A tern for the better – Irish Examiner, April 2 2018

A hugely successful conservation project has seen an Irish island nominated for a major European award, writes Amy Lewis.

In 1989, a conservation project on tiny Rockabill Island off north Dublin took flight and now it’s in the running for a major European environmental award.

The Rockabill Roseate Tern Conservation project is the only Irish initiative out of 25 finalists in this year’s Natura 2000 awards, a pan-European award which recognises excellence in the management of Natura 2000 sites.

Led by BirdWatch Ireland, this project focuses on conserving one of Europe’s rarest seabirds, the roseate tern, which owing to almost three decades of monitoring and conservation efforts, is now thriving here.

The Rockabill colony has grown from 152 pairs in 1989 to 1,603 pairs in 2017, making the island a nesting habitat for 47% of the European population.

This year marks the first time that an Irish-born project has been shortlisted for a Natura 2000 award.

Commenting on the nomination, senior seabird conservation officer with BirdWatch Ireland Dr Stephen Newton said that, in the coming weeks, he hopes to drum up support from the public, whose vote determines who will win the European Citizen’s Award.

“We think we have a good project. We have a tiny site with 80% of the biogeographical population of these birds on it,” says Stephen, who coordinates the project which is supported by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

“It’s of phenomenal importance; every bird is ringed, we know each bird’s mother, father, where it was born and what year they were born in.

“We have built a big database of their movements and survival rates and know an awful lot about them. It’s quite unique.”

It was the departure of the last lighthouse keepers from Rockabill in the late 1980s that prompted BirdWatch Ireland to step in. Up until then, roseate terns had gained protection and nesting spots in the gardens of the lighthouse keepers and it was feared that their absence may cause the already small population to decline further.

In 1988, Rockabill was declared a Special Protection Area (SPA) and the following year, BirdWatch Ireland sent the first pair of wardens to the island. Since then, wardens have resided on the island annually between April and August.

Much of the work involves increasing the area of nesting space for these ground-nesting birds by removing non-native vegetation such as tree mallow and placing down nest boxes.

“The terns like nesting under tree mallow but only around the edges as they like seeing what is going on around them to avoid predators. We essentially remove all that, compost it and put out nest boxes so that we can get far more terns nesting in the same area,” explains Stephen, who says there are currently about 900 nest boxes on the island.

The wardens check each nest daily to monitor the bird’s progress, see how many eggs were laid and when they hatch. All of the chicks are then ringed and monitored throughout their lifespan.

We have four or five hides around the tiny island and we sit in those for a couple of hours at a time to scan and try to read ring numbers of as many animals as we can. Because of this, we have a lot of information on the birds and how long they survive. Our oldest bird is 25 years old.

The ringing system also allows the team to track the whereabouts of the terns post breeding season; occasionally, they receive photographs of them in unexpected locations such as Lake Geneva and the River Seine.

It’s uncertain why the European population of roseate terns declined to globally-threatened status in the years preceding this project.

According to Stephen, it’s likely that persecution by predators and loss of key breeding sites resulted in birds becoming displaced and not breeding for several years. While many of them eventually settled on Rockabill, there are also about 200 pairs at Lady’s Island in Wexford.

Though it has been hugely successful, the Roseate Tern project is not without its challenges. Stephen says that the main hurdle he faces is looking after the wardens who reside on Rockabill in accommodation leased from island owners Irish Lights.

“The main thing is keeping those people alive during these few months! Everything has to be taken out to the island, including food, water, gas and diesel.

“I have to keep a generator running and often I get a call during the night to say it isn’t working. If I can’t fix it over the phone, I have to get out there as soon as I can as we need electricity to power laptops and chargers.”

Ensuring that the project has adequate funding is another challenge; at present, it costs approximately €40,000 a year, much of comes from the EU LIFE programme.

While not involved in the project himself, bird expert Eric Dempsey has been following the work and says it’s an “incredible attraction” for birdwatchers on his guided tours.

