Protecting the Forest By Burning it Down

By Kaelyn Lynch, ILCW Member, (USA)
Previously published by Verge Magazine

In rural Burma, traditional agriculture practices have maintained the forest for decades, but can they endure in the face of modernization?

“Can you see the difference?” asks Mu Ohn, jolting the motorbike to a stop in the middle of the dirt path. I follow his outstretched arms to the steep banks on either side of the road, which serves as a boundary between two villages.

“This village,” he says, motioning to the lush, seemingly impenetrable forest on his right, “still burns their forest. But this one,” pointing to the ragged collection of feeble-looking trees on his left, “does not.”

“Don’t you mean…” I begin, but Mu Ohn cuts me off with a shake of his head, turning so I can see his broad smile: “You’ll see.”

In rural Burma, some farmers like Mu Ohn practice the same agriculture methods as their ancestors. Perfected over generations, their technique of shifting cultivation has allowed them to live sustainably off the land while preserving the surrounding forest in an unexpected way—by burning the trees down.

Worldwide, traditional land management is cited as a way to conserve forests and mitigate the effects of climate change in developing nations. A 2014 report by the World Resources Institute examined hundreds of previous studies and satellite images to determine that increasing indigenous peoples’ land rights helped prevent deforestation and cut carbon emissions by billions of tons.

Losing 1.3 million acres of forest each year, Burma’s deforestation rate ranks only behind that of Brazil and Indonesia. While Burma’s former military junta heavily exploited the country’s natural resources, this trend has worsened even with the charge toward democracy over the past five years, as the nation opens to outside investment.

Deforestation is known to exacerbate the effects of extreme weather caused by climate change, leading to more severe flooding, drought, disease, and soil erosion. With around 70 per cent of its population still living off the land, Burma tops the UN Risk Model as the country most vulnerable to these effects; yet, only 6 per cent of Burma’s remaining forest is officially protected.

Tucked between the folds of a mountainous part of Shan State, Konwha village owns the dense forest we saw along the road. Here, they practice a method of rotational agriculture, in which a different tract of forest is cleared and burned each year for farming. After the harvest, the area is left alone for 18 years—the time, according to village law, it takes for the forest to regrow. This way, Konhwa manages to feed its 600-person population (with some left over for sale and trade), while ensuring the forest stays intact.

The image of a recently cleared field—blackened earth dotted with stumps—is hardly a poster for conservation. In a 1957 report, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) declared this form of farming as “backwards” and credited it with causing widespread deforestation. More recently, it has been scrutinized for contributing to climate change; the burning of forests on carbon-rich peat lands in Indonesia released more greenhouse gases than the entire U.K. last year. This criticism, however, typically refers to instances where forests are permanently converted to land for farms, ranches, or industry.

On the contrary, the rotational system practiced in Konhwa can actually save more carbon than it produces. A study in nearby Thailand of a village using similar methods puts the difference at 60,000 tonnes absorbed versus 2,000 tonnes released.

According to Dr. Jurgen Blaser, a forestry expert cited in the study, “During restoration, forests require huge amounts of carbon to reproduce. . .it is for this reason that rehabilitating forests have a high capacity to sequester carbon dioxide.”

For traditional farmers this method offers direct benefits. Burning felled trees provides the otherwise poor soil with nutrients while clearing weeds, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizers and herbicides. Keeping the forest around the village intact offers protection against natural disasters and additional food sources.

“We protect the forest for many reasons,” a local farmer tells me, “The trees give us fertile soil, plants and animals to eat, and keeps the temperature cool. It also stops flooding during the rainy season and gives us clean water and air.”

Htun Lwin, a community organizer and educator with the Burmese NGO Kalyana Mitta Foundation, emphasizes these benefits during workshops on eco-farming, climate change and disaster risk reduction throughout rural Shan State. “Farmers know about climate change, they see the effects every year,” he says. “Their cultural traditions are already good for the environment. We want to help maintain them and restore them in places they’ve been lost.” He says this outreach is especially important now, with traditional rural life coming increasingly under threat from modernization and industry. Poachers from other villages hack trees in search of roots for the lucrative medicine trade. Population increases and a shift towards a more cash-based economy also leads villagers to question how much longer their current practices can sustain them.

Their biggest concern, however, lies with land rights. According to the 2008 constitution, the state, “is the ultimate owner of all lands and natural resources,” while citizens are essentially renters that can be removed when the government sees fit. This enabled the government, military, and state-approved corporations to “grab” vast tracts of land from private owners for their own projects, often with little to no compensation. Since 2012, over 30,000 cases of unjust confiscation have been brought before the Farmland Investigation Committee, while many more go unreported by rural farmers without the means to travel or pay legal fees. Of these, only 4 per cent have resulted in remuneration for lost property.

While the newly-elected government has vowed to resolve all outstanding claims, it is unclear how much of a change in policy will occur as the nation prioritizes economic development. Today, only about 30 to 50 per cent of the rural population have formal land rights, meaning many remote places like Konhwa have no legitimate claim over the land they have occupied for decades.

This was the case in the nearby lowland village of Kon Sone, where elders recall a place once surrounded by “forest so thick, you could not see through it”—until the military confiscated the land and sold the trees as timber to China. Since then, the small farming community has suffered from mudslides, water contamination, and an ever-increasing reliance on chemical fertilizers.

Now the expansion of industry is beginning to reach further into previously untouched areas. Recognizing this, Htun Lwin is attempting to strengthen traditional methods in the face of the coming storm. He brings farmers from other regions to places like Konhwa to be trained in shifting cultivation, hoping to revive these practices elsewhere and garner them support throughout the country. He has also started to weave discussions on land rights into his trainings, encouraging farmers to petition the new government for better policies.

