most effective treatment. The commonly recommended treatment of seawater and ice was found to cause more harm than good.

Dr Tom Doyle, a biologist at NUI Galway and co-author of the paper, conducted research on both the Atlantic and Pacific man o’ war. He said the findings represented a complete U-turn.

“For me it was certainly surprising as we have been recommending seawater and ice for the last 10 years,” he said. “But that’s the nature of science; we have to hold up our hands and say we were wrong. We went back to basics and tested different methods. There’s no doubt about our findings. We are absolutely 100% certain that vinegar does the trick.”

The scientists tested various solutions on sheep and human blood cells suspended in agar. The method of scraping away tentacles was found to increase pressure on the affected area, causing the stinging capsules to fire more venom into the victim. However, applying vinegar was shown to prevent further venom release, allowing the tentacles to be safely removed. Immersing the area in 45C water or applying a heatpack resulted in fewer red blood cells being killed.

In contrast, rinsing with seawater was found to worsen stings by spreading venom capsules further, while cold packs caused them to fire more venom. The infamous urine theory – popularised by an episode of Friends – was also found to aggravate stings. Baking soda, shaving cream, soap, lemon juice, alcohol and cola yielded similar results.

Although vinegar is used for many other jellyfish stings, the man o’ war has long been considered an exception, with many guidelines warning against its use. While it’s true that the man o’ war is different – they are technically a siphonophore and not a jellyfish – the scientists behind this research are now arguing that all stings be treated equally.

Biologist and jellyfish expert Dr Lisa Gershwin agrees that treatment with vinegar works, but expressed concern about the hot water recommendation.

“Hot water does take away the pain but this is a neurological process; it has nothing to do with denaturing the venom,” she said. “Fresh water activates discharge and by applying heat, you are dilating the capillaries and allowing venom to go further into the body.”

The study was prompted by an influx of man o’ war on European coasts last summer and built upon the findings of a study on box jellyfish conducted by the University of Hawaii at Mānoa. The researchers will now turn their attention to the lion’s mane jellyfish to determine if the same conclusions apply.

(First published in The Guardian UK. Available online at: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/may/09/vinegar-best-antidote-jellyfish-stings-urine-lemon-juice-make-worse-study)

Parachuting birds into long-lost territory may save them from extinction – Science magazine, May 5 2017

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)

Enniscorthy’s new social housing will be the first passive house scheme in country – Enniscorthy Guardian, December 10 2016

Enniscorthy will receive €1.5m in government funding to purchase eight new passive homes in what is the first scheme of its kind in the country.

Based in Madeira Oaks in Enniscorthy, the homes have been awarded an A minus BER rating which means that they produce more energy than they require. They were constructed by Michael Bennett of Enniscorthy Passive Developments and will cost €190,000 each.

‘In the past while, we have been looking at ways of addressing the housing supply issue and asked people with ideas to get in touch. Michael Bennett contacted us and we liked his scheme in terms of the way it uses sustainable energy, reduces the need for heating and also addresses the issue of fuel poverty,’ said Senior Executive Housing Officer Liz Hore. ‘We were delighted to get word that we will receive €1.5 m to work with him.’

These homes typically have energy costs of about €200 per year in comparison with the average household bill of €2,500. According to Ms Hore, the first two will be ready to move into in the new year.

She added that the scheme has allowed them to deliver fast-track social housing in Enniscorthy.

‘We have been discussing about the need to accelerate the delivery of social housing. These passive houses are being turned around within eight months.’

This is first time that passive homes have been acquired for social housing in Ireland. According to Ms Hore, they are hoping that their scheme will serve as a demo model for others around the country. She said that passive homes are the way forward, due to their affordability and lower fuel requirements.

‘They are ticking all of the boxes,’ she said.

(First published in the Enniscorthy Guardian newspaper: print edition. Also available online at: www.independent.ie/regionals/enniscorthyguardian/news/enniscorthys-new-social-housing-will-be-the-first-passive-house-scheme-in-country-35270416.html)

Geese flock into Wexford for the winter – Wexford People, November 5 2016

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)