Marine wildlife – the Fishes

We recently earned our Open Water Diving certification, which allows us to explore the marine wildlife more in detail. It is the beginning of a long journey to discover the secrets of a vast space, almost 72% of our planet being water! The Ocean is producing 85% of the planet’s oxygen, which links us all directly or indirectly to it! We first learned during the course to respect the Ocean as an ecosystem, as it remains today an extremely important source of life, specifically because it is home for many of the first links in the Earth’s food supply chain, photosynthesis in plans creating oxygen in the oceans just as it does on land (estimated that plant production in oceans may be 10 times more than on land), and this initiates the process of creating organic nutrients which serve to feed more complex organisms, which in turn are fed by larger organisms, and so on… Animal waste and plant and animal decomposition complete the food cycle by replenishing the sea’s basic nutrients and starting the chain of life all over again. One of the most exciting things about exploring the underwater world is that here are less people, as my girlfriend and diving buddy answer when asked, which is true judging by the fact that the marine wildlife has not yet learned to fear us and so they don’t avoid contact with us…yet.

We will keep you posted on our journeys by the means of this blog, but first I would like to recommend an excellent new book I was reading, to learn more about the fishes, one of most diverse, misunderstood and under-appreciated (unless grilled on a plate) of the wildlife species, yet one of the most explored by humans today! Jonathan Balcombe, a life long passionate, ethologist and activist, through his book What a fish knows does and excellent job building the case on the beauty and intelligence of the fishes, their superbly adaptive features making them masters of their environment, but also on the immense pressure on their environment as well as the dangers of the ways we humans irresponsibly chase with ever evolving technology the last remaining half of once thought “unlimited” supply of food on the bottoms of the oceans, and the pain caused by the existing methods of fish exploitation today, understanding what it means to be a fish in a today’s human world! (some quotes from the book in the Facts section).

What a fish knows

Famous related quotes by Jacques Cousteau, one of the early fathers of modern day diving science (“oceanographic technician”, as he liked to refer to himself), as well as one great environmentalist and naturalist:

“From birth, man carries the weight of gravity on his shoulders. He is bolted to Earth. But man has only to sink beneath the surface and he is free”

“The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”

“The happiness of the bee and the dolphin is to exist. For man it is to know that and to wonder at it”

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one!”

Jean-Michel Cousteau: “Protect the ocean and you protect yourself!”

plastic underwater world

Above a picture from Moscow Aquarium, to help visitors visualize human impact on the Oceans and raise awareness!

Bears of South Kamchatka Sanctuary

Volcanoes, wild landscapes, thermal springs, wildlife…Kamchatka has it all! Protected from tourism until 1991 (as military area, until the year of the fall of Soviet Union), the peninsula preserved its natural beauty, to welcome now people all over the world in search for ever scarce untouched nature and its beauties! The wild space is vast, infrastructure is scarce, and its remoteness and cold weather still keep mass tourism at bay, which is all good news for preservation of the area. But the rewards are highest for few nature and wildlife lovers who make it through!

Although bears are very common (up to 15.000 bears call Kamchatka home) and they can be spotted easily outside protected areas of national parks of Kamchatka (rare thing in most countries nowadays, even if some pride themselves as symbols of wildlife), one place stand above all in terms of wildlife abundance and close encounters with bears: the South Kamchatka Sanctuary (established in 1983, recognized by UNESCO in 1996), managed by Kronotsky Federal Biosphere Nature Reserve, in very south of the peninsula, around Kuril lake and its rivers, a very rich in spawning salmons (up to 10 millions in some years, they say) lake of volcanic origins formed more than 8000 years ago (reachable by helicopter only).

