Elephants May Be Extinct In Tanzania In A Few Years

elephants, TanzaniaJumbo Elephants may disappear from Tanzania within seven years if current poaching trends continue, Sabahi news service reports.

The Tanzania Wildlife Research Institute counted 109,000 elephants in 2009. In 2012, the number had sunk below 70,000. This is due to a surge in poaching. Elephant ivory commands high prices on the international black market. If current trends continue, the elephants could be entirely wiped out within seven years.

The decline in elephants is a step backwards. In the 1980s, during a period of heavy poaching and lax enforcement, the population dipped as low as 55,000. Thanks to better legal enforcement and protection, elephants made a major recovery. Now all that hard work may be ruined.

This comes after sobering news that rhinos are now extinct In Mozambique’s Limpopo National Park. These localized extinctions make it hard for species to maintain a viable population. Groups of animals get smaller and further separated, reducing the available breeding stock.

More detail on the elephant situation in Tanzania can be found in this government report.

[Photo courtesy Muhammad Mahdi Karim]

Scottish Wildcat May Go Extinct Within Months

Scottish wildcat
A new survey by the Scottish Wildcat Association of the endangered Scottish wildcat has revealed only about 35 purebred individuals, prompting the group to announce the cat may go extinct within months, the BBC reports.

It was previously thought that their population numbered about 400. Another survey, funded by Scottish Natural Heritage and published last month, estimated about 150 breeding pairs. The Scottish Wildcat Association believes this figure is unrealistically optimistic and calls the cat “Britain’s most endangered mammal.”

Whatever the real figure, it’s obvious the Scottish wildcat is on its way out. Inbreeding, disease, and breeding with feral domestic cats threatens to eliminate the purebred species.

The Scottish wildcat (Felis silvestris grampia) is found only in the Scottish highlands but once roved all over Britain. A few can be found in captivity, such as these two in the British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, photographed by Peter Trimming.

Scotland is one of Europe’s wildest and most beautiful hiking destinations. If these figures prove correct, it looks like it will soon be a little less beautiful and a little less wild.

Can stem cell research save endangered species?

northern white rhino, stem cell researchNew advances in stem cell research are giving hope in the fight to save endangered species.

Scientists have created stem cells for two endangered African species–the northern white rhino and the drill monkey. They “reprogrammed” skin cells to make them revert to stem cells, an early stage of cell development in which a cell can develop into different types of specialized cells.

It’s hoped that one day these stem cells could be made into sperm and eggs, leading to test tube babies that could bolster dwindling populations of some species. This has already been achieved with laboratory mice.

The white rhino used to be a favorite of safari goers and, unfortunately, big game hunters. There are probably none left in the wild, and only seven in captivity. These rhinos are the poster children of how tourism can hurt the environment.

This stem cell breakthrough is good news. With Obama scrapping tighter smog regulations and China discovering just how much they’ve screwed up their environment, we can’t rely on our so-called leaders to get us out of this mess. While environmentalists say we all need to change our attitudes in order to save the planet, that’s unlikely to happen. In fact, science is the only part of society that regularly advances. Common sense, foresight, and wisdom sure don’t.

Here’s hoping the scientists can give us a world where our children don’t have to go to a zoo to see wildlife.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

California’s proposed shark fin ban stirs up debate over global politics of culinary delicacies

shark finAs a former longtime resident of Berkeley, California, I’m no stranger to the concept of eating-as-political-act. Well, there’s a new food ethics issue on the block, kids, and while it may smack of the current, all-too-pervasive epidemic of food elitism, it’s really more about ecology, animal welfare, and the politics of eating–especially with regard to travelers, immigrants, and adventurous eaters.

California, never a state to shy away from bold ethnic cuisine, hedonistic gustatory pursuits, or activism (especially when they’re combined) is currently debating the future of shark fin. Namely, should the sale and possession of said shark fin be banned, making the serving of shark fin soup–a dish with strong cultural relevance for the Chinese–illegal?

