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Poaching Pachyderms: Africa’s Victims of the Illegal Ivory Trade

Big Elephant Eye Animal Close-up Face EndangeredOver a three-year period of time (2010-2012) 100,000 African elephants were massacred by poachers for their ivory tusks. Since then, protection efforts have increased and elephant poaching has reportedly declined for the fifth year in a row. Yet elephant populations continue to fall. As the body count of environmental defenders begins to rise, it appears as though poachers will do whatever it takes to hit their mark.


Garamba National Park is an expansive UNESCO World Heritage site located in a remote corner of northeastern Congo.  As in many of Africa’s wildlife preserves, struggling populations of elephants at Garamba are being slain at a distressing rate.  The mammoth mammals are targeted by poachers who cut the tusks and off of the animals without any regard for the mounting casualties. Once the ivory tusks are collected, they are sold to the highest bidder on the international market. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times reported that few places in the world are as unswervingly dangerous for environmental defenders and their charges as Africa’s wildlife preserves. In 2017, 170 environmental defenders — citizens protesting mining, agribusiness, oil and gas development and logging, as well as land rights activists and wildlife rangers — were killed in the line of duty. Many of these environmental defenders are employees or volunteers at animal parks working to protect endangered species of elephant across the continent of Africa.

African Elephants in Danger
An elephant’s tusks can be both a blessing and curse. They offer a sense of true majesty to the already impressive elephant, but also, expose them as targets. Tusks—the elongated teeth that jut out of a mammal’s mouths—are common to walruses, wild boars, and both male and female African elephants. Once a dominant trait in male Asian elephants, tusks are now found in roughly 50 percent of the Asian male population— an evolutionary modification which is believed to be a result of the threats associated with poaching. Like human teeth, an elephant’s tusks are deeply rooted, covered in enamel, and comprised of firm, dense, bony tissue. These extended incisors are used to dig holes, forage for food and to fend off predators.

An African elephant's tusks will continue to grow throughout its life. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

An African elephant’s tusks will continue to grow throughout its life. Photo Source: Wiki Commons.

The nearly 100 pounds of ivory in an elephant’s tusk has peaked the interest of poachers for centuries. Ivory, once used to fashion piano keys and billiard balls, is presently crafted into ornamental artwork and trinkets that are illegally traded on the international market. Today, China and the United States are the two largest ivory markets in the world. In China, owning ivory can be seen as a status symbol. It is typically carved into bracelets, bookmarks, statuettes, combs, and various art pieces, and can fetch as much as $1,500 per pound. However, the monetary price is minute when compared to the expense of elephant life behind each piece of ivory. There is no easy way to extract a 100 pound, fixed tooth from an elephant. To detach the tusk, it must be carved out of the skull— a process which typically requires fatality.

Despite a ban on the international ivory trade, African elephants are still being poached in colossal numbers. So much so that over the past decade, Central Africa has lost 64 percent of its elephants. Researchers now fear that more elephants are being poached than are being born. A landmark analysis conducted by Colorado State University found that between 2010 and 2012, 100,000 African elephants were killed by poachers. In 2012, one of the largest mass elephant slaughters in decades took place in Bouba Ndjidah National Park, Cameroon. Armed with grenades and AK-47s, poachers slaughtered approximately 650 elephants in roughly three months’ time. The photos circulating the web are too gruesome to share, but a quick search of the internet will deliver horrifying clarity.

This Way Forward
To combat the purchase and sale of ivory, grassroots organizations and community leaders from around the world are exposing the realities of elephant exploitation.  In China, celebrities are working to create a local consciousness and dissuade newer generations from buying ivory products.  Following the campaigns, a shift in thinking has been reported and between 2012 and 2014, the proportion of Chinese who believe elephant poaching is a problem grew from 47% to 71%. Since 2015, Chinese and US governments have agreed to work together and enact a ban on global illegal ivory trade. Some report that the number of poaching deaths in elephants has declined over the past five years, but environmental defenders still have a long road ahead. Though Africa’s open plains seem vast, the growing human population is forcing elephants into smaller habitats where it is easier for poachers to locate their prey. Wildlife organizations from around the world continue their work to protect these magnificent mammals from human disturbances and to preserve their open space.

Elephant families from Tarangire (Tanzania). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Elephant families from Tarangire (Tanzania). Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Wildlife Recovery Efforts Persist After the Thomas Fire Claims 273,400 Acres of Chaparral

From the ashes of the Thomas Fire come stories of displaced human and wildlife. The wildfire has threatened an already sensitive California condor population, torn a mountain lion cub from its mother, and sent birds on an unusual migration. 


Fueled by strong Santa Ana winds, the Thomas Fire burned with an intensity that scorched over 273,400 acres of land. The fire, which has burned for over three weeks, swept through areas of Ventura County, Santa Barbara County, and the Los Padres National Forest to become the largest fire in recorded California history. From the ashes of the flames come the heartbreaking stories of the destruction of entire communities. The news is rife with accounts of human displacement and families spending the holidays at the Ventura County Fairground’s evacuation facility, but the stories of the wildlife—whose already limited open space has been torched—also deserve our attention.

It has been suggested that wildfires can have some benefits to nature— Fire removes low-growing underbrush, cleans the forest floor of debris, allows for more sunlight, and nourishes the soil— but the toll the fire takes can be colossal on the general population of animals who count on existing conditions to survive. Many creatures can be seriously injured or killed by the flames, but perhaps the greatest impact of fire is the loss of habitat and smaller prey that help balance ecosystems and feed larger animals.

