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South African lion taking a break from his kill, a Cape buffalo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Lions extinct in 10-15 years? That’s the prediction of National Geographic explorers-in-residence Dereck and Beverly Joubert. The couple have studied and filmed Africa’s big cats for more than 25 years. They say that wild lions have declined from 400,000 in 1960 to around 20,000 today.

“The Last Lions”

Based in Botswana, the Jouberts have a new documentary and a companion book, both called “The Last Lions” (see link below). This latest film follows a solitary female lion in the Okavango Delta of Botswana as she tries to feed and protect her three cubs after her mate dies. Female lions usually live and hunt in a group, with a single male as protector against intruding males. A solitary female alone is at a serious disadvantage. Females do virtually all the hunting for a group, and they usually hunt cooperatively.

Males are freeloaders

Males that are part of a pride seldom hunt, but share in the females’ kills. The conspicuous black mane helps protect a male’s neck during fights with rivals, but makes it difficult for him to creep toward pray unnoticed.  Mortality is much higher in males than in females.

Threats to lions

Africa’s lions are threatened primarily by habitat loss, as human populations expand. They’re also frequently poisoned or trapped by rural dwellers who blame lions for livestock losses.

I was surprised at how few lions I saw

I’ve been to South Africa a couple of times in the last 5 years looking for wildlife.  Although I spent virtually all my time in Kruger National Park and other wildlife reserves, I saw very few lions.  In eight weeks of searching, I had only three lion sightings: one solitary male, two males on a kill together, and one pride of females with their young. One wildlife guide I talked with told me that, in his youth 40 years earlier, he had shot lions every single day – to protect his family’s livestock, he said. This was in the same place where I saw only one lion over a period of 3 weeks.

Link to Jouberts on NPR

The Jouberts were interviewed on March 2 by Terry Gross, host of NPR’s “Fresh Air”. Click here to read NPR’s summary of the interview, or to listen to the entire interview.

A couple of my previous posts about Africa’s big cats:

We were lucky to see lions on a kill

Leopard adventure: male and female clash over prey

Keywords: lion extinction lion conservation Dereck Joubert Beverly Joubert The Last Lions NPR

Photo: wikimedia commons

People are good at detecting human personalities accurately, even from expressionless mug shots. A study last year showed that we can reliably tell who is extroverted, emotionally stable, agreeable or imaginative – just from their blank and expressionless faces.

We can read chimps too

A new study shows that we can also predict personality traits accurately from expressionless photos of chimps!  In the new study from Bangor University of Wales, 139 college students looked at pairs of chimpanzee mug shots.  In the photos, the chimps looked straight ahead or at a slight angle with no teeth showing and no shadowing over the eyes which could make them look threatening. Sixty to 70% of the students accurately identified which chimps were dominant and which were not.  Accuracy was better with male chimps than females.

The researchers, led by Robert Ward, say they don’t know exactly what characterizes the face of a dominant chimp or an extroverted person. Ward suspects that chimps can detect the difference too.  He plans to test that next.

Study underscores our genetic similarity to chimps

What’s the significance of these studies? The researchers conclude that the ability to detect important personality traits from facial structure (not expressions) evolved 7 million years ago in a common ancestor of both chimps and humans.  The fact that humans can read chimp facial expressions suggests that this ability is “part of an evolved system.”

Chimps are our closest relatives, sharing 98% of the our DNA. It’s not too surprising that we should able to read their faces in the same way we read human faces.

Wouldn’t it be nice…

I’m always glad when I see a study like this.  I have this fantasy that once we realize how smart and how like us chimpanzees and other great apes are, the tide will turn on protecting our ape relatives from impending extinction.

For more information about what you can do to protect wild apes, see these links to primate conservation NGOs:

Jane Goodall Institute
Orangutan Outreach
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Orangutan Land Trust
International Primate Protection League
TRAFFIC:the wildlife trade monitoring network

Some of my previous posts about primates and primate conservation:

Is males’ attraction to trucks and balls genetically based? Jan 14, 2011
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010

Keywords: chimpanzees chimps Robert Ward University of Bangor

African elephants in Kruger National Park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Just saw a distressing news item.  In an interview published 1/27/11, scientist Ian Craigie says populations of big mammals in Africa have decreased 59% in 40 years. And those figures are only from protected areas such as national parks. If unprotected areas were included in the study, the percent would probably be much higher.  Craigie is a zoologist (University of Cambridge) and former employee of South Africa National Parks.

