Monthly Archives: February 2015

Ivory Trade Antics

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Elephant Eye Artist: Kristan Benson

Elephant Eye
Artist: Kristan Benson

There have been several elephant and ivory-related news items over the past few weeks, including a year-long ban on ivory imports announced by China this week, and the announcement by several Hong Kong retailers that they will no longer be selling elephant products.

New regulations have just come into effect in the United States, one of the leading markets for legal and illegal ivory, that further restricts ivory imports and sales.

New laws that would ban ivory trade outright in New York and California (proposed) reflect findings that in these national markets, the first and second respectively, between 80-90% of all ivory being sold is illegal.

I know I should say they are encouraging, and these developments are good news.

But my real reaction is: Why are people still buying and selling ivory?

This is the issue with legal ivory sales within countries: If people see an item openly for sale, they assume it’s legal.

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

© WWF-Canon / Folke Wulf

Once ivory has entered its destination country, it is extremely difficult to differentiate the illegal stuff (harvested from one of the elephants killed every 15 minutes around the world) from the legal stuff (either antique, or imported before the African elephant was listed in CITES Appendix I in 1990).

I am baffled that the US still allows the importation of hunting trophy tusks. But given the ongoing battles to re-instate permission to allow for the importation of endangered rhino horns even as the rhino population is in steep decline, it shouldn’t be a surprise.

Added to this is a dire lack of awareness among shipping workers and officials as to the methods used for transporting illegal animal parts, even as 90% of the illegal trade crosses international borders.

I’m sure there are many, many dealers who handle only legal ivory, but as a responsible and concerned consumer, would you know the difference?

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

Origami elephant created by Sipho Mabona
Photo by Philipp Schmidli / Mabona

I know I wouldn’t.

There’s an easy solution to that: Don’t buy the stuff.

Stop buying it anywhere until all imports have been stopped, the elephant populations and those of other catastrophically endangered source animals have rebounded, and the illegal market has dried up. If it’s made of ivory, that means no trinkets, no souvenirs, no fancy gifts for business associates, no allegedly legal decorative items for the home. Don’t admire that new ivory bracelet someone shows you, don’t covet that sculpture.

A thriving market in one kind of animal part only supports all the others, and the trade in general.

Sorry, sellers of legal ivory, the stakes are just too high.

 

Oxbows and Meanders

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I found this tangled map, created in 1944, over on the ever-fruitful NASA web site for the Earth Observatory. It shows historical changes along a stretch of the Mississippi River.

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.  From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944. Source: Earth Observatory

North of the Atchafalaya River. The 1999 satellite image shows an oxbow lake from 1785, created when a meander (a bend in the river) closes itself off to leave behind a crescent.
From the Geological Investigation of the Alluvial Valley of the Lower Mississippi River, published by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1944.
Source: NASA/Earth Observatory

I stumbled upon it while looking at a small collection of river surveys from 1865, and comparing them to modern Google maps. There was this one, a stretch just south of St. Mary, Missouri.

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Marys, MO.  Source: Wikimedia

Sheet 6 of the 1865 U.S. Coast Survey Map of the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to St. Mary, MO.
Source: Wikimedia

The modern one looks a bit different – fewer bends, fewer islands – but not so much that it would be unrecognizable. Notably, the large bend that once branched off to St. Mary, Missouri, visible at the top of each map, is now just a small tributary.

One might have expected more of a difference over the course of 150 years of population increase and civil engineering.

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.  Source: Googlemaps

The same stretch of river, with St. Mary, Missouri in the upper left corner.
Source: Googlemaps

But, at least on the Mississippi, the differences in major river flow come when the river is left alone to shift, meander, silt up and sidle over. The more humans work on this particular river, the more it stays the same. Levees are installed to prevent overflow (although they don’t always work).

The entire Mississippi Delta once shifted every 1,000 years or so – but with industries and port installations firmly established over the course of a few human generations, that would be an economic disaster. The Old River Control Structure, undertaken in the 1950s, keeps the delta in place.

More or less. At least, for the time being.

Because in the long run and when left to their own devices, rivers are all over the map.

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here. Source: VisualNews

Section of the 1944 Mississippi River Meander Belt. For more, visit here.
Source: VisualNews

Tipping the Scales

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21 February is World Pangolin Day, and anyone who follows this blog knows I have a soft spot for the scaly anteater that is being rapidly hunted into extinction.

The ongoing decimation of the slow and strange pangolin is a grim illustration of the long-lasting impact greed and lack of political willpower can have on fellow inhabitants on the planet.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin scales are used in traditional medicine, mostly in China and Vietnam. I found a site which promises to be a “complete guide to proven herbal remedies.” Note the word ‘proven’.

