Last chance to see?

My big rubber boots are slick with sulphurous, black tundra mud. A thousand or so snow geese are cavorting  noisily a few hundred metres away, their feathers and guano all mingling in the sludge beneath.  I am eye to eye with a 600kg male polar bear.  He’s lying on his belly, four limbs splayed out, rug-like.  I am so close I can hear him breathing and I am able to follow the jagged line of a scar that runs from below his left eye down to just above his nostril. Tiny midges are hovering around his nose and eyes.

He is just 20 metres away. There is very little separating us, bar the odd tuft of grass and a few bits of driftwood…. If he were to stand up, he would be a little over 3 metres tall.



Mimi leans towards my ear and whispers almost imperceptibly in a broad Idaho accent ,“He looks meaner than a junkyard dog”. I nod in agreement. It’s the scar that does it, I think. But right now, he’s completely chilled and apparently unphased by our presence.  And not showing any junkyard dog-like behaviour. He’s more like a giant sleepy pussy cat really.

I am part of a small group – 8 telephoto lens-wielding lodge guests and our two guides Andy and Albert. Andy is a burly, ginger haired Canadian with over thirty years of guiding to his name. Albert is a ‘First Nations’ Cree, ex-hunter. IMG_9190

I feel safe standing close to Albert. He’s built like a tank and clearly knows these animals and their behaviour. Both guides have loaded guns slung over their shoulders. And a few rocks in their pockets. These, we are told, will be used to bang together to make a noise should the bear become unhappy and make a move towards us.

The midges are starting to really piss our big bear off and he puts both paws over his eyes. He now has that Monday morning look. That or (I think to myself), he’s also had enough of our pesky paparazzi vibe and wants us to shove off and let him sleep.


We are all standing in a seriously remote wilderness area 250 km southeast of Churchill on the Hudson Bay coastline in Manitoba, Canada.  Our big boy is one of about 1 600 bears in the wider Hudson Bay region. They’re all land-based for now and have been since the big July melt – foraging on the plentiful summer berries. That’s all they have to feed on though and it’s a pretty long wait until the November chill sets in and the bay ices over.  It could be a particularly long wait this year….and the next. And the year after that…

We are all painfully aware of this as we admire our bear….and wonder about his very tenuous future as it’s no secret the Arctic is changing.

We had arrived at the lodge on a rainy Sunday afternoon. Only an hour after flying in in our 10-seater single engine plane, a Black bear cruised right up to the lodge fence and we watched her foraging busily, completely unaware of our presence.

556A0131The lodge is surrounded by a sturdy, tall fence, so we’re on the inside looking out. It’s a truly unique wildlife encounter opportunity – to witness bears in a true wilderness context. We are lucky if they happen to pass by.

A few hours later we are indeed blessed with a polar bear female and her cub. It’s absolutely remarkable to see these creatures so close. It really does render one speechless. In the first two days, we see three mothers and cubs, and a handful of males. They are all in very good condition and, according to Andy, the population is thriving in the Hudson Bay region. So what unfolds before us on Day 4 is unsettling to say the least.

We are cruising along on our morning drive – out to find bears. We are all seated up high atop what they call a Rhino – a purpose built vehicle, specially designed to withstand the thick slick mud, rocky river crossings and difficult terrain of the Tundra.


The guides are absolutely brilliant spotters. From literally five or more kilometres away, they spot a bear. This spot was different though. Andy had his binoculars peeled on a very small dot – a speck on a shimmery, hazy horizon. He was unusually quiet. Albert – in the other vehicle also appeared stumped.

The dot was a polar bear cub.

What was immediately unsettling for Andy was that the cub was alone. They are never very far away from their mothers. For two to three years, they stick velcro- like to their mothers. So to see this little guy alone was alarming to say the least.556A0939

We bumped our way over some difficult terrain, inching ever closer and then Andy spotted something even more alarming. There was another bear lying down. He was clearly feeding on something. It was – on closer inspection – a very, very big male. The cub was bleating and circling the male, but never going too close.

The harsh reality of the situation dawned on us all, without having to put words to it. The male was eating the cub’s mother.


Chances are, the mother would have been confronted by the big male., who may well have been after her cub. A mammoth fight would have ensued, and she would have been badly injured. He would have turned on her, killed her, and was now eating her.

