Tag Archives: #california

Feeling the Spin

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When I was a kid, I used to lie on my back in Golden Gate Park, or on Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or in the meadows of the Marin Headlands, and feel the Earth turn.

I remember the feeling, spinning backwards (always backwards) through space. We hadn’t yet seen the images of the Earth from the NASA missions, that was still years ahead, but I swore I could feel us all, moving as one, on our orbit around the sun.

Into the woods.
Photo: Ellie Davies

My father told me this was physically impossible. He agreed that we all were, indeed, stationed on a moving object and that the object was rotating on its own axis while orbiting the sun. But because we were all moving at the same speed as our object, the Earth, we couldn’t actually sense its rotation or orbit.

I knew what I felt. It the sense of being part of a whole, and we were all in this together. I knew it then, and I know it now.

Today is Earth Day. I hope you can go out and feel part of the whole.

Photo: PKR

Fewer Footprints

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When we were out on the Pacific Coast in California a couple of weeks ago, two things in particular caught my attention:

One was the lack of shorebirds, the skittering types that chase waves and scurry in tight huddles. Maybe it was just the wrong season. There were signs posted indicating that snowy plovers were nesting in the dunes, although we didn’t see any from the waterline where we walked. The estuary between Limantour Beach and Drakes Beach holds a diverse population of wild birds, so maybe we were just unlucky or unobservant.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

While there were seagulls, great egrets and turkey vultures–we even saw a red-tailed hawk diving for fish and carrying off a squirming catch–we saw a sum total of five sandpipers.

Researchers only really started noticing a general decline in shorebirds around twenty years ago, when counting got underway in earnest. It’s hard to know just how much the populations have declined – but I can say that compared to when I visited my favorite beaches thirty years ago, the number of birds has dropped dramatically. There were far fewer footprints in the sand from birds than I remember from my youth.

Photo: PKR

Photo: PKR

There are a number of reasons for the decline in shorebird and migratory bird populations. Loss of migratory habitat has to be the most relevant. There’s just so much more land development and reclamation along coastlines and wetland areas, the very places the great internationalist shorebirds stop to rest, to eat, to breed.

Another aspect, though, is the amount of plastic in our seas.

Birds eat plastic, presumably because it looks like food, and can end up starving to death with a belly full of plastic. Between 60-90% of birds in shoreline regions have been found to have plastic in their bellies. At this point, it’s probably more surprising to find a bird without plastic in its stomach.

Which brings me to the other thing that caught our attention on our numerous beach walks:

An estuary tree blooms with great herons. Photo: PKR

An estuary tree blooms with great herons.
Photo: PKR

Back in the 1980s, when there were more birds, I also used to notice large pieces of junk on the beach. Wrecked picnic coolers, plastic containers, styrofoam appliance packing, plastic bottles galore. This time, there were very few pieces of large plastic. This might be a positive side of the recycling movement.

Microplastics. Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

Microplastics.
Photo: Puget Sound We Love You

What I did notice, however, were countless pieces of plastic flakes that looked almost like shell flotsam, the kind that’s always there in a receding tide. Except the flakes were all the wrong colors. Blue, bright green, pink. And such an edible size for smaller animals.

Today is World Oceans Day. The focus of this year’s awareness is plastic in oceans.

The next time you take another plastic bag for produce, or buy a plastic box of cut vegetables instead of cutting them yourself, or throw away plastic in general, think of where it might end up. Even if you live far from the sea, chances are, at least some of that plastic will end up in a waterway, and at some point, in an ocean.

 

 

Drinking From Your Neighbor’s Glass

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In honor of World Water Day, here’s an interesting riddle: There are two kinds of water sources for a town, surface and underground. In times of adequate rain, that water can be used for human activities from farming to consumption to mining and so on.

But let’s say the rain stops for a long time.

"The delicate fingerprints of water imprinted on the sand. The #StoryOfWater."  Image: Kjell Lindgren/NASA via Instagram

“The delicate fingerprints of water imprinted on the sand. The #StoryOfWater.”
Caption/Image: Kjell Lindgren/NASA via Instagram

Fortunately, the town also has an underground lake. And during the drought, the town uses the water from the underground lake. The town can pump and pump and pump water from the underground lake, but – in spite of no rainfall – the water level never seems to diminish. It’s like a magic glass that never empties.

