For many species of birds, it is typical for either the male or female to sport a colourful appearance to attract a mate, but it is less common to see seemingly drab parents with a particularly ornate chick. This is the case for the American coot; their chicks have bright orange and red feathers, beaks and skin, whereas their parents are, in comparison, quite dull. This could be down to their reproductive strategy. American coots lay many small eggs, and chick mortality is high. When food supply starts to run short, the parents have to become more choosey when allocating food and begin to favour the more colourful chicks. This helps to level out the playing field amongst the brood as the later hatched (and so smaller) chicks are the most ornate. Therefore, their colourful appearance could be a signal for more food.
Gigantiopsdestructor is relatively small species of ant (despite its name!) found in South America. We only know of four types of ants that travel by using their legs to jump, one of which is G. destructor. But it’s not just their legs that they use. Scientist have recently discovered that G. destructor move their abdomen in such a way that they can increase the speed and height of their jumps – a particularly useful technique when navigating the leaf litter of the forest floor.
The world watches on as bushfires rip through eastern Australia, the total burned area now covering a staggering 8.4m hectares. This has had a devasting effect on Australia’s unique wildlife, with an estimated 480 million birds, mammals and reptiles affected. Professor Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney provided this estimate, applying the methods from past studies that investigated the impact of land clearing on mammal population densities. Unfortunately, it is likely that the true figure is much higher, as this estimate does not include bats, frog and insects.
The European Badger (Meles meles) is one of the most iconic species found on the British Isles. These shy and elusive animals spend much of their time during the day hidden away within their extensive underground setts, emerging around dusk to forage on smaller mammals, earthworms, roots, bulbs and fruit.
Within their territories, badgers will follow established routes between foraging areas. When these pathways become obstructed by fencing, such as exclusion fencing for stock or deer, badgers will often dig under the obstruction to regain access to a familiar site and in doing so they may cause damage to the fence and allow in potentially unwanted species. In these circumstances, many developers will install a badger gate to allow badgers to freely access the site. These rectangular gates are constructed of either wood or metal and often feature locking mechanisms to ensure badgers can only pass through in a certain direction.
Although badgers are protected under the Protection of Badgers Act 1992, there are situations where developers need to temporarily or permanently exclude badgers from areas. This may be when they, or their setts, could be at risk of harm or disturbance. In these circumstances, and under acquisition of a license, one-way badger gates can be installed in sett entrances or in fencing surrounding a development to gradually exclude badgers from the area. These badgers will then either relocate to a new territory or to a nearby artificially-created sett.
At NHBS we manufacture a range of badger gates and this article will outline how they can be installed and used in different badger mitigation projects.
Softwood Badger Gate
This softwood badger gate has been designed in accordance with the specifications outlined by Natural England (available here) and is an excellent economic choice for many projects. It is constructed from untreated FSC-certified timber, which ensures badgers will not be harmed if they ingest any chewed wood. This gate has been designed so that it will not jam following periods of rain when the wood may swell.
The softwood gate is suitable for use where badgers require access through a fence. This gate can also be used in exclusion projects; however unlike our aluminium gates they can be damaged by chewing and often have a shorter lifespan.
Price: £25.99 inc VAT £27.95
Frame Dimensions: 450mm (H) x 285mm (W)
Entrance Dimensions: 250mm (H) x 200mm (W)
Material: Untreated FSC timber
Access Badger Gate
The access badger gate is constructed from marine grade aluminium which ensures it is strong enough for repeated use while keeping it lighter than most steel gates. It features a heavy-duty grill panel which allows badgers to view what is on the other side of the gate, which can encourage some badgers to pass through. It has pointed legs which should be driven into the ground using a wooden mallet, however a hammer can also be used with a block of wood (striking the frame directly may cause warping and damage). The gate has two locking tabs that can be adjusted using a size 10 spanner to allow either two-way or one-way access.
This gate is designed for use in long-term projects where badgers need access through stock or deer fencing. For exclusion projects we would recommend our exclusion gates.