This was nature playing out in all her raw, red, bloody, dangerous attire….and it was utterly shocking.

I have spent enough time in the wilds of Africa and seen enough kills to accept the rawness, the lack of dignity or empathy in the wild. But this was just too much to witness. We sat around and watched the train wreck of a situation for a little too long for my comfort levels, and before long, I began sobbing. I was embarrassed by my reaction in front of the other guests, so tried to stifle my sobs into my thick jacket and scarf but not very successfully.

The little cub did not know where to go, or what to do. In the seven months of his short little life, he had only known a warm teat and a constant presence. Just earlier that morning we had watched a mother and cub pass the lodge – heading in the same direction we were now sitting.

Could it be the same pair we wondered?

The bond had been so precious, so intense. Everything she did, he did. She showed him how to forage and he was attached to her like a limpet.  To see him so lost and hopeless now shredded my heart strings. I think the fact that I was so far away from my own son did little to calm the emotions.

556A1047It was terribly hard not to anthropomorphize the situation and as the guides eventually made a decision to drive away, I could not help look back at the little guy as we retreated…..and watch as he circled the male, bleating quietly.

That night back in the lodge was very difficult. The mood was desperately somber. One guest had to leave the dinner table as I could see she couldn’t control her emotions. The guides were equally stunned by it all, and I could tell they were battling to stay professional, and keep a consistent thread through it all for us paying guests.

Because the lodge is in a conservation area, and because we had come across the situation (as lodge guests). they were compelled to inform the conservation authorities. And that they did, immediately.

“Resources” we were told would arrive at first light the next day. I asked them what they thought the authorities could possibly do in this situation and was told that in all likelihood they would take the cub to a zoo in Winnipeg. The thought horrified me. I wept more.

That night I slept little…my heart broke for the little creature out on his own in the cold, dark night, so close to the big boy who was no doubt still feeding on is mother…

Part of me quietly prayed that wolves or indeed the big male would swiftly take him out – for nature to clean it up, finish it off, put him out of his misery….I could not bear the thought of this little creature being airlifted out of there and confined to a city zoo for the rest of his life – having tasted freedom and wilderness? No. No. NO.

The next morning we drove back to the scene, all of us VERY quiet in the back of the vehicle. Hearts sank as we came over the rise and saw both bears still in fairly close proximity….little cub still calling, circling, looking bewildered….big male now covered in blood and fat and still feeding.

556A0906“Resources” (based a two hour chopper flight away) in Churchill – had asked that the guides take us guests far away from the scene as they dealt with things.

We paid our respects to the little chap, gave them both a wide berth and drove off. Only after having a much closer look at what the male was eating with our binoculars. Yes indeed – paws, fur, and half-eaten carcass of an adult polar bear. It was big mamma alright.  I wept more, and felt quite barren emotionally as we drove off and got on with the day, only returning to the lodge quite a lot later that afternoon.

We had heard and seen the chopper come in from many miles away, but there was little talk of what could have/may have/ should have played out. The guides were quite tight-lipped and I soon picked up that perhaps they did not have the greatest respect for the methods adopted by “Resources”.

When we drove past much later in the day, we found her crumpled and bloody remains. No big male, no cub in sight.

On our return to the lodge, the manager informed us that “Resources” had found the cub had mercifully been “taken out by wolves” (after we had seen him that morning – in broad daylight).

That was all we were told.

My partner and I looked at one another and raised our eyebrows as we made our way back to our bedrooms. Likely story, we both agreed. We suspect, the cub would have been euthanized. My suspicion is that they probably also took out the big male. I could well be wrong on the latter, but I found it very odd that he was not back on the carcass after the chopper had vanished.

What was also a little disconcerting is that significant parts of the carcass (head and paws) had been removed. Research perhaps?

I am not entirely clear why the authorities, or the lodge for that matter felt the need to pull the wool over our eyes, but there we are.

It was an emotional experience all round, and none of us felt the need to probe or delve further and potentially compromise the professional integrity of the lodge staff. They had their reasons – perhaps lodge guests had muddied their name in the past with similarly emotional sightings, who knows…

I guess the really burning question for me was WHY was the male driven to cannibalism? How common is cannibalism in the area? The fact that both guides had never seen anything like it in all their years living here made me decidedly uneasy.

