World Pangolin Day


Saturday, February 21 was World Pangolin Day. On this day, pangolin advocates join together to increase awareness about these cute, special and rare mammals. Pangolin numbers in Asia are rapidly declining and pangolin trafficking is a serious problem in Africa. There are four species in Africa and four in Asia.

Pangolins live predominantly on a diet of insects, including ants, termites, bee larvae, flies, worms, earthworms, and crickets. This diet makes them important in pest control.  One pangolin can eat more than 70 million insects per year. But dietary preferences of such specificity make it extremely difficult to maintain pangolins in captivity, as they often reject unfamiliar insects or develop illness when fed different food.

Pangolins curl up into a tight ball when threatened, which makes them virtually impenetrable. The name ‘pangolin’ even comes from a Malay term that means ‘rolled up.’ But this rolled up state sadly also makes pangolins easy for poachers to pick up and carry.

Approximately 8,125 pangolins were confiscated in 2013, in 49 instances of illegal trade in 13 countries. It is believed that seizure and confiscations or illegally acquired pangolins represents only 10 to 20 percent of the actual illegal trade volume. With this in mind, it is estimated that 40,625 to 81,250 pangolins were killed in 2013 alone.

The greatest demand for pangolins is in Traditional Chinese Medicine, as pangolin scales are erroneously believed to be capable of curing numerous ailments. Illegal trade in South Asia has now rendered pangolins the most trafficked animal on earth, with some estimates claiming that sales now account for up to 20 per cent of the entire wildlife black market. Pangolin flesh is also considered to be a delicacy. In Vietnam, pangolins are frequently offered at restaurants catering to wealthy patrons who want to eat rare and endangered wildlife.

So where is the positive story of the environment? In response to this scaly mammal’s plight, many campaigns and organizations are rallying to raise awareness.

Save Pangolins, formerly called the Pangolins Conservation Support Initiative (PCSI), was founded in 2007 by members of the Emerging Wildlife Conservation Leaders program, an international training and mentoring initiative that brings together emerging leaders in the wildlife conservation field for capacity building and intense training in campaign development and leadership skills. The organization operates, the first-ever website about pangolin conservation, which serves as a resource for the general public to learn about pangolins, the threats driving them towards extinction, and the groups and individuals working to conserve them. Save Pangolins also facilitates communication among pangolin conservation programs and researchers across the world, responds to reports of pangolins in crisis via social media, and helps coordinate rescue and rehabilitation which can include notifying wildlife authorities about illegal pangolin trafficking. The organization also works with IUCN-SSC Pangolin Specialist Group to advocate for the pangolin in a multitude of ways, including research and conservation.

Another organization, Wild Aid, is launching a new campaign to raise awareness by working with their network of over 100 media partners in China and Vietnam. Wild Aid will distribute campaign messages to millions of people for the purpose of reducing demand for pangolin products in Asia. The campaign will also aim to have all eight species uplisted to the CITES Appendix I listing which will effectively ban commercial trade.

David Attenborough in the studio with a Pangolin for Zoo Quest 1956 (copyright BBC)

David Attenborough in the studio with a Pangolin for Zoo Quest 1956 (copyright BBC)

In perhaps one of the greatest contributions in raising awareness, Sir David Attenborough chose the sunda pangolin as one of the 10 endangered animals he would most like to save from extinction and recounts saving a sunda pangolin from a cooking pot while filming in Asia early in his career. “It is one of the most endearing animals I have ever met,” said Sir David. “Huge numbers of them are illegally exported, mainly to China. In the last 15 years, over half of the population of sunda pangolins have disappeared.”

National Geographic highlights some natural behavior of pangolins in this video:

Chipmunks and Carbon Storage

Sometimes the best positive stories of the environment come from our own backyard. When you sum up the effects of millions of backyard naturalists, the positive impact is significant for the planet. The personal story I am sharing here will hopefully inspire, enlighten and encourage the development of even more backyard biophiliacs.

Last March, several trees were downed in my front yard by a heavy ice storm. Many other trees had significant loss of limbs. The clean up required a professional. Fortunately I am childhood friends with someone who married a certified arborist. He gave me a few options, when possible. One of the options was to either dig up and grind stumps for some pine trees that did not fully erupt from the Earth or to just saw them at the bottom and let them sink back into the Earth as much as possible. Two factors influenced my choice: the price to my wallet to dig and grind the stumps versus the price to the environment to dig and grind the stumps. The price for both was pretty steep.