“Very few of us are able to go to the island which is the way it should be. Terns are very prone to disturbance; if you disturb them from nesting, gulls can swoop in and take their eggs,” he explains.

“The wonderful thing about this project is that in places like Skerries, the birds are feeding right off of the piers and coastal walkways so I don’t need to bring people to the island.

For people to be able to see the roseate tern catching fish 20 metres off shore, it’s as good as seeing Trinity College or the Rock of Cashel.

“This is unique to Dublin and special to the east coast and we should cherish it.”

Voting closes on April 22 and votes can be cast via natura2000award-application.eu/finalist/3188

(First published in the Irish Examiner on April 2 2018. Available online at: https://www.irishexaminer.com/breakingnews/lifestyle/outdoorsandgarden/a-tern-for-the-better-835300.html)

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Natural Pest Control Method Taking Flight – Earth Island Journal, February 26 2018

Farmers from Israel to California are embracing barn owls over toxic rodenticides

A recent study linking fatalities of California’s endangered northern spotted owl to rodenticide poisoning on marijuana farms reignited the flaming debate about the use of chemical agents in agriculture. Yet as discussion rages on, farmers elsewhere are using owls as a pest control solution, hopefully preventing them from becoming pest control victims. And the idea seems to be taking off.

photo of barn owl box

Photo by Bill Gracey: A mature barn owl delivers food to a young owl nesting in an owl box. Barn owls are cavity nesters, meaning they nest in places like hollow trees, open buildings, and nest boxes.

Most farmers use rodenticides to minimize the damage that rodents can cause to crops, but it is no secret that these chemicals can have unintended effects, such as the secondary poisoning of non-target species. As a result, some people have attempted to find other ways of keeping pests at bay, including by attracting barn owls to fields to prey on rodents.

Using barn owls as a form of biological pest control is certainly not a novel idea. First developed as a pest control technique through Malaysian studies in the 1970s, the idea truly took flight in Israel in 1981 when local researchers and farmers decided to test it out at Kibbutz Neot Mordechai, an agricultural community in the Hula Valley. Led by the Society for the Protection of Nature, the Nature and Parks Authority, three keen researchers, and some local farmers, this project saw the installation of eight barn owl boxes, three of which were occupied within a year. (Barn owls are drawn to boxes as nesting sites.) However, like most scientific experimentation, the trial did not come without complications. A pioneering young nature conservationist with the Society for the Protection for Nature, Yehuda Weiss, who played a pivotal role in the research, was killed in action in Lebanon when war later broke out in June 1982, bringing the vital work in this area to a halt.

This did not deter the researchers and farmers involved. Confident in the efficacy of the method following the trial and resulting nestbox occupation, they relaunched their project the following year in Israel’s Beit Shean Valley. Three decades later, and following plenty of ups and downs, between 3,500 and 4,000 owl boxes have been erected across Israel by open-minded farmers willing to give this method a try. The growing interest in natural pest control methods has spurred several related initiatives, including a national barn owl box program and a regional cross-border peace project with Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Another recent initiative is the Shamir Research Institute at Haifa University’s Project Bird Box Israel. This group aims to assist farmers who wish to set up their own owl boxes through education and the provision of boxes. Dr. Motti Charter, Head of Project Bird Box Israel, is quick to credit local farmers for the success of this pest control method.

“I’ve given many ideas in my life, but sometimes it’s very easy to simply just say an idea; the person who takes and does it deserves the credit. In Israel, this initiative is 100 percent down to the farmers. They did it slowly and took their time. Little by little, it grew,” explains Charter, whose scientific research sees him monitoring all of the boxes in the Hula Valley in order to improve the efficiency of the nest boxes. “I’ve been able to jump on board because I researched owls but I would have never been able to do this if it wasn’t for them.”

Such methods require more than just barn owls and some willing farmers; having the correct infrastructure in place is key. Barn owls are cavity nesters, so farmers can attract them to an area with a rodent problem — and encourage them to remain and breed there — by erecting simple pole-mounted nest boxes. Project Bird Box Israel offers some assistance to farmers to help purchase the boxes, which cost $250 each, but Charter says that farmers personally pay 95 percent of the price themselves.