Where is the water coming from?

The map below shows how much water would cover dry land if all hidden aquifers were suddenly above ground.

The lightest shade of blue indicates a depth of one meter or less, a depth through which most adults could easily wade. It might look like the planet is awash in potable water. But it’s not.

Darker blue would create lakes, while the darkest blue points to very deep water. Almost 95 percent of underground water is very deep water that hasn’t seen the light of day for anywhere from decades to eons, is probably saltier than the seas and could contain heavy in toxic minerals.

A map of the Earth's groundwater by University of Victoria’s Tom Gleeson, and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Calgary. Credit/Caption:

A map of the Earth’s groundwater by University of Victoria’s Tom Gleeson, and colleagues from the University of Texas at Austin, the University of Gottingen, and the University of Calgary.
Credit/Caption: Gleeson, et al/Nature Geoscience via Christian Science Monitor

 

Back to the riddle of the ever-full aquifer. In the case of Needles, California (pop. 4800), the answer would be:

From the underground seepage of the nearby Colorado River, which is counted as a separate surface water system from the aquifer beneath Needles. Also, the Colorado River is in a different state, and thus subject to different water distribution regulations than the aquifer beneath Needles.

In the past, surface water from various regions and underwater aquifers have all been counted as separate water sources.

Which is to say, the water that flows in the Colorado River has been counted as distinct from underwater resources in adjoining regions.

In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park near the Colorado River. Image: NASA

In the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park near the Colorado River.
Image: NASA

As it turns out, however, many of these water resources are interconnected. So the never-ending underground lake beneath Needles is, in fact, depleting the Colorado River.

35 percent of water used by humans comes from underground aquifers; more in times of drought. In California, those numbers are usually around 40 percent – during the drought, it’s gone up to 60 percent. All that water has to come from somewhere.

Water accountancy has long been a contentious issue, both in the American Southwest and elsewhere.

The water we see or can pump doesn’t always represent what’s really available. But laws and ownership rights have been based on accounting for water as if what we see is what we can get.

A recent study mapped levels of underground water basins around the world from 2003-2013. Satellites were able to chart changes in aquifer levels as they flew overhead because water is so heavy that it exerts a pull on orbiting spacecraft.

Groundwater storage trends for Earth's 37 largest aquifers from UCI-led study using NASA GRACE data (2003 – 2013). Of these, 21 have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, with 13 considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience. Caption/Credits: UC Irvine/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Groundwater storage trends for Earth’s 37 largest aquifers from UCI-led study using NASA GRACE data (2003 – 2013). Of these, 21 have exceeded sustainability tipping points and are being depleted, with 13 considered significantly distressed, threatening regional water security and resilience.
Caption/Credits: UC Irvine/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Results of this study show that 13 of the world’s 37 largest underground reservoirs were being emptied with no signs of replenishment.

Some of the most overstressed water supplies were in the world’s driest areas: Arabian Aquifer System, an important water source for more than 60 million people; the Indus Basin aquifer of northwestern India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin in northern Africa.

Many of these aquifiers lie directly beneath political and cultural borders that are already flashpoints of hostility.

If California is any example (and when it comes to drought and water challenges, the state is a proverbial coal mine canary), then water is interconnected in more ways than one. But Needles, at least, is only drawing water from a sister state in the same union. The same can’t be said of other places around the world.

Water sustainability doesn’t just mean a good supply of water.

It means a supply of human activity, of food, and of peace.

World Water Day.

Forest Vs. Trees

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Humankind owes its origins to forests. In return, we have been reshaping them for our own uses ever since we learned to use tools and fire.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Image: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Image: Jeffrey James

I’ve told the story before of how an Indonesian palm oil trader once explained to me, many years ago, that I needn’t worry about deforestation in Indonesia. Why? Because the indigenous forests had been mostly cleared to make way for palm oil plantations. There was nothing left to worry about any more.

I’ll say one thing for the trader: He knew the difference between a forest and just a lot of trees. One is a habitat, the other is a plantation. Besides the fact that both include life we call trees, there’s not much similarity between the two.

