Its Rhino Time!

For international conservationists, the turning of the year is marked not by changing seasons but by international travel opportunities – and this year September is a bumper month. It opens with the IUCN World Conservation Congress in the hyper-remote Hawai’i, and ends with the 17th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) in Johannesburg.

Looking at the website for the CITES COP, I was greatly struck by its logo. Hats off to the graphic designers, who have created the unmistakable outline of a white rhinoceros from the silhouettes of other species, pangolin, eagle, hammerhead shark, elephant and lion to name just a few. Moreover, it is all in savanna orange, with the African continent as its green heart, deep in the rhino’s chest. The choice of the rhino outline works at several levels – because the recovery of white rhinoceros is one of the great South African success stories of the twentieth century, and because the debate about trade in rhino horn is currently a key issue for CITES.

CoP17_Rhino_hp

Continue reading

Spiders, Zika And The Love of Nature

Most conservationists I know take it for granted that the love of nature is ingrained in the human psyche. John Muir speaks for them, when he writes ‘there is a love of wild nature in everybody, an ancient mother-love showing itself whether recognized or no, and however covered by cares and duties’. They might perhaps accept Edward Wilson’s notion of ‘biophilia’, the idea of an instinctive bond between humans and other forms of life. Whatever humans do, we conservationists feel sure that they love nature really, underneath.

Two news items that caught my eye recently made me think about this comfortable certainty. The first was a video clip of a weatherman on West Virginia’s WOWK 13 News, scared by a spider on his monitor screen. The presenter, Bryan Hughes, flinched, swore, and then began to crack some rather tense jokes. Bryan obviously really did not like spiders. In this he is not at all unusual.

The spider-on-camera-lens visual joke has become a staple of the internet. It works because lots of people are phobic about spiders, as they are with snakes. It is not hard to imagine a good evolutionary basis for this fear, since many species of both are venomous. Horror movie directors know the fear of spiders very well: watching the first James Bond film, Dr. No last week, where a fine specimen of a (apparently not very venomous) pink-toed tarantula apparently crawls up Sean Connery’s body, reminded me how effectively scary spiders can be.

But it was not the spider, or the weatherman’s immediate response, that unnerved me, but what Hughes said once the incident was over. In his slightly nervous patter, as he tried to move back to the job in hand, he said: ‘oh man, saints alive, we gotta get out there and kill those things’. Like James Bond, with his instant and fiercely wielded slipper, Bryan Hughes clearly has no truck with arachnids. I wondered how many people would share his feelings? Quite a lot, I concluded, especially in countries where spider bites can be highly painful or deadly. For many people, scared or simply cautious, spiders are better off dead: so much for the love of nature! Continue reading

Rewilding the Wild Wood

It was a blustery afternoon in early spring, a few months after the Mole’s adventure in the Wild Wood. The short cold days of winter were gone. With them had passed the recollection of his fear on that expedition, when the Rat had brought him through the snow to the sanctuary of Badger’s house.

The Mole sat, now, in a comfortable chair in front of a cheery blaze.

‘Ratty’, he said tentatively, ’do you remember when you rescued me, when I was lost in the snow in Wild Wood?’

The Rat poked the coals ‘of course’, he said.

‘There were a lot of creatures in the wild wood’ said the Mole, ‘I saw them – or sort of saw them’, said the Mole cautiously.

‘Yes’, said the Rat.

‘I wondered what they were’ said the Mole in a small voice.

‘All sorts’, said the Rat, briskly. ‘Hedgehogs, shrews, squirrels, rabbits. Bats probably; voles’. He numbered them off on his fingers. ‘Lots of different kinds. Mostly pretty decent sorts.’ He hesitated. ‘And others, of course’. Continue reading

Synthetic Biology and the Metabolic Rift

Synthetic biology is an astonishing field. Its scientific ambition is breathtaking. According to the Global Network of Science Academies, it involves no less than ‘the deliberate design and construction of customized biological and biochemical systems to perform new or improved functions’. Synthetic biologists hope to create a new industry by treating DNA as if it was computer software.   Writing in Nature, Daniel Gibson observed ‘A biological cell is much like a computer – the genome can be thought of as the software that encodes the cell’s instructions, and the cellular machinery as the hardware that interprets and runs the software’. Scientists can act as biological ‘software engineers’, programming new biological ‘operating systems’ into cells. That is quite an ambition.

Synthetic biology  has significant implications for conservation, from the speculative world of de-extinction (whether the cloning of mammoth or the summer blockbuster of Jurassic World) to the idea of fighting wildlife disease (such as white-nose disease in wild bats or chytridiomycosis in amphibians), or addressing human impacts on land and ocean. It has the potential to transform the production of food, fibre and oils, the flows of materials through the urban-industrial system, and human ecological interactions. It is likely to be a seriously disruptive innovation in many fields, from medicine or agriculture to energy supply.