Craigie says the primary causes of the decline are agriculture, hunting and the bushmeat trade. But all are due to human actions and Africa’s population explosion. Africa’s human population has increased 5-fold since WWII. The additional human population has moved into cultivated areas that were previously wildlife habitat, leading to widespread habitat destruction.

I might add (my words, not Craigie’s) that deforestation for agriculture and timber has increased access to previously secluded or inaccessible wildlife.  Modern weaponry has also increased the ease of killing large numbers of animals for commercial trade as bushmeat or traditional medicine.

White rhino in an African national park. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Craigie says that Southern Africa is better off than West Africa or East Africa because the parks in Southern Africa have better funding and the human population is less dense.

West Africa has the most serious wildlife problem of the three regions because of the strong tradition of hunting for bushmeat, the countries are poorer, and the human population density is high.

What’s the solution? Increase funding for programs to help communities develop livelihoods that depend on protecting wildlife (such as ecotourism) rather than over-harvesting and destroying their greatest resource (wildlife) and their greatest potential for income.  These are my words, not Craigie’s.  Americans alone spend 12 billion dollars per year on ecotourism in Africa.

Keywords: Africa wildlife big mammals elephants rhinos poaching hunting bushmeat population growth deforestation habitat loss 59% loss in 40 years Ian Craigie

Text and photo by Sally Kneidel, PhD

Attaching bands to birds is a longstanding method of studying bird populations. The bands allow researchers to collect data on birds’ movements and longevity.

But scientists have been debating for 30 years whether bands on penguins may hurt the birds.  On aquatic or marine birds, such as penguins, bands are generally attached to the front base of a flipper rather than to a leg.

Note metal band on this African (Jackass) Penguin, on front of left flipper. Photo: Sally Kneidel, southern tip of Africa [click on photo to enlarge it]

Zookeepers noticed as early as the 1970s that flipper-bands can injure molting penguins.  It’s now suspected that bands also create drag when penguins are swimming, which could interfere with prey capture.

A new study published Jan 12, 2011 in the journal Nature provides strong evidence that bands do hurt penguins’ survival and reproduction. Yvon Le Maho of the University of Strasbourg in France and his colleagues banded 50 King Penguins from Possession Island in the southern Indian Ocean. These 50 birds had already been implanted with “minute” and subcutaneous electronic tags. Over the course of a 10-year study, Moho and colleagues found that the banded penguins produced 40% fewer chicks and had a 16% lower survival rate compared to 50 nonbanded penguins

Subcutaneous tags, while safer, are a relatively new technology and not yet widely used in ecological studies.  “Still today you will find that most US studies on Adélie penguins use flipper banding,” says Le Maho.  But his new publication may encourage the increased use of subcutaneous tags instead.

Climate change studies at stake

There’s a wider issue at stake than the birds’ welfare: studies on penguins are often used to gauge the effects of climate change on ecosystems. If a study suggests that a slight warming of ocean waters reduces penguin survival, how much of the difference could actually be due to banding effects?

For the birds and for the sake of our climate data, subcutaneous tags that create no drag should replace flipper-banding in future studies with penguins.

Keywords: penguins, bird banding, flipper banding, climate change, subcutaneous tags

Young chimps. Photo: Delphine Bruyere

My husband and I raised one girl and one boy, close together in age. We tried hard to avoid gender-stereotyping our young kids in any way. They had the same toys, many of them gender neutral, for some time.

Our son clung to the baseball fence, drooling
As it happened, our yard backed up to a school athletic field. From late winter on, we daily heard the THWOCK of  bats hitting balls during baseball practice. Our son was barely able to walk when he began toddling out to the playing field alone, to watch the students play baseball.  He’d hang on the baseball fence with his tiny fingers for hours, mesmerized and drooling. Soon he was into trucks – at the age of 2, he memorized the name of 33 different kinds of trucks from the truck library books he clamored for.  Our daughter’s interests were varied, but she showed no inkling of his fascination with balls and trucks. We couldn’t understand it. He wasn’t in preschool, and my husband and I cared nothing for vehicles of any kind (although Ken is a baseball fan).

We share 98% of our DNA with chimps
So last week I was intrigued to see a paper in the online journal Current Biology about gender-stereotyped roles in young chimps. Since chimps are our closest relatives, sharing 98% of our DNA, any observations about chimp behavior could have implications for the origins of our own behavior.

