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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”…

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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 http://toadnuts.ning.com/

Pacific horror

While my heart goes out to the many hundreds of thousands of people whose lives have been turned upside down, ripped apart and changed forever, I cannot help but worry deeply about the wider environmental impacts of the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

The apocalyptic video footage of cars, trains and trucks bobbing alongside entire houses, ships, containers and rooftops in one big, black boiling toxic wave just fills me with a deep dread.

All of that debris has to go somewhere.

Aside from the obvious ‘in your face’ debris, I shudder to think what kind of highly toxic, chemical brew is being shunted straight back into the ocean, leached into the groundwater and fed into what remains of the freshwater or estuarine ecosystems in that region.

If you look closely, the wave was already a big black, boiling mess as it hit the actual shoreline. It would have become more and more foul and toxic as it washed over airport runways, refineries, streets and farmlands…picking up millions of gallons of petrol, oil, hazardous waste, household, agricultural and industrial chemicals, sewage, medical waste and absolutely everything else…

This giant toxic soup will all seep back into the environment…wiping out pretty much everything.

The structure and function of marine ecosystems such as reefs, mangroves, sea grass beds and estuarine mudflats will have been altered forever – by the sheer force of the main big wave. Flora and fauna will have been ripped up as the wave came in….and then completely smothered by sediment and debris as it retreated. Cars, trains, trucks and air conditioning units – all of these would have bulldozed any fragile corals or other benthic substrates into oblivion…

Fishing gear from all those fishing vessels that were bobbing around like corks will now be floating freely in the ocean…posing a massive threat to marine mammals or larger ocean dwelling creatures such as turtles.

I don’t even want to think about the radioactive leaks and threats thereof.

I think we all tend to think that a ‘relatively small’, isolated incident such as this will ‘take care of itself over time’. I fear that this one is going to hit the entire Pacific basin very hard indeed. I think we can brace ourselves for some real horror stories of ecosystems that were already terribly fragile – being wiped out completely or of becoming very sick indeed in the decades to come.

I am having sleepless nights about this but there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. I guess this is just how natural events such as these will continue to play themselves out in our dense (and let’s face it rather toxic) urban environments.

Hope that my next post will be light and fluffy and a whole lot happier!
(with thanks to Reuters for the photo)

2011

I spent some time scanning through all the species photos and write ups of the last year and it was impossible to choose any one species. They are all special and just reading about their plight or looking into the eyes of some stirs me up and gets my blood boiling.

I also went through some of the comments and responses to my initial species of the day emails (long before this blog began). It has been an interesting exercise. Quite a few asked to be removed from the list (inbox jamming and lack of time/interest), but I also had many people sending them on and then others asking to be added – and so the network built up.

Early on in the year, one woman asked me to remove her from the list because seeing all these species on the brink made her too sad!! It upset me a bit, and in reaction, I put a little quote I found in the following day’s email which sums up how I feel about habitat and species loss (and all the planet’s woes, for that matter):

There is no power on earth that can utterly destroy the human spirit. Whatever the calamity, however profound the oppression, some flicker of life, courage and enterprise will remain. But we must not allow humanity to get to that stage. The first step is for each one of us to look up from our comforts and to learn some inconvenient truths. Then we can get angry and shout from the rooftops’. Alistair Sawday

Perhaps the reason I started sending out the species of the day emails was to do just that. Make people sad, then angry, then positive – then – hopefully – active.

The next day I received this from one of my loyal readers – she sums it all up beautifully, I think:

Thank you for this labour of love! Loss of habitat and species is tragic, and my children are learning slowly that the most dangerous animals on this planet are not great whites, or lions, or bears, or snakes but humans. Not to make them dislike humans, but rather to encourage responsible actions and conscious living (as well as having a great childhood!!).

All awareness building is essential for us to get to the point of taking action. Whether it is by consciously using less water, saving electricity and recycling; by taking out alien invasive plants; by planting indigenous species; or, by contributing to conservation efforts at local, regional or international levels, all actions contribute to the longer term sustainability of our fragile planet.