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture. Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

Clear Cut, an installation project by Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture.
Photo: Kjellgren Kaminsky Architecture/Flickr

I lived deep in a forest for part of my youth, on a property bordered on two sides by national park and on the other two by undeveloped forest land. The forest was mostly old growth, a rich and varied recipe of bay laurel trees, madrone and manzanita, coastal oak, and the higher one went up the ridge, Bishop pine. The undergrowth was thick and we made paths through hip-high ferns draped in spiderwebs and huckleberry bushes that stained clothing and skin purple. In the spring, small clearings that received direct sunlight would burst forth in carpets of wild iris and forget-me-not.

The forest was only in this condition, more or less untouched except for the occasional dirt road or small cabin, because of the Point Reyes National Seashore. In the 1950s, rather than open the coastal ridge to logging, the government declared it a park. When I was growing up, most of the land that had remained private was still unbuilt. It was idyllic and the experience of living there has stayed with me for life.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Carlton/Jeffrey James

California has a wealth of old growth forest, but as elsewhere, many of the original forests have been logged and replanted, clear-cut for commercial use, or obliterated in mountain-top removal mining . Like greed, deforestation and (sometimes) reforestation are a human habit. When we look out over temperate forests these days, what we usually see is a sea of dark green conifer – undemanding, quick-growing, commercially useful. Other climates see, well, palm oil plantations. Or farmland. Or oil and coal fields.

Land use choices are often offered up as decision between economic prosperity or stagnation; a forest is all that’s in the way of progress, and anyway, ersatz trees can be replanted elsewhere.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

But reforestation can’t just be a buzzword used to placate or fulfil regulatory requirements with false forests. I’ve written before on the progress of industrial reforestation – this approach only takes on real value if the re-established forests are diverse. And that diversity is exactly what most ‘tree replacement’ projects are lacking. As it turns out, we aren’t as good at recreating nature as we’d like to believe.

A recent study, limited to Europe, suggests that the conifer forests planted in Europe over the past two centuries contribute locally to warmer weather because the dark needles of conifer trees absorb sunlight more than the lighter leaves of a native mixed deciduous forest.

The old saying, you can’t see the forest for the trees, was never so true. Once you’ve known a real forest, you can’t be fooled.

Jeffrey James terrarium. Photo: Jeffrey James

Jeffrey James terrarium.
Photo: Jeffrey James

A Stone on the Ledge

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I want to talk about a couple of pieces of legislation that seem unrelated, namely new water regulations to deal with drought in California, and new Chinese laws making the purchase of illegal animals parts punishable by jail time.

But first, I’d like to talk about a large white stone that sits atop a window ledge of my neighbor’s house.

Back when we moved to this mountainside French village in the late 1990s, mail was still delivered via bicycle by a certain Madame Pils, who knew everyone and also everyone’s business.

There were no house numbers, but Mme Pils had no trouble finding mail recipients. Gone on vacation, out running errands, or otherwise unavailable for an important bit of mail? No problem. Mme Pils wrote a personal note, and the tiny village post office, knowledgeably staffed, was open for regular business hours, six days a week.

Thus had it been for decades.

Those were the good old days.

Unfortunately, Mme Pils retired many years ago, and things have never been the same.

A fleet of La Poste bicycles. Source: Wikimedia

A fleet of La Poste bicycles.
Source: Wikimedia

House numbers were mandated to keep up with the expanding population, which has tripled since we moved here.

The central post office, located a few miles away from here, is now responsible for distribution. Mail delivery employees have more territory to cover, and more mail boxes to stuff, than ever before. The faces change every few months or weeks as people try the job and then quit.

Which brings me to my neighbor, born and raised here in the village. She is not a happy customer.

For decades, her mail box has been mounted next to her front door, which is down a small walkway and hidden by a stone entryway. Her house number is visible from the street, so deliverers, who now drive small vans, find the house but not the box.

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow. Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Our little La Poste vans still look mostly like this old-fashioned one. Loud and yellow.
Source: Vieilles Voitures Villeneuvoises

Mme Pils knew where to find it, but these whippersnappers have neither the time nor the inclination to seek out her secret mail box. So they take the easy route: they dump her mail on a window ledge that faces our shared driveway. Rain or shine, windy or still, the mail lands on the ledge. Sometimes it stays there, sometimes it doesn’t.

