Tuesday, 21 December 2004

Plans To Turn The Isle Of Lewis, Scotland, Into The Biggest Wind Farm In The World

One of WLT's supporters, Deborah Kilner, asked for the following to be circulated as widely as possible:

Lewis Wind Power, aka AMEC & British Energy, recently submitted an application for the world's largest wind farm which will be built mostly on the Lewis Peatlands on the Isle of Lewis, Western Isles.

The application is for 234 turbines at a height of 140 metres (about the same height as a 40 storey building) and which will be visible for anything up to 30 miles and over. In addition to the turbines, 210 pylons will be erected and 104 miles of access roads built across active peat bog.

In order to facilitate such a monumental building plan, quarries will be constructed as well as concrete batching plants. The building phase is likely to last four years and the main and only road from Barvas to Ness will be used on a daily basis by HGV vehicles - many of the Lewis roads are built straight onto peat and are currently in poor condition.

There are many issues, including environmental and cultural, to be considered with this proposal and these are as follows:

The Site Itself - Peatlands

"Active peatlands act as both carbon sink and store and have an important role in regulating climate change. Wetlands, including bogs, store over three times as much carbon for a given area as tropical rainforest. When peatlands are disturbed, CO2 is returned to atmosphere. The ecological value of peatland is recognised internationally and there is strong guidance towards preserving and restoring bogs."

(Extracted from www.mwtlewis.org.uk where you can gain more information about the proposals).

The Lewis Peatlands have several international site designations - as a RAMSAR (Wetlands of International Importance), SPA (Special Protection Area - the Birds Directive), SAC (Special Area of Conservation - the Habitats Directive) and an IBA (Important Bird Area - the Berne Convention), in addition to SSSIs.

Birds At Risk

Golden Eagles, Golden Plovers and Divers are identified by the EU's Berne Convention as being at risk from turbines. Also present in large numbers are gannets, shags, herons, geese, swans and White-tailed Sea Eagles.

20% of Scotland's eagle population currently reside in the Isle of Lewis - but for how much longer?


The Western Isles is heavily dependent on tourism for income and currently circa 180,000 tourists visit the islands every year - how many of these people will continue to visit once the island has been turned into a wind factory is debatable.

The People

The majority of the community, where this wind farm is planned, do not want this huge scheme to go ahead and are currently fighting AMEC/British Energy, their own Council and their MPs.

It is ironic that recently the Mendip Hills faced the possibility of ONE wind turbine being erected - public outrage ensued and the application was turned down.

A community group called Moorland without Turbines is currently fighting not only the Lewis Wind Farm, but planning applications for Eishken and Pairc which, if approval was given, would mean that there would be over 500 wind turbines covering a very small island.

If you are interested or concerned about these plans, please visit www.mwtlewis.org.uk where you will find more information.

Deborah Kilner

Monday, 20 December 2004

Tiger Conservation misses out on large donation

One of the great innovations of the last few years has been the Public Library of Science (PLOS) an on-line, Internet publication, of peer-reviewed scientific papers. A brilliant concept, giving ready access to a wide range of scientists, all over the world. The latest edition of the Biology section has an interesting paper on the classification of tigers authored by 22 scientists, using DNA analysis of living and dead specimens of tigers from all over their range. Interestingly, the analysis confirmed that most of the subspecies described in the past, are actually reflected in the DNA of the animals studied, and the DNA also suggested that another subspecies, not previously described, should be recognised from Malaya.

But what a missed opportunity. The scientists decided to name the subspecies Panthera tigris jacksoni in honour of Peter Jackson, the former chairman of the IUCN/SSC Cat Specialist Group. An excellent choice, as few people have done more in the cause of conservation or tigers. But what a waste, as I am sure Peter would agree. Just think how much money could have been raised if the name had been auctioned. Someone may well have paid several thousands of dollars to have the honour of a tiger subspecies being named after them.