A bit of desktop research and reading a book called “On Thin Ice” by Richard Ellis immediately after the trip brought a few things to the surface for me.

It seems the jury is out on whether this phenomenon is climate change related, and judging by the tone of the literature, it is prone to being sensationalized by the media, but whatever the case, I have a sneaking suspicion it has a human element to it.

There is a 50% mortality rate in cubs in the first year or two, and it is unusual to find a mother with more than one cub at the age when they are ready to be completely weaned. Six out of ten cubs die in their first year – as a result of attacks, starvation, accidents or infanticide.

There has, it seems, been a noticeable increase in occurrences of cannibalism amongst polar bears. This seems to play out when polar bears are deprived of food for an extended period, which is particularly acute due to the delay in the build-up of sea ice as a result of climate change.

In 2009, up to eight males were found eating cubs in the Churchill area in one season. Previously these bears were able to travel the iced-over Hudson Bay to find food, but more recently, with it taking longer to ice over, they had resorted to killing and eating cubs.

Our mum-eater certainly didn’t look emaciated or weak – he was a big, healthy looking animal. So could it just be an opportunistic feed? A fight to the death (over the cub) ended in a free, fat and protein-rich meal?

We will never know. But it was a substantial eye-opener, and it definitely piqued my interest in the management of these magnificent animals, their future and our influence in all this…

More of this in my next blog as I explore the rather unique and positively disturbing approach to human-wildlife conflict in the town of Churchill, where they make use of what they proudly call a “polar bear jail”…


On the backs of giants

On our recent holiday we made a spontaneous decision to try an African elephant back safari. It is something I have never considered doing, the purist in me always dismissing the idea. Surely training such a sentient being for this form of tourism would be wrong? I know I am not alone in feeling this way. Many people balk at the concept of taming these glorious wild animals – holding onto the (perhaps outdated?) image of them roaming free across an endless African grassland.

My mindset shifted and my interest was piqued when chatting to a highly respected conservationist recently who firmly believes in the concept in Africa and is convinced that it has enormous conservation value. And as I have come to realise in recent decades…if wildlife has any hope of survival on this volatile continent of ours, it has to pay its way…


So with such an educated thumbs-up, I decided that it would be something well worth trying. More than anything, I really wanted to expose my son to what promised to be a life-changing experience.

And that it was.

The short 40-minute ride itself was remarkable enough. Tim sat astride one of the young massive males Mukwa (with his handler, Prince) and my husband and I rode on Duma together with our superb, gentle and informative guide and handler Elliot. There are no bridle-like contraptions, saddles or blankets to cushion the ride or upset the animals. The handlers use reward, voice commands, trust and respect. No breaking of spirits here. _1WD0677

For the three of us though, the most exceptional part of the experience was after the ride when we were given the opportunity to walk through the bush alongside the three beautiful beasts.

We were quite literally rubbing shoulders with them while they wrapped their trunks around thorn-encrusted branches, closed their Bette Davis eyelashes in slow soporific delight as they munched on bark, flicked large clumps of grass against the upper part of their trunk to get rid of the soil before shovelling it into their mouths, defecated at our feet and ambled along softly (yet with astounding efficiency and speed).

I held my breath through it all standing right next to Duma…when touching the moist hairy tips of his huffing, sniffing prehensile trunk, when smelling and feeling his warm explorative breath on my cheek, feeling his coarse tail hair, running my fingers over his toenails and the soft spongy looking skin under his massive feet, tucking my hand under his wrinkled armpit and feeling the baby-bottom soft, warm skin._1WD0738

Then to stand right infront of him and look into his eyes and have him look right into mine…. knowing what I know about what we are doing to his relatives (and their habitat) elsewhere on this continent – and wondering what this great beast could see and read in my mind.

It was nothing short of mind-blowing. _1WD0696

We also had a chance to feed them, which gave my son yet another unique opportunity to gaze right into an elephant’s mouth, to see his tongue, his massive mincing molars and awesome gaping throat. What a rare privilege – particularly for a young child!

_1WD0729All these pictures speak for themselves (thanks Warren).

