The King of the Amazon

By Donna Mulvenna, ILCW Member (French Guiana)

 “To sit back hoping that someday, someway, someone will make things right is to go on feeding the crocodile, hoping he will eat you last – but eat you he will.”
– Ronald Reagan

CRIKEY! A word made famous by oneman, Crocodile Hunter, Steve Irwin. That he loved and respected crocodiles so much is evident in his daughter, Bindi. She is named after his favourite pet, a saltwater crocodile of the same name.

 

Despite Irwin’s work in spreading the virtues of saltwater crocodiles (salties), visions of them propelling their bodies out of the water to eat whole chickens and stories of them stalking their prey, often for days, have many tourists too terrified to venture north of Sydney. In fact, ask any Australian what they know about crocodiles and they will tell you, “to stay the hell away from them!”

Not too long ago, a fisherman in Weipa was attacked by a croc just down from his local pub. The croc locked its jaws around his leg and started to pull him backward toward the water. The fisherman held fast to a mangrove root until his pub mates, alerted by his screams, ran down and group tackled the croc.

Later, over a cold beer, the fisherman admitted to throwing his little dog into the water as a diversion. Any sympathy he had coming quickly vanished as all focus switched to who was looking after the poor dog. That little dog made the local news. The crocodile was the cold-blooded, grinning killer in the background.

 

My fear of crocodiles does not make logical sense when you consider I drive a car to the river, an undeniably risky business, and that the stifling, energy-sapping humidity of my home in the French Amazon presents a greater risk to most than an errant crocodile. But fearful emotions are seldom logical. To me, all crocodiles including their alligator and caiman cousins were the reptile world’s equivalent of the great white shark.

 

So, when my boyfriend suggested I accompany him to the local swamp where children feed a one-metre long caiman, I found that as about appealing as jumping out of a plane.

 

“Donna, just come and watch,” he said. “There is something I want you to see.” “And bring some bread.”

A small timber pontoon stretched out over a muddy bank that was lined with thick tufts of razor grass. The water was shallow and completely still, not stagnant but not inviting either, and there was a half-metre band of water-weed lining the edge.

“Throw a piece of bread into the water and see what happens,” my boyfriend said.

I watched and waited, for what I didn’t know. The previously blue sky began to cloud over and a dark shadow crept across the pond shifting my thoughts to the Rupununi river people in nearby Guyana. They absolutely live in fear of caimans after the attacks and deaths of several of their loved ones.

 

So here I was throwing bread to one of the most ferocious beasts in the jungle in a scene fast resembling that of a horror movie when it happened!

The long flat snout and bulging eyes of a yellowish Spectacled caiman pushed away from the bank and carved a path through a carpet of river weed toward the bread. It immediately snapped it up. I expected it to take a big gulp before turning its attention toward me.

But it didn’t do that.

It held the bread in its mouth, turned around and headed back toward the bank. It then placed the bread on the edge of the green sludge where it joined the water and retreated to about 20cm away. It sunk down below the weed and waited, completely motionless, until a few moments later when a fish surfaced to eat the bread, and — Splash, Snap!

“No way!” I said. “That caiman is using the bread to catch fish!”

Rather than being a lethargic, stupid and boring survivor of an age of dinosaurs and not much else I thought it was, this caiman was smart. At one point the fish were onto him so he swam a short distance away before rapidly doubling back on himself and — Pow! Another fish swallowed whole.

Was it intentionally swimming away to lull the fish into a false sense of security? Could it be that clever?

Zoologist Vladimir Dinets who studies the predatory behaviour of crocodiles, alligators, and caimans, seems to think so. “They might be second only to humans in their hunting prowess,” he said.

They learn to avoid snares and hide after just one encounter with scientific researchers, dance in scenes resembling those of Jurassic Park, and drive fish from deep water into the shallows where more agile alligators block their escape. In one instance, a huge saltie scared a pig into running off a trail into a lagoon where two crocodiles were waiting in ambush, suggesting that the three crocodiles had anticipated each other’s positions and actions without being able to see each other.

They watch and learn the habits of their prey, just like that cunning old croc had watched the fisherman leaving the pub to throw in a line each day.