So she put out a stone. And now the mail doesn’t blow away.

I ran into her a couple of days ago and she was outraged: One of the changing faces of La Poste  told her if she wanted her mail delivered to a box, she’d have to put the box out on the street like all the new houses and apartment buildings that carpet what was still forest and meadow when we moved here.

“Why should I have to pretend like I’m some newcomer? Where would I even put a box, out on the street? I don’t own the street!”

The mail stone. Photo: PK Read

The mail stone.
Photo: PK Read

So she refuses. She says she’s been here all her life, and La Poste should find her mail box like they used to back in the day. In the meantime, anything larger than a regular envelope just doesn’t get delivered.*

I said, why not relocate your box to the front of the house, at least? That’s not an option for her, because her box has always been where it’s been, the La Poste should do its damn job and find it.

Business as usual should mean business as usual for her and from her own decades-long perspective.

She’d rather have a stone on a ledge, lose her mail to wind and rain, or not even get it, than move her mail box.

Old ways die hard.

And so to the news items I saw today.

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California. Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

Severe drought conditions reveal more than 600 empty docks sitting on dry, cracked dirt at Folsom Lake Marina, which is one of the largest inland marinas in California.
Caption/credit: Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times

First: California is, four years into an epic drought, finally introducing mandatory limits for the water agencies that distribute water across the state. But the real black hole of water distribution, namely century-old water allocations to agriculture and industry, require more than the introduction of a few new rules.

It requires a legislative rethinking of how water is used, how farming and industry work, and deeper attitudes about abundance and genuine shortfall. The water system is built on assumptions that were probably wrong in the first place, and it’s these assumptions that are due for reexamination.

Second: China has passed new laws meant to protect trade in illegal animals and their parts by allowing for the prosecution of end consumers. Anyone ordering pangolin in a restaurant or buying ground tiger bone could, potentially, face a 10-year prison term.

Tiger bone wine. Photo: Michael Rank

Tiger bone wine.
Photo: Michael Rank

This is certainly a step towards raising awareness among the Chinese populace, currently the largest market for endangered animals, both imported and domestic.

But the new laws don’t get at the long-standing Chinese licensing system that allows for the consumption of species classified as endangered or illegal – as long as the animal in question was ‘bred in captivity’ by a licensed breeder. There are few controls of these ‘breeders’ or their stock once they receive a license, allowing for the sale of illegal stock with almost no oversight.

So, as promising as both these steps are, they amount to little more than my neighbor’s stone on the ledge.

A makeshift solution to completely changed circumstances, an approach based on habit, stubbornness and an unwillingness to alter behaviour to solve current challenges.

And like my neighbor’s damp and windblown letters and bills, until old assumptions are held up against current realities, there won’t be solutions that bring what’s valuable in from the elements.

 

 

*Our house doesn’t have the same problem because, well, the mail box is right out in the open next to our front door and under the house number. If they can find the house (not always the case, but usually), they can find the box.

Certitude and Change

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Images of this 1956 Pictorial Wildlife and Game Map of the United States have been kicking around the Internet for a while now. It caught my eye when I first saw it, but I’ve been pondering just why I find it so intriguing.

Pictorial Wildlife & Game Map of the United States (1956) Click to enlarge. Source: Shorewood Press

Pictorial Wildlife & Game Map of the United States (1956)
Click to enlarge.
Source: Shorewood Press

Sure, it’s picturesque and pretty. It harks back to a cheery era of view of land and environment that pre-dated the current changes in biodiversity. Or rather, it pre-dated the deepening knowledge and understanding of what those changes mean.

Recent biodiversity studies are showing that while the quantitative amount of species might be fairly constant in a given region, the composition and quality of those numbers are undergoing rapid alteration. More species of algae and invertebrates, for example, and fewer of birds and mammals and corals.

The 1956 map doesn’t just show a wide variety of iconic mammals and birds, it shows them in an array of overwhelming plenty. And I think this starts to get at what I find so interesting. Small or large, mighty or modest, posed as if poised for action, the entire map is packed with more animals than any one person could ever track or hunt or witness. Except that, really, it isn’t.

