Belize: Bye-bye Mangroves – Viva Vacation!

On a recent trip to Belize, the mermaids – that would be my wife and daughter, sought out any excuse to immerse themselves in the Caribbean Sea; and my daughter’s desire to swim with a whale shark featured prominently on her list of reasons for our visit. It’s a rather hopeful wish on her part, but if you don’t think big there’s not much chance of experiencing anything out of the ordinary.

Alice had booked her place on an organised whale shark trip months in advance, and when the day arrives we all make the road trip to get her to the boat on time. Because our destination is some distance from our coastal base in Hopkins we are obliged to set off early in the morning, in darkness, before breakfast is served; this is a disappointment to me because I also have a list, but mine is of the things I no longer need to do – and missing breakfast isn’t on it.

When in the water with my wife and daughter I have trouble keeping up.
In Belize we spend a fair bit of time in the water – as usual I have trouble keeping up with my wife and daughter.

I have never felt the need to swim alongside any kind of shark even when it is considered safe, and I won’t in any case be going into the water today because it would involve scuba diving – another thing on the list of things I don’t need to do. My wife Jen, can dive but she has been unwell and so it would be unwise for her to scuba; consequently, she will remain land based and keep me company.

P1270550.FIX.SMALL

Up at 5.30 a.m. we are soon driving southwards towards our destination – a dock in the village of Placencia, set at the end of a short peninsula that hugs the coastline for about 18 miles; but when we get there this turns out to be a very slow 18 miles – the entire road is plagued by speed humps set at regular intervals. There are various tourist hotel developments along the way, some have impressive gates, but these are mostly the sort of places we avoid because they are so out of keeping with their surroundings.

RIMG7241.©.SMALLAt the bottom end of the Peninsula the village of Placencia is altogether different –  it is far more intimate than the impersonal hotels that we passed on the way; it is busy with local people and has several agreeable places to eat. A huge surprise though to pass an airport just before  we arrive, which initially seems out of place. Until recently this destination must have been close to the back end of nowhere; but the holiday business is rapidly changing that.

The surprise Airport.
The surprise Airport.

I can’t think of a better way for the wealthy to avoid the speed bumps than to fly in; certainly it is the quickest way in. As a wealthy person once said to me, ‘I can always earn more money, but I can’t buy more time’… And I guess that’s fair enough, but above all else, what they are really interested in buying here is real estate… and lots of it.

There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula but Placencia at the bottom end feels, authentic, relaxed and agreeable.
There are plenty of recent developments along the peninsula on the way down to Placencia, but the village remains relaxed and agreeable despite much of it being bought up by outsiders.

It is a bright sunny morning and we arrive early enough to go for breakfast in a local cafe, although the waitress is quite unhelpful; there’s a lot we can’t have from the menu because it’s too early and she hasn’t had a chance to shop for fruit and vegetables; unfortunately she doesn’t explain this and we waste a lot of time asking for things that are unavailable. It’s as if we are taking part in an unfunny version of ‘The Monty Python’ cheese sketch. ‘Mango this’… No. ‘Banana that’… No. ‘A veggie omelette’…. No. ‘Orange juice”….Ummm… No… We eventually hit on a few things that the kitchen does have, mainly choices that  revolve around cakes and pancakes, unhealthy stuff, but great when your earlier breakfast never happened.

Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.
Alice makes her way to the dock for her diving trip.

Unfortunately, the food takes so long, we are made late by the waiting and should have left by the time it arrives. We gulp it down, and have trouble getting the bill because our waitress seems to be moving through ‘treacle time’. We finally pay up, dash to the nearby dock, and despite the delay make it in time.

Alice will be out at sea for several hours, leaving Jen and I plenty of time to drive back up the peninsula and take a look at the coastal environment. The eastern seaward side is mostly sandy beach of the type popular with holidaymakers – but there are also stretches of mangrove less favoured by tourists; nevertheless, mangrove is an essential habitat that acts as a nursery for creatures that will eventually live out their lives on nearby offshore reefs.

Can't see the view?... What a nuisance!
Mangroves… Can’t see the view!… A natural wonder or an inconvenient nuisance?

We then travel along the western inner arm to search out the mangrove that borders the narrow bay adjacent to the Caribbean. Clearly, the mangroves were once extensive here, but are now intermittent and are being overtaken by development.

Mangrove is and important natural habitat that many people see as a wasteland - sadly, this are is staked out for development.
Mangrove is an important natural habitat, although many see it as little more than wasteland. The reality is somewhat different; these are essential buffers that protect fragile coastlines from storms and soil erosion; they also reduce agricultural by-products entering the sea. Sadly, this picture shows just one of many mangrove areas now staked out for development.

Indifference to mangrove destruction doesn’t make sense, but it is a widespread problem. On October 8th 2001 Hurricane Iris hit this area and levelled around 95% of Placencia – a hurricane can do this almost anywhere, but when the weather is just bad rather than extreme, mangroves offer at least some protection to things that you hope might stay attached to the land when things get rough. 

Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss
Coastal development is closely tied to mangrove loss.

Mangrove destruction is now a common problem in warm coastal areas where holiday developments are becoming widespread and the suggestion that building resorts is good for local economies doesn’t always work out as well as it might. Often the process involves rapid changes to the coastlines, and essentially too much happens too quickly. When multinational companies are involved they often prefer to bring in their own workforce, leaving the locals with only the most poorly paid and menial tasks; and there is often a disinclination to train local people to provide them with better opportunities.

RIMG7256.FIX.SMALLWhen developments are rapid and extensive, habitats that local people have relied upon for generations are often quickly degraded, and it isn’t greatly appreciated when wealthy outsiders (who don’t need the food) arrive to ‘sports’ fish valuable natural resources. When financial gains don’t filter through to people living in the area, resentment grows, and when much of the profit goes offshore there may be no longterm benefits to local communities. Few visitors choose to notice this problem because to do so would mean leaving the hotel to speak to locals who will furnish a broader picture – something almost unthinkable. Certainly there are dangerous places around the world, but it is irrational to be frightened of moving amongst locals in the places we visit – it’s madness to behave like prisoners locked in holiday complexes that provide everything we need but reality.

This one looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt it will be beautiful when it is finished.
This development looks a bit like a cell block, but no doubt will be beautiful when it’s finished.

It would of course be wrong to imply there are no benefits to previously isolated communities when they are suddenly transformed by tourism, but it is noticeable – if you care to look – that many people remain in poverty while the profits go elsewhere. This results in a very one sided spin on the benefits that tourism can bring to poor communities. Clearly there are advantages when outside money is brought in, but the amount that filters through to local people is often meagre and many will see no benefits at all.

Much of the remaining  coastline appears to be up for sale.
Much of the remaining coastline close to Placencia appears to be up for sale.

What nature provides in far away places is often taken as freely available and without consequences, but as holiday based economies continue to expand, it is increasingly evident that there can be no free lunch; someone local will be losing out to pay for the good fortune of the many visitors arriving from elsewhere, and investors will continue to make big bucks by exploiting environmentally sensitive areas.

P1270561.FIX.©.SMALL

If big hotels and cruise liners continue to feature in fragile environments and during the process they reduce air and water quality, it might be worth asking whether such problems outweight the often one-sided financial gains…

I know! who wants to think about this kind of thing when you’re on holiday, or fortunate enough to be on the right side of what is rapidly becoming a gaping economic divide; nonetheless this is a reality that can’t be ignored forever.

The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub behind the mangrove is worth preserving.
The beauty of a single dragonfly sums up why at least some sandy scrub and pools behind the mangrove is worth preserving.

We saw the last 5 acre ‘investment opportunity’ (as it was described by one realtor) up for sale on a board in Placencia village. We could find no evidence to suggest that many here thought it necessary to retain the mangroves, and it appears that it won’t be long before most of this peninsula will be developed in one form or another, with this important habitat degraded or perhaps entirely lost… And who will remember once it has gone?

An interesting addition to paradise.
One of many interesting additions to paradise on the road to Placencia.

Much of the development along the coastal area where we are staying and where we started out this morning – in Hopkins – is paid for with American dollars and many who come to visit these newly developed areas are Americans.

Belize money is visually agreeable, but I never saw any that wasn't worn out.
Belize money is visually impressive, but I’ve never seen a bank note that wasn’t worn out.

From an environmental perspective mass development of coastal regions isn’t really a great idea. I love the Americas in particular, but feel as if I need a shower whenever I touch an American dollar. In common with nearly all the paper money you handle in warm countries it is often badly worn and it usually stinks. Perhaps the money itself is trying to tell us something.

Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.
Vultures circling over Hopkins in evening night.

Coastal Belize is much favoured by tourists from Texas and the village of Hopkins is about to be turned into a major tourist spot.

Presently the Belize road system is quite variable, with some sections very rough; the drive to Hopkins from Belize City Airport really isn’t much fun because you are always on the look out for potholes and speed humps. The last part of the journey up through the village is especially rough; at the time of writing it is no more than a dusty track peppered with potholes, but this is about to change as a new blacktop road is planned and by the time you are reading this, it might already be in place.

Many of the locals don’t feel comfortable with the new developments as they won’t themselves be seeing much in the way of profit from the upgrades. Despite the sudden influx of money, conditions for many have not, so far, greatly improved and many people’s lives may not change very much despite the fact that a holiday in Belize isn’t a cheap option. This kind of ‘progress’ where money flows in but nothing much changes on the street isn’t in any sense fair… But it is what it is.  

Hopkins may still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must be good for the future of Belize.

Hopkins might still run along a dusty track, but every child has a place in school which must bode well for the future of Belize…  if the whole country doesn’t eventually get bought up by outsiders.

Mangroves architecture is delightfully natural.
Mangroves in contrast to many holiday developments are a natural architectural wonder.

All things considered, it isn’t difficult to understand why the money that is flowing into places like Hopkins and Placencia isn’t filtering through to the average person. Everything changes when markets go global and the consequences of such rapid development is the cause of much bad feeling.

An airport is soon to be built close by Hopkins and this along with the road upgrade, explains why land speculation has gone through the roof. It is a huge problem, because as outsiders speculate, local people are priced out of the market and suddenly out of the equation.

As you travel through and out of the village to the south many new developments are underway.
In and around Hopkins village many new developments are underway.

Back around Placencia we wander 

along what remains of the mangrove, much of which is likely to disappear as holiday developments begin to pick up apace; but for the moment what remains of this habitat adds an air of mystery to the coastline, particularly from the seaward side, where you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond them.

The seaward side of dense mangrove.
On the seaward side small sections of dense mangrove still remain, but much of it is now sectioned for development.

It is a hot afternoon as Jen and I walk back to the dock to wait for Alice’s boat to re-appear on the horizon. There was a slight breeze this morning which caused a surface ripple across the water, but all is now still, allowing me to take pictures of seahorses amongst the seagrass just off the dock. In the past I’ve worked with captive seahorses in my studio for the B.B.C. which was much easier. Not so much for Jen though because she was the one looking after them. Keeping seahorses healthy in captivity can be labour intensive and requires considerable skill – so don’t even think about it!

Getting a clear shot in this natural setting is far less easy but it is at least ethical. With so much pressure on seahorse habitat now, and the annual trade (particularly in south-east Asia) in millions of these wonderful animals for their erroneous medicinal value, has pushed many of the 50 plus species that we presently know of into general decline.

One of three or four seahorses anchored amongst the weed by their tails as they feed.
One of three or four seahorses anchored by their tails amongst the seagrass and waterweed. These plants provide relatively stable attachments while they feed by sucking in tiny plant and animal prey as it passes.                                                                                                               

It isn’t long before Alice’s dive group arrives back, but there is an air of gloom hanging over the boat. No whale sharks were seen and further research on our part suggests that there have been no reliable sightings by dive groups in local waters for at least two years. One whale shark diving concern recently changed the description of its outings because of this, while others are still trading as whale shark tours; it maybe that the only sharks around here are tour operators. When you dive in the sea, nothing is guaranteed, but to advertise a tour specifically using an animal’s name when there are no representatives in the area is nothing short of deceitful.

Alice saw and photographed a loggerhead turtle - so the dive wasn't a complete waste of time.
Alice saw and photographed this loggerhead turtle – so the dive wasn’t a complete waste of time.

Alice’s loggerhead turtle pictures turned out rather well, but one in particular stands out because it could prove useful as a future means of identification. I have spent much of my photographic career trying to take pleasing pictures of wildlife and for most of my working life have made a living from it; but in truth, apart from making me feel I’ve achieved something personally… what is the use of it? There are plenty of good pictures of turtles, but one that provides reliable identification rather than just a pretty picture could prove far more consequential.

A simple picture from above shows the pattern of the plates or ‘scutes’ on the turtle’s shell, as well as the scales on top of the head; the number and shape of these can provide a reliable means of species identification and when combined with wear and tear body markings may also indicate particular individuals. Certainly when accompanied by a date and location, a record of these patterns can have considerable scientific value.

This is a pleasant enough picture, bit it also useful for identification.
A pleasant enough picture, but also a useful means of identifying an individual.

In the end, the natural wonders of Belize may prove to be a bit like its plumbing in that there are many things here that are resilient to being flushed away, but as the outside world brings with it greater expectations – and a flush of money besides, it may be that almost anything can be sent swirling down the pan. One must hope for better things for this beautiful place, but only time will tell.

Belize: Mayan Temples and Howler Monkey Business.

P1270069.FRAME.©.SMALLThe 17th May 2017 is another beautiful day in Belize and one that turns out to be rather special. Up for an early breakfast with my wife and daughter I eat scrambled eggs and tropical fruits, heaping both onto the same plate to save time. The view however is altogether more subtle than my inelegant attitude towards the functionality of food, and we gaze out across the smooth metallic expanse of the the Caribbean Sea warming from silver to gold as the sun rises.

Within half an hour, we are moving along an empty road, the sun now throwing the surrounding countryside into an intensity of  colour that is seldom seen outside of the tropics. Driving westward, we move away from the coast into the interior, travelling across the entire country in just a couple of hours from our base in Hopkins to arrive at our destination   – the Mayan ruins of Xuanantunich on the Mopan River, close by the Guatemala border.

My childhood was busy with stories of such places. At ten years of age I regularly imagined myself to be an Indiana Jones, although it could only have been an approximation because the intrepid archaeologist had not then been invented; whoever I thought I was cannot compare with the present reality of finally arriving at an authentic Mayan ruin where the levels of exhilaration are pushed beyond any fiction.

We cross the river by means of a ferry that is hand cranked - you tip pay the ferryman whatever you feelis appropriate and he literally drags you across.
We cross the Mopan River by means of a ferry that is hand cranked – you tip the ferryman whatever you feel is appropriate and he literally drags you across the water.

The archaeological site is only a few hundred metres from the ferry and there are a few people, mostly young backpackers, walking in along the road from the nearby town of San Ignacio. A few commercial outlets run along one side of the car park including a little gift shop selling Indian made items. It’s all pretty low key, but on our arrival there is a hell of a racket going on; my wife Jen, and daughter Alice are ignoring it as they lube up with insect repellant and sunscreen; I’m just keen to get moving because it is pushing towards mid-morning and getting hotter by the minute. The din is coming from close by the little shop, and I at once assume this to be a taped loop of howler monkey calls – it is quite deafening – certainly the loudest noise I’ve ever heard coming out of a monkey, but I don’t record it –  this is so obviously a ploy to drag people in to buy trinkets, small things that will end up hidden away in the backs of a drawers that will be discovered by another generation during future tragic clear outs of the homes of the deceased.

Once on site and standing on the huge an impressive pyramid of stones know as El Castillo, I notice a guide who is taking a young couple around and I ask him about the monkey recordings. He is puzzled, and tells me that he doesn’t know of any recordings, but there are three troops of howlers roaming the area that sometimes kick up a fuss as they did this morning.  At once I regret not recording all that wonderful howling. My wife on the other hand is delighted with my mistake because I really should have known better. She’s likes me to be wrong a couple of times a day and usually I can oblige.

Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo - the most prominent structure here - looking down onto the square below.
Standing on the steps of pyramid El Castillo – the most prominent structure here – looking down onto the square below where a ball game was played.

 There are a group of teenagers and a couple egged on by friends are running along the facade and jumping the regular gaps in the stonework. Suddenly one falls heavily, it is a girl – she pretends that it didn’t hurt, but really it must have. My daughter is puzzled by the behaviour – “It seems very disrespectful”, she says, “but they don’t seem to be aware of it”. If this were Stonehenge, they’d have been arrested by now and carried away in a van, but here, where direct access is allowed to the monument, some lose all sense of what is reasonable as they go about expanding their version of personal liberty, this to the irritation of almost everybody around them and it also puts the fabric of the ruin in danger. A great pity, because presently there is enormous freedom on site to wander wherever you want without restriction, but as more people begin behaving as if their brains have dropped out, things will inevitably change to protect both the idiots concerned and the monument. Rules will be imposed – areas will be cordoned off, and the whole place will begin to feel more like a museum than the magical experience that it presently is.

The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest... or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams - photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.
The Xunantunich Mayan ruins are set in sub-tropical forest… or more honestly, they are if you get your camera angles right. What each of us sees in a photograph mirrors our hopes and dreams – photographers are mostly there to fill in the dots of our wishful thinking.

The pyramid El Castillo was probably in use as early as 800 A.D. it was constructed in two phases, and remains to this day very impressive, especially when you get close to the top. “You won’t get up there with all that gear”, my daughter says, which of course is like showing red rag to a bull (even if in the real world bulls don’t see red). Jen has already been defeated by the heat, she is feeling unwell, and has moved off without complaint to sit in the shade. Alice is already at the top; I am making my way there more slowly, taking pictures as I go and during the ascent begin to wonder how many have fallen from this huge pile of stones. In places the climb is steep and there is very little to grab on to, but once you get to the top the view is spectacular and well worth the risk – you can even see Guatemala  – a broad white track indicates the border; and my daughter and I take in the scene as if we are looking down on a huge map.

Alice coming down off the top of El Castillo - it's worth being careful because there's a long way to drop if you miss your footing.
Alice coming down from the top of El Castillo – it’s worth being careful because there’s quite a drop if you miss your footing.

As Alice climbs down. I stay up for a while and continue to take pictures. It isn’t long before I pass a couple of young men who have noticed a large iguana over the edge of the front facade. You really have to lean out to see it – it’s a monster and I imagine that its ancestors were living on these walls when Mayan rulers were making blood sacrifices of their slaves… and perhaps when things weren’t going so well… their local people. Making human sacrifices was considered a real problem solver when negotiating with the gods. According to a guide that I spoke to, a game was played here annually in the square below and the winning team were granted a short celebration before they were executed. This hardly seems fair and I have no idea if it really happened… but it makes a good story. At modern sporting events this custom might still prove popular with the  fans. Any team losing to Manchester United for example, might feel inclined to look on the bright side, but in today’s world this old custom would prove impractical because as entertaining as it might seem, executing a whole team would be far too expensive.

The spiny-tailed iguana is often seen on rocky outcrops - this then a perfect place to see it. The common green iguana will more likely to be seen up a tree or in vegetation.
The black spiny-tailed iguana (Ctenosaura similis) is often seen on rocky outcrops – and the ruin is a perfect place to discover them. Only parts of this lizard are black. It’s cousin, the more common green iguana prefers to take refuge in trees or amongst vegetation – this  a species more inclined to avoid open areas.