Condors, mountain lions, and red-tailed hawks make up just a few of the animals impacted by the Thomas fire. Here are their stories:

California Condors- A Story of Hope

With a 9 1/2-foot-wingspan, the federally endangered California condor is considered the largest scavenging bird in North America. Condors are carnivorous birds who travel widely to feed on the carcasses of deer, rabbits, sea life, and pigs. In the 1980’s, condor populations were down to an astounding 22 birds and on the brink of extinction. Since then, rehabilitation efforts and captive breeding have re-introduced over 230 free-flying birds to the California skies.  As the Thomas Fire made its way through Fillmore, biologists with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service became concerned for the Sespe Condor Sanctuary in the Los Padres National Forest where the endangered birds nest and roost.  Before the fires, a condor chick known as No. 871 was being monitored by biologists as it prepared fledge (fledging, describes the period of time when a young bird develops wing feathers that allow them to leave the nest and fly for the first time). The blaze made its way to the entrance of No. 871’s cave, and the outlook for life seemed bleak.

According to an article published in the Los Angeles Times, scientists spent the days after the fire working hard to locate No. 871 and other condor survivors. Telemetry devices which receive a signal from a tracker attached to each protected condor were used to track movement. For several days after the fire, a weak signal had been transmitted through the trackers, but it was not until Wednesday, December 27th, that crews received the welcomed news of No. 871’s survival. As the condor parents of No. 871 circled their chick, the biologists celebrated their victory. Still, the condors face a hard road ahead as many of the animals they feed upon did not make it through the fire.

Injured Mountain Lion Cub Rescued

Out of Santa Paula comes a rescue story that brings tears to the eyes. Like the California condor, mountain lions in Southern California have been closely monitored for years. As the long-term survival of mountain lions in densely populated areas was increasingly threatened, conservation biologists began a system of tagging and tracking the large cats to study their survival in an urbanized landscape and to help protect them. The majority of older cats living in the Santa Monica and surrounding mountains have been located and tagged, but many young cubs have yet to undergo tagging procedures. Such is the case of newly-discovered mountain lion cub who was injured and likely orphaned during the Thomas Fire. Santa Paula residents reported several sightings of the cub shortly after the blaze, but it wasn’t until the cub was captured off of the bike path that caretakers understood the extent of its injuries.  As a result of the fire, the cub’s paws were badly burned.

The five-month-old cub who weighed in at 32 pounds was tranquilized and lifted into the rescue truck before being turned over to veterinarians working at UC Davis. The vets are working to treat the injuries sustained during the fire and will determine when it is safe to re-release the cub into the wild. Generally speaking, young mountain lions learn to hunt on their own sometime between the ages of six and eight-months-old.

Squirrels and rabbits make up the bulk of a mountain lion’s diet. Since squirrels and rabbits are not as mobile as bigger animals like deer or coyotes,  many either die in the fires or starve to death afterwards in the sparse, charred surroundings. Loss of smaller wildlife not only impacts the individual animals themselves, but also the larger animals on the food web who hunt the smaller prey to sustain their lives.

Fighting For Air Space

In a lot of ways, birds benefit from fires over the longer term. Charred surroundings encourage an overflow of bugs and Bark-and wood-boring beetles will arrive in droves and lay eggs in charred trees—a feast for birds! However, shrinking habitats after a wildfire can encourage competition for land and airspace. Following a wildfire, some birds migrate from their hillside residences to the city. As Havasi Wilderness Foundation’s founder, Alex Havasi, explored the Ventura area after the burn, he captured photos of a red-tailed hawk and a crow in what seemed to be a battle for rights to the sky. 

Countless residents (including myself) have been displaced from their homes along with wildlife and domestic pets who are looking for homes. Find out more about how you can help some of these pets in need by visiting the Ventura County Humane Society and lacountyanimals.org.

Season’s Greetings from HWF!

It’s hard to believe that the end of the year has arrived! 2018 is less than two weeks away, and as the close of this season approaches, we at the Havasi Wilderness Foundation find ourselves in gratitude for the many hands that helped us make 2017 such a spectacular year!

2017 with the Havasi Wilderness Foundation

The foundation has had a busy year and we want to express our gratitude for the individuals that helped us fund raise through our various programs: Planet Green where we collected ink cartridges and small electronic devices for recycling and the Ralphs Community Program for those that shopped and gave their reward points to our foundation. Thanks to Telos Capital Management for helping us with our investment portfolio to bring in additional funds so we can help the next generation. At home, we recycle plastic bottles and the money collected goes back into funding the goals of this nonprofit. Because of these generous contributions we are able to educate youngsters and the general public about wildlife and our shared ecosystem.

Many blogs in 2017 were posted by Makena Crowe and we want to express our thanks to her for some well-written informative blogs. She has gone on to further her career in the legal field and we take this opportunity to wish her success and happiness in this choice.

In mid-March, we went on a National Geographic Around the World by Private Jet trip and  gathered action still-shot photos and videos of wildlife from 11 countries. We were blessed to visit 10 World Heritage sites and learned so much about cultural practices and diverse ecosystems on these travels. Shortly after our return, Alex Havasi compiled our photos into DVD format and we have given presentations at two bird clubs to share what we have learned. We thank the Ventura County Bird Club and the Conejo Valley Audubon Society for inviting us to be their guest speakers.