With support from Kalyana Mitta, Mu Ohn was able to obtain a GPS to mark the boundaries of his village’s forest, which he sees as the first step to legitimizing his community’s claim. As we scramble along steep, muddy slopes, he points out where places where boundaries were once marked simply by rocks wedged between tree branches. By officially mapping the land, he hopes to create a protected area based on the village’s customary law that will keep it from the groping arms of industry.

His work has a sense of urgency. At a peak overlooking the territory, Mu Ohn points to a nearby area recently cleared for a government-run mining operation. “If they’ve found coal, they’ll come for us next,” he says.

Admiring my dirt-stained clothes, he jokes, “You look like a farmer.” Then, more seriously, “Now that you’ve felt the land like us, it is in your heart. You can understand now why we have to protect it. If we lose it, we lose everything.”

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Giving In

By Rebecca Lawton (USA)
Previously published by Hunger Mountain, the VCFA Journal for the Arts

American Robin
When someone raps at my kitchen window, I jump out of my chair. It’s before dawn, in the hour when the horizon emerges as a gray line on the ephemeral lake before me. I’m staying in the Oregon Outback, at a retreat center as remote as Neverland, where the prospect of a face at the glass spooks me. I peek around. It’s a robin tapping, pausing, and tapping again. My pulse settles. I can consult avian specialist Noah, also a writer in residence at Playa Fellowship Program, about whether the robin is mentally ill.

When I ask Noah, he tells me that the robin’s failing the “mirror test” – he doesn’t recognize the face in the glass. Instead, he sees a possible mate or a territorial rival. His disregard for data is normal, Noah says, and won’t stop until I close my curtains.

I loathe shutting out some of the most dazzling light on the planet, though, on the parched edge of the Great Basin. During my first stay at Playa, I labored as an ant does from sunrise to sundown despite the light. This second residency, however, comes when the batteries in my brain are flatter than those in a mislaid flashlight. The idea of working would amuse me if I had the energy to laugh.

Somehow, I’ll rally. I’ll strive again through the hours. I’ll barely leave the cabin for breaks. I’ll do as Jack London said he would do (and did): “I shall use my time.”

But now, there’s this robin. Out beyond his little head, fields flash with the scarlet and yellow of finches and goldfinches attacking dandelions for their seeds. An oriole hops branch to branch in a pine, his orange and black matching the sunrise. People and birds come here for pretty much the same reason: to stop over for long or short stays in a basin with a wide, blue sky and sweet, seasonal water. Some migrators pass through in minutes. Some linger for days or a season. A lucky few stay for years or a lifetime.

I draw the curtains. An inner voice warns that I need rest, but I push it aside. When else will I have such an opportunity to work? The planet needs every voice it can get now that climate deniers have been voted into major public offices.

The robin moves to a bedroom window. I put on a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that I thought I’d never need out here. The tap-tapping continues, but farther away. Something could be learned from the robin, I’m certain, but lessons be damned. I labor on. Thirteen more days to go.

Common Poorwill
The next days of my residency mimic the first. Rise, go to the desk, and put new words on paper. When I stop, it’s not for long. At night I seldom sleep, tired but wired. I persevere, despite knowing that the Latin roots are per, meaning thoroughly, and severus, meaning severe. Thoroughly severe, implying, to continue with little prospect of success.

On the fourth morning, when I review what I’ve written, my heart falls. The sentences lack life. There are no original ideas. It’s dull and overblown. In short, it’s utter crap. Discouraged, I step out to my deck as a flock of white-faced ibises, long necks outstretched, pass over the lake’s shimmering surface. Noisy pairs of Canada geese bark like small dogs in tall grasses. Each day more migratory birds arrive in hordes.

Returning inside I look in the bathroom mirror. Fatigued eyes in a drooping face stare back. That can’t be me.

I almost never drink, and never alone. After all, didn’t Rhett Butler say, “Never drink alone, Scarlett?” Nonetheless, I open a bottle of Grenache I’ve brought from home and down a glass before taking the rest to dinner in the Commons. Conversation is the last thing I want, but around the big communal table, I find instant rapport with the other residents. The residency has opened up their creativity in unforeseen ways. Noah and another passionate birder, the poet Farnaz, are planning to drive up Highway 31 after dark to look for common poorwills. My curiosity stirs, but I push it down, knowing I plan to rise at dawn to write.

Across the table a printmaker, Barbara, describes the arc of her nearly completed six-week residency. Her work shifted partway through her stay, after a visit to the archeological caves south of Summer Lake. In those ragged holes in an ochre cliff, some of America’s oldest fossil human feces have been found alongside the bones of waterfowl, fish, and extinct camels and horses. Once Barbara’s curiosity was ignited about the ancient landscape, she developed a process of collecting images directly from the ground. She strapped wooden blocks to her feet before hiking nearby trails and Forest Service roads. After the treks, she removed the worn and roughened blocks and inked them for printing. The results are both coarse and fluid depictions of geologic textures.

 

“I gave in,” Barbara says. “When I opened to this place and the people, and let the surroundings transform my work, it made all the difference.”

 

Immediately, I decide to go into the night with Noah and Farnaz. We drive to Picture Rock Pass, our windows open to the scent of new things growing. Parking by the side of the road on a pullout covered with volcanic cinders, we tread with care to lessen crunching noisy rock. At the end of the pullout, overlooking the stunted piñon-juniper forest, Noah pulls up a sound recording on his phone – the call of a common poorwill. The bird is known to answer to a whistled poor-will.

Poor-will, poor-will, goes Noah’s phone. Silence, silence, goes the night. In a minute we hear the steady advertising call of a northern saw-whet owl. A few ring-billed gulls above us mew like loud kittens. Miles away in the valley, cattle moan, their ghost voices carrying above farm and forest.