Here (video) watching a young mother bear assisted by her 3 cubs (only few months old) trying to catch a fish (a race against time to accumulate enough fat during short summer to assure family survival during the long winter), from distance of few meters, can trigger our compassion and understanding for this remarkably intelligent and powerful species and its natural right to survive and thrive in its unspoiled environment! When she left her cubs waiting on the shore feeding from first salmon she caught, in close proximity of humans (probably she was brought in same place by her mother as a cub, learning this is safest place to trust the cubs while venturing in the water, main danger being the large male bears), I understand it is not greed driving the mother into the cold water (in fact she only picks as much fish as she and her family can eat), but necessity and a powerful maternal instinct, well known among people as well (here empathy kicks in)! Various bears have different techniques of catching fish, and while some are even diving, our mother seems to explore a wide range of tactics, not affording wasting much energy. She seems to anticipate well the move of the fish and she uses the environment to launch the quickest and most efficient attack, the most obvious signs of her intelligence! In these unique minutes I feel truly privileged to assist such spectacle of life, and to be trusted by a mother bear her most precious, her cubs. A mutual trust is then slowly building (now from humans side as well) and all seems so natural, man and bear accepting each other’s presence, in peaceful coexistence! (To note this moment was possible only because hunting has been forbidden here for long time, so bears learned over generations that this place is safe, not minding the human presence).

Unfortunately, we find here the same economic model as anywhere in the world, which puts pressure on its resources, and Kamchatka is no different. For now the governments (local and central) try to make everyone happy: the regular tourists/naturalists as well as the trophy hunters. The helicopter operators are happy to offer their services to both groups (not in same cargo), but while tourism is more seasonal, the bear hunting season is open here almost all year long (exceptions in June during short reproduction season and in Feb, when mothers give birth in dens). To this adds uncontrolled poaching (for both bears and salmons), which even if I didn’t observe myself any signs during the short visit, I am sure it is a reality here as well…

How long will then Kamchatka’s bears hang on? We can always make a difference and tip the balance favorably for the bears, by deciding to visit the place! The forces of economy then will dictate priorities for the local government, and this wild place and its bears will be protected for generations to come! I will always be available to inform of details of such trip, let me know!

More professional pictures here, enjoy!

Bear Kingdom – Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula

Home of the Great Classics of XIX century (Tolstoy, Dostoevsky,…), but also to one of the greatest wildlife diversities in the world, Russia is the right place to combine a culture rich vacation and to explore wild untamed nature! Russia scores higher in terms of official wildlife conservation as well, not only through land surface allocated but for the approach itself, for example whereas first National Parks in U.S. where created on behalf of humans for their relaxation, in Russia special national parks (zapovednik) were created specially on behalf of wildlife, to be protected from human presence, and to keep the nature and its processes unspoiled! There is no other country in the world where, an iconic species, the brown bear, is not only found in healthy numbers across its vast territory, but also takes a special place in the heart of the Russian people, in its culture and folklore!

Знаменосцы стран-участниц XXII летних Олимпийских игр   Moscow painting
Misha, 1980 Olympics mascot in Moscow…also the place to start our journey, visiting museums while buying our time for Kamchatka flight, on the 12th of August 2018.

Follow us for the next weeks as we are about to explore nature at its best, in Russia’s  Kamchatka peninsula, one of the few true wildernesses left, home of biggest density of brown bears in the world, of not less than 29 active volcanoes, the spawning ground for about 8 Mil sockeye salmons (or 25% of its wild population), as we are about to explore this natural paradise, in the steps of famous naturalist Charlie Russell (blog here), who chose this place and dedicated big part of its life to reconcile the complicated relationship, across the world, between people and bears, breaking the myths of bears ferocity and impossibility of people and bears to peacefully coexist! This is a long battle far from won, as Charles Russell was about to discover (his letter “A Sad Update“), not only because of people fear, but also because of economic reasons (government allowing legal trophy hunting, for profit) and poaching (to satisfy a huge demand coming from China for bear bladder), and Kamchatka hasn’t been spared, as Charlie discovered in one of his returns to the peninsula, he finds more than 70 wild bears killed just for their bladders, including a generation of orphan bear cubs which he raised and educated to return to the wild! (more in the documentaries videos at end of this article)

