The Good, Bad, And Ugly Of Wildlife Photography

“Ugh, Another fu*cking Instagrammer. Can I get on with my life now?”

This is a very thoughtful analysis of both the good that responsible wildlife photographers can do, and the negative impacts on wildlife that irresponsible photographers can have:

When the details of Ramsey’s daring encounter came to light, scientists were quick to raise these issues.

Take, for example, Instagram influencer and shark conservation advocate Ocean Ramsey. In January 2019, Ramsey made international headlines after publishing photos of herself getting up close and personal with a six-meter great white shark that experts suspect was pregnant.

Ramsey and her husband, Juan Oliphant, owners of the Hawai‘i-based dive charter company One Ocean Diving, were freediving off the coast of O‘ahu when a massive great white shark approached their boat. The shark had come to feed on a whale carcass floating nearby. As the barrel-bodied creature approached the carcass, Ramsey dove down and ran her hand along its back. When the shark moved out of reach, Ramsey swam after it and stroked it a second time. As the encounter unfolded, Oliphant and three other freedivers moved in to capture photos and videos…[snip]

…According to Domeier, the shark Ramsey touched appeared pregnant and by forcing it to interact with her, she risked scaring it away from the whale carcass.

“A pregnant female white shark spends almost 18 months in the open ocean where prey is few and far between, so you don’t want to risk scaring one away from a meal that it needs to take care of the 500 or 600 pounds [225 or 275 kilograms] of babies it’s carrying,” says Domeier.

It is hard not to feel that humans–photographers, tourists, developers, hunters, researchers, it’s a long list–are relentlessly and increasingly intruding on the lives of wild animals. We definitely need many more, and much stricter, protected zones in both the ocean and on land. But what we really need, more than anything, is a different guiding ethic, in which our own needs and desires are no longer the only needs and desires considered, or dominant.

Humpback Bubble Feeding And The Importance Of Animal Culture

Humpbacks are high on my list of fascinating animals, in part because of this sort of spectacular and complex behavior, filmed by drone in Alaska’s Prince William Sound:

For the uninitiated, I09 describes what is going on:

Typically, humpback whales lunge into a shoal of prey, but as described in Arkive, they also herd their prey using a “bubble net” to trap them in quantity:

During this process, a number of whales will circle underwater emitting a continuous stream of air which traps fish in the centre of the ring, the whales then surface up through their ‘net’ gorging on the contents within. During the summer months, humpbacks must feed intensely as they do not feed again during either the migration or the time spent in tropical breeding grounds.

The fact that many species have developed unique and distinctive behaviors gives credence to the idea that animals have “cultures,” that both define them and help them survive. Increasingly, conservationists are arguing that understanding and incorporating those cultures into conservation strategies is a key to success. Last month, delegates at the UN Convention on Migratory Species passed a resolution (PDF) that calls on conservationists to acknowledge and incorporate animal cultures into conservation thinking.

This is a key evolution in thinking about the animal world and its future. Philippa Brakes of Whale And Dolphin Conservation explains:

In 1975 sociobiologist E. O. Wilson noted the influence of social structure on fitness, gene flow and spatial patterns in some species. Deeper understanding only started to emerge in the past decade, and wildlife policy has been slow to catch up.

The new resolution recognises both positive and negative consequences of non-human culture. Individuals passing on knowledge may increase population viability by allowing the rapid spread of innovations amid environmental challenges, which could mean more-resilient social groups. On the other hand, the effects of human-induced threats may be amplified by the presence of non-human culture.

How so? The type of threat and the type of society is important. For example, orca societies are often conservative and so may be reluctant to adopt an innovation in response to a new threat, like the depletion of a food source. The distinct cultures of different groups also lead orcas to behave in different ways, and this can make one group more vulnerable than another. So they should be assessed as cultural groups, rather than by absolute population numbers.

In African elephants, older matriarchs are thought to act as “repositories of social knowledge”, holding information important to the survival and fitness of their social group, such as the location of food or water. Their removal may have impacts beyond the loss of one elephant.

There is also evidence that baleen whale calves learn migratory routes from their mothers and that hunting two species – southern right and humpback whales – meant that critical knowledge was lost.

I would add another benefit. Understanding the distinctive cultures of animals opens the door to empathy. A mother elephant or whale who has knowledge and plays the same role that your own mother might is more than just a whale or elephant. She is inherently valuable and her protection is inherently important.