Price: £73.50 inc VAT
Frame Dimensions: 595mm (H) x 295mm (W)
Entrance Dimensions: 320mm (H) x 220mm (W)
Material: Marine Grade Aluminium
Exclusion Badger Gate
The exclusion badger gate is also constructed from marine grade aluminium and comes fitted with a solid gate flap. This solid door has been designed based on evidence that some badgers can learn to use their claws to lift grill gates open. Another feature of this gate is that it does not have legs. This allows the gate to be positioned either vertically or horizontally in awkward sett entrances where a typical vertical gate would not be suitable. By installing this gate ecologists and developers can be confident that badgers will not be able to re-enter an exclusion zone.
This gate is also available with pointed legs, for installation within exclusion fencing.
Price: £73.50 inc VAT
Frame Dimensions: 400mm (H) x 295mm (W)
Entrance Dimensions: 320mm (H) x 220mm (W)
Material: Marine Grade Aluminium
All of our gates can be incorporated into this high tensile wire fencing. It can be erected as a freestanding barrier or installed across a sett to prevent badgers from digging to form new entrances or to get around any installed gates.
Price: £245 (50m)
Stainless Steel Cable Ties
These strong, corrosion resistant cable ties can be used to quickly and easily secure a badger gate frame to the surrounding fencing.
Price: £8.50 (pack of 20)
Caudon® High Tensile Steel Pegs
These steel pegs are excellent for securing fencing to the ground, particularly in areas where badgers are prone to tunneling. These pegs can also be driven through the access and exclusion badger gates to provide a firmer placement.
Written with Peter Marren’s usual wit and insight,Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers takes you on a journey back to a time before the arts and science were divided. When entomologists were also poets and painters, and when a gift for vivid language went hand-in-hand with a deep pre-Darwinian fascination for the emerging natural world.
Peter took the time to answer some of our questions about his new book and the origin of butterfly and moth names.
Tell us a little about your background and how you got interested in the etymology of species names?
I’m a natural history writer (in the sense that I’ve written a lot about natural history) with a background in nature conservation in Britain. I’ve loved butterflies and moths since boyhood, and I suppose I must have realised even then that many of them have unusual names. What the hell was an eggar? Or a lutestring? Probably like most people I didn’t think too much about it – weren’t names just labels? – until, out of curiosity, I went into the name of the Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, and discovered a real Vanessa and a real Atalanta. And then I realised that even Latin names weren’t randomly chosen but had a particular resonance with that particular species. Names hid a whole new world of allusion, poetry and wordplay. I discovered that those who named our Lepidoptera, in English and Latin, were equally educated in the arts and the sciences. They knew their myths, and they knew about colours and designs, and they were completely fascinated. I feel a strange empathy with that vanished world.
What was the original inspiration behind Emperors, Admirals & Chimney Sweepers?
It started as a kind of sequel to my book Rainbow Dust, about how and why butterflies and moths inspire people. Names were confined to a single chapter in that book, but there was so much more to say, not only about the names themselves but the social ambience that spawned them: the world of Georgian London with its clubs and field excursions, its gorgeous illustrated books and the sense that nature was all the more wonderful for being 1) divinely inspired and 2) almost completely unknown.
The lightbulb moment came when I thought of dealing with names not as an entomologist might do, by families and related groups, but by themes: species named after animals, birds, moods, occupations, jewels and so on, all laid out alphabetically. I loved the fact that certain fine moths were named after weddings, focussing on bridal underwear worn in eighteenth century Sweden!
Emperor, Admiral and Chimney Sweeper are, of course, names of a butterfly and two moths.
If you could name a new species of moth or butterfly, how would you go about it?
Well, it ain’t a blank slate. There are written rules for scientific names and unwritten ones for common names. I’d love to call it Marren’s Glory but it would not be approved. I’d have to stick with the established vocabulary. So if it resembled, say, a wainscot moth, it would continue to be called that, distinguished by whatever word best caught its character. Overlooked Wainscot? Lenitive Wainscot? Look-alike Wainscot?
What would be your advice for any budding entomologist out there?
There’s more to the natural world than pure science. Keep your eyes, and your mind, open. And enjoy yourself. And don’t say, “Oh that’s a Lenitive Wainscot, a Schedule 7 species graded as Least Concern in the latest IUCN Red List.” Just the name will do.
What is your most memorable butterfly or moth name, and why?