But despite these set-backs, there is still hope in few places where bears still exist, and we need to make sure Charlie’s work has not been done in vain. “Most people fear bears because of a perpetual misunderstanding,” he says, “and bears fear people because of the mistreatment [they] receive due to this misunderstanding.” Same as in novels of the great Russian classics, which when reading one identifies himself with its characters, spending countless hours engaging with them – feeling from within what it is like to be someone else and seeing the world from the perspective of a different social class, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, moral understanding, or other features that define and differentiate human experience, same way, the naturalists need to live and show the bears’ life facts to the world, teach people the bears (and other species) perspective of the world, their wonderful inner nature, and what they can teach us and how we can co-exist. In novels or in the trips in nature, by living a character’s life or stepping in bears’ tracks and watching them in their natural world, you not only feel what they feel, but also reflect on those feelings, consider the character of the actions to which they lead, and, with practice, acquire the wisdom to appreciate real people or wildlife in all their initially miss-understood complexity! 

I start this trip with great hope that Russian people, who know better than many other nations what suffering and misunderstanding mean, as they lived through their recent history, they acquired the empathy and wisdom to understand the value of life (even of other species like the iconic brown bear), the role of bears in ecosystem (not only in folklore) and the value of unspoiled wilderness, to allow, support and cherry their continuous existence (where shamefully other nations already failed)!

Kamchatka map Kamchatka mapNext stop: Kamchatka peninsula, 13th of August 2018

To continue…

Few sources to learn more about Charlie’s work and about Kamchatka and its bears:

Did you know that…

the current airplane design has been inspired in early years from…wild birds?

And birds still continue to inspire aircraft design, as NASA (article here) or major airplane producers look to make flights more efficient? One example, as per Biomimeticsummit, sea birds have the ability to sense gust loads in the air with their beaks and react by adjusting the shape of their wing feathers to suppress lift. The nose of the new Airbus A350XWB contains probes which can detect gusts and deploy movable wing surfaces for more efficient flight. This helps reduce fuel consumption and emissions. 

Many more ongoing examples here, however it may started as early as Leonardo da Vinci who researched the wing design of birds and designed a man-powered aircraft in his Codex on the Flight of Birds (1502), which begins with an examination of the flight behavior of birds and proposes mechanisms for flight by machines. In year 2018, we cannot conceive our current or future world without airplanes, as per flightradar24.com, a new record of number of flights is recorded all too often, last one I know counted more than 19.000 airplanes flying in same time as of 1st of July 2018, and a total number of 202.157 were flying that day (actually this record may have been already beaten)!

airplane

But let’s have a look how did we reward our mentors? As per BIP (The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership), the Wild Bird Index (WBI) is the average trend in relative abundance of a group of bird species during the breeding season, often grouped by their association and dependence on a particular habitat. It is particularly suited to tracking trends in the condition of habitats through obligate or specialist species. Birds are recognized as good indicators of environmental change and as useful proxies of wider changes in nature. The Wild Bird Index measures average population trends of a suite of representative wild birds as an indicator of the general health of the environment.

Below graph, as well as other sources (at the end of the article), shows an accelerated decline in number of wild birds, some as low as 60%! The most recent stabilization shown I believe is temporary, as human global population is poised to reach 10 bn, pressure on environment is tremendous! Among reasons for birds population drop is destruction of habitat, loss of nesting sites, pollution of their feeding grounds, pesticides and herbicides used in agriculture that impacts their main food source – the insects, and the climate change and intensive urbanization and industrialization of the agriculture.

WBI

To be reminded, the disappearance of a population, subspecies, or species represents the permanent loss of a range of genes.

seagull

Needless to say, it doesn’t have to be like this! I hope it is not too late for these masters of the skies, and they can withstand the recent turbulence created by humankind, while we try to regain our wisdom and learn how to live in harmony with nature and its wonderful species, from which we continue to learn!

