Life Pulse

I’m going to be posting a bit less frequently for the next couple of weeks until September 1 – not going away, just not here quite as often. Champagnewhisky is putting its feet up for summer.

Here are some images of our planet’s life pulse, the advance and retreat of the seasons across the hemispheres. John Nelson downloaded 12 cloud-free Earth images for 2004, one for each month, from the Nasa Visible Earth, stitched them together, and created moving mosaics of the Earth’s cycles. It’s worth heading over to Nelson’s own description of how and why he made this project – funny, insightful and well-written, with lots of cool links.

Breathing Earth from above Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth from above
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

The movement of ice and the annual ebb and flow of vegetation is hypnotic, and now I want more. I want to see various years placed next to one another, to compare and contrast. I want animated ocean images of hurricane seasons and calm doldrums. I want a moveable feast of the ocean’s great currents, laid out in front of me.

Breathing Earth - Various views Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Breathing Earth – Various views
Source: John Nelson / NASA Visible Earth

Nelson says the images look to him like the Earth is breathing – for me it looks like a tidal flow, but the essence is the same: The Earth has life cycles, just like the rest of us.



Antithesis of Desire

There were two major seizures of illegal elephant tusks Kenya’s Mombasa airport this month. The largest – 3 tonnes worth an estimated $700,000 – was being exported as large bags of peanuts. The other, seized earlier this month, was composed of tusks that had been cut up into smaller pieces and covered in fish remains to pass as fish exports. The illegal animal parts trade, much like drug smuggling, is ever inventive when it comes to moving product.

Large-scale ivory shipments originating from Africa have almost exclusively been seized in containers at major ports in Asia, where there is an established customs inspection system. Shipments mainly originate from Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and West Africa. Graphic: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal via

Large-scale ivory shipments originating from Africa have almost exclusively been seized in containers at major ports in Asia, where there is an established customs inspection system. Shipments mainly originate from Dar es Salaam, Mombasa and West Africa.
Graphic: Riccardo Pravettoni, GRID-Arendal via

A new technique for identifying illegal elephant tusk products – ivory – has been under discussion. Carbon dating of living animals, based on radioactive fallout from atomic testing during the mid-20th century, could be used to determine whether ivory specimens are legal – i.e. were gathered during the still-legal era which overlapped with atomic testing – or are from a more recent culling and thus illegal.

A Kenyan official is quoted in this Washington Post article as saying that “unless wildlife poaching is declared ‘an economic crime’ with heavy penalties, the problem is likely to persist in Kenya and elsewhere in the region where poachers do not face serious consequences if they are caught.” This is an issue for national and international governmental regulation.

But with this, as with other illegal animal part markets from rhino horn to snakeskin, the real challenge is getting at the end consumer. The market for ivory had dropped dramatically during the 1990s, when the end consumers in North America and Europe had decided owning ivory was no longer acceptable. The market has risen again in Asia with newfound economic purchasing power.

There is also a very interesting piece from National Geographic linking the carving of religious sculptures, across all religions, in Asia with the illegal ivory trade. Reporter Bryan Christy suggests that if a moral and ethical argument could be made from within the various religions, that might go some way toward stemming the trade.

The elimination of a species, not to mention the blood trade in their parts, needs to come to be seen as the antithesis of what makes a desirable object.

Elephant Eye Artist: Kristan Benson

Elephant Eye
Artist: Kristan Benson





Walked Upon

Clay soil Image via: Gardening Made Easy

Clay soil
Image via: Gardening Made Easy

When summer comes to my neck of the woods (which this year is looking less and less likely with every passing week of rain, but that’s another issue), the kiln of July and August bake the heavy clay soil of my garden to a hard surface that rivals a brick for impenetrability. Woe is me if I haven’t loosened and treated the soil around plants beforehand, or done my weeding. Whatever is in the ground will be encased until the next rains.

If you don’t get your fingers out into the dirt on a regular basis, you might not know just how different soil can be from place to place. Oh, we know about the chalky soil of the Champagne region, or the depleted soil of dustbowls, but soil is alive, both literally and figuratively. It’s alive, it develops, it changes, if affects the life in it and on it. It is a non-renewable resource.

The first ever Soil Atlas of Africa has been published, compiled by an international team of soil experts and edited by the European Union. It has some amazing images.