The caiman episode convinced me to rethink everything I thought I knew about the unfeeling and mechanistic mind of a crocodile. Wasn’t my mind superior to this reptile because I knew how to use tools, grasp past and future, communicate effectively, and have a sense of self? And hadn’t that caiman just tipped that assumption on its head?

Perhaps they are more intricate and complex than I assumed and their intelligence isn’t higher or lower than ours, just incomparable. Even more bewildering is the possibility that their brain is only the size of a walnut because it is somehow superior to ours, not unlike a computer chip — smaller and faster.

Recognising this level of intelligence made them seem so much scarier to me than they were before. Fortunately, most caiman species are too small to be dangerous to humans, with the exception of one: the black caiman, the super-predator of the Amazon that rivals the Saltwater and Nile crocodile as the world’s most dangerous.

Not even a jaguar will take on a full-size black caiman, which explains why a policeman so hastily unsheathed his gun when he found himself standing face to face with one in the city of Cayenne.

The adult black caiman had left his inland home at the Kaw swamp by simply drifting along in a river current stronger than usual. No doubt he was just as surprised as terrified bathers when he washed up on a popular swimming beach. I can imagine the scene, “Is it a leatherback turtle, a sheet of black plastic, a beached whale?” “Oh, my word! Run for your life, it’s a black caiman!”

There was once a time when nobody in their right mind would have threatened one of these big fellas, the largest species of crocodile in the Western Hemisphere. But it is amazing what a group of policeman, the Paris Fire Brigade, a herpetologist, and the staff from the Kwata conservation association can do. Within a short time the caiman’s body was bound in rope, and those powerful jaws, strong enough to shatter a turtle shell, were duct-taped shut. It was then carried up the beach, loaded into an army truck and promptly transferred back to where he came from.

Not surprisingly, panicked beachgoers started to ask how many more caiman might be lurking off the coast. How long would it be before someone was attacked and why and how was this allowed to happen? It was almost as if they expected a barricade to be erected around the reserve to protect them from further encounters.

Human interaction with these dangerous animals has been reflected in myths and legends dating back to earliest recorded history. However, feared as a symbol of ruthless predation and voracious appetite, they have never been, nor are they ever likely to be, allies of humankind.

Yet, after a 200 million-year run on the planet, no crocodilian species has gone extinct since humans became dominant, a testament to their resilience and adaptability.

In South America, they were pushed to the brink of extinction during the 1960’s and 1970’s when 6 to 7 million skins were sold in Brazil alone. This lucrative leather trade hired light aircraft to fly low across the Amazon rainforest to locate pockets of caiman. Armed with this information, hunters and trappers then hacked their way through the impenetrable jungle killing the caimans so their skin could be made into human indulgences such as handbags.

Today, black caiman are strictly protected in French Guiana, but they still face threats from habitat loss and climate warming, making it unlikely they will reach numbers to rival those of alligators in Florida that frequent golf courses, infest lakes, splash in backyard pools, or devour family pets anytime soon.

Nobody likes to have a crocodilian in their backyard, but we do love to identify with them. We embody them in tattoos, corporate logos, bumper stickers, and clothing, use them as mascots and celebrate sports achievements by raising one arm, lowering the other and quickly snapping them together in a gesture known as the chomp.

However, when it comes to coexisting with them, we are positively terrified. That is human nature. “We strive to be wild on the inside, while we wipe out the wild on the outside.”

In many ways, crocodilians represent the ultimate test of human willingness. To coexist with them we have to accept them as much a part of nature as dolphins, woodland, and hurricanes, and stop destroying their habitat through development, logging, mining or turning large tracts of land into pasture for domestic livestock.

Crocodiles, like all apex predators, provide ecological stability to their habitat. If they are removed from the picture, there are consequences. In South America, two animals the caiman preys upon is the piranha and the capybara, the world’s largest rodent. Corresponding with a decrease in caimans the capybara population increased, wreaking havoc on crops throughout Bolivia and Brazil, and an unchecked outbreak of piranhas meant that cattle were being attacked and killed as they moved across flooded grasslands.

A lack of apex predators absolutely tips the balance and can kill off entire ecosystems rendering them lifeless.

So if you see a caiman, smile back. They were here before the dinosaurs, alongside the dinosaurs, and survived the dinosaurs, and their amazing resilience can help to save the human species.

