Legacy Dilemmas

What do we do when times change and the heirlooms that were once prized have fallen, not just out of fashion, but out of legality? In the wake of more and more countries banning the trade in ivory, what is the burden of family legacy?

We were cleaning out the attic of our house the other day, and we came upon a hand-embroidered red cloth bundle. It was among several items inherited from my husband’s grandmother, who passed away a while ago at the age of 105. Born in 1898, she left behind a house full of family treasures.

Somehow, this bundle had escaped our notice when we unpacked the boxes. We unwrapped the thick felt cloth, and found a set of knives with ivory handles. An ornate ivory-handled cake server was in another cloth. A further cloth bundle held a set of ebony-handled knives.

Ivory handled knife set banned

An inherited set of vintage ivory handled knives and cake server.
Photo: PKR

The pieces are all beautifully wrought and look like they are probably from the early part of the 20th century. The ivory and ebony are both smooth, light, and warm once held for a moment.

They also come from species we have exploited into endangered status. The trade in ivory and ivory products was recently banned in the United Kingdom and in China. This includes ivory that has been considered ‘legal’ for sale – which means it was harvested (a rather benign word) prior to 1976, when trade came under the restrictions of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Meanwhile, the European Union considers taking similar steps.

Legal loopholes allow trade to continue – the total bans in the UK and China are a first step in shutting down any avenue for the sale of new ivory (i.e. taken from illegally poached elephants) under the guise of antique ivory, like the tableware we inherited, but the United States has started to roll back recent restrictions to allow more trade in endangered animal parts, including ivory. As one of the world’s main ivory markets, it matters.

Similar restrictions apply to the ebony knives, which is less controlled than ivory – maybe because many of the Diospyros genus of trees are less well-known than elephants.

I hold the ivory handles and think of the elephants I saw in South Africa – young ones defying our Jeep in youthful bravado, older ones munching tree branches while watchfully eyeing our passage. They are all potential victims of poachers looking to sell their tusks to make unnecessary objects like these knives.

I mean…of course the knives are beautiful to look at and to hold. They come from amazing materials taken from amazing and unique species. When they were manufactured and purchased, no one thought twice about owning luxury items from animals and trees that were still in abundance.

I can’t imagine putting them out on the table and using them to eat. It’s a modern dilemma to consider what should be done with the family legacies of exploitation in the form of flatware and trinkets. Do we pass them along to other family members? Do we destroy them? I don’t know.

For now, they will stay in their old red bundle and remain an action that still has to be taken.



Pieces in the Mosaic

Over the past few decades, we’ve grown used to campaigns imploring us to save one animal or another. Usually the photogenic or impressive species. Save The Whale, Save The Panda, and so on. Shortly after the United States’ Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973, a case came along about a modest creature, the Tennessee snail darter. In keeping with its unprepossessing name, this innocuous little member of the perch family became famous for getting in the way of a construction project, the Tellico Dam.

The snail darter wasn’t considered glorious enough, in and of itself, to be a contender for ‘Save The’ status. And if the Endangered Species Act had been passed unanimously in the Senate and 390-12 in the House of Representatives, the snail darter showed the limits of congressional commitment. There were those who correctly saw that the movement to save the snail darter was not a campaign for a single species, but for an ecosystem at the expense of an infrastructure project.

Fish, Roman mosaic.

Republican Howard Baker of Tennessee argued at the time that “the snail darter has become an unfortunate example of environmental extremism, and this kind of extremism, if rewarded and allowed to persist, will spell the doom to the environmental protection movement in this country more surely and more quickly than anything else. (…)we who voted for the Endangered Species Act with the honest intentions of protecting such glories of nature as the wolf, the eagle, and other treasures have found that extremists with wholly different motives are using this noble act for meanly obstructive ends.”

This type of hierarchical perspective – the attitude that some animals are more noble, more glorious, prettier and thus more worthy of protection than others because we are impressed by them in some way – is one of those markers of humanity that trips us up time and time again. It’s typically human to not see the forest for all the trees.

It’s hard to imagine in this automated age, but let’s try to picture the mosaic of a human city as an ecosystem brimming with different species. Let’s insert activities and services in that world in the place of species, which often perform ‘services’ in their ecosystems.

St. Stephen mosaic, Askalon.
Source: Kingdom of Jordan

And at some point, some of the smaller activities start to disappear. Flower shops, say, or soap manufacturers, winemakers. Not disastrous, but not ideal. We miss the soap quite a bit, and the wine, and we give up decorative bouquets.