Though the one at the very bottom of this post is particularly poignant, I think…

George Monbiot recently reflected and wrote about a very real environmental crisis (and one which I alluded to in my previous blog). That is the removal of children from the natural world. Despite the research that shows the great majority of people do wish to see our ailing planet protected – very few, claims Monbiot, are really prepared to take action. The young people we all hope will stand up and fight to protect the natural world – are sadly having less and less to do with it.

Monbiot’s words resonate for me – particularly after an experience such as this.

I strongly believe that a rare and deeply moving opportunity such as this should be taken where possible/affordable. Exposure at this level cannot fail to move a person – young or old.

And we really NEED young people to be moved enough to effect change or to dedicate their lives to the protection of our very precious wild creatures – and their habitat. Now more than ever.

‘There is no substitute for what takes place outdoors; not least because the greatest joys of nature are unscripted. The thought that most of our children will never swim among phosphorescent plankton at night, will never be startled by a salmon leaping, a dolphin breaching, the stoop of a peregrine, or the rustle of a grass snake is almost as sad as the thought that their children might not have the opportunity.

Most of those I know who fight for nature are people who spent their childhoods immersed in it. Without a feel for the texture and function of the natural world, without an intensity of engagement almost impossible in the absence of early experience, people will not devote their lives to its protection.’ [Monbiot, 2012]


(For more on this truly excellent outfit based in the Zuurberg mountains, visit Addo Elephant Back Safaris: (

Sweating the small stuff

It’s nightfall in Noordhoek. Angry black storm clouds shunt over the mountain and then clear temporarily to reveal a perfectly plump, full moon.

Right now, the rain is coming down in sheets and that’s my cue to get togged up in a bright reflective rain-suit and head out into the busy rush hour traffic.

I plug a cable into the cigarette lighter, fasten the revolving amber warning light onto the roof, slap two big magnetic decals onto the side and back of my vehicle, toss my clipboard, egg-flip and torches into the passenger seat and set off.

At an agonizingly slow 40 kms an hour, I cruise up and down Silvermine and Main Roads, wiper blades swishing and hazard lights flickering.

My eyes are peeled to the slick, shiny tarmac.

I do this for three hours. Fellow volunteer patrollers will be out scouring a different stretch of road, and a fresh pair of eyes will arrive to relieve me and scour my beat later in the evening.

And then I see one.

A female Western Leopard Toad on the verge, facing the opposite side about to make her perilous way across the road. She’s massive – you cannot miss her bright, shiny form against the dark road. I quickly move to the side of the road, stop the car, flash a torch up and down in the direction of the animal to warn speedy home-comers and dash across the road to pick her up and move her over.

This can happen up to 20 times on a single patrol.

I am very often just too late. On one particular patrol I had to move (and record) as many as ten dead animals with the (rather undignified) egg-flip. This is done purely for statistical reasons. It is the most heartbreaking aspect of the evening. So often it is a matter of seconds – skip a beat, and you reach the shiny twitching mess in the wake of an uncaring motorist.

These days, the endemic Western Leopard Toad (Amietophrynus pantherinus) is restricted to small areas of the Overberg and a few isolated pockets in the southern peninsula. As an ‘explosive breeder’ the toad only breeds in a specific window period towards the end of the rainy season. They migrate almost exclusively on wet, rainy nights and more commonly under a full moon.

The urge to breed comes with the overwhelming impulse to move. They face an epic and hazardous journey from gardens to ponds – where mating and egg-laying takes place. Decades back this would have been perfectly hazard free. Today, however, the spaces between breeding ponds are now crisscrossed with electric fences, walls, canals, driveways, swimming pools and worst of all….increasingly busy roads.

The scourge of suburbia and development has resulted in significant decline in populations. Introduced or exotic fauna and flora like domestic ducks, khoi fish and algae also threaten the integrity of breeding habitats.

This is where the patrollers come in. We are there to help the males, females and even amplexis (mating) pairs get from A to B without being pancaked by rubber.

There are many patrols in a single season (up to 430 this year). 2012 was a particularly long one in the southern peninsula, with the toads starting their movement much later than usual and keeping us on our toes well into September.

The 2012 season saw a total of 562 toads saved in the Noordhoek/Sun Valley/Fish Hoek and Clovelly area. Sadly, it also saw about 130 senseless fatalities. On the busiest night of the season, a staggering 101 toads were encountered on the roads – just on the Noordhoek beat!

