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.



Making Choices

I was doing some early morning grocery shopping this morning, and I was buying avocados. Above the avocado bin were two types of produce bags: a roll of the thin plastic bags, and a stack of bags made of recycled paper.

This might seem like a tangential story to begin a post about World Pangolin Day with, but bear with me for just a moment.WorldPangolinDay2016-640x729


If you read this blog, you know which one I took. And I only took a paper sack because I’d forgotten to bring along the ones we save for re-use.

A man next to me reached past me and grabbed the end of the plastic roll. He pulled, and fought to separate the bag from the roll.

While I was being very picky about choosing avocados with just the right level of ripeness (we Californians are avocado snobs), he went about trying to get the bag open.

As he struggled, he glanced at me, watching me squeeze all the good avocados before he could even open his produce bag.

In a fit of unsolicited do-gooderism, I used that moment to say not only were paper bags easier, but they didn’t take months or decades or centuries to decompose (depending on the kind of plastic). It’s such a small choice to make in the produce aisle, with such a long-term impact.

Of course he went with the plastic bag. But maybe next time he won’t.

Which brings me to the pangolin, also known as the scaly anteater.

Pangolin in defensive position. Source: Project Pangolin

Pangolin in defensive position.
Source: Project Pangolin

Every year, I mark World Pangolin Day, the third Saturday of February. I’ve written on their natural history, why they are unusual, that they are the most trafficked endangered mammal in the world, and that the medicinal uses for their scales are of little more value than eating one’s own fingernails or hair.

I even invented a cocktail called the Happy Pangolin.

In the end, it comes down to making choices.

Pangolin scales for sale Photo: TRAFFIC

Pangolin scales for sale

Legislative choices that are the underpinning for the protection of any endangered species; personal choices that cut the demand that drives the market for poached animals.

A new smartphone application, Wildlife Witness, allows tourists and locals alike to safely report wildlife crime that involves pangolins and other endangered animals, from trafficking to restaurant sales.

The good news is, choices are being made that could help the pangolin survive, provided those choices are implemented quickly enough.

The choices we make every day add up. Let’s keep making them.

A Little Goose Chase

We visited the county of Derbyshire, UK, a few weeks ago, travelling through an area that I suppose in the United States would be considered a fly-over zone. That is, most people from the more popular regions would fly over this region rather than pick it as a destination.

We were there with friends, one of whom had studied at the University of Sheffield. And not only were we lucky when it came to walking between raindrops, but these knowledgeable friends had booked us into the disarmingly attractive Devonshire Arms hotel in Beeley.

The mystery bronze. Photo: PK Read

The mystery bronze.
Photo: PK Read

It was in the pub of this 18th century inn that I found the bronze object above, perched on a stone ledge. The manager told me it had been given to the inn some decades earlier by Chatsworth House, and had been on the stone ledge since anyone could remember.

For me, it was clear what it was intended to represent, and also, what it actually represented.

Not far from Beeley is the Chatsworth House estate of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. If you’ve ever seen the 2008 movie The Duchess, you’ve seen some of this incredible place. A vast collection of artwork, magnificent gardens, and a telephone recording that features the current Duke politely requesting your patience until the next operator is available.

The crest of the Cavendish family, that is to say of the Duke of Devonshire, is a snake. And this motif can be seen throughout Chatsworth House. The same crest is a recurring image at the Devonshire Arms.

The Cavendish family serpent crest. Source: Britain Express

The Cavendish family serpent crest.
Source: Britain Express

So it follows that the entwined, scaled bronze from the pub was taken to be a snake.

But I don’t think that’s what it is.

So I called the Collection department at Chatsworth House, described the bronze and its location, and a very friendly person told me that the object was listed as a “Bronze of the British Modern school, 20th century, snake.” But the Chatsworth collection files had no image of the bronze itself. Nor did they have listings whatsoever of any pangolins in their collection, which they checked once I explained what a pangolin is.

I told her that I didn’t think the bronze was of a snake. I am pretty sure the object is meant to be a curled pangolin.

The thick tail, the triangular scales, the large body in relation to the tail, all looks very pangolin-ish. Unfortunately, the sculpture is lacking an identifying head or any feet – turned on its back, there is a second tail curled to the middle. So, really, the bronze is of the tail ends of two pangolins.