Young female chimps “play mothering” more than young males
Author Sonya Kahlenberg, a biological anthropologist at Bates College in Maine, observed chimps in Kibale National Park in Uganda over 14 years. She and co-author Richard Wrangham, a biological anthropologist at Harvard, noted that 67% of young females carried sticks while only 31% of young males did. Sticks are used sometimes as weapons or as tools, to probe holes for food or water. But the young chimps also cradled long thick sticks as if a stick were a baby, carrying it around for no particular reason. They sometimes carried the stick as long as 4 hours, and took it with them to their nests for sleep. The authors felt that the stick-carrying was “play-mothering.” The males who did it stopped as they got older. The females stopped when they gave birth to real babies, whereas use of sticks for other purposes continued after motherhood.

In her recent article, Kahlenberg cited previous research in which captive young male monkeys preferred wheeled toys, while female monkeys, like human girls, showed greater variability in preferences. The male monkeys also showed more rough-and-tumble play than females. The authors of this study (published in PubMed) hypothesized that these differences are hormonally influenced.

Some have speculated that boys, including some male primates, prefer toys like balls and trucks because these toys are associated with more freedom of movement than, for example, playing with dolls.

Evolutionary advantage for human males to prefer movement?
Could it be true that very young male humans are drawn to balls and trucks because playing with them involves more movement?  It’s not clear at all to me that male attraction to movement would be more advantageous evolutionarily than female attraction to movement. Even while carrying infants, our female prehistoric ancestors still were compelled to move around gathering plants for food, I would think. And keeping up with mobile children certainly involves movement. But if males were the defenders of early human tribes, and if they went on long hunts for food, then perhaps males could have evolved a hormone-based propensity to be more active.

I don’t know, it’s an interesting question. Culture has so much to do with it. A few decades ago, girls rarely if ever participated in team sports at school (at least in the U.S.). Today they do, when given the opportunity.

One more reason to protect wild apes
I’d love to see more field observations of gender-based behavioral differences in young primates. That’s one more reason we need to protect chimpanzees and other primates from the illegal poaching that threatens all populations of wild apes.

For more information about what you can do to protect wild apes, see these links to primate conservation NGOs:
Jane Goodall Institute
Orangutan Outreach
Sumatran Orangutan Society
Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International
Orangutan Land Trust
International Primate Protection League
TRAFFIC:the wildlife trade monitoring network

Some of my previous posts about primates and primate conservation:
Hunting may threaten orangutans even more than habitat loss Dec 6, 2010

Keywords: chimpanzees chimp behavior animal behavior gender stereotypes chimps and dolls chimps and sticks Sonya Kahlenberg Kibale National Park Richard Wrangham

A serene Buddha in Ubud, Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

My long-time friend Therese Fitzgerald is an ordained Zen priest who works as a spiritual mentor and meditation teacher. She’s also director of Dharma Friends; her husband Arnold Kotler is publisher of Koa Books. Through my friendship with Therese and other Zen friends, I’ve learned the value of staying in the present moment. Sitting zazen, or counting breaths in meditation, is an exercise in keeping one’s attention in the moment. Zen author Natalie Goldberg writes about our “monkey mind” that wanders and must be pulled continuously back to the present to find serenity.

Buddha in Bali. Photo: Sally Kneidel

12-step programs too

Staying in the present is a major tenet in 12-step programs too, with slogans like “Keep your head where your feet are.” Good advice, but it doesn’t come naturally to the human mind, at least not my mind.

New study confirms it, except for sex

Anyway I was intrigued to see this topic explored in a recently published scientific study. The study was conducted by 2 researchers at Harvard who sampled the mood of 2250 volunteers over several days by contacting them at random times via their iPhones. They found that people’s minds wander at least 30% of the time during all activities except sex.
The researchers also found that the volunteers’ moods were considerably worse when their minds were wandering to unpleasant or neutral topics, rather than focusing on the activity at hand.

This part surprised me

I was surprised that the researchers found that subjects’ minds wandered more often to pleasant than to unpleasant topics. (More about that below.)
But even ruminating on pleasant topics did not improve the volunteers’ moods over paying attention to their current actions. In other words, a wandering mind does not improve our mood and often makes it worse.