The Toad NUTS group has been up and running since 2008. Under the leadership of two passionate local residents (Alison Faraday and Suzie J’Kul), the group has grown from strength to strength and has managed to attract an astounding number of loyal, dedicated volunteer patrollers who give up their time and energy every season.

When confronted by the cynics – and there are many about – one is challenged on the degree of dedication, time and effort put into saving one species. Why spend so much energy saving a toad, I am asked – when thousands of people down the road are living in squalor?

Or… why bother? They’re just toads. Sure….and over there, there are ‘just’ wild dogs….or blue swallows…or riverine rabbits. Who gets to choose what is more important – when, let’s face it….choices abound!

Every single species is important and though toads are not everyone’s cup of tea, these little guys are as vital to ecosystem integrity as our infinitely more enigmatic, horned poster child of the day.

For more on what you can do to save this extraordinary species from the cliff edge of extinction, visit

In praise of wetlands

On our recent trip up north in early January we saw the Augrabies Falls in full throttle (or so we thought). Two days later it had swelled substantially and where we had seen quiet pools with gentle lapping wavelets, there were now torrents. The power and raw energy of the water was breathtaking.

A few days later (while we were in the park further north) it revved up and up and up some more. Then all hell broke loose. Chocolate brown water billowed and boiled over the rocks.. shunted over the viewing decks, spilled over the walkways and threatened to take out the lot!

We had to cut our holiday short by a day because all the roads and bridges en route to our one destination had been cut off. We gingerly crossed the only bridge open in Upington and drove an additional 80km of dirt road to get back on track. The floods wreaked havoc on thousands of hectares of highly productive farmland and orchards. The grapes we had seen being lovingly harvested and laid out on drying racks just 6 days earlier – all gone. Billions of Rands worth. Gone. Glug, glug, glug.

This degree of devastation – which we have seen on our doorstep and further afield in Australia, Sri Lanka and Brazil only serves to highlight the importance of conserving wetlands and of keeping the world’s riverine ecosystems intact.

World Wetlands Day is celebrated internationally each year on this day, the 2 February. It marks the anniversary of the signing of the Convention on Wetlands of International Importance (Ramsar Convention) in Ramsar, Iran, on 2 February 1971. One has to ask…what have we really achieved since all those stuffed suits sat down and signed this convention a little under 40 years ago? Really?

In South Africa the cost of declaring a national state of disaster in seven provinces as a result of flooding could exceed several billion Rands.

Wetlands act like giant sponges that absorb large amounts of water. They then release it into river systems over a long period of time. Similarly, intact river banks slow down the surface runoff, allowing water to percolate into the ground water, which will then be released more slowly into the system.

Many of these perfectly designed ‘sponges’ have gone and not only that, we have also (in our wisdom) completely altered the functionality of most of our vital river systems. Poor land use practices have destroyed more than 50% of our wetlands and our riparian zones are choked with invasive alien woody species such as black wattle. We have also slapped concrete down everywhere, which makes the demented and uncontrolled runoff seen recently an inevitability.

The heavy rainfall experienced in the past few months just flows straight off the surface and into the river systems. We end up with rivers breaking their banks and other devastating downstream consequences…

We need to remember that wetlands play a vital role in the environment and in our lives. They provide a kind of ‘natural infrastructure’ that is needed to help control heavy erosion and flooding.

Adapted from article by Africa Geographic February 2, 2011
(Thanks to Christine du Plessis, SANParks for the brilliant bottom photo!)

Our wild neighbours

My wonderfully talented friend Belinda Ashton (artist, writer and naturalist) has produced the most wonderful little publication called ‘Our wild neighbours’.
Her work is always beautiful and done with care and love, and this little book is no exception.

In her book, Belinda explores a great passion of mine…that is how we can all learn to respect, understand and live alongside the many wild creatures that pass through our gardens and increasingly crowded suburbs here in the Cape Peninsula.

I always feel enormously privileged to spot a caracal on my walks, to see mongoose scuttling away on the path ahead or find shell-speckled otter scat on rocks near a river. On my runs, I often see delicate genet spoor etched in the sand and freshly dug holes with little juicy bulbs scattered by a ravenous porcupine. This is often all right on my doorstep. How lucky we are to still have these creatures around!?