That makes a difference. It shouldn’t, in my view. But unfortunately humans care more when they can see parallels to their own lives and social structures. So the more awed and compelled we are by any cultural behavior, like bubble-feeding, the better.

Does SeaWorld Do Much For Wild Orcas?

“I’ve certainly never seen a SeaWorld researcher.”

 

Not really, writes Tasneem Raja in Mother Jones:

Yet independent orca researchers say these arguments don’t hold water. “If SeaWorld didn’t exist, would our understanding of wild killer whales be significantly reduced? I think the answer to that is no, it would not,” says a veteran marine-mammal researcher who works at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “It’s a bit like having Walt Disney tell us about mouse biology,” says Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research and a pioneering orca researcher.

Despite their 24/7 access to killer whales, SeaWorld-affiliated researchers have published relatively few orca studies. Of the four dozen orca-related papers coauthored by SeaWorld-backed researchers over the past 40 years, half were published before 1990, and just seven since 2010. What’s more, at least one-third of these papers did not focus on captive whales, but wild populations ranging from Alaska to New Zealand.

Many of the papers cited on SeaWorld’s website were coauthored by researchers from the Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute, a San Diego nonprofit founded in 1963. SeaWorld provides around 10 percent of its roughly $5 million budget. In 2012 and 2013, Hubbs-SeaWorld published 26 papers on topics ranging from abalone genetics to polar bears’ hearing; none focused on orcas. SeaWorld also touts its SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund as evidence of its investment in killer-whale science and conservation. However, between 2004 and 2012 the fund spent no more than $550,000 on research focused on killer whales, according to an analysis by the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

It’s well worth reading the whole thing.

At some point SeaWorld will realize that spin will no longer cut it. If they want credit for promoting conservation and a better understanding of threats to wild orca populations they will have to make real investments and do real research.

What Giraffes Tell Us About Zoos, Endangered Species, And Human (Mis)Perception Of Animal Intelligence

Who you calling stupid?

So being a hit in zoos didn’t translate into scientific interest and understanding of giraffes in the wild:

Giraffes are the “forgotten megafauna,” said Julian Fennessy, a giraffe researcher and the executive director of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. “You hear all about elephants, Jane Goodall and her chimpanzees, Dian Fossey and her mountain gorillas, but there’s been a massive paucity of information about giraffes.”

Now all that is changing fast, as a growing cadre of researchers seek to understand the spectacular biology and surprisingly complex behavior of what Dr. Fennessy calls a “gentle giant and the world’s most graceful animal.” Scientists have lately discovered that giraffes are not the social dullards or indifferent parents they were reputed to be, but instead have much in common with another charismatic mega-herbivore, the famously gregarious elephant.

Well, just because scientists have been ignoring giraffes, doesn’t mean the giraffe-loving zoo public hasn’t been concerned about giraffes in the wild, right? Zoos say they give people a passion for animals that helps protect them in the wild. Apparently not. According to the story: “The species is not listed as endangered, but researchers point with alarm to evidence that in the past 15 years, the giraffe population has plummeted some 40 percent, to less than 80,000 from 140,000.”

Which raises an important question, I think: how does a species which has seen a 40% population crash in 15 years NOT get listed as endangered?

This story is also one more datapoint in Zimmermann’s Axiom Of Animal Intelligence (which states that research into just about any animal never shows it is dumber and less sentient than we thought). To wit:

Female giraffes, for example, have been found to form close friendships with one another that can last for years, while mother giraffes have displayed signs of persistent grief after losing their calves to lions.

“Giraffes have been underestimated, even thought of as a bit stupid,” said Zoe Muller, a wildlife biologist at the University of Warwick in England. But through advances in satellite and aerial tracking technology, improved hormonal tests and DNA fingerprinting methods to extract maximum data from giraffe scat, saliva and hair, and a more statistically rigorous approach to analyzing giraffe interactions, she said, “we’ve been able to map out their social structure and relationships in a much more sophisticated way; there’s a lot more going on than we appreciated.”

So one story, three important insights. 1) Being a zoo star doesn’t appear to do much for you in the wild; 2) The process by which species are labeled and treated as “endangered” needs a re-examination; and 3) Yet another species labeled “stupid” by the human species turns out to be not so stupid.