In the Spring, we attended the 9th Annual SAGE Student Research Conference at California State University Channel Islands. The Havasi Wilderness Foundation nonprofit funds the research program at Santa Rosa Island and this has given us the opportunity to meet each of the university students and learn more about each research project. In addition, we were able to recognize student efforts with a Havasi Wilderness Foundation Scientific Study Participant medal. We hope to continue our work with Cal-State Channel Islands and the Santa Rosa research station and support the next generation of environmental leaders.

Sage Conference at CSUCI.

Sage Conference at CSUCI.

In May,  we welcomed Lola West as our current Media Specialist. She creates the blogs that you read on a regular basis and updates our social media. Thanks to Lola for a job well done. Your enthusiasm and love of nature shows in your posts and we appreciate your work with us to help bring awareness and education to our audience of nature lovers.

Lola West, our new Media Specialist.

Lola West, our new Media Specialist.

In late May, we were invited to visit with the students at the Reményik Sándor Hungarian School in Reseda, California that features an educational program that we annually sponsor. The students performed Hungarian dances, sang songs, and presented us with an album about their educational activities for the semester. The students expressed their gratitude for our financial help of the program and we look forward to offering continued support.

In the summer, we visited the Gibbon Conservation Center in Santa Clarita, California and met Gabriella Skollar, the director. Our media specialist accompanied us and followed up with a very nice blog about gibbons.

For the past 7 years, we have sponsored an educational program at the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. This program has continued to grow and we met in June and in September to visit with the outgoing director of the program, Stephen Vodantis and the incoming interim replacements, first Danielle Alvarez and currently Kelly Kazmirchuk. Elementary schools who wish their students to learn more about the Malibu Lagoon, Topanga State Park, and the Sepulveda Basin wildlife connect with our program so that specially trained instructors can share and teach the various aspects of wildlife and plants at each location.

Our blogs have touched on subjects about dinosaurs, whales, and even outer space adventures and we want to thank Lola West for bringing our year to a close sharing some of her latest voyage experiences and writing such wonderful stories.

At the conclusion of 2017, we wish all of our supporters and visitors a Merry Christmas, Happy Kawanza, Happy Hanukkah, and as they say in Hungarian–Kellemes Karácsonyi ünnepeket kivánunk!

Sandor “Alex” Havasi and Marilyn Fordney

 

 

Walking With the Dinosaurs: An Exploration of Dinosaur Ridge

One of my favorite things about working for the Havasi Wilderness Foundation is that they share my love and curiosity of all things wild. These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of travel and adventure for me. From the goliath mountains in Zion National Park to the prehistoric fossils in Morisson Colorado, there has been little time to rest in the presence of such giants.  Follow our upcoming blog and journey together with me through Utah, Colorado, Tulum, Mexico and the ruins of Chichen Itza.


This week’s adventures begin in Morisson, Colorado: home of the Dinosaur Ridge National Natural Landmark. Located west of Denver and approximately 1 mile from the acclaimed Red Rock Amphitheater, Dinosaur Ridge is one of the world’s most celebrated fossil districts.

Just off of highway C-470, a sign advertising dinosaur footprints caught my eye.  The dinosaur-lover in me prompted a mission to explore the area more thoroughly. The visitor center offered my partner and I a free map and told us that we could either pay to be driven up the mountain or climb it ourselves. Welcoming the opportunity to stretch our legs, we chose the latter.  I was met with a seemingly inconspicuous road and a slow incline of dirt-colored rock that betrayed none of its priceless contents at first glance. As I began the journey up a steep, paved path, my gaze slid over a patch of rock that rippled with a ribboned pattern.  A nearby sign indicated that lines were an impression of preserved microbial mats in which microorganisms turned the sediment layers found in the supratidal zone into spongy, pock-marked mats on the ocean floor.  According to the park, some form of rapid burial helped preserve the wavy shape of the microbial mat while millions of years hardened the sand into stone.  I swung around to study the incline of the mountain on which I stood and paused to reflect on its past-life as an ocean floor.

Microbial mat at Dinosaur Ridge. Photo Credit: Lola West.

Microbial mat at Dinosaur Ridge. Photo Credit: Lola West.

My eyes traveled across the rock to an imprint larger than my head. The deep three-pronged grove was smooth, shaded in black and reminded me of the mark a seagull makes as it walks across wet sand.  I turned to a posted sign nearby and discovered that the print was likely made by an an ostrich-sized carnivore like Ornithomimus.

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Alongside this print were more than 330 other prints comprising 37 different trackways. A trackway is a succession of prints made by an individual dinosaur. In addition to the bird-like three-pronged print, I saw a more bulbous print made by an herbivorous duck-billed dinosaur such as an Iguanodon. Each of the dinosaurs lived in the Cretaceous period (145.0 million to 66 million years ago).

There are over 37 different trackways at Dinosaur ridge.

There are over 37 different trackways at Dinosaur ridge.

Ornithomimus fossil

Ornithomimus fossil

 

While fossils tell the stories behind the way that dinosaurs died, the tracks reveal important information about the way they lived. Colorado has been a hub of dinosaur exploration since 1877, when Arthur Lakes, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines, spotted an enormous vertebra embedded in a block of sandstone at Dinosaur Ridge.

As I came to the middle of the rock exhibition, I noticed the layers of rock beginning to peel away. The sign posted implored us to look closely at deep scars hewn into the surface of the stony landscape.  I studied the scars and a 45 million-year-old story began to take shape.  In contrast to the dinosaur footprints the scars on this rock were jagged and long and took the appearance of being scratched from a large, clawed animal. The Deinosuchus was far larger than any modern crocodile or alligator and at 35 feet, this apex predator was likely capable of hunting large dinosaurs. As the crocodile passed its body through the shallow waters of the prehistoric marine environment, it pressed its claws deep into the sand leaving behind an enchanting story.