In a world of Promethean environmentalism, synthetic biology offers perhaps the perfect combination of possibility and risk. On the one hand it offers solutions to global sustainability challenges in food, water and energy. On the other hand, it channels environmentalist fears about the scope of corporate control of genetic knowledge and the development, patenting and release of novel organisms.

But synthetic biology is not just another technology. It has profound implications for relations between humanity and non-human nature. As Neil Smith observes, it extends human artifice – and corporate interests – right down to the level of the genome.   So a key question is, how should we think about it?

Continue reading

Any Colour You Like, But Not Green

What are we to make of the news that the German car manufacturer Volkswagen has been cheating on emissions tests for diesel cars in the USA? The first cries of ‘disgraceful’ from the media were followed by announcement that 11 million cars had the ‘cheat software’. There were apologies, resignations and drastic impacts on share prices. Subsequent stories expanded the focus of concern from Volkswagen to the Porsche partner companies (Audi and Skoda), who announced that 3.3 million of their cars were fitted with the same software as Volkswagen to cheat US emissions tests.

Should this be a surprise? Not really.

First, it is not surprising to find regulators revealed as useless: dogs with neither bark nor bite – especially in bureau-Europe. It has been known since 2011 that diesel cars driven on the road discharged far more nitrogen oxide and particulate than official tests reported, and had significantly worse fuel consumption. The testing regimes have been criticized as ‘not fit for purpose’, especially the bureaucratic mess that holds in the EU. The BBC reported the UK Committee on Climate Change saying that between 2002 and 2014 the gap between official and real-world CO2 emissions for new passenger cars increased from about 10% to 35%.

Continue reading

On the Conservation of Trolls

The strange and sad story of Cecil the lion (named for an imperialist, collared for science, shot on a private ranch outside Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe) has many lessons for conservation. The one I want to consider here is what it says about trolls.

Trolls are mythical semi-humanoid supernatural creatures. They were once widely distributed in northern Europe, where the winter nights are long and cold. They are grumpy, fearsome, nocturnal, and hide in (or turn into) rocks. They are traditionally carnivorous, ambushing passers by, particularly those goats unwise enough disturb the peace by trip trapping over bridges Trolls are widely believed to be extinct, but in fact they have spread widely as Norse folklore has become the staple of the fantasy industry. Terry Pratchett has contributed a great deal to our understanding: they turn out to be surprisingly good at maths, when it gets cold enough. Recent sightings include New Zealand, where dim-witted nocturnal trolls are reported to have attacked travellers, and taken to disturbing the peace by fighting. To Tolkein, trolls represented the dark side of the rural idyll of the Shire: large, unsociable and stupid, in contrast to the robust, bucolic intelligence of the hobbits.

As far as I know, there are no trolls in Zimbabwe. But their latter-day alter egos, internet trolls, seem very familiar with the place. The estimable Wikipedia defines an internet troll as ‘a person who sows discord on the Internet by starting arguments or upsetting people, by posting inflammatory, extraneous or off-topic messages in an online community… with the deliberate intent of provoking readers into an emotional response, or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion’.

The internet came down like a ton of bricks on the American hunter who shot Cecil, a dentist from Minnesota. The staid BBC noted that the global outcry led to Walter Palmer being ‘swamped with abuse and dark humour from web users around the world’. Among other things, someone created a fake Twitter account for his dental practice, with predictable results. The commentariat, on line, in print and on TV, went into overdrive, leaving no analytical stone unturned. Not all the comment was amusing: there were death threats, and vandalism at Palmer’s properties. He went into hiding, and faces prosecution in the face of the universal disgust and hostility of the online world.

Continue reading

Rewilding as Process

To his many readers, George Monbiot’s book Feral has come to encapsulate the idea of rewilding.   His mix of gritty wilderness autobiography and sharp well-researched polemic is compulsive. His sheep-skepticism and his fluency (epitomized in the wonderful word ‘sheepwrecked’ to described Britain’s bare and long-grazed uplands) are a publisher’s dream, and it is unsurprising to find the book selling well on both sides of the Atlantic.

But Monbiot is a relative latecomer to the rewilding party in the UK. Its doyenne is the British Association for Nature Conservation, BANC. Since the 1990s, BANC’s journal ECOS: A Review of Conservation has been planting and watering ideas about the wild in conservation, and how to get more of it. BANC published Peter Taylor’s book Beyond Conservation, which set out the case for large wild areas in the UK, and for reintroducing carnivores to its busy pocket-handkerchief countryside. In 2011, Peter edited Rewilding, a collection of ECOS articles on wildlands and conservation values. The Autumn 2014 issue carried a series of articles on the wild and rewilding arising from the meeting Wilder by Design in Sheffield (the first of a pair: the next is in September 2015)

Continue reading