A woman is passing and I tell her about the impressive lizard. I’ve already tempted fate by setting my tripod up on the edge of the ledge and leant out for a series of pictures, my balance is not as good as it once was and now I’m generally more careful incase things go wrong. Anyway, this pleasant middle aged lady also seems interested in getting a shot, and so after a brief discussion on the safest way to achieve this, I take her full weight by holding onto her left arm as she leans out to take her picture. And all I can think as I do this is, ‘If I let go she’s a goner’ – but I don’t do that… Why would anybody trust a complete stranger like this? “Trust me I’m a wildlife photographer…. That’s just like being a doctor isn’t it? – You know, a really reliable sort?… Maybe not.”

A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.
A view looking down from the top of El Castillo.

It’s very hot, but the day just goes on warming up, and by afternoon we pretty much have the place to ourselves – there are no mad dogs here just three English people out long past the mid-day. Noel Coward makes no mention of the extreme heat of afternoon in his song, probably because it doesn’t scan and would make no sense unless you experienced it, as we are doing today.

Late in the afternoon our wander around this wonderful square mile is complete and we begin to make our way back to the car. As we walk I check for the car keys that are no longer in my pocket. This is unusual. Sure, I lose my keys around the house, but never in a place like this, miles from anywhere. Usually I’m more careful.  The site is now closed and Jen waits in the visitor’s centre while my daughter and I retrace my steps. Alice suggests that I visualise my journey like a child, which really isn’t my sort of thing, but it’s not bad advice; because as I get to the final location I remember upending myself to IMG_4968.SMALL.©get a shot for an old American couple, with the ruins in the background – I’m certain my keys are there. I speed up a little in anticipation as the sun begins to dip over the stone facade. And sure enough there they aren’t… but moving 10 metres on along the terrace, there they are, lying on a step in an almost identical location, sparkling in what remains of the sunlight like Mayan treasure – although presently, they are of greater value to us than Mayan gold.

The lost keys! … my second mistake of the day. after the earlier monkey business I should once again have known better, but Jen doesn’t make a fuss as I might have have done had it been her or Alice who had lost them. Getting ‘it wrong’ twice in a day is enough, better still there is the relief of finding the very thing that starts the vehicle which is absolutely essential if we are to avoid being be stuck out here overnight.

P1270412.FIX.©.SMALLQuite by co-incidence the day after returning home I met somebody who has also visited the Mayan ruin of Xuanantunich, but he also visited another site across the border in Guatemala where things had gone badly wrong and put our recent experience into perspective.

Quite by chance a National Geographic photographer was covering the ruin for a feature in the magazine and asked my acquaintance if he would tag along because he spoke the local language. There was nothing unusual about the visit; rather prosaically it had been organised by a local hotel, but late in the day as the sun was setting, the photographer became increasingly absorbed with his picture taking and neither of them noticed the party moving away to return to the vehicle that would take them away from of the site. The pair were left stranded in the forest with    with only a small torch and a mobile phone to light their way as the light began rapidly fading. They stumbled about in the darkness for some time and my acquaintance eventually found a trail that led to the road. On arriving back at the hotel they were both covered in insect bites and scratched and bruised by their encounters in the forest.

The concern at night in tropical forest is always that you might step on a P1270428.FRAME.FIX.©.SMALLpoisonous snake and this is not a wildly improbable scenario, but what most people worry about is the far less likely possibility of being attacked by a jaguar which can exert perhaps the strongest bite of all of the big cats – with their wide gape they will grab prey by the skull, and quickly pierce it with their impressive incisor teeth, but if this should happen, it would be all over before there was a chance to think much about it, and there’s consequently very little point in dwelling on such an unlikely scenario. Unfortunately, a tropical forest at night is so full of strange sounds, imagination quickly gets the better of you.

The Nat. Geo. photographer was apparently quite shaken up by his experience, which pleased me a little because I would sometimes come across one when filming for the B.B.C. in remote areas of the world. Stills photographers were usually carrying lighter gear than I was obliged to; and Nat Geo. photographers had more time and money to get the job done. The upside was that in some insect infested locations, the buget would limit my available work days and I would leave the Nat  Geo photographer on site for perhaps another month. Sometimes it is just nice to be getting out of an extreme environment. There are many who imagine a job travelling as a wildlife photographer to be their ultimate dream, but when you are actually doing it and being eaten alive by insects, especially as night approaches, it’s a very different story; and if you are unlucky enough to get stuck out over night without being entirely prepared – it’s the ultimate nightmare.

P1270352.FRAME.©.SMALL

I didn’t know at the time the keys went missing that the last ferry was supposed to be going at 4.00 p.m. otherwise I’d have been more concerned. We were now well past that time and would be departing later still because Alice had discovered a troop of howler monkeys (Alouatta) coming through the forest canopy on one side of the site just as we were about to leave.

I set up at the forest edge and although they are not calling, we can certainly hear them coming – gently rustling as they move through the trees stopping here and there to climb out along a branch to munch at the tips on fresh new leaves. It took about 20 minutes before they arrive at the edge of the clearing to reveal themselves from the dense foliage long enough for me to get a few shots. On the limits of exposure with the light now rapidly fading, I grab anything that I can, and what is most noticeable is that each monkey never allows itself to have fewer than three and often four points of contact with the tree; and when they stop to feed their tails invariably remain tightly wrapped around the main branch from which they are hanging.

There are half a dizen monkeys in the troop, including two youngsters - the adults are busy feeding on fresh leaves at the ends of shoots.
There are half a dozen monkeys in this small troop of Yukatan black howlers (Alouatta pigra), including two youngsters – the adults are busy feeding on leaves that are freshly developing at the ends of shoots.

It is a surprise to be getting the best pictures I’ve ever managed of Howler monkeys and Jen, who prefers to look on the positive side when my mood so often swings the other way, points out that if I hadn’t lost the keys we’d probably have left the site before the howlers swung through. Their presence suggests the surrounding forest isn’t as degraded as it initially appeared to be, and a few howler pictures will make it difficult to deny that they were once here should they disappear sometime in the future. It is good once in a while to end on a positive note – and nothing is more positive or interesting than a bit of monkey business.

When we arrive back at the ferry it is on the other side of the river and I’m thinking that it might have stopped running for the day. I wave from the bank in the hope that it is still operating. The ferryman is certainly there and he sets the thing in motion. It’s always a good day when your experiences run against the natural course of entropy, because now and again, things are just bound to go your way.

With thanks to Mario Lemoine for his interesting story.

Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation.

During a recent visit to Belize with my wife and daughter, it was impossible not to appreciate the beauty of the flora and fauna of what many regard as a a sub-tropical paradise. “But, there is something missing”, said my wife, “and I’m not sure what it is”. I thought about this for while and if I had to put it down to one particular thing, then it would have to be a lack of primary forest.

A black-headed trogon in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.
A black-headed trogon Trogon melanocephalus in Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary.

Figures for deforestation are sketchy for Belize and what we believe sometimes depends on where the figures come from – certainly it would be disappointing if the generally accepted figure for loss really is running at 2% per annum.

There are also stories that give cause for more general concern. It is said, for example, that during the 1990s the Belize government granted unusually low logging concessions to a Malaysian company – rights were purchased for as little as 60 cents an acre… It defies belief that such a story could be true, although such indifference to a valuable national resource seems almost too ridiculous to make up.

When forest depletion figures are presented for tropical regions, the details are sometimes misleading. Many logging concerns are intent on getting into virgin forest where the real value lies in big old hardwood trees, which can now fetch astronomical prices. Companies that are cutting into these diminishing ecosystems are less inclined to bother with the lower value smaller trees growing back in secondary forests,  i.e. places where trees have been logged in the past. The point is that it is essential to know exactly what kind of forest is being logged to truly understand the consequences. Foresters will sometimes say that for every tree they cut two more will be planted (I was told exactly this in relation to mahogany trees during our visit to Belize), but it doesn’t mean anything unless there are exact details on the age and size of the trees being felled. Replacing a 30 year old tree in a secondary forest with two replacement saplings is one thing, but hardly a replacement for a 300 hundred year old tree cut in primary forest? From an ecological perspective and in most other senses there is an enormous difference and we should all be concerned because the loss of forests containing mature old trees will have far reaching consequences. 

When I see logs moving along a road in the tropics I check their size, imagine them still standing quietly in the forest and then wonder if they have been legally logged - if they are it doesn't make me feel any better - I just find it depressing.
When I see cut trees moving along a road in the tropics I check their size; and if they are big,  try to imagine them still standing quietly in the forest; then I start to wonder if they have been legally logged. Even if they have it doesn’t make me feel any better; the removal of a tree in a matter of minutes that has existed as part of a long-standing ecosystem for hundreds of years is depressing. The rate of loss of the world’s remaining primary forests is one of the most serious problems of our time and may eventually come back to bite us.

A positive case is often made for selective logging rather than clearcut felling an area, with only certain trees taken out; but it is difficult to imagine how anybody could make this version of habitat destruction sound like a really good idea.

However, there are people in the conservation ‘game’ who claim that cutting out all of the large mahogany trees in an ecosystem makes no difference to the health of a forest, but how can they possibly suggest that? Maybe they simply take a walk in the forest, have a bit of a look around and decide that if you didn’t know the trees had been felled, then maybe you wouldn’t notice a difference despite the fact that mahogany trees, where they do remain in place, play a consequential part in their ecosystems. It should be obvious that the removal of a single prominent species, which other plants and animals inevitably rely upon, cannot be undertaken without consequences.

To log an area successfully requires the cutting through of logging roads and once they are in place they quickly become a magnet for illegal loggers. In particular, I  have noticed (from the air), how quickly Malaysian rainforest disappears once it has been made accessible.

Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this. A couple of years later some areas on the same route were criss crossed with logging roads and the trees were beginning to disappear.
Much of the Malaysian rainforest I flew over in 1983 looked like this, but a couple of years later some areas along the same route were criss-crossed with logging roads and trees were rapidly beginning to disappear.

Felled trees can only leave a forest efficiently when tracks are extensively cut in. The felling process, no matter how selective, is always destructive; and the idea that taking out only the commercially valuable older trees can be achieved without changing the optimum natural functions of a forest is difficult to argue.

This is an older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, it crtainly isn't an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstartes what happens to a tree in the rainforest as it ages - there's a whole new world developing in the upper part of the tree and in extensive areas on primary forest there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on the mid and upper storey and never come to the forest floor - this region is almost impossible to find in youg secondary forest.
This older tree in the Coxcomb Reserve, isn’t an ancient tree, but it clearly demonstrates what happens to a tree in a rainforest as it ages – there’s a whole new world developing in the canopy. In areas where primary forest remains there are many plant and animal species that are dependent on these mid to upper-storey levels and some of which will never come down to the forest floor – these habitat zones are non-existent in young secondary forest in areas that have previously been clear felled.

Visiting Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary in the Stann Creek District of south-central Belize was nothing short of delightful, even though logging would have been a feature here from the late 1930s through to 1988, when buildings previously owned by the logging company were taken over to form the park’s visitor centre. This should be a clue as to why so much of the surrounding forest is secondary and only recently regenerated. In fairness to any logging concern The Stan Creek District was seriously hit by Hurricane Hattie on October 31st 1961. Hattie is said to have taken out as much as 70% of the mahogany trees in the area and this is probably the main reason that logging came to an end – it is likely that there just weren’t enough big trees left standing to keep a commercial concern in business.

There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforst trees typically have butress roots because the soil is shallow; roots do not go deep and thes butresses are the means of support to secure them in shallow soil.
There are occasional trees that were left in the Coxcomb Reserve during the earlier logging period. Older tropical rainforest trees typically have buttress roots because the soil is shallow; the roots do not go deep and the butresses that are formed support the trees in shallow soil.

Whatever the reason for the loss, there were no extensive stands of original lowland forest apparent in any part of the park that we visited. But, this doesn’t mean the reserve isn’t an extremely important conservation area, in particular for the preservation of jaguar, essentially the reason that the park was set up in 1984. The regenerating forest still has enormous ecological value even if the surrounding habitat is a shadow of its former self, brought about by extensive logging and then almost complete destruction by Hurricane Hattie.

This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988 when he was President of The World Wildlife Fund. At the time it was a good deal smaller than the duke and it is atonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but in an old forest a mahogany might live for 350 years which puts things into perspective.
This mahogany tree was planted close by the visitors centre by The Duke of Edinburgh in 1988, at the time he was President of The World Wildlife Fund; the tree was then a good deal shorter than the Duke – it is astonishing how quickly it has grown. At 25 years it is regarded as a mature tree, but to put things into perspective a mahogany tree in undisturbed forest might live for 350 years or more.

I must admit to being concerned when I see quotes about a secondary forest that has been around for perhaps only 30 years, when claims are made that the area has now completely regrown. This demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of tropical forest regeneration. Virgin forest that has been felled in recent time will not be just dandy again after the passing of a few decades and might never carry the same biodiversity again.

Not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky bird.
A male white-collared manakin: not my best picture, but the only one I managed of this tricky little bird that mostly refused to sit anywhere long enough to be photographed.

This white-collared manakin photographed in the bird heaven that is Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary likes to hang out in dense forest. It pings around like a pinball and will suddenly judder to a halt in display. This bird is completely nuts – it makes a loud noise exactly like marbles being bashed heavily together and remarkably it does this using its wings.

 IMG_5401.FRAME.©.SMALLDuring our trip my daughter Alice was looking for adventure and could not resist the opportunity to zip line through tropical forest and rappel down a tumbling waterfall. She’d done her research and discovered in Mayflower Bocawina Park an adventure centre that could provide such opportunities only a short distance from our coastal base in Hopkins. While she was doing that, Jen and I took the opportunity to wander through the park’s secondary forest.

When we first entered Mayflower Bocawina National Park I noticed a wide track that had been cut along the border of the reserve. On arrival at the ticket office I asked why the trees had been felled in this manner and was told this had been done to mark the park boundary, but I wasn’t convinced, boundaries of national parks rarely involve habitat destruction, in particularly because some tropical forest species prefer not to cross open ground.

Trees cut along the boundary line of the park might have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easy access for illegal loggers.
Trees cut along the boundary line of the park looked as if they have been cleared to provide a logging road to access trees from somewhere deep in the forest. Even if the logging here is above board, there will now be easier access for illegal loggers.
Bird humming orchid inMayflower Bocaina National Park.
Myrmecophila orchid flowers photographed in Mayflower Bocawina National Park, so named because this orchid genus usually has an association with ants.

I began looking for somebody who might provide a more likely explanation as to why a swathe of trees had been felled through the forest and eventually came across a man who was clearly knowledgable about the reserve and its wildlife; he worked in the park, but not for the park and told me that this was a government sanctioned forestry project. He said that a logging road was being cut through to the back of the reserve in order to remove valuable teak trees. I do not have a secondary source to confirm this, but it doesn’t sound impossible as I’ve witnessed trees being removed from protected forest habitats before, both in Malaysia and Central America – in some cases with official stamps that falsely claim that the trees have come from a sustainable source. I can’t say for certain that teak trees will be coming out of the forest here and even if they do it probably won’t be illegal. It is just that such a thing is not unusual, which is disturbing, because while many of us obsess over the potential loss of an animal species that we are fond of, we are less inclined to be quite so pro-active about the disappearance of the habitat our favoured animal lives in. The felling of any quality primary tropical or sub-tropical forest, legal or not, is disturbing and already hugely consequential in terms of world weather patterns, soil erosion and the damage it causes local economies, let alone the more obvious problems of habitat and species loss.

Primary forest is essential to the survival of complex ecosystems – it can for example provide a habitat that is a couple of degrees lower than nearby regenerating secondary forest. If all that is left to us by continually opening up the interior is a pale washed out version of the original then we should balance short term economic gain against long-term environmental consequences. Sadly, we may let this pass without fully knowing what has been lost because we are recording so little of the virgin forest’s biodiversity before it is gone. Doing the right thing usually runs second to making a fast buck, which is both shameful and morally unjustifiable.

IMG_3787.SMALL.FIX.©If a species disappears from the forest and we aren’t there to witness it… didn’t even know that it existed… does it really matter? This is not a philosophical question. It of course matters and it also matters that in future people will remain poorly informed as to what has disappeared; more especially because we remain indifferent to many less glamourous species despite their ecological importance. We will be ignorant of what  natural environments were once like – of what has been lost in the same way that few of us have any idea what it was like before the time of manufactured pesticides… ignorance is bliss, but this ‘not knowing’ comes at a price, and for life on Earth that price might be a heavy one. With this ever increasing loss of habitat and by association, loss of species, our own continued success is thrown into question because we are not independent of the system – we are part of it. 

Whilst Alice ‘does her thing’, dipping through waterfalls and zipping through the forest canopy, Jen and I wander through the park. I grab shots of birds and butterflies as we walk towards yet another waterfall – a focal point that motivates us to keep going through the intense heat and high humidity of a muggy afternoon.

Waterfalls appear to be favourite destinations. I guess making it in and out provides a sense of achievement.
Waterfalls are favourite destinations – to make it in and out always provides a sense of achievement.
Fruit trees can be see along the path in regular patterns indicating the land was once agricultural.
Fruit trees can be seen along the path at regular intervals suggesting that this was once agricultural land.

As we move along we see very few old trees, but there are many plants regenerating through scrubland that must once have been farmland; native species are now fighting their way back through cultivated forms such as banana and palm oil which are just about managing to hang on. It is also remarkable how resilient some animals are to living in environments that aren’t quite right for them, but that won’t be the case for every species and a price will have to be paid for the decrease in natural diversity that we have imposed.

A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a saltlick on the path.
A many-banded daggerwing Marpesia chiron feeding from a salt lick on the path.

If you ever get to travel through a tropical forest that has never been felled, then take the opportunity to make a photographic record of whatever you see because this might one day prove a useful record of potential losses. Unfortunately, I have returned to some rainforests areas only to discover that they have disappeared altogether. It’s always worth taking pictures of anything that seems interesting, especially if the time and place are carefully recorded. Now and again a good picture might turn out to be more important than it seems at the time… and who knows, one day it might help to save the Planet, or at the very least aid in species reintroduction – when we finally wake up to the dangers caused by the wanton destruction of valuable ecosystems.

Next: MayanTemples and Howler Monkey Business.

 

 

Belize: From the Forest to the Sea.

I was recently on holiday in Belize with my wife Jen and daughter Alice, and as usual had nothing to do with selecting either our destination or how we would get there. Jen decided to travel United Airways because they had recently dragged a customer off of a flight to worldwide condemnation. She thought we might get a better deal in the wake of the bad publicity… and we did, along with great treatment from cabin staff, evidently trying to make amends. Our cabin attendant, said that the day before he had told passengers over the intercom, to raise their arms in the air, explaining that this would make it easier to drag them off. And to his surprise… still has a job!

Flying nto Belize powder puff clouds line up where the land hits the sea. coastline
Flying into Belize, powder puff clouds line up to the point where the land meets the sea.

It was Alice who chose our destination, one she thought might suit us all: she wanted a variety of adrenalin pumping adventures; her mother needed a relaxing beach holiday; and I hoped to quietly observe and photograph wildlife. With all of this in mind, she chose Hopkins – a village destination that runs along the coast, and this turned out to be a good choice.