Other studies show that we remember negative events more readily

Everything in this study makes intuitive sense to me except one thing: when volunteers’ minds were wandering, they usually reported pleasant thoughts. I find it hard to believe that’s an accurate portrayal of the human mind in general. Humans are programmed evolutionarily to problem-solve. Research by neurologists has shown that negative experiences (anger, fear, pain, etc.) create more prominent memories than pleasant or neutral experiences, because recalling negative experiences has more survival value. It seems to follow that if we’re lost in reveries, the reveries are likely to be related to problems and problem-solving.
A zafu to sit on during Zen meditation.

Strategies for staying in the present

But still, even if that part of the experiment is flawed, the upshot is the same. A wandering mind does not contribute to serenity and is likely to undermine our moods.  So.  I feel renewed interest in trying to keep my own “monkey-mind” from wandering. Meditation helps; so does repeating a simple phrase (12-steppers often use the Serenity Prayer or the Lord’s Prayer).  Also, just paying attention to my sensations of touch and hearing, etc., while I perform tasks such as washing the dishes can help me stay in the present.

Keywords:  Zen Buddhism wandering mind staying in the present serenity Therese Fitzgerald Dharma Friends Koa Books meditation 12-step programs Matthew Killingsworth Daniel Gilbert Harvard

Cocaine.  Photo: DEA

Are recreational drugs more enjoyable for women than for men? A recent study on that topic caught caught my eye this morning.

Women are more sensitive to cocaine

“Human studies of cocaine dependence indicate that women enter drug treatment faster than men and report shorter cocaine-free periods,” said scientist Kerry Kerstetter of the University of California, Santa Barbara. These and other observations indicate that human females are more sensitive to cocaine, have a greater cocaine craving and are more likely to relapse than men.

White lab rat. Photo: DEA

Female rats choose cocaine over food

To explore this question in more depth, Kerstetter turned to lab rats. She trained rats to press a lever to get food and a different lever to get cocaine, then gave hungry rats a choice between the two levers.  The hungry female rats chose the cocaine lever about half the time.  But hungry male rats showed a definite preference for the food lever. The gender difference was statistically significant.  “It appears that females are more likely than males to sacrifice food for low doses of cocaine,” Kerstetter said.

Kerstettler then more than doubled the volume of cocaine delivered by pressing the cocaine lever. In this situation, both sexes chose cocaine more often. But female rats still preferred the drug more than the males did.  Females chose cocaine over food 75 to 80% of the time, compared with less than 50% of the time for the males.

Female hormones may be responsible

No one knows the reason for these gender differences yet.  But Kerstettler believes that female hormones play a role. Female rats that had their ovaries removed after puberty behaved more like males, choosing food more frequently. Kerstettler and her colleagues believe female hormones may set up or regulate the response to cocaine in the brain.

Gender differences can guide treatment plans

On a practical note, Kerstettler and other neuroscientists believe that understanding gender differences can help individualize the treatment of cocaine addiction.

Sources

Laura Sanders. “Cocaine trumps food for female rats.” Science News.  Dec 3, 2010.

Sweets or cocaine? Male rats prefer sweets; female rats favor cocaine.”  Science Daily.

Keywords: cocaine females choose cocaine drug addiction Kerry Kerstettler gender differences sex differences drug treatment

Depressed. Photo: public domain

Confrontive dad arrives for the holidays

A friend told me yesterday about his parents arriving at his home for the holidays. His wife was taking a shower when the parents arrived. His father said, “Where’s your wife? She should be downstairs to greet us. I think that shows a lack of respect.”  My friend, stressed by the arrival of his parents with their usual expectations, as well as the presence of his brother’s family and a passel of kids, responded defensively. “Well, Pop,” he said, “this is my house.  If you don’t like the way we do things here, you can just leave.”

So the family holiday was off to a roaring start. My friend felt bad about his response to his dad, but really, dad started it by arriving with expectations, and by stating them in such a critical manner.

Christmas is marketed as a time of cheer, presents, and family togetherness, but whether you’re with your family or not, Christmas is actually a time of stress for most of us, and a depressing time for some.

What causes the stress and depression? According to the Mayo Clinic, these three holiday triggers can lead to a meltdown.  Being aware of these triggers in advance can help you take care of yourself.

