One Primate Species Is Driving Many Others Toward Extinction

“Yo, your obsession with soap and cleanliness is killing me.”

Want to guess which one is causing all the trouble? Not hard, I know.

Okay, one of my pledges this new year (both for my own mental well-being and so as not to depress everyone around me) is to not endlessly disseminate devastating news about how the planet is dying. I assume if you are reading this blog you are already well aware of this, so I intend to focus more on positive actions I am trying to take to bring my life into balance with the planet. Figuring out how to live, how to eat and how to leave as small a footprint as feasible is worth doing. If I share what I learn and do, and others share, maybe we will be able to transform our modern, consumerist, materialist, carbon-spewing lifestyles into lives that give due consideration to the planet and all the other species trying to survive on it despite human-induced climate change and destruction of habitat.

But I am taking note of this story about how the human species is relentlessly endangering other primate species because it illustrates something important (beyond the fact that humans are the primary existential threat to the rest of the planet): the choices that you and I make in our own lives ripple all the way out to remote forests and impact remote primate species.

To wit:

Primates are also threatened by the wholesale destruction of forests to make way for agriculture. In the Amazon, the jungle is being converted to cattle ranches and soybean fields, while in Madagascar, rice paddies are taking the place of lemur forests.

Western countries are also helping push primates toward extinction. Palm oil can be found in everything from doughnuts to lipstick to biodiesel fuel. New palm oil plantations are completely replacing forests in Southeast Asia — one of the most primate-diverse parts of the world.

Even cellphones can add to the risks. In central Africa, miners go into rain forests to dig for an ore called coltan that ends up in phone circuits. Those miners hunt for their meals. “They live on primates,” said Dr. Rylands.

So whether we eat beef and other meat (much of the world’s soy is grown to feed livestock), and how often we feel the need to upgrade our smartphones, are two choices we face that have a traceable impact on the survival and future of other primate (as well as many other) species.

Figuring out how to make planet-friendlier choices, and how and why they make a difference, is something I have been doing a lot more of in recent years. And it is something I am interested in continuing to do in a serious way going forward. In fact my aim is to design a modern, happy, meaningful life that celebrates and helps sustain the planet rather than destroy it. And if I do, maybe others will join me in trying to lead that life.

I tend to think of this approach to living as Earthism, because it emphasizes the idea that we humans, for moral and existential reasons, should abandon the idea that our well-being, our comfort, our interests are paramount. Instead, we should seek lives that nurture and sustain all the beauty and diversity we have been endowed with, and elevate the interests and well-being of all the extraordinary and complex ecosystems, and nonhuman species, which define our unique planet.

It’s going to be an interesting, and hopefully uplifting, journey.

Another Account Of Penn Cove

Peter Ward, a paleontologist, writes an account of his life in science. Part of his journey included working for Don Goldsberry and Ted Griffin during the Penn Cove captures. Here is what he has to say about the experience:

In 1970 and 1971, I was part of the infamous Penn Cove (Washington) whale hunts. At that time the Puget Sound region, or its salmon-fishing community, despised the orca, which routinely ate half the salmon returning each year to spawn. Trapping was applauded. We encircled pods of 30 to 40 whales with seine nets thrown from fishing boats, and culled and captured with ropes the babies for aquaria. My job was to be in the water with the whales and separate mothers from their young. (I once found my leg down the throat of an enraged mother, who spit me out). Rumor had it the going price for an orca was $50,000. I was paid $50 a day.

But another part of my job was to dive down into the seine nets at night, should the whales try to break out. During those nights I learned more about fear than I ever wanted to know—down 40 feet in low visibility, with a dive light in one hand and a knife in the other to confront the poorly seen but certainly felt struggles of a gigantic, multi-ton behemoth fighting for its life in a heavy net, its massive tail thrashing through the blackness. We mostly succeeded in cutting the whales loose from the nets. But not always. That brought about shame, followed by rage, at myself, and at the greedy, voracious men who then, as now, make money from the incarceration of these intelligent creatures.

Following an expose of the hunts by Seattle TV news reporter Don McGaffin in 1971, some of my fellow divers and I testified to state authorities that our employers had been covering up evidence of whales killed in the hunts. Our proof helped launch a state and then federal law to prevent capturing whales in U.S. territorial waters and giving them a life sentence in solitary confinement. It remains the most important work of my life: helping stop the obscene captures.

It’s always interesting to get a new perspective on Penn Cove. But Ward’s real purpose in his article is to pay homage to the nautilus, the extraordinary and (up until humans come into the picture) resilient mollusc he has spent a lifetime studying:

In 2011 and 2012 I returned to my old study sites in the Pacific, and collected DNA samples that helped confirm that Nautilus pompilius is many separate species. But I also discovered that unlike in the deep past, perhaps only a few thousand individuals make up each species. A few thousand individuals swimming long distances to be caught in a baited trap, from which they are hauled to the surface, killed, and sold for $1 a shell. For buttons and cheap tourist jewelry.