The nagging advice I’d disregarded sinks in – this is what I need. This valley, this night, this basin, these people. Otherwise, my well is too dry to sustain writing about water or climate or anything else. I could no more write a new book than walk five miles into this night on printmaker’s blocks.

The poorwills remain silent, not hearing or believing the silicon voice of Noah’s phone. On the drive back to Playa, he and Farnaz tell me about the Punchbowl. It’s an open dish of land set among ridges above Summer Lake. One resident saw five black bears, all at once, on a hike there last week. I vow to go, too, alone. It will be just one day off from the ten more days of residency, in this dry valley where robins attack windows and sleep stays a stranger.

Mountain Bluebird
At dawn, after four hours of actual slumber, I set out with my writing notebook, binoculars, bird book, and a canister of bear spray. I’ll return to Playa by late afternoon, before large carnivores start their dusk feeding. Following the Forest Service trail, I find early wildflowers bursting forth in crimson, gold, and lilac every few feet. Meadowlarks burble and flee as I approach. A thin cloud cover rests on a jagged row of ridges in the distance. The only large trees still standing are white skeletal snags, stripped of their foliage and bark by a past forest fire.

Soon I come to a broad basin that must be the Punchbowl. The trail continues, though, and so do I, despite new growth crowding the trail and fallen trees blocking the road like log gates guarding Oz. Climbing up and over them, I’m careful not to twist an ankle or blow out a knee with each landing. Somehow, I manage to scrape both shins through my hiking pants, drawing blood.

After hours of thrashing, I reach a patch of live woods. The air is chilly and full of mosquitoes. Busy swatting insects, I nearly miss a bird perched just yards away. It’s the bluest bird in the history of the world, a mountain bluebird, poised to fly. It’s many shades deeper than the sky. Remembering that a story’s told in the details, I catch some in my notebook, quick, like floating dandelion seeds.

On my way down the trail, the pull of gravity makes the return trip easier. Midway back, I flush a poorwill from a clump of manzanita in the overgrown trail. The bird escapes on a rush of wings. If only Noah and Farnaz were here. Back in the cabin, after eight hours away, I barely have energy to clean up and eat while standing in my kitchen. I fall on the bed and sleep until morning.

Nine days of residency to go. It may not be enough.

Franklin’s Gul l
At dawn, I drive ten miles to the Summer Lake Wildlife Refuge. An introductory kiosk notes that hundreds of species of mammals and birds live on nineteen thousand acres watered by an elaborate system of pipes and canals. I enter on a dirt road at the breakneck speed of ten miles an hour, seeing only a few ducks and geese. I hit the brakes at the eastern edge of the property. Thousands of ducks, geese, terns, gulls, sandpipers, phalaropes, and other shorebirds browse a shining pond. Some are in flight. Some stroll beaches. Some dive and dabble. Some face beaks-first into the wind. A small gull wings past, a species with a black head and thick white crescents above and below its eyes. A newbie for me, it’s a Franklin’s gull, which breeds and summers farther north.

I gaze until I’m satiated, then find another kiosk sign that tells me aridity is increasing, as are nearby human populations. I pull out my notebook and write.

Water in refuge = life. Climate change = drier refuge. Alfalfa shipped elsewhere = broken local water cycle.

When I leave the refuge hours later and return to my cabin, I type up notes on wildlife and its dependence on the same water depleted by growing irrigation demands. I work without effort until dark. I don’t count the days left in residency.

I’ve started writing about things that I came here to write about.

Calliope Hummingbird
On my last full day, I take a Forest Service road to Winter Ridge. The well-groomed gravel surface would allow me to drive fast if I felt like it. Instead, I go as slowly as the (nonexistent) traffic will allow, about eight miles an hour. Maybe I’ll see a Williamson’s sapsucker, a life bird for me, up in the high forests. Reaching a wet meadow with a small stream, I hear wood-pecking all around. None resembles the start-and-stop, Morse-code tapping of sapsuckers, so I continue on.

I drive with my windows open, pulling over often, stopping near patches of old-growth forest among the new growth recovering from logging. The woods are full of life. A red-tail hawk masquerades as a broken pine branch until he lifts wings and flies. A golden eagle dwarfs the telephone cross-pole she’s hunkered on. A brilliantly colored lazuli bunting, more turquoise than lapis blue, hangs out on a log.

The last bird of the day is a stunner, a calliope hummingbird feeding in a burned-over patch of woods. The smallest bird in North America, dragonfly-sized, arrives with a flash of violet throat and soft buzz of wings. The bird hovers only a moment before zooming off.

So it goes with writing and birding.
You try to find a sapsucker, but stumble up on a tiny jewel of a hummingbird. You persist and strive despite a robin showing you the insanity of ignoring results. You go out calling for a poorwill, only to flush one out the next day after discovering another bird more blue than the sky. Or you think you’ll uncover a labyrinthine waterworks, but spend hours immersed in sanctuary and the surprise of a new species. Near the roof of a basin that holds light and sky in the same grip as alfalfa and cattle, you open to it.

Somehow, you do not fail the mirror test. You find a way, as Barbara did with her printer’s blocks, as Noah and Farnaz do with their birding, as the birds do with their migrations. You crunch the data, no matter how it comes to you.

You return to the world again and again and pour it out in your own voice.

Lion Translocation Inspired by Film

A pride of three wild lion (two females and one male) are currently being introduced into the Somkhanda Community Game Reserve in the province of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa from the andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, also of KwaZulu-Natal, as part of their lion management strategy. This lion translocation was inspired by a ground-breaking feature documentary – Blood Lions™ which exposed the captive breeding and canned hunting industry. “It is estimated that there are currently between 6,000 to 8,000 predators in captivity in South Africa, mostly living in appalling conditions with inadequate breeding and welfare protocols in place to protect them,” said Dr. Andrew Venter, Wildlands’ CEO and Executive Producer of Blood Lions™. “Furthermore, lion ecologists state that captive breeding plays no role in the conservation of this species, and to date no captive bred, hand reared lions have successfully been rehabilitated into the wild. It is a shame that we now need to refer to lion as either wild or captive, but Wildlands are very proud to say that we have assisted in the expansion of wild lion range through the introduction of this pride onto Somkhanda. This is truly a pride we can be proud of!”