Marius The Giraffe Is Every Zoo Animal

“Uh-oh. It’s starting to get crowded in here again.” (Source: Wikimedia; Daderot)

The world has been understandably shocked by the Copenhagen Zoo’s casual execution of its surplus giraffe, Marius (feeding his corpse to the lions showed an odd combination of pragmatism and obliviousness to the zeitgeist). So naturally, the Copenhagen Zoo and its Director have become the target of intense animal welfare criticism.

I am not a fan of zoos, and have the utopian wish that we would simply work on conserving both the natural habitats and the animals in them, instead of incarcerating animals for “research and education” and making a profit while we are at it. But Naomi Rose of the Animal Welfare Institute had a very interesting take, which she has given me permission to share:

Zoos have been doing this all around the world, including at AZA-accredited facilities, for decades. Breeding programs, particularly for non-endangered species, often result in “surplus” animals, because zoo visitors like seeing baby animals in the springtime, so the zoos oblige. When animals are not culled, they are sold to road-side zoos, sent to “canned hunt” facilities, or, in the best case scenario (also the least commonly occurring) sent to sanctuaries. AZA facilities are the least likely to sell to road-side zoos or canned hunts, but they have been caught doing so at times. Non-AZA facilities unload their surplus animals this way routinely.

Killing surplus animals (especially with a bolt gun to the head) is the most humane option, actually, and in all fairness the most commonly used. What made Marius so shocking to you all is that it was done in broad daylight, before an audience, as a “learning experience.” Well, I think it was more of a learning experience for the zoo than the public watching! Big mistake to air this common practice quite so brutally. Usually these euthanasias are done behind the scenes. The bodies are usually sent to landfills or rendering plants (or, in some infamous cases, buried in the backyard) – they are NOT usually fed to the carnivores in the same zoo.

So while the Copenhagen Zoo may have been the least sensitive practitioner of this “management” method, please do not direct your ire at the zoo or its director. They were in fact the honest ones. ALL zoos – ALL ZOOS – do this to one extent or other. Think about it – how else can they manage a “collection” in a finite amount of space when they have babies every year? We see the problem even with orcas, who are among the least prolific of captive species. San Diego now has 10 orcas. Four orcas were sent to Loro Parque (and calves used to be sent to Ohio). Think about all those antelopes and giraffes and water buffalo and exotic rodents and birds and on and on and on. Where do you think all those animals go?

SeaWorld is a circus and easy to dislike, but every single well-designed, modern zoo out there is hiding a darker underbelly. If you think the cost is worth the benefit to kids who get to see tigers and lions and bears up close, that’s one thing, but don’t be blind to the cost.

What gets me is the hypocrisy of zoos. I actually think people should be GRATEFUL to the Copenhagen Zoo for outing this practice so bluntly. Zoos claim they are as much about individual animal welfare as about conservation, but often they are about neither.

Animal protection groups focused on zoo animal welfare, which are well aware of these practices,  have been promoting “cradle to grave” care for decades. If a zoo cannot commit to cradle to grave care for every animal born at its facility, then it should not allow breeding. Whether that’s through chemical means, gelding, or separation of the sexes, they should not allow babies to be born to which they cannot commit a lifetime of care. The reaction of people online and on this list leads me to believe that most people, even those working against captive orcas at SeaWorld, think that what happened to Marius is a horrible, brutal one-off or that only the Copenhagen Zoo is guilty of it. That is so far from the truth as to be laughable.

Usually euthanasia is done as it is in shelters, with chemicals. The meat is not usable then and, as I said, is sent to landfills or rendering plants. Marius was shot (arguably more humane, actually, if more shocking) because they wanted to feed him to the lions as part of the “educational” part of the event and they didn’t want to spoil the meat. As I also said on FB, Marius didn’t give a shit how he died – it’s the people who are horrified at the betrayal of trust inherent in feeding him a piece of bread and then shooting him when he bent down, but putting him down with a shot of phenobarbital would have been just as horrible – it just would have been quieter.

The irony is that other zoos no doubt registered the avalanche of attention and criticism that buried the Copenhagen Zoo and will only go to even greater lengths to keep zoo euthanasia hidden from the zoo-loving public.