One of the soil maps in the Soil Atlas of Africa Source: European Commission – European Soil Portal

According to the release web page:

“Healthy and fertile soils are the cornerstones of food security, key environmental services, social cohesion and the economies of most African countries. Unfortunately, soil in Africa tends only to reach public awareness when it fails – often with catastrophic consequences (…)

In addition to providing the medium for food, fodder and fuel wood production (around 98% of the calories consumed in Africa are derived from the soil), soil controls the recycling of nitrogen, phosphorus, carbon and other nutrients. Soil reduces the risk of floods and protects underground water supplies. Soil organic matter can store more than ten times its weight of water while the soils of Africa store about 200 Gt of organic carbon – about 2.5 times the amount contained in plants.”JRC_africa_atlas_cover_s

The web site offers free downloads. Gorgeous images, and an insightful education into the true, often neglected value that soil represents, even if you don’t live in Africa.


The Guardian articleAfrica’s soil diversity mapped for the first time by Ben Appiah

Farewell Forest Symphony

The fundamental chords that hold a symphony together aren’t always apparent to the untrained ear. The symphony of an ecosystem is often more complex than we comprehend.

A recent study draws a vital connection between elephant poaching, tree reproduction and forest ecosystems. Certain trees – in this case, large bush mango trees – have evolved alongside large animals, in this case, forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis). The trees have developed seeds which are best dispersed via elephants eating the seeds, walking long distances, and then depositing digested seeds far from the parent tree. The seeds of these trees are too large to be properly digested and dispersed by smaller mammals.

Unfortunately for both the wild trees and the elephants, up to 75% of the elephant population has been killed in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where this study was carried out, and an estimated 60% of all forest elephants in the world have been killed in the service of the illegal ivory trade – all in the last ten years.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via

From an interview in an article on

“[The] Congo forest without elephants would certainly lose part of its soul, but elephant extinction with their seed dispersal services would also affect the entire plant community,” lead author David Beaune with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology told Forest elephants are “important gardeners of the forest,” says Beaune, so important in fact that when elephants go extinct in a part of the forest, important trees are unable to reproduce. “If we can’t replace elephants, then the reproduction of these plant species is hugely compromised.”

The bush mango tree used in the study, Irvingia gabonensis, happens to be one that is also important to the economy of many African regions, and has been successfully cultivated. Its reproductive patterns are well-known. It plays a key role in preventing soil erosion as well as being useful as a cash crop.
What of the many other fruits and seeds eaten by forest elephants which are less-studied, with lesser known roles in the ecosystem? Without the massive ‘gardeners of the forest’, what aspects of the ecosystem will crumble?
It puts me in mind of the final movement of Haydn’s Symphony No. 45, in which all the instruments disappear. There is a final song of the remaining violins, but it is thin and lonely without the other melodies.


Original study in Forest Ecology and Management: Density-dependent effect affecting elephant seed-dispersed tree recruitment (Irvingia gabonensis) in Congo Forest by D., L. Bollache, B. Fruth, G. Hohmann1 and F. Bretagnolle article

Scientific American blog post

VOA news article – Ivory Poaching Decimates Forest Elephant Population

End Of Year Happy #4

Black rhinos by nightPhoto: BBC

Black rhinos by night
Photo: BBC

There’s much that could be said about the rhinoceros, from its fearsome strength, to its rapid and sad decline due to hunting, to the recent differentiation of northern and southern white rhinoceroses into two distinct species because they show such genetic disparity (making for six living species, the northern white being the rarest).

In an upcoming BBC One series, Africa, something was learned about the black rhino that surprised researchers and documentary filmmakers alike. The black rhino had always been considered a solitary species, with individuals seeking each other out purely for the purposes of propagation.

However, during the course of filming the documentary, a new, highly-sensitive starlight camera was employed to film the black rhino by night. And lo, it turns out that the black rhino, mostly reticent by day, is actually a sociable party animal by night. At a watering hole in the Kalahari, filmmakers were astonished to find large groups of rhinos, all ages and social standing, meeting up once the sun went down. Not only that, the animals were affectionate, playful and friendly with one another.

Why is this an End Of Year Happy?

Because I like the idea that there is always mystery awaiting to surprise and astonish, even among life at its most observed. Even when we know so much, there is so much more just beyond our sight. I like the implementation of something called a “starlight camera” to spy on secretly playful rhinos.

But most of all, I like the notion that creatures we consider grouchy, antisocial and generally uncooperative can prove us utterly wrong in our assumptions, that there can be communion and agreement in what looks like hostile territory if we just have the ability to see it – and sometimes this ability might require taking a completely new perspective.

And with that, I wish everyone a very happy 2013.

Read here and here about the BBC series and the work on rhinos.

Here is more information on the starlight camera.