There are lots, but let’s go with the poor little Narrow-bordered Bee Hawk-moth, whose Latin name, tityus, commemorates the most hideous giant in all mythology. The giant’s poor mum exploded at his birth and when full grown his body covered nine acres. What do they have in common? Well, the old name for hawk-moths was Sphinx, and the Sphinx was a monster. Ergo (Linnaeus thought), hawk-moths should be given monstrous names. And the bee hawk accidentally got the worst of them because of its place on the list, wedged between two other appalling creatures.
I quite like Zygaena, the name of the burnet moths which they share with the hammerhead shark. For reasons too convoluted to go into here (but it’s in the book).
Any new books/projects in the pipeline?
I will have to find another project for it’s in the DNA. I suspect it will involve nature and childhood. Trouble is, others are on to it.
The presence or absence of freshwater invertebrates such as caddisfly (Trichoptera) and mayfly (Ephemeroptera) larvae, dragonfly and damselfly nymphs (Odonata) and planaria (Tricladida) can be used to provide an indicator of the health status of waterways.
Kick sampling is a useful method for collecting these and other invertebrates from shallow waters and one of the key techniques used in monitoring freshwater invertebrates in rivers. The technique involves agitating the stones or sediment of a river or stream by foot and catching the sample in a sturdy hand net that is held downstream. Stones and logs can also be washed off carefully into the net and samples are usually taken both from faster flowing riffles and still areas of the river. The sample is then rinsed out of the net into a tray full of water for sorting and identification. Kick sampling is primarily a qualitative technique, to look at species diversity or presence/absence, but quantitative measures can be taken if a quadrat or transect is used on the floor of the water body to limit the sampling area and sampling time is controlled.
NHBS manufactures a range of hand nets that are the industry standard for kick sampling and are widely used by environment agencies and ecological professionals. Our Professional Hand Nets conform to the Environment Agency standards and we are the official Riverfly Partnership supplier. The Riverfly Partnership is a network of organisations bringing together anglers, conservationists, entomologists and relevant water authorities whose aim is to protect and monitor the water quality of our rivers.
The NHBS net range also includes smaller nets designed for students of all ages and a wide range of accessories and books to help with sample sorting and identification. Our hand nets are manufactured with a diverse range of net bags and handles to meet a wide variety of surveying purposes. We can also design and manufacture bespoke net designs in our workshop in Devon, so please do get in touch if you have special requirements.
Professional Hand Nets
The NHBS Professional Hand Net has been used for over 30 years in Environment Agency monitoring and was purpose designed to be lightweight, strong and long-lasting, with individual nets often still being used after ten years. Key features of the Professional Hand Nets include:
The net bag is protected by the outer frame to minimise abrasion when kick sampling on stony surfaces.
A range of mesh sizes are available, making it the ideal net for aquatic surveying of all macro- and microinvertebrates in shallow water. The bag mesh is either made from 1mm or 2mm woven polyester or precision welded nylon mesh (53µm to 500µm) and manufactured to international standards so that the mesh will stay the same shape and size, even under stress.
The inner brass frame securely holds the bag away from the stony substrate and also allows the bag to be removed for sterilisation between sites.
The comfortable handle is available in either a lightweight FSC wooden or aluminium version and both will float in water. Two-part and three-part sectional wooden handles are also available, which can be unscrewed for transport or extended with extra sections.
Student Hand Nets
The Professional Hand Net is also available in a smaller Student version that is 200mm in width. This is designed to the same high quality as the larger Professional net but is ideal for educational use. The Student Hand Net is available with either a FSC wooden or aluminium handle and with net bag mesh sizes ranging from 250µm to 2mm, in standard 280mm or 380mm depth. We can design and manufacture bespoke nets so please do contact us with any requirements.
The Lightweight Eco-Net has a strong aluminium frame that will withstand regular use both for kick sampling and pond dipping. Net heads are 160mm in width and 1mm and 2mm mesh bags are available to fit this frame. Bags attach to the head using industrial hook and loop strapping, making them easy to remove for replacement or sterilisation.
Riverfly Partnership Approved Kit
The Anglers’ Riverfly Monitoring Initiative (ARMI) is coordinated by the Riverfly Partnership and involves anglers and conservation volunteers from more than 100 partner organisations carrying out regular freshwater invertebrate surveys to check for severe changes in water quality. The Riverfly Partnership Approved Kit has been designed in conjunction with the Riverfly Partnership and contains everything the volunteers need to carry out these vital surveys: Professional Hand Net, bucket, sample trays, pipettes, freshwater invertebrate ID guide, spoon, brush and magnifiers.