It lists pangolin scales as being composed of “stearic acid, cholesterol, N-butyl tricosylamide, cyclo (L-seryl-L-tyrosyl), cyclo (D-seryl-L-tyrosyl), and other 18 kinds of microelements” and “16 types of free amino acids.”

This makes it sound like pangolin scales have a chemical composition uniquely suited to medicinal uses. It does not highlight that pangolin scales, along with rhino horn and goat hooves and human fingernails, all have the same basic composition, and are all made of keratin.

I have no doubt that practitioners and adherents of traditional medicines believe in what they are doing with pangolin scales, and by extension, the consumption of pangolin flesh, especially that of unborn pangolins.

However, the same web site volunteers that most practitioners have been substituting buffalo horn for ‘medicinal’ rhino horn since the 1990s due to poaching and legal issues.

Rhino horn.

Rhino horn.

So if one kind of horn can simply be substituted for another, from entirely different animals, why not just substitute human nail cuttings for pangolin scales?

In the end, they all have approximately the same medicinal value beyond that of a placebo, namely, none.

Traditional medicines were born in a time of fewer humans and more animals. Harvesting these animals from the wild until they are all gone is a ridiculous, illegal and shameful undertaking for all concerned, from those who poach to those who consume.

An African tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) climbs a tree. Source: British Museum

An African tree pangolin climbs a tree.
Source: British Museum

The various species of critically endangered pangolins (and the rhino, and the elephant, and all the other iconic and lesser known animals being hunted to extinction) have a place in the world, but it’s not in a sack, being traded for every-increasing amounts of money to satisfy our own greed for better health or more income.

So on this World Pangolin Day, whip up a Happy Pangolin cocktail, celebrate the pangolins and other animals staying right where they belong, and celebrate all those people who are working hard to achieve that goal, maybe make a donation, and most importantly, maybe have a conversation with someone else about not supporting the illegal trade of any animal or plant.

Save Pangolins

IUCN SSC Pangolin Specialist Group

Tikki Hywood Trust (Africa)

Save Vietnam’s Wildlife

Project Pangolin

Pangorarium (Facebook) – keep up with events and newsWorldPangolinDay2015-640x669

Industrial Reforestation

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I haven’t yet made peace with the notion of drone swarms in civilian life, whether they are for deliveries or photography or oil pipe monitoring or any number of ostensibly benign and useful activities. I suppose at some point I’ll just get used to them as they multiply, much like I did with the now-ubiquitous CCTV cameras.

However, this week I learned of a drone project that might soften my stance.

BioCarbon Engineering is a UK-based project that implements UAVs, unmanned aerial vehicles, to plant trees in deforested areas using what they call ‘industrial reforestation’ to counter the estimated 26 billion trees lost every year to logging, mineral extraction, agriculture, and urban expansion.

Now, the combination of the words ‘industrial’ and ‘reforestation’, used together with drones, doesn’t sound very much like it would add up to a tree-hugging approach. At least not at first. But…

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix. Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The drones map terrain, the plant a diversity of tree seeds in a nature-based matrix.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

The 1 Billion Trees A Year project proposes a three-step approach using drones: a deforested area is first mapped, then seeded, and then monitored for progress.

The challenges of seeding deforested regions are many – but one of the most daunting is the simple act of seeding out new trees. Either the seeding has to be carried out by hand, or rather, many hands, or it is done by dropping batches of seeds from the air.

The advantage of hand-seeding is that the seeds can be inserted into the soil deeply enough that they can germinate and take root. But of course, large deforested areas require the re-planting of thousands, millions of trees.

Seeding by air allows for a large number of seed drops, but many of the seeds won’t ever get far enough into the soil to establish themselves, or they’ll be scattered before they can germinate.

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The Biocarbon Engineering drone, with a pressurized cannister for injecting seed pods.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

Operating at a height of 1-2 meters (3-6 feet), drones would be equipped with pressurized air canisters that can shoot seed pods far enough down into the soil to prevent scattering. The seed pods would be small units that contain a germinated seed, a bit of moisture, and a bit of nutrition to get the seed started.

Speaking in an interview with the BBC, CEO Lauren Fletcher said that the drones can be used to cover large amounts of terrain, and can use a variety of seed types to try and re-establish a forest with a similar pattern of biodiversity as the one originally deforested.

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed. Source: Biocarbon Engineering

The drone-injected seed pods hit the soil and open to release a germinated seed.
Source: BioCarbon Engineering

I wrote recently about the reverence deserved by forests. This project seems to be a very 21st century method for encouraging that reverence.

The project was a runner-up in the United Arab Emirates Drones for Good – which included a number of other promising humanitarian drone projects that might just make me change my opinion about drone use – at least some of the time.

Deforestation in Borneo. Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Deforestation in Borneo.
Photo: Rhett Butler/Mongabay

Forest Reverence

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“A grove of giant redwoods or sequoias should be kept just as we keep a great or beautiful cathedral.”