Fifteen animals listed as ‘big game’, most of them bears. Another fifteen animals as ‘small game’, with several squirrel and rabbit types, followed by fifteen ‘animal predators’, mostly foxes and skunks. Then a scattering of small mammals and lots of birds.

And yet, it looks like an overabundance, a certainty that bounty always has and always will exist.

And maybe at some point, it was.

This older map doesn’t concern itself with the mammals that might be found almost anywhere, at least in a related species.

Map of the Animal Kingdom, circa 1835.  Source: American Folk Art Museum via streetsofsalem

Map of the Animal Kingdom, circa 1835.
Source: American Folk Art Museum via streetsofsalem

No squirrels or pigeons here, just the big guys. Jaguars and camels, black bears and bison, the iconic creatures that might nourish us, serve us, carry us, or eat us.

Again, though, there’s the static certitude that if one were to visit a region, one would find the animals as shown.

And then there’s this new map that shows both our changing attitudes towards animals as well as towards mapping.

California Roadkill Observation System. The map can be configured to search for a number of different species, and for specific time frames. This version is a screenshot of the past 90 days. Visitors can add their own observations to the database. Source: California Roadkill Observation System

California Roadkill Observation System. The map can be configured to search for a number of different species, and for specific time frames. This version is a screenshot of the past 90 days.
Visitors can add their own observations to the database.
Source: California Roadkill Observation System

The California Roadkill Observation System is an interactive cartography project that dates back to 2009, and it charts ongoing instances of roadkill in California. Anyone can take a photo of an animal killed on California’s roads, and upload it for inclusion.

This grim diary serves several purposes. One is to show what kinds of animals are present in a given region, and to a certain extent, how abundant they are, i.e. the health of the population. For instance, the project has documented a general decline in wildlife roadkill over the course of the California drought.

UC Davis professor Fraser Shilling, who operates the database, calls it a ‘continuous wildlife sampling device.’ It can offer information on invasive species, such as the westward movement of the Eastern grey squirrel, at least where their presence intersects with motorized human mobility.

It’s not as visually arresting as the 1956 map, but it does something that older maps can’t: Show the movement and abundance of life on the ground. It carries no inherent optimism or promises, just the acknowledgement of change on the ground, and an invitation to awareness.

World Wildlife Day 2015

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Today is World Wildlife Day 2015, which this year highlights the challenges of the illegal trade in wildlife.

World Wildlife Day, on the 3rd of March, marks the day of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The global trade in wild animals and their body parts is estimated by UNEP at US$50-150 billion per year. The global illegal fisheries catch is valued at US$10-23.5 billion a year and illegal logging, including processing, at US$30-100 billion.actionposter_thumb_elephant

These numbers don’t include the costs of fighting poaching, the impact that fight has on local communities, or the indirect costs of border security – after all, 90% of all illegal animals and animal parts are shipped across international borders.

These numbers don’t include issues like the introduction of non-native species in the form of exotic pets and the havoc they can wreak on local eco-systems (not to mention the introduction of foreign pathogens).

They don’t include the cost of fighting the organized crime that is funded via illegal wildlife trade.

What can each individual do besides sign a petition, make a donation or offer support today at #SeriousAboutWildlifeCrime?

As I said in an earlier post on ivory, we can cut of the trade on the consumer end. That saltwater fishtank might be a nice conversation piece, but the fish in it were likely harvested at the cost of an entire coral reef habitat.

Find sustainable alternatives to traditional medicine that calls for endangered species like pangolin or rhino (after all, people have been substituting buffalo horn for rhino for years).

That supposedly antique ivory trinket was probably made from poached elephant tusk. If that hardwood lumber for your floors is being sold at a price too good to be true, chances are its been illegally logged. And so on.

What you buy as a consumer ripples out through the entire environment of the illegal wildlife trade.

I thought I’d repost Farewell, Forest Symphony, something I wrote a couple of years ago on the interconnectivity of one single endangered species, the elephant, on its entire ecosystem.

It’s not a short post – but what is true for this particular animal is true in other ways for all the other endangered animals and plants:

They, and we, are all part of something larger.