Conventional wisdom always chooses to make our lawns “pretty,” often with little regard to the effects of fertilizers, insecticides, pesticides and selection of native plant species instead of ornamental non-native plants. Non-native plants often compete with native plants and rob wildlife of hosting sights and food resources which can only be provided by native plants. Also, one man’s yard trash can be a critter’s mansion. With that in mind, I opted to keep the stumps. I can see the grove of pine trees from my home office window and enjoy watching a great variety of wildlife supporting their lives there on a daily basis. Last week, I had the joy of watching a chipmunk sunning himself on one of the stumps. Chipmunks hibernate and the cutie had emerged from the den beneath the stump on an unseasonably warm day. Smart rodent.


Wildlife habitat was not my only motivation for keeping the stumps. If you recall the biology of photosynthesis, you know that plants absorb energy from the sun and carbon dioxide from the air around them to fuel themselves. Plants store the carbon that is obtained from the break down of the carbon dioxide molecule and, in most cases, release the oxygen back into the air. Those of you with lungs probably already understand how vitally important oxygen is to all non-plant life.

Graphic from the creative commons.

Graphic from the creative commons.

When vegetation, large or small, dead or alive is made into smaller pieces through chopping, grinding, sawing, mulching or most any other type of processing, it immediately releases a large amount of carbon. Of course, vegetation naturally rots and releases carbon but much more slowly. If you consider that deforestation is occurring on a global scale, thereby decreasing the amount of trees producing oxygen, and couple that with net carbon release because of these activities, it is clearly not a sustainable practice that will support a well-oxygenated planet. When you understand this, you never look at a stump, downed tree, logging operation or old wooden furniture in the same way. In my mind, all these kinds of items have a large invisible label that reads CARBON STORAGE (open with care).

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

Eastern bluebird fledgling just moments after leaving the nest, perched on stump about 30 feet from bluebird nesting box.

How can you help? Keep that old adage “think globally, act locally” in mind when you engage in lawn and gardening activities. Piles of limbs, old logs, even leaf litter can be used by many animals for many purposes. For more tips on how to make your lawn and garden friendly to wildlife, check out tips at the National Wildife Federation’s website.

Orangutans and the Great Ape Conservation Fund

Earlier this month, I wrote about Sandra, an orangutan at the Buenos Aires Zoo and a landmark ruling on animal rights. I am following up with more information about the natural history of orangutans and additional positive stories of the environment from which they directly benefit.

Orangutans can live 60 years or more. Their diet includes eggs, insects, leaves, wood, bark, stems, seeds, grains, nuts, fruit and flowers. All wild orangutans live in tropical rainforests, spending almost all of their time in the trees, where they build nests in which to sleep. Bornean orangutans live on the Southeast Asian island of Borneo. Sumatran orangutans live on the island of Sumatra in Indonesia, restricted entirely to its northern tip due to deforestation.

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

Orangutan range map courtesy of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources

The Sumatran orangutan is almost exclusively arboreal. Females virtually never travel on the ground and adult males do so only rarely. By contrast, Bornean orangutans (especially adult males) will often descend to the ground. Both species depend on high-quality primary forests but Bornean orangutans appear better able to tolerate habitat disturbance.

Orangutans are seriously threatened by logging (both legal and illegal), wholesale conversion of forest to agricultural land and oil palm plantations, and habitat fragmentation created by the formation of logging roads. Orangutans are also illegally hunted and captured for the international pet trade but, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, this appears to be more a symptom of habitat conversion, as orangutans are killed as pests when they raid fruit crops at the forest edge.

Be of good heart. Orangutans have many champions. Here is one example.

In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Great Ape Conservation Act and since then Wildlife Without Borders, through the Great Ape Conservation Fund has helped in protecting the orangutan population on the island of Sumatra. This is done by increasing law enforcement to combat poaching and mitigating human-orangutan conflict.  Wildlife Without Borders is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Division of International Conservation that works with partners worldwide to conserve fish, wildlife, plants and their habitats, and maintain the integrity of ecological processes beyond our borders, for present and future generations.

In 2011, with a Congressional appropriation of $2.2 million and additional funding through the USAID/CARPE program, the Great Ape Conservation Fund awarded 51 grants totaling $3,869,265, which was matched by an additional $4,538,640 from partner organizations. The funds are used to support conservation efforts for several ape species throughout Africa and Asia and also to provide support to families of park rangers who gave their lives protecting apes. Funding also supports prevention and prosecution of poaching and other wildlife crimes.

In 2013, the USFWS awarded 30 new projects and two amendments to existing projects from the Great Ape Conservation Fund totaling totaled $2,081,120, which was matched by $3,161,108 in additional leveraged funds. Field projects in 17 range countries in Africa and Asia were awarded grants. Following is a description of some of the grants used specifically towards conservation of orangutans and orangutan habitat.

