As we get into Autumn in the northern hemisphere, one of nature’s greatest spectacles is taking place, birds are migrating south in large numbers, with many leaving us and some arriving from the north!
As we get into Autumn in the northern hemisphere, one of nature’s greatest spectacles is taking place, birds are migrating south in large numbers, with many leaving us and some arriving from the north!
The Great Barrier Reef has passed away in 2016 at just 25 million years old, this startling news came in an obituary written by Rowan Jacobsen for Outside Magazine, the frankly brilliant article has gone viral, leading many to begin mourning the death the largest living entity on the planet. However, people of the world, you can stop your mourning, wipe away those tears, take off the black clothes and cancel the flights to Australia for the wake, because the reef is not dead, yet.
The reef is certainly not well and could die off in our lifetime. Reefs around the world are threatened by rising ocean temperatures as a result of climate change, this causes coral bleaching. Recent coral bleaching events have taken a huge toll on the system, bleaching occurs when the coral is subjected to high temperatures for an extended period of time. Coral is a living being and interestingly relies on a type of algae to produce food for it, in return the algae lives in the coral, which is protected. However when the water temperature is too high the algae becomes destructive to the coral, so as a reaction to this it effectively spits out the algae, without the algae the coral has nothing to feed on and it can starve to death. When the algae is spat out the coral is left with just the skeleton and appears white, which is what we describe as bleached. However, just because coral has become bleached does not mean it is automatically dead, some can recover if the temperature falls. In some cases scientists have found examples of coral surviving large bleaching events, and not all of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached. To pronounce the reef dead at this stage would be like declaring your 75-year-old grandmother as dead after she had a rough few months, it’s not great, but she isn’t a completely lost cause.
It is dangerous to preach such doom and gloom, because whilst it may open some eyes to the issues facing the natural world, many will believe that there is nothing that can be done to save the planet and thus won’t do anything. Nature is being pushed to the limit and the Barrier Reef is a prime example, however never write it off until it is actually gone, the death of our wildlife and our large ecosystems is not inevitable if we start to actually demand change from our governments whilst making small changes to our own lives. The response to the obituary has shown that no one wants the reef to die, it is now time to hear the warnings and make the changes needed to save the Great Barrier Reef and oceans as a whole.
Well what a few weeks I have had, I am back after a bit of a whirlwind month.
I was in South Africa taking part in the IFAW Youth Forum for People and Wildlife, this event brought together 34 youth environmental leaders from 25 countries to learn, connect and tackle some the biggest issues facing wildlife today. The event coincided with CITES, the largest wildlife conference on Earth, which was also taking place in South Africa.
Youth in wildlife conservation often struggle to get a voice, the field can be a bit of a old mans club, and whilst this is changing, it was incredibly refreshing to meet with conservationists from all walks of life. Before the Forum I had expected it to be an amazing experience, however I did not know the real positive impact it would have both professionally and personally.
The first few days were designed to introduce us to each other, to learn about the work we are all doing and the country that was hosting us, South Africa. We visited the community of Kliptown within the township Soweto. Here I came face to face with poverty for the first time, I saw children that struggled to go to school, shared squat toilets and had limited access to drinking water. However what really sticks with me is that Kliptown is not a ‘poor African’ stereotype, but rather a vibrant, happy and hopeful community. All through Kliptown you are not faced with a pity party, instead there is music, dancing, laughter, play and life. People here are not sad poor people, they are just people living their lives like everyone else.
We then learnt about the dark history of South Africa in the apartheid museum and finished positively by visiting Nelson Mandela’s house and the towers of Soweto. Johannesburg is not Vancouver, it has a reputation and caution is definitely advised, but don’t write it off, it is a city of surprises with so much culture and history.
We then left the hustle and bustle of the city for Pilanesberg National Park, where we stayed in one of the fanciest places I have ever been! The time in Pilanesberg National Park was a chance for us to continue getting to know each other and discuss how we can work together towards our goals and a successful Forum. We also heard from the rangers of the park on how they risk their lives everyday to try and save wildlife from poaching. Over the 2 days we got to go out on game drives, watching some of the most iconic African species in their natural habitat. We saw a leopard trying to hunt impala and lions laying in the road just a short distance from where we would be eating dinner and a giant crocodile swimming right in front of the hide we were sat in. The list of wildlife is endless so here are some highlights- leopard, lion, elephants (and baby), rhino, wildebeest, giraffe, crocodile, zebra, impala, springbok, hoopoe, roller and African fish eagles.