For many years now I have been trying to persuade scientists naming new species of animals to put the names up for auction and use the money for conserving endangered species. But there is a vogue for naming new species after fellow scientists, or after a geographical feature where the species is found. And many scientists seem to think this is the 'right' way of doing it, and it is wrong to use naming as a form of patronage. Of course this is not true – from the beginning of scientific nomenclature, whim came into it. Linnaeus – the great Swede who started it all -- named attractive flowers after his friends, his favourite plant after himself, and a few weeds after people he didn't like. Wealthy patrons of scientific collecting, such as Lord Rothschild ended up having numerous species named after them, as did the kings, queens and princes of Europe – most of whom seemed to have 'acquired' birds of paradise during the 19th century. And numerous naturalists named species after their wives and girlfriends. So what more fitting way of commemorating a substantial donation to conservation, than to name a new subspecies after the person who gives the most money? The only time I can recall this happening was in the case of the Lower Keys subspecies of the Cottontail Rabbit Sylvilagus palustris hefneri –named after Hugh Hefner, the owner of the Playboy Clubs and Bunnygirls.

If any taxonomist reads this and wants to try auctioning a name, to aid conservation, I would be pleased to assist. Obviously the bigger and prettier the animal or plant, the more likely it is to raise money. It might even raise enough money to buy a whole nature reserve -- what better commemoration of a donation. Esso could surely have afforded a few hundred thousand dollars to have it named Panthera tigris essoi -- a royalty on the image of the tiger that has successfully promoted their worldwide sales and enough to buy a reserve to conserve it.

Tuesday, 14 December 2004

The ticking population time bomb

While travelling recently I switched on the hotel TV for the news and watched an interview with a few of this year's Nobel Prize Laureates. Among them was the winner of the prize for economics. What astounded me was the level of environmental ignorance of such an apparently distinguished personage. An American, he upheld the free market of world economics, and when asked what would happen in a world with an aging population, he blithely stated that we would all carry on working, and implied that we would all continue to aspire to higher living standards and quality of life. Absolutely no mention of resources, and resource depletion, and no mention of what would happen if a fraction of the rest of the world were to aspire to similar resource use as is found in North America.

It is truly depressing to realise that there are so many people, including a significant number of world leaders, who do not seem the least bit interested in the impact that the burgeoning world population is going to have on the world's non-renewable resources. All we get is knee-jerk reactions to crises in Africa -- rushing medical supplies and food to refugees. Never really bothering to solve the underlying problems of what causes the refugees in the first place, and certainly not thinking about what happens when all those refugees grow up and have families of their own.

Politicians seem more intent on creating scares about terrorists, than solving the problems that will really affect large numbers of people. Terrible though the events of 9/11 were, they pale into insignificance, when we contemplate the impact of pandemics of 'flu, or the death toll that could occur next time there is an earthquake like the 1908 Messina earthquake. Should volcanic eruption of the scale of that of Tambora occur, the crop failures worldwide would lead to massive famines, and starvation would probably occur even in the developed world. As was said many, many years ago: The fuse of the population bomb was lit a long time ago, it cannot be put out, and it is now a matter of when it explodes, not if it will explode.

Thursday, 9 December 2004

Another two and a half million acres of rainforest lost

I was invited recently to go to the World Conservation Congress being held in Bangkok. I was invited to give a presentation on my work on the archives relating to conservation (an interest I regard as quite distinct from actual conservation -- a sort of armchair pursuit for the long winter evenings) I declined, mostly because I thought it would be an inappropriate use of conservation funds). And also my understanding was there would be about 3,500 people there, so the chances of meeting up with the right ones was fairly small. Imagine my horror when I was told there were nearer 6000 people present. How all these people justify traveling to a conservation congress is hard to imagine.

Back in 1975 I went to my first IUCN conference, held in Zaire, and there must have been about 700 people present, and at that one I recall several of us sitting in the bar one evening trying to cost the conference -- numbers of days, cost of airfares etc, plus the environmental impact of flying all the delegates around the world.

I would suggest that we can take the average cost of a delegate attending a conference as being $10,000. This is almost certainly on the low side, particularly if the opportunity costs are taken into account, bearing in mind that there are numerous consulants and senior governmental representatives earning well in excess of $100,000 a year. So even on such conservative estimates, and without the costs to the host country such a congress costs $60million. And with $60million, it would be very easy to buy at least 2.5 million acres (over 1million ha) of wilderness in some of the most threatened areas of the world. And that does not take into account the environmental impact of thousands of airmiles...

