Dept. Of Small Steps (And Mercies): China May Ban Dog Meat Consumption

Yes, I think we can agree this is very uncivilized. (Photo: Whoisgalt)

Won’t do much for wildlife and farmed animals, but it’s always a plus when any species gets a reprieve:

The Chinese government has signalled an end to the human consumption of dogs, with the agriculture ministry today releasing a draft policy that would forbid canine meat.

Citing the “progress of human civilisation” as well as growing public concern over animal welfare and prevention of disease transmission from animals to humans, China’s Ministry of Agricultural and Rural Affairs singled out canines as forbidden in a draft “white list” of animals allowed to be raised for meat.

The ministry called dogs a “special companion animal” and one not internationally recognised as livestock.

Of course, if eating dogs is uncivilized, then eating cows, pigs, sheep, and all other sentient farmed animals is equally uncivilized. What the progress (and protection) of civilization truly requires is a massive and rapid shift to plant-based diets. But that is for another day…

Climate And Revolution (“Put down that donut!” Edition)

Elizabeth Kolbert adds more perspective to the gap between policy and reality, with a look at the recent US-China emission agreement:

President Obama deserves a great deal of credit for the agreement, as does Secretary of State John Kerry, who conducted the behind-the-scenes negotiations. But, as many commentators have also noted, the deal doesn’t get the U.S. or China remotely near where they need to be if the world is to avoid disaster—which both countries, along with pretty much every other state in the world, have defined as warming of more than two degrees Celsius. Chris Hope, a policy researcher at Cambridge University, ran the terms of the agreement through what’s known as an “integrated assessment model.” He also included in his analysis a recent commitment by the European Union to cut its emissions by forty per cent before 2030. He found that even if all of the pledges made so far are fulfilled, there will be “less than a 1% chance of keeping the rise in global mean temperatures” below two degrees Celsius: “Most likely the rise will be about 3.8° C.”

On top of this rather nasty problem, there’s the issue of actually fulfilling the pledges. The Administration claims that reducing emissions by twenty-eight per cent over the next eleven years is “achievable under existing law.” This is a little like someone who’s trying to lose weight saying that his goal is “achievable” on a diet of doughnuts: it may be true in theory, but it’s extremely unlikely.

Well, Americans do love fad diets, though it is true that not many of them work, and some of them are dangerous. The real solution is to put a stiff tax on donuts, I mean carbon. The politics of doing that are of beyond comprehension at the moment. Still, understanding that pricing carbon is the single most important and indispensable policy step required to fight climate change would be a good first step.

US And China Pledge To Cut Carbon Emissions

Emphasis on the word “pledge.”

First, the news. The US and China, following secret negotiations, have jointly pledged to accelerate carbon emission cuts:

A climate deal between China and the United States, the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 carbon polluters, is viewed as essential to concluding a new global accord. Unless Beijing and Washington can resolve their differences, climate experts say, few other countries will agree to mandatory cuts in emissions, and any meaningful worldwide pact will be likely to founder.

“The United States and China have often been seen as antagonists,” said a senior official, speaking in advance of Mr. Obama’s remarks. “We hope that this announcement can usher in a new day in which China and the U.S. can act much more as partners.”

As part of the agreement, Mr. Obama announced that the United States would emit 26 percent to 28 percent less carbon in 2025 than it did in 2005. That is double the pace of reduction it targeted for the period from 2005 to 2020.

China’s pledge to reach peak carbon emissions by 2030, if not sooner, is even more remarkable. To reach that goal, Mr. Xi pledged that so-called clean energy sources, like solar power and windmills, would account for 20 percent of China’s total energy production by 2030.

New, and more ambitious targets, are of course necessary and welcome (more detail here). But China, with its authoritarian political structure, has a far greater probability of actually meeting these targets than the polarized, climate-denying, sacrifice-averse, American political system. At least for the near term, President Obama will have to wrestle with a Republican majority in Congress that is both nihilistic and dishonest in its attempts to suck political gain from its insistence that climate change isn’t a problem.

Here’s just one recent example of what the White House (and the planet) is dealing with:

In September, John P. Holdren, the head of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, was testifying to a Congressional committee about climate change. Representative Steve Stockman, a Republican from Texas, recounted a visit he had made to NASA, where he asked what had ended the ice age:

“And the lead scientist at NASA said this — he said that what ended the ice age was global wobbling. That’s what I was told. This is a lead scientist down in Maryland; you’re welcome to go down there and ask him the same thing.

“So, and my second question, which I thought it was an intuitive question that should be followed up — is the wobbling of the earth included in any of your modelings? And the answer was no…

“How can you take an element which you give the credit for the collapse of global freezing and into global warming but leave it out of your models?”