Good Fences Make Good (Large Animal) Neighbors

At least that’s what scientists working on lion conservation have concluded:

After 35 years of field research in the Serengeti plains, Craig Packer, director of the Lion Research Center at the University of Minnesota, has lost all patience with the romance of African wilderness. Fences, he says, are the only way to stop the precipitous and continuing decline in the number of African lions.

“Reality has to intrude,” he said. “Do you want to know the two most hated species in Africa, by a mile? Elephants and lions.” They destroy crops and livestock, he said, and sometimes, in the case of lions, actually eat people.

Dr. Packer’s goal is to save lions. Fencing them in, away from people and livestock, is the best way to do that, he believes, both for conservation and economics. He made that argument in a paper this month in Ecology Letters, along with 57 co-authors, including most of the top lion scientists and conservationists.

I am a romantic when it comes to the wild, but I agree that sometimes you have to be practical. And if fences will save lives all around, then it is hard to argue against them–though the cost estimates are daunting. And even if you could build all that fencing, is there anything to prevent humans from continuing to shrink the fenced area as populations continue to grow?

It would be interesting to try to compare the net benefit of investing tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars in fencing versus investing in education and technical training, say, which in turn helps reduce the poverty and desperation that often gets lions (and elephants) killed, slows population growth, and reduces reliance on livestock farming.

 

Killing Lions To Save Lions

That’s the objectionable paradox that exists in Tanzania, where human pressures are reducing lion numbers but American big game hunters are helping fund protection and conservation.

This is an issue because US Fish & Wildlife is considering classifying African lions as endangered, which means that said big game hunters would no longer be able to bring their dead lion trophies home, and display them in their 15,000 square foot McMansions to impress their guests. Which means that they would no longer pay large fees to hunt lions, and support Tanzanian conservation efforts.

That has prompted the Director Of Wildlife for the Tanzanian Ministry of Natural Resources and Tourism to take to the pages of the New York Times to ask Fish & Wildlife not to list the lion as endangered, and remove the incentive American blowhards have to some spend lots of their American dollars on the thrill of blowing a lion away with a high-powered rifle.

Here’s the argument:

Of all the species found here, lions are particularly important because they draw visitors from throughout the world — visitors who support our tourism industry and economy. Many of these visitors only take pictures. But others pay thousands of dollars to pursue lions with rifles and take home trophies from what is often a once-in-a-lifetime hunt. Those hunters spend 10 to 25 times more than regular tourists and travel to (and spend money in) remote areas rarely visited by photographic tourists.

In Tanzania, lions are hunted under a 21-day safari package. Hunters pay $9,800 in government fees for the opportunity. An average of about 200 lions are shot a year, generating about $1,960,000 in revenue. Money is also spent on camp fees, wages, local goods and transportation. And hunters almost always come to hunt more than one species, though the lion is often the most coveted trophy sought. All told, trophy hunting generated roughly $75 million for Tanzania’s economy from 2008 to 2011.

The money helps support 26 game reserves and a growing number of wildlife management areas owned and operated by local communities as well as the building of roads, schools, hospitals and other infrastructure — all of which are important as Tanzania continues to develop as a peaceful and thriving democracy.

Putting aside the notion that putting an end to lion hunting will somehow endanger Tanzanian growth and democracy, there is a certain practical logic to this argument. Kill a few lions to save the rest. But just because it is practical does not mean that it is moral or acceptable.

It would be nice if Tanzania would take the trouble to search for alternative solutions, instead of relying on the easy money of people who think that shooting lion will impress their poker buddies. And I suspect that some of that $75 million from trophy hunting finds its way into a few pockets here and there.

Lion populations are shrinking

But this paradox of killing lions to save them is also a reminder that anyone who cares about lions, or any other species, and prefers a more humane formula for conservation, must be willing to support aid to poorer countries that cannot afford conservation on their own. Too often, the developed world reacts with outrage to animal abuse, slaughter, or mismanagement in the developing world, and reacts with equal outrage to the idea that more assistance should flow from the wealthy countries to the poorer countries to help them meet conservation challenges.

Yes, assistance must be safeguarded against corruption and misuse. But lions in Tanzania, along with so many other iconic and important regional species, are viewed as a global resource, and a matter of global concern, by the rest of the world. So the rest of the world needs to be willing to put some skin in the game and contribute what’s needed to manage and conserve those species on a global basis. Otherwise, the Texans with trophy rooms will take care of it for the rest of us.