It's not as simple as all the above sounds. No doubt important things will emerge from the Congress. But I still cannot help feeling that there was a lot of hot air in all respects, and several thousand of the delegates would have done more good to the environment if they had stayed at home.

Monday, 29 November 2004

More Hot air for the wind farm debate

According to an article I picked up in the internet
"...renewable energy specialist Bryony Worthington of pressure group Friends of the Earth countered that the climate crisis was now so grave that birds had to take second place to saving the planet."

This seems anexceptionally bizarre position from an organisation who's director, Tony Juniper, is a well-known and internationally respected ornithologist.

Bryony Worthington may well be a "renewable energy specialist", but that does not give her the right to condemn thousands of birds and bats to death. And I somehow doubt she's that well informed on the mortalities caused by wind turbines. Nor does it make renewable energy a solution to the climate crisis. Anyone who has been around for a decade or more following conservation issues, will realise that the linkage of climate change to non-renewable energy is simplistic to the point of naivety. No the real problem is that of burgeoning human populations, mostly aspiring to US standards of living and resource consumption. And those aspirations are fuelled not only by international communications, but also by the imperial aspirations of the US itself, imposing its version of 'democracy' on the rest of the world.

The issue that most energy conservationists, and renewable energy advocates, have failed to address is nothing to do with energy, per se, but to do with wealth. Saving energy, saves money, so what do the already wealthy do with that surplus wealth? The answer is, of course, they normally spend it on something that uses even more energy, such as international travel. Even the majority of FoE supporters are not of the dark-green, hair-shirted variety; they/we are all energy consumers on a grand scale. The only way of conserving energy, and preventing this vicious cycle, is to dramatically increase the price of energy - which of course, in the US style free-market economies, dominated by cheap energy, is impossible. With air fuel virtually untaxed, cheap airlines flourish, and it becomes economic to import luxury goods from countries with high levels of pollution, and poor health and safety records. But that's what the free market is all about. We have chosen that route, through our democratically elected governments ......

Many years ago I worked as Friends of the Earth's Wildlife Consultant, and one of my first tasks was to research some of the scientific data relating to commercial whaling. It was widely known that one of the reasons that whales were heading towards extinction was that it did not make economic sense to conserve them, if whaling was being operated in a free market economy. In fact it rarely, if ever makes sense to practice conservation of finite natural resources if you are an investor. No; it is better to exploit the resource as fast as possible, maximise your profits, then sell up and use the profits to invest in something else. Ideally getting out of one industry, at the time when the technology and other capital equipment is becoming obsolete.

The British coal industry, forestry, fisheries and many other resource-based industries illustrate this model. Of course, renewable energy is a good thing. But the problem is actually not so much to do with whether or not it is renewable, but the fact it is too cheap. However much energy is produced, whether renewable or not, while it is cheap, we will all use too much - and that is the real problem. And the other problem, which for the past two decades, has been swept further and further under the carpet, is the human population of the world. It is out of control, and it is only when (when, not if) catastrophic distaster hits, that this issue will be resolved. This is the real crisis.

Wednesday, 17 November 2004

Depression over Paraguay

After visiting Patagonia in October, I had been invited by the World Land Trust partners in Paraguay (Guyra) to stop over on my way back so that they could show me something of the work they were doing. Asuncion is very much on the way home from Buenos Aires, and it was an ideal opportunity, and despite only being there for two days, they were able to pack in a remarkable amount. First stop was the HQ of Guyra, and there it was immediately apparent that we were working with a small but dynamic organisation.

Guyra is a very similar sized organisation to the World Land Trust, and although known mostly as a bird conservation organisation, has a much broader remit. While visiting their offices it was very good to see the books that the WLT's Books for Conservation programme supplied, in a very prominent place, forming the core of their library. The staff were very enthusiastic, and told me the books had made a real difference, since they are virtually impossible to obtain in Paraguay.

After a dawn start the following day (a visit to the local marshes for birdwatching), we made our way to the airport, where we took off for San Raphael in a four seater plane. The purpose was to photograph the forests from the air, to monitor the rates of clearance. San Raphael is the largest remnant of the Atlantic Rainforest in Paraguay. This once extensive outlier of the Atlantic Rainforest is now seriously fragmented, with much of it gone in Brazil, and now broken into disconnected fragments in Paraguay; the only large tracts survive across the border in the Missiones Province of Argentina.

The wildlife of Paraguay is interesting, and also a first rate example of how misleading measures of endemism can be for making decisions on conservation priorities. Paraguay has relatively few endemics -- probably no endemic birds for example. But that is almost entirely because of the way political boundaries have been drawn. If the habitats are considered, or more relevantly the biogeographical regions, then it is apparent that Paraguay is at the cross-roads of several very important biogeographical regions. This makes it a very good place to go and see a huge range of species.

One area I did not have a chance to see was northern Paraguay. Here chaco meets the Pantanal, and the huge areas of grasslands and wetlands include some of the best places for seeing Jaguars. It is a remote part of the world, much of it still largely unexplored, and there are believed to be groups of Guarani Indians living there who have never been in contact with the outside world. How long this isolation will prevail is anyone's guess, but it's good to know that such places still exist.

But back to my title: depression over Paraguay. It was as we flew over the Atlantic Rainforests of San Raphael, that this became apparent, clear lines showed where the forest was protected. smoldering fires were burning, and agriculture bounded the forest everywhere. It was an image of pressure, as if agriculture was gnawing at the perimeter of the forest.

Birding with Bill Oddie

To any regular readers of this blog, first an apology for the silence over the past few weeks. Life has been hectic, starting with a visit to our projects in Belize, and then a trip to Patagonia.

Despite what some may think, travel on conservation business is rarely as glamorous as it sounds -- meetings, looking at accounts, planning strategies are often simply hard work, in an office. Nonetheless, I do try and see some of the wildlife. But Patagonia was different. This time my sole function (apart from the Annual General Meeting of the Reserve) was to make sure Bill Oddie and the BBC crew saw everything they wanted to. In other words I had to get out in the field and find wildlife. Bill was making a special one-off film on the wildlife of Patagonia (for transmission just after Christmas) and we (FundaciĆ³n Patagonia Natural and the World Land Trust) were providing all the facilities. It meant we were able to redecorate the Estancia buildings, so that even though they are far from luxury accommodation, they are adequate for the really keen visitor to stay in.

The Estancia La Esperanza delivered everything we promised -- and a bit more. Bill was able to see plenty of Guanaco, lots of Mara, wild Guinea Pigs, Armadillo and much more. There were plenty of birds, including Gull-billed Terns, which appear to be the first records for Patagonia -- and they were recorded on video. In fact we added six species of birds to the Estancia's list.

After a few days on the Estancia, I left Bill and the BBC team, to visit another NGO, in Paraguay (more of that another time), while they all went to the Valdes Peninsula. They were off to film the Elephant Seals, and go whale watching. The last time I had been involved in filming there was when David Bellamy came down, and on the last day, I left him on the Peninsula, and at the very moment I was flying to Buenos Aires, he was on the beach watching the famous Killer Whales, running up the beach to catch seal pups. This time I was again en route to Buenos Aires, when, according to Stephen Moss the producer, Bill was heard musing as he walked along the beach -- something along the lines of how much he'd like to see the Killer Whales coming for the seal pups, but how he'd really want the seal pup to escape. Then a few minutes later, it actually happened. The Killer Whale appeared, grabbed a pup, tossed it into the air, and the pup escaped, and ran up the beach, apparently unharmed.

I can't wait to see the film . And Bill's infectious enthusiasm will surely stimulate more people to experience Patagonia's stunning wildlife.

Monday, 11 October 2004

The Lottery lottery

The whole county of Suffolk, which is where the World Land Trust is based, if it was worth an average of £2,500 an acre, (which even excluding building land is certainly well on the low side) would cost a little over £3 billion to buy. Yet if the World Land Trust was to buy nature reserves of this size in the most threatened parts of the tropics, it could save a similar sized area (around a million acres) for less than £24 million.

And £24 million is what the Wildlife Trusts have received from the Heritage Lottery Fund for land purchases over the past decade. Of course they have not been able to acquire a million acres – in fact less than 100,00 acres.

I am not decrying what the Wildlife Trusts have done -- I am a long-term supporter and will continue to be so. The problem is that if we want to save biodiversity – which after all has become a byword for 21st century conservation, then we have got to put our money where our mouth is. One of the largest single sources of funding for conservation in the UK is the National Lottery, but the amount it will give to international conservation is peanuts compared to what it puts into the UK. A total of £67,500,000 to the wildlife Trusts alone in the past decade. If the World Land Trust and its partners had access to that sort of money, not only could it have acquired an area the size of the whole of Suffolk it would also have been able to establish an endowment that would have provided enough income to provide for the permanent protection of the land so acquired.

So why doesn’t the World Land Trust get funding for its work from the National Lottery? The answer is very straightforward: It simply does not fulfil the criteria established for grants. The UK’s National Lottery grants are primarily designed to help people, and mostly to help projects in the UK. The relatively few international projects are nearly all geared to short-term, poverty alleviation and health care. A cynic could argue that many of the projects are actually exacerbating the problems of wildlife, since dealing with these human issues in isolation, and not taking into account the long-term problems of expanding human populations, is bound to have a disastrous effect on natural habitats and wildlife. The Lottery has given a little over £150 million to international causes out of a total of £16 billion distributed. – ie. Just over 0.1% goes to international causes. Of course the argument is that the money raised comes from British lottery players. And while this is true, it is also true that the wealth generated in Britain is often created by exploiting the very parts of the world which are most at risk from environmental degradation. In bald terms, it is a fact that much of the wealth of Britain is directly dependent on cheap resources from overseas, and on selling at vast profit to poorer nations things they do not need, such as tanks, fighter planes and other armaments, as well as loans at extortionate interest rates to buy these arms. It is time that priorities were rethought, if a commitment to so-called biodiversity conservation is to mean anything. There is little point in spending millions of pounds conserving a handful of species in Britain, if meanwhile we are allowing tens of thousands to become extinct, which could have been saved at a fraction of the cost.

Thursday, 30 September 2004

The Trojans (Les Troyens) and wildlife?

Last weekI went to see the English National Opera company's production of Berlioz's The Trojans. It was a rare performance of the complete work, and by now I am sure you are wondering 'What on earth has a five and a half hour opera, got to do with conservation?' Read on, and you may find out.

The opera was performed impeccably -- the orchestra was superb, and there was magnificent singing. The hours slipped by. But what a production. A 'modern' reinterpretation. The characters were all in some sort of contemporary, or late 20th century, dress, which all looked a bit daft when they were singing about clashing armour, running around in the Royal Hunt with spears, the bloody ghost of Hector looming, and various naiads etc flitting around. And there was a hell of a lot of meaningless running about. Berlioz was a man who not only understood orchestration better than almost anyone before or since, he was also someone obsessed with theatricality. Consequently, although his operas are often accused of being rather static, there is absolutely no doubt he knew what he was doing. The oratorio-like narratives, combined with magnificent choruses, are interspersed with dramatic movement -- marches, and dance scenes -- giving a great sense of drama. Some of his 'stage' works are so static as to be often described as unperformable on stage. So when somone has the cast rushing around all the time, it rather destroys his original dramatic intent. Similarly, while some operas and plays tell timeless stories in a way that can transcend the period they were written in and for, The Trojans is a story so clearly rooted in history, that to have a bunch of modern day Greeks trudging round with boxes of household gods, and nuclear warheads is all a bit over the top, if not daft. The Trojans was designed by Berlioz to be an operatic spectacle, lavish costumes and all -- not trainers and shell-suits.

And this is the problem that seems to beset so much of humanknind. They cannot leave well alone. Wildlife is wonderful, but all too often we see it over-interpreted. Humans stamping their influence on a nature reserve -- 'improving' habitats. Deliberately removing certain species because they are 'exotic' and deliberately introducing others because they are 'native'. Of course there is often justification. Just as