“A central theme of the Blood Lions™ campaign calls for lion conservation to be managed by the recognised conservation community,” said ILCW member Ian Michler, Consultant and Lead Character for Blood Lions™. “The Somkhanda release highlights what this entails: securing suitable habitat and using wild lions from reputable sources in a responsible release programme. Congratulations to Wildlands and their partners for this initiative that increases the range of wild lands in South Africa.”

The translocation process started on the 13th of May at andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve and will “end” when the pride are placed in a boma at Somkhanda. The lion will be housed in the boma for approximately 6 – 9 weeks to adjust to their new environment, and Wildlands hope to release them onto the Somkhanda Reserve at the end of July 2017.

What Elephants Know

Reviewed by ILCW Member
Sanjay Gubbi (India)

It’s been a while since there was a novel based on natural history, wildlife, and life in the jungles. This is perhaps What Elephants Know has tried to accomplish. Authored by Eric Dinerstein who spent time in the Nepalese jungles of Bardia district in the mid-1970s, initially studying tigers as a Peace Corps volunteer. He later returned to study the Indian one-horned rhinoceros for his doctoral work. The book itself is inspired by the elephants, and the game scouts, the author had worked with during his research work. Hence the book shows out the intimate knowledge the author has for this place. The idea of the book itself has taken birth on a star-filled night in one of the wildest spots in Asia.

The story takes place in the low, flat land along the border between Nepal and India at the base of the Himalayas where a young boy Nanda Singh, fondly called Nandu, hits up with a plan with his friend Rita to save their elephant stable being closed. But to succeed, they’ll need a great tusker and the story takes the turn into another adventure. While their struggle to save the elephant stable and his larger community of mahouts is the major plot of the book, there are several other subplots that are interwoven beautifully to make it a very readable novel. The story develops at an even pace and keeps the reader’s attention to the end.

Nandu was found as a toddler by his foster father Subba-Sahib, a head elephant keeper, while on his regular rounds with elephants in the forests. Initially under the protective watch of a pack of dholes, the wild canids of Asia, Nandu grows up under his foster father in a royal elephant stable. He considers Subba-Sahib as his father, and Devi Kali, an old, affectionate female elephant, at the stable as his mother. Perhaps Devi Kali is the best character in the book that brings out human emotions in elephants which is possibly true if one considers the way elephants care for their young ones in the wild. Some sections that detail the relationship between Devi Kali and Nandu are movingly constructed.

As Nandu grows up destined to become a mahout, he discovers plants, animals, good and bad people, teaching him life’s critical skills. The book grips you and can make Nandu the new Mowgli. The book takes the reader across to the magical world of Nepal’s forests. Every detail of how a mahout commands his elephants, or the description of forest flowers, birds, animals, animal behavior are authentic to the last word, except on a couple of occasions which is perhaps an integral part of any fiction writing.

What Elephants Know is perhaps more than a story of the talented, young boy who is enchanted with elephants, and other wildlife around him. It is told from the perspective of the young boy, hence has everything that interests him. But, it also has very nuanced teachings for life, and I am sure many would benefit from these sagacious words that come out of the mouth of wise men, who are important or supporting characters in the book, neatly woven into different sections of the story. The underlying themes of patience, karma, kindness, and generosity are all stated boldly but without force. Nandu also has to confront issues of cultural identity, political corruption, environmental ethics, and other issues the society faces.

The language is simple but elegant and has an excellent flow. I think few can pen like Eric, where he has combined his field observations into a novel. My favourite line from this book is when Father Autry tells his most avid pupil. “Behold Nandu. For me, the peak of evolution was reached before the age of dinosaurs. That is when the ferns of today began to appear. Many have changed in one hundred and sixty-five million years. I wonder, how can nature improve on such an elegant design?”

Eric is known for his non-fiction natural history books, including award-winning books such as Kingdom of Rarities, and Tigerland and Other Unintended Destinations. But, this is his first fiction novel, and in fact an impressive one. Though the book can be easily classified into the fiction genre, it has authentic information on natural history, which makes it difficult it to be purely classified as a fiction.

Though the book is slightly episodic, there’s enough action that counterbalances to make the readers feel it as a genuine memoir. This is a must read for everyone interested in natural history, outdoors, culture, and or simple writing. Perhaps, it cannot be categorised as a children’s novel, as reviewers have generally rated it. Everyone would enjoy it, especially those who know nature from the field. The book really transports you and makes one feel a deeper appreciation for the natural world! I would surely rate it nine out of ten.

What Elephants Know is published by Disney Hyperion, 2016, Hardcove

A World Animal Day Poem

A World Animal Day Poem

ILCW member Susan Richardson (UK) is
World Animal Day’s poet-in-residence and was specially-commissioned to write the following poem for World Animal Day 2016. Her poem focuses on the critical global issue of ocean debris and the injuries/deaths suffered by marine creatures, including leatherback turtles, when they become entangled in discarded fishing nets (known as ghost gear) or ingest plastic rubbish that they mistake for prey. At the bottom of the page you can click on the link to hear Susan reciting Waste.

Waste

By Susan Richardson,
ILCW member (UK)

1. Net

The Ghost of Fishing Past has failed

to fade.

It will haunt degradable dreams

for decade after leathery decade.

The Ghost of Fishing Present

is not the one doing the moaning.