Belize International Airport is about a third of the way down the country and Hopkins is another third of the way further south. The initial drive from the airport took about two and a half hours, this after three flights across North America, the first of which started late the previous evening in Vancouver. But at least we had moved from the low 50s to the low 90s ºF which was a bonus as far as I was concerned.

Occasionally there are pleasant views from the road - in particular along the Hummingbird Highway.
Occasionally there are pleasant views from the road – in particular along the Hummingbird Highway.

We didn’t want to be hanging around Belize City for too long because parts of it were clearly unsafe. But reading the advice sheet from the car hire company seemed likely to notch everything one step closer to hysteria. Belize sounded like a war zone… the car doors must be kept locked; no hitchhikers; no stopping anywhere other than public areas and no travelling at night unless you could guarantee stops were made in well lit areas… and of course, there could be absolutely no breaking down. Not so easy when your four-wheel drive smells of petrol and the pot holes in some of the roads just can’t wait to rip your tyres off… For us, ‘No breaking down’ seemed to be hopeful in the extreme.

The Belizian speed hump can provide a surprise equal to any theme park ride.
The Belize speed hump can provide a surprise equal to any theme park ride.

The truth is rather more prosaic – the most dangerous thing about driving across Belize is the speed humps you encounter when entering any place of habitation. The first will give you a pounding because you won’t have met one quite like it before, and if the suspension and rear axle hold out, you certainly won’t make that mistake again – they need to be taken unbelievably slowly. There really isn’t a lot else to worry about because people are mostly friendly, especially those living in the small towns and communities that we pass through.

Drivers are often said to be unpredictable, but this isn’t the case either. What is more certain, is that when the road runs out and you find yourself on a dirt track, the ride is going to get rather bumpy.

On the road, I wasn't sure if Tapir were really crossing here. Hopefully unlike the sign their hides weren't full of buckshot.
I wasn’t sure if Tapir were really crossing the road here, and hoping that unlike the sign, their hides weren’t full of buckshot.
Mayan Indian ladies will find you and try to sell you what they have made no matter where you are; in this case at the back of a mangrove - but sadly there are only so many woven bowls you can buy, but Jen did buy something.
No matter where you are (in this case at the back of a mangrove), Mayan Indian ladies will find you and try to sell you somthing they have made. Sadly each of us only needs so many woven bowls, but Jen did buy something.

For most people a holiday abroad involves staying in a resort that minimises contact with local people – everything you need is on site and tours are usually organised with the efficiency of a special needs outing.

We prefer to drive ourselves wherever we go and avoid the noisy idiots that are drawn to the sun as certainly as a red giant eats its planets; by doing this, we also throw off the constraints of other people’s time; and get to spread our spending money amongst the locals rather than ploughing our budget into multinational tourist concerns.

Into the Green:

Our second day was a rest day for Jen, she hung out close by the beach while Alice and I took a short drive to The Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary - established in 1886 it now runs to 120,000 acres of moist tropical forest and is most  famous for preserving jaguars – there are said to be up to 80 breeding pairs living in the park, maybe some are moving through because that sounds like a lot of big cats for the area and as jaguars are mostly solitary, to describe them as pairs might also be confusing. After a bumpy six mile ride from the ticket office, along a rough old track we pass a sign that says jaguar crossing, which confirms we are at least going in the right direction, and soon after arrive at park headquarters.

On the way into what is said to be the first Jaguar preserve in existence, we see this sign. I slow down, because jaguars can no doubt read and will crossing here.
On the way into what is said to be the first Jaguar preserve in existence, we see this sign. I slow down because jaguars can no doubt read and will crossing here.
O.K. This was another time another place!
Another time another place!

O.K., so we didn’t  see any jaguars – the last sighting occurred in mid-April 2017. Rather surprisingly, most are glimpsed during mid-afternoon, usually along river courses, probably because this is the time when tourists are likely to be around.  The park opens at 7.30 a.m. and closes at 4.30 p.m. – not really the best period to see jaguars on the wander. There are organised night tours, but otherwise the park closes long before it gets dark, which is the time when jaguars are most active.

The best chance of getting a shot of a jaguar is to throw your entrance tickets onto the ground and go for the shot. Pick them up though, because these are the best park entry tickets you will ever come across.
The best chance of getting a pic of a jaguar is to throw your entrance tickets onto the ground and go for the shot. Pick them up afterwards though – these are the best wildlife park entry tickets you are likely to come across.
IMG_3972.FIX.©.SMALL
Pale-billed woodpecker (Campephilus guatemalensis).

What we did see, were a great many smaller animals, particularly birds – there are some 300 species in the park and when you stop comparing them with large impressive cats, they are both interesting and often colourful. We saw a wide variety of them soon after our 8.00 a.m. arrival as we walked down the River Path to South Stann Creek, and at one point three different species of woodpecker were playing hide and seek around an old dead tree that towered above the secondary forest.

Close by the river we discovered a horse balls tree (Stemmadenia donnell-smithii), its boughs noticeably drooping with large fruits that were beginning to split, and several toucans flew out before I had a chance to photograph them.

Trees in flower or carrying ripe fruit are exactly what I look for when working tropical forest because this is a habitat that doesn’t reveal its precious jewels easily. Like the toucans, most animals are quickly away into the greenery – there are few occasions when wildlife will hang around to be photographed, especially anything that can fly and you have to take your chances when they occur.

A male chestnut-coloured woodpecker feeds for some time on the split fruit of a horse balls tree. The fruits are paired and this gives the tree its vulgar but appropriate name.
A male chestnut-coloured woodpecker (Celeus castaneus) feeds for some time on the split fruit of the horse balls tree. The fruits are paired which this gives the tree its vulgar but appropriate name.

With a horse balls tree in fruit and another tree in flower the situation proves attractive to a great many birds; and we are standing close by the river which opens up a whole new set of opportunities for wildlife.

The nearby river provides a second habitat to keep an eye on whilst staking out the fruit on a nearby tree.
The nearby river was a habitat well worth keeping an eye on whilst staking out the fruiting tree.

IMG_4168.FRAME.©My attention is drawn by a flash of yellow – an oriole has arrived to feed on flowers on trees along the opposite bank of the river; initially I think the bird is feeding on the attractive drooping frond like seeds, but closer observation tells a different story, it is feeding on flowers hidden beneath – just like the bird, I grab what I can. This food gathering goes on for longer than I could have hoped for and then a second individual joins the first. Unfortunately, the birds are only just in range of my lens. I don’t see the birds on any of my other visits, but I do get the opportunity to see at least five other species feeding on the fruits that I am mostly covering. And on an adjoining tree hummingbirds are sipping at flowers. 70% of my time in the park is spent working this location because the presence of attractive flowers and fruits suggest this to be my best option.

IMG_4263.FIX.©.SMALL

After a couple of hours, grabbing whatever I can  Alice and I walk on to a nearby waterfall – it’s a bit of a hike when you are low on water and the temperature is pushing 100℉ along with high humidity. Physically it becomes a struggle, even Alice, who is very fit, appears exhausted and I look as if I’ve taken a shower in my clothes.

Getting up there is more difficult than it looks - climbing around waterfall can often be slippery.
Getting up there is more difficult than it looks – climbing around waterfalls can often be slippery.

Early afternoon, we walk back to park headquarters to buy large bottles of water straight out of the fridge – these are extraordinarily revitalising in a way that warm water from your carry bottle just isn’t, especially when you have reached the point when you think you are about to fall down and die. A few minutes after the cold drink has hit our insides, we feel suddenly better and pretty soon we’re considering where to go next.

IMG_5169.FIX.©.SMALLI cover up in the forest and suffer only a few insect bites. Alice wears repellant but picks up more bites than I do – a single trip into this forest is enough for her, but I make two more visits, one with Jen and another by myself. On this our first day in forest, Alice and I set off back to the car around mid-afternoon; it has become very hot and there is little activity. As we are coming along a trail we pass between two troops of howler monkeys at the time they start howling at one another – there is nothing remotely dangerous about the situation, but, if you haven’t heard them before, these wailing banshees will frighten the life out of you.

Into the Blue:

Our local dock at sunrise, where Alice goes in search of grazing manatee early each morning and where Jen and Alice are rewarded with a siting.
Our local dock at sunrise, from where Alice would search for grazing manatee before breakfast. Jen and Alice were rewarded with a sighting.

With only a 30 metre walk from our rooms to the dock pick up point, there were no travel time pressures at the start of our snorkelling day out.

Getting there.

Alice gets an interesting perspective on our journey out to sea.
Alice uses her GoPro to get an interesting perspective on our journey out to sea.

We sped across the water for nearly an hour to our first site – an out to sea location where the water was deeper than ideal for me to take pictures, but at least provided the opportunity to see a variety of good sized fish swimming beneath us. The reef is more colourful than expected with little sign of bleaching, but sadly there are fewer fish than we had hoped for. The coral was varied with some impressively delicate forms that you just don’t see on reefs that have been trashed by fishing, or degraded by climate change.  

A delicate purple Sea fan coral (Gorgonia ventalina).
A delicate purple Sea fan coral (Gorgonia ventalina).

Both Alice and Jen had the better of me because once in the water they both turn into mermaids, I on the other hand become a fishing weight and have to devote quite a bit of my time to just not drowning. This is especially the case today as the boat drops us on a reef well out to sea and then goes off to busy itself dumping divers into deeper water; you just have to get your head around the idea that you are a long way out with no land or boat in sight, this can be unnerving and if you can’t get past that, you probably shouldn’t go into the water.

Alice has a photographic technique under water that I can't compete with, but don't accidentally run my camera battery down during lunch.
Alice has a photographic technique under water that I can’t compete with, and had her GoPro battery not run down during lunch, she would  probably have taken better pictures than I did.

The Belize Barrier Reef is part of a reef system that extends for more than 550 miles and it is well worth making the effort to see it – this is the most impressive off shore reef in the world after the Great Barrier Reef of western Australia.

A brown-spotted eagle ray Aetobatus narinari is far enough below to be of little concern, but the young rays that hide in the sand around our dock put me off walking barefoot in the water.
A brown-spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is far enough below to be of concern, unlike the young rays that hide in the sand around our dock and put me off walking barefoot in the water.

Our companions on the morning snorkel didn’t want to do more than half and hour in the water, citing age as the primary consideration, which rather put me out. If I am faced with a potential drowning event later in the swim, I like to at least get a good snorkel in before it starts to happen. 

RIMG6855.FIX.©.SMALLThere was a strong current and I have difficulty keeping up with the others – they appear to move against the flow more easily than I do; this holds Alice back because she feels obliged to stay close. She tells me I lay too flat in the water – this, to a degree,  because I’m concerned about flippering the coral. While I struggle to simply change direction my wife is out of sight, she might as well be swimming in another ocean for all we see of her. I have no real fear in the water which is probably down to poor judgement. I must by now have spent a great many hours snorkelling and have tried it both with and without floatation support and have no idea why I remain so rubbish at it.

RIMG7061.FIX.©.SMALL

In the afternoon our aged, but possibly not as old as me, ‘too many pancakes for breakfast’ Texan friends decide not to take another turn in  the sea and are unceremoniously dumped on a nearby island, leaving Jen, Alice and I to make up the full party. The problem now is our guide; I thought he was there to intervene if I had problems in the water, but his role apparently, is to dive down and poke at things with a long pointy stick  for no good reason I can think of.  As soon are we are back at the surface, I tell him not to do this and I keep it brief because I don’t have a lot of spare air for an unnecessary chat. All I have seen in my viewfinder so far is the end of  the guide’s pole and fish moving rapidly away. For all the effort I have to put in to line up a picture the whole thing becomes immensely frustrating. After he quite reasonably interprets my comment as a complaint he leaves me alone, which is great, because drown or no drown – I see far more without him.

RIMG6965.FRAME.FIX©.SMALL

The Desert… but not deserted Island.

IMG_4699.FRAME.©.SMALLLunch is taken on a desert island, which sounds more exciting than it actually is – essentially this is a compacted sand tourist hang out. Our meal is chicken and rice and I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, but there is only so much of this I can comfortably eat, nevertheless great-tailed grackles come and join us because they aren’t so fussy.

I know I'm in the minority, but I hate phony-baloney islands.
I know I’m in the minority here, but I really don’t like phony-baloney islands. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful place to dump tourists in order to extract their money.
An incredible ball of brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis).
An incredible ball of brain coral (Diploria labyrinthiformis).

In the afternoon we snorkel closer to shore; in shallower water we are only a foot or two above the corals and I have to work hard to avoid touching them. This is however an ideal depth for taking pictures and after an hour or so I  am feeling very comfortable, and no longer thinking about how ill equipped I am to be in the water. If you can get past your land-based limitations, watching fish becomes hypnotic; with a greater density than air, water appears to slow down time for everything that slides through it.

Blue tangs swimming over over a large brain coral.
Blue tangs (Acanthurus coeruleus) swimming over over a large coral.

Eventually we make our way into a sandy shallows flowing with seagrass – we are approaching the island beach that had been the dumping ground for our Texan party. When we first started out on our afternoon snorkel the island had seemed so very far away, and without a current working against me, I was surprised by how much I had seen and how far I had snorkelled without feeling exhausted.

Causes for Concern: land and sea.

IMG_5356.FIX.©.SMALL

Our first few days had provided me with a great many photo opportunities. My subjects weren’t in any way ground breaking, but you’d need to be very jaded to be unimpressed by the natural wonders that Belize has to offer.

There are however two areas of concern. The first is that all of the lowland forests I entered were generally degraded. The Coxcomb Wildlife Sanctuary site had, until 1988, been a logging concern – and this is not an unusual story: once trees have been felled, logging companies will sometimes return the land back to nature, and as wonderful as this is, it is a bit like putting the cart before the horse, or is it shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted? Or maybe shooting the horse and then shutting the stable door… Certainy one of those.

We should all be pleased to get things back to something like natural, but rarely is the original diversity achieved if there is no surrounding source to keep the eco-system intact. The occasions when natural environments are wrecked by humans, and then given over to conservation are numerous… until of course somebody finds a mineral present that we really can’t do without, or maybe the trees need selectively cutting again. Commercial expedience nearly always wins out, trumping the need for absolute conservation.

IMG_4049.FIX.©.SMALLI wasn’t surprised that I couldn’t find large tracts of primary lowland forest – and have to accept that most people have no idea what that is, they are just pleased to be in a bit of forest where wildlife survives at all.

Secondary forest usually contains far fewer species than undisturbed forest, but hardly anybody notices and it is ironic, that for an opportunistic wildlife photographer, secondary forest offers certain advantages: it brings the birdlife that does manage to survive down from the upper reaches to a lower level of forest, essentially because there is nowhere else to go; creatures that no matter how colourful, we’d probably seldom see if they were living in the upper reaches of virgin forest. The draw back of secondary forest is that the grow back is often tightly packed and difficult to see through as young trees compete for available space and resources. Nevertheless, along trails where there is light, most of us will have a fair chance of seeing and photographing wildlife and with the right lenses achieve results.

The second concern is the obvious development of tourism along much of the coastline. This must throw into question how sea life in general, and the offshore reef in particular, will fair if development goes ahead at the rate that is currently planned. Our seas an oceans have so far absorbed a lot of our waste, but there are limits, and eventually we may destroy the very environments that the tourists have come to see. 

IMG_5263.FRAME.©.SMALLIn the second part of this story I take a more careful look at what is happening to natural forests and the outlook is not entirely positive. We should all be concerned, because any loss of biodiversity simply to provide short term commercial gain inevitably has far reaching consequences for all of us; and killing the goose that lays the golden egg is far from beneficial to local people who have managed, with low population levels, to live in harmony with their surroundings for thousands of years; something we have so far failed to do with our ‘advanced’ high density industrial lifestyles. It is as well to remember that there are presently no self-sufficient major cities, which throws into question what the term ‘civilised society’ really means. 

With thanks to Jen and Alice for their pictures.

 Next time ‘Belize: The Down Side – Deforestation’.

 

In Search of the Unexpected Trogon.

Far away and long ago I was filming wildlife close by the small community of Portal in southern Arizona, travelling daily across the border to New Mexico; what I remember most vividly is having to get up an hour earlier each day to be in good time crossing into a later time zone… Getting up early has always been painful to me, especially if I’m missing breakfast!

I remember this minor inconvenience better than almost anything about Portal; certainly it wasn’t over developed – but maybe now, things have changed… I hope not, because out of the way places are at their best when they stay gently un-noticed.

My first visit was thirty years ago – I still have a T-shirt that sums it up – across the front in big black letters is written ‘Where the Hell is Portal?’ designed no doubt, by a resident with a self deprecating sense of humour, something that is sadly missing in many small communities. If Portal were in Australia it would be the sort of place where people worry about visitors laughing at them and then they’d build something hideous to make this a certainty – perhaps the world’s biggest sheep in corrugated iron – but not Portal… this is a place altogether more self assured.

To be honest, I liked Portal so much, I was soon buying a second T-shirt, and on this one there was a picture of an odd looking bird with the words TROGON COUNTRY – a surprise to me because I thought trogons were essentially tropical birds. Portal is now a popular bird watching area, but as it wasn’t busy when I was there I didn’t find anybody to advise me where to look, and set off in a fruitless search… Not only did I not see a trogon… I didn’t see another living soul.

I still have the Trogon T-shirt.
I still have the trogon T-shirt. I bought half a dozen Arizona shirts around that time and note the combined age of three and a half them is exactly the same age as Arizona and it takes only five combined to reach the age of Canada, which suggests either I’m getting old, or much of North America is still very young!

I soon discovered that the elegant trogon can be seen in this essentially arid region during spring and summer; back then I hadn’t managed many visits further south where trogons are more easily discovered.

The order Trogoniformes has only one family that contains both trogons and quetzals. To me they seem odd looking birds, with elongated bodies and poorly developed legs and feet, their toes arranged two front and two back like a parrot. They show up across the tropics in Africa, Asia and the New World, nesting in holes dug in trees and sometimes termite mounds, living in wooded areas which are often quite degraded; they feed mostly on insects, a variety of small animals and fruit.

It was perhaps my failure to see trogons in Arizona that made me determined to seek them out and my chances improved dramatically when some fifteen years later I went with my family on holiday to Tobago.

We took up residence at the top of a beach; spending most of our time in the water, but when my children were young, holidays always involved a family day out, although my children generally viewed such outings as a road trips to hell, but complaining was futile, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity of photographing local plants and animals, or deprive the children of seeing something interesting. We always left a place knowing more than when we arrived, even if in the process some of us left it feeling, well… a little more grumpy.

Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, although not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.
Tobagonian rainforest is beautiful, but not quite what it was after Hurricane flora.

In 1963, Flora was one of the worst hurricanes ever to pass through the Caribbean – or anywhere else for that matter, it took out around three quarters of Tobago’s natural forest, and substantially damaged the remainder. The forest should have grown back naturally, but much of the available space was rapidly colonised by an introduced bamboo. Tobago has its own native bamboo species but none big enough to take over a forest. One day this forest will grow back and crowd out the invader; but at the time this rapidly growing alien, gave native birds a better chance of surviving the ecological disaster – at least in the short term. I don’t know how things will work out, but in 1999 there were tracts of alien bamboos growing across the Island that didn’t naturally belong there. 

A native blue-crowned motmot sitting on non-native bamboo.
This native blue-crowned motmot was sitting amongst non-native bamboo.