After leaving Pilanesberg, we returned to Johannesburg and began the Forum. This was 3 days of workshops, debates, discussions, expert panels and guest speakers. The topics ranged from CITES to effective communication and diversity in conservation, as well as learning about the brutal reality of wildlife trade. It was a privilege to hear from and openly speak to experts in the field.
My work in education covers an aspect on wildlife trade, but the Forum gave me a shocking insight on how big and devastating wildlife trade is throughout the world, it is a complex issue that is having a huge impact on wildlife populations. It is so important that we all educate ourselves and others about what wildlife trade looks like, it is not all rhino horn, tiger bone and elephant tusks, it can be as innocent looking as the parrot in the pet shop or the cute slow loris being tickled on Facebook. People in the trade prey on the naivety or apathy of the public and it is so important that we learn to spot the signs, because with no consumers or admirers, the trade becomes worthless.
As the Forum came to a close we had a VIP evening hosted in our honour, which was attended by the CITES Secretary General, government officials from across the world and conservationists from a variety of organisations.
On the final day we went to CITES for the opening ceremony. There I got to chat with a number of people about the upcoming convention, I heard about sharks, African grey parrots, whales, frogs and everything in between. Wildlife conservation is never as clear cut as sometimes it seems, this was definitely a lesson learnt.
The week was intense, action packed and over way too fast. The highlight was of course meeting and getting to know the other 33 delegates and the amazing staff, who worked so hard to put it all together. We represented 25 countries and work in a variety of areas in conservation. The work that they do is unbelievable, It was a privilege, how often do you get the chance to learn first hand about conservation and wildlife in 25 different countries?! As well as this I got the chance to represent where I am from and where I live, talking to delegates and experts about the wildlife and conservation taking place on Vancouver Island, throughout Canada and the UK. The plan is not to stop here, the group will continue to work together with aims to expand and include more young people from around the world, to give youth a voice in wildlife conservation and to tackle the issues impacting wildlife and people.
So it is finally here, I am off to Johannesburg tomorrow to attend the Youth Forum for People and Wildlife, the week will be filled with saving species, safaris and sun. The forum is being hosted by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) as part of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). If you happen to be interested in following the event, which will include lots of wildlife related talks, discussions etc. then follow the link below. Exciting!
I shall be doing a proper write up on the event when I am back but for now I shall sign off, see you on the other side!
Positive environmental news is hard to find, particularly in the UK at the minute, but the ban on microbeads is a positive step forward. Microbeads are tiny pieces of plastic found in cosmetic products such as toothpaste, facial scrubs and make up. Most of the time they are so tiny you would not even notice they were there, and they are often not labeled.
To give you context over 680 tonnes of microbeads are used in the UK each year, this has a hugely detrimental impact on marine life. Due to their small size microbeads are often mistaken as food by fish and other marine life, and accumulate in the food chain. Over 280 marine species have been shown to ingest microbeads. After lobbying from environmental groups and the public, the government’s decision to ban microbeads deserves credit, the ban is not a solution the whole plastic pollution issue, but it is a start and is certainly a win for our marine environment.
Throughout my time in environmental education, I have seen children from all walks of life and two key points are consistent.
The first: No matter their age, their background or socio-economic situation, children are fascinated by nature. They love talking about it, they love being outside in it and they love sharing stories and experiences. Never once has a child hated a lesson on local animals.
And second, they simply do not get enough wild time. I often find that my programs will be one of only a handful of opportunities, if not the only opportunity, for these young people to have a lesson solely on wildlife. I return to many of the same classes year after year. The excited looks on their faces as I enter the classroom is of course wonderful for me, but ultimately a stark reminder that in many cases this is their one chance this year to learn about, share and discuss wildlife in depth. Many teachers of course are wildlife lovers themselves. They are not denying children the opportunities; they simply do not have the resources.
I love my job. I love going from school to school, from child to child sharing my passion whilst listening to their stories and often their solutions to environmental issues. Some of the stories they tell me are unbelievable, from the little boy who once woke up to find a cougar eating a deer on his deck to the little girl who shares what is arguably a friendship with a barred owl that has lived in her garden for three years.