  • Reintroduction and monitoring orangutans in Kehje Sewen Forest, East Kalimantan.
  • Long-term home range patterns and the effect of habitat disturbance on Sumatran orangutans.
  • Reintroduction project for rehabilitant orangutans in West Kalimantan.
  • Protection of endangered ape populations in Sabangau, Central Kalimantan: An integrated conservation-research program in collaboration with local communities.
  • Bornean orangutan and forest habitat conservation through customary forests.
  • Increased environmental awareness and human-orangutan conflict mitigation.
  • Conservation of orangutans and critical habitats in Sabah.
  • Conservation of orangutans in the Ulu Sungai Menyang landscape (outside existing protected areas) in Sarawak.

Many other organizations are helping to protect habitat, which is the single most effective way to prevent extinction of orangutans, as this National Geographic video explains:

How can you be a champion for orangutans too?

It’s easy! Avoid use of products with palm oil or use only products with palm oil that was obtained from RSPO certified sustainable sources. You can find out how simple it is to do this by reading my other piece about orangutans, How Saving Orangutans Can Lower Your Cholesterol.



Sentient Sandra and a Landmark Ruling on Animal Rights

This nearly mature male orang utan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia. Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at © Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

This nearly mature male orangutan (Jenggo) was released several years ago from the Frankfurt Zoological Society Reintroduction Centre in Jambi, Sumatra, Indonesia.
Photo courtesy of WWF and obtained at–3
© Fletcher & Baylis / WWF-Indonesia

Last month, amid the holiday hustle and bustle and with little fanfare, a landmark legal ruling in the world history of animal rights occurred in Argentina. The ruling concerned an orangutan named Sandra, a resident of the Buenos Aires zoo for the last twenty years. The court ruled that Sandra was considered a “nonhuman being” and she was granted basic rights, such as life, freedom and a premise of “no harm” either physically or psychologically. Argentina’s Federal Chamber of Criminal Cassation ruled the primate is a subject of law, “a nonhuman being that has certain rights, and can enforce them through legal procedure,” according to Andrés Gil Domínguez, Sandra’s attorney. Previously in Argentina, as in the rest of the world, the law interpreted animals as things.

Lawyers for Argentina’s Association of Professional Lawyers for Animal Rights (Afada) had argued that Sandra was “a person” in the philosophical, not biological, sense. They argued further that she was in a situation of illegal deprivation of freedom as a “non-human person” and had filed a “habeas corpus” writ in her favor last November over “the unjustified confinement of an animal with probable cognitive capability.” The court judges had rejected the writ several times before deciding finally that Sandra could be considered to have rights to freedom which needed defending.

Sandra was born in 1986 in a German zoo and was transferred to the Buenos Aires zoo in September 1994. She was considered to be shy and regularly tried to avoid the public in her enclosure.

The Buenos Aires zoo has 10 working days to seek an appeal, after which time there are plans to transfer Sandra to a sanctuary to live out the rest of her years. Captive orangutans have been known to live as long as 60 years, while the average lifespan of a wild orangutan is 35-45 years.

Afada lawyer Paul Buompadre was quoted as saying by La Nacion newspaper: “This opens the way not only for other Great Apes, but also for other sentient beings which are unfairly and arbitrarily deprived of their liberty in zoos, circuses, water parks and scientific laboratories.”

Similar cases are occurring more frequently. A U.S. court this month rejected a similar case regarding a privately owned chimpanzee in New York. The court ruled that “Tommy’ was not a “person” entitled to the rights and protections afforded by habeas corpus.

In 2011, the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against Sea World, alleging five wild-captured orca whales were treated like slaves. A San Diego court dismissed the case.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

Orangutans at the Toronto Zoo. Photo from the Creative Commons.

As one with experience working in zoos and aquariums, I am heartened by the progression of mankind towards consideration of the sentience of animals, albeit slow progress. There would be no captive animals in a perfect world, but the world is far from perfect. Man kept captive animals as long ago as the Neolithic era, possibly earlier. In the U.S. alone, 175 million people visit AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums annually. Therefore, there is still much to achieve towards establishment of animal rights and a movement away from animals in captivity. A shy, unassuming orangutan named Sandra has quite possibly set us upon a new path. She will be known by name among the masses and for decades to come. Her name will be in all the relevant college texts and legal briefs.

I am already her biggest fan.