The Banner Net is a rectangular net measuring 90 x 100cm that is supported on each side by a 120cm wooden pole. The bottom edge of the net is reinforced with a removable, flexible rubber rod. Two hook and loop tabs keep the net rolled neatly when not in use. Available with 500mm mesh, which is ideal for kick sampling of benthic macroinvertebrates.
This 8-page fold-out chart is a fully illustrated key to help users identify the main animal groups found in freshwater. None of the identification in the key goes beyond family level, and some of it stays at the phylum or class.
Pelagic was founded in 2010 to fill the publishing gap in practical books available on ecology and conservation. They publish books for scientists, conservationists, ecologists, wildlife enthusiasts – anyone with a passion for understanding and exploring the natural world. Their books cover ecological survey and evolutionary biology to natural history dictionaries and environmental statistics. With a prodigious amount of recent publishing, it is our great pleasure to announce Pelagic as our Publisher of the Month for May 2019.
Pelagic have – in a very short space of time – carved out a niche for themselves in wildlife publishing. A selection of their publishing is divided into series which are continually added to – these include:
Naturalists’ Handbooks: information, covering biology, practical notes on identifying, in the field or in the laboratory, with plates of individual species and line drawings of many of the key identification characteristics.
Data in the Wild: data collection and analysis for for ecologists, includes books on camera trapping, CCTV and remote sensing.
Synopses of Conservation Evidence: The aim of the project is to make scientific evidence more accessible, in turn making practical wildlife and environmental conservation more evidence-based.
Dormice are a distinctive family of rodents, found widely across Eurasia and Africa. The Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius) is a native British species which resides primarily in deciduous woodland. They are protected by EU law because of their rapidly declining numbers – studies suggest they have suffered a 72% population reduction in the last 22 years. Dormice are an important bioindicator as they are particularly sensitive to habitat and population fragmentation, so their presence is an indication of habitat integrity.
To enforce legal protection and ensure the success of conservation projects, current data about the distribution of Hazel Dormice is very important. A variety of survey equipment and methods can be used by licenced dormouse handlers and wildlife enthusiasts.
Perhaps the simplest survey technique to determine dormouse presence is searching for the nest box residents. Dormouse nest boxes are largely similar to standard bird boxes, but with the entrance hole facing the tree. Nest boxes can be important conservation tools as they can boost the local dormouse population density and aid re-introduction schemes.
The Standard Dormouse Nest Box is built from FSC softwood and has a removable lid with a wire closure for monitoring. This box can also come with a perspex inner screen allowing surveyors to check the boxes inhabitants, without the risk of escape or injury.
The more resilient Heavy Duty Dormouse Box is made from thicker ¾” FSC marine plywood and is ideal for long-term monitoring projects.
Dormouse nest tubes are a cheap, easy and popular method of determining the presence of dormice within a habitat. They can be an effective alternative to using wooden nest boxes.
The tubes consist of a wooden tray and a nesting tube. Dormice make their nests in the tubes and it is these that are used as indicators of their presence in the habitat. Nest tubes can be set up and checked without a licence until the first evidence of dormouse activity is found. After that, only a licensed handler can check them. For attaching to a tree, Hook and Loop Strapping is a more environmentally friendly alternative to plastic cable ties, as they are reusable, reducing plastic waste.
Dormouse Footprint Tunnels
The latest dormouse surveying technique uses footprint tunnels. This technique was created by Suffolk Wildlife Trust with PTES funding and has since been recommended in the CIEEM magazine In Practice in September 2018.
It is a non-invasive survey technique, which does not require a licence as the chance of disturbing dormice is very low. The 40cm tube, houses a wooden platform which contains the charcoal ink and paper on which footprints are left. Compared with nest tube surveys, footprint tunnels can reduce the survey period required and provide an indication of the presence or likely absence of dormice at a site.
Dormouse Nut Hunting
Dormice leave very characteristic marks when they eat Hazel nuts. They gnaw a round hole in the shell leaving a smooth edge with very few teeth marks, unlike mice or voles. Systematic nut searches under Hazel trees are still regarded as one of the best survey techniques, only hand lenses and a keen eye are required.