However, continue to keep a safe distance as even Steve Irwin said, “Crocodiles are easy. They try and kill and eat you….”

Advertisements

Border fencing threatens wildlife in Europe

By Zoltan Kun, ILCW member, (Hungary)

A recent research by Linnell JDC, Trouwborst A, Boitani L, Kaczensky P, Huber D, Reljic S, et al. on the effect of emerging border security fencing on wildlife found that such measures against human immigration might lead to the end of the Transboundary Nature Conservation Paradigm in Europe and beyond.

The refugee crisis of 2015 in Europe has seen many countries rush to construct border security fencing to divert or control the flow of people. This follows a trend of border fence construction across Eurasia during the post-9/11 era. The rapid erection of hundreds of kilometres of border security fences on both the external and internal borders of the EU was one of many responses to the perceived challenges associated with these refugees. These fences were erected as emergency measures with no environmental impact assessments concerning their design or placement.

This development has gone largely unnoticed by conservation biologists during an era in which, ironically, transboundary cooperation has emerged as a conservation paradigm. These fences represent a threat to wildlife because they can cause mortality, obstruct access to seasonally important resources, and reduce effective population size. Conservationists were quick to join those already protesting against these fences on humanitarian grounds, and images of red deer (Cervus elaphus) dying after becoming entangled in the coils of wire made media headlines in the region. The result has forced us to realise that the transboundary paradigm as we know it is gravely threatened.

The border security fence being constructed along the border between Slovenia (SLO) and Croatia (HR) separates all three large carnivore (LC) species in Slovenia from the core population areas in the Dinaric Mountains, impacting their long-term viability, severing the Natura 2000 network, and decreasing the potential for natural recolonization of the Alps.

The authors developed a set of recommendations to mitigate the negative impact of border fences.
Source: (and for more information) European Wilderness Society

Wild Rome – Interesting Book Project

Looking for Crowd Source Funding

Wild Rome tells the story of the often unseen wild animals that live among, but are often ignored, by people of the city. ILCW member (Italy) Roberto Isotti and his team of Homo ambiens have documented through more than 5,000 photos and five years, the biodiversity of Rome and of the efforts of those trying to preserve it. The hope is to raise awareness of these many species and to change the habits of the people that will allow for their survival. To see some of the photos and learn more about the project, click here.

Illegal Logging in Romania and Ukraine

Illegal Logging in Romania and Ukraine Subject of New Documentary
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project has released a documentary about illegal logging in Romania and the Ukraine. Many trees known as the “lungs of Europe” are being clear cut illegally. Watch the documentary here.
Our thanks to the European Wilderness Society for this information.

Legends of the Coco de Mer

By Anne Pinto-Rodrigues
One of the most enigmatic plants I’ve encountered in all my travels is the coco de mer palm. The only natural habitat of this endangered palm are the granitic islands of Praslin and Curieuse in the Seychelles.

This iconic palm holds several records in the plant kingdom. The fruit borne by the female palm of the species is the largest and heaviest in the plant kingdom. What is even more remarkable is that when the fruit is dehusked, the nut inside bears an uncanny resemblance to the nether region of the human female body!
A cultural symbol of the Seychelles, this rare nut embodies the uniqueness of the flora and fauna found on this island nation. Even the Seychelles visa stamp bears the shape of the coco de mer nut!
The Seychelles visa stamp in the shape of the coco de mer nut

The best place to see the coco de mer is the rich ecosystem of the Vallee de Mai palm forest on Praslin island.

In ancient times, these bi-lobed nuts were found washed up on beaches as far as India and even the islands of the Malay world. According to Malay folklore, this mysterious nut grew on a magic tree (pauh janggi) in a massive whirlpool known as the Navel of the Seas (pusat tasek). The legends surrounding this palm are as tall as the palm itself.

More about the legends of the coco de mer in my article for the Sep-Oct’16 issue of PASSAGE, the bi-monthly magazine of the Friends of the Museums Singapore. You can access the pdf version of the article here.

When a tiger has no value

By Margi Prideaux, ILCW Member (Australia)

 Nature is being monetized by global capitalism,
and it is about to get much worse.
Can it be halted?