It breaks my heart when I see how many ‘pest control’ sprays, potions and powders are available in the shops. The other day I came across a snake deterrent spray…for your home or when you are camping! Whatever next?

As a species, we tend to fear the unknown. We have lost the ‘nature connection’ that Belinda talks about and we react with loathing or disgust to the wriggly, the warty and the scaly. If we just took the time to sit, watch and wonder, we would appreciate the inherent gentleness of wild creatures and their value in the natural system.

If we did more of that, we would probably spend less energy trying to get rid of or banish them…
Belinda’s book gives us some lovely suggestions for living peacefully alongside our wild neighbours from dealing sensitively with domestic cats, managing our waste better, creating a haven in our garden, what to do when bigger creatures come visiting (baboons, for example) and how to drive with caution and care..

(I am not the world’s greatest driver, and over the years I have become even worse as my eyes are glued to the tarmac – on the lookout for snakes, chameleons or toads crossing! I frequently come to a screeching halt to usher creatures to the relative safety of the verge – and once waved down fast-flowing traffic to allow a cobra to cross).

I hope many people read it, learn from it, and that it leads to a much needed shift in mindset.
I received my copy in this month’s Africa Geographic, but I think you can order copies directly from her website:

Seeing spots…

The Leopard Toadlets are here! I had a phone call this afternoon from one of the Head NUTS and Warren and I headed out into the drizzle to see what all the fuss was about. They are MINISCULE little things and quite difficult to spot. We rescued about 50 in total – all incredibly vulnerable to birds, swimming pools and, of course, the trusty car tyre. They are exquisite little things – perfect replicas of the adults, about the size of one’s fingernail. I am sure there will be several callouts to come. The email from the NUTS is as follows: Please check your swimming pools, gutters and driveways for toadlets. Put a stone at the step of your pool, remove your toad skimmer and check your pool every morning after rain. Install a toadsaver when the rain dries up, don’t mow your grass for the next month especially on rainy days.
This applies to anyone living in the Peninsula really, so apologies to my overseas readers!

Out of the ashes…

To start the weekend off on a positive note, I thought I would share a wonderful story I found this morning. It really shows the spectacular resilience of nature.

‘When the City of Cape Town made the decision to demolish the two Athlone Cooling Towers due to safety reasons early this year, many residents were concerned about what would happen to the pair of Peregrine Falcons that had made the towers their home. Now, almost three months after the demolition, these fears have been allayed with the successful hatching of three chicks in the new nest boxes that have been installed on the chimney stacks.

Peregrine Falcons (Falco Peregrinus) have inhabited the City’s Athlone Power Station property for 20 years. The Peregrine is a rare and threatened bird species that occurs sparsely in South Africa, but is relatively common around Cape Town. The Peregine’s natural habitat includes gorges and cliffs, but they have moved into the urban area over the last two decades, and are nesting on various buildings across the city.

Dr. Andrew Jenkins, a consultant ornithologist (Avisense Consulting) and research associate at UCT’s Percy FitzPatrick Institute of African Ornithhology, installed three nesting boxes on the Athlone Cooling Towers as part of his doctorial studies in 1989 to provide them with a safe place to breed. Peregrine Falcons have inhabited the nest boxes ever since, and a breeding pair was still occupying the one remaining nest box when the decision was made to demolish the towers.

Jenkins identified two new nesting box locations as potentially suitable to the falcons’ needs, to replace the nest box that was soon to be demolished. It was decided that one new nest box was to be placed on the western chimney stack, and another on the eastern end of the power station building.

Specially designed platforms were erected on both the chimney stack and the building with the help of rope access specialists. The nesting boxes were placed on the platforms, which would also allow sufficient space for falcon chicks to exercise before their first flight.

The installation of the new nesting boxes was completed in mid-June this year. According to Jenkins, the Peregrines started to explore the new nest boxes as possible nest sites for the 2010 season soon after they were placed. Their adoption of the replacement accommodation was so complete that by the time the demolition actually took place on 22 August, the falcons had become largely based on the stacks, and they were actually seen mating on top of the western chimney only eight minutes after the destruction of the towers.

By the middle of September the behaviour of the birds suggested that they were incubating a clutch of eggs at the stack’s nest box. Successful breeding was confirmed when Jenkins and rope access expert Jacques Maree (Toprope) visited the site on 05 November. Jenkins and Maree found three healthy chicks in the box, just over three weeks old.