Occasionally when working for the B.B.C. a local guide would be employed to help, but when on holiday such expenses were personal to me, and that took a bit of getting used to. There can be no doubt however, that when time is limited, shelling out for somebody who knows the local area optimises your chances of seeing something interesting. In Tobago we were lucky enough to find Peter Cox who took us to a particular tract of forest when we asked him to find trogons and blue morpho butterflies.

Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a bit younger.
Peter with my son at the entrance to a forest trail when we were all a little younger.

Good guides like Peter not only know where to take people, they can also avoid making repeated visits to habitats that are under pressure. Their influence is more consequential than anything I might achieve by contributing to  T.V. programmes that often preach to the converted in places far from the country where filming took place. Advice given to locals by somebody like Peter who understands the environment can have far reaching  consequences, fostering positive changes, particularly when any conservation efforts are tailored to local needs. 

We walked with Peter through the forest on a track that ran some distance along a river bank; and over the course of a few hours saw both trogons, blue morph butterflies, and many other species besides. Peter provided useful information about the local habitat and was especially good with the children which made the day a great success. Nobody fell over, got  bitten, stung or drowned, all of which are plus points when you take small children into a rainforest.

The Tobago Tourist Board will be happy to hear me say that Tobago provides a great starter tropical forest for travellers because it has very few noxious species – no venomous coral snakes, South American bushmasters or fer-de-lance vipers, all of which occur on the neighbouring island of Trinidad. The only downside to this single short visit was that I didn’t get any good shots of trogons.

The downside was, I didn't get any really good pictures - to do that in a single outing with two young children in tow was rather hopeful.
Photographing, trogons in the dense cover of the forest proved difficult, and  the bird’s habit of sitting in shadow, or contrasty dappled light was challenging. 

It would have been easy to blame the poor results on having two small children in tow, but their behaviour was never in question – they would stand still, or move carefully and quietly on request more reliably than many adults – it goes without saying that small children incapable of following instruction should never be taken into a tropical rainforest.

This was about as good as it got - altogether pretty hopeless.
This was about as good as it got – a very unimpressive photo, but at least we all managed to see a collared Trogon.

I didn’t go specifically searching for trogons again for around another fifteen years when during November 2015 my wife, daughter and I travelled from Vancouver to the Sea of Cortez, a place that I’d always wanted to visit. Seeing a trogon was in the back of my mind when on 12th November 2015 we arrived in Puerto Vallarta; the water was a pleasant 85F degrees  in stark contrast to the cold North Pacific so recently left behind.

Years earlier I had spend hours talking to B.B.C Natural History producer Barry Paine who was planning to film in The Sea of Cortez. The conversation had been very one sided as Barry had been researching his project for years, looking into naturalist William Beebe’s trip along the northwest coast of Mexico. He was also familiar with the voyage of discovery made over a six week period in 1940 by John Steinbeck and Marine biologist Ed Ricketts as they collected and recorded specimens from the tidal zone. This story particularly interested me because the resultant book became a work of non-fiction, with Ricketts name removed from later editions after his accidental death in 1948; what followed was a reworking by Steinbeck, although it was Ricketts who provided most of the research material.

The book was important because it reflected the changes that were starting to happen in the area, hinting at the ecological problems that we face today. It was one of the earliest written works to touch upon environmental concerns by actually going to a place and looking, rather than simply making armchair suppositions about how bad things potentially are. Some 15 years after our discussions Barry finally did get to make his film and I was by then working somewhere else and never managed my all expenses paid trip to the area.

The Sea of Cortez as I had imagined it.
A recent picture of a coastal region of The Sea of Cortez. It was just as I had imagined it to be.

Steinbeck knew even as he was writing, that things were taking a turn for the worse; air travel was about to change everything bringing in waves of tourism. He didn’t however foresee the arrival of cruise ships, depositing millions of people into what had until recently been a comparatively remote area. The influx improved local economies just at the time when fish supplies had become depleted; and as one major industry took over from another, pressure began to build on a whole set of other resources centring around land use and fresh water availability. The changes were rapid in the extreme, with the charm and natural beauty of many areas almost entirely lost in just a few years, although it might be reasonably claimed that bringing tourism to an area is better than leaving local people to live in poverty.

Tourists enjoy themselves and bring money to the local economy and vcertainly they are not causing direct physical damage to the local environment because few move far beyond their holiday triangle, the hotel, the beach and the bar.
Tourists come to Mexico to enjoy themselves, and in doing so, bring money to local economies. Most will not cause direct physical damage to their surroundings because few will move beyond the holiday triangle of their hotel, the beach and the bar.

There is of course no going back now. Most high rise condos are within easy reach of a well watered golf course, which in arid regions isn’t sustainable as visitors increasingly consume water and generate waste. Local needs have already made a huge difference to natural habitats; farmers have always struggled to grow food in this arid region. Many places idealized in our dreams as clean and beautiful are now anything but, as agriculture followed by the development of tourism has taken a toll. Trash – in particular plastics – are steadily making their way into what until recently, were pristine ecosystems.

The reality of the Sea of Cortez. Not every fishing village has turned into a holiday resort, but many have and others are going the same way - this Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California
The reality of the Sea of Cortez is that not every fishing village has been turned into a holiday resort, but the many that have are now changed beyond all recognition – this is Los Cabos at the southern tip of Baja California.

On our visit, to be certain of finding viable natural habitats we enlisted the help of Geraldo. It wasn’t long before he was driving us through the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta, heading inland towards the hills, passing through numerous villages and the agricultural land that surrounds them until eventually we arrived in an area of woodland, mixed vegetation and pasture to begin our search for butterflies and birds.

As Geraldo drove he outlined his background. As a child he’d looked after his mother’s aviary, providing food and water for the birds he’d steadily developed an interest in them. Then somebody took him to see birds in the wild and he was at once impressed by their beauty, especially when he first saw an elegant trogon; these experiences encouraged him to try and conserve them.

On a track he stopped to speak with a local riding out to tend his stock; when we drive on he explains how important it is to develop the trust of the people who live gere. He has often spoked to farmers about vultures, telling them the birds kill snakes, although he admits to exaggerating on occasions saying, ‘especially the poisonous ones’. Once they understand this link farmers are less inclined to kill the birds to protect livestock. Vultures are scavengers that play an important role in cleaning up the environment, but because they have predatory hooked bills, suffer serious persecution worldwide. 

You have to go some way out of town now to see old Mexico, but many don't get much further than a local bar.
Visitors need to travel a little to experience old Mexico, but most do not move far beyond their resort, irrationally fearful of dangers that are rare outside of major cities.

A local says he saw jaguar paw prints recently, there are also pumas here, but strangely most people show very little ill will towards them, perhaps because they are not as commonly seen as they are deep in the interior. This live and let live attitude hasn’t always been a usual response to big cats – the son of a restaurant owner recently told us that when he was a boy his father was out every night hunting jaguar and puma. The current state of affairs is that there are occasional signs of big cats moving through, but in general they are scarce and rarely seen.

Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.
Our guide Geraldo, birdwatching with my wife and daughter.

Without question Geraldo speaks passionately about Mexican wildlife, he clearly sees environmental problems increasing and the need for conservation, and contributes positively by giving talks to encourage the locals to take an interest in their wildlife. He undoubtedly has influence and is one of a steadily increasing number of unsung heroes of local conservation.

We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.
We watch a female golden-cheeked woodpecker busily working a rotten tree close by the track.

Many years ago Geraldo decided that he would like to conserve mountain habitat, and as he wondered how he might achieve this, the Government stepped in to conserve several areas of concern, but the lowlands through which we are travelling have no such protection, other than the conservation of some larger established trees.

The loss of lowland habitats to agriculture and development is a worldwide problem – the attitude that wildlife should live on the land that we can’t fully utilizie isn’t helpful because many species are specific to lower altitudes and not all can get simply move on to live in the mountains, while we, quite literally, take the lions share and strip out the lowlands. As our populations have increased, the conservation of lowland areas has become a nightmare, with frequent conflicts between landowners, large herbivores and their predators. With national parks too small for the long term viability of many species, the future does not look encouraging. We are not living in harmony with the natural world and the influence of people like Geraldo has far reaching consequences.

We manage to see a variety of butterflies and birds during our day out, many of them restricted to the dry forests of western Mexico, but, so far, we haven’t  come across one bird in particular, the Citreoline trogon which can only be seen down this side of Mexico. Then it happens, we are driving out of the forest and my wife Jen spots one in a tree… I can’t quite believe our luck and get out of the vehicle to walk a little closer, and am soon taking pictures.

The Ciroeline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasty light made photographing the bird difficult.
The Citreoline trogon was clearly visible in a tree not far from the track, but strong contrasting light made photographing the bird difficult and I was a little too far away for a good picture.

The citreoline trogon has black and white bars on the outer tail feathers, a yellow belly an yellow eyes – a distinguishing feature if, as is the case here, you get to see the bird only from behind. 

A little later the bird is singing and the head, although in shadow, is more clearly defined. The bird has its back to us and it is said the bird prefers to present its back to an observer because of its belly is bright yellow... but I'm not sure that it isn't just a matter of chance.
A little later the bird was singing and the head, although in shadow, more clearly defined. It is said this bird prefers to present its back to an observer because its belly is bright yellow… but I’m not sure that this isn’t just a matter of chance.

There is a need for us to move on because we have limited time before making a connection, that if missed, will leave us stranded in this part of Mexico for sometime. As we drive on, I see a bird in a tree and Geraldo slows, before inching forward to get a better view and soon we are bogged down in sand just off the main track. We try to dig the vehicle out, my daughter and I bounce up and down on the rear bumper to get traction while Geraldo drives, but all we manage to do is to get the vehicle more deeply bogged in.

A bus which was quite a surprie to see squeezes by as I continue to work clearing sand from around the rear wheel whilst the rest of Mexico discusses what to do after I have failed to improve the situation.
To suddenly see a bus is a surprise –  it squeezes by as I continue to clear sand from around the rear wheel while the rest of Mexico gathers to discuss what to do after I fail to improve the situation.

The local that Geraldo spoke with earlier suddenly comes riding out of the forest and stops to help. He has, as one might expect, a rope, and fairly soon attaches this to a passing 4 wheel drive – the owner of which has stopped to offer assistance and soon we are dragged out. At no time during the proceedings did my wife mention time – over the years, similar incidents in far away places have resulted in her developing an increasingly philosophical approach to life… and this can only be good.

Not quite done with this trogon, in June 2016 Jen and I return to the Bay of Banderas region to stay for a time in Mismaloya, a little out from the main tourist area, so that I might more easily walk into the local forest to photograph wildlife.

We return to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season
We have returned to the dry forests of the area during the rainy season.

It is an eventful week and on our last full day in the region we spend the afternoon photographing flowers and birds in Vallarta Botanic Gardens which is rather wonderful. On arriving back at the Hotel, I leave my wife by the pool to go in search of a pair of basilisk lizards I’d seen a few days earlier close by the local river. It was early evening, the light was going, and I managed only a glimpse of a single lizard, otherwise, there was little to photograph in the fading light and I packed my camera away – which is always a cue for something interesting to happen, and this evening would be no exception.

As I wandered up from the river to rejoin the road I noticed a bird with a bright yellow belly, it was sat in a tree on the other side and this encouraged me to get the camera out to use as a scope. I usually carry it with a long 400 mm. lens attached and take a look through the viewfinder to get the best view I’ve ever had of a trogon in the wild; better still, this was a citreolene trogon, the species we’d seen with Geraldo last year only from the back, but this one was facing me. This isn’t a rare bird in the region, but I’d been looking all week and this was my first sighting – it was great to see it.

This was our final day and my last chance to get a shot of a trogon; although the Iight was hopeless I decided to grab a picture before attempting to set up the tripod which was presently sleeping with its legs tucked up inside itself at my feet. I didn’t even have time to put my bag down, quickly grabbing a hand held shot using the camera on its last settings. I could tell from the click, that the exposure time was long and would most likely provide a blurred image. So, I made a quick adjustment and went for a second shot which I hoped might work, then just before I took a third the bird turned its head away with indifference. This was my cue to put everything down on the dusty track, and wake up the tripod for a steady shot, but in the process I glanced up to  discover the bird had gone; I didn’t hear it fly and had no idea where it might now be. It had appeared and disappeared like the Cheshire cat in  ‘Alice in Wonderland’ but unfortunately unlike the story, bits of it would not be slowly reappearing in front of me. If the tripod had been ready I’d have got the shot without any trouble – I’d wasted my best wild trogon photo opportunity since I’d started looking in the mid 1980s. It would all be down to a single picture taken hand held in poor light on a long lens – a combination that usually results in an underexposed blurred disaster. 

Here then is the unexpected trogon. It is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful - the field of focus is shallow because the light is steadily going.
Here then is the unexpected trogon. This is a useful I.D. shot , but not entirely successful – the field of focus is shallow because the light has almost gone.

On all of the occasions I have tried to photograph trogons in the past, they have been is strong dappled light creating extremes of contrast that are difficult  to deal with; and sitting amongst foliage none have provided as clear a view as this one. More important than the quality of my picture is the rate of development in this area of agriculture and tourism. The real question is, if I come back in ten years time, will there be enough dry forest habitat left to find and photograph this bird at all?

I was beginning to think that if I wanted a good trogon picture maybe I should just go to the zoo.  

A white-tailed or is it a black-headed trogon taken at Seattle Zoo. I don't have the experience to know without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took 30 seconds to get, and that's a lot quicker than my trying npw and again over 30.
A white-tailed (or is it a black-headed trogon?) taken at Seattle Zoo. I don’t have the experience to identify the bird without seeing it from the front. A lovely bird that took only 30 seconds to achieve – that’s a lot quicker than my wild attempts over the last 30 years.

I wrote up this story a year ago, but held it back because I’ve never really managed a good shot of a trogon in the wild and that bothers me, but just a few days ago I was visiting the Coxcomb Basin Wildlife Preserve in Belize, which is perhaps most famous for its jaguars, and things suddenly changed. This was my last day in the park and it hadn’t been a very good one for pictures. I had returned to park headquarters and was about to leave, when a passing member of staff said that he’d just seen a trogon in a nearby tree. I was about 25 feet from where it was sitting, and was able to move quite close to a bird totally indifferent to my presence. I took a few shots, and then the staff member said, “And its partner is over there”, pointing at a bird in another tree. “but I don’t know which is the male and which is the female”. His concern was appreciated, but given how long I’d waited for this moment!….  All I had to do was move a few feet and in no time at all I had fairly reasonable shots of both birds. Trogons it seems are a bit like buses – you wait ages – in my case 30 years (give or take a few days from when I first started looking)  and then two come along together.

A male black-headed trogon from the front.
A male black-headed trogon from the front.
And from the back.
And from the back.
This I think is a female - a slightly less colourful bird, but nevertheless still wonderful to see.
This is the female – a slightly less colourful, but nonetheless wonderful bird.

Job done. Thank goodness for that… now I can make a start on toucans! 

With  thanks to Peter Cox Nature Tours Tobago and Geraldo Hernandez Vazquez. www.naturevallarta.com also thanks to John Gordon.

 

Before We Had Brains 2 – Of Arthropods and Other Things.

Long before humans developed the brains they have today, a great many other animals had already evolved co-ordinated nerve centres completely effective in directing their everyday lives.

In ‘Before We Had Brains 1′, I considered what might have been our earliest vertebrate ancestor – probably a worm-like creature that lived in the sea; and before that we must have passed through a variety of preceding invertebrate stages – it’s been a long road. Almost as extraordinary is that while we were on the evolutionary march from comparative simplicity to our present complexity, many other animals hardly changed at all.

Butterfiles showed up on plante earth about 150 million years ago, about the same time as flowering plants began to enter the fossil record... well, that makes good sense.
Butterflies showed up on Earth around 150 million years ago – about the same time flowering plants began to enter the fossil record, and this is unlikely to be a co-incidence.

Once a species has adapted through the evolutionary process to an environment that remains fairly constant, there is no advantage to making further dramatic changes. What is certain is that while animals on our branch of the tree were evolving more complex nervous systems, many invertebrates were sticking with something quite different.

The model for a brain-like structure at the front end – common to all vertebrates – was laid down in invertebrates millions of years ago, but many also evolved multiple masses of ganglia to control body functions in a manner very much different from our own.

The well developed nerve ganglia at the head end is close to organs such as ears, eyes and antennae that have developed to receive incoming information. But other masses of nerve ganglia have also developed along the main nerve that runs the length of the body – additional mini-brains if you like – that co-ordinate different parts of the body. Sensory information is also picked up in ways that we would consider unusual – grasshoppers for example can hear through their knees and pollinating insects see patterns on flowers in the ultraviolet range. These are inputs that we have no direct experience of and in consequence sometimes find difficult to comprehend.

The sexton beetles makes a living burying small animals and lays eggs on th corpses it finds, but first it has to smell out the dead using chemorecpetors on the beetles specialist antennae which are well devloped.
The sexton beetles makes a successful living burying small dead animals; the females lay eggs on the corpses, but first these have to be smelt out by chemoreceptors on the beetles specialised antennae which are raised above their head ends to receive the necessary olfactory information – this is processed by a nerve ganglia at the head end, but other functions,such as mobility, may be controlled by nerve centres elsewhere along the body. 

The large and varied Phylum Arthropoda contains animals with external skeletons and segmented bodies with jointed limbs paired in keeping with their bilateral symmetry; they include the Arachnids (spiders and scorpions), Myriapods (centipedes and millipedes), Crustaceans (crabs, lobsters and woodlice) and last but not least – Insects; and all have a very different arrangement of their nervous systems than we do.

Arthropods have become extremely successful, forming a major part of life on Earth, and it is a surprise that we so often view them as aliens – the templates for creatures formed in our wildest imaginings; the sort of things that regularly crop up in our sci-fi stories, and usually portrayed as agressive invaders from another world.

Another trilobite. Extinct maybe, but this one just keeps cropping up in horror movies. The inspiration for 'orginality' of thought so often goes unmentioned.
Trilobites were once well represented in the world’s oceans, but all perished during a great mass extinction at the end of the Permian around 250 million years ago. These Arthropods are now only known because they are well represented in the fossil record. Extinct maybe, but this Dicranurus species just keeps cropping up in horror movies, an inspirational creature that rarely receives credit for its influence on popular culture; nevertheless it’s form is frequently faked and sold to fossil collectors.

With the millions of nervous systems available, it seems a poor effort to display only one, but I have chosen an example that in general form covers many other insects – it belongs to a grasshopper, and I also have a story to tell.

As a zoology student I frequently glimpsed the internal structure of the grasshopper’s big brother – the locust, and this provided at least a rudimentary understanding of the insects behaviour in relation to its nervous system – or at least as good an understanding as is possible for one who has only one brain.

As grasshopper like many other Arthropods has nerve bundles arranged internally along the ventral side. Clearly the head isn't making all of life's decisions.
Grasshoppers, like many other Arthropods, have fused nerve ganglia arranged internally along the ventral side, and it is fair to say that the head end ‘brain’ does not make all of this animal’s life decisions.

Way back when I was a zoology student, our college expected everybody to work hard for a degree, but on occasions I didn’t feel inclined to fill every waking hour with study, and having finished a series of experiments on how insects see, didn’t feel inclined to attend through a Friday afternoon. As an impetuous ‘know it all’, I felt every aspect of the subject had been adequately covered; as did my co-worker, another student, who just  like me, wanted to broaden his educations beyond grasshopper behaviour.