Being Human, Being Caribou and Being Wild

Calving Grounds

The Wilderness Act was signed into law in 1964 by Lyndon B. Johnson. Therefore, this year we celebrated the 50th anniversary of a law which created the National Wilderness Preservation System and recognized wilderness as “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” The Act further defined wilderness as “an area of undeveloped Federal land retaining its primeval character and influence without permanent improvements or human habitation, which is protected and managed so as to preserve its natural conditions.” One of our authors, Shauna Potocky wrote about the history of The Wilderness Act recently, Celebrating Wilderness: The 50th Anniversary of the Wilderness Act.

During the winter holiday season, my attention is drawn to a beast that receives considerable protection under The Wilderness Act in some, but not all, of its range. Reindeer, caribou, or Rangifer tarandus….by any of these names is still the same magical, hearty and wondrously unique species of cervid. It is the type of animal whose existence gratifies the primal and more complicated regions of my brain as only pack animals and other beasts of burden do. The wild of this species inhabit the last undeveloped frontiers of this small planet and serve as an important food source for many tribal communities, while the domesticated of this species are vital pack animals. If you view this as I do, you realize the delicately intertwined relationship between humans and caribou can help to insure the survival of both.

Domesticated caribou are known as reindeer. Caribou are well designed for Arctic conditions with a double-layered coat and large, concave hooves that function as snowshoes because they spread widely to provide support in tundra and also serve as paddles while swimming.  They are the only deer species in which both the male (bull) and female (cow) grow antlers, though the bulls possess much larger, massive, antlers than females.  Cows shed their antlers later in the season than bulls, in theory so they still have them for protecting calves.  Only cows still have antlers as late as December. (So all of Santa’s reindeer are probably cows.)

Line of Caribou bulls swimming. Photo courtesy of National Park Service

Line of Caribou swimming.
Photo courtesy of National Park Service

The world population of caribou is five million, and approximately 950,000 wild caribou live in Alaska.  Caribou range includes North America, Greenland and Northern Europe to Northern Asia in habitats including the Arctic tundra and adjacent boreal forest.  The Porcupine Caribou Herd, which is distributed in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Yukon and the Northwest territories of Alaska, has a range largely protected under The Wilderness Act.

Many other animals are protected as well. The coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is the northernmost destination of millions of birds from more than 130 species and comprises the most important onshore denning habitat for the entire Beaufort Sea polar bear population.  Musk oxen, wolverines, foxes, golden eagles, and snowy owls gather on the coastal plain to hunt and den every year.

In 1980, President Carter signed the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act which doubled the size of the Arctic Range and renamed it the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The entire refuge was designated as wilderness with one key exception: Section 1002 of the Act, a last minute compromise to ensure the bill passed, outlined additional research that would be needed before Congress could designate the area as wilderness. The “1002 lands” as this 1.5 million acre parcel is known, formed the most important part of the herd’s habitat and the core of their calving grounds, but were also suspected of harboring vast reserves of oil. In 1984, the Canadian government, in cooperation with the Inuvialuit people, protected their portion of the caribou calving grounds by establishing Ivvavik National Park adjacent to the Arctic Refuge. Vuntut National Park, also in the Yukon, was created a few years later in co-operation with the Vuntut Gwich’in First Nation, thereby protecting vital spring, summer and fall habitat for the herd on the Canadian side.

In April 2003, two adventurers followed the Porcupine Caribou migration. They traveled on foot with the 123,000-member herd from wintering to calving grounds in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and back again, traveling for a total of five months. When they completed the journey, they shared their story and findings with everyone who would listen in Washington D.C.  Their story is remarkable, but not nearly as remarkable as that of the Porcupine Caribou herd. Their documentary is available to watch online and I have embedded it below. After you watch it, I think you will agree that the calving grounds deserve designation as a wild place, now and forever, and should always be protected from oil drilling.

Owl Be Home for Christmas

Text and Photos by Maymie Higgins

Sundays are usually the only day I can afford the indulgence of sleeping until awaking naturally, instead of to the incessant beeping of a rude and shrill alarm clock. However, on a recent Sunday I was abruptly roused from a deep sleep at 8 A.M. by the sound of the doorbell ringing, which was quickly followed by the frantic barking of all four of my dogs. I am not a morning person. I have never been a morning person. I will never be a morning person. Thankfully, my husband is. Although he was also asleep when the doorbell rang, he managed to run interference while I remained snug under the covers. But it was not to last.