Theodore Roosevelt

Tree Cathedral, a living installation in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri's death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life. Image:  Virtual Sacred Space

Tree Cathedral, a living installation by Giuliano Mauri in Bergamo, Italy. The foundation was laid in 2001, and following Mauri’s death in 2009, the Cattedrale Vegetale has been completed as a monument to his work and life.
Image: Virtual Sacred Space

Through history, private family ownership of vast land tracts has had both merits and drawbacks.

When it comes to forests in the United States, almost 60% is under private ownership, 766 million acres of land. For more than half of that land, the average age of the owner is 62.5.

What this means, according to a 2014 Associated Press article, is that as owners pass their land on to younger generations, the land tends to get divided, sold, parcelled into smaller lots and developed in ways that don’t necessarily reflect best forest management or maintain a working forest.

Image: Santino/Flckr

The Tree Cathedral is made of 42 different columns that form five aisles. The columns incorporate 1,800 spruce trunks and 600 chestnut tree branches woven together with 6,000+ meters of hazelnut twigs. Nails, string, and local traditional methods for intertwining and weaving were utilized in order to secure the columns around the trees. Text/Image: EarthPorm/ Santino/Flckr

One of the issues faced by private owners who have worked to protect woodlands is to convey their conservationist commitment to younger, more urbanized generations.

It’s one thing to be deeply affected by forests and enjoy woodland hikes; it’s another altogether to be a private landowner responsible for a long-term forest management plan that encompasses unborn future generations.

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral. Image: Arte Sella

As the hornbeam trees within the columns grow and mature, the original support structures will age and fall away, leaving a small forest in the shape of a cathedral.
Image: Arte Sella

There are now organizations that offer support to families in woodland legacy planning – first and foremost, projects like Oregon State University’s Ties to the Land help families talk to one another about their land priorities.

I assume that Giuliano Mauri’s Tree Cathedral, shown in the images here, was planned (at least in part) to remind visitors that a forest is a place of reverence. It is installed in the Italian Arte Selle sculpture park of earth art and natural architecture.

With commitment and communication, some families have done a phenomenal job of protecting forests over decades and even centuries.

It’s a little unnerving to think of the majority of any nation’s woodlands being at the mercy of uninterested successors, because once a natural forest cathedral, or even a forest chapel, has been parcelled and developed, it is changed forever.

Experiencing the forest as a sacred space shouldn’t be something that only happens in an art installation.

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)

Image: Aldo Fedele (left) / Arte Sella (right)

 

Yoke of Gold

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The history of gold – that is, the history of gold extracted from the planet surface – is inextricably linked with human history.

Gold has always been as much a shining harness as a coveted bauble.

Gustav Klimt's Judith 1

Gustav Klimt’s Judith 1

It has so many qualities we would like to think we ourselves possess: It’s rare but not lonely and scarce, it’s easy to handle and mold but keeps its shape once formed, it doesn’t corrode, and it doesn’t react explosively with other elements.

It’s so pretty, and so desirable.

A nice symbol for the ages, which is probably why we’ve used it in so many different capacities since before recorded history, and why we still like it so much today.

Anything rare and precious to us always comes at a price. And it’s not just the one we pay upon purchase.

The Grasberg mine in Papua, Indonesia, is just one in a long line of gold mines around the world and through the ages, but it has the distinction of being the largest. The mine embodies so much of humanity’s relationship with gold.

There’s much for some and very little for others: The mine has brought vast wealth to its owners, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., and the Indonesian government.

Those almost nothing for those who extract the gold in the thin air of Puncak Jaya, the highest island mountain in the world (16,024 ft/4884 metres). And whatever else isn’t considered precious – the mine is also the world’s third-largest copper source – is simply discarded.

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine. Source: GoGeometry

Satellite view of the Grasberg mine.
Source: GoGeometry

According to Earthworksaction, a single gold ring generates more than 20 tons of mine waste on average. And the Grasberg mine produces and dumps over 200,000 tonnes of tailings (mine waste) per day (over 80 million tonnes per year).

Mining waste is toxic – the ‘rest’ of the earth from Grasberg mine, the parts considered not precious enough for harvest, have buried over 230 sq. km (88 sq. miles) of forest and wetlands, the surrounding rivers are considered unsuitable for aquatic life.

View of the Grasberg mine. Source: Mine.com

View of the Grasberg mine.
Source: Mining.com

The high price also includes human rights violations and displacement of indigenous peoples. Half of the gold extracted around the world is mined on the territories of traditional indigenous peoples.

So the next time you find yourself reaching for the gold ring, you might consider its real price.

You can also consider reaching for a gold ring mined and made by supporters of the FairGold initiative.

