World Water Day 2015

In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly designated World Water Day, to be celebrated annually on March 22, with the purpose of raising awareness and making a difference for people who suffer from water related issues. It is also a day designated to prepare for how we manage water in the future. In 2015, the theme for World Water Day is Water and Sustainable Development.

Worldwide, over one billion people lack access to safe drinking water. That is more than one in six people lacking a basic human need. Each human, each day, requires at least 20 to 50 liters of clean water for cooking, bathing and drinking. Access to clean, pathogen free water is a basic human right. Yet 1.8 million people die annually from water-related diseases, while tens of millions of others suffer from serious illnesses which are otherwise easily prevented.

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If the Earth is covered two-thirds by water, what’s the problem? Most of the Earth’s water is seawater. Seawater is not suitable for drinking. Only freshwater is drinkable, which is water that does not contain significant levels of dissolved minerals or salts. Only about 2.5 percent of the Earth’s water is fresh water and two-thirds of that is frozen in ice caps and glaciers.

Even though World Water Day 2015 has passed, there is still plenty of work to be done and it begins by treating every day as if it were World Water Day. Here are some of the ways I am doing so.

First, as I have typed this blog, I have purposefully ignored my smart phone, refusing to even touch it so as not to disrupt an app I activated just before setting it down. By downloading and running UNICEFTAPPROJECT.ORG for 15 minutes, you are obliging sponsors and donors, such as Giorgio Armani, to fund one day of clean water for a child in need. Go longer, fund more.

The UNICEF Tap Project is a nationwide campaign that provides clean water and adequate sanitation to children around the world. UNICEF works in more than 100 countries around the world to improve access to safe water and sanitation facilities in schools and communities and to promote safe hygiene practices.

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Secondly, I have utilized rain barrels in my gardening activities for the last fifteen years. In fact, I have one on each side of my house so that filling a watering can is a cinch, no matter where I happen to be.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a rain barrel is a system that collects and stores rainwater from your roof that would otherwise be lost to runoff and diverted to storm drains and streams. Usually a rain barrel is composed of a 55 gallon drum, a vinyl hose, PVC couplings, a screen grate to keep debris and insects out, and other off-the-shelf items. A rain barrel is relatively simple and inexpensive to construct and can sit conveniently under any residential gutter down spout.

Lawn and garden watering make up nearly 40% of total household water use during the summer. A rain barrel collects water and stores it for when you need it most, providing an ample supply of free “soft water” to homeowners, containing no chlorine, lime or calcium making it ideal for gardens, flower pots, and car and window washing. A rain barrel will save most homeowners about 1,300 gallons of water during the peak summer months. This helps protect the environment and saves money and energy by decreasing the demand for treated tap water. Diverting water from storm drains also decreases the impact of runoff to streams. Therefore, a rain barrel is an easy way for you to have a consistent supply of clean, fresh water for outdoor use, FREE.

But my favorite part of having rain barrels is having water where I need it, when I need it, without having to go back and forth to the spigots connected to my house. Between the two rain barrels and the two tap spigots, my lower back gets a break in spite of my having flowers and vegetables in various and sundry locations, three out of four seasons each year.

Thirdly, when watering plants, I employ a couple of methods that insure the water is absorbed by the soil and the roots of the plants. Depending on the size of the container, one method I use is ice cubes instead of water. Because the ice cubes melt slowly, all the water is absorbed instead of running off. The other method is watering spikes inserted in the soil adjacent to the roots and then inverting an up cycled wine bottle or any other long necked glass bottle that is filled with water. This method keeps the roots watered for a couple of days in even the hottest period of the southeastern summers I am accustomed to.

For more ideas, visit The Water – Use It Wisely campaign’s 100+ ways to conserve water. This campaign began in Arizona in 1999 to promote an ongoing water conservation ethic.

What are some of the ways you conserve water? Please share in the comments. I would love to read your ideas!

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Become a FrogWatch USA Volunteer!

All photos from the Creative Commons

You are needed to help with FrogWatch USA, which is a national scientific study on toads and frogs that has been conducted for more than ten years! FrogWatch USA was established in 1998 and adopted by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in 2009. AZA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.