That “lead scientist at NASA” was me. In July, Mr. Stockman spent a couple of hours at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center listening to presentations about earth science and climate change. The subject of ice ages came up. Mr. Stockman asked, “How can your models predict the climate when no one can tell me what causes the ice ages?”

I responded that, actually, the science community understood very well what takes the earth into and out of ice ages. A Serbian mathematician, Milutin Milankovitch, worked out the theory during the early years of the 20th century. He calculated by hand that variations in the earth’s tilt and the shape of its orbit around the sun start and end ice ages. I said that you could think of ice ages as resulting from wobbles in the earth’s tilt and orbit.

The time scales involved are on the order of tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. I explained that this science has been well tested against the fossil record and is broadly accepted. I added that we don’t normally include these factors in 100-year climate projections because the effects are too tiny to be important on such a short time-scale.

And that, I thought, was that.

No, that is never that when it comes to honestly confronting the implications of reducing carbon emissions. And I have no doubt that Republicans will do just about everything they can to eviscerate both the President and his climate pledge. But at least the battle is slowly being joined. And climate needs to be central to the 2016 elections, and every election after that until real progress is made.

More About Russian Orca Captures With Erich Hoyt

Late last week I published an article at Outside Online about recent Russian wild orca captures. In the past year, 8 wild orcas have been captured, potentially presaging a new orca gold rush as marine park development continues in Asia. The article was based on information from author and Whale And Dolphin Conservation Research Fellow Erich Hoyt. Hoyt is co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP), which has been studying wild orcas off the Kamchatka peninsula for more than a decade, and has been an important source of news on both wild beluga captures AND (now) wild orca captures.

If you are interested in following Erich’s work, his blog can be found here. The Russian Orca Facebook page can be found here. And if you want to read the first great book about killer whales, I highly recommend Erich’s Orca: The Whale Called Killer (newly released as an e-book).

Erich told me more about the history of Russia’s killer whales and what has been happening with regard to wild captures than I could get into the Outside article (which is doing its best to break Outside Online’s social media sharing record, with more than 4000 Facebook shares so far). So, with his permission, I am publishing the full Q&A I did with him here:

TZ: How long have you been studying the Russia orca populations, and what do we know about them in terms of numbers and types?

Erich Hoyt: I started studying killer whales off northern Vancouver Island in 1973 and spent 10 summers with Northwest Coast orcas, as told in my book Orca: The Whale Called Killer. We were always curious about what might be going on the other side of the Pacific, off Russia. We had also heard that a Japanese aquarium wanted to capture Russian orcas and we hoped we could influence that and maybe stop it. In 1999, I started the Far East Russia Orca Project (FEROP) with a Russian scientist Alexander Burdin and a Japanese researcher Hal Sato. The goal was to engage Russian students and to build an all Russian team that could do the long-term studies needed. From the start, the goals were both science and conservation — we were sponsored by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), and the Humane Society International, and soon joined by Animal Welfare Institute and others. We have found two main ecotypes of killer whales: fish-eating (resident-type) and mammal-eating (transient-type) orcas, equivalent in size of pods, physical features and habits to those orcas living off the Northwest Coast of North America. Russian orcas have similar dialect systems, too. Most of our work has been with the fish-eating residents. Using photo-ID we have identified more than 500 killer whales off Kamchatka and about 800 around the Commander Islands.

TZ: What do you think prompted the onset of wild captures in the Sea Of Okhotsk?

Erich Hoyt: Russian captors have been trying to capture orcas for at least 15 years. They finally managed to surround multiple pods off southeast Kamchatka in 2003 including many orcas that we knew well from our studies, only a few days after we had left the field. They may well have waited for us to leave. One young female died in the nets, and another female was hoisted on board and died 13 days after being shipped across Russia to a Black Sea aquarium. Our whole FEROP team was really upset. After that, the captors made a number of failed attempts, but our team managed to get zero quotas for Eastern Kamchatka for the first time, effectively making any captures much more difficult on the Eastern Kamchatka side. Quotas of from 6 to 10 orcas were still issued every year for the Sea of Okhotsk, West of Kamchatka, but logistics there made captures more difficult. A few years ago, however, the Utrish Dolphinarium, the same one that made the previous orca captures off eastern Kamchatka, managed to catch one orca in the Sea of Okhotsk but she later escaped. Then, last year, another group of Russian captors caught a young female orca and brought her into captivity near Vladivostok. She is the one who is being called Narnia and she is still awaiting her captivity assignment. That capture gave the captors confidence that they could do this and — we suppose fueled by international demand that they are no doubt aware of due to beluga sales — they captured 7 orcas in 2 different capture operations in the Sea of Okhotsk from August to October this year.

TZ: What do we know about the outfits engaged in the wild captures? Are they also involved in the wild beluga captures?