P1040595.©.SMALL

 

Our university was in London and not too far from The British Museum where a Tutankhamun exhibition was about to end. It would probably never leave the Cairo Museum again and as the world shouldn’t revolve around insect brains (although  judging by their numbers, it probably does), we decided to take the afternoon off and visit the exhibition.

Decisions, decisions. Should we do yet another experiment on what this fellow is thinking (and I use that term loosely) or hould we go and see Tut?
Decisions, decisions: do yet another experiment on what this fellow is thinking – and I use that term loosely – or go and see the contents of a dead king’s tomb? It was of course a no brainer; we would take time out to visit King Tut’s extensive hoard of guilt edged burial tat.
It was another 'no brainer'. We would go and see KIng Tut's extensive and exceptional burial tat.
It was another ‘no brainer’. We would go and see KIng Tut’s extensive and exceptional burial tat.

Once out of the lab we’d simply make up a thought experiment like a couple of Victorian armchair naturalists. Our experiments had already shown us that if the image of a sharp edged object – such as a blade of grass – passed rapidly across the compound eye of a grasshopper, the insect would react by jumping. We knew that the hopper would react to a sharp curved edge because that’s the way grass leaves are, but we took it a stage further by theorising that evolution would first and foremost select for a sharp straight edge over a curved one because the former would provide a stronger stimulus when it moved across an insects compound eye, firing off neurons more effectively.

The experimental set up we’d been using all week was a simple one – a bit like a super sized hampster wheel on its side with regular grass shaped incisions cut into its rotating surface. The wheel could be spun around at various speeds with the hopper sat at the centre. But of course we had no plans to actually test our theory using it. We would instead set off for the museum and write the thing down on a scrap of paper as we travelled on the underground. Rather unsurprisingly… our theory turned out to be spot on, with a 15% increase in the grasshopper’s reaction to a straight edge over a curved edge. It was then a simple process to work our figures backwards and even devise a statistical test to make sure our results were significant, rather than a matter of chance. Clearly something new and quite fictitious had been added to the pantheon of scientific discovery; satisfied with our work, we went on to join the queue outside of the Museum, and once inside, had a great afternoon in what seemed a fantasy world almost as impressive as the one we had just invented.

Our museum visit was not without some relationship to entomology - the Ancient Egyptians were fond of dung beetles.
Our museum visit was not entirely without reference to entomology – the Ancient Egyptians were fond of dung beetles.

The experiment was written up a few days later and submitted. We thought no more about our harmless deception, until a couple of weeks later our supervisor stopped us in a corridor to congratulate us on our work and insisted that we must submit the findings to a major scientific journal….. Now, if our brains had been working as efficiently as our make believe grasshopper then we might have seen this coming. Terrific we said, but of course we’d have to repeat the experiment to be absolutely certain. I’ve always been hopeless with repeats, all my experiments seemed to invalidate earlier results, usually because I didn’t stop when I was ahead – even though one might expect a pretty clear result with an insect brain, my own brain was less well organised. We never repeated anything of course. Utilising the same thought experiment, we quickly discovered that we couldn’t repeat the results, much to the disappointment of our supervisor. For us, it was a great relief to get off the hook, because nobody wants to start their scientific careers as fraudsters – any scientist so inclined probably needs to work up to it.

Not quite a plague, but enough hoppers to make short work of the undergrowth.
A group of hoppers in their natural habitat are well organised feeders. Not quite a plague, but there are enough youngsters here to make short work of this undergrowth.

The important thing about our non-existent laboratory experiment was that the details were convincing because we had a fair idea of how a grasshopper’s brain might interpret what it’s eyes saw, because the hopper wasn’t thinking about very much, it was simply reacting to a visual stimulus.

It is usually possible to gauge how good an animals eyesight is by simply looking at the eyes – size is always important even with a compound eye, which sees things very much differently from a vertebrate eyes, even though there are similarities in the neural process. For any who have looked inside a grasshoppers head, it is clear from the amount of nerve material dedicated to the eyes and brain in this region, that this must be true.

But what about those other nerve ganglia along the body. For any who have undertaken experiments more thoroughly than I have, it is clear these centres co-ordinate a variety of bodily functions without reference to an anterior brain. I don’t advocate nasty experiments, but a cockroach without a head, and with the rest of the body sealed off with a blob of wax, will run around for several days… and it is noteworthy that you didn’t get that so much with Anne Boleyn.

Success then, is not always about the complexity of a system, it is about appropriateness to a situation; despite millions of years of appearing to show very little change, most insect nervous systems have had plenty of time to fine tune to specific environmental circumstances. 

Spiders manage an enormous variety of behaviour from one species to another. Having six and often eight eyes gives them an advantage as preators, but how they process and co-ordinate incoming visual information is to a degree beyond our comprehension.
Spiders manage an enormous variety of behaviour from one species to another. With as many as six to eight eyes they are ferocious preators, but how they process and co-ordinate incoming visual information is to some degree beyond our comprehension.

Arthropods may appear rather odd looking, but there is no doubt their bodies are fit for purpose, even though we might consider an insect’s level of complexity no match for our own. Sadly, the truth is they might well survive some environmental disasters that we cannot.

It is presently too soon to judge ‘us’ a major success because our tenure has been short in comparison with many simpler forms that have existed for many millions of years; and stood the test of time.

Trilobites were a very successful group of arthropods. They disappeared from Earth during one of the great mass extinctions of species 250 million years ago at the end of the Permain.
A Trilobite which is perhaps more recognisable than the previous alien form. Trilobites are a stark reminder that an animal group can reign successfully in a wide variety of forms and then quite suddenly disappear when conditions change. All species are inevitably destined to change or finally  become extinct – there are no exceptions..

So, which of the vast number of present invertebrate survivors display the most sophisticated nervous systems. Certainly Crustacea such as crabs and Arachnids such as spiders show interesting refinements in behaviour, and this often includes impressive courtship displays, none of which can occur without a finely tuned nervous system.

Crabs.

Crabs utilse their forelimbs to great effect with feeding as their primary function - this Hawaaian rock crab is feeding on seaweed. crabs with more developed pincers will also used them for defence and males will often wave them about in complex displays to impress females.
Crabs utilse six pairs of appendages to catch and deal with food – this includes their forelimbs which they use to great effect – and feeding is often their primary function as demonstrated by this Hawaiian rock crab as it delicately plucks seaweed off of a rock. 

The forelimbs of many also become more developed and used as pincers for defence and males sometimes wave them about during complex courtship displays to impress females; all of which requires a refined nervous system even within certain limitations. A lot of what a crab does is automatic and not a lot of neural activity is devoted to thinking. Crabs exist without philosophical thought. Rene Descartes said, ‘I think therefore I am’, but crabs are not well equipped to think about uses very much; their modi operandi makes them look like creatures with attitude, but b.s.ing is beyond them – sometimes neurological limitations are not such a bad thing.

Spiders.

Spiders are not short on sensory ability, as ruthless predators their eye sight is usually good but this is dependend upon species - most spiders have eight eyes. They also sense vibration well, this Dolomedes which is not a spider that uses a web senses movement on the surface of the ponds where it sits and waits for prey.
Spiders such as Dolomedes are not short on sensory ability. Visual signals are important, but they can also sense vibrations. Dolomedes is not a spider that uses a web, it utilises surface tension to stand on a pond’s surface and can detect ripples; the back legs rest upon something solid, the front legs upon the water’s surface, sensing for prey.

Octopuses.

Perhaps the most impressive invertebrate nervous system belongs to the octopuses. They are Cephalopods and part of the Mollusc family. It is difficult to watch a slow moving snail and consider this as a relative of such a fast moving intelligent creature. By any standards an octupus is a clever animal able to solve complicated problems. Some species have phenomenal eyesight, equipped as they are with eyes similar in structure to our own, these are often as big, or even bigger than their ‘brains’. Octopuses are exceptional at co-ordination and can change colour rapidly to match their surroundings. None of which could be done without a complex nervous system.

These are live octupus tentacles and their co-ordination is complex and often extraordinary.
These tentacles belong to a live octopus, they are wonderfully co-ordinated and can often achieve extraordinary feats when executing complex tasks.

The octopus nervous system contains as many as 500 million neurons with three fifths of this neural mass distributed in the tentacles. The brain is a lobed and compex in structure with substantial computing ability – and this is a creature that also has a good memory.

The question is; with this well organised neural arrangement, does an octopus watch its own arms and wonder what they are up to as they go about doing their own thing, or is the main brain informed of every movement? Because our nervous system is ordered with a single brain doing all of the thinking, it is difficult for us to understand an animal with it’s thinking power distributed so widely throughout the body.

p1230695-fix-smallWhen it comes down to it, there is no need to invent strange alien like creatures, because we have plenty of extraordinary looking animals on Earth already, and many of which analyse their surroundings very much differently from the way that we do, using ultraviolet, sonar, magnetic and other sensory processes and many catch aspects of the world that we cannot. The strangest of creatures are already here – it is just a question of paying attention to them because in the grand scheme of things, we probably can’t do without them.

An octopus has a brain that rivals some vertebrates, but not this one it is a plastic toy held up to the sky - favoured animals always end up duplicated as toys and this one sits at the end of the bath.
The multi-brained octopus has a computing power that rivals the ability of many vertebrates, but not this one it is just a plastic toy held up to the sky… Let’s pretend. Favoured animals always end up duplicated as toys – this one usually hangs out at the end of the bath.

We should take photographs of all of the life that Planet Earth has to offer – even the small and seemingly insignificant forms because all have gone through a great many trials to survive millions of years of evolution. We owe it to them and to ourselves to pay more attention to the life that is around us; to notice and photograph as many species as we can, especially the ones that don’t immediately grab our sympathy or attention. All are fundamental to the success of natural environments and world ecosystems will ultimately suffer if they are lost. We need to record as many as we can, because species are now disappearing from the world at an alarming rate, many of them unknown to science. This is a sad state of affairs. So, ‘Take a picture and Save the Planet’, or at the very least, help to make a record of what might soon be lost to us.

Next time: The Human Brain – Are We Too Stupid to Save the Planet?

 

Before We Had Brains 1 – The Worm That Turned.

As a child I spent many happy hours watching animals, especially the odd ones that other people mostly avoided… and it wasn’t long before it all made perfect sense to me. When I was old enough, I would train as a zoologist.

“What will you do with that?” people would ask.  “Work in a zoo?”  Well, not exactly. Rather stupidly, it had never occurred to me to ask how  zoologists make a living – I’d never met one, but I was certain it wouldn’t be a total waste of time; and when I finally managed to get qualified I was determined not to end up doing anything obvious – like teaching, or hanging on at university to research how best to kill small animals in the name of pest control.

Instead I became a wildlife filmmaker specialising in the kind of animals that just aren’t cuddly – the ones without backbones that even ‘The Natural History Museum’ in London happily describes as ‘creepy crawlies’, More properly they are invertebrates and all get by with nervous systems very much different from our own.

I've always liked the odd looking animals that most people don't like - this ones a mole cricket which is rather beautiful in its own way.
I’ve always liked animals that other people find less appealing – this one is a mole cricket which to me is rather beautiful in its own peculiar way.

Many invertebrates have nerve bundles that act as co-ordinating centres; but it would be a stretch to describe these as brains, although technically they are clearly centres for computation. 

It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you've got past their beautiful wings!
It is strange how selective we are. Butterflies are bug eyed monsters once you’ve got past their beautiful wings!

When I was at school I wanted to learn more about how such animals worked; and if I came across a dead one, I would pick it up, take it home and delve inside to try and understand how internal structure matched up to external function. My parents were very understanding: they realised that my oddness was based upon science and not just that I was completely weird. Later when I became a zoology student this odd behaviour was suddenly recognised as a skill, and one that it turned out I was good at.

Although dissecting animals didn’t seem that consequential, it did at least provide an opportunity to view the insides all sorts of animals that I would later spend hours observing from the outside. This may not seem important, but the way an animal’s  nervous system is organised is fundamental to the way it behaves.

 Animal behaviour is about how creatures respond to external stimuli, and the way they do this is very much tied to the way their nervous systems have evolved – what works well for one won’t necessarily work for another. It’s all about lifestyle.

A butterfly suddenly gifted with the sensory ability and nervous system of a gorilla wouldn’t last five minutes in the wild, even if such a neurological upgrade was possible. In the end, it is the precision and appropriateness of neurological responses to the environment that really counts. As humans, we are steadily losing contact with nature; if we all behaved as appropriately as an ant does in direct response to its surroundings, the World would be in better shape, but our lives of course would be far less interesting.

This kaleidascope of butterflies are all orientating in the same direction and they aren't thinking about it, the behaviour is hard wired into their system. Over millions of years, the butterflies that orientate correctly, either to best camouglage or in this case maintain body temeprature have survived and passed the bahaviour on have survived to produce the next generation of butterflies.
This kaleidoscope of butterflies orientates in the same direction but they don’t need to think about it, the behaviour is hard wired. Over millions of years, previous butterflies that orientated appropriately – either to camouflage themselves, or, as is this case, to maintain body temperature, have survived to pass their genes on to the next generation.
And here are a couple orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky, exhibiting as little surface area as they can to its rays about an hour after mid-day. On a still day, if the temperature was standard one day to another you could tell the time by the angle they adopt. Early in the day the would have their wings open to gain body heat and they don't need complex brains to think it through - they just do it.
Here, a couple of butterflies are orientating to the harsh tropical sun as it moves across the sky; just after mid-day they are presenting as little surface area to its rays as they can. In Settled conditions it might be possible to tell the time by the angle of the butterflies wings throughout  the warmest part of the day. In early morning their orientation is completely different – they have their wings open like solar panels to gain body heat and they don’t need a complex brain to think things through – it occurs automatically.

You might think my regard for invertebrate nervous systems is little more than my brain justify my wasted youth, but a careful analysis of their neural structure can provide a better understanding of our own, even allowing for the obvious differences of compexity.

Despite their simplicity, or perhaps because of it, some invertebrates appear better equipped for longterm survival than do we. Many have displayed very little change for millions of years, which suggests that keeping things simple works really well; evolution clearly follows the general rule, that if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins have existed for about 450 million years, although this spiny version is a little more recent and some species can live for a couple of hundred years
Sea Anemones have been around for more than 500 million years and sea urchins for about 450 million, with some individuals, if they manage to escape predation, living for more than a couple of hundred years.

Sea anemones are predators, something that we consider a sign of superiority in more complicated animals, because vertebrate predators in particular have a lot more going on in their brains than do their herbivorous prey – wolves for example are more cunning than sheep – which appear… well, rather more sheepish.

Yep. There's more going on behind these eyes than any sheep.
Yep. There’s certainly more going on behind these eyes than in any sheep.

In comparison lowly creatures such as sea anemones rely entirely upon their prey floating by and are far less selective than the predators we usually notice – generally those with greater complexity. There are many uncomplicated invertebrates managing their lives with simple nerve nets, most of which do not have co-ordinating nerve bundles, and certainly nothing that comes close to anything that resembles a brain.

Nerve nets operate fairly simply – usually the greater the stimulus a jellyfish receives, the greater is its response.

In a nerve net, sensory neurones pick up signals from the environment and transmit information to other neurones that are able to discern certain patterns of activity. In jellyfish these then transmit to motor neurones that will activate muscles dedicated to short distance propulsion.

Animals with neural nets usually have radial symetry - this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.
Animals with nerve nets are usually represented in form by radial symmetry – this can be clearly seen by looking up into a jellyfish where several similar parts of the animal are arranged around a central axis.

It is surprising how much can be achieved with such a simple nervous system and it is one that is fairly easy to analyse due to its obvious lack of complexity. The great thing about sea anemones, sea urchins and jellyfish, is that they are incapable of over thinking a situation, to do so would quite literally take far more nerve than they have… We all know that jellyfish are spineless creatures, which in simple terms, makes them complete no brainers.

Starfish also demonstrate radial symetry when you look down upon them.
Starfish also demonstrate radial symmetry when viewed from above (or below).

Animals that rely upon nerve nets do not, as the term implies, always have their neurones distributed  evenly; sometimes these are denser in areas of greater neural activity and they may even be organised into very simple nerve masses or ganglia.

The simplest animals – such as amoeba, don’t have brains, nerve nets or anything clearly recognisable as a nervous system – essentially these blob like creatures get activated directly by external stimuli such as touch, light and chemicals.

This caterpillar clearly has bilater symmetry.
This caterpillar clearly has bilateral symmetry and even has its own central line.

At the other end of the scale, invertebrates with greater complexity have evolved bilateral symmetry – where the right hand side of the body mirrors the left. This is a successful pattern common to a great many animals and all vertebrates; and species that display this form of symmetry require a system with far greater complexity than a nerve net to operate efficiently.

Worms have it… and unsurprisingly they have evolved with much of their sensory equipment organised at the front end, because this is the first part of the body to experience new information. 

When I was a zoology student my supervisor Dr. Neil Croll introduced me to a nematode worm called Caenorhabitis elegans – this was a pivotal moment in my understanding of animal behaviour, which might sound odd, because C. elegans is only just visible to the naked eye at less than a millimetre in length. Despite its small size this worm has many plus points for study; most importantly it is not an infectious parasite and many millions can be found free living in just a handful of soil.

Caenorhabditis elegans
Caenorhabditis elegans.

One of the reasons C. elegans is useful for scientific study is the presence of a developed nervous system – there is a nerve ring near the front end, with a number of ganglia running through the body, but in many other respects this is an uncomplicated creature.

For animal behaviourists C. elegans is a great place to start because when it receives an appropriate stimulus, it will respond without the inconsistent behaviour so often displayed by animals carrying the expensive burden of a brain. 

C. elegans was the first animal to have all of it’s cells mapped – it is known where each cell starts out and where each one ends up, and all neural connections are understood. How great is that!

It was also the first animal to have its genome mapped. And my favourite fact – it was the only survivor of NASA’s Columbia space shuttle disaster when the spacecraft broke up on re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

Cenorhabditis elegans has quite a lot going on inside and has some of the organs that we do, there is a gut (which can be seen here - the front end at least the rounded bulb is an oesophagus) and there are other internal organs which isn't bad for an animal that (in the male) only has 1036 cells a number that does not vary - the cells just grow as the worm gets bigger - which is great because that's one variable out the window straight away.
For such a small creature this one has a lot going on inside, with some organs recognisably similar to our own. A digestive system running through the body from front to back is present and other internal organs can be clearly seen.

The internal structure of this worm is impressive for an animal that, in the male, has only 1036 cells, a number that does not vary – the cells simply grow as the worm gets bigger. 

This little creature, has for many years been telling us interesting things about itself and also quite a lot about us, including details on the ageing process. By the time I started making observations in the mid 1970s C. elegans was already considered a key species for scientific investigation, but everything about it was new to me and a complete revelation.

I placed my worm at random on an agar plate in a petri dish, put a measured dollop of food some way off and then recorded the route   left in the medium as it travelled towards its dinner. Essentially the worm made its way up a diffusing food gradient by a very simple mechanism. It travelled straight,  but on sensing food began to turn; and the closer it got to food the more it turned. A food finding behaviour that is delightfully simple.