Accessories and books
Below are some accessories and books that are commonly used for dormouse surveys and monitoring:
Did you know that 94% of Britain isn’t built upon, that Snowdonia is larger and emptier than the Maasai Mara National Reserve, or that Scotland’s deer estates alone cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park? Britain has all the empty space it needs for an epic wildlife recovery. So what’s stopping it from happening in our country – and how can we turn things around?
Author, Benedict Macdonald offered his valuable time to answer our questions about his important new contribution to the discussion of rewilding.
What inspired you to
become so passionate about restoring natural ecosystems?
In 2014, I began writing Rebirding in the certain knowledge that conservation in this country is failing, the birdsong around us is dying out every year, yet we have all the resources, skill and wildlife lobby to turn things around. I hope that in its small way, Rebirding will do for the UK what Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet is beginning to do for worldwide conservation – to make people realise that nature is essential, profitable and saveable, even now – and that we have all the resources and skill to do so.
Tell us a little
about your background and how you became interested in the natural world?
I never remember the moment of first being fascinated by nature, but I do remember that by the time I was five, I would make weekend visits to Berkeley Castle Butterfly Farm and was entranced by watching the butterflies drinking salts from my fingertips, and I began a collection of ones passed to me by the lady running it – after they had died. Then early trips to the Welsh coast, and Norfolk, transformed that interest into a lifelong love of birds as well. From there, their plight has drawn me into understanding and studying ecosystems and a far wider understanding of protecting nature. Since then, my love of the natural world, both as a naturalist and a TV director, has now taken me to over forty countries.
At 14, I first remember telling someone at a dinner party that I wanted to work in wildlife television. Since graduating from university, I’ve been lucky to work on a range of programmes such as Springwatch, The One Show and The Hunt for the BBC. Last week, aged 31, I attended the premiere of Sir David Attenborough’s Our Planet for Netflix, launching in the Natural History Museum in London. This is the largest conservation series ever made. I work as the researcher and a field director for the Jungles and Grasslands episodes, directing a number of sequences including desert-nesting Socotra cormorants, the secret life of the Alcon Blue butterfly, and the remarkable lives of the world’s only tool-using Orangutans.
In your opinion, what
is the most detrimental practice to the wildlife of Britain?
We are often sold the untruth that what happens to British land is necessary for food production. This is almost entirely untrue. Only the profitable arable farms of the south, and east of our island, provide a bounty of food for our children. Dairy lawns and sheep farms in fact create tiny volumes of our daily diet relative to the land area they use. For example, 88% of Wales grows lamb, an optional food resource.
Of the epic wastage, however, the grouse moor is the ultimate. Eight percent of Britain’s land is burned for the creation of 0.0008% of its jobs and a contribution of just 0.005% to our GDP. For hundreds of years, thousands of beautiful wild animals have been removed, just so that Red Grouse can be turned into living clay pigeons and killed in their thousands once a year. Even hunters from other countries find this wasteful and disgusting. This area covers an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park – blocking jobs and wildlife alike on an epic scale. Hunting estates in Finland or Sweden, by contrast, juggle the ambition of hunters to shoot a few animals with ecosystems of immense beauty and variety.
Wildlife and commerce
are often presented as being in conflict, do you think this is a fair
assessment, or can land stewardship that favours biodiversity over profit be of
This is surely the greatest imaginary
conflict of our time, successful insinuated, perhaps, by the damaging economies
that prevent nature from reaching its full economic potential in our country. In truth, wildlife IS commerce. Nature IS money.
Every year, even without a single charismatic megafauna such as Bison, Elk or Lynx running wild in our country, without a ‘Yellowstone’ or ‘Maasai Mara’, the English adult population make just over 3 billion visits to the natural environment each year, spending £21 billion as they do so. In Scotland, nature-based tourism is estimated to produce £1.4 billion per year, along with 39,000 FTE jobs.
In contrast, the current models
of upland farming demand money from us to survive, but they do not reciprocate
jobs, income or natural capital – this is life on benefits and there is no
future for young people in it. In
contrast, wherever nature is allowed to flourish, it’s capital potential is
wondrous. In 2009, the RSPB’s lovely but
very small reserves brought £66 million to local economies, and created 1,872
FTE jobs. This is more than all of England’s grouse moors, but in just a
fraction of their land area.