My husband answered the door and a conversation began. Though I could not make out the words, I did recognize the voice of my neighbor. Both of their voices faded and I thought, “Paul probably just needs Darren’s help with something.” I pulled the covers in closer and closed my eyes with impunity. But only a moment later I heard my husband coming down the hall. As he entered our bedroom, he began to explain how I was needed next door because an owl is caught in Paul’s badminton net. Animals are probably the only exception to my non-morning person policy. I was on the mission within two minutes.

It was not surprising the species entwined in the net was a Barred Owl. Almost nightly we hear the classic vocalization of these large, stocky owls with round heads, “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you”? After explaining that the badminton net could not be saved and that oven mitts are insufficient protection from raptor talons, I threw a towel over the owl. The fellows pulled the net post up and we lowered everything to the ground. The net was then cut on both sides of the owl and I placed him, still bundled in the towel, into a pet carrier. I had the thought that I may be able to cut the netting away and that his or her wings appeared to be without injury but I wanted to make sure.


So off we went to the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center at the North Carolina Zoological Park. The owl spent a week in the center, where the netting was cut away and he or she was thoroughly examined by a veterinarian twice, who then cleared the owl for discharge the following Saturday. Ideally, the next part of the journey for the owl would be a release at the same spot in which it was rescued, with no difficulties. There were difficulties.

The owl had been secured for pick up in a cardboard box, which we were to simply cut away tape at the opening, open the box and the owl pop right out. But on the journey home, and in spite of our complete silence for the 50 minute ride, the owl was very active. With all the rustling within the box, the scene in the movie Tommy Boy  where the deer comes back to life came to mind. We kept looking back to see if the owl had escaped his box, half way expecting it to be perched on the backseat of my SUV, clicking its beak at us.

Fortunately, the owl did not escape from the box but it had somehow gotten the end of one of its primary flight feathers stuck in duct tape on the inside of the box. Here is where it is important to remind readers that wild animals are easily stressed by the sight, sound, smell and touch of humans. If you are attempting rescue of a wild animal, be quiet and avoid looking directly at their face as much as possible. Having an owl taped to the inside of a cardboard box made both of those tasks impossible. There was profanity. There was staring. I had to figure out what to do.

Fortunately, my college ornithology class and comparatively limited experience with birds served me well…..and, more importantly, served owl well. I sliced away the very tip of the feather from the tape and then gently ejected the bird from the box. Not surprisingly, the owl just sat there for about five minutes, probably due to the stress of all this hullabaloo. Heck, I wanted to just plop down a minute too! But then the most glorious thing happened. Owl flew into our neighbor’s Magnolia tree, hopped up several branches, looking down on us with the proper level of disdain. He then flew over to our pine trees before taking a long, beautiful flight up the street.


Many birds moult, which means drop old feathers and grow new ones in their place. This involved only the very tip of only one feather and therefore did not impair flight at all. Eventually, the entire feather will be replaced and it will be as if this did not happen.

My understanding is that those few days owl was in the wildlife rehab center were likely not enough time for his or her mate to have abandoned their union. Since the release, I have heard again “Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you?” which now sounds more like a happy couple than just a couple of birds to me.

If you would like to know more about Barred Owls, check out the information at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Also, check out the Valerie H. Schindler Wildlife Rehabilitation Center where native North Carolina wildlife is given the best chance of returning to the wild.

Moments before taking flight.

Moments before taking flight.

That’s no monkey! That’s Kendall!

The common ancestor of great apes lived about 18 million years ago. Source: Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Talk to any zoo keeper about great apes and you may see them cringe substantially when it comes to two topics. The first topic has to do with the discernment between monkeys and apes. We cringe when people reference apes as monkeys. Although both groups fall into the taxonomic order of primates, there are more differences than similarities between monkeys and apes. The most obvious morphological difference is that monkeys have tails and apes do not. But from an intellectual standpoint, the differences are substantial…not to say that monkeys are not intelligent, but apes are, by comparison, super intelligent. Apes rely more on vision than scent for survival. Apes create tools and are capable of learning and using language. They are complex problem solvers.

Great apes belong to the family Hominidae, which includes humans, bonobos, chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans, while gibbons and siamangs are lesser apes. If you find this classification disconcerting, I do not mean to offend anyone. Perhaps if you read Jared Diamond’s The Third Chimpanzee, you will find the concept a little less threatening. In the meantime, when you visit zoos, please reference the above mentioned animals as apes, not monkeys. It is a good way to show reverence and acknowledge the importance of sharing the planet by having a greater understanding of all the creatures that live upon it.