A recent post on Grist draws attention to this culinary quandary, which addresses the increasingly dicey future of sharks versus the growing demand and profit shark fin offers fishermen, importers/distributors, and restaurateurs. A bill has been introduced into the California legislature to ban shark fin, which would have certain impact upon the state’s various Chinatowns, most notably San Francisco’s because it’s the largest as well as a profitable tourist attraction. There’s concern that the ban might infringe upon the cultural heritage and economic livelihood of the Chinese community–an ethnic group that makes up a large portion of California’s population. Or, as one Chinatown restaurateur in San Francisco commented, “People come to America to enjoy freedom, including what is on the plate.” Well. If only it were that simple.

[Photo credit: Flickr user laurent KB]shark fin Shark fin soup holds an important place in Chinese culture. This delicacy is a sign of the host’s generosity at banquets, and is believed to have virility-enhancing and medicinal properties. It has no taste, nor much purported nutritional value; the cartilaginous fins merely add a gelatinous texture. But hey, here’s a hilarious factoid I just found on Wikipedia: eating too much shark fin can cause sterility in males, due to high mercury content.

According to Sharkwater, the site for filmmaker Rob Stewart’s award-winning documentary about shark finning and hunting, shark specialists estimate over that 100 million sharks are killed for their fins, annually. Shark finning refers to the practice of cutting the fins off of (usually) live sharks, which are then tossed overboard to die a slow death or be cannibalized by other sharks.

While shark finning is banned in North America and a number of other countries, it is unregulated and rampant throughout Asia (most notably, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, but international waters are unregulated, which leaves a large gray area for finning to occur). The key issue with shark finning, aside from cruelty and waste of life, is its impact upon the food chain. As the ocean’s greatest predators, sharks are at the top of the chain, and without them to consume the food that normally make up their diet, things get out of whack. Other species proliferate, and endanger other species, and so on, which ultimatelyshark fin wreaks havoc upon marine ecosystems.

California isn’t the first state to take on the ethics of shark finning. Oregon and Washington are considering legislation, and Hawaii’s ban takes effect on June 30th. The bigger picture, as pointed out by Grist writer Gary Alan Fine, is that this isn’t the first time food politics and culinary delicacies have caused a ruckus, and it won’t be the last. He reminds us of the Great Foie Gras Fight of 2006, when Chicago banned the sale and serving of what are essentially fatty, diseased duck and goose livers. Chicago finally overturned the ban due to monumental protests, but California has banned the production (not the sale) of foie gras starting in 2012.

Foie gras is a specialty of southwestern France, but it’s also produced domestically in several states. Foie gras is an important culinary tradition and part of French culture. The animals are fattened by force-feeding (“gavage”) several times a day. In the wild, geese do overfeed prior to migration, as a means of storing fat. The difference is that their livers double in size, rather than increase times ten.

What gavage does involve is inserting a tube or pipe down the goose or duck’s throat. Research indicates the animals don’t suffer pain. That may well be true, but there are many reports of gavage gone wild, in which fowl esophagi and tongues are torn. I haven’t been to a foie gras farm, although I’ve done a lot of research on the topic, and have spoken with journalists and chefs who have visited farms and watched gavage. I’ve yet to hear of anyone witnessing visible suffering or acts of cruelty (including nailing the birds’ feet to the floor, something animal welfare activists would have us believe is standard practice). Does a lack of pain mean it’s okay to produce and eat foie gras? I don’t know; I’d be lying if I said it doesn’t bother me conceptually, but I also think it’s delicious. That’s why I want to visit a farm; so I can make an informed decision for myself.
shark fin
Foie gras aside, the humane/sustainable aspects of commercial livestock production, foraging, or fishing usually come down to the ethics of the producer, forager, or fisherman, as well as regulations and how well they’re enforced (if at all). Sometimes, as with shark finning, there is no humane aspect (although to most of the fishermen, they’re just trying to earn enough to survive).