Prehistoric crocodile markings. photo credit: Lola West

Prehistoric crocodile markings.
photo credit: Lola West

Prehistoric Crocodile

Prehistoric Crocodile

 

How were these prints preserved?

Though now a sprawling mountainside, Dinosaur Ridge was once an area of marshlands located near a beach. The topography of the marshlands was composed of thick layers of mud-covered sand. As dinosaurs and crocodiles walked through the mud, their prints were depressed into the sandy layers below the mud. The mud hardened into mudstone and millions of years of erosion eventually exposed the sandstone layer that maintained the shape of the footprints. Since Colorado experiences all four seasons, these prints are often exposed to unkind weather conditions. Each time snow covers the prints and melts away it endangers the print itself. In 2010, the community surrounding the Dinosaur National Monument began a campaign to protect and preserve these precious pieces of our prehistoric puzzle.

 

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DSC01042

 

Breathing toxic smog in the world’s most polluted places is like smoking 50 cigarettes a day!

 

The New York Times  reveals that 20 million residents in New Delhi, India are wading through the worst smog the city has seen in 17 years.  Air quality reports indicate that the levels of the most dangerous pollutant, PM 2.5,  have skyrocketed to 70 times what the World Health Organization considers safe (12 to 16 times the limit that India’s own government considers safe). Experts say that the damage from exposure to PM 2.5 is the equivalent of smoking 50 cigarettes a day.  The Indian Medical Association has declared a state of medical emergency, urging residents to remain indoors. But in a city where most do not have the luxury of taking time off of work, people have no choice but to risk exposure to the pollutants.

Some in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Smog in the Gurgaon area near Delhi. By Saurabh Kumar (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 wikicommons

According to Epa.gov, PM 2.5 are fine, inhalable particles whose diameters are 2.5 micrometers and smaller. When inhaled, tiny particulates can become lodged in breathing passageways, triggering asthma and other cardio-pulmonary illnesses. A recent article published by the Lancet‘s Commission on Public Health indicates that pollution is the largest environmental cause of disease and death in the world today— responsible for an estimated 9 million premature deaths in 2015. These rates particularly affect low-income and middle-income countries where 92-percent of pollution-related deaths occur.  In 2015, an estimated 2.5 million Indian people died from exposure to air pollutants. With the annual increase in levels of air pollution, that number is only expected to rise.

History of Smog

The word smog is derived from a combination of smoke and fog (Smoke +Fog= SMOG — genius! )

During the Industrial Revolution, large cities like London provided the setting for the technological, cultural, and economic changes illustrative of the time.  In the early industrial age, British production depended almost entirely on a single fuel source: coal. Coal was used to warm homes, power steam engines, and turn the wheels of industry.  Though unregulated coal burning obscured the skies in industrial cities, it took over two centuries for Europeans to recognize the health hazards related to its atmospheric pollution. During the Great Smog of 1952, coal pollution blanketed the city of London, England in a veil of darkness that forced the closure of city streets, railways, and airports. In the span of one week, more than 4,000 people died from respiratory illnesses and policymakers were forced to act. In the weeks to follow, an estimated total of 12,000 people were victims of the polluted air.

Where does India’s pollution come from?

The Indian government faults emissions from vehicles, factories, power plants, and construction as the main contributors to this winter’s horrible smog. Since last year’s record-breaking smog, New Delhi residents have called for increased regulation and policies that would help regulate emissions, but progress has been slow. At the 2015 Paris agreement to address climate change, India promised to curb emissions by moving away from fossil fuels.  However, they face a great challenge as 30-percent of the population still does not have access to what is now considered a basic need: electricity. While the demand for inexpensive power begins to rise, areas within South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa— two regions of the globe with the least access to electricity— have become targets for renewable growth. But with renewable energy costs nowhere near as affordable as fossil fuel energy, one wonders how these lower-income areas will be able to move towards development.

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Sulfer dioxide emissions. By Brocken Inaglory, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17778985

Let’s get one thing straight: air pollution is not isolated to India— it is happening worldwide.  China, the US, and India are the top three emitters of greenhouse gases, and while China takes the lead— if you examine the per capita (per person) pollution rate— the US more than doubles China’s emissions rate. Climate experts say there is no room for emissions in developing countries to reach the high levels that have been typical of wealthier countries. Fossil fuel generated electricity— the largest single source of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide— would only intensify current levels of pollution. One potential solution for this growing concern came from the 2015 Paris agreement which responds to the threat of global climate change with the goal of lowering global temperature to  pre-industrial levels. The agreement recognized that the poorest countries cannot afford to invest in renewable energy on their own and has promised extensive financial and technical help to them.  As the US pulls its support from the climate agreement, it remains to be seen how much help will be given to the developing countries from other UN nations.

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Busy street in Nepal shrouded in smog. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

In addition to vehicular and industrial emissions, the practices of clearing green spaces and burning croplands has also contributed to the decline in air quality in New Delhi. For farmers in India and neighboring Pakistan, crop burning is the traditional way to dispose of leftovers after their late-October harvest. Fire is used to quickly clear fields of wheat, rice and sugarcane for replanting and some believe the char is ideal for re-growth. However, the smoke that often rises over Delhi is anything but ideal.  During the winter, there is little wind and the capital is most vulnerable to toxic smog.