Over in the US, Mark Browning, who owns the company Barn Owl Box, has supplied at least 5,000 boxes to farmers and landowners interested in testing out biological pest control. For him, it is not solely a business. It was Browning’s own satellite telemetry study on barn owls, which he conducted while working at the Pittsburgh Zoo, that encouraged him that this was a worthwhile cause. He spent a year and a half perfecting the perfect barn owl box design before putting it on the market.

Echoing Charter, Browning says he doesn’t try to convince farmers to use his solution, he just presents the information. “The way you encourage people to adopt a method is by ensuring that you get the information out there,” he explains. “It is easy for farmers to believe that using a bird is esoteric and mystical but they may not necessarily feel they’re effective at controlling rodents.”

But sometimes the research speaks for itself. Indeed, a three-year study conducted by Browning and colleagues to measure the impact of barn owls on rodent populations on a 40-ha vineyard in California appears promising. The installation of 25 nest boxes on the vineyard led to the rapid growth of the barn owl population on the treatment site. As bird numbers grew, there was a significant decline in the number of gopher mounds. The researchers estimated that the birds consumed 30,020 rodents over three years. They also deemed biological pest control as more cost-effective than trapping or poisoning as it only requires one initial investment in the boxes, rather than repeated investment in traps or rodenticides.

Barn owls are a species that lend themselves well to the task of pest control for several reasons, explains Browning. Unlike other birds, they are not territorial and are happy to nest near one another, as well as within close proximity to humans. They are also attracted to nest boxes, while the fact that they are not powerful fliers ensures that they won’t stray far from their prey source. All of these factors, along with the fact that barn owls pose no threat to livestock, has inspired landowners to test barn owl-based pest control through small initiatives in Argentina, the UK, and Indonesia. Other birds have also been shown to have a similar pest control benefit. For example, researchers in New Zealand found that vineyards with resident falcons had significantly fewer pest birds and less grape damage.

According to Browning, the relationship between barn owls and farmers is symbiotic: “Every time we are distributing a nest box, we are expanding habitat for a very important bird, as well as experiencing a practical application of using natural methods of control. That’s a win-win situation.”

While confident in the method, Browning hopes that more studies will be carried out to determine the effectiveness of barn owls across various cropping systems and scenarios. Roger Baldwin, a wildlife specialist at University of California, Davis, echoes the desire for more studies in this area. Together with colleagues, he is currently conducting research to see whether the birds of prey can help control rapidly expanding populations of rodents such as voles.

Baldwin believes that using barn owls to control rodent numbers will be more effective if all landowners in a given area use the same method, therefore encouraging a greater regional density of owls. However, based on current knowledge, he feels that there’s no one size fits all solution to pest control, and is a firm believer in a combined approach.

“I suspect that in most cases regarding the management of pests, the integrated pest management approach is the most effective; this incorporates multiple strategies of pest control and can target the susceptibility of an animal,” he says. “For example, some creatures are not as prone to walking into traps, others are not as prone to feed on bait or be predated on.”

Baldwin believes that there will always be a place for rodenticides and is quick to address their dirty reputation. “Everyone thinks of rodenticide as one product. There are a variety of different kinds with different active ingredients. Not all of them have the same risk to non-target species and some have no secondary risks. It is a bit challenging to use the term rodenticide without understanding the differences,” he says.

While second generation anticoagulants have been shown to cause harm to non-target species, Baldwin says that other chemicals such as zinc phosphide have relatively no harmful secondary effects. Overall, he feels that responsible usage is key.

However, Maggie Ruffo, a wildlife volunteer with Earth Island Institute’s Raptors Are The Solution (RATS) initiative, would “strongly disagree” that any rodenticides can be used safely.

“From all the research we have read, there are no safe poisons,” says Ruffo, who is also a certified naturalist and volunteer with the Hungry Owl Project. “Anything you put out into the environment is going to cause a problem for wildlife.”