Gold ripples Source: Pixabay

Gold ripples
Source: Pixabay

 

Maui Mixology

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I’m not sure what I was expecting from the poolside cocktail mixing class at the Hotel Wailea on Maui – the reinforcement of a few basics, maybe a couple of exotic ingredients in a familiar drink. We’d signed up the day before for the mixology class, but by the time it rolled around at 11 a.m., we felt like we’d already had a long day of intense touristing behind us, working hard to get the most out of our vacation.

Just after dawn on Haleakala, a wild mix of clouds and colors.

Just after dawn on Haleakala, a wild mix of clouds and colors.

We’d spent the morning making the drive from the coast of Maui up to the summit of Haleakala to watch the sunrise from 10,000 feet above the ocean, high above the clouds and slopes of Maui. We’d gotten up at 3 a.m., watched the 7 a.m. sunrise, and gave ourselves a pat on the back for getting up early and seeing such a spectacular sight as a reward.

Sometimes having fun requires a genuine effort.

Kerry, the beverage wizard who was teaching the mixology class, blithely dispensed with cocktail basics within the first ten minutes. What she really wanted to talk about was a lesson altogether more fundamental: the place in life where we take what we have on hand and make something wonderful. Less hard work, more appreciation.

For example, simple syrups. Sure, anyone can buy a simple syrup – that basic sweetener, water and sugar cooked together. And adding a flavor to that concoction is nothing new.

A few samples of simple syrup: Honey, jalapeño, rose, lavender, hibiscus.

A few samples of simple syrup: Honey, jalapeño, rose, lavender, hibiscus.

What I liked about Kerry’s approach was the notion of making just about anything into simple syrup, the spices or herbs or flowers or chilis or leaves that are in the kitchen, in the refrigerator, in the garden or blooming on the balcony. I especially liked her low-heat approach to processing these ingredients – in a blender with water and sugar, and then some time sitting in the sun before straining – adding sunlight to maintain pure flavors and come up with a lavender mojito, or a hibiscus margarita.

She introduced our small class to the lovely Pau Vodka, a Maui-produced spirit based on pineapple. Now, pineapple was introduced to the Hawaiian islands by the Spanish, so technically it’s not an indigenous plant – but Hawaii is the only U.S. state which produces pineapple. Pineapple cultivation might be a fraught subject, but the vodka was a delight, with a hint of the fruit’s tangy sweetness.

(Ocean Vodka is Maui’s other locally-produced vodka, one we didn’t try – and one more reason to go back to the island. Another would be the pineapple wines of the Tedeschi Vineyards.)

The well-used hydrosols - basil, lime, allspice, etc., with the simple syrup bottles and a few of the fruits used.

The well-used hydrosols – basil, lime, allspice, etc., with the simple syrup bottles and a few of the fruits used.

Kerry also had a number of hydrosols – the bi-product of essential oil distillation and condensed water left over after steam or water distillation – on hand. Not something I’d likely produce on a regular basis in my own kitchen, but easy enough to get at the local health food store.

After a morning of trying hard to get the most out of the day, the class was a lesson in taking life as it comes and making the best of what’s right in front us.

Back home and thoroughly bundled up against the Arctic temperatures both outside and inside our old stone house, I’m trying to do just that.

I think I’ll start with this:

 

 

 

Watching the Wheels Go Round

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Pre-dawn on the summit of Haleakala, Maui.  All photos: PK Read

Pre-dawn on the summit of Haleakala, Maui.
All photos: PK Read

What is it about watching the sun come up and watching the sun go down?

After all, it’s just a way of watching the planet turn in its usual way, day after day. IMG_0536

At least for me, watching a sunrise, and watching a sunset, never gets old.

Each one the fundamentally the same, each one unique.

On our last day in Maui, we made the early trek up to the summit of Haleakala.

We left our hotel 3 a.m., arriving at the top of the mountain around 5 a.m., and then waited patiently in the blistering cold as the stars in the clear skies above gave way with excruciating slowness to the bruised purples and reds of pre-dawn. IMG_0562

As ever more people arrived, we wondered whether the entire undertaking was really worth it.

The long drive over from the western shore, the frigid temperatures, the biting wind that blew away all memory of the coast below, hidden beneath a layer of coastal clouds as if in another world, a dream world of beaches and balmy breezes.

And then, the clouds were limned with orange and gold, the sun broke through, a collective sigh arose from the crowd, quickly followed by the chirps and clicks of a hundred cameras.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, but it did.

Daybreak, again, always new. And then, the drive back down the mountain, with stops to look at the blasted crater, the tumbles of volcanic rock, the carpets of vegetation that reclaim the land, over and over.IMG_0580

The day was bookended by the sunset, always predictable and never the same.

The Earth turns, the sun disappears behind the horizon, same procedure as yesterday and tomorrow, and I never tire of it.

Sunset off the coast of Wailea, Maui.

Sunset off the coast of Wailea, Maui.

 

And don’t even get me started on moon watching…

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