Sunset over the Congo rainforestPhoto: David Beaune via Mongabay.com

Sunset over the Congo rainforest
Photo: David Beaune via Mongabay.com

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.

From an interview in an article on Mongabay.com:

“[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 mongabay.com. 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.”

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core. Source: Herbwisdon

Irvingia gabonensis, the African mango, an edible fruit with nutritious nuts at their core.
Source: Herbwisdom

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.

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.

 

Inadvertent Visitors

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When I was a kid in northern California, we used to go to the ocean beaches of Marin County on the weekends. The long, sweeping scythes of Drake’s Beach and Limantour still count among my favorite ocean shorelines. Beachgoers wore swimsuits on warm days, but we could always tell the tourists from the locals because the tourists were the ones trying to swim in those suits instead of wade or sunbathe.

Locals usually considered swimming the Pacific water too cold for our tender hothouse skin, even in summer. Non-neoprened swimmers venturing into the waters for a swim were a rare sight.

Drake's Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore Photo: Richard Blair

Drake’s Bay, Point Reyes National Seashore
Photo: Richard Blair

This year, researchers and fishermen have seen even rarer sights: Several species that would normally be found far south have been observed in northern waters. An endangered green sea turtle, usually at home in the waters of southern Mexico and around the Galapagos Islands. The tiny striated sea butterfly and a Guadalupe fur seal, both of Baja California, Mexico, common dolphins, blue buoy barnacles and purple-striped jellyfish of southern California.

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory. Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

Striated Sea Butterfly (Hyalocylis striata), collected offshore from Bodega Marine Laboratory.
Photo: Eric Sanford/UC Davis

It’s an influx of inadvertent tourists, animals that would normally encounter the cold water barrier of the northern Pacific and turn around, much as I used to do on the beach when I waded in above the knee level.

According to several sources, water temperatures are 5-6 degrees Fahrenheit (2-3 °C) higher than average this year, likely due to a slackening of winds from the north that would normally keep warm waters further south. The annual winds would also normally cool and push surface waters down, causing colder water to churn up from below (‘upwelling’).

And what about the local species that like it cold? The krill, the salmon? They are scarce, as are the animals that feed on them, the whales and birds.

It’s a 30-year autumnal anomaly, which most expect to pass and with it, the strange and wondrous visitors.

Washed Up

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Knobby Sea Star Artist: Jane Kim/InkDwell

Knobby Sea Star
Artist: Jane Kim/InkDwell

Warmer water temperatures, reduced ability to fight illness, pathogens passed on from shellfish – it’s not quite clear which of these, or maybe which combination is raging through the sea star populations of the United States West Coast. But the fact is that millions of sea stars from Alaska to Mexico are wasting away, suddenly and across a number of different species.

Sea stars feed on shellfish, and are apex predators of marine coastal environments – when they suffer, the entire ecosystem is affected. Many of the sea star species affected are endemic to their small regions; they aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

It’s not the first die-off that’s been observed among sea stars, but it’s by the far the largest in terms of geographical area and number of species affected. If the juvenile sea stars can manage to develop immunity to the current illness that is wiping out the adults, the populations will have a chance of eventual recovery. Researchers and citizen scientists up and down the coast observe, record and try to figure out the exact causes of what’s been labelled the sea star wasting syndrome.

The disease forms lesions on the sea star, which eventually cause the limbs to dissolve. Sea star Pisaster ochraceus, the most commonly affected species, is pictured.  Photo : University of California, Santa Cruz, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

The disease forms lesions on the sea star, which eventually cause the limbs to dissolve.
Sea star Pisaster ochraceus, the most commonly affected species, is pictured.
Photo : University of California, Santa Cruz, Dept. of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

When I was a kid, we had a salt water aquarium that included a couple of starfish, now more commonly known as sea stars. But we could never get it quite right, and the poor creatures kept making extremely ill-conceived attempts to escape by climbing out of the tank at night. All we could do was pick up their desiccated forms in the morning. We gave up when the seahorses started hurling themselves on to the carpet. We never did quite figure out exactly what we were doing wrong.

As for the Pacific coast, my hope is that the future holds more promise than an increase in the kind of science taking place around sea stars right now – the monitoring and understanding of an extinction in progress.