Right now, however, we are just seeing snapshots of how nature can power and rekindle communities. In Rebirding we often look to other countries to see how true ecosystems could transform economies on a far greater scale. The final myth that we kick into touch is that Britain is short of space, 94% of our country is not built upon. Most of this area does not create essential food supplies – and is jobs-poor.
Is there one single practise or cultural shift that would be of most benefit to restoring natural ecosystems?
The Forestry Commission is the largest single land manager in Britain. It now needs to split its forests in two – rewilding key estates like the New Forest and the Forest of Dean: cutting down the spruce and replanting with native trees, then, crucially, leaving large native animals such as Beavers, Elk, cattle and horses to become the foresters. Economies in these forests would be driven through ecotourism revenues and perhaps some hunting. Elsewhere, timber forests would remain. It is hard to think of one single decision that could effect a greater transformation on British land than a decision to return Britain’s once world-class oak-lands to our nation. Another, however, would be if Scotland’s deer estates, which again cover an area twice the size of Yellowstone, could be incentivised to rewild and regrow their trees. Hunting could remain – but in this regrowing wilderness would be the potential for Elk, Lynx, Wildcats and a huge expansion in woodland species like Capercaillie.
Are you optimistic
for the future of Britain’s wildlife?
Yes – but only if our conservationists act with the same pragmatism and determination as those who have prevented land reform for decades. In my closing chapter, I’ve argued that whilst farming unions behave with absolute conviction and coherence, our nature charities often simply say that a few more Skylarks would be nice. Only if we can unlock the economic arguments of nature, and harness the millions of voices effectively, will we see large areas rewilded in our country. It is the social and economic transformation that nature provides that needs to be realised – but for that, you need space, and power over land. At that moment, things will change. In my lifetime, I genuinely believe that after many fierce battles, we will see Dalmatian Pelicans flying over Somerset, and huge areas of Scotland, Wales and upland England slowly returned to a wilder state. But without absolute conviction this is possible, it will never come to pass.
On 2nd September last year, a terrible fire destroyed the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro. Alongside the vast collection of irreplaceable natural history specimens, the fire also destroyed books and equipment used by the Museum’s researchers for ecological research and wildlife conservation.
Thankfully as museum curator, Débora Pires, wrote shortly after the incident: “The brains did not burn; we are working with a positive agenda!”
NHBS were approached by our former director Alan Martin, who provided a list of products which the malacology, arachnology, entomology and lepidoptera departments needed to get back on their feet. Alan, now secretary of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust (BART) has close links with many researchers at the museum.
Following this, we decided to coordinate an effort to provide the items that are most critical to their research. We contacted suppliers asking them to contribute and we agreed to supply our own manufactured products, and cover shipping costs of all donated items.
The response from suppliers was fantastic, as the majority were happy to donate all, or most of the items requested. We would like to give huge thanks those who have donated so far: Elsevier, BIOTOPE Parthenope, Brunel Microscopes Ltd, BugDorm, CABI Publishing, Harvard University Press, the Royal Museum for Central Africa, Watkins & Doncaster and finally EntoSphinx. So far, we have received just over £2,000 worth of items, with more to follow.
“I’m really sorry to hear such devastating news. This is truly awful and it’s good to see you are providing such great support to them. We would be happy to send out the [requested] book gratis.” – Linda Jackson, Elsevier
Are you a supplier, publisher or manufacturer and would like to donate books or equipment to this worthy cause? Please contact email@example.com
Visit our Supporting Conservation page for more ways NHBS help wildlife, ecology and conservation across the world.
In Vaquita: Science, Politics, and Crime in the Sea of Cortez, author Brooke Bessesen takes us on a journey to Mexico’s Upper Gulf region to uncover the story behind the world’s most endangered marine mammal. Through interviews with townspeople, fishermen, scientists, and activists, she teases apart a complex story filled with villains and heroes, a story whose outcome is unclear.
In this post we chat with Brooke about her investigations in Mexico, local and international efforts to save the vaquita and the current status of this diminutive porpoise.
The vaquita entered the collective imagination (or at least, my imagination) when it became world news somewhere in 2017 and there was talk of trying to catch the last remaining individuals, something which you describe at the end of your story. Going back to the beginning though, how did you cross the path of this little porpoise?