Bengal tiger, Rajasthan India.
Photographer: Dibyendu Ash, Wikimedia Commons, CC by-SA 3.0

A few weeks ago the World Wide Fund for Nature released their latest Living Planet Report. Its findings have reverberated around the world, with the bleak news that the 3,706 wildlife populations that are actively monitored by scientists have declined by an average of 58 per cent since 1970 because of agriculture, fisheries, mining and other human activities. The report’s authors predict that this figure will reach 67 per cent by the end of the decade. How on earth has this happened?

The answer that’s often put forward is that wildlife protection laws in the ‘lawless’ regions of the world are woefully inadequate (meaning large swathes of Africa and Asia), but the true root of the problem is that nature is being monetized in order to generate profits for investors and corporations in a process that’s facilitated by changes in the structure of global governance—and it’s about to get much worse. Unless we get to grips with the real issues at stake, the destruction of nature is all-but guaranteed, except in those few parts of the world that are set aside as reserves for the enjoyment of wealthy visitors.

Since European countries first reached out and colonized distant lands, Africa, Asia and Latin America have been a ‘resource hinterland’ for global capitalism—an economic system that has transferred wealth from poor to rich countries through the extraction of mineral and biological resources. Large areas of forest have been cleared to make way for the mono-culture of crops like palm oil, soya bean, biofuels and timber on a massive scale. Mining carves ruinous scars across whole landscapes, poisoning the water for both people and wildlife downstream. And large factory ships are plundering fisheries for the tables of the world’s elite.

This system robs the world of the biodiversity we collectively need to survive. More poignantly, it robs communities in Africa, Asia, South America and the Arctic of their rights, resources and connections with their environments and the wildlife they contain. These are the very communities who still retain the wisdom and experience to protect the world’s wild places.

Many people who have stood against this tide have been evicted from their ancestral lands. Some have been murdered. Global Witness has documented the fact that that more than three people were killed each week during 2015 defending their lands, forests and rivers against destructive industries. Yet the profits that are made from these industries are more than enough to maintain the forward momentum of the system. More money flows from these hinterland economies each year than they receive in foreign direct investment and foreign aid combined. In 2011, for example, oil, gas and mineral exports from Africa were worth US$382 billion—more than eight times the value of development aid received by African countries in that year.

This money streams through mechanisms for cross-border accounting, tax evasion and the repatriation of profits that are designed and maintained by wealthy countries; facilitated by the institutional secrecy that is built into the global financial system; and controlled by corporate elites. In a shadow economy that flows alongside the economy we see, commercial tax dodgers and criminals shift vast amounts of money across international borders quickly, easily and largely undetected. Hundreds of billions of dollars pour into western coffers each year, from both streams, leaving little behind for those whose lands and wildlife have been plundered.

The only way to reverse this process is to institute a system of global governance that actually does what it says—govern the extraction of natural resources, the destruction of wildlife, and the flows of money that are fed by these things across national borders. But international rules and regulations in this field are evolving in ways that are far too soft to have much impact. How so?

In 2008, the world economy stood at the edge of an abyss, confronted by the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s. In response, a powerful new forum called the G20 was born, representing the 20 largest economies. The United Nations (UN) tentatively embraced the emergence of this new group and offered its New York headquarters as the site of the G20 summit meetings, but their overtures were declined and the UN was gradually marginalised from the process—something that should have set the alarm bells ringing. With hindsight it appears as though the G20’s founders wanted to explore new relationships in international economics unhindered by the democracy and transparency of the UN.

Shortly afterwards the World Economic Forum (or Davos for short) started to frame its own path forward which fits squarely into the philosophy of the G20 and other groups like it. Called the ‘Global Redesign Initiative,’ its aim is to marginalize intergovernmental decision-making and install ‘multi-stakeholder governance’ in its place. “In the world of Davos,” as commentator Nick Buxton wrote in 2014, “the tired old slow world of democratic demands channelled through states is replaced by a slicker, fast moving, corporate-led governance” which places tremendous power in the hands of the very few. Buxton’s report for the Transnational Institute reveals that the world’s wealth is even more concentrated than is often understood—not in the one per cent of the world’s population but in the 0.001 per cent. A mere 111,000 people control a fifth of the world’s gross national product (GNP), worth US$16.3 trillion.