What you hear is the sound

of a thousand gouged flippers.

Mangled skin. Tangled necks.

Flexible shells yelling for protection.

The Ghost of Fishing Yet to Come

nets every ocean current and tide.

Entire gyres are trapped.

Waves writhe and thrash

as the sea sinks

to the bottom of itself.

2. Bag

Her prey migrates

from chip shop

and Tesco

from High Street

and suburb from

windgust and

gutter from

fly-tip and

river from

storm drain

and foreshore

from shallows

and deeps

till it reaches

the pelagic zone,

her home

in the open sea.

As it floats

past, she grabs

it, drags it

down her

barbed throat,

adds it to

a gut already

stuffed with

polyethylene.

Meanwhile,

near to

the surface,

genuine jellyfish

themselves ingest

plastic plankton.

You can also listen to Susan reciting her
wonderful poem.

Angling For Conservation

By Kaelyn Lynch ILCW Member (USA)

Previously published by Sevenseas

(photo measuring a Shark)

Researchers measure a shark as part of their work at a tournament in Montauk, New York. Photo by Kaelyn Lynch

The dock at Montauk Marine Basin’s 46th Annual Shark Fishing tournament is equal parts sporting event and science lab. A shark is strung up by its tail and weighed, the result eliciting cheers from the crowd, but not before a researcher scurries beneath with a bucket to collect the stomach contents that flow from the mouth. Nearby, beneath the cover of a small shed, a research team slices through layers of tough skin and muscle to remove oily livers, reproductive tissues, and chunks of spinal column, while a scientist records measurements and observations. Occasionally, one of the day’s anglers, beer in hand, pokes his head in to watch the process, or to ask how his catch will be used to further scientific knowledge.

 

Recreational fishing is not often thought to coincide with shark conservation. Yet, the scene on the eastern tip of New York that day is just one of many instances across the United States where scientists have entered into a beneficial partnership with anglers.

 

The U.S. is one of the largest recreational fisheries in the world, with 11 million saltwater anglers contributing over $60 billion to the economy annually, interest in shark fishing spiked during the 1970s, when Jaws spawned a generation of anglers looking to do battle with man-eaters. Since then, increased research and awareness efforts have created a shift towards sustainability, driving scientists and anglers together in a mutual interest to protect sharks as a resource. Still, the question of how much catching sharks for sport can contribute to their conservation is a complex one.

 

As one chief of the Apex Predators Program at NOAA fisheries’ Narragansett, Rhode Island lab, Dr. Nancy Kohler is part of a team that has been attending shark fishing tournaments for over 30 years. The biological samples they collect go towards gathering long-term information about populations in the region through determining what they eat, their age, and what size they are when they mature, factors that are critical to creating effective management strategies.

 

Dr. Kohler also utilizes the opportunity for education, discussing the latest research and regulations at pre-tournament captains’ meetings. Each boat receives a packet containing information on shark identification, sizing, and best catch-and-release practices. She also supplies tags from the national Marine Fisheries Service and information on their cooperative tagging program. This nationwide effort provides recreational and commercial fishers with tags to attach to sharks they release, and encourages them to report information on tagged sharks they capture. Upon recapture, the tags provide data on population sizes, sex composition, and migration patterns. With insufficient data as one of the largest barriers to effective management, tagging is a way for fishermen to help fill in critical gaps.

 

Still Dr. Kohler is quick to state that her work does not justify these tournaments; it is simply opportunistic sampling that has evolved into a successful partnership over time. “These tournaments were happening anyway,” she says, “and these sharks live so long, and are so hard to catch, when else would you have this many samples coming in?”

 

While so-called kill tournaments were once the norm, the Northeastern seaboard is one of the last places where they are still popular. The

sport of shark fishing has its roots here, in 1950s Montauk, where charter-boat captain Frank Mundus famously harpooned white sharks, supposedly inspiring the character Quint in the novel version of Jaws. Accordingly, the region is home to some of the oldest and largest tournaments in the country.

 

These tournaments have long come under fire from environmental groups, and even some scientists. Dr. Joanna Borucinska, a professor at the University of Hartford, says although her research uses some samples collected at the tournaments, she would be happy to see them end. “There’s other opportunities for this research to be done without the tournaments,” she says, stating she is against fishing for sport, “It comes down to whether you think that animals have a right to be able to live and be healthy unless we need them for food.”

 

Dr. Greg Skomal, senior biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, takes a different approach. He does not oppose kill tournaments, so long as they use the sharks for food (as most do), and follow the rules set down by fisheries managers, such as minimum size requirements and bans on harvesting certain species. “The state and federal government have put conservation measures in place, if they adhere to these regulations, then fishing is OK.”

 

Dr. Skomal has worked extensively with recreational and commercial fishers, and says they have contributed  information  necessary for creating sustainable fisheries  probably more than any other group through providing data, platforms, and expertise. “Just like hunters,” Skomal says, “fishermen have a much greater respect for conservation than people would anticipate.”  Unlike hunters, however, anglers have the option of releasing their prize alive.

 

This was the idea behind the Shark’s Eye Tournament, of which Dr. Skomal was an integral part. Run out of Montauk Marine Basin by its late owner, Carl Daren berg Jr., the fishing tournament was devoted entirely to tagging and releasing sharks for science, the first of its kind in the region. In addition to the hundreds of sharks affi><ed with conventional dart tags. Dr. Skomal and his team helped tag 13 sharks with donated satellite tags, which transmit a signal each time the shark breaks the surface. The tournament ran successfully for three years, two of which were under the guidance of the charismatic Mr. Darenberg Jr.’s children after his death. Although the momentum ran out this year in the face of other more established contests, the fact that it occurred in the birthplace of the sport may be an indicator of where fishing is headed.