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/

Rice crop burning in India. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia

 

How can you help?

A fix to the greenhouse gas emission crisis that we face is not the work of one person. It will require working together on a global scale to implement changes. Here are a few things you can do in your own life to make a difference:

  1. Recycle waste, reduce consumption, REUSE! If you are going to buy something that is disposable, try to get more than one use out of it. Sew a small tear in your clothing and take your shoes, wallet, or purse to a repair shop before you decide to toss them.
  2. Participate in your local food system. Shop local farmers markets and CSA’s and help cut the estimated 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions resulting from the production and transportation of food.
  3. Carpool when you can. Ride your bike. Walk to close destinations.
  4. Get to know the place where you live so well that you want to protect it. Attend city council meetings when an area is marked for development. Get involved and ask questions, such as how many trees will remain as green belt space to increase the   production of oxygen.
  5. Support organizations that work to better the planet.

Coral Crisis- Bleaching on the Barrier Reef

Coral Reefs

Coral reefs are in crisis, dying at an alarming rate worldwide. Since 1975, 80-90% of the reefs in the Florida Keys have lost their living coral (NOAA.org). Overall, around 25% of corals on Earth have disappeared and the speed of degradation has dangerously accelerated over the past decade. Marine biologists predict that if deterioration continues at this rate, there will be no active coral to study by the year 2050. If these estimations are correct, within our lifetime we may witness the expiration of some of the most integral members of Earth’s ecology.

Netflix’s original documentary, “Chasing Coral,” highlights the rapid decline of the world’s coral and the cause of the bleaching events leading to its demise. Jeff Orlowski, the film’s director, Richard Vevers, the founder of the Ocean Agency and a crew of passionate scientists, divers, and photographers spent over four months documenting life in and around the Great Barrier Reef to highlight the impact of climate change on coral reefs. As the film points out, prior to “Chasing Coral” much of this devastating loss has been overlooked by the media, largely because people view the ocean as out of sight, out of mind. Vevers, an ex-advertising executive, views this ignorance as an issue with the way the ocean is advertised and hopes that this documentary brings mainstream attention and interest to the travesties happening beneath the ocean’s surface.

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Coral: A Quiet Sophistication

Known as the “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs are the greatest expression of ocean life and the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. A single reef can house over one million animal and plant species and include up to 1000 different species of corals.  Among the 1000 species of reef-building coral, one will find a multitude of varying sizes, shapes, and textures. Some coral species look like large underwater rocks, while others uphold intricate branching patterns that give them the appearance of a delicate fan.

In the film, Dr. Ruth Gates, Coral Reef Biologist at the Hawaiian Institute of Marine Biology, describes that coral is an animal made up of thousands of small structures called polyps. Each polyp is a circular mouth surrounded by tentacles. The inside of the coral is filled with microalgae (small plants) that use photosynthesis to produce food for the animal during the daytime. At night, the corals come alive and the animal extends its tentacles, catching whatever passes by it. For the intricately connected coral animal and the plants living within, symbiosis is extreme. Without the microalgae, corals are at risk of starvation.

 

Coral Bleaching

Coral bleaching is a stress response (like a fever in humans) to warming waters. As the temperature on land escalates, the ocean helps absorb some of that increase. According to recent studies, the ocean has absorbed 93% of the warming created by humans since the 1970’s (IUCN report 2016). When water temperatures spikes above normal range, corals undergo bleaching— a process in which the inside tissues of stressed corals have an impaired ability to photosynthesis and feed the animals. To preserve their polyp and skeletal structure, the animals get rid of plants that are no longer functional and leave behind naked tissues. These bright-white skeletal structures are a far cry from the brilliant corals found in a healthy reef.

During a bleaching event, large swaths of coral reef whiten over the course of a few short weeks. Bleaching itself does not kill the coral. The bright-white pigment pictured below shows the skeleton of a coral that is still alive but without nutrients.  In losing their internal food systems, corals begin to starve. As the coral dies, its surface becomes covered in fuzzy micro algae and the aquatic life surrounding the coral must find refuge elsewhere.

Both shallow (between 3 and 150 feet) and deep (up to 450 feet deep) reefs can be found in nearly every corner of the world. Presently, two-thirds of them are endangered.

 

A Shift In Thinking

Currently, the Great Barrier Reef is the largest living thing on our planet, and in 2016, 29% of it was lost. “Chasing Coral” has drawn the attention of the masses, so there’s no doubt that many will flock to the remaining reefs to catch the last glimpse of their beauty before their predicted eradication. But according to the film, losing the Great Barrier Reef has actually got to mean something. We cannot just let it die so that it becomes photos in an old textbook—it has got to be a wake-up call. After watching “Chasing Coral” and pouring through research,  I began to wonder what it would look like if humans viewed the reefs as vital parts of the Earth’s ecosystem rather than as tourist attractions that are marketed to stimulate local economies. What would it mean if each visitor was forced to study the delicate ecosystem in which they are visitors? Would a transition from voyeur to citizen scientist generate enough conversation for people to realize the detrimental ripple effect that consumption, pollution, waste, and exploitation has on our environment? One can only hope.

Odin The Brave- A Tale Of Friendship And Survival Amid The Horrors Of A Wildfire

Northern California firefighters have spent the last week battling 14 separate infernos that claimed the lives of over 40 individuals. With 88 people still missing, the death toll is expected to rise. The fires, which began on October 8th, have charred over 220,000 acres of land and displaced thousands from their homes. Warming Northern climates and unusually high wind speeds of 50mph accelerated the Tubbs fire in Santa Rosa into a raging blaze that scorched mountains and destroyed nearby homes. Now, a little over a week since the fires began, the story of a heroic dog named Odin, who risked his life to protect a herd of goats, arises from the ashes of the blaze.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

Deer looking for a safe place during a wildfire.