And then maybe a few bigger activities. Gas stations. Grocery infrastructure. Clothes shops. Coffee growers. We can still function and adapt, but life isn’t what it was. And then maybe a few big ones. Banks, grain growers, water infrastructure maintenance, cell phone towers. Electricity generators.

If we acknowledge that our society needs most of its parts to fully function, why should it be any different for the individual species of a given ecosystem?

The Lod mosaic.
Source: Espoarte

It’s been decades since various laws, treaties, and organizations were formed around the world to protect the environment, from the IUCN (The World Conservation Union) to CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), and yet for the general public, species preservation is still by and large perceived as a one-off undertaking.

We are only beginning to understand the role that species play in the mosaics of their ecosystems, even as they are going extinct at the greatest rate since the Cretaceous era 66 million years ago. Meanwhile, as we insist that our human ecosystem is has more value, we are losing up to 140,000 species every year.

We imagine societal dystopias all the time in books, movies and games. We don’t even know what the ecosystem we call home will look like as we move further through the Anthropocene extinction event currently underway.

So do your bit. Support endangered species movements and campaigns. Saving a species, even something as ‘lowly’ as a snail darter, means a lot more than just saving a pretty face.

I wrote this for International Endangered Species Day – but it’s equally relevant for International Day for Biodiversity. Obviously.

And if you think that’s too many days to think about biodiversity, conservation, endangered species and extinction, my response would be: it’s 363 short of how many days these issues are of relevance to each and every one of us.


*Note: The snail darter is now considered ‘vulnerable’ after a few more small populations were found elsewhere in Tennessee. The economic impact of the Tellico Dam has not been assessed.

Certitude and Change

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

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

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.


Seeing Through Tortoiseshell Glasses


Trade in tortoiseshell – or more properly, sea turtle shell – was banned in 1977 under the conservation treaty known as CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora. Beloved for thousands of years as a natural thermoplastic for everything from hair combs to furniture inlay, turtle shell in its endless varieties is beautiful, versatile, and feels warm and smooth against the skin.

I found a 2010 news item on a specialty manufacturer of tortoiseshell eyeglasses. The article claims that the fourth-generation shop uses only legal turtle shell. The current web site itself makes no such claim, even if the company is likely very careful to use legal shells. A pair of custom-made eyeglasses, handmade from turtle shell, can cost up to USD 39,000.*

Unfortunately, the sea turtles of the world don’t reproduce quickly enough and in enough numbers to keep up with the ongoing demand for their shells. Their numbers are also diminished by the usual suspects when it comes to marine life threats: habitat loss, fishing and pollution. Six of the seven sea turtle species are endangered and protected under international agreements.

Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767) Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde

Five kinds of tortoise shell (1767)
Source: Leitner/Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin, Museum für Naturkunde

When the trade ban began in 1977, there were hundreds of metric tons of turtle shell already harvested and stockpiled for further manufacture and sale. Creating artefacts from real turtle shell requires a high degree of artisanal skill. Much like the stockpiles of banned ivory, the turtle shell stocks continue to be used for manufacture and sale, usually with the caveat that the shell in question is from turtles that were harvested ‘pre-ban’.

There are countless good alternatives to using turtle shell, from horn to various plastics. Meanwhile, illegal harvesting and trade continues because the demand remains.

Like any number of other animal parts increasingly valued as the animals themselves go extinct, as long as tortoiseshell is a product highly prized for exclusivity, there will be someone supplying that demand. Vintage tortoiseshell eyeglass frames can be found online, usually starting at well over USD 1000 for a pair.

Seeing the world through genuine tortoiseshell glasses, for those who desire them and wear them, strikes me as a variation on the old idiom of seeing the world through rose-colored glasses. Ever the optimist, the wearer sees a world with him or herself at the happy center,  where modern considerations take a backseat to outdated tradition; a place in which the fulfillment of their desires is tantamount and entirely worth endangering some of the most ancient creatures on the planet.

It’s World Turtle Day.

Here’s a good, concise post on turtles around the world, and here’s a look at turtle shell trade from the Sea Turtle Conservancy.

*It’s only fair to note that the eyeglass company states that it donates 1-2% of its profits to turtle conservation projects.

Source: WWF

Source: WWF


The Full Cloth


Origami elephant
Photo: Philipp Schmidli / Sipho Mabona

On World Wildlife Day, March 3, Nepal achieved a rare feat: an entire year without wildlife poaching. In the three years since 2011, the country lost a single rhino to poaching. Populations of rhinos, tigers and elephants are on the rise.