But to say that this job is all rainbows and sunshine would be a lie. Experiences like speaking to children who have never visited a local nature reserve because their parents simply cannot afford the bus or asking a young pupil why he was not wearing a raincoat on a nature walk on a wet winter’s day in Vancouver, only to get the response ‘I do not have a coat, because I am not allowed outside in the rain’ can make this job both frustrating and sad. Over the last four years I have seen more than 15,000 children mostly in Canada, but also in the UK, and the situation in both places is the same.
The number one challenge that we face is funding. Every year is simply a struggle to survive. Whilst there are many wonderful businesses, foundations and multi-nationals willing to give money to environmental education and some limited government funding, it simply is not enough to meet the demand. If we want to seriously adopt environmental education on a wider scale, more money has to be given to non-profit organisations, which often cannot pay staff to deliver programs or get funding to cover administrative costs. Schools are often so stretched that paying for extra curricular activities for all their students is simply not possible.
I focus my programs on local wildlife, highlighting the species they could see in their area. When dealing with a such a variety of students, adaptation is key, ensuring that each program is geared to that class is the difference between connecting with them or not. Young people in the city, for example, face different challenges than those in the countryside. To me, this highlights another challenge to environmental education, particularly when thinking about it being added to the classroom experience.
We live in a very structured and standardised world. The school environment in particular can be like this, and whilst I do not see this as a negative thing, when thinking about environmental education, it is often not structured, in fact it’s the opposite: it’s mostly organised chaos. So in order for environmental education to work, we have to change our approach. Environmental education should be seen as an opportunity to give students a sense of freedom to explore the environment, a topic with no tests, no progress reports or pressure.
Activities such as building bird boxes, researching animals, visiting a local park, dissecting owl pellets, touching trees or pond dipping should be on the agenda. With many teachers already drowning in work and stress, the idea of having to learn to build a bird box or brush up on their bird identification may seem daunting and unappealing.
That’s where the non-profits and environmental educators come in. We know how to plan programs. We can put together a series of lessons throughout the school year, having this in the curriculum does not have to add to the teachers’ workload. It again comes down to the main challenge of money; give environmental education money and non-profits can develop and deliver programs and give schools the time to include them in the school year.
The final challenge in environmental education is the message we deliver. I think that when talking about the environment and wildlife it is very easy, particularly for those of us who have studied and watched it for a number of years, to be a little negative and focus on the problems. Whilst the reality is of course that wildlife is in serious decline and the environment is facing issues, we have to be careful how we convey this and the importance of giving a positive, lasting impression cannot be underestimated. Wildlife can be seen in a negative way in society and this is something that is picked up on by children.
To have someone talking about wildlife in a positive and enthusiastic way is far more likely to engage and spark interest. Wildlife issues can seem too big and overwhelming, but by breaking them down and keeping it simple with a positive message, young people can see how they can find solutions to the problems.
I am so incredibly lucky to do what I do. How many people can spend their morning showing children species in their school playground and the afternoon learning about the importance of the wolf from First Nations’ children? My job is a privilege and whilst I would not go as far as to say I am incredibly important, environmental education is. It has known benefits to not only the environment but to students; it improves their health, their wellbeing, their concentration and their schoolwork.
I will continue to advocate and push for environmental education to be added to the curriculum and for adequate funding to be provided to schools and non-profits so that students from all backgrounds can get access to nature, something they deserve and ultimately need.
What makes nature so wonderful is that it is non-discriminatory and inclusive, and it can have a positive impact on anyone. I truly believe that if we want to protect our environment and reverse the damage we have caused, our governments must provide environmental education in the classroom to every child that goes to school. They do not get much credit, but let me tell you, the children in school today are some of the most environmentally conscious people you will meet. They want to learn, they want to share and ultimately they want to make a difference.
That is the positive message moving forward. Let’s make it happen!