So I dropped my worm off at A, went away from couple of hours and come back to find it has arrived at the food source B. leaving a lovely trail across the agar plate. My own personal C. elegans making its way up a food gradient by an extraordinary simple process; and If this worm had hands then i he or she might be described as a lefty. I haven't looked at this negative since 1973 and it I still think it's a wonderful thing to see.
I dropped my worm off at A, and waited a while until it arrived at the food source B.  A trail across the agar plate clearly recorded the nematodes progress and it is seen to turn more as it gets closer to the food source (this worm always turned right). I haven’t looked at this negative since 1974 and I still think it a wonderful thing to see.

It is no surprise that the worm model has been such an evolutionary success.

As the front end of any worm progresses, it picks up available information from the environment ahead, and then its nervous system can assess various uncomplicated options: if all is well the worm might progress, but when required it can draw back a little and move off in another direction. What a worm does is simply governed by what it senses as it moves forward, and for the worm and many other uncomplicated creatures, this is a very practical way of approaching the world.

Some years ago I went to North America to film some of the oldest and most important fossils so far discovered; they are in the Burgess Shale located in the Canadian Rockies. I set up to film collections in both The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington and was lucky enough to see some of the finest specimens available from this very early period.

Here is something a bit more complicated Canadia spinosa - a swimming worm with long bristles. Almost everything from the Burgess Shale is a pain to photograph because the fossil remains tend to be very shallow and difficult to light.
A fossil of Canadia spinosa – a swimming worm with long bristles preserved in the Burgess Shale which demonstrates that the worm format has been around for a very long time. The remains although shallow and difficult to photograph are remarkably clear.

The shale  includes creatures that look like sea anemones preserved in deposits laid down some 500 million years ago, along with worm like creatures similar to forms we see today; and there are many other extraordinary fossils of animals that are now lost to us, or difficult to identify. Nevertheless, the Burgess Shale is presently one of the best opportunities to look back to the Pre-Cambrian explosion, a period of time when the fundamental ecology of modern marine ecosystems was first laid down. 

The Ragworm

David Barlow's dark field picture clearly shows the ragworm Neries moving forward. Once forward motion has activated in accordance with the sensory input from the front end, firing the nervous system in each segment of the body in orderly progression is a fairly basic neuroligical process.
This dark field picture clearly shows a Nereis or ragworm moving forward and although I have no idea if this creature is closely related to Canadia spinosa from 500 million years ago, the resemblance in body form is clear – demonstrating that for some animals not a lot has changed for a very long time. 

The Earthworm.

I remember seeing the anatomical arrangement (below) way back when I was a zoology student, although I haven’t found it necessary to look inside an earthworm since, because nothing has changed. Clearly a group of nerves run up to the front end where most of the sensory information is received as the worm moves forward.

Diagram of the anterior or front end of an earthworm Lumbricus, showing (in white) the nervous system which runs mostly along the lower or ventral side of the animal.
Diagram of a dissection of the anterior (front end) of an earthworm (Lumbricus) which shows the nervous system (shown in white) running mostly along the lower (ventral side). This is quite the reverse of what we would expect to see when looking inside an early vertebrate where the spinal nerve clearly runs dorsally.

In the above schematic view most of the internal organs have been removed for clarity,  but the front end of the food canal is left in place to show how the nervous system wraps around to form a couple of nerve bundles on the upper side – the closest thing a worm has to a brain. Internally, a main nerve runs down the ventral wall of the body with three nerves coming off on either side in each segment, and these mostly activate muscles for locomotion. Apart from an area dedicated to reproduction, this model repeats itself along the the length of the body and so it is only necessary to display a couple of segments.

It is believed that our ancestors were once worm like creatures and we would need to go back around 600 million years to find a common ancestor. It would seem a mistake though to conclude that we have evolved directly from worm ancestors on the same branch as the worms as we see today where the main nerve runs ventrally. To re-arrange this to the dorsal side in line with how all vertebrates are organised would require a leap of imagination, because evolution can’t retrace its steps and rearrange anatomical features without leaving a trace. Animals are stuck with what they’ve already got and must adapt from there. 

Maybe at some point a worm stood on its tail, and went with Alice through into the Looking Glass World and as it did so, inverted. My student textbook on Invertebrates by A.S. Romer makes a joke about this switch with a diagram that shows a worm/vertebrate flip where the text details for the vertebrate are turned upside down. Romer then goes on to explain that this inversion creates as many problems as it answers as there are several other anatomical changes that must also occur that are difficult to explain. Maybe the Vertebrate plan was laid down far earlier. When I was a student there were various theories, but nobody seemed to know for certain.

In the Burgess Shale a ‘wormlike’ creature has been discovered that appears to have a nerve chord running down the dorsal side.

I photographed a specimen from the Burgess Shale but it didn't show as much as my artists impression of the animal. Nevertheless a nerve chord clearly ran down the dorsal side.
While photographing the Burgess Shale, I was lucky enough to photograph Pikaia gracilens (which is about 5 cms. in length), a specimen that so far, has been found nowhere else. Unfortunately, the fossils I saw didn’t show much clarity, hence my artists impression of this creature which appears to be an early chordate form. It was probably a capable swimmer, but anatomically it doesn’t manage to tick all the boxes as the forerunner of modern chordates. i.e. animals with spines that support and protect a major nerve chord. Pikaia might not be the forerunner of all mammals, but is probably a close relative.

There are now better claimants to the chordate line from the Chengjiang fossil deposits in China where jawless fish have been found that predate specimens from the Burgess Shale by around 17 million years, but as I write from personal experience and haven’t had the good fortune to see these fossils, it would be cheap to make a drawing from somebody else’s photographs.

Ignoring for a minute the fossil records, another approach taken by the European Molecular Biology Laboratory published in early 2010, made a comparison of the small molecules that regulate gene expression; these from similar organs in widely different animals. A marine annelid worm Platynereis dumerilii which hasn’t changed much over 600 million years appears to have micro molecules highly specific to certain tissues including the nervous system, and these are shared similarly in the tissue of many vertebrates including ourselves, which suggests a common ancestry.

We can’t be sure if we evolved from exactly the same ancestor as the worms we see today, but go back far enough and at some stage there must have been a common ancestor and whatever it was, it won’t have been pretty.

Amphioxus.

The dubious honour of the most basic animal around today equipped with a spinal chord falls to about 30 species know as a lancelets or amphioxus – a small translucent marine creature that I was also expected to ‘look into’ as a student. Cephalochordates, are a closely related primitive form of Chordate; they display many of the attributes common to Vertebrates and this includes a brain… More truthfully this is just a bump at the head end of the nerve chord – which explains why they are not renowned as great thinkers. 

Amphioxus - is clasified as a Cephalochordata. This section through a specimen that I made when I was a student clearly shows the nerve chord running along the dorsal side.
Amphioxus – is classified in the sub-Phylum Cephalochordata. This drawing of a vertical section through a specimen  made when I was a student clearly shows a nerve chord running along the dorsal side.

Invertebrates remain unloved by most of us, even so they are an important part of ecological systems. Animals that we should perhaps notice more and photograph when we see them to remind us of the many uncared for and unnamed species lost worldwide on a daily basis. Creatures that have been around for more than 500 million years are disappearing with increasing frequency and many are more consequential to our existence than we realise. It is as well to remember that we cannot exist entirely in a world of our own making in which only ‘the pretty things’ survive because we have chosen to protect them. We are part of an ecosystem… not  a zoo.

I know there are many people who would prefer not to think we are closely related to apes let alone worms… and that’s a pity because if we could see ourselves as part of a natural progression that goes back to our invertebrate ancestors, we might have more respect for the many odd looking creatures still with us today.

The Ascent of Man – a good walk spoilt?

I sometimes wonder if 'The Ascent of Man ' has been an entirely successful journey. So often we do not look after our most prcious asset, our brains and sometimes we don't use  them to our best advantage.
You might wonder if our evolutionary course has been an entirely successful journey. Our brain may have evolved from uncomplicated beginnings, but after all that evolutionary effort we don’t always look after this our most precious asset… neither do we always use our brains to best advantage.

In reality the fossil record is sparse, but today we don’t have to rely upon looking for chance deposits from the distant past to gain an understanding of the natural world around us, all we have to do is look. If back in the mists of time, each strange creature could have been recorded as thoroughly as is possible today, we might have a better understanding of which of those odd looking invertebrates were truly our ancestors.

N.B. A recent paper in ‘Nature’ suggests that a micro-fossil found in China may be our oldest known ancestor. Saccorhytus coronarius was a tiny bag-like creature that probably lived between grains of sand on the sea-bed around 540 million years ago, thought to be a primitive “Deuterostome“. Deuterostomes are a broad category that includes the Vertebrates. (Source: St John’s College, University of Cambridge. Jan 2017). 

With thanks to David Barlow for his Nereis picture. See David Barlow Archive.

Next time: Before We Had Brains Part 2. A look at Arthropods and other creatures with nervous systems so different from our own, they might just as well be aliens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Stream Sides and Woodlands.

The banks of New Forest streams have changed significantly over the years.

Long before I started photographing the New Forest in the 1970s streamsides were steadily being opened up by livestock as they grazed and trampled these fragile areas into blandness, and it is a problem that continues to the present day. 

If managing the open Forest continues to prioritise traditional practices, then maybe it’s not such a bad idea to refer to photographs taken earlier in the 20th Century to gain a better understanding of the changes that have occurred. 

Many New Forest streams are very beautiful, but their banks are often barren and grazed completely free of undergrowth - in the past this certainly wasn't the case.
There was a time within living memory when bramble and other dense growth ran along many waterways which prevented livestock from getting in – consequently stream side banks regenerated without interference and there was less soil erosion, providing better water quality.

Many stream banks were grazed out long before I began taking pictures in the early 1970s, but nevertheless, I have still managed to record many changes over the years, often without the realisation that I was doing so. When I started out, the New Forest was already heavily grazed and I had not expected things to get worse, but generally they have, with very little in the way of critical comment.

The picture below was taken in the Spring of 2016 at the the edge of a heathland that I know very well, this about 100 metres from the pond that I discussed in my previous article, although it is not necessary to have read it to comprehend the changes discussed here. Over grazing has certainly degraded the surrounding heathland, but things get far worse on approaching the tree line.

In the 1970s this was a much different habitat; a stream runs just beyond the trees to the right. There was once a broad band of bramble and clumps of undergrowth running along this side of the trees which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring - the present habitat is no longer suitable for 'any' snake species and now so degraded the environment is rapidly becoming a lawn.
In the 1970s this was a much different habitat than today, with heathland to the left and extensive patches of undergrowth running along the tree line and the stream side just beyond the trees to the right. 

 The broad band of vegetation that ran along this side of the trees was made up largely of grassy clumps of bog myrtle and patches of bramble, which made this an especially good place to photograph adders during spring. The present habitat is extremely degraded and most of the heather has now disappeared.  All of the low cover that bordered the stream side has been eaten out and is rapidly becoming a lawn that is not well suited to any species of snake.

This location has extensively changed even since the beginning of the new Millennium.

I took this picture on the other side of the stream in January of 2000 because it is unusual to see hoar frost lasting in the Forest when the sun has hit the branches of the trees, but it also srevees a record of the heathland at its most dormant and demonstrates that back then there was plenty of ground cover much of which is now been lost.
I took this picture on the opposite side of the stream in January of 2000 initially to show hoar frost on tree branches on a very cold morning. What the frost also shows, at a time of year when most plants are dormant, is how much good ground cover there was back then. Today, much of this has been grazed out, although it is not as badly affected as the opposite bank where I once regularly filmed adders.

At one time the surrounding heathland provided a variety of habitat types suitable for all three British species of snake. Within an area of about 500 hundred square metres there was mature heathland that ran into heather of various ages, before arriving at a pond and a stream side both of which had banks covered in undergrowth. This is important because there are but a handful of places in Britain now where you can find all three British snake species in close proximity and most of these locations are in the New Forest.

The grass snake, this one photographed here in the mid-1980s has also suffered habitat loss.
A grass snake photographed on the stream bank in the mid-1980s; another species that has suffered habitat loss.

On severaI occasions I was fortunate to film the adder dance in undergrowth along the stream at a time when it was less heavily grazed and I was present when an adult male climbed up through a gorse bush to investigate a dartford warbler’s nest. During spring it was commonplace to see a dozen adders over a one hundred metre stretch here. On returning to the streamside during the spring of 2016 I searched for three mornings in ideal weather conditions but didn’t find a single snake.

This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.
This female adder was one of my favourite subjects during the mid 1970s and I went on to film many of her offspring.

Trust me, I’ve put in the hours.  

You know how it is if you want to place a bet – say, on who will win the next general election… Past experience tells us that is unwise to rely on pundits or exit polls to make a winning decision. The best option is usually to look at the odds a bookie will give you – because if they keep getting it wrong they’re out of business and clearly there is no shortage of bookies. I won’t claim to be an expert on every plant and animal on the Forest, but when it comes to snakes I am a bit of an adder bookie; if you want to know where they are, then I’m the person to ask – I once spent months of the year finding and filming these beautiful reptiles and how many people can honestly say they’ve paid their mortgage by watching snakes. I won’t go as far as to claim there are no snakes left at my favourite filming location, but even a glance reveals no suitable ground cover for snakes in a place where they were once common, which makes the odds on finding one pretty slim. 

I am using the adder as an indicator that represents a general decline in the numbers and diversity of many other species; everything from rodents through to invertebrates have become more scarce here during my years of observation and once again I am speaking about animals that were once common. The tendency is to dwell on the disappearance of the more showy – butterflies and moths for example, for which the species in decline list is long; but I will chose one species only, and it is a plant rather than an animal. I have noticed that there are now far fewer sundews than there once were at this location. I filmed them many times during the 1980s and 90s, when they were common in boggy areas. This is a species that does well on wet heathlands when grazing is optimal and the decline suggests that grazing levels have become too extreme. 

Damselfly caught on sundew - a carnivorous plant - on boggy heathland sometime in the mid-1980s.
A damselfly caught on sundew – a carnivorous plant of boggy heathland. Photographed at the location described above sometime in the mid-1980s.

Only a short walk away there is another site that also provided an ideal adder habitat.

Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather - this was once an important adder habitats.  A car park has now gone in and the place is busy with dog walkers who are probably pleased not to see an adder, but nevertheless the habitat is totally sterile.
Not so long ago this area was enclosed, with plenty of mature heather providing a wonderful environment for adders. More recently a car park was put in; the area is now busy with dog walkers and most will be pleased there are no longer any snakes to be found. Whatever your view, it can’t be denied that the habitat has become totally sterile – this picture Spring 2016.

During the 1970s and 80s I regularly filmed adders on this bank, but none can be found here now. The bank, once protected by inclosure, has more recently returned to open Forest and in consequence is heavily grazed. I accept that Forest plantations are not inclosed indefinitely, but those that are fenced will grow deep heather along their borders because of the reduction of grazing pressure. This location is about half a mile from the degraded streamside I have already mentioned, and it is difficult to understand how so much habitat appropriate for snakes, along with many other plants and animals, has been allowed to degrade over such an expansive area. The situation is depressing and it would perhaps be kindest to suggest that this is no more than a case of careless management, because it is difficult to believe that the real priority has been to open up yet more Forest for grazing to the detriment of almost everything else.

Here is the bank as it was during the 1970s

Courting adders in spring, a female, with four males in attendance in the mid-1970s. (The females head is not visible). This picture was taken to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. On a spring day in 2016 -  the heather has gone, entirely replaced by short grass and bare sandy soil.
I frequently filmed adder courtship here during spring through the 1970s and 80s. In this case a female has four males in attendance, although the females head is not visible here. This image was taken just to the left of where the dog is standing in the previous picture. The heather is now clearly gone, replaced entirely by short grass and bare sandy soil and this suffers extensive erosion.

Without the labels in the above picture, you might not notice the snakes at all – their markings disguise them almost perfectly amongst the heather which was once the most dominant plant. Part of the problem is that older heather is especially brittle and when the inclosure fences came down the whole area was trampled by livestock. Herds of cattle will lie down in different places each night and this destroys the heather base and damages the habitat. 

A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour - they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to the female. Lying together increases their body temperatures. A week or so later the males performed the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.
A closer view: the female is the browner bodied individual near the front, the four sleeker males above her are lighter in colour; they have recently emerged from hibernation and are attentive to their potential mate, making little jerky head movements whilst scenting with their tongues as they move slowly over her body.  Lying together will increase their body temperatures in early spring, allowing the snakes to become more active. A week or so later I remember the males performing the adder dance, a wonder of nature that few will ever see.

And it’s not just the snakes that have disappeared:

the band of heather that once ran along the tree line was, during the 1970s, teeming with invertebrates. I know this because I sweep netted the area regularly to identify the spiders and insects that were present. Heather cover is akin to a miniature forest; different animals live at different levels and many will rise to the top on warm sunny days where their presence will provide food for a variety of other creatures.

A bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.
A ‘true’ bug sucks the juices from an unfortunate caterpillar in the upper zone of mature heather.

With the destruction of its heather the site has now become barren. Gorse will eventually regenerate, but if the pressure of livestock is not reduced the heather will not be able to. This is a common pattern repeating itself across the open Forest…. There’s something not quite right here – the environment is rapidly becoming sterile and there should be cause for concern.

It isn’t just the act of munching that is a problem, it is also the peripheral activities undertaken to support it. Back in the 1960s as a teenager I witnessed wetlands being drained to increase the availability of grazing and that proved to be a disaster for many wetland species. Some bog areas have more recently been re-instated, so it isn’t all bad news, but burning and scrub clearance to promote a browser friendly habitat continues, which inevitably has an impact. When things all begins to look the same, wildlife diversity always suffers.

Most New Forest woodlands that are not within a fence line are also overgrazed.

The open woodlands, just like the open heathlands are also disappointing – many now display very little ground cover due to heavy grazing and this has had a knock on effect, reducing plant and animal numbers along with species diversity; in particular it has affected the many small animals that rely upon low spreading plants for food and shelter.

New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of  beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey, which has been grazed out by livestock and deer.
The New Forest woodlands are frequently made up of beach and oak. Here an area of young trees is devoid of understorey because it has been grazed out by livestock and deer.

The New Forest suffers greatly in terms of the fine details. Almost nothing vegetative survives here unless it remains out of the reach of grazers: much that can be eaten will be eaten – by ponies, cattle, donkeys, pigs and deer – the munching is relentless.

It is not uncommon to find old beeches barked - in this case by ponies.
Sadly great old beech trees are now more frequently barked – in this case by ponies. This behaviour has become worryingly more prevalent in recent years as ponies run low on other food.

When you have seen old beech trees growing from childhood and they are suddenly damaged in this manner it is difficult not to become despondent. Some of the older pollarded trees on the Forest have been standing for more than three hundred years; it is likely that some trees were planted, but many others will have self-seeded.

Due to a hard grazing  regime, the survival of trees that seed and grow naturally is now almost zero. Dense undergrowth such as bramble which was commonplace in the past allowed native tree seedlings some protection from hungry mouths, but today there is very little undergrowth available to act as nurseries and very few young trees survive the onslaught.