Compare this to other nations, where these animals are disappearing fast. South Africa has seen 146 rhinos already killed in 2014, over 1000 in 2013.

So, what is Nepal doing right?

Many things, apparently, because no single solution works. First, the country has a zero-tolerance approach to poachers. Get caught, go straight to jail for up to fifteen years. And there’s no long court process involved – Nepal’s forest law allows chief game wardens to pass judgement and punishment, lessening the likelihood of escape or a long, fruitless court trial.

The country also places a high priority on seeking out and capturing ring leaders. Various agencies work collaboratively to share information and find dealers and enforce anti-trafficking laws.

Tourists prepare to ride an elephant during a wildlife safari in Chitwan National Park. Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Tourists prepare to ride an elephant during a wildlife safari in Chitwan National Park.
Photo: Gemunu Amarasinghe / AP

Crucially, in the promotion of ecotourism, the Nepalese government not only supports programs that provide employment, it also redistributes the revenues from parks and tourism – licence fees, park entrance fees, and so on – among local communities. Half of all tourism revenues are handed back to the locals, making the animals more valuable alive rather than dead.

This achievement is all the more impressive due to Nepal’s location between China and India, two of the main regions for trafficked animal parts.

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

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

Artist Sipho Mabona created an entire life-sized origami elephant out of a single piece of paper, a long project that required over a year of planning, a month of construction and many hands.

Mabona‘s elephant is a good symbol of Nepal’s achievement. This creation is no piece of easy patchwork.

Anti-poaching success is something that results from a whole cloth approach and many hands. It’s impressive, it’s inspiring, and at the same time, it’s fragile.

Time lapse film of the elephant’s construction.

The Mirror Test – International World Wildlife Day

Numerous studies on various animals have surprised and delighted human observers by demonstrating that some animals are much more intelligent and self-aware than previously thought.

If over the centuries or millennia we humans were able to persuade ourselves that we were alone in being self-aware, intelligent and moral, those haughty self-assessments have given way to a reluctant acknowledgement: While other creatures on the planet may not be quite as dizzyingly verbal, deft or introspective as we consider ourselves, they nonetheless meet the criteria for being sentient.

Path of Life Artist: MC Escher

Path of Life
Artist: MC Escher

A recent study furthered this realization with examples of just how very smart elephants are, and even plants have a kind of sentience that is just starting to reveal itself. We are all a part of the same fabric.

One study after another has shown that the very animals we have hunted almost into extinction, whom we are loathe to offer the same respect we would offer a house pet, are among the most empathetic creatures alive, our close cousins in feeling. Elephants, chimpanzees, orangutans, bottlenose dolphins, magpies – all of them pass the so-called Mirror Test.

Source: Flickr

Source: Flickr

The Mirror Test is a means of evaluating whether an animal is able to recognize itself in a mirror, and is used to indicate whether a non-human animals possesses self-awareness.

This very first International World Wildlife Day (WWD), proclaimed by United Nations General Assembly to mark the March 3 anniversary of the adoption of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), is meant to raise awareness of endangered species around the world.

I’d like to call attention to the literal awareness of our fellow creatures. The sentience of animals, whether we understand it or not, is as important and mysterious as our own. Do we pass the real Mirror Test – that we can mirror the life we value for ourselves in how we treat our fellow creatures?wwd_e#WWD

Placing Value

There’s a well-known old American film called It’s A Wonderful Life. It stars Jimmy Stewart as George Bailey, a good and generous businessman who finds himself in deep financial trouble. A banker, the infamous cinematic villian named Mr. Potter, reminds a desperate George Bailey that as a last resort, Bailey has a life insurance policy. “You’re worth more dead than alive,” scoffs Mr. Potter, for whom the value of life can only be measured in its monetary amount.

And so to the Cape Pangolin.

Baby pangolin Photo: Christian Boix

Baby pangolin
Photo: Christian Boix

The young pangolin above is one of the first Cape Pangolins ever born in captivity. It is the result of the conservation efforts of the Rare & Endangered Species Trust (REST) in Namibia. An adult pangolin had been bought by someone from a street vendor, and then turned over to the REST group. The adult was a pregnant female who gave birth at the REST facilities.

In terms of monetary value, this pinecone-scaled creature is in the negative area. It cost the person who rescued it from the street vendor an unknown amount, and is costing donation money and time with the REST team.