I plugged the photo of the bronze which I had taken into Google Image search. Here are a few of my results:

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France. Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Illustration of the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), under construction in southern France.
Source: Technology Update/YouTube

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment. Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Monster, a pet desert tortoise rescued from abandonment.
Source: San Diego Zoo Desert Tortoise Conservation Center

Ariens snowblower tires and rims. Source: Ebay

Ariens snowblower tires and rims.
Source: Ebay

There are many interesting and rather random images, but neither pangolin nor snake appeared. I can’t be entirely sure, at this point, whether the pub bronze is a snake or a pangolin.

Here’s a more modern bronze of a pangolin.

Bronze pangolin sculpture. Artist: Nick Mackman

Bronze pangolin sculpture.
Artist: Nick Mackman

And here’s an actual pangolin curled into defensive position.

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis) Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Tree pangolin (Manis tricuspis)
Photo: PALF Project for the Application of Law for Fauna Republic of Congo

Why do I care?

Simple: I’m intrigued by these odd, rapidly disappearing mammals, and when I see what looks like a representation of one in an unexpected location, it piques my curiosity.

Like the various photos that came up when I searched for the bronze, we can see any number of things when we look at a certain image, depending on our perspective.

Be that as it may: Pangolins are one of the strangest mammals on the planet, they are the only scaled mammals, and they are being poached into extinction before most people will have ever heard of them.

Perhaps as important, I deeply enjoy the occasional wild goose chase. Or in this case, pangolin chase.

Pangolin Source: Our Beautiful World

Source: Our Beautiful World



A Stone on the Ledge

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.

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.


Tipping the Scales

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

Serious Buffoonery

A gathering of orangutans is called a buffoonery. A buffoonery of orangutans implies some very high amusement, and indeed, I imagine if enough of the ginger apes were to get together, hilarity and hijinks might ensue.

But as most people know by now, orangutans don’t have much to laugh about. Between deforestation and the illegal animal trade, it’s all been looking a bit grim for the old man of the forest.

A buffoonery of orangutans Artist: Kim Rebecca

A buffoonery of orangutans
Artist: Kim Rebecca

Many years ago, I spent some time working in the biofuels sector, and palm oil was gaining market shares over other types of biodiesel.

Palm oil has some advantages in that palm oil trees can be grown and harvested year round and the yield per acre is better than many other oil crops, including soybeans and rapeseed.

But even back then, we all knew that palm oil had some very serious drawbacks. Besides a couple of technical disadvantages (for example, palm oil biodiesel isn’t as resistant to cold weather as other biodiesel oils, and it has to be transported over rather large distances from plantation to end user), there is one key problem with palm oil: The best growing climates for palm oil plantations are sometimes shared by rainforests. Which means that palm oil production is often based on mass deforestation.

I remember asking an oil trader from Indonesia, a fellow who was proposing some major trade with my company, about this small hiccup in what was supposed to be a renewable, eco-friendly fuel production. What role did safeguarding habitat, for orangutans and countless other creatures and plants, play in sustainable palm oil production?

His response? He laughed and told me that the majority of the Indonesian rainforest had been chopped down and converted to plantations already, so I didn’t need to worry about it anymore. The damage had been done, it was time to make some lemonade out of the environmental lemons we had on hand. As for the animal and plant life? Maybe they’d live in the new plantations, if they didn’t hinder the farming.

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

Palm oil plantation, Indonesia
Photo: Cempaka/Reuters

The company I worked for at the time decided we didn’t need to deal in palm oil at all. It’s nice to take a stand, but in any case, palm oil isn’t just being used for biodiesel fuel. Its uses are many and like the little lies told for social convenience, palm oil can be found almost everywhere.

The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an organization founded in 2004, around the same time I had that disconcerting conversation, undertook an initiative to decouple palm oil production from deforestation. And while the Indonesian trader may have thought he was selling me on palm oil futures, it turns out he was only partially correct. Not all rainforests had been eradicated, and orangutans aren’t really tolerated on plantations.

The RSPO has had some real success lately in achieving the goal of getting companies to agree to use only sustainably produced palm oil that does not result from deforestation. And this, in turn, is good for wildlife and rainforests alike.

Indonesian palm oil crop Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

Indonesian palm oil crop
Source: EUObserver/Friends of the Earth

I suppose a fatalistic approach to matters as they stand might be a comfort to some. After all, if all is lost, why worry about losing any more? Make hay while the sun shines.

A buffoonery of a different sort.

I’m glad organizations like the RSPO, the companies that have decided to join the initiative, and the many wildlife conservation groups in these areas don’t have the same fatalistic sense of humor as my ex-conversation partner.

For an on-the-ground look at deforestation in progress, here’s a good documentary on the complexities of the issues in Papua New Guinea, On Our Land.

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.