In areas where there are alien conifers, for example along the  Ornamental Drive and in the Boldrewood area unpalatable conifer seedlings are growing well in a beech and oak woodland, but there is not much in the way of regenerating native trees.
In areas where there are mature alien conifers, for example: along the Ornamental Drive and at Boldrewood, conifer seedlings unpalatable to livestock are unfortunately growing very well. This is supposed to be a beech and oak woodland, but there are hardly any regenerating native deciduous trees.
A few non-native conifers soon self seed as is the case in this New Forest woodland.
Even when there are only a few mature non-native conifers, they soon self seed, as is the case in this deciduous New Forest woodland.

I also found time during my Spring visit of 2016 to go to a friend’s privately owned property situated next to the open Forest; it comprises fields, pasture and what interests me most, a fenced off woodland.

I well remember going out on the open Forest during the 1990s to film the fallow deer rutt and on early mornings it was common to find inclosure gates wedged open by pieces of wood to allow livestock in… Not content with destroying the fabric of the Forest, some locals felt that natural undergrowth protected by inclosure was simply a waste of grazing potential.

In the private woodland things couldn’t be more different. The soil type is the same as on the adjacent New Forest, but free from ponies and cattle the understory looks healthier; and any stock animals that do find their way in are soon put back out. 

An off the Forest bluebell wood that hasn't been eaten out or trampled by livestock.
My friend’s private woodland is beautiful. During the spring bluebells were coming into bloom; they are here because the understorey hasn’t been trampled, or eaten out by stock despite the presence of deer. This photo was taken during Spring 2016 one day after the previous three pictures were made on the open Forest.

 There were also quite a lot of other plants in bloom, this to the advantage of a variety of attendant invertebrates, in particular insects feeding on the variety of wild flowers.

Wood spurge growing nicely, and celendines in the foreground along with wood anemones behind starting to come into flower. This kind of ground cover is non-existent on the open areas of the New Forest.
Wood spurge was growing well, along with celendines (in the foreground) and wood anemones (behind), these just coming into flower – the kind of ground cover that  is non-existent on open areas of the New Forest.

It’s spring, so there are also primroses amongst the wood anemones.

Fantastic. In the private forest where there are deer but no livestock the ground cover is good.
In the private woodland despite the presence of deer the ground cover is impressive.

And just in case you aren’t convinced, the next day I was back in the New Forest and the contrast was quite shocking.

Back on the Forest a day after my visit to a neighbouring private wood. I got a chance to photograph a roe deer and he didn't see me, but there' not a lot else to get excited about.
 I got a chance to photograph a roe deer that didn’t see me, but there wasn’t much else to get excited about.

Many other treasures will become evident in the private forest as summer approaches, whilst back on the open Forest there will be little in the way of food plant such as bramble flowers that adult butterflies and other insects need to feed on, and very few plants for butterflies to lay their eggs on which their emergent caterpillars require as a food source. All of the action will be happening in the private wood; and any butterflies seen flying across the New Forest will, most likely, be passing through in search of somewhere more useful, and a good deal more interesting than the convenient dog empying fascility that the Forest has become.

In Victorian times there were descriptions of butterflies rising on New Forest rides in such numbers that it was difficult to see down them. Such radical change over the last 150 years is not unprescendeted elsewhere, and such changes are not entirely due to grazing regimes, but the extremes of change over periods a little too long to notice in a human lifetime is nevertheless disturbing.

A silver-washed fritillary photographed regularly during the summers of the 1970s 80s will be less often seen in the Forest of this new Millennium  because there is little in the way of food plants for them, which is sad.
I photgraphed silver-washed fritillaries regularly during the summers of the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but they are less often seen in the New Forest of the new Millennium because there is so little in the way of food plant for them to feed upon and that is depressing.

So what’s gone wrong?……..

The answer is complicated – the New Forest came under the auspices of the Forestry Commission in 1924, and commercial forestry did not always sit well with the needs of conservation; sadly, too many native deciduous trees were felled to make way for alien conifer plantations.

In consequence there was a decline in species across the Forest under the new tenure, but there were other factors to consider: rapid urban development was beginning along the New Forest borders; pesticides and herbicides were coming into general use and people began visiting the area in greater numbers. This was a period of considerable change and it would unfair to lay the blame entirely at the feet of one organisation.

Cattle in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest in the late 1980s.
Cattle under holly in mixed decision woodland on the open Forest – autumn 1999, but it could easily be far earlier because changes in the Forest before the New Millennium were often very subtle and it is interesting to consider that the hunting grounds of Norman kings may well have looked similar to this (without such beefy cattle).

In 1969 the Forest became a National Nature Reserve and the Forestry Commission  began working in unison with the Nature Conservancy (now Natural England), a relationship that was strained at times but in retrospect, relatively successful.

In 1971 conservation measures were undertaked in a more organised  manner as the Forest was declared ‘A Site of Special Scientific Interest’. Nevertheless, how intensely the New Forest should be grazed has for many years been a thorny issue . The subject will always be controversial, because those with grazing rights believe the well being of the Forest relies almost entirely upon them – they are it seems doing us all a favour and views to the contrary are not often well received.

Commoners come together at Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture taken some time in the 1990s.
Commoners come together yearly opposite Beaulieu Road Station to sell their ponies. This picture was taken during the 1990s. Over the centuries the people of the New Forest have had many ups and downs – they are consequently a stoic people; but their interests should not be put above the general well being of the environment that they make their living from.

The British have a long history, and so it is understandable that sometimes they look backwards to earlier times to find solutions for current problems, when perhaps it might be wiser to be looking to the future; and the New Forest is no stranger to this approach.

For as long as I can remember management policy has never been entirely driven by science based evidence directly linked to the New Forest’s flora and fauna, because it has always been difficult to separate the uniqueness of this place from historical tradition – but the world is changing. Ancient Forests have all but disappeared now and it is essential to consider every aspect of their conservation before deciding how best to manage them.

The effects of grazing must be more carefully considered and take precedence over Commoner’s rights, because the Forest isn’t best served by maintaining age old traditions to the exclusion of everything else, and recent additional grazing subsidies will certainly have clouded the issue. Sadly, what is best for the environment is not necessarily decided by logical argument. Politically, it is easier to favour a traditional way of life over nature itself. When you live in a democracy nature doesn’t get to vote.  

An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I'd be in favour.
An argument for solving problems by allowing visitors to take a pony home with them is of course both dangerous and illegal, but if this were a surrealist dream I’d be in favour.

The intention has always been that tradition and nature should work together, but any argument that puts outmoded ‘rights’ before the realities of the current situation makes no sense and the present lack of an appropriate response is tiresome.

Looking at the British countryside from the air, demonstrates that much of what remains outside of standard agricultural use is grazed by livestock – in particular sheep – thus prohibiting any possibility of a return to wilderness. Indeed, the British National Park mentality sees cropping by domestic herboivores as essential to maintaining ‘a traditional look’. It is as if we are too frightened to allow wilderness to return to Britain. Policy makers seem set against allowing the natural world to make a comeback, which is unfortunate because a little bit of ‘wild’ is good for us and even better for the environment.

A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s. I an animal very fond of these animals, but the many that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called 'Daphne' competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties rather than has happened so often in the past - on a Frenchman's dinner table.
A New Forest Pony on open heath sometime in the 1990s, an animal that I am fond of, but presently many of those that presently roam the forest need to be somewhere else, preferably under some teenage girl called ‘Daphne’ competing at gymkhanas somewhere in the home counties, rather than as has happened so often in the past – on a Frenchman’s dinner table.

In the New Forest it certainly isn’t too late to make a change for the better by reducing livestock. In the short term, private landowners will carry the burden of maintaining wildlife diversity on adjoining properties until ‘common sense’ prevails over ‘common rights’, although making changes remains an uphill battle.

Most environmentalists recognise the benefits of grazing as a conservation tool, but it has to operate at an appropriate level. Clearly this isn’t happening in the New Forest. Britain’s most recently designated National Park is increasingly, looking like a badly worn snooker table and it makes sense to be honest about the direness of the situation. At the very least the problem needs to be recognised and those in control politely asked to start making intelligent choices that are long overdue. 

The New Forest’s Overgrazed Heathlands.

Overgrazing the New Forest – a major contribution to species decline.

I wrote recently about ‘The New Forest’ and the obvious truth that it has a litter problem, but there is something more consequential going on that has been bothering me for years – the fabric of the Forest is being eaten away by herbivores more quickly than it can regenerate, and rather like the litter – there is no sign of a change for the better.

New Forest ponies in mixed open habitat. April 2016.
New Forest ponies in a mixed open habitat that is now heavily grazed. Picture: April 2016.

 The New Forest, for those who don’t already know, is a patchwork of habitats ranging from lawns, through open heathlands to forests and all are maintained by grazing. This has been achieved through the centuries by giving local people the ‘right’ to graze livestock on the open Forest and those entitled to exercise their ‘common rights’ are known as ‘commoners’.

Pony an foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.
A pony and foal crossing the heath. Summer 2000.

The look that is achieved with this approach to management isn’t exactly wild, but neither does it feel agricultural – it’s somewhere in between and usually happens in areas where the soil is too poor to support more intensive forms of agriculture. If such places were left to their own ends they would eventually return to the wild.

The British have always had an uncomfortable relationship with wilderness, we pretend to like it, but in truth we can’t seem to leave the natural world alone.  Every available space, especially common land has to be useful and any environment that hasn’t already been utilised is just begging to be grazed, rather than allowing them to return to overgrown wastelands – the terror of it! The New Forest is no exception; in ancient times it was often described as a furzey waste. The prevailing view is, that if we can’t make use of such places, then they are no use at all. 

The Furzey waste as it was in late summer of 2000
A view across the ‘furzey waste’ as it was in late summer 2000.

The idea that every bit of land has to be owned by somebody, or at the very least has to be useful in some way is ingrained in us – it’s almost a religion. We believe it because our predecessors believed it – a process that has gone on for generations, with nobody stopping to ask: would the natural world really be such a bad place if we just left it alone? Sadly, this is an errant thought because it’s never going to happen, particularly in the New Forest where local people see grazing livestock as their birthright. So, what exactly does that leave us with?

Apparently something that’s not half bad; semi-natural habitats maintained by the munching of farm animals which benefits a variety of plant and animal species when it is done right.  Ponies, cattle and in some places sheep – these in very low numbers, wander the open Forest all year round. And during autumn, pigs are turned out to feast on fallen acorns that ponies would otherwise fill up on and poison themselves – they are a bit stupid like that. Pigs on the other hand seem able to convert almost anything into bacon.

A presumably happy pig on his way in a search of acorns and anything else he can snuffle up Autumn 1999. Fritham.
A presumably happy pig on his way in search of acorns or anything else he can snuffle up. Autumn 1999. Fritham.

The big question is: how much grazing does the Forest need to maintain healthy eco-systems and when does it become too much? Even to an untrained eye the New Forest is presently going through a prolonged phase of overgrazing – and with all of the other pressures that now exist – probably one of the worst that has occurred during its long history.

When I was filming for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier - that's not to say that there is no mature heather now, but back then it was certainly more extensive and less damaged and in places I deep enough to hide in order to film birds.
When I was filming wildilife for the BBC back in the 1980s the heathlands were healthier – that’s not to say that there’s no mature heather now, but back then it was more extensive and less damaged than it is today and sometimes deep enough to hide in.

In 2010 Natural England designated 16 million pounds to encourage the ancient right of commoning, essentially to promote grazing. In April 2016 under a partly European funded Verderers’ Grazing Scheme the pot was increased to 19 million pounds which allowed a per annum payout for each animal of around 85 pounds for cattle and just short of 70 pounds for each pony. A recent EU-funded ‘Basic Payment Scheme’ was introduced to help farmers in general, which might entitle commoners to a payment just short of 250 pounds for each of their cattle and 269 pounds for each pony, with no cap on the number of animals for which payments can be made. Essentially this has become a licence to print money for anybody living in the Forest exercising their grazing rights, which is an extrordinary deal considering that the land being utilised doesn’t belong to those who are putting stock out. So, everybody and his auntie must have joined in by now because it’s a no-brainer. I don’t know of any commoners who would be ostentatious enough to wallpaper their bedrooms with fifty pound notes, but many will have at least taken the opportunity to update their four wheel drives.

New Forest Pony in beautiful deep heather. Summer 2000.
A New Forest pony in beautiful deep heather back in summer 2000.

Promoting grazing with financial incentives seemed like a good idea around about the time the New Forest became a National Park, because this was a period when putting animals onto the open forest no longer appeared to be giving a good return and for many commoners didn’t seem to be worth the effort; stock numbers were beginning to fall, and with few exceptions wildlife was starting to benefit – because creating the right level of grazing is a difficult balance, but a drop in numbers was clearly proving to be good for the environment. Sadly, there was only a short respite. Throughout my lifetime the trend has been for stock numbers to increase, with pony numbers more than doubling in the last half century to around 5,000 and cattle numbers also increasing significantly in recent years.

Now that grazing is back with a vengeance the New Forest is looking increasingly like a badly worn pitch and putt – or should that be  ‘a badly worn crazy golf course’! – because the traditional furzey waste that has existed for centuries is now in rapid decline.

The intention was, “to attract new, younger commoners to continue the traditions that have contributed to the rich biodiversity of the forest”, perhaps this quote should have stopped at “to continue the traditions” because there are no grounds for suggesting that this is contributing to the rich biodivesity of the Forest. The good news continues with, “to preserve the rich beauty of these acres” which might be nearer the truth because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that takes on a whole new meaning when money is involved. What would really benefit the Forest is for control to be wrestled from the traditionalists and placed in the hands of those who have a better understanding of the ecology of existing habitats.

A New Forest up to it's belly in heather and with long grass in its mouth isn't so often seen as it was back in the summer of 2000 when this picture was taken.
A New Forest pony up to its belly in heather and with long grass in its mouth, which isn’t so often seen today. This picture was taken summer 2000, five years before National Park status.

Most would agree that the open Forest requires grazing because this is a process that creates not only the look of the place but also very specific environments that are seldom seen elsewhere. Overgrazing on the other hand can cause considerable damage and that is the present situation.

There are a handful of wild plants that benefit from a heavy grazing regime, but there are many others that provide food and cover for butterflies and other animals, that are being grazed out of existence. A diversity of plants is necessary for the maintenance of well balanced ecosystems, but this diversity is now being lost – and that’s not an extreme opinion, it’s a matter of fact.

Through summer there is now very little bramble flower to feed butterflies and other insects on the open Forest during summer- this picture taken in July 1979.
 The open Forest now has very little bramble flower for butterflies and other insects to feed upon during the summer. This picture taken in July 1979.

Over the years I’ve spent many thousands of hours observing the New Forest through a camera and have gained some understanding of the ecology, as well as the distribution and behaviour of many of the animals that live there. But it doesn’t matter what I think I know about the place, it is the changes recorded by photography – particularly during the last quarter of the 20th Century, that provides evidence beyond dispute, demonstrating a general degradation of the environment directly linked to overgrazing.

Many say that the New Forest hasn’t changed much over the years, but if you go away for fifteen years and then come back as I have done recently,  you certainly notice a difference.

But let’s go back further…

The date of this picture can't be disputed - this is my young son in a New Forest pond while his mother blows raspberries at him which he seems to enjoy.
Taken on open heathland not far from Beaulieu the date of this picture cannot be disputed – it was early summer 1992. My young son is in a New Forest pond with his mother; she is blowing raspberries at him and he seems to be enjoying it.

This is a fun picture, but it is here for another reason… as a record of the surrounding habitat as it once was.

Behind all the splashing a band of gorse and heather can be clearly seen at one end of the pond.

 

 

Compare this to a picture taken in 2016 two months short of a twenty-four year period, this time looking in the opposite direction across the pond.

This the reverse view shows the gorse burnt, which is normal because crashing it or burning manages the plant and it grows back as it is doing here, but look closely at the ground, there no heather regeneration.
Spring 2016: The reverse view shows the gorse burnt out, which is not unusual, because along with brashing this is a recognised method of management – gorse soon puts out fresh growth as it is doing here, but look more closely at the ground… there is no regenerating heather. In fact there’s not much growing at all.

The reason the place looks so barren is entirely down to the impact of large numbers of herbivores – in this case ponies and cattle – and it isn’t just the munching of fresh growth that has caused the problem, it is also down to trampling, in particular of the heather.

I don’t think anybody can say exactly how many stock animals now graze the Forest, but the steady increase over the years is at odds with maintaining balanced ecosystems. Perhaps as many as 170 species have been lost from the New Forest since I started taking pictures in the late 1960s and there can be no doubt that some have disappeared as a direct result of heavy grazing.

Besides New Forest ponies there are a lot of cattle in the area and their trampling presence is noticeable, especially around the edge of ponds.
This picture of the pond was taken on the same day as the previous picture during Spring 2016. Besides New Forest ponies, a great many cattle are also grazing and their destructive presence is noticeable, especially around the edges of ponds where they turn the banks into mush.

This isn’t to say that ponies and cattle don’t play an important role in managing New Forest ecosystems, just that there are now far too many animals for effective conservation to operate. The question is, why has this been allowed to happen? Some will say that the payment of subsidies and a mis-guided management is to blame, but these are topics that are off limits for discussion.

There have always been deep seated attitudes in favour of grazing which has become the ‘Holy Grail’ of New Forest management – not because it is best for the environment, but because it is ‘a way of life’ for the commoners who live there, and their ‘rights’ always take precedence; and this is something that is unlikely to change.

A common sense approach would be to manage optimally to benefit New Forest ecosystems, using grazing as one of the many tools available to achieve this end rather than as an end in itself. The pretence is that this is already happening, but nothing could be further from the truth… but I’m old enough to realise that arguments based upon facts and logic don’t always win the day.

The same pond in the summer of 1978. A different time of year so it is unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice that back then there was heather and other plant growth around the pond edge and it is not completely trampled.
This is the same pond as discussed above – the cattle from the previous picture would be in the foreground and once again we look back across the pond, but this picture was taken far earlier during the summer of 1978 and because it is a different time of year, it would be unfair to make direct comparisons, but it is impossible not to notice, that back then, there was a lot of heather and other plant growth around the edge of the pond and this has now completely disappeared. Back then, I wouldn’t have considered the cover quite enough for optimal diversity, but today, this habitat is quite devastated.

Behind the pond in the above picture is an area of heathland that has, for as long as I can remember, been a good environment for the small and very beautiful silver-studded blue butterfly, an extremely localised species usually confined to heathlands that have been managed to maintain short heather. This can be achieved by controlled burning, a strategy that is not popular with all conservationists because it is so indiscriminate, but done at the correct time of year may be less damaging than an accidental fire during late summer when a burn can go deep into a dry peaty surface, resulting in a recovery time of many years. Whatever the case, the 2016 pictures demonstrate that this heathland has burned recently which should provide nourishment to an otherwise poor soil and aid in the regeneration of heather, but this clearly isn’t happening here.

This habitat is no longer maintained the way it was from the 1970s through to the new Millennium, a period when I filmed the silver-studded blue on many occasions. This heathland environment has changed substantially in recent years and not for the better; today it has almost no heather in places where it once grew profusely and is beginning to turn into a lawn.

Silver studded Blue butterflies prefer short heather and there have been years when for a few short weeks the heath here has been busy with them.
Silver-studded blue butterflies prefer short heather and in a good year for a few short weeks the heathland close by the pond is usually busy with their courtship.
There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all.
There is however a difference between short cropped heather and no heather at all and in heathland close by the pond that is the ys things are going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Another argument for maintaining areas of short heather is that a  handful of plant species do very well under a closely cropped grazing regime – usually small plants that are easily overwhelmed by other more robust species. However, it is common to find these  mini-botanical wonders in other places where the heather is older and denser; along the edges of well trodden pathways for example, which provides a trampled habitat approriate for their survival.