Recognize Holiday Triggers

  • Relationships. Relationships can cause turmoil, conflict or stress at any time, but tensions are often heightened during the holidays. Family misunderstandings and conflicts can intensify — especially if you’re thrust together for several days. On the other hand, facing the holidays without a loved one can be tough and leave you feeling lonely and sad.
  • Finances. With the added expenses of gifts, travel, food and entertainment, the holidays can put a strain on your budget — and your peace of mind. Not to mention that overspending now can mean financial worries for months to come.
  • Physical demands. Even die-hard holiday enthusiasts may find that the extra shopping and socializing can leave them wiped out. Being exhausted increases your stress, creating a vicious cycle. Exercise and sleep — good antidotes for stress and fatigue — may take a back seat to chores and errands. To top it off, burning the wick at both ends makes you more susceptible to colds and other unwelcome guests.

What to do?

So what can you do if find yourself  stressed out, behaving badly, exhausted, depressed?  The Mayo Clinic offers the following 10 guidelines for healthy self-caring.

10 Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress and Depression

  1. Acknowledge your feelings. If someone close to you has recently died or you can’t be with loved ones, realize that it’s normal to feel sadness and grief. It’s OK to take time to cry or express your feelings. You can’t force yourself to be happy just because it’s the holiday season.
  2. Reach out. If you feel lonely or isolated, seek out community, religious or other social events. They can offer support and companionship. Volunteering your time to help others also is a good way to lift your spirits and broaden your friendships.
  3. Be realistic. The holidays don’t have to be perfect or just like last year. As families change and grow, traditions and rituals often change as well. Choose a few to hold on to, and be open to creating new ones. For example, if your adult children can’t come to your house, find new ways to celebrate together, such as sharing pictures, emails or videos.
  4. Set aside differences. Try to accept family members and friends as they are, even if they don’t live up to all your expectations. Set aside grievances until a more appropriate time for discussion. And be understanding if others get upset or distressed when something goes awry. Chances are they’re feeling the effects of holiday stress and depression too.
  5. Stick to a budget. Before you go gift and food shopping, decide how much money you can afford to spend. Then stick to your budget. Don’t try to buy happiness with an avalanche of gifts. Try these alternatives: Donate to a charity in someone’s name, give homemade gifts or start a family gift exchange.
  6. Plan ahead. Set aside specific days for shopping, baking, visiting friends and other activities. Plan your menus and then make your shopping list. That’ll help prevent last-minute scrambling to buy forgotten ingredients. And make sure to line up help for party prep and cleanup.
  7. Learn to say no. Saying yes when you should say no can leave you feeling resentful and overwhelmed. Friends and colleagues will understand if you can’t participate in every project or activity. If it’s not possible to say no when your boss asks you to work overtime, try to remove something else from your agenda to make up for the lost time.
  8. Don’t abandon healthy habits. Don’t let the holidays become a free-for-all. Overindulgence only adds to your stress and guilt. Have a healthy snack before holiday parties so that you don’t go overboard on sweets, cheese or drinks. Continue to get plenty of sleep and physical activity.
  9. Take a breather. Make some time for yourself. Spending just 15 minutes alone, without distractions, may refresh you enough to handle everything you need to do. Take a walk at night and stargaze. Listen to soothing music. Find something that reduces stress by clearing your mind, slowing your breathing and restoring inner calm.
  10. Seek professional help if you need it. Despite your best efforts, you may find yourself feeling persistently sad or anxious, plagued by physical complaints, unable to sleep, irritable and hopeless, and unable to face routine chores. If these feelings last for a while, talk to your doctor or a mental health professional.

Where did my friend and his quarrelsome dad go wrong?

As I read the lists above, I was wondering which “Trigger” and which “Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress…” relate to the interaction between my friend and his dad.

The relevant trigger was the first one, “Relationships.” That was easy.

The relevant “Tips to Prevent Holiday Stress…” was #4, “Set Aside Differences”.  It says “Try to accept family members… even if they don’t live up to all your expectations.”  Dad started the harsh exchange by saying the wife should greet them upon arrival, regardless of her need to take a shower. I imagine this particular Dad may often state expectations, and may often state disappointment or even resentment when they’re not met.  Perhaps he could give it a rest on holidays.

It’s understandable that Son would be annoyed by such a statement, that his wife’s absence is disrespectful. She’d probably been working all day getting ready for the guests. But, Son could react in other ways. He could say nothing and leave the room; go call a friend to vent. Or he could say “Dad, that hurts my feelings. Laurie’s been working really hard to get ready for you.” Or “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Silence and a short walk around the yard might be the best choice. That leaves Dad no opportunity to give another punch.

Knowing that family conflict is likely over the holidays might help Son choose an option other than suggesting that his dad leave.