The chicks were fitted with numbered and colour rings as part of Jenkins’ research on the greater Cape Town population of this spectacular and resilient species.’

Source: Martin Pollack.

A bumper year for Black Eagles!

I have Lucia Rodrigues to thank for today’s post. Lucia sends out updates on Black Eagle breeding activity in and around the Cape Province. In her latest email, she says that 2010 has been a bumper year! Of the 71 pairs of eagles that we know of and that are being monitored, 41 chicks are confirmed hatched and thriving. Five chicks confirmed fledged in Silvermine, Rooiels, Kleintafelberg, Engelsman se Baken and Loxton Road.

‘Some pairs still have small white chicks on their nests, but most have huge feathered beauties on the brink of stepping into the void, confident their wings will enable them to safely leave the confines of their nests and glide onto a lower section of their nest cliff.’

Lucia goes on to alert us to a worrying and very real threat:

‘…. a new threat on the horizon (quite literally) for all raptors, particularly the larger eagles who seek out thermals to aid their flying is the wind turbine which is currently being hailed as the saviour to our energy crisis. These turbines are placed on the very edges of mountain escarpments where the wind is at its most effective to drive them. Land owners are being wooed into giving up their land in return for good profit. Environmental impact assessments will propose mitigating measures, some in the form of where they should be placed to cause minimum harm, others to make them more visible to raptors. I have already comes across locals who don’t want them to be made more visible because it will despoil their view. I fear lip service will be paid to environmental issues and decisions taken will be harmful to our big eagles.’

I want to do some digging around to find out more about this one. I heard recently that these turbines also pose a significant threat to bats…
Worrying indeed…particularly when it is a seemingly well-intentioned effort to address climate change. But at a cost to some very special species?

Source: Thanks to Lucia for her wonderful updates….and the photo was taken by Jessie Walton.

A chain reaction

I am ‘borrowing’ today’s post from one of my favourite bloggers ‘The Roaming Naturalist’ (see his link on the right). There is no harm in this kind of cross-pollination, methinks, particularly when it is such a vital message and one well worth spreading.

The original article appeared on….

In a nutshell: When authorities decided (in their wisdom), to exterminate wolves from Yellowstone in the early 1900s – they effectively set off a chain reaction that resulted in the ‘de-watering’ of the land. It’s a simple equation: no wolves = fewer streams, marshes and springs.

When the wolves were removed, the elk thrived and ended up crowding the green river banks. This flourishing population of herbivores (without any predator to keep numbers in check) gobbled up willow and aspen seedlings before they could mature. Willows are both food and building material for beavers. As the willows declined, so did the beaver populations. When beavers build dams and ponds, they create wetland habitats for countless invertebrates, amphibians, fish, birds, and plants. They also slow down the flow of water and help distribute it over broad areas.

As the land dried up, overgrazed riverbanks eroded, life-giving river water receded and spawning beds for fish were silted over. Amphibians lost precious shade where they could have sheltered and hidden.

The bottom line is this: The big charismatic carnivores are critical as they regulate ecosystems from the top down. Remove them and the whole pack of cards comes tumbling down. Simple biology lesson stuff you would think? Yet all over the world (including our very own doorstep) these apex predators are being persecuted, hunted, trapped or deliberately removed/culled en masse

And we are supposed to be such an intelligent species!

Original article:

Last chance to see…?

The Liben Lark is Critically Endangered. Found only in one small area of open grassland in southern Ethiopia, this little-known bird has a tiny population, and could well become extinct within just a few years.

Its occurrence in a single small, unprotected area, the Liben Plain just outside Negele, makes the Liben Lark highly vulnerable to any threats. Currently, the greatest threat to the species is habitat loss, with an increasing number of livestock leading to problems with overgrazing and trampling, along with conversion of grassland to agriculture. Excessive grazing and fire suppression have also led to the rapid encroachment of shrubs.

Fieldwork carried out since 2007 to investigate the Liben Lark’s status and requirements has revealed the bird’s plight, and there is now a growing programme of conservation work led by the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society involving the local communities and focusing on reduction of grazing in some areas, clearance of invading scrub, and greater all-round awareness.
Source: IUCN