As the deadly flames of the Tubbs Fire tore through his property, Roland Tembo Hendel loaded his family, cats, and dogs into the car. At least, the dogs that would follow him. Odin, the family’s stubborn and fearless Great Pyrenees refused to abandon the goats that he was responsible for. Faced with the decision to leave behind his beloved dog or put his family in certain danger, Roland bid a sad farewell to Odin.

Roland described via Facebook that “even under the best of circumstances it is nearly impossible to separate Odin from the goats when he takes over the close watch from his sister Tessa after nightfall. I made a decision to leave him, and I doubt I could have made him come with us if I tried.”

Escaping with their lives and the contents of their pockets, Roland wrote on Facebook, “when we had outrun the fires I cried, sure that I had sentenced Odie to death, along with our precious family of bottle-raised goats.” But Odin—whose is named after the Norse God— proved to be the family’s “miracle”.

Preparing for the worst, Roland recounted via Facebook that as they returned to the “smoldering wasteland” and ruins of their home, they were miraculously greeted by a limping Odin and the eight goats that were left in his care. Odin survived the flames that took the life of one of Hendel’s neighbors — Lynne Powell — with burned fur, melted whiskers, and several deer who huddled around him for safety.

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Odin and the Goats. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

odin and goats

The remains of the Hendel Family home. Photo via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hucklesberries

Send in the Goats

Meanwhile, suburban hillsides across Southern California have seen an increase in goats working to chomp away at overgrown brush and dry vegetation. As population growth pushes human habitation deeper into fire-vulnerable areas, risk of structural damage, injury, and even death are on the rise.

Traditional clearing methods like the prescribed burn— a fire deliberately set to clear out the threatening dry fuel— can too easily get out of hand. While some fire-prone terrain can be too rocky for mechanical equipment or expose expensive workers to uneven poison oak infested grounds, goats are almost always up for the job.

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This past summer, the Havasi Foundation snapped a photo of goats chomping away at the grass on the hillside. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Since the story has gone viral,  Odin’s family has been showered with love and support and Odin himself enjoyed a large steak dinner. Other victims of the recent fires have not been so lucky.  Currently, wildfires continue to burn through Northern California, Portugal and Spain— claiming the lives of over 100 innocent victims unable to escape the flames.  As the climate continues to change, it is important to keep areas of dry grass manicured and educate yourselves on your local fire plans. If you hear of a wildfire burning in your area, please don’t wait—evacuate as soon as possible.


 

Cassini-The Wonder of Saturn  

At the California Science Center’s latest Lunch and Learn, Project Manager and Mars Specialist, Devin Waller, walked a group of around 25 financial contributors of the CSC from the Sun to Saturn.  The distance from Saturn (the sixth planet from the sun) and the actual sun spans approximately 891 million miles. Our stroll through a mock model of the solar system built by Science Center employees wasn’t quite as far as that. The walk itself could have been completed in no more than 5 minutes had Devin not gifted us with the engineering and scientific perspectives involved in replicating our universe. Models like the one pictured below help students and visitors of the California Science Center understand the intricacies of space.

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller Give Insight Into Our Solar System. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

Ken Phillips and Devin Waller share insights into our solar system. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi

 

We began at the Sun– a 4.5-billion-year old star that accounts for 99.86 percent of the mass in our solar system. Given its size, it is estimated that over one million Earths could fit inside of the sun! This giant ball of gas is composed of 70 percent hydrogen and 28 percent helium. As the two gases react, intense amounts of energy and heat are created. Without this energy,  there would be no life on Earth.

 An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.


An ultraviolet telescope onboard the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory captured this spectacular view of the prominence at 13:19 UT on June 9th.

 

Next we arrived at the smallest and innermost planet, Mercury.  Mercury orbits the sun in just 88 days, making the shortest orbit of any planet. Each complete orbit around the sun represents one “year,” while a rotation on a planet’s axis represents one “day.”  Its temperature ranges from -297 on the side opposite the sun to + 800 degrees on the side facing the sun. Because Mercury is so close to the sun, it is hard to directly observe from Earth except during the hours of dawn or twilight.

The second planet we visited was Venus, a celestial body located 67 million miles from the Sun. Known as the rocky planet, Venus has the longest rotation of the solar system family and has a scorching temperature of 896 degrees.  It takes 224 Earth days for Venus to experience one “day.” Unlike most other planets in the Solar System, which rotate on their axes in a counter-clockwise direction, Venus rotates clockwise (this is called “retrograde” rotation).  Our home, Earth, is the third planet in line from the sun. One rotation on Earth takes 24 hours with a complete orbit around the sun lasting 365 days. Our planet’s average temperature is a balmy 61 degrees. In contrast, Mars is a rocky planet 141,700,000 miles from the sun that has a temperature of -81 degrees. With its thin atmosphere and lack of liquid water, winds drive the global conditions. NASA space projects have been studying Mars since the 1960s. According to NASA, the goal of the Mars Exploration Program has been to provide a continuous flow of scientific information and discovery through a carefully-selected series of robotic orbiters, landers and mobile laboratories interconnected by a high-bandwidth Mars/Earth communications network. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars represent the terrestrial planets: inner planets closest to the Sun that are composed primarily of silicate rocks or metals.