The second cringe worthy topic is one of far greater concern and perpetually burdens the heart and mind of those of us who advocate for wildlife in general and apes in particular. That topic is apes in entertainment, particularly chimpanzees. It seems that as soon as activists have gotten one company to understand the negative impact of the use of chimpanzees in entertainment and stop the practice, another offender emerges.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources classify chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) as Endangered due to high levels of exploitation, loss of habitat and habitat quality due to expanding human activities. When people see chimpanzees in entertainment, it undercuts an accurate perception of realizing that this species is endangered.

I cannot be more blunt or impassioned about this when I ask everyone reading this to boycott any product or service that uses chimpanzees for advertising or entertainment. If you cannot boycott the product or service, please take time to write the offending organization to let them know you wish for the practice to stop. The following story is one of hundreds of examples as to why I make this plea.


Kendall chimp was born on May 31, 1999 at a facility that breeds chimps to be used in entertainment. He was hand-raised and later sold to Birds and Animals Unlimited, an organization that trains a variety of animals, including chimpanzees, for use in movies, television, and live animal shows. Some may remember him as the chimp that selected the winning number for Pepsi’s Billion Dollar Sweepstakes. He even appeared on the Oprah Winfrey show. When Kendall was about seven, his trainers noticed that he was beginning to challenge them when they took him out to do his shows. They realized that if he was beginning to challenge those he knew best, there was increased risk to audience members. Chimps are, pound for pound, about seven times stronger than a person. So, a 60 pound chimp could potentially seriously injure an audience member. In fact, no monkey or ape makes for a good pet.

Kendall was retired from shows and his care began to fall by the wayside. He was spending his days in a small holding area with limited stimulation, bedding, and of course, no other chimpanzees. Chimpanzees live in troops in the wild. Social structure and bonds are as important to them as they are to humans. Chimpanzees form social communities of 5 to 150 animals in the wild. An isolated life for a chimpanzee is a miserable existence.

In 2006, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Chimpanzee Species Survival Plan obtained and placed Kendall at the North Carolina Zoo (an AZA accredited institution), with the hope that he could be integrated into a group with 13 other chimps. From there, the dedicated keepers began the process of introducing Kendall to members of the troops at the NC Zoo. The process has taken years and he has made great strides in learning natural chimpanzee behavior. Kendall’s story has a happy ending but he is only one of so many chimpanzees that have been exploited for entertainment and science. Kendall’s story represents what I hope to be an ongoing positive story of the environment as it pertains to wildlife stewardship for all apes.

Photo courtesy of The Kendall Project

Kendall enjoying a hammock at the NC Zoo. Photo courtesy of The Kendall Project.

National Bison Day


November 1 is National Bison Day. You can get in on the celebration through the Beards for Bison campaign by visiting which is organized by the Wildlife Conservation Society.

While I adore all ungulates, next to pronghorn there is no North American ungulate that holds my fascination more than bison (Bison bison). They are an American icon and the largest land mammal in North America. During the months of January through May of 2009, I had the good fortune of interning at the North Carolina Zoological Park in the Northwoods Prairie section. The section includes red wolves, grizzly bears, black bears, elk and bison. The opportunity to work with such a combination of snorting beasts and large carnivorous mammals was indeed a thrill.

There are two recognized subspecies in North America: Plains bison (Bison bison bison) and wood bison (Bison bison athabascae). The historical range of plains bison extended from Northern Mexico to central Alberta. Wood bison range extended from central Alberta to Alaska.

North American bison graze and forage primarily in grasslands and meadows. Their historic range was the widest natural range of any North American herbivore, from the arid grasslands of Chihuahua State in northern Mexico, through the grasslands of the Great Plains, to the riparian meadows of interior Alaska. They can thrive in dry regions or deep snow, eating primarily grasses and sedges when resources are thin. Bison excavate snow by sweeping it away using side to side motions of their muzzle. In the summer and fall, they have a more varied diet that includes flowering plants, woody plant leaves, and lichens.


In the 19th Century, we nearly lost bison throughout its entire North American range due to recreational hunting, market and subsistence. It is difficult for me to think of bison and not simultaneously replay in my head the scene from Dances with Wolves when the nomadic Lakota Sioux and John Dunbar, on a hunt for bison, come across a seemingly unending sea of dead bison, killed only for their hides and otherwise left to decompose. The numbers of bison destroyed and left to rot were in numbers far greater than wildlife could consume and certainly not fit for human consumption.

Fortunately, conservationists stepped in and took action before all was lost. In 1905, Theodore Roosevelt and William Hornaday founded the American Bison Society (ABS) at the Bronx Zoo to save the bison from extinction. In 1907, Bronx Zoo staff sent 15 bison by train to Oklahoma’s Wichita Mountains Wildlife Preserve to help restore the western Plains’ depleted bison population. In 2005, Wildlife Conservation Society re-launched the American Bison Society, which built a network of bison experts, including ranchers, state, and provincial governments, Native American nations, scientists, and non-governmental organizations from western states, Mexico, and Canada, with the purpose of securing an ecological future of bison in North America over the next century.