I first heard about vaquita during a visit to CEDO, an educational research station in Puerto Peñasco, Mexico. I was enchanted to discover this beautiful little porpoise was endemic to the Upper Gulf of California, mere hours south of my home, yet saddened to learn it was already critically endangered. I still have the t-shirt I bought that day to support vaquita conservation. That was 2008 when the population estimate was 245.
The last update I could find was an interview in March 2018 on Mongabay with Andrea Crosta, director of the international wildlife trade watchdog group Elephant Action League. He mentioned there might be only a dozen vaquita left. Do you know what the situation is like now?
The last official population estimate was <30, but that was from 2016. With an annual rate of decline upwards of 50 percent, the number is surely much lower. If only we were able to watch the numbers go down in real time, we would all be forced to emotionally experience this sickening loss. But I think there is a (legitimate) fear that if an updated estimate revealed the number to be in or near single digits, key institutions might announce the species a lost cause and pull up stakes. If pecuniary support disappears, it’s game-over. Vaquita has graced the planet for millions of years—we cannot give up the battle to prevent its extinction so long as any number remain.
Once your investigation on the ground in Mexico gets going, tensions quickly run high. This is where conservation clashes with the hard reality of humans trying to make a living. Corruption, intimidation and threats are not uncommon. Was there ever a point that you were close to pulling out because the situation became too dangerous?
Truth told, my nerves were prickling from start to finish. The emotional fatigue was intense. But having witnessed the gruesome death of Ps2 [the designation given one of the Vaquita carcasses that washed up, ed.], I simply could not turn back. Then as the humanitarian crisis became clear and I was meeting families struggling to raise children in the fray, I was even more committed to telling this story. When courage wavered, I only had to remind myself of the host of social scientists, biologists, activists, and law-abiding fishermen working so bravely for the cause.
You describe a widespread indifference to the vaquita. I have the feeling a lot of this is cultural. Do you think a change in attitude can ever be effected? Or is the combination of poverty and the need to make a living completely at loggerheads with this?
I see two main obstacles to solving the vaquita crisis: corruption and poverty. In that order, because until local citizens can trust their military and police officers to rightfully enforce law, and until Pesca [Mexico’s National Fisheries Institute and its National Commission of Aquaculture and Fisheries, ed.] authorizes legal, sustainable fishing methods instead of providing loopholes for poachers, there will be no economic stability in the region. Money is pouring into the pockets of crime bosses while upstanding folks barely get by. Focused on either greed or survival, nobody has much capacity to care about porpoise conservation. That said, I do believe change can be effected. Several NGOs are already connecting with the communities in meaningful ways, and mind-sets are slowly shifting. If Mexico’s president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who goes by the nickname Amlo, manages to abolish corruption as he has promised to do, civic finances will balance out and efforts to care for vaquita will find better footing.
As the story progresses, more and more foreign interests enter this story. Sea Shepherd starts patrolling the waters, and Leonardo DiCaprio also gets involved, signing a memorandum of understanding with the Mexican president to try and turn the tide. What was the reaction of Mexicans on the ground to this kind of foreign involvement? Are we seen as sentimental, spoiled, rich Westerners who can afford unrealistic attitudes?
Since the majority of environmentalists working in the Upper Gulf are Mexican, and even Leonardo DiCaprio had the alliance of Carlos Slim, the socio-political divide does not seem to be so much between nationalists and foreigners as between fishermen and environmentalists. Fishermen who openly expressed distain for “outsiders” disrupting business meant Sea Shepherd, for sure, but they also meant scientists and conservationists from places like Mexico City, Ensenada, and La Paz. Some of the locals I spoke with or followed on Facebook did seem troubled by the amount of resources being spent on vaquita while their own human families suffered. They felt the environmentalists were not appreciating the strain and fear of their jobless circumstances. Then again, a good percentage voiced gratitude for the efforts being made to protect vaquita as a national treasure and seemed to feel part of an important crusade for their country and their community.
Related to this, the West has outsourced the production of many things to countries overseas and so many of us are far removed from the harmful impact that our desire for food and stuff has on the environment. Deforestation in the Amazon to graze livestock for hamburgers is one such long-distance connection that comes to mind. The vaquita has also suffered from the impact of shrimp trawlers. No doubt many who shed tears over the vaquita will happily gorge themselves on said shrimps without ever making the link. Do you think that globalisation has in that regard served to polarise the debate where wildlife and nature conservation is concerned?