 

In William Fudora’s home state of Florida, catch­ and-keep style shark tournaments are all but extinct. As president of the South Florida Shark Club and founder of the Shorebound Anglers’ Alliance, his Big Hammer Challenge is entirely shore-based, and entirely catch-and-release. Spanning four states in the Southeast and lasting over a month, the tournament awards prizes based on length, garnered from date­stamped photos submitted by participants.

 

Fudora spent his childhood in the 1970s on Miami’s South Beach Pier, fishing sometimes late into the night, fueled by his mother’s sandwiches and the anticipation of the next big catch. Watching the thrilling spectacle of his friend battling a large shark inspired him to do the same; once he did, he was, for lack of a better word, hooked.

 

Fudora’s home in a suburb north of Miami is a monument to South Florida shark fishing. Faded photographs of smiling men next to giant sharks dot his mantle, jaws lay scattered across his table, and a mold of a hammerhead is

suspended over the tiki bar in his yard. Fudora sees the jaws more than anything as a relic of a previous era; he claims he hasn’t killed a shark in years, and that people who continue to do so have a “mental hang-up.” “I enjoy the fight, but  I love the animal, I don’t want to kill it,” he says, noting he’s given most of his jaws away. Fudora now uses his club and tournament to advocate for sustainable fishing practices, emphasizing catch-and-release, and trains anglers in a “two minute drill” of measuring, photographing, tagging, and releasing a shark, all while keeping it in the water.

 

For Fudora, fishing isn’t just a hobby, but a part of his identity, and he demonstrates a fierce passion for protecting fishermen’s rights. He has seen increasing attempts by town governments in Florida to ban shark fishing from their beaches, often without the legal right to do so, a move he feels is motivated by negative publicity and unfounded fears of increased shark attacks. Instead, he wants to see more regulations aimed at commercial fishing vessels, which he says are the ones really decimating populations.

 

Recent studies have shown that Fudora is more of the rule than the exception when it comes to modern-day shark anglers. A 2016 paper published in Aquatic Conservation found a strong conservation ethic and understanding of threats to sharks amongst avid anglers in a nationwide survey of recreational fishermen. Most respondents practiced catch-and-release, with 89 percent agreeing with the importance of releasing sharks in good condition, and 80 percent saying they would be willing to use special gear and techniques to minimize damage to the animal. Additionally, an overwhelming majority of those surveyed agreed that having viable shark populations is important, though opinions were split on whether further regulations on fishing were necessary. While the study suggests that these attitudes could be used as a tool to promote conservation, it also alludes to areas of conflict.

 

According to the survey, few recreational anglers perceived their sport to be a threat to shark populations, with the vast majority pointing the finger at commercial vessels. While globally, commercial fishing certainly has a greater impact on shark populations, within the U.S., recreational anglers may be underestimating

their own contribution. According to the 2013 Fisheries of the U.S. report, recreational anglers killed more large (non-dogfish) sharks by weight than commercial fishermen, about 4.5 million pounds versus 3.2 million pounds, a trend that repeated in 2014, though to a lesser extent. While these statistics do not account for unwanted species caught by commercial vessels and dumped at sea (though most are landed), it suggests that a many people with a single hook can in fact have an impact akin to one person with many hooks.

 

The targeting of large sharks by recreational fishermen hoping to break world records may also exacerbate these effects. As in other species of fish, larger sharks have a greater reproductive potential, showing an ability to carry more young and reproduce more often. Females also tend to be larger than males, meaning the largest individuals in a population are often pregnant females. Therefore, removing a single large shark could have a disproportionately negative impact on the population, which is of special concern for species with already declining numbers. Currently, 15 species of sharks with world records issued by the International Game Fishing Association are also listed as “Threatened with Extinction” by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

 

Even if a shark is released alive, the stress caused by its capture could result in its death, even days or weeks later. Research shows that certain species are more susceptible to capture stress than others, with hammerheads named as particularly vulnerable. Dr. Austin Gallagher, who studies sharks’ behavioral and physiological response to capture, says his work implies that hammerheads’ elevated stress response is associated with its hard-fighting nature and tendency to “pull line,” the same quality that makes them a highly sought target for recreational anglers.

 

Many fishermen are aware of hammerheads’ vulnerability, and try to increase their chances by minimizing fight times and keeping them submerged while removing gear. While Dr. Gallagher appreciates these efforts, he says given hammerheads’ high stress response even at low fight times, they are not enough to stop the plummeting of their populations. In one of his studies, a great hammerhead died minutes after being released while being fought for under half an hour, even when using lower-stress fishing techniques. Given this outcome, Dr. Gallagher says hammerheads are better off risking the hazards of retained gear left by an angler cutting the line immediately than fighting being reeled into the boat or shore. Although, the best practice, he says, would be for fishermen to stop targeting fragile species altogether. “I love recreational anglers, they are great people and most of them really care about the resource,” he says, “but they have to listen to the data.” He also stresses the responsibility of scientists to effectively communicate this data and actively engaging with anglers, the importance of which “cannot be overstated.”

 

Hammerheads are already protected in certain states, such as Florida, but Gallagher says given their fragility they should also be given greater federal protections, though petitions to do so were rejected for two of the three species. A recent study by Gallagher’s colleague from the University of Miami, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, could help bolster this argument. It showed that only 17 percent of hammerheads’ core range on the Atlantic seaboard-the places where they spend most of their time-are protected, but covering hammerheads under federal law would cover this range entirely. “One of the big arguments is that sharks are highly mobile and will end up in international waters where there’s no protection in place, so why should we lose the economic opportunity if it will be exploited elsewhere?”  Dr. Hammerschlag states, “But if you protect them in key areas where they are doing important things like feeding and reproducing, you don’t necessarily have to protect them everywhere they go,” adding that in the past, such policies have brought other migratory species, such as birds, back from the brink of extinction.