The primary aim of the RATS initiative is to take rat poison off the market and educate the public in alternative pest control methods. According to Ruffo, barn owls are one tool in the toolbox of Integrated Pest Management,” and can in fact be more effective than rodenticides, which can wipe out beneficial predator species through secondary poisoning.

“Rodents are always going to be part of the environment,” Ruffo adds. “They are the chosen prey item for many species. It’s a question of us learning to live with that fact, and doing our best to keep them out of our dwellings and businesses … and then creating attractive habitat for our beneficial predators.”

(First published on Earth Island Journal on February 26 2018. Available online at: http://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/elist/eListRead/natural_pest_control_method_taking_flight/)

The definitive guide to avoiding Penang’s tourist traps – Zafigo.com, February 8 2018

colour-1298862_1280 (1)As a cultural melting pot, foodie hub and historical hotspot, Penang has become a major tourist destination for both Malaysian and international tourists. However, with so much to do here, it comes as no surprise that the island’s main landmarks can be crowded 365 days of the year. If you’re staying a while and are sick of the hustle and bustle, try this list of alternative activities:

BEST VIEW

Skip Penang Hill

See Muka Head Lighthouse

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The stunning views of Penang’s coastline. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

Gazing down at the twinkling lights of George Town from the peak of Penang Hill is certainly worth ticking off the list. However, if you’re seeking something a bit more tranquil and wish to avoid the crowds, head to Muka Head Lighthouse at Penang’s National Park. It’s not easy to get to – prepare for a sweaty hike through the forest! – but the stunning views of Penang’s coastline will revitalise a tired body and mind. Climb up the twisting staircase to the top and perch yourself on the balcony to watch white-tailed sea eagles soar and be soothed by the sound of the crashing waves below.

BEST BEACH

Skip Batu Ferringhi

See Gertak Sanggul

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This small fishing village is the epitome of a lazy afternoon. (Photo Credit: Amy Lewis)

When you have eaten double your weight in Penang’s famous hawker food, what better place for an afternoon doze than the beach? Batu Ferringhi is Penang’s most popular beach and while it’s beautiful, you will likely have to battle for towel space on a busy day. Head to Gertak Sanggul instead. I stumbled across this beach during a drive around the island and found it to be the perfect place to digest both my thoughts and my food. Nestled along the southern coast of Penang at the edge of a quaint fishing village, it’s rarely frequented by tourists and so, is the epitome of calm. Come here with a good book and watch the boats and your worries float away.

BEST MARKET

Skip Batu Ferringhi Night Market

See Hin Sunday Pop-Up Market

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin's Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin's PopUP Facebook)

Support the local artists and craftspeople at Hin Pop Up Market. (Photo Credit Hin Pop Up Market)

Every Sunday, the grounds of Hin Bus Depot spring to life with a small artisan market brimming with local crafts and trinkets. Handmade batik garments, natural cosmetics, mouth-watering food and statement jewellery are just some of the treasures on offer at this weekly affair, which sees new stalls springing up each week. While you won’t find the same offering of cheap clothes available in Batu Ferringhi, you will come across plenty of unique gems unavailable anywhere else. What’s more, by buying something here, you are supporting local artists and craftspeople. For the perfect Sunday, take a yoga class at nearby Wholey Wonder and peruse the market stalls before crashing on the grass at Hin Bus Depot to tuck into a tasty lunch.

BEST FOR A COFFEE AND CATCHUP

Skip Starbucks

See The Alley

Skip the staple branded coffee houses and spend an evening at a local shop instead. (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Why go Starbucks when you can have churros at The Alley? (Photo Credit: The Alley Penang)

Let’s face it: I can go to Starbucks anytime. Despite having a three-letter name, they can never get mine right! If I’m in need of an afternoon energy boost or want somewhere to chill with friends, The Alley at Stewart Lane is my top pick. Why? One word: Churros! The small and simple café is famous for the warm doughy delights, which offer crispy skins and fluffy centres in good, equal measure. Paired with a selection of sauces (try the salted caramel) and a steaming mug of coffee, it makes for the perfect afternoon pick-me-up. The only downside of going with friends? Having to share.