Keep expectations low, acceptance high

Keeping all the above triggers and tips in mind might help each of us to “keep expectations low, acceptance high” this holiday season.  I also need to set limits on the outflow of money, and take extra steps to make sure I don’t get emotionally and physically depleted. Just another week or two and it’ll all be over!

Key words: holiday stress Christmas stress Christmas depression tips for coping with holiday stress and depression mayo clinic

Readers, a woman who works for the Nature Conservancy asked me to post this article debating fake vs. real Christmas trees, by the Conservancy’s Frank Lowenstein. It’s also posted on the Nature Conservancy website. The debate is worth thinking about this time of year, although the solution is murky, for me.  Following is Frank’s article (in black) followed by my own assessment (in purple).

Frank Lowenstein of the Nature Conservancy

“My home sits in the Berkshire Hills, with a distant view of the second highest peak in Massachusetts– Mt. Everett. Surrounding my house is a swath of farmland, which includes a Christmas tree farm owned by the Chapin family, who arrived in my town in about 1830.

Photo credit: liljulier/flickr via a Creative Commons license

In its heyday in the 1990s, the Chapin Christmas Tree Farm was packed with people from the day after Thanksgiving until Christmas eve. Families would arrive on our small dirt road from a 2-hour radius (south to Manhattan, west to Albany, east to Hartford). Children and parents would pile out of cars to prowl the several acres of trees in search of The One that was just right. Eventually each family would find the tree that best fit their image of Christmas (and their living room), and my neighbor or his grandson would pull out a saw and the transaction was completed.

This scene—one of family togetherness, people asserting their own unique taste, and support of local agriculture– is today rarer than it should be. More than twice as many families in the United States use fake trees as real ones. Beyond the losses to family interactions and local economies, this situation is bad for our climate.

Fake trees are usually made from a kind of plastic called polyvinyl chloride (PVC) which is derived from petroleum. Electricity is used to melt the plastic, and approximately 85% of the fake trees sold in the US are shipped here from China. Most of China’s electricity comes from burning coal—the dirtiest source of electricity. Once the fake trees are made, they still have to be shipped across the ocean—usually in a diesel-fuel powered ship. More emissions still. (Fake trees also sometimes release lead when they get old, which isn’t a climate impact, but still is not a great thing to have happening in your living room.)

Real trees of course do sometimes require shipping. Today on US Route 7, I saw a truck with Quebec license plates headed south—loaded with about 250 bound-up real trees.

But real trees also grow in the ground for several years before they are cut, absorbing carbon out of the atmosphere every year. The vast majority of real trees today come from Christmas tree farms—about 12,000 of which exist in the United States. On these farms each tree cut is typically replaced by a new tree or two or three, which continue removing carbon from the air.

And once Christmas is over you can use your real tree in many ways—the boughs can be cut and used as a protective covering over delicate shrubs, the tree can be chipped and composted, and there’s the ever popular New Year’s Eve bonfire (if you live in an appropriate place for bonfires). Real trees can also be used to help trap sand on beaches, preventing erosion, or sunk in ponds to provide habitat for fish and other wildlife.

For best climate impact, find a local tree farm to buy from. The National Christmas Tree Association allows you to search by zip code. Or this site offers a listing by state and county. And perhaps an organic Christmas tree is best of all. Twenty-two states now have organic Christmas tree farms.”
Frank Lowenstein

Are any Christmas trees a good idea??

I agree that fake trees aren’t “green”

I’m glad to see Frank point out the downside of fake trees – that 85% are made in China and that most of those factories are fueled by coal, a major source of greenhouse gases. In addition, the trees are shipped with diesel fuel. They’re not recyclable – but they are reusable, and can be given away when you’re tired of them.  We had a fake tree for several years (the same one). When we no longer wanted it, we gave it away easily by posting it on freecycle.org. We had several callers who wanted it and got rid of it the first day, to a grateful family.

But real ones aren’t sustainable either

I’m not sure I agree with Frank’s recommendation for live trees over fake. It’s true that immature trees remove more carbon from the air (for photosynthesis) than they emit (via respiration). And yes, they can be shredded and used as mulch. If you buy locally, you’re avoiding the fossil fuels used in transport.

But any tree plantation is a biodiversity desert, whether it’s loblolly pines for the pulp and timber industry of the southeastern U.S., or palm trees for the palm-oil industry in Southeast Asia. Pulitzer Prize winning ecologist E.O. Wilson compared the biodiversity of a tree plantation to a that of a Walmart parking lot.