 

While this is promising, Dr. Hammerschlag recognizes the challenges of shark fisheries management. “It’s hard enough to get the data, and then

there’s a lot of socio-political factors…the  human dimension is not easy.”

 

Fishermen make up a large part of this human dimension, and an increasing number of scientists are seeing collaboration as the key to a more sustainable fishery. In that regard, U.S. Fisheries have come a long way, says Dr. Robert Hueter, who directs the Center for Shari< Research at Mote Marine Laboratory. He points to the rebound in U.S. white shark populations after as one of the recent successes in fisheries management. Still, he would like to see the system become, “more proactive and visionary, to get us to the changes that would give us to the changes that would give us healthy fisheries 10 years from now.” A big proponent of working with recreational and commercial fishermen to achieve this goal, he says one of the most effective ways of doing so is bringing scientists and fishermen together on the water.

 

Captain Mark Sampson is no stranger to this sort of collaboration, having conducted  research expeditions, educational trips, and scientific studies aboard his charter fishing boat in Maryland and the Florida Keys. One such study involved comparing the effectiveness of circle­ shaped hooks versus traditional J-shaped hooks in hooking sharks in the mouth, rather than the esophagus or stomach, which can cause more damage. The data Sampson collected showed that not only did circle hooks significantly increase the likelihood a shark would be hooked in the mouth, but that it would be hooked when taking the bait and remain on the line. This is important information for anglers reluctant to make the switch to circle hooks on the basis that doing so will affect their catch efficiency.

 

Even with only about s percent of sharks ending up gut-hooked with circle hooks, for Sampson, who catches S00-600 sharks in a season, that number jumped out at him. In response, he developed what he calls the blocker rig, essentially a piece of pipe attached to the line that prevents a shark from swallowing the bait. In his own experiments mimicking those of the circle hook study, Sampson proved the blocker rig effective at stopping virtually all gut hooking. His invention has since been adopted by scientists catching sharks for their research; he even once spotted  it during a feature  on Shark Week, being used on massive white sharks.

 

After 30 years as a captain, for Sampson, part of the motivation for becoming involved in conservation comes from fishing itself, “Maybe I see [sharks] differently than other people… because you’re catching them all the time, you see how vulnerable they are to being mistreated.”

 

Research like Sampson’s not only contributes to scientific knowledge and the development of better fishing practices, but helps bridge the gap between anglers and scientists. “Scientists need to show respect for fishermen’s knowledge,” Dr. Hueter says. “When you build a relationship based on respect and mutual interest, [fishermen] stop seeing scientists and government as people who want to regulate them, but as people who are trying to help, and become partners in conserving the resource.”

 

To read the entire article with photos click here (https://www.joomag.com/magazine/sevenseas-marine-conservation-travel-issue-16-september-2016/0952280001469807030/p34?short0

 

 

Haven for the Hirola

Protecting Vital Habitat for the World’s Rarest Antelope

By Lauren Colegrove, ILCW Member (USA)
Previously published by Rainforest Trust

Rainforest Trust collaborates with passionate conservationists around the world who dedicate their lives to protecting threatened species and the habitats they call home. One incredibly inspiring partner is Dr. Abdullahi Ali and his team at the Hirola Conservation Programme, who work in Kenya to safeguard the world’s rarest antelope: the Critically Endangered Hirola.

Abdullahi Ali was born in Garissa County, Kenya, to a family in a pastoral Somali community. His parents were nomads who herded goats and camels, and Ali spent his childhood defending the prized animals from predators such as leopards. Ali’s uncle, who held a prestigious military position after helping prevent a government coup, leveraged his status to support the creation of one of the first schools in the neighboring region. He asked that each family allow at least one child to receive a formal education, and although Ali said that his father was originally opposed to the idea, his mother sent him to the school when he was about 7 years old.
“This was literally the first time I was in a permanent structure and interacted with individuals other than my family members,” Ali said.
Attracting nearly 300 children from neighboring communities, the new school created an atmosphere of stability that allowed Ali to complete his primary education, despite more than two-thirds of the students dropping out due to the transition to the unfamiliar environment. In high school, he had the opportunity to visit Masai Mara Natural Reserve, a 373,120-acre wildlife reserve in Kenya that borders Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Ali witnessed the grand annual migration of wildebeest that takes place between the reserve and Serengeti National Park, and was impressed by the rangers who were the protectors of this massive range.
“I decided right then that I wanted to be a wildlife ranger,” said Ali.
To learn how to safeguard the incredible species that shared his homeland, Ali enrolled in the University of Nairobi to study biology and conservation with a focus on endangered species and the impacts of landscape changes on wildlife (he eventually went on to earn a master’s degree in conservation biology and a Ph.D. in ecology from the University of Wyoming). Following the completion of his undergraduate degree, Ali returned to Garissa County to help establish a sanctuary for migrant giraffes wounded during the Somali Civil War that began in the early 1990s.
In 2005, the Kenya Wildlife Service asked Ali to join the national Hirola management committee tasked with protecting Hirolas, since he was familiar with the territory and had experience with conservation projects. With a historical range almost entirely outside national parks and other protected areas – paired with decades of political turmoil along the Kenya-Somalia border – the conservation of Hirolas has been a longstanding regional challenge and a major priority for the Kenya Wildlife Service. Hirola gathering in a small herd. Photo by HCP.