It does not get easier, the sound of the alarm at 3.55am, dragging what can only be described as my carcass from my warm bed to a cold dark car is never a fun experience, and to top it off I am doing it voluntarily. So why am I up at this ungodly hour? Well, it’s bird banding/ringing season, the end of July/start of August is really the beginning of the end of summer. Our birds have mated and raised their young and are now starting to thinking about moving south. Once I have awoken a bit from my slumber it starts to become worth it, as I make the 40 minute drive west into the Canadian countryside, the view is pretty spectacular, dark misty forest to the right and to the left the sun rising over the Straits, with the large looming volcano Mount Baker casting a shadow over the area.
I arrive at the banding station before 5am, the sun is starting to rise, and nets are opened. The birds are banded for research purposes, in order for researchers to get a better idea of their migration patterns and population, data that is used in their conservation. A bird is caught in the net and retrieved then weighed, sexed, aged and banded before being released, a process that takes no more than 10 minutes and does not cause any damage.
The group is out everyday of the week during the migration period, and nets are opened for 6 hours from sunrise. Today I was lucky, 46 birds were caught and released.
It was a day filled with warblers, we had Wilson’s Warbler, a small bright yellow species where males have jet black on the top of their heads; Yellow Warbler, a species that, as the name suggests, is all yellow; Macgillivray’s Warbler, a yellow bodied warbler with a grey/blue head and the Orange Crowned Warbler, a green/yellow species who has a hidden orange crown on their heads, you have to blow the feathers to fully see the orange feathers!
There was a good variety coming through, we had a House Wren and Creeper, these birds are very different to the warblers, both species are brown and slightly speckled. The creeper is a small bird with a long strong tail and long claws, it is perfectly designed to creep up the trunks of trees.
We did have a new species for me, a Grosbeak, this bird was one of the strangest I have seen, I could not think of a UK equivalent. They are finches, but are much larger than the finches we have in the UK. Around the same as a blackbird with a giant intimidating beak, this Grosbeak had a black head and yellow under its wings. Other species included Lincoln’s Sparrow, Pacific Slope Flycatcher and Song Sparrow.
Whilst the early starts are killer, I would definitely recommend going out and helping at a banding station, there are a few across Canada and lots in the UK mostly organised by the British Trust for Ornithology. Seeing these birds up close is amazing, but just knowing that you are playing a small part in their conservation and seeing birds that are about to make the long journey south is incredible. I am doing a lot more banding throughout the next couple of months so will be writing about some highlights as we go along.
1. Amur Leopard
When you think of Leopards what often comes to mind? Mostly it is a spotted cat roaming the dry and hot plains of Africa, but the rare Amur Leopard subspecies is found in the snowy, freezing forests of eastern Russia. This big cat is believed to be the rarest in the world, it is listed as critically endangered with as few as 70 individuals left in the wild.
2. Iberian Lynx
The Iberian Lynx is an endangered species now found in small parts of Spain and potentially on the Portuguese border. It’s range once spread from Portugal through Spain to southern France. This species is highly specialised and it is designed for life on the Iberian Peninsula . The appearance of the Iberian Lynx is typical to the other lynx species, with long legs, tufted ears and a short tail. Due to a number of factors such as habitat and prey loss the species almost went extinct, their numbers are still dangerously low, however recent conservation efforts to save the lynx have been so far successful and the population is beginning to increase.
3. Marbled Cat
Found in the forests of Southeast Asia, this beautiful cat is a small and solitary species. Listed as vulnerable, with less than 10,000 believed to be left in the wild, the secretive nature of this cat makes it difficult to know exactly how well it’s population is doing. They are purrfectly (get it?) adapted to their forest home and feed on a variety of different species, from small mammals to birds and even bats!
4. Clouded Leopard
The beautifully camouflaged Clouded Leopard is found in Southeast Asia, this medium-sized cat is split between two species, one found in mainland Asia and another found on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Clouded Leopards are declining due to deforestation, habitat loss and poaching. This is a very secretive species and very little is actually known about them in the wild. They are brilliant climbers and can even hang upside down from large branches!
5. Scottish Wildcat
Deep in the Highlands of Scotland roams a ferocious, secretive and ancient species of wild cat. Do not be fooled by its more domestic appearance, this cat is as wild as a tiger or a leopard. Early settlers told stories of a wildcat that could not be tamed, and saw it as a spirit of the forest. The Scottish Wildcat has seen a dramatic decline and is now one of the rarest species in the UK with certain researchers suggesting there could only be around 100 purebred cats remaining.