As our tour moved on to the outer planets, we stopped at a replica of the gas giant known as Jupiter—the largest planet in our Solar System.  Like the Sun, Jupiter is composed of hydrogen and helium yet it is a cold planet (minus 234 degrees Fahrenheit). Its massive size and distance from the sun (483,500,000 miles) makes it so that it takes 11.86 years for Jupiter to complete an orbit. It has 67 known moons and like Saturn, Jupiter has rings.  Unlike the vivid, icy rings of Saturn, Jupiter’s rings are subtle, sandy structures.

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

The Solar System (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune)

 

Our final stops on the walking tour took us to Saturn, one of the most visually stunning celestial bodies in our Solar System, and a replica of the spacecraft Cassini, which spent over a decade studying Saturn. We had the great privilege of listening as Dr. Jo Pitesky, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory who worked with Cassini from 2001 until 2017, provide details about Cassini and its twenty-year mission.  Cassini was the latest NASA spacecraft to explore Saturn, completing its journey on September 15th, 2017. Cassini launched in 1997 and arrived at Saturn seven years later. In that time, the spacecraft captured stunning photos of the planet’s weather systems (including the changing seasons in the Northern Hemisphere), magnificent rings, and it’s 62 moons while providing invaluable data on Saturn and its atmosphere.  Cassini viewed, listened, smelled, and even tasted Saturn’s moons– and what it learned about them is nothing short of remarkable. Probing Saturn’s icy moons, Cassini discovered that water is continually spewing out of jets around the southern pole of Saturn’s moon Enceladus. It also found liquid water on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan.   These extraordinary discoveries indicate that Enceladus and Titan have all of the ingredients necessary for life and make future space exploration all the more exciting. The “Grand Finale Orbits” that carried Cassini to its end helped solve longtime mysteries such as the planet’s rate of rotation, the length of a day on Saturn, and the mass of its stunning rings. Dr. Pitesky made her commitment to the project transparent, explaining that she could spend weeks describing Cassini accomplishments.

The start of Cassini’s final voyage began on September 12th, 2017.  Cassini continued transmitting messages as long as possible until the force of Saturn’s atmosphere overpowered the spacecraft thrusters and Cassini could no longer make contact with Earth. At 3:31 am (PDT) on September 15th, 2017, Cassini’s final signal was received. As Dr. Jo Pitesky narrated the extraordinary life of Cassini and its final descent to Saturn, it was hard to find a dry eye in the room.  Showing us photos of the thousands of men and women involved in the Cassini mission– to provide information and educate the world– she likened its journey to the following quote.

“Though here at journey’s end I lie
in darkness buried deep,
beyond all towers strong and high,
beyond all mountains steep,
above all shadows rides the Sun
and Stars for ever dwell:
I will not say the Day is done,
nor bid the Stars farewell.

J. R. R. Tolkein

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Lola West, Dr. Jo Pitesky, and Marilyn Fordney. Photo Credit: Alex havasi

Urban Coyote Conflicts

Growing up in the suburbs, my friends and I spent many weekend nights powerwalking through our neighborhoods, deep in conversation. It was an excellent way to process through our angst-laden teenage years while maintaining our physique. Though a few street lamps could be seen scattered about the city’s larger streets, the blackness of night was for the most part unfettered by light. In my youth, I appreciated this obscurity and reveled in the fact that most nights we had the streets to ourselves. One night, as we walked towards an intersection lit only by the red hand of the cross walk sign, we heard the sound of movement in the nearby leaves. Realizing that we were no longer alone, I turned my head in the direction of the noise and saw two yellow eyes peering back at me. My first thought was to run. My second was to scream. Ultimately, fear kept me frozen in place and silent as a mouse. The eyes grew larger and as the body they were attached to came closer, I found myself within feet of a large coyote.  I watched in amazement as the coyote made its way through the crosswalk, keeping within the lines.

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The Urban Coyote

Coyotes (Canis latrans) are smart. In response to shrinking wild spaces, these cunning creatures have migrated from their origins in the American southwest to nearly every corner of Northern and Central America (save for Hawaii). This forced migration has encouraged new survival instincts in coyotes obliged to thrive in pastoral and suburban regions as well as densely populated urban landscapes.  A coyote’s versatility extends to its diet, which changes based on what’s available in its environment. Typically, their diet consists of rabbits, squirrels, mice, rats, insects, reptiles and wild berries. In the wild, coyotes generally keep their distance from humans. Yet, as natural predators and barriers of habitat shrink, the interface between wild and domestic begins to expand. Over the past two decades, America has seen a swelling of inner-city coyote populations. In that time, generations of coyotes who have never known undeveloped spaces have been born into metropolitan areas that lack green landscape. These native city-slickers have become adept at surviving in urban settings- foraging through dumpsters and compost bins, navigating crosswalks, and consuming small domestic pets. Weighing anywhere from 15-50 pounds, their smaller frames allow them an agility that makes hopping an eight foot fence in the suburbs nearly effortless.