BEST BAR

Skip Love Lane

See Magazine 63

(Photo Credit: SM Butler)

A true speakeasy bar, Magazine 63 is quite a challenge to find, but oh so worth it once you do. (Photo Credit: SM Butler)

Walking through Love Lane at night feels a bit like being in a bizarre video game – you have to dodge and leap over dozens of pushy bar promo staff to get to the power up i.e. a refreshing cocktail or mocktail at the end of a busy day. On top of that, the crowds and noise continue to swell as the night goes on. Ditch the hectic nightlife and head to Magazine 63 on Jalan Magazine instead. Nestled behind an inconspicuous doorway, it’s quite a challenge to find; but trust me, it’s worth it. Behind its shabby exterior sits a trendy speakeasy dripping in vintage class, with a unique cocktail menu to boot. Add to that cosy seating, regular live bands and DJ sets and you’ve got yourself the perfect watering hole. A word of warning: at bars this trendy, drinks don’t come cheap.

BEST UNIQUE PHOTO SPOT

Skip 3D Trick Art Museum

See Penang Avatar Secret Garden

(Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh )

The mini forest comes to life with dazzlig lights. (Photo Credit: Flickr / ShangChieh)

Trick art museums have seen a surge in popularity in recent years, but once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. If you’re hoping to get some unusual snaps for the ‘gram, head to Avatar Secret Garden at Tanjung Tokong before sunset instead. When the daylight fades, the mini forest is transformed into an enchanted land that is alive with dazzling lights in myriad hue. A near replica of the mystical land of Pandora in Avatar, this hidden gem is sure to take your breath away.

BEST CAFE WORKSPACE

Skip Co-workingspaces

See BEAN Sprout Cafe

Fancy working out  of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Fancy working out of a quaint little heritage building? (Photo Credit: Nomadic Notes)

Co-working spaces certainly have their place and I’d be the first to praise them for their reliable Wi-Fi and endless networking opportunities. However, when in Penang, you might as well soak in the atmosphere while getting some work done. Enter BEAN Sprout Café. Set in a beautiful two-storey heritage building, this relaxed coffee shop is a good spot to escape to when you need to get stuff done and dusted. If the rustic décor and chilled music fail to inspire, sit and work from the balcony which offers great views of the hustle and bustle of George Town. Failing that, their delicious coffee or tasty brunches should be enough to set the brain cogs into motion.

BEST CITY CENTRE OASIS

Skip Armenian Park

See Garden at 23 Love Lane

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit 23 Love Lane)

Who knew such a serene little corner existed on Love Lane? (Photo Credit: 23 Love Lane)

Who knew that such a serene oasis existed along hectic Love Lane? Well, it does, and it’s in the form of this boutique hotel’s stunning garden courtyard. It’s the ideal place to escape the mid-afternoon sun and catch up on some reading over a refreshing drink. Non-staying guests are welcome to enjoy the garden courtyard provided they purchase something from the hotel bar. Coffee al fresco amid restful settings? Who can say ‘no’ to that?

(First published on Zafigo.com on February 8 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/guide-avoiding-penangs-tourist-traps/)

 

10 Dreamy Winterscapes Worth Braving the Chill for – Zafigo.com, January 1 2018

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While the fairy lights may be twinkling and the shops may be heaving, the sun-soaked majority of Southeast Asia is a different world to the chilly, snow-covered places that we often hear about in Christmas songs. It may already be January, but it’s still winter, so if you’re in need of a vacation and want to experience the beauty and enchantment of the winter chill, bundle up and plan your getaway to these places!

Harbin, China

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Or perhaps an icy replica of the Egyptian pyramids? At the Harbin International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, the world is the canvas. The festival’s 34th edition officially opens on 5th January 2018 and will go on till end February 2018, but the flurry of events and activities actually begin from mid-December, as international ice sculptors start working on exquisitely-detailed sculptures ranging from recreations of famous landmarks to mythical creatures.