Erich Hoyt: Yes, for these 7 orcas this year and the one last year, it’s one company doing the orca captures and they have also done beluga captures for some years. They have been identified publicly as “White Sphere”. This is a group of companies, in fact, with White Sphere building dolphinariums in Russia, White Whale capturing animals in the wild, and Aquatoriya operating dolphinariums. The Sochinskiy Delfinariy is a subsidiary of Aquatoriya, identified as the captor and owner of Narnia.

TZ: What methods are they using to make these wild captures? Why are the orcas trucked so far instead of being held on site?

Erich Hoyt: The whales are surrounded by a net in a shallow place close to shore, usually whole pods or even several pods, but we don’t know the precise details in this case. After being contained, the whales to be captured are picked out one at a time and dragged by the tail to the shore and transported from the enclosure — the same as they catch belugas. Young females are highly sought after but some males are of course required too. They move the whales quickly because there is no place to keep them onsite and they are no doubt afraid of sea conditions, so they must transport the orcas to the nearest port. We know from our research that the logistics for doing anything in Russia are difficult and expensive.

TZ: I’ve seen reports of orcas being killed over the years during Russian capture attempts. What do we know about orca deaths during the recent captures or previous captures?

Erich Hoyt: We have confirmed reports of the 2 young females who died in 2003, as I described above. About a year ago, the Russian Federal Research Institute of Fisheries and Oceanography (VNIRO) estimated that 5 orcas had died due to captures in the past, but only the 2 from 2003 are officially confirmed. We don’t know if any orcas died during the captures this year.

TZ: You mentioned in an update that Russian scientists and the state ecological commission have recommended to the Russian Federal Fisheries Agency that no permits be allowed in 2014. Are you hopeful the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept that recommendation, and when would you expect a decision?

Erich Hoyt: Scientists from our team and other scientists in Russia who understand killer whale biology have made this recommendation even before the captures occurred this year. The recommendation was based on the fact that orca quotas are being given on the basis of a single management species, when we know that there are at least two distinct ecotypes, the fish-eating residents and the mammal-eating transients, who are separate and need to be evaluated and managed separately. Getting the state ecological commission to endorse this idea was key. Now we hope the Federal Fisheries Agency will accept it. We will know later this year if quotas for capturing killer whales will be issued for 2014.

TZ: There are lots of rumors about where the orcas might go. What, if anything, is known about where the orcas might end up? Do you know anything about the prices they are being offered at?

Erich Hoyt: The rumors are China and Moscow where new facilities are coming on stream. To send the whales to China requires CITES permits and we have now found out that at least 2 CITES permits have been issued. We have no idea of the prices being offered now, but as long as 10-15 years ago, we know that a young female orca in prime condition could be worth $1 million USD. A lot depends on how many people per year pay to get into Sea World in the US, as well as paying to get into the growing number of such facilities in China, Japan and Russia. By last count, more than 120 facilities in these countries exhibit whales and/or dolphins. If there is no demand from the owners of these facilities and from the paying public, the selling price will go down and eventually there may be little or no supply offered for sale. Then the orca trafficking can stop.

Erich Hoyt is Research Fellow with WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, co-director of the Far East Russia Orca Project, and author of 20 books including Orca: The Whale Called Killer.

Self-Inflicted Pandemic?

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. I say it might just be a raging epidemic arising from the virulent combination of modern farming practices, dense populations, and global culture.

Is the H7N9 scare a harbinger of how it will go? Foreign Policy ponders:

At this writing, 108 cases of H7N9 flu, as the new virus has been dubbed, have been confirmed, and one asymptomatic carrier of the virus has been identified. Twenty-two of the cases have proven fatal, and nine people have been cured of the new flu. The remainder are still hospitalized, many in severe condition suffering multiple organ failures. As the flu czar of the World Health Organization (WHO), Dr. Keiji Fukuda, terselyput it to reporters last week, “Anything can happen. We just don’t know.”

On this tenth anniversary of China’s April 2003 admission that the SARS virus had spread across that country — under cloak of official secrecy, spawning a pandemic of a previously unknown, often lethal disease — Beijing finds itself once again in a terrible position via-a-vis the microbial and geopolitical worlds.  In both the SARS and current H7N9 influenza cases, China watched the microbe’s historic path unfold during a period of enormous political change. And the politics got in the way of appropriate threat assessment.

Well worth the full read.

Did China’s Meat Production Practices Create The Possibility Of A New Pandemic?