On the other hand, if this little pangolin were to enter the international illegal trade cycle by getting captured and shipped off to China, it would be worth a lot more, at least by the measurements we use to talk about ‘value’ . The most recent estimate I could find was $1000/kilo of fresh pangolin meat, with prices rising as the pangolin populations dwindle and disappear.

Pangolin soup Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin soup

Now, if that little pangolin were to make it alive to a certain kind of restaurant in Vietnam or China, catch the eye of a certain kind of consumer and get chosen to end up in a bowl of soup, it would be a very valuable pangolin indeed, if we are only using money as our measure. This bowl of pangolin soup could cost up to $700.

If the restaurant owner were to harvest and sell the scales – and at these prices, it would be a foolish owner who didn’t – the pangolin might be worth another $175/kilo of scales.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale

We don’t have a measurement for what a pangolin is worth in its natural environment, or what it’s worth to its natural environment.

For example, the loss of elephants to some forests is worth most of the large trees because the elephants aren’t there to carry and distribute large seed pods. And the loss of the large trees has a knock-on effect of loss in habitat, biodiversity, and habitat survival. But until that habitat has something humans value – by which I mean something we can monetize – then none of that tends to mean much.

For the time being, however, this young pangolin has landed in one of the few places of humans don’t value the (utterly fabricated) medicinal qualities of its meat and scales, or the sad boasting rights of being able to afford a nearly extinct animal on one’s plate.

But unless it stays under the protective wing of its rescuers, this pangolin will continue to be worth more dead than alive.

Project Pangolin

Unforeseen Gatherings


Sea ice located along the shallow continental shelf of the Bering Sea usually provides a diving board, a hunting perch and resting place for female walrus and their young. With sea ice retreating into water too deep for hunting, the walrus have had to find safer shores.

Around 10,000 of them have gathered on a small barrier island near the village of Point Lay in northwestern Alaska. They were photographed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which has been carrying out aerial surveys of marine mammals in areas of potential gas and oil development.

It’s not the first time the walrus have gathered on dry land to escape treacherous waters. While there, they remain more vulnerable to hunters, polar bears, and other stress factors that have, in the past, prompted deadly stampedes.

What looks like a termite mound here is actually a massive walrus pod. This clickable image can be enlarged.

Walrus gathering on Alaskan coastline Image: Stan Churches/NOAA

Here’s a quick update on a couple of topics I’ve followed over the past year:


I’ve written several times about the ongoing discussion surrounding the American eel. More specifically, the harvesting of young eel – elvers – during their spring run along the American East Coast in spring.

Prices for live elvers have skyrocketed over the past few years due to high demand in Asia, where the local populations have been decimated by overfishing, environmental pressures and natural disasters. The young eel are shipped to farms, where they are grown to adulthood and sold for consumption all over the world.

In light of how little is actually known about the current population and health of the eel population, there was talk earlier this year of tightening regulations when it comes to fishing elvers. This has, for the moment, been postponed until further notice. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s American eel management board has been unable to reach a consensus, likely pushing any decision until right before the 2014 season starts in early spring.

My overview of the American eel is here, with some of the other posts here and here.

A good discussion of the current fraught situation is here.

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org

Via: glooskapandthefrog.org


One of the more obscure objects of international animal smuggling is the odd pangolin, the scaled anteater which inhabits its very own lonely branch on the mammalian tree of life. I’ve talked about them here, when I looked at seizures of illegal shipments.

Pangolins are in demand because their scales (which are no different in composition than fingernails or hair) are used in some traditional medicines, while pangolin meat and fetuses are served as a delicacy in some East Asian cuisines. The pangolin is protected under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The pangolin is considered to be one of the world’s most trafficked animals, yet I find very little on conviction rates following seizures.

Six men were convicted in Malaysia this year of smuggling 150 pangolins, sentenced to a year and jail and fined. Meanwhile, over seven tons of pangolin – some of them still alive – were confiscated by customs officials in Hai Phong, Vietnam. And in a baffling decision, the seized goods were auctioned off rather than destroyed, thus re-entering the illicit market.

No mention of what happened to the smugglers themselves.

The world’s first ever pangolin conference with the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Species Survival Commission (IUCN-SSC) Pangolin Specialist Group met in Singapore in July. Perhaps this will bring more attention this unique creature, hopefully before it is trafficked into extinction.

Infographic: Annamiticus