But there are also cultural differences that dictate these issues. The Philippines has long been under fire for its mistreatment of dogs destined for the dinner table. I don’t condone animal cruelty in any form (which is why I want to see gavage), yet we must also realize that pets are not a traditional part of that culture. How are we to resolve these issues, which in their way, are similar to human rights issues such as clitoridectomy, or child brides? Is it ethical for us, as Americans/Westerners/industrialized nations to dictate cultural changes that have profound and ancient meaning to others?

But before we get our panties in a bunch about foie gras and how other countries treat their food animals, we need to change the way our industrial livestock production system works (click here for an excellent article by food journalist Michael Pollan addressing this topic in response to the Chicago foie gras ban). Am I a hypocrite for saying I’m invested in animal welfare, when I eat foie gras or the carne asada at my local taco truck? Yes, I am. But I also believe we need to pick our battles, and do our research. You can’t save the world, but you can do your best to offset negative impact whenever possible.shark fin

In my case, I won’t purchase any endangered or non-sustainably farmed seafood. But I’m not going to give up eating at my favorite ethnic dives because the meat isn’t sustainably-raised, since I get a lot of pleasure from dining at those places. I’m also a food journalist, and I believe it’s my job to eat what I’m assigned to eat, unless it is an endangered species.

In exchange, I refuse to purchase meat for home consumption or cooking classes that hasn’t been raised in an ethical manner. Am I better than you for doing this? I doubt it, but it’s something I feel very strongly about, and it’s my way of offsetting the rare occasions when I eat foie gras for work or pleasure, or for indulging in a burrito binge or other meaty ethnic feast.

Those who advocate the right to eat whatever they wish have said that the government has no place on their plates, be it for ethical, health, or environmental/ecological reasons. Yet still we rage on about the politics of importing, producing and eating things like Beluga caviar (illegal), milk-fed veal (range-fed is a humane alternative), raw milk cheese, and god knows what else in this country. And we judge and despair over the consumption of cats, dogs, sea turtle meat and eggs, horses, and other “cute” animals in other (usually desperately poor) parts of the world.

I’ve said it before: rarely is anything in life black-and-white. And so it is with food. To me, meat is meat. What matters is how that animal is raised and treated before it is dispatched, and how and who makes these types of decisions. If there is any question of pain or ecological imbalance in the equation, I wholeheartedly agree with banning it, assuming other alternatives–be they substitution, more humane harvesting or production methods, or quotas–have been explored.
shark fin
As a traveler, I’m frequently disturbed by the inhumane (to my American standards) aspects of food sourcing and preparation in other countries. Yet I still have empathy for other cultures when they’re forced to stray from their traditions, whether for tourism, ecological, or other reasons. It’s a thorny issue as to whether we should live and let live, or protect natural resources and animal welfare in countries not our own. I believe we should make the effort to be responsible travelers, whether we do so on an organized trip, or independently. If we don’t look after the planet, cultural relevance, tradition, and the pleasures of the plate aren’t going to matter, anyway.

[Photo credits: shark fin soup, Flickr user SmALl CloUd; foie gras, Flickr user claude.attard.bezzina;remaining photos, Laurel Miller]

Shootouts kill five rhino poachers in South Africa

rhino, rhinoceros, South Africa, south africa
Five rhino poachers were killed in two shootouts with South African police this week, the BBC reports. Three were killed in Kruger National Park, one of the most popular game reserves for safaris in South Africa. Two others were killed near the border with Mozambique. Poachers often cross borders in an attempt to evade the law.

Two rhino horns were found among the poachers’ belongings.

Poaching is a serious problem in Africa, with South African rhinos, especially white rhinos, a favored target. Last year 333 rhinos were killed in South Africa. Police have been clamping down on poachers but their activities continue and the heavily armed criminals often get into gunfights with police and park wardens. African nations are having mixed results fighting poachers. Some countries have managed to reduce illegal hunting, but other nations are still struggling with the problem.

[This beautiful shot of two white rhinos is courtesy JasonBechtel via Gadling’s flickr pool. It was taken in Ohio, of all places! At least these beautiful animals are safe there.]