Yes, this is a really important point. It’s easy to point fingers, but we are all complicit in the destruction of ocean life. Anyone who eats fish or shrimp caught in gillnets—or trawls, or longlines—is funding the slaughter of cetaceans and sea turtles and myriad other animals. It’s a painful truth. The root of the problem is that most of us don’t know, and don’t care to ask, where the seafood on our dinner plate came from. This is not intended to be accusatory, as I, too, am finding my way in this era of culinary disconnect. I just know the first step is to quit pretending we are bystanders.
One side of the story I found missing from your book was that of the demand for totoaba swim bladders in China. I imagine it might have been too dangerous or time-consuming (or both) to expand your investigation to China as well. How important and how feasible do you think it is to tackle the problem from that side? Without a demand for totoaba bladders, the vaquita wouldn’t face the threats of gillnets after all.
I think it’s imperative to attack the totoaba trade from the consumer side, with the goal of systematically eliminating the demand for swim bladders. As for feasibility, I’m less confident. Time and distance prevented me from effectively researching the situation in China, but from what I’ve read, the cultural, political, and economic trappings there are just as complicated as they are in Mexico. I’m pleased to know efforts are underway. It also must be said, though, that ending the totoaba trade is not a sure-fire resolution for vaquita because fishermen in the Upper Gulf traditionally use gillnets for a range of legal fish.
With the book now written, are you still involved in efforts to protect the vaquita?
Knowing what I know now, it’s unthinkable to walk away from vaquita. I was down in San Felipe last month, exchanging summer c-pods and catching up on the latest news. Everyone is nurturing the flicker of hope that Amlo will take action to save his national marine mammal by cleaning up the corruption that has stymied vaquita conservation.
NHBS’ core purpose is to support conservation. To this end, all NHBS staff members can apply for up to three days of paid time during each calendar year to spend on practical conservation projects of their choice. This month, customer services advisor Alice Mosley spent some time working at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary. Read all about her experiences below:
“Earlier this month I had the pleasure of volunteering at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary in Gweek as part of NHBS’ conservation volunteering scheme. As well as seal rescue and rehabilitation, the sanctuary has a huge focus on education of marine pollution, sustainability and how everyone can contribute to cleaning up our oceans.
The sanctuary at Gweek opened in 1975; the founders, Ken and Mary Jones had already been rescuing injured and abandoned seal pups at St Agnes for 17 years and needed a bigger site. It is nestled on the bank of the Helford River, at the entrance to the Lizard Peninsula, a Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Now owned by the charity The Sea Life Trust, the sanctuary focuses on the rescue and rehabilitation of seals from all over the UK. On average, 60-70 pups are rescued each winter but the last year saw over 80 successful rescues. It costs around £2000 to rehabilitate each seal pup, so you know exactly where your donations are going!
The sanctuary has a fantastic rehabilitation success rate of around 98%, but some animal’s ongoing health problems or individual circumstances mean that they can never be re-released. This means that there are a number of resident seals that require care all year round. The sanctuary has also become a home for other animals and birds which have needed moving or re-homing for various reasons; it is home to nine Humboldt Penguins (conservation status: Vulnerable), four sea lions and two Asian short clawed otters (also classified as Vulnerable).
As a member of the animal care team for two weeks, most of the work I undertook was daily husbandry tasks for the animals, such as cleaning, food prep, feeding and enrichment. I was also introduced to the husbandry training that most of the resident animals undergo, which allows staff to look in the animals’ mouths, ask them to lift a flipper or tail for physical health checks, or voluntarily enter their transport cages. All training the resident animals undergo is beneficial to their overall health, while also keeping their mind active. This was particularly interesting to me as I will soon be studying both captive and wild animal behavior at University.
While it was the wrong season for rescue and rehabilitation (pup season is September to March), I learned a great deal about working in the field of animal care while at the sanctuary. I was impressed by the dedication of all the staff, and the obvious happiness and wellbeing of the resident animals. If you are in the area, or need any more reasons to visit the stunning rugged coastlines of Cornwall, I’d highly recommend a visit to the Cornish Seal Sanctuary”.
The Cornish Seal Sanctuary is located in Gweek Village in Cornwall (TR12 6UG). It is open 7 days a week (except Christmas Day) from 10am – 5pm (last admissions 4pm).