But pressure on wild bison populations persists and they need all the public support that can be mustered. Bison are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources as Near Threatened in light of its dependence on an ongoing conservation program and the fact that there are only five viable wild populations. There are approximately 19,000 total plains bison in 54 conservation herds (herds managed in the public interest by governments and environmental organizations), and 11,000 total wood bison in 11 conservation herds. Over 90 percent of bison today are under private ownership, raised like cows for bison meat. In fact at the turn of last century, ranchers often interbred bison with cattle to improve their cattle herds. Therefore, cattle genes are now present in many bison populations, and few genetically pure bison herds remain. Current policies and a tradition of fencing ranches discourage free-ranging bison herds in the West.

While bison have been “saved”, there is still much work to do. So sport your beard, real or otherwise, on November 1 and post your photo with #BeardsforBison on social media. Also, go to and cast your vote for bison to be designated as America’s national mammal.


Sugarloaf Trail and a Dune that Proves Nature Can Be Preserved for Thousands of Years


All text and photographs by Maymie Higgins

Last year, I wrote about a hike on Flytrap Trail which is located in a park that exists on my favorite spot on Earth, Pleasure Island. As promised, this year I hiked another trail at Carolina Beach State Park, Sugarloaf Trail. The park came to be in 1969 when 761 acres were established as a North Carolina State Park in order to preserve the unique ecosystems along the Intracoastal Waterway. Sugarloaf Trail is a three-mile trail that passes through the marsh and enters a pine forest and follows the Cape Fear River edge to a mud flat that serves as habitat for fiddler crab.

The trailhead is adjacent to the marina parking lot and is well marked by orange circles that occur frequently and are easy to find. After just a minute or two of hiking, I came upon the Cape Fear River on my right, to the west. Here, the river is bordered by a narrow sandy beach where tall, dense patches of marsh grass occasionally spring up. I paused long enough to ascertain that a couple of young fellows with fishing rods were collecting mussels from the grass to be used as bait.


From there, the trail is quickly surrounded by marsh swamp. The swamp is frequently bifurcated by downed cypress trees left to decay at their own pace in the rich, sandy muck while providing cover and housing for wildlife until their very last atom of carbon has been released to the ages. As I walked through this part of the trail, I saw no evidence of terrestrial wildlife. No matter, because the bird calls occurred almost more frequently than I could identify them to my husband. Two quick calls, followed by harsh and loud ringing squeaks pierced the silence. “That’s a Blue-Jay,” I said. As I was still speaking, a rapid fire of scratchy, nasal calls rang out in a pattern similar to the firing of a machine gun. “Tufted Titmouse,” I explained. “And none too happy with our presence.” I then spied a Brown-headed Nuthatch flitting between pine trees, foraging the bark for insects. Then occurred the tell tale warning call of a Carolina Chickadee, “chick-a-dee-dee-dee.” I was flattered that the string of “dee-dees” following “chick-a” was short. Studies have shown a direct correlation between the number of “dee-dees” and the severity of perceived threat by chickadees.


About a mile in, I reached the trail’s namesake, Sugarloaf Dune. The dune rises 25 feet and was named in 1663 by William Hilton, a Barbados landowner, when he observed how sugary-white the sand is, on and around the dune. During the Civil War, about 5,000 Confederate soldiers camped on Sugarloaf Dune while watching over the river as part of the Fort Fisher encampment. Twenty-five years after the war ended, a pier was built at the dune base in order for a steamer from Wilmington to dock and unload up to 5,000 passengers onto railway cars that took them to the beach. The dune is protected by fencing to discourage hikers from climbing on it except in clearly designated areas. This is in an effort to minimize any further erosion of this ancient dune thought to have existed as long as 6,000 or more years ago.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune.  I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line.  They parted ways peacefully in the end.

View of the Cape Fear River from the top of Sugarloaf Dune. I also observed hostile interaction between an osprey and a crow along the tree line. They parted ways peacefully in the end.

Along the remaining mile of the trail, there was a Cypress Pond and a breathtakingly beautiful Lily Pond followed by a brief sandy path with animal tracks that made my heart go pitter pat. There were bobcat, raccoon, coyote, and deer tracks in the sand that had to be recently made because heavy rain just a few hours earlier would have flattened older tracks. Were they watching us?