Although generally known as one festival, it is, in actual fact, made up of at least three main events: Sun Island International Snow Sculpture Art Expo, Harbin Ice and Snow World, and Ice Lantern Fair. All of which add up to more than a mouthful, but all you need to know is this: There will be many moments of awe as you walk among larger-than-life structures meticulously crafted from fine snow and get close to faithful reproductions of iconic landmarks constructed of solid ice ‘bricks’, all lit up colourfully.

Hallstatt, Austria

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With many of its main attractions closed for the season, the quaint village of Hallstatt is almost devoid of tourists during winter. There won’t be much to do, but there’s also no better time to catch postcard-perfect snapshots, sans the crowds. Enjoy the breath-taking scenery along the lakeside before curling up with a good book by a roaring fireplace at your B&B.

Edinburgh, Scotland

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With the magnificent Edinburgh Castle as its backdrop, there’s something truly magical about Edinburgh in winter. Despite freezing temperatures, the Christmas period sees its narrow cobblestone streets spring to life with craft markets, fairgrounds, live music performances and even an outdoor ice rink. The town is also famous for having one of the world’s best New Year’s celebrations, known locally as Hogmanay.

Prague, Czech Republic

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Ask anyone in Europe about a Christmas market and the annual event in Prague is sure to come up again and again. Whether you’re shopping for gifts or just browsing, the sprawling rows of stalls piled high with local crafts and foods are worth a few hours of wandering. Warm yourself up from the inside with some grog – warm rum and lemon – or a decadent hot chocolate. The latter pairs well with trdelnik, a rolled dough mix that is grilled and topped with sugar and walnuts.

Lake Bled, Slovenia

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Just one look at ethereal Lake Bled and its surroundings and you’ll be transported into your favourite fairy tale! If you visit in winter, you may even be lucky enough to have it almost all to yourself. Create a fantasy of your own by taking a boat out to the lake’s snow-dusted island while embracing the tranquillity and stunning natural landscape.

Yellowstone National Park, USA

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Yellowstone is pure paradise for those seeking both chills and thrills. Power down the snow-covered slopes on skis or a snowmobile before dipping a toe (or your whole body) into one of the park’s steamy hot springs. Naturally, the park is also a haven for lovers of the great outdoors; you can observe species such as wolves, elk and bison in their unspoiled habitat.

Shirakawa-gō, Japan

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If bucket loads of snow is what you’re after, look no further than the villages of Shirakawa- gō, a rural region nestled at the foot of Mount Haku-san in central Japan. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is famous for its traditional thatched houses called gassho-zukuri, which look even more spectacular when illuminated and topped with a thick layer of snow.

Annecy, France

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While most visitors to the region quickly skate through to get to the other more famous ski resorts nearby, this romantic gem of an alpine town is worth a visit. Its winding cobbled streets, pastel-coloured houses and the remarkable Château d’Annecy makes this medieval city appear as though it has been taken straight out of a storybook.

Lapland, Finland

 

Lapland-3

Finland’s northernmost region is sure to enthral adults and children alike. Famous for its jolly bearded resident (Santa Claus!), it also boasts some of the most magnificent winter landscapes imaginable. Cross your fingers and hope to catch the Northern Lights!

Banff National Park, Canada

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Its snow-capped mountains and striking blue lakes are enough to make any adventurer’s jaw drop. At Banff National Park you can also enjoy ice walking, dog-sledding, skating on Lake Louise and hitting the slopes in some of the world’s top ski resorts. Feeling lazy? Pamper yourself at the sauna or pick out a hibernation point in front of the biggest fireplace you can find.

(First published on Zafigo.com on January 1, 2018. Available online at: http://zafigo.com/stories/zafigo-stories/dreamy-winterscapes-worth-braving/)

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/)

6 tips on becoming an earth-friendly traveller – Zafigo.com, November 11 2017

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/)