Palm-oil plantations from the air, Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Tree plantations displace wildlife habitat

Most tree plantations are chemically managed with herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides – so there is no semblance of a natural food chain in a tree plantation. As such, they’re no more useful to wildlife than pavement is. And at a time when almost all wildlife populations are shrinking due to habitat loss, AND we’re facing mass extinctions…..eliminating wildlife habitat for a tree plantation is not a beneficial venture.  The Appalachian mountains near my home are dotted with Christmas tree farms, and it makes me sick to look at them. Not to mention the ruined habitat I saw on Borneo and Sumatra this past summer. Flying over Indonesia or floating down its rivers, I saw palm plantation after palm plantation – where tropical rain forest used to be. One of the most frustrating sights I’ve ever seen.

I don’t have any easy answers about Christmas trees. The best choice is to acquire a potted plant you can use year after year.  Or just skip the Christmas tree.  I wish, as a culture, we could do that en masse. Then children wouldn’t feel deprived.  Given the massive habitat loss affecting our planet today, Christmas trees are not a habit we can afford to continue.
Sally Kneidel, PhD

Some of my previous posts about tree plantations

Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations. Aug 3, 2010

My search for a wild orangutan on Borneo and Sumatra. Aug 16, 2010

Why use toilet paper?  No need to flush our forests. Oct 11, 2010

Plush toilet paper flushes old forests. Sept 26, 2009

A trampled state fights back. May 18, 2007.

One African family struggles to survive. March 17, 2007.

The wildlife trade, forestry, and the value of activism. May 27. 2006

Key words: fake Christmas trees real Christmas trees fake vs real Nature Conservancy orangutans Borneo Indonesia Sumatra Malaysia biodiversity desert carbon sink fossil fuel climate change

Wild male orangutan on Sumatra. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Most people are surprised to learn that unlawful traffic in wildlife and wildlife parts is the third biggest criminal activity in the world, after drugs and arms. The illegal hunting of great apes is so pervasive that it may threaten their survival even more than habitat loss does. Habitat loss is rampant these days, due to human population growth….so I wouldn’t have believed that hunting could be an even bigger threat until reading a recent paper by Vincent Nijman (and 5 other scientists). Nijman is a scientist at Oxford Brookes University, a consultant to TRAFFIC, and has published numerous research papers on orangutan conservation.  He and the other authors of this particular paper collected convincing data that suggest orangutan populations have been reduced more by hunting than anything else.

Wild male orangutan resting, Sumatra. Photo: Sally Kneidel

I crisscrossed Indonesia and Malaysia looking for orangutans

I was on the islands Borneo and Sumatra a few months ago, searching high and low for wild orangutans. That was my main reason for going to Southeast Asia.  I had researched sites carefully in advance and I chose my destinations accordingly; consequently, I was lucky enough to see a number of wild orangutans in undisturbed forests. But as Dr. Nijman writes, “Bornean orangutans currently occur at low densities and seeing a wild one is a rare event.” In contrast, historic collectors like Alfred Russel Wallace in the 1800s saw many orangutans daily and “were able to shoot continuously over weeks or even months.”  Clearly, orangutans are much rarer today than they were in the past. That’s true not only of orangutans, but also for the other great apes.

Chimpanzees and gorillas are hunted for meat

I saw on the “Planet Green” network on November 24 a one-hour documentary about an investigation into the hunting of chimpanzees and gorillas for bushmeat in Cameroon. The investigator, Steve Galster, said these two apes are popular meat because they’re so big and fleshy relative to other remaining wildlife. The primary reasons they’re shot or trapped is to eat them, to sell their meat to neighbors, or to transport the meat by train or car to city markets. But when baby animals are captured after shooting the mother, the babies can be shipped abroad to be sold as pets. So killing a mother ape is doubly profitable.

Gorilla carried from forest. Photo courtesy of United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization

A pet chimp brings social status

I was impressed with the diligence of the filmmakers for this Planet Green show, which featured an undercover sleuth (a local woman) equipped with a tiny concealed camera visiting a local man who was trying to sell a baby chimp. The chimp was eventually confiscated and sent to a sanctuary. Even at the sanctuary, though, young chimps are vulnerable to theft in order to sell them. The demand for them is huge.