The last half mile of the trail winds through dense, moist forest with a thick canopy that creates a tranquil setting in which to pause and examine various specimens of lichens on multiple trees. Lichens are not plants. They are made up of two or three completely different kinds of organisms. Every lichen species is part fungus and usually part algae but sometimes cyanobacterium instead, and sometimes lichens include all three. The fungus benefits from the algae’s ability to photosynthesize its chlorophyll and provide them both with energy. The algae and/or cyanobacterium benefit because the fungus is more efficient at water and nutrient absorption. The fungus also provides the overall lichen shape, and the reproductive structures in the mutualistic relationship. Lichens are very sensitive to air pollution so their frequent presence along this part of the trail is a positive indicator of a healthy ecosystem in the park.


The trail ends where it begins, at the marina parking lot. Before leaving, I looked out across the water and imagined myself in a kayak on my next visit to Carolina Beach State Park. Stay tuned.



Shovels and Shade Provide Healing at the Footprints of Terror

Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

9/11 Memorial Plaza shaded by swamp white oak trees. Image courtesy of Silverstein Properties, Inc. all rights reserved.

By Maymie Higgins

Recently, I visited New York and New Jersey in order to attend a family reunion. My last visit to Manhattan specifically had been in 1988, when the World Trade Center buildings still cast their tall and defiant forms across the skyline. This recent visit included plans to pay my respects at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

During my college years, I visited with my paternal uncle in New York many times, and I would accompany him on his commute from Staten Island to Manhattan’s Financial District where he had a seat at the New York Stock Exchange. Uncle Bill had parking privileges at City Pier A on the Hudson River at Battery Park. From 1960 to 1992, the pier was used by the New York City Fire Department as a fireboat station. Uncle Bill was awarded the parking privileges for his role during a city blackout in coordinating and providing alternative communication through Amateur Ham Radio. It was quite the treat to spend the day exploring the city with my aunt and then simply meet Uncle Bill back at the car at the end of the work day.

On one of my visits, Aunt Beth and I rode the high speed elevator in the World Trade Center South tower and toured the roof observation deck. For many reasons, September 11, 2001 was not just an attack on “those tall buildings in New York and the Pentagon.” It was personal. Even though Uncle Bill had retired by that time, he still lived in the region and it was possible for him to have been in Manhattan. Much of my family still resides in the region and I am grateful none of them perished on 9/11. However, many of them lost friends and still feel an acute sense of trauma and grief.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

World Trade Center photo taken by author in 1986 with Kodak Disc Camera.

On this recent trip, I was eager to see if I still had my skills to navigate the big city. I drove my husband and myself from New Jersey to the Staten Island Ferry, successfully parked and hitched the free ferry ride across New York Harbor. We disembarked and made a beeline up Greenwich Street. No sauntering like a tourist for this gal, at least not until a surprising sight caught the corner of my eye. To my left was a huge garden in a place I had remembered as being mostly paved pathways and park benches. Now it was an eruption of green foliage full of activity as people hoed, raked, dug and harvested vegetables….in Lower Manhattan! Though my schedule did not allow me to linger very long, I made a mental note to research Battery Urban Farm, which had sprouted in the footprints of tragedy. Here is a video explaining the story:

We made our way to the 9/11 Memorial plaza, where massive pools with fountains flow in the footprints of the World Trade Center towers. Each fountain is surrounded by parapets that have inscribed in bronze the nearly 3,000 names of the men, women, and children killed in the attacks of September 11, 2001 and February 26, 1993. The contrast in stimulation of the senses within the plaza and that in the periphery of the plaza was palpable. In the periphery there were the sounds of jackhammers, cranes, sirens, car horns, and vehicle back up beepers. All this was suppressed and muted within the plaza, done so by the sound of massive waterfalls and rustling of leaves in the more than 250 swamp white oak trees. In fact, I felt cradled and shielded by their canopy. For more about the story of the trees chosen for the Memorial plaza, watch this video:

The Memorial plaza is one of the most sustainable, green plazas ever constructed, with irrigation, storm water and pest management systems that conserve energy, water and other resources. Rainwater is collected in storage tanks, meeting a majority of the daily and monthly irrigation requirements.

E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, which literally means “love of life.” Humans often seek to nurture life in various ways in an effort to soothe their grief, but it was surprising to see so much plant life in a concrete jungle. However, surprise was not my most overwhelming reaction. What concerned me that my heart might burst from my chest was an enormous sense of pride in the human race. Most humans innately know that, although individual lives may end, life itself goes on. Those who are still alive will see to it. No terrorist will ever destroy that rule of the universe.