Bull frog

This is your opportunity to conduct field research and collect information that will help scientists better understand things important to the survival of frogs and toads. Who doesn’t want to be a field biologist? I mean, come on, that’s a cool job and this is good practice for kids who want to be biologists when they grow up. If you’re already a grown up, this is your chance to forget all that grown up stuff for a few hours and explore like a kid again.

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Who can volunteer?

Anyone! But there is some formal volunteer training required.

What is involved?

You need an interest in learning about frogs and toads, the commitment to learn and identify their distinct calls, and the ability to make several evening visits to a local wetland.

Frog and toad breeding season is from late January through September depending upon temperature, rainfall, length of the day, for a specific locality, and biological factors for each species. FrogWatch USA data collection targets peak breeding season for all species across the nation and takes place from February through August.

How do I get the required training?

Either online at http://www.elearning.aza.org/products/4005/frogwatch-usa-volunteer-training (for a $15 fee)

or in person at a local training session which you may determine here http://www.elearning.aza.org/products/4005/frogwatch-usa-volunteer-training

Here is a clip from a news station in my home state of North Carolina, in which the Western North Carolina Nature Center explains the program and recruits volunteers in their region.

 

So what are you waiting for? Get hopping!

Circuses as Conservationist Organizations?

All photos from the Creative commons.

This week, Feld Entertainment announced that the thirteen elephants now traveling with the three Ringling Bros. Circus units will be retired in 2018. They will then join the remaining herd of more than 40 elephants at The Ringling Bros. Center for Elephant Conservation in Florida.

ElephantsRinglingBrothersCircus2008

On the one hand, this is a positive story of the environment. Asian elephants are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). The IUCN crudely estimates that there are only 40,000-50,000 Asian elephants that remain in the wild. Retirement of the circus elephants appears to create one less demand for capturing wild elephants to be used in entertainment. However, generations of Ringling Bros. Circus elephants have been born from captive parents and therefore, for decades, have represented very little direct threat to wild elephant populations. But with any luck, this move by Feld Entertainment will motivate other organizations to stop the use of elephants in entertainment, including those that still obtain wild captured elephants.

There are some encouraging characteristics of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Center for Elephant Conservation. Their website is translucent in explaining the goals of the center and the credentials of their staff. The center also works in partnership with Rajarata University and Peradeniya Unversity, both in Sri Lanka, to exchange veterinary, research and husbandry information. In addition, the center partners with zoos that have Asian elephants, such as the Smithsonian National Zoo, to advance medical research that benefits both captive and wild elephants.

 

On the other hand, the news of future Ringling Bros. Circus elephant retirement is not a positive story of animal rights. Feld Entertainment notes in their press release, “The circus will continue to feature other extraordinary animal performers, including tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels”. This particular circus has a history of using elephants in their acts beginning in 1881 when P.T. Barnum bought the first elephant born in captivity and, a year later, bought the African born Jumbo. Must we wait another 137 years for tigers, lions, horses, dogs and camels to be given the same consideration?

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The IUCN estimates less than 3,000 tigers remain in the wild, listing all subspecies as endangered. The African lion is listed as vulnerable and estimated to have less than 100,000 in the wild. The Asiatic lion is listed as endangered with only an estimated 350 remaining in the wild. Bactrian camels, which are now used in a new act known as Circus Xtreme, are listed as critically endangered with less than a total of 1,000 remaining in the wild in China and Mongolia. But this now begs the question, “Does an animal species have to be endangered to be afforded freedom from the demands of a life in entertainment?” Are horses and dogs, as domesticated animals, not entitled to the same rights as endangered species?

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Many of you may be thinking of the pieces I have written expressing my support of zoos and aquariums, including Sea World. What is interesting here is the commitment Feld Entertainment has in caring for their herd of elephants while phasing out their life of travel, training and entertaining. Their commitment claims to include work that will benefit conservation of the species, which is the same reason I support zoos and aquariums, with the exception of scenarios where animals are required to perform, such as in the Sea World marine mammal shows. Zoos and aquariums are often sanctuaries for species that have little to no wild habitat left due to human encroachment and habitat destruction. It appears circuses may be wisely following their lead.

World Pangolin Day

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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 SavePangolins.org, 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.

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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.

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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:

http://video.nationalgeographic.com/video/embedded/orangutan_kalimantan/src/

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 http://worldwildlife.org/photos/sumatran-orangutan--3 © 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 http://worldwildlife.org/photos/sumatran-orangutan–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.