Baby chimpanzee. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Having a baby chimp is a social asset, the narrator said – something to show off no matter where you live. I can imagine that. There aren’t many things in life more interesting than a living baby ape. In this Planet Green documentary, the poachers and smugglers who were caught on film all wound up going free, through “negotiations” (bribery) or police who failed to show up in court, or officials who took pity on impoverished poachers and their children.

Strong evidence that hunting has hurt orangutans more than habitat loss

The research of Vincent Nijman (and 5 colleagues) into the hunting of orangutans on Borneo was published in the online journal PLoS ONE in August, 2010. The researchers used “encounter rates” to measure the density of orangutans over the last 150 years in a variety of different habitats on Borneo. Their data came from hunting accounts, museum collections, and field studies. By the researchers’ calculations, the number of Bornean orangutans has declined about 6-fold since the mid-1800s. The convincing aspect of their data is this: If large-scale deforestation and forest degradation caused the decline, then we would expect to see a sudden decline after the 1960s and 1970s, “coincident with major intensification of [deforestation] during this period.” However, encounter rates declined steadily for at least 120 years before major deforestation began. Furthermore, say Nijman et al., although orangutan numbers do generally decrease following habitat disturbance, they manage to survive in high densities in some areas that have been heavily disturbed or even clear-cut and planted with monoculture plantations. Nijman et al. also noted that local orangutan extinctions or historical declines have occurred in the same areas where we know orangutans have been heavily hunted.

Mother and baby orangutan in forest on Borneo. Photo: Sally Kneidel

Orangutans now extinct in upland Borneo, where hunting was heavy historically

Mother and infant orangutan on Borneo.  Photo: Sally KneidelFor example, orangutans have long been extinct in upland areas of Borneo where poor soil prevents farming – areas that were historically populated by nomadic humans forced to rely on hunting. In contrast, freshwater and peat swamp environments were mostly not inhabited by people until the 19th century, but were densely populated by orangutans. The PLoS ONE paper sites many other examples of hunting-related distribution patterns of orangutans. In eastern Sabah (a state in Borneo), roving bands of head-hunters provided a refuge for orangutans and other wildlife, because other humans were afraid to enter the area. That refuge ended when head-hunting was banned.

Nijman et al. conclude that hunting has been underestimated as a key causal factor of orantugan density and distribution, and that orangutan population declines have been more severe than previously estimated based on habitat loss only.

Why do people still hunt orangutans?

The red apes, among our closest relatives, are still hunted for food or traditional medicines, as agricultural pests, for trophies, and more recently, for the pet trade. When I was in Southeast Asia in June and July, I visited the wildlife markets of Jakarta, where vendors openly flaunt wildlife-protection laws that are seldom enforced. There I was offered pet orangutans, along with many other supposedly protected primates, protected birds, and even a baby jaguar. Many told me they were carrying on a family business that had been handed down by their fathers. For more about my time in the Jakarta markets, see this post.

Trapping, shooting, eating, and selling wildlife are long-held traditions in forest cultures. Solutions must involve enforcement of local laws protecting forests and wildlife, and enforcement of penalties. That’s something that’s not happening right now in developing countries. But it must if orangutans, gorillas, chimpanzees, tigers, and thousands of other species are to survive this century. Many organizations are busy, on site, trying to make it happen. In Southeast Asia, TRAFFIC and Greenpeace are working hard to turn things around.

What can you do?

Support some of the NGOs who are making the most progress in protecting orangutans from illegal hunting and trade and who are fighting to protect Southeast Asia’s remaining forests from destruction.

These are some of the best:

Greenpeace International
TRAFFIC: the wildlife trade monitoring network
ProFauna (an Indonesian NGO that helped me in Jakarta by providing a local guide to go with me to the markets)
World Wildlife
ForestEthics
Rainforest Action Network
Earth Pulp and Paper

My previous posts on conservation in Southeast Asia:

Some of my previous posts on wildlife smuggling around the world:

Monkeys and parrots pouring from the jungle. September, 2008
The U.S. imports 20,000 primates per year. February, 2010
The great apes are losing ground. March, 2010

Some of my previous posts about deforestation:

Orangutans dwindle as Borneo, Sumatra converted to palm-oil plantations August 3, 2010
Wild tigers are in trouble October 4, 2010
Plush toilet paper flushes old forests. September 26, 2009

Key words:  orangutans hunting habitat loss bushmeat Planet Green gorillas chimpanzees Southeast Asia Africa TRAFFIC Greenpeace ProFauna wildlife trade wildlife smuggling

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