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A Canine Confrontation

Every year, local police and wildlife organizations receive thousands of reports of coyotes disrupting the domestic sphere. For the most part, human encounters with a singular coyote or a small pack have not proven consistently dangerous. However, as urban coyote populations rise, reports of attacks on individuals and pets have amplified. In 2009, 19 year-old Taylor Mitchell died of blood loss after coyotes bit her while she was walking on a trail in Eastern Canada. Though not an urban attack, sensational media often draw from the experience with Mitchell to illuminate the perils of human-coyote interaction. Experts indicate that the keys to maintaining safety are to keep coyotes from getting accustomed to humans and to limit interaction. Hazing, the practice of scaring off coyotes with deterrents- shouting, clapping, blowing air horns, or spraying with water- is considered the basis of coyote management plans which seek to discourage coyotes from becoming too relaxed in their urban surroundings.  Pupping season lasts from August until January. During these months, protective mothers are more likely to act in defense of their dens. If you encounter a coyote at this time, the best thing to do is to slowly and calmly walk away without turning your back on the coyote. Stay tall and assertive as you leave the area, even if it means walking backwards.

This Way Forward

The relationship between human and coyote is extremely complex and warrants a deeper look. It is significant to note that human development continues to displace wildlife from their homes.  While property on the foothills is desirable, one should prepare themselves to encounter emigrant wildlife. The Urban Coyote Initiative is a group of photojournalists who aim to shed light on the lives and behaviors of coyotes living in close proximity to humans.  Organizations like these remove the mystery of urban coyote behavior and lay the foundation for a more harmonious inhabiting of shared space. You can see some of their work here.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Chaparral Coyote. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Can Animals Predict Earthquakes?

For the second time in two weeks, an earthquake has struck Mexico, leveling sky rises, splitting freeways, and killing over 270 people.  The 7.1-magnitude quake that occurred Tuesday afternoon has overwhelmed residents and officials of Mexico City.  Located in a region known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, a 25,000-mile U-shaped ring of Pacific coastline that stretches from the Indian-Australian Plate to the South-American Plate, Mexico City is an area that is notoriously at risk for major earthquakes.  Linked to 80 percent of global quakes, the Pacific Ring is considered one of the most seismically active areas on the planet.

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes

Dogs Aid in Search and Rescue Efforts in Many Earthquakes. Photo By DFID (John Ball with rescue dog Darcy in Chautara, Nepal) via Wikimedia Commons

What Causes Earthquakes and Can They Be Predicted?

An earthquake occurs when massive blocks of the earth’s crust known as tectonic plates, suddenly move past each other, releasing built up pressure and energy in the form of seismic waves.  These seismic waves are responsible for making the ground shake.  Currently, seismologists have not figured out a way to predict earthquake far enough in advance to avoid the mass casualties that accompany colossal quakes. Though extensive research and scientific support has yet to approve these theories, many suggest that animals have the capacity to foreshadow earthquakes before they occur.

Animal Instinct

Since the time of ancient Greece, some historians have maintained the belief that animals have the ability to predict the arrival of earthquakes. After a devastating earthquake decimated the Greek city of Heline in 373 B.C, townsfolk reported that snakes, rats, centipedes and weasels were seen fleeing the city in the days leading up to the quake.

Similarly, Chinese officials ordered the evacuation of Haicheng, a city with over one million residents, just days before a 7.3-magnitude quake in the winter of 1975. This order came after a large number of snakes in the area interrupted their hibernation and emerged from their burrows. Normally this surfacing would not be a cause for concern, but winters in Haicheng can be brutally cold and temperatures at this time were below freezing levels. Snakes are cold-blooded reptiles who must maintain a warmer body temperature to survive. During winter months, they tunnel themselves deep within the ground and remain there until spring. As witnesses in Haicheng reported the snakes leaving their burrows and exposing themselves to the frigid cold, officials became alarmed and evacuations began.  When the earthquake arrived two days later, a small portion of the population who failed to evacuate were hurt or killed while close to 150,000 evacuees were spared.

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Can Snakes Like This One Understand Earthquake Warning Signs?

Arguments from those who believe that animals have the ability to predict natural disasters rely on the understanding that earthquakes generate electrical fields and magnetic fluctuations.  Since many animals have the ability to hear infrasonic sounds like the low rumbling of an onrushing earthquake, it is possible that they can sense a quake before we can. Additionally, changes in the mineral and chemical composition of  groundwater have been measured before the onset of a quake. Historically, instances of entire amphibian populations (frogs and toads) abandoning their swampy homes before an earthquake have been reported. In 2010, the Journal of Zoology published a study in which a colony of toads deserted their mating site three days before an earthquake struck L’Aquila in Italy. The toads did not return back to their homes unit the last aftershock hit 10 days later. Studying a pre-quake mass exodus like the one in Italy could help scientists dechipher the connection between animal instinct and natural disaster. However, the US geological survey says there is just not enough evidence to conclusively determine that animals are accurate predictors of a quake well enough in advance.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

Frogs Line the Streets Before a Big Earthquake Hits China.

A New Way Forward

Seismologist Joseph L. Kirschvink suggests that an animal’s instinctual fight or flight response may provide a sort of early warning system for seismic events.  Building on his theory, the German-Russian lead project, Icarus (International Cooperation for Animal Research Using Space) uses a satellite-based monitoring system to track the response of mass migrations of birds as they pass through the epicenter of an earthquake. Icarus researchers are counting on migrating birds to cross the path of at least one of the 100 large scale earthquakes that happen each year. If the birds sense the epicenter and re-route their traditional migratory paths away from it, positive evidence that animals have the instinctual ability to foretell the coming of an earthquake can be examined.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

Migratory Birds In Flight. Photo Credit: Alex Havasi.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

ICARUS Satellite Used to Track Migration of Birds.

Earthquakes can cause serious damage in the homes and lives of the people that you love. If you live in an earthquake zone,  you should prepare an earthquake kit and check on its contents every few years.