Other sources:

EUROSTAT

BioOne

The Biodiversity Indicators Partnership

Trade of Wildlife

TRAFFIC, the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network, is the leading non-governmental organization working globally on the trade of wild animals and plants in the context of both biodiversity and sustainable development. As per their definition, “Wildlife trade is any sale or exchange of wild animal and plant resources by people. This can involve live animals and plants or a diverse range of products needed or prized by humans—including skins, medicinal ingredients, tourist curios, timber, fish and other food products”.

As per their data as well as other official sources ,illegal wildlife trade is widespread and constitutes one of the major illegal economic activities, comparable to the traffic of drugs and weapons. In the early 1990s, crimes against wildlife were rampant in certain parts of the United States, and poaching may have equaled or exceeded the number of animals hunted legally (report). In other parts of the world, things get even worse, with entire trans-national supply chains and organized crime behind, from the field poachers to white collar intermediaries and further to consumers, trading the rare species (dead or alive) from wilderness on various continents to insatiable consumer markets in Asia, mainly China and Vietnam. The best known are the notorious ivory trade (with long history of various consumer countries introducing import-bans, sometimes removing them – as in case of relaxation of legislation in debate during Trump administration, or producer countries as Kenya/Tanzania burning the confiscated stocks) and rhino-horns trade, also mentioned in Misha Glenny‘s Mc Mafia book, notes @Facts.

In the zone I am more familiar with, Eastern Europe, I could say, with minimum risk of generalizing, that every person with a legal license for hunting has been at least once in his lifetime a poacher. And not only persons having a gun, but also the ones setting snares in the forest, that trap wildlife for consumption, their own, their families and friends, and even for small scale skin trade on local markets (unless a more influencing middlemen is involved, that can have cross-border connections to reach foreign customers). The profile of a such an opportunistic poacher in the region is of a man (18-70 years old), poor by local economic standards, with minimum education and no stable income, living at periphery of a forest (striking similarity with Frederic Rouge’s painting, dating couple of hundreds years ago, proving some people and practices may not have changed much meanwhile).

Le_braconnier_par_Frédéric_Rouge      The Poacher by Frédéric Rouge

Legal wildlife trade is regulated by the United Nations’ Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which currently has 183 member countries called Parties, and protects species listed under Appendix I threatened with extinction, with commercial trade in wild-caught specimens, or products derived from them, being prohibited. This rule applies to all species threatened with extinction, except in exceptional circumstances (and also explains what we have learned at Sigean, that they no longer host elephants in the park because they cannot import anymore).

TRAFFIC data:

From 2005 – 2009 the legal trade corresponded with these numbers:

  • 317,000 live birds
  • More than 2 million live reptiles
  • 2.5 million crocodile skins
  • 2.1 million snake skins
  • 73 tons of caviar
  • 1.1 million beaver skins
  • Millions of pieces of coral
  • 20,000 mammalian hunting trophies

In the 1990s the annual trade of legal animal products was $160 billion annually. In 2009 the estimated value almost doubled to $300 billion. This is a huge industry by any standard, and painful to see the scale of it and the trend evolution (even knowing that any ban, as in case of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes would just boost the black market)!

The way I see it, legal or illegal, there is no morality, or justification for exploiting other fellow species with which we are share the planet, to obtain material profit (remember less than 200 years ago, during mercantile capitalism times, even trade with human beings and slavery were considered acceptable and even encouraged for economic benefit of land lords and aristocrats, being practiced for over 250 years). Various parties are sharing the blame, with consumers at top. But once again, the main blame I assign to the current unsustainable economic system, which from birth encourages consumption, competition for resources, accumulation of wealth and prestige, and inequality among people. This, coupled with human nature, craving to have more and to sit above its peers, is a formula for disaster. Ignore this affirmation as you wish, especially the ones happy with current status quo, but in the end it will impact you, one way or the other, if we don’t start paying attention to environment, to its wildlife, and to our own consumption habits! Empathy, responsibility, accountability, conscience and compassion (for all around us, not only for yourself and peers) should define all society, not ease and oneself material interest, social status and power!

Wildlife parts, confiscated from smugglers or tourists, at display in Warsaw International Airport.