Colored sandy brown with white spectacle-like markings around their eyes and impressive spiral horns, Hirolas are some of the most imperiled antelopes in Africa and are assessed as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). These medium sized antelopes found in northeast Kenya and southwest Somalia are threatened primarily by habitat loss due to range degradation. They are also vulnerable to poaching, drought, disease and competition with livestock for resources, and there has been a drastic population decline of almost 90 percent since 1980.
The Hirola is also the last species in the genus Beatragus, and, “The loss of the Hirola would be the first extinction of a mammalian genus on mainland Africa in modern human history,” according to the IUCN.
Hirola are considered to be “refugee species” since they have limited access to optimal habitat and are restricted to less than five percent of their historical geographic range, and there are estimated to be only a few hundred of these antelopes left– an amount that Ali refuses to accept.
Ali decided to begin his own initiative to focus on saving the antelope species in his home county of Garissa and eventually received funding to establish the Hirola Conservation Programme (HCP). Ali’s current conservation and research sites are over 300 miles from Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, in a remote area along the Kenya-Somalia border. He stays in a small tented campsite with field assistants, in a region where the primary diet of local residents consists of livestock meat, such as from goats.
“For those of us who are vegetarians, this is not a recommended holiday destination,” noted Ali.
There are no paved roads in the area, and getting stuck in the mud is common. Rainfall can be erratic and sometimes leads to disruptions in the road networks; when it is not the rainy season, the region can face extensive droughts that dry up the water holes on which local wildlife depend. When the amount of accessible water is limited, human and wildlife conflicts can arise; in the village of Gedilun in Garissa County, there were two reports in October 2016 of buffaloes attacking people as they were going to a water hole.
While local communities rely predominantly on herded livestock for food, migrants from other regions sometimes come into the area to poach animals such as Hirola. Ali said local Somali clans do not hunt the Hirola for two main reasons: they are sympathetic to its shy nature, and because these antelopes are dependent on grasslands their presence in an area indicates positive ecosystem health.
“When [local clans] see them, they think that livestock will do well and that there will be many births and abundant food,” said Ali. “In this way, the Hirola is a good omen for the land.”
Hirola are so valued by community members that when there was an effort to relocate the species from the locally-managed Arawale National Reserve near Garissa to Tsavo East National Park in southern Kenya (outside the Hirola’s geographic range), local political leaders filed a lawsuit against their further removal. Since then, Arawale National Reserve has been dissolved, as it is no longer financially supported by the government. Instead of focusing on relocation efforts, HCP aims to safeguard Hirolas in their natural range by protecting and restoring their habitat.
With the support of Rainforest Trust, HCP is in the process of creating two new wildlife conservancies that together will protect over 1.2 million acres, establishing the largest conservation area in northeastern Kenya. These new conservancies will not only safeguard the Hirolas that currently call this region home, but will also help the species recover by re-establishing a free-ranging population between protected areas. Other African wildlife that will benefit from this refuge include Giraffes, Grevy’s Zebras, Elephants, African Wild Dogs, Lions, Cheetahs and several antelope species.
“I have had the pleasure of knowing Abdullahi Ali since 2012, when he was conducting his doctoral research on the Hirola,” said Dr. Sally Lahm, Rainforest Trust’s Africa Conservation Officer.
“Ali’s background as an ethnic Somali, and devotion to the protection of this species and many others in eastern Kenya, offer him the unique opportunity to conserve the region’s natural resources for wildlife and local people.”
While the creation of protected areas is backed by international organizations, HCP understands that it will not be sustainable without local support. According to the nonprofit’s website, “Conservation as a form of land use is new to Somali communities along the Kenya-Somalia border, who for centuries practiced pastoralism in isolation.”
Although Somali herders spend the majority of their time in rangelands shared with wildlife, they are rarely involved in the management and decision processes regarding regional conservation, according to the HCP website.
To incorporate the knowledge of those most familiar with the areas to be protected, HCP created a network of herders, conservation groups and local scouts called “Herders for Hirola”. Founded in 2012, the network originally had 20 herders who received training on basic conservation practices, ecology, security issues and how to best communicate the value of wildlife through community outreach. Herders are trained to use global positioning systems (GPS) to collect data, which allows HCP to map sightings of Hirola and other species throughout the range as well as track incidents of human-wildlife conflicts. During distance sampling, patrols are sometimes conducted on camelback, as trucks often have difficulties navigating the unpaved terrain.
By leveraging conservation innovations such as the Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) and CyberTracker softwares, HCP can measure wildlife enforcement patrols and evaluate the effectiveness of anti-poaching efforts. Using technologies such as these allows the nonprofit organization to combine reports from local informants with analyzed data to share information with authorities and other conservation groups for long-term habitat management.
Like these tools that marry traditional knowledge with ever-advancing technologies, Ali is a bridge between grassroot conservation efforts and the international conservation community to effectively protect the region’s at-risk wildlife.
“Rainforest Trust’s support has lifted the profile of what I’m doing, and is helping make a difference and giving greater hope and expectation that we can save the species,” explained Ali. “Additionally, strengthening a locally driven conservation program provides a new win-win for locals and the Hirola.”
“I’m excited for a new protected area,” said the passionate conservationist about the upcoming establishment of two additional wildlife conservancies in Kenya.
“It all makes my face brighten up.”

Source

Working Toward Law to Ensure Wildlife Corridors in USA

U.S. Representative Don Beyer, a democrat from Virginia, introduced a bill entitled the Wildlife Corridors Conservation Act this past December that would help protect and restore native wildlife by enabling migration corridors throughout the US that would allow wildlife to find mates, new territory and adapt to climate change. And in the process it would save other fauna and flora. Representative Beyer says: “With roughly 1 in 5 animal and plant species in the U.S. at risk of extinction due to habitat loss, one of the simplest yet most effective things we can do is to provide them with ample opportunity to move.” The bill directs federal land and water management agencies to work together with states, tribes, local governments and private landowners to develop and manage national wildlife corridors consistent with existing laws and according to the habitat connectivity needs of native species. The bill also creates a publicly available National Native Species Habitats and Corridors GIS Database to inform corridor designation.