Youth Forum for People and Wildlife in South Africa

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 right up on the event when I am back but for now I shall sign off, see you on the other side!

http://www.ifaw.org/canada/news/youth-forum-people-and-wildlife-opens-johannesburg?ms=CONDC170001073&cid=701F0000001Itl2

A win for the environment! UK will ban microbeads by 2017.

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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.

Environmental education has its challenges, but young people need nature.

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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!

Ancient Atlantic shark! Scientists find that the Greenland Shark can live for 400 years!

Early bird.

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!

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Wilson’s Warbler about to be released.

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.

 

Jaguars in Brazil!

5 wild cats that could soon be extinct

1. Amur Leopard

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

Change is coming!

So as you may have noticed this blog has been a little sparse lately, this is because I am currently sorting out some changes to it. I have decided that after a year it is time to shake things up a little, so firstly the layout will be a little different but the main difference is the name, I have decided to rename the blog Talk Of The Wild. The name change will change soon, however what will not change is the content, I will still be regularly blogging about wildlife and the environment!

Thank you for visiting and I hope to see you after the change!

Working together: Humans and the Honeyguide

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If you have followed even half of the news stories over the last two weeks you will have seen nothing but division and separation, but there was one story tucked away within the chaos that shows unity and co-operation, not between two sets of people, but between humans and birds.

The honeyguide is a starling size species of bird found in Africa. The bird feeds on bee grubs and beeswax, however despite it being slightly more resilient to bee stings than other birds, it is not immune and its small size means that feeding from the hive is difficult work. The aptly named honeyguide has developed over hundreds of years a mutualistic relationship (meaning a relationship between two organisms that benefits them both) with local people in order to feed from beehives.

This incredibly rare relationship between wild birds and humans was recently studied by researchers. The honeyguides lead human hunters to beehives, for the local people honey is an important part of their diet, and finding beehives can be time-consuming. With the birds as guides the time is greatly reduced and the hunters can gather honey from the hives for their people. In order to access the hives the people smoke out the insects and use axes to break in and harvest the honey. Now this is something that the honeyguide could of course not do on its own, once the hive has been opened by people, the bird can access its food source. Both the birds and the people have their food and thus both have benefited from using each other. What makes this relationship even more interesting is that there is communication between the two species. Local people use a specific call which is recognised by the honeyguides. Once called the birds often come out of the trees and seemingly understand that the people want the birds to guide them to the beehives. The honeyguides are able to recognise a call and not only know the meaning but respond accordingly. This is something that is incredibly rare between people and wild animals, we can train domesticated species to respond to a call, but for this to happen for untrained wild birds is pretty unique and a wonderful example of the benefits that collaboration can have between two very different organisms.

New Video!! Wildlife Watching: English Countryside

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