Your comment “I hope these emails help YOU get sad, then angry, then positive – then active” is so pertinent. Many of us humans are in a state of mourning about the state in which we find our planet (almost as if we have woken up – to Sawday’s “inconvenient truths”) and have to go through the phases of mourning until we are able to again hold up our chins and DO something about it.

This extraordinary photo is one of the many brilliant shots in the wildlife photography awards. Called ‘A marvel of ants’, it shows leaf-cutter ants in action in the Costa Rican rainforests. It sums up so much. How the smallest things can so often be so beautiful; how we need to get younger generations down on their hands and knees watching the ants and beetles and appreciating the intricacy of ecosystems…and how, by working together and pulling our weight, we can achieve great things and make a difference.

I wish you all the best for 2011. I hope that through this blog I can build on my efforts to inspire change and action.

Photograph: Bence Máté/Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2010

Into the sunset…

This is the IUCN’s 365th species for 2010. I love this picture…wish I could be there alongside them, trotting into that dusty sunset. What a beautiful animal to share New Year’s eve with. Tomorrow I will look back a little at some of the incredible creatures (and plants) that really hit a nerve for me…and then I will set my sights on 2011.

The African Wild Dog is Endangered. This species is limited to only a portion of its historical distribution, with populations eradicated from West Africa and greatly reduced in central and north-east Africa. They are rarely seen due to their low population densities.
Wild Dogs experience high mortality in comparison with other large carnivore species.While competition from other predators, primarily lions, is the principal cause of natural mortality in adults, more than half of all deaths are due to human activity. Wild Dogs ranging outside of protected areas encounter high-speed vehicles, guns, snares, and poisons, as well as domestic dogs, which represent reservoirs of potentially lethal diseases (rabies and canine distemper).
The establishment of protected areas, as well as conservancies on private and communal land, has decreased contact between Wild Dogs, people, and domestic dogs. There are also efforts to work with local people to reduce deliberate killing of the dogs in and around these protected areas. Establishing effective techniques for protecting small populations from serious infections is also a priority.
Source: IUCN

Giant Anteater


This is the second to last species in the IUCN’s 2010 Species of the Day ‘collection’. Quite incredible to think there have been 365 species profiled here. I will be doing a little tribute, with some of the highlights for tomorrow’s post…

The Giant Anteater is Vulnerable. This utterly magnificent creature occupies a range extending from Honduras, south to Bolivia, Paraguay and Argentina, and feeds on ants and termites with the aid of its long, sticky tongue.

The dietary specificity, low reproductive rates and large body size of this species, along with habitat degradation, particularly in Central America, have proved to be significant factors in the Giant Anteater’s decline. Individuals are also sometimes killed on roads, and where the species occurs in grassland habitats, it is at risk from both natural and human-caused fires. The Giant Anteater is also hunted for food, and in some areas it is hunted as a pest or to be kept as a pet.
This distinctive animal is protected across most of its range, and occurs in many protected areas. It is also listed on Appendix II of CITES, meaning that international trade in the species should be carefully regulated. Other recommended conservation measures for the Giant Anteater include improving fire management practices, particularly within the grassland areas it inhabits.
Source: IUCN

Green Turtle

The Green Turtle is Endangered . This long-lived and highly migratory species is found in tropical and, to a lesser extent, sub-tropical waters throughout the globe. The Green Turtle has the most numerous and widely dispersed nesting sites of the seven turtle species.

Although international trade in Green Turtles is prohibited by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), Green Turtles and their eggs are still widely consumed, both legally and illegally – they were once highly sought after for their body fat, a key ingredient in the popular delicacy ‘Green Turtle soup.’ They are also regularly caught as bycatch in fisheries, especially by trawls, gillnets and longlines, and are threatened by coastal habitat destruction (particularly of nesting areas) and marine debris.

Green Turtles have been the focus of numerous international and regional treaties and protection measures for several decades, such as their inclusion on Appendix I of CITES. The use of Turtle Excluder Devices in many trawl fisheries has also resulted in a decrease in incidental catch of this species, but bycatch continues to remain a significant threat globally.
Source: IUCN