The European bison of Białowieża Forest, Poland – part 2

We returned to Białowieża National Park in June 2018, after almost 5 years (2013 first trip) to track the mighty King of the Polish Nordic forests, the European bison! But we couldn’t help noticing some of the accelerated impact the globalization and climate change had on the forest, here to share with you.

Firstly, in the 84% of the semi-protected area took place heavy wood exploitation, on the grounds of a local culprit, a little insect whose larvae are raised under bark of a single type of tree, which due to recent warmer drier summer, it could reproduce 5 times instead of regular 3 yearly cycles, and authorities responded with license to cut all these type of trees (even if the areas are mono-culture type of forests, there surely is impact on wildlife, as it uses the forest for shelter). But government didn’t miss the chance to make some money, even here, the most famous natural reserve in this part of Europe, and even if only an insignificant dot on the map of Poland!

Secondly, weather pattern become atypical here in last 5 years, our guides showed us many places in forecast which used to have permanent water (as the one below), but they dried out, again with impact on wildlife behavior, pushing their survival skills further to limit!

drout

Thirdly, following a threat of a type of swine flu originating from Cameroon, Africa, authorities decided to kill all wild boars (sick or healthy), including in the 16% strictly protected primeval forest (UNESCO site)! This type of flu is indeed deadly for pigs, wild or domestic, and unless mutated, it doesn’t impact any type of animals, including man. But reason for killing the wild boars was the easy way to protect economic reasons of industrial farms, a risk if growing such huge number of animals for consumption, in crowded spaces! ( to read Why being vegetarian is good for you, for the planet and its wildlife and Impact of today’s industrialized agriculture on Wildlife). Poor wild-boars!

wildboar Bialowieza

However, we spent a fabulous week searching for the famous European bison, including guided night tours , spotting many wildlife, and many bison tracks as well as other tracks (including wolves, and this is very good sign, as presence of top predator assures the sustainability of this ecosystem), but still no bison visible. With each day passing we became more ambitious in our goal, determined to see one of the 650 bison living in this side of the forest, on Polish side of the border!

In the end, we did spot the King, just before getting dark, after 9 pm local time, in the last day of our staying, even if for less than a minute as he was changing residence from a nearby forest to next one, but having to step in the open field in the meantime. A magnificent moment that cannot be described in words, a real privilege and a relief to see this wonderful animal alive and free (semi-free actually, due to dependence on winter feeding grounds, to avoid a natural migration of the heard), knowing that all living European bison today are grandsons and granddaughters of a small heard of only 7 individuals!

zubr 2

Hope also for more places as Białowieża forests to be protected, as the model proves perfectly sustainable for communities and acceptable for wildlife (preferable to closed zoo model), there is a big local community leaving from tourism in the area (around 200 K tourists per year) and great place to learn about wildlife (there is also a famous university, which wrote an excellent book The art of tracking animals! Enjoy your visit!

P.S. In the meantime, Polish national team’s trainer claims among other reasons the hot climate that his team had to face during its game with Colombia where they lost 3 – 0 during 2018 Football championship in Russia (another Nordic country facing warmer than ever climate)…Not sure here what to believe, if this can be counted as a reason 🙂

Réserve Africaine de Sigean, a different type of ZOO

Accommodating some 3800 animals from more than 160 species, on a surface of about 300 hectares, Sigean (Aude, south of France, close to Spanish border) is a different type of zoo, where you can drive through the large enclosures, or you can walk outside others, in total covering at least half a day and in our case almost 14.000 steps ( www address here ).

new-logo-sigean

A very educational visit we recommend, animals being organized as they would be in the wild, with larger space to move than in a regular standard zoo, and no notice of stress behavior displayed during the one day trip we had. Also we enjoyed the educational sessions over various animals organized by the zoo, where we were pleased to notice children were particularly interested and they were asking many questions about their favorite wild animals. Enjoy the few photos we took, before you organize your own visit!

 

For more pictures, pls browse through the TripAdvisor page here ! Enjoy!