The Davos proposal is that key sectors of the economy, and whole regions of countries, should be governed by corporations with the support of other stakeholders who they invite to the table. The most attractive parts of the world from this point of view are those that are resource rich but governance poor, where the large-scale extraction of mineral and biological resources is still possible, in part because local structures for oversight and accountability are weak. Extractive economies are much more difficult to operate in places where these structures are strong and democratic, and where the probability of a public outcry is therefore high.

There’s another problem here: communities whose traditional lands sit on top of gold, oil or timber are obvious targets for attack. But what happens to wildlife that offers no obvious source of profit? If a tiger has no value, why would it be saved? This is where the monetization of nature is so important.

In 2014, the writer Charles Eisenstein published a piece on openDemocracy that expanded on this phenomenon. We must recognise that “some things are beyond measure and price” as he put it, warning of the dangers of relying on numbers and financial data for decision-making. There are many things we don’t measure, either by choice (because they interfere with established power relationships); because our understanding is incomplete; or because some things are simply un-measurable—like beauty, connectedness, spiritual fulfilment or the sight of reindeer, wolves and golden eagles living with the Dukha in Mongolia.

When I wake up in the morning the sound I hear is of a magpie’s warble. These birds and their unique and haunting song, as well as the kangaroos that stand on the ridge at dusk close to my home, are part of the culture in which I live, and the community to which I belong to. People elsewhere, in South Africa, Pakistan, Russia or Peru will wake up to different sounds and vistas, but our landscapes are never empty places; nor are they commodities to sell. They are filled with a different kind of richness which we value in other ways. They are filled with wildlife with which we commune.

That’s why we can’t let the monetary value of nature be used as the criterion for governance. A tiger has value because it is a tiger, because it is priceless in and of itself. That’s why it should be saved, but under the rule of ‘Davos man’ this is most unlikely. In fact monetizing wildlife leads to over exploitation wherever money can be made, and under protection where it can’t. The only real solution is to reject the underlying philosophy of nature as a profit centre. Everything else follows from that shift.

The World Economic Forum will meet again in Davos in January 2017, under the now-familiar umbrella of “improving global governance through public-private cooperation.” However, power can only be ceded to the Global Redesign Initiative and similar efforts if we as citizens allow it. Instead, we should demand that our governments actually govern in the interests of the vast majority of their populations, and of the wild species among whom we want to live. We can demand that global conservation is democratized to protect what we see as precious, sacred, special and important, not what makes most money for corporations. Wherever we have democracy, we must assert our control.

Tigers, elephants, forests, wetlands and rivers are not commodities whose value can be siphoned off into the pockets of investors and ignored when they don’t make a profit. They are our collective inheritance.

***

Margi Prideaux is an international wildlife policy writer, negotiator and academic. She has worked within the conservation movement for 25 years. She writes at www.wildpolitics.co and you can follow her on twitter @WildPolitics.

***

This article was original published on openDemocracy, 7 November 2016

The Great Elephant Census Results

Serengeti Watch reports that three years ago, Microsoft founder, Paul Allen, embarked on an epic $7 million study to find out how many elephants remain, where they are and what changes have taken place. The results are in. During the past seven years, 30% of Africa’s elephants have disappeared. 60% were lost in Tanzania in five years! At this rate, half the continent’s remaining elephants will be gone in just nine years. We can’t let this happen! Learn more.

Hope for Grevy’s Zebra

The Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Northern Kenya took part in counting Grevy’s Zebra the last two days of January earlier this year. The results are in and the numbers of the zebra are up slightly. Good news for the rarest of zebras that once totaled 15,000 in Kenya during the 1970s now appear to number 2,250. To read more about how the use of photography and recognition software aided in the count’s accuracy and more, read more.

Two Giant Pandas Released into Wild

The State Forestry Bureau and the Sichuan Provincial People’s Government released two giant female pandas into the Ya’an Liziping National Nature Reserve of Sichuan Province in late October. Hua Yan and Zhang Meng had gone through training for the past two to three years to make sure the pandas could establish a territory, recognize and avoid predators, eat different kinds of bamboo and to find food and water sources. Both pandas are wearing GPS collars and will be monitored as to their whereabouts and if they are successful in breeding in the wild. China’s population of giant pandas in captivity was 422 at the end of 2015 laying a solid foundation for rejuvenating the giant panda population in the wild.