It’s a savage irony. Although the nautilus ruled the oceans for hundreds of millions of years, Earth’s changing conditions dwindled the number of species, about 3 million years ago, to less than a handful—or even a single species. Then came the advent of the Ice Ages and a radical drop in global sea level and temperatures, which, combined, created cool, highly oxygenated oceanic conditions similar to those when hundreds of nautiloid species existed. The nautilus was making a huge comeback in diversity, to the point where it may have been poised to once again be a presence in every ocean, rather than its current confinement to the western tropical Pacific.

But as recently as 50 years ago, the comeback hit a roadblock: us. In the Philippines and  Indonesia, the distant nautilus species are being harvested to extinction. Between 2007 and 2010, the United States Department of Fish and Wildlife discovered that more than half a million nautilus shells or artifacts were imported into the United States alone. Fleets of nautilus boats now scour the coastlines of the South China Sea.

The life of the nautilus is providing its last lesson about chance events. But this time it’s about bad luck. It’s bad luck that nautiluses use their olfactory system rather than vision to find prey, because this trait makes them ludicrously easy to catch. Worse luck comes from a trait over which they never had control: they produce a shell with a visual power that humans covet.

Killer whales. The nautilus. The destructive power of human desire crosses all species.

The Elephant Slaughter Rolls On

Ugh:

Poachers in south-west Chad have killed at least 86 elephants including 33 pregnant females in less than a week, in a potentially devastating blow to one of central Africa‘s last remaining elephant populations.

Groups of elephants follow traditional migration routes during the dry season from Central African Republic, through Chad to Cameroon. Thirty years ago there were estimates of 150,000 animals across the region, but today that figure could be as low as 2,000.

According to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the elephants were killed near Fianga, close to the border between Chad and Cameroon, and their tusks were hacked off. Fianga is near a cross-border national park area – Sene Oura in Chad and Bouba N’Djida in Cameroon, where many elephants spend the dry season before the rains start in April. It is thought the animals were killed by Chadian and Sudanese poachers travelling on horseback carrying AK47s and hacksaws to remove the tusks.

“The poachers killed pregnant females and all the calves,” said Celine Sissler-Bienvenu from IFAW. “Even if the conditions were right, which they are not, it would take more than 20 years for this population to recover”.

This isn’t working for the elephants. Is it working for you? Didn’t think so.

I think I have a good idea for a more justifiable and effective use for drones.

William Hogarth On The Four Stages Of Animal Cruelty

There’s a fantastic post over on Our Hen House, about the graphic work of Hogarth relating cruelty to animals to the human condition:

Specifically, Hogarth used visual imagery to underscore his belief that cruelty to animals would lead to other forms of social ills. In other words, Hogarth did not see the mistreatment of animals as a distinct issue but, rather, understood it to be part of a larger pattern of social problems. Hogarth’s series, entitled The Four Stages of Cruelty, was released in February 1751 and was comprised of four separate prints, each furthering the narrative of a fictional character named Tom Nero. Of this series, Hogarth noted that he created these images “in hopes of preventing in some degree that cruel treatment of poor Animals which makes the streets of London more disagreeable to the human mind…the very describing of which gives pain.”

You can imagine what Hogarth might think of a factory farm, the Taiji slaughter, or the ivory trade. But these days he’d probably tackle it on Vimeo.

His series of drawings on the four stages of animal cruelty are still worth looking at, though, because they make a powerful point that I think it is critical to understand: cruelty to animals (and cruelty to the environment, for that matter), is not an isolated problem. Instead, it is just one consequence of a chronic human failure, which is a lack of wisdom or enlightenment. So addressing these problems is not simply a matter of trying to end animal cruelty, but trying in the first place to cultivate a completely different understanding about the human role on earth, and human relationships with other species–one that moves away from profit and exploitation, and toward compassion and stewardship. Do that, and lots pf problems are open to solution.

Let’s take a look (click images for full resolution, and Wikipedia has more detail on the scenes):

From Our Hen HouseIn the first image (appropriately titled “The First Stage of Cruelty”), we are introduced to Tom Nero as a young boy. He is on a London street with several other children, most of whom are engaged in some form of cruelty: a pair of cats are suspended from a lamppost, a stray dog has an object tied to his tail, a bird is being blinded by a hot object inserted in her eye. Tom Nero, Hogarth’s protagonist, is in the center of the composition torturing a dog by sticking an arrow in the animal’s anus while another friend pulls harshly on a rope tied around the dog’s neck. While this scene of unchecked cruelty is bad enough, the artist hints at worse to come through the inclusion of a compositional device foreshadowing Tom Nero’s mounting violence: a young man sketches Tom Nero’s eventual demise on the brick wall that the children cluster around.

Our Hen House:

In “The Second Stage of Cruelty,” Tom is no longer a child, and in this print he is shown beating a horse who has collapsed on the street from exhaustion and Continue reading “William Hogarth On The Four Stages Of Animal Cruelty”