Laurie Garrett (free sign-up required) at Foreign Policy thinks the answer may be, “yes”:

Here’s how it would happen. Children playing along an urban river bank would spot hundreds of grotesque, bloated pig carcasses bobbing downstream. Hundreds of miles away, angry citizens would protest the rising stench from piles of dead ducks and swans, their rotting bodies collecting by the thousands along river banks. And three unrelated individuals would stagger into three different hospitals, gasping for air. Two would quickly die of severe pneumonia and the third would lay in critical condition in an intensive care unit for many days. Government officials would announce that a previously unknown virus had sickened three people, at least, and killed two of them. And while the world was left to wonder how the pigs, ducks, swans, and people might be connected, the World Health Organization would release deliberately terse statements, offering little insight.

It reads like a movie plot — I should know, as I was a consultant for Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. But the facts delineated are all true, and have transpired over the last six weeks in China. The events could, indeed, be unrelated, and the new virus, a form of influenza denoted as H7N9, may have already run its course, infecting just three people and killing two.

Or this could be how pandemics begin.

We all know (or at least by now should know) about the cruelty and environmental impact of industrial meat production. And we know that there are personal health implications related to heart disease. What most people don’t know is that factory farms and modern livestock practices create ripe scenarios for new viruses and antibiotic resistant bacteria. The H7N9 virus may turn out not to be the pandemic health experts have feared might emanate from livestock. But even if it is not, it is a reminder that we have knowingly created conditions which probably will at some point produce a deadly pandemic. A definite “reap what you sow” situation, and an example of a modern threat that is much more worrisome than all the traditional threats (terrorism, for example) that we tend to spend time and money on.

This is yet another powerful reason that vegetarian and vegan practices would make for a lot safer, more inhabitable, planet in the future. (h/t Earth In Transition, for flagging Garrett’s piece).

Just one more environmental note on China, and an example of why China might end up wondering whether it was really so wise to try and emulate the western development and consumption model. Air Pollution Linked to 1.2 Million Premature Deaths in China:

Outdoor air pollution contributed to 1.2 million premature deaths in China in 2010, nearly 40 percent of the global total, according to a new summary of data from a scientific study on leading causes of death worldwide.

Figured another way, the researchers said, China’s toll from pollution was the loss of 25 million healthy years of life from the population.

That’s a big price to pay, no matter how you look at it.

Elephant Slaughter: A Call To Radicalism

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 10.33.53 AM

This brutal photo comes from a heartbreaking gallery on elephant poaching in the New York Times.

It accompanies a New York Times oped-ed plea for a global response to elephant slaughter, from the authors of a recent study detailing the devastating impact of poaching on African forest elephants:

THERE is nothing a mother elephant will not do for her infant, but even she cannot protect it from bullets. About a year ago, poachers attacked a family of forest elephants in central Africa. The biologist who witnessed the attack told us that wildlife guards were completely outgunned. In the end, an elephant mother, riddled with bullets and trumpeting with pain and fear, was left to use her enormous body to shield her baby. Her sacrifice was for naught; the baby was also killed. Such is the reality facing African forest elephants today.

This mother and child were just two of the tens of thousands of forest elephants that have been butchered over the past decade. A staggering 62 percent vanished from central Africa between 2002 and 2011, according to a study we have just published with 60 other scientists in the journal PLoS One. It was the largest such study ever conducted in the central African forests, where elephants are being poached out of existence for their ivory.

In China and other countries in the Far East, there has been an astronomical rise in the demand for ivory trinkets that, no matter how exquisitely made, have no essential utility whatsoever. An elephant’s tusks have become bling for consumers who have no idea or simply don’t care that it was obtained by inflicting terror, horrendous pain and death on thinking, feeling, self-aware beings.

They make a powerful argument that the ongoing elephant slaughter is immoral and completely unacceptable. But they finish with an almost polite plea for sanity:

Poaching is big business, involving organized-crime cartels every bit as ruthless as those trafficking narcotics, arms and people. Existing international laws against money laundering should be used to follow the money trail and to prosecute these criminals.

A universal attribute of humanity is compassion. We protect those in harm’s way. We need to show this compassion to forest elephants, giving them space to roam and protection from danger. Most crucially, people must stop buying ivory. If we do not act, we will have to shamefully admit to our children that we stood by as elephants were driven out of existence.

This struck me as a little anti-climactic. The clock is ticking, the cruelty is extreme, the implications catastrophic. Does anyone think a nice plea like this will save the elephants? Why not call out political leaders and international regimes like CITES? Why not raise the possibility of more radical responses, like boycotts or economic sanctions against countries and economies that are tacitly supporting the slaughter?

I understand there are rules about scientists and advocacy, and that care must be taken not to alienate institutions or potential funding sources. But the time for such niceties is long past, because we are long past the point on so many crises where standard, moderate, calls for action will do the job.  And I am frequently struck by the fact that the urgency and radicalism of the problems we face is rarely matched with similar urgency and radicalism when it comes to proposed solutions.

Extremism is often disdained or dismissed. Given the scale and implications of climate change and species loss perhaps we had better start seeing extremism as a virtue. Or a necessity.