There are clearly areas where plants that are specialists of short heathland can survive without resorting to heavy grazing. Despite this I am not trying to make a case against putting livestock out altogether – I appreciate that they are an effective means of managing open Forest environments but essentially it is a matter of degree. The process should not be used simply as an excuse to graze stock without due consideration for the Forest as a whole. Sadly, the degredation I have outlined on a heathland I am familiar with can now be seen across much of the open Forest.  

Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica attended by ants on well grazed heath this.
Lousewort, Pedicularis sylvatica another small plant that does well on well grazed heath is attended here by ants.
Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia - just satiny and lso present today.
Heath milkwort, Polygala serpyllifolia is just so tiny and is also commonly found on grazed heathland.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The present heavy grazing regime inevitably leads to the formation of lawn areas which the New Forest has no shortage of. Fewer grazers would lead to more balanced habitats with greater variations in heather maturity and the regeneration of many other plant species that have been eaten out.                            

The situation is depressing, because back in the 1960s and 70s environmentalists were already moaning about grazing pressures, and it is difficult to fathom how it is possible for things to have become so much worse. It certainly isn’t true that the Forest can’t survive without ‘commoners’ exercising their grazing rights to the present level, although in some quarters it is controversial to even hint that there is a problem.

Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.
Donkeys grazing the open forest near Beaulieu.

 An argument that the New Forest pony might become extinct if numbers were reduced is a ridiculous proposition. The possibility that the breed might disappear was far more likely during the Victorian era when efforts were made to improve the ponies by adding new blood – a procedure that very nearly turned the New Forest pony into a completely different animal.

When I was filming on the Forest during the 1990s, there was a concern, that at auction, ponies were less likely to find their way to good homes in this country, and far more likely to end up on the dinner tables of the French; this was accompanied by concerns about how humane it was to transport the poor creatures alive across the English Channel for slaughter in Europe.

Don't get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony and believe that pony welfare is not best served by too many ponies on the Forest.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the New Forest pony, but I believe that the welfare of these animals is best served by not allowing too many out onto the Forest.

It should be remembered, that although some of us are sentimental about New Forest ponies and concerned for their welfare, there are others for whom they are just a business.

The reality is that there’s no longer a need to ride around on a pony as for a century or more most of us have been using alternative transport.  Riding a pony can be a pleasant activity, but few now wish to live in a mythological version of the Middle Ages, although on the Forest there are still those who cherish the idea, just as long as the present grazing subsidies remain intact.

New Forest heathland during the 1970s when heathlands were less heavily grazed. healthier
New Forest heathland during late summer 1988 when heathlands were less heavily grazed and consequently healthier – even back then many people thought there was room for improvement, but as always, how bad things really are is just a matter of where you measure them from.

Any  rational person might consider that lowering the present level of livestock grazing on the New Forest is fundamental to the conservation of species diversity in what is without doubt a unique combination of habitats; but despite evidence to the contrary, there is enormous opposition to any reduction of grazers and the unhindered continuance of what has become an environmentally unsound ‘right’.

Now is the time for a more balanced view and this needs to come from an independent source, in particular from people whose judgement is not clouded by the lure of subsidies and who essentially can more clearly differentiate a ‘right’ from a ‘wrong. 

With thanks to Jen for being the inside of a New Forest pony and the New Forest Visitors Centre for loaning the outside.

Next: The Overgrazing of Streamsides and Woodlands.

Elephants: Out of Africa and Out of Luck.

As a teenager I played cricket – 

that was in the 1960s. For generations during an English summer it was impossible to avoid the game, especially at school where it was considered character building to have a hard ball hit or thrown at you with sometimes lethal force.

New Zealand v England Test Match. 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out the centre the players are constantly testing the limits of what others find acceptable.
New Zealand v England Test Match 2008. Cricket is a sport associated with a sense of fair play, but out in the centre, players are constantly testing the limits.

Way back then, on a sunny sports enforced schoolday afternoon, I was fielding in one of those ‘dangerous’ too close to the  batsman positions that intelligent people avoid, and perhaps realising this, my sports master shouted, ‘Wake up Bolwell… pay attention!’ which was  a surprise… because I thought that I was.

Then something interesting happened – which sounds odd, because  I’m talking about cricket… Anyway, the very next delivery, the ball came hurtling down the pitch at a ferocious speed, took an outside edge off the bat and came flying in my direction at considerable speed. My natural reaction was to get out of the way, but the ‘pay attention’ comment had irritated me, and I suddenly found myself diving low to my left and somehow, managed to make the catch.  I got up from the ground with minimal fuss, and casually returned the ball to the bowler – surprisingly, I had no pain or broken fingers.

P1210500.FIX.©.SMALL

As the batsman made his way back to the pavilion, this extraordinary dismissal received a spontaneous round of applause from all who witnessed it, and a mildly obscene expletive from my sports master who could hardly believe his eyes. The odd thing was, none of this had anything to do with me – my finest sporting moment was a reflex action – simply a case of being in the right place at the right time… which usually, I am not. Disturbingly though, when it comes to rare mass extinction events, I, along with the rest of my generation, appear to be right in the middle of one, although recently it was decided that this new period kicked off around 1950, close to the time when I was born; I’d like to think it had nothing to do with me and would prefer to push it back a little further – to the industrial revolution perhaps, or maybe even earlier, to the time when humans first began eliminating big mammals, decimating forests and pushing carbon into the atmosphere, because that’s when it really started, but go that far back, and the period already has a name. So, it has been decided we are kicking off the Anthropocene around about now –  the point at which we are destroying the Planet’s natural systems quicker than they can bounce back from our careless behaviour, and this is a far bigger game than most of us are ready to play… we can dive in any direction we like, but so far, we’ve made very little ‘difference’ to all the ‘differences’ we are making.

P1210521.FIX.©.SMALLMy initial contribution was to promote awareness by filming wildlife documentaries, but did that make any difference?… None whatsoever – other than to fool people into thinking that there are plenty of animals left and nothing to worry about. Heck, there’s still plenty of optimism out there – the sort that rats have when they are swimming for their lives in a water filled barrel, rather than face a certain future of drowning.

 Fast forward ten years from my catch of a lifetime and I’m with a film crew driving across one of the remotest parts of the Serengeti and one of our group is about to have a light hearted go at my behaviour, providing me with an opportunity to top my greatest sporting moment by being a little too smart for my own good. 

The other members of the party in Northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellet and Hugh Maynard.
The rest of the party in northern Tanzania: Barry Paine, Robin Pellew and Hugh Maynard.

For a week or more the four of us had been driving across this huge plain looking for wildlife to film; but this was no conventional safari along well worn tracks; we were miles from anywhere crossing a huge open expanse of dry grass, mostly just hoping to ‘not break down’. The land ran flat in every direction until it reached the sky at which point the Earth’s curvature was discernible; and when the vehicle was stationary and the engine stopped ticking, I was certain I could hear my heart beating.

P1210490.SMALLBut we’re not standing still, instead we are moving as fast as the old Land Rover will go. I’m on the back seat, reading a book, and the cameraman who is sitting up front, looks over his shoulder and says. “If you’re going to see anything, you’ll need to pay attention”. And just as with the cricket match… I thought that I was, because in this environment it is easy to read a book and regularly scan an outside world where so little is going on. Then, after my verbal shake down,  everybody went quiet, and I said very casually, ‘There’s a dead elephant on my side of the vehicle’.

Now they’ve got their binoculars going out the window and they can’t see anything… finally they decide I must be joking and we drive on. A minute or two later without looking up I say, ‘The dead elephant’s about half a mile directly to the left now’… and still they don’t see it and I’m beginning to wonder, ‘Is there really is a dead elephant out there?’ but I continue to read my very bad book whilst giving directions. Then somebody says, ‘It’s just a mound of earth’.

“It’s a dead elephant”. I persist. “if it was just dirt, it’s too spread out for a termite mound… and I don’t see any dumper trucks.” I’m really pushing my luck now, because everybody is irritated by my attitude… and the detour – so I really need a dead elephant out there somewhere because nobody likes a smart Alec.

Eventually we arrive at this spread of huge bones – they’ve been stripped clean by scavengers, but otherwise are only a little more spread out from the time when the elephant died. Robin Pellew our science advisor is an expert on giraffes, but has spent enough time on the Serengeti to know that here lie the remains of a male elephant of about 40 years of age, with no clear indication as to cause of death.

This elephant skeleton discovery occurred on the afternoon of 12th November 1979 and was not due to any personal skill on my part – I was born with good eyesight and that’s not something you can practice. Today though, imagine how remote you would have to be to stumble across a dead elephant that had been laying around undisturbed long enough for it’s bones to be stripped clean… Well, maybe not so long when you consider the size and number of scavengers on the Serengeti, but it was extraordinary to find an elephant’s skull still intact with both tusks in place, propping up the front end like some well balanced sculpture.

Apart from a few scavengers the elephant skeleton remained, more or less, in the same position as when the animal died.
Apart from scavengers moving bones, the skeleton remained more or less in the same position as when the elephant died.

I’d like to say we took some pictures and drove respectfully away, but we didn’t do that. We took some pictures and then set about smashing the front of the skull with a tyre lever to remove the tusks, which we then tied to the roof of our vehicle so that they might be delivered to Serengeti Park Headquarters, rather than left for others to find and sell into the ivory trade. The tusks were over five and a half feet long, and it’s not until you’ve tried to separate tusks from an elephant’s head that you realise just how much lies embedded in the skull – about a third – and by the time I’d finished my share of skull bashing to get them free, I didn’t feel quite as smart as I had done before we started out on the task.

Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future of the African elephants.
Even back then I had the feeling that in a generation or two, old bones displayed in museums might be the future for the African elephant.

By the end of 1979, at the time when we brought back the ivory, the African elephant’s heyday was already over; we’d been looking to film elephants during a period of heavy poaching and it is important to realise that all of us are somewhere on a timeline, and more often than not, few of us get to see the beginning or the end of a great many processes. Elephants were heavily poached from the beginning of the 1970s, and by the end of the 1980s things were much worse. Often there simply wasn’t the man power to deal with the increasing problem, and invariably the conservers were outgunned. Well organized Somalian poachers with automatic weapons began dropping down into Tanzanian parks and when they met opposition, it was poorly paid wardens attempting to protect both the elephants and themselves with old Lee Enfield rifles left over from the First and Second World Wars.

African elephants are the largest land mammals still living today, but the savannahs they inhabit are extensive, and so protecting every herd let alone every individual has proven impossible, especially taking into account the corruption that has plagued so many parts of Africa over the years, enabling the illegal killing of animals to continue despite the best efforts of conservationists.

2016-09-03-0025.FIX©.BW.SMALL

The message did seem to be getting through for a while and the situation for African elephants improved during the 1990s when their numbers began to rise, but this is now recognised as a blip on what has otherwise been a rapidly descending curve.

The most comprehensive aerial survey of elephants ever undertaken has recently been completed; this essential project was largely bankrolled by the philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft, Paul G Allen, and the results have provided some sobering figures that show a serious decline in the number of elephants on African savannahs. The losses are mostly down to poaching, which has become increasingly problematic in East, West and Central Africa.

A summary of elephant status over the years: http://www.greatelephantcensus.com/background-on-conservation/

Elephant populations on the savannahs of Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Elephant populations across Africa have dropped by one third in the last decade and if poaching continues at the present rate half of the remaining animals will be gone within the next ten years.

Presently, there are estimated to be a little over 350,000 elephants wandering across the savannahs. But before Europeans arrived on the continent there were probably more than 25 million, and you can’t help but think how destructive our species is, when elephant populations have been so thoroughly decimated in just a few hundred years.

The Survey:  https://peerj.com/articles/2354/

When I was a small child in the 1950s it is thought that around 250 elephants were killed in Africa every day, notably at a time when African nations were gaining independence. But that’s not to imply that Africans are responsible all of the killing; for a century or more hunters have arrived from outside of the continent and paid huge sums of money for the pleasure of shooting one of nature’s greatest wonders.

P1210528.FIX.©.SMALLAs the human population of Africa increases, more land will be taken from the natural world – in particular for agricultural use. Increasingly this is a matter of life and death for elephants, because their presence is not easily tolerated close to people. By any terms elephants are destructive, and unless they have space to do their own thing, they will increasingly make regular contact with humans and come off second best. This is not a new story, elephants have always been a nuisance to people, especially when they destroy crops, and the frustration of farmers is understandable.

Unfortunately, domestic stock animals are an additional problem for conservationists, they are driven into many natural areas to graze and this presents a threat to wildlife either through direct competition, or by spreading diseases across huge areas of what was once recognised as elephant country; and even national parks seem incapable of keeping essential conservation areas free from the intrusion.

 In the developed world we destroyed most of the large mammals that competed with us centuries ago and it is a pattern that continues to repeat itself elsewhere. The process started when man became a successful co-operative hunter, took readily to  barbequeing and then agriculture. From a slow unsteady start the human population began to grow exponentially and this continues to the present day. Our population expansion is beyond natural control which has proven devastating to many other species.

2016-09-03-0011.FIX2.©.SMALL

Never before has human population growth been so consequential, with many countries on the continent having a doubling time of between 35 to 50 years. Which means that if poaching stopped tomorrow, we might be asking where in any case would there be enough space, even in a place the size of Africa, to fit in the next generation of hungry elephants alongside a competing, and more likely to succeed, rapidly increasing population of Homo sapiens.

But even ignoring all of that, the biggest problem that African elephants currently face is their habit of wandering around with thousands of dollars of comparatively easy money growing out of the sides of their mouths. For millions of years, having a couple of really useful big teeth was advantageous and made elephants the biological equivalent of bulldozers with a forklift truck attachment at their front ends, but of course these front ends were never meant to be detached. Over a few tens of years really useful tusks have suddenly become a serious liability, and with a long lived slow reproducing species evolution doesn’t have any short term answers. There are no other serious predators to adult elephants, their continued survival is quite simply down to us.

A young elephant with tusks too small to attract the poachers interest - but it is only a matter of time.
Although poaching may be indiscriminate, this young elephant’s tusks shouldn’t attract too much attention – but it is only a matter of time.

It would not of course be such a problem if ivory was less desirable and so much in demand in certain key places in the world – mostly Asia. Not so long ago the Japanese found ivory invaluable for making seals  as personal signatures. In Europe ivory carvings were imported from the Far East, which is the home of traditional ivory carving. This material has also been a popular inlay and widely used to embellish instruments, most  famously piano keys – in Britain piano players were once said to be ‘tickling the ivories’. Today however the market is centred in China, and Vietnam where skilled craftsmen still carve ivory to supply both the home and world markets, and it remains available on the black market even in countries where the sale of ivory is now illegal.

Even carved elephants - these coming out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s carry ivory tusks, although in many cases bone is substituted for tusks.
Even carved elephants – these came out of Africa during the 1920s or 30s, carried ivory tusks, although in many cases carved animal bone was substituted.

Culturally it has been easier to persuade the Western world that they don’t need ivory than is the case in the East where the problems elephants face has been slow to be recognized. There are few places in Europe where people remain unaware that poaching ivory is bad news for elephants – and really… how long does it take to come to that conclusion? A partial ban on ivory has existed in the U.S.A. since June 1989, but it was not until June 2016 that an almost total ban came into law – better late than never I suppose.

Once upon a time ivory was a status symbol in Europe and North America, but attitudes are changing, and increasingly the general ownership of ivory is considered to be in bad taste. It has over the years simply been a matter of education to persuade people that the best place for ivory is at the front end of an elephant on either side of its trunk.

The old and the new generation - hopefully going somewhere.
The old and the new generation – hopefully going somewhere.

 In China the carving of African elephant ivory and rhino horn along with its use in Chinese medicine are still ‘culturally significant’; and it takes time to eliminate anything that comes under that heading. The horrors that have been committed in the name  of God and the ‘culturally significant’, are, sadly, too numerous to mention.

Chinese authorities have recently been campaigning against the use of ivory. Even Jackie Chan has spoken out on the subject of ivory poaching and he’s probably made a difference. I was never sure why I liked Jackie Chan, but now there is a very good reason. 

Back in 2014 WildAid surveyed China’s three largest cities to gauge changes in attitude towards poaching and the ivory trade, making comparisons with a previous 2012 survey. In 2014 just over 70% of participants thought that elephant poaching was a problem; well up on the ‘a little over’ 45% figure from 2012. An increase of over 50% for the enlightened view, which at least offers encouragement that attitudes can change.

For more details of the survey: http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/resources/Print_Ivory%20Report_Final_v3.pdf

ELEPHANTS SEREGETI 1979 14.FIX.CROP.SMALL

An online survey also found that 95% of respondents supported an ivory ban, but the key word here is ‘respondents’ – I wonder if those who responded were more likely to do so because of their positive view. I also wonder about the sample size, 1500 people – 500 hundred from each city, doesn’t seem a very big sample considering the millions of people living in these centres of high population.  Whatever the surveys are telling us to sweeten the pill, there is still a significant amount of ivory being traded, and elephant numbers continue to plummet. Time is running out. Personally I don’t get too excited about surveys, preferring instead to put emphasis on results. The answer might be to just stop trading with any country where people continue to deal in endangered animal parts as a matter of course, even if in the mistaken belief that such items have medicinal value, when scientific evidence demonstrates that they do not.

Presently, there are many people trading in endangered animals and body parts with impunity, and the rarer an animal becomes the higher the price gets, which only adds to its appeal. Education is one thing, but taking on ‘the money’ is never considered a realistic option and all too often ends up in the ‘too hard basket'; but now it really is far too late in the day to dither, because  if nothing changes in the near future, we will all soon be saying ‘goodnight Jumbo’.

The obvious answer is a two pronged attack, education across all social groups whilst also taking out those who trade at the top end of the market where the profit margins are the highest  – but of course those involved in taking the largest profits don’t like that idea at all, and won’t be going without considerable resistance.

African elephants are kept species, when they pass an acacia seed in their droppings or push over a tree to get at the leaves, they are instrumental in creating the environment they and a great many other animals live in.
African elephants are a key species, whether passing out acacia seeds in their droppings or pushing over a tree to get at the leaves – they are instrumental in shaping an environment for both themselves and many other animals.

At the end of the day the obvious problem remains – until African elephants are worth more to people living in Africa alive than they are dead, the decline will continue, because the corruption that maintains the present situation is going to be a juggernaut to stop.

2016-09-03-0015.FIX2.SMALLWithout doubt – the answer lies in persuading people that paying good money for ivory is stupid, and if that idea could be wedged into peoples brains then the ivory trade would be finished. The solution, if there is one, isn’t going to be a walk in the park. Or should that be ‘a stroll across the Serengeti’… I’ve  tried that, and it’s not so easy. I’ve also done my fair share of filming and photography – it has made very little difference.

We know how wonderful elephants are – but nothing that we are presently doing is  saving them. Perhaps if I was still living in England I’d say that the continued persecution of elephants ‘just isn’t cricket’ – but a sense of fair play isn’t going to get us anywhere in the face of almost insurmountable greed and mind blowing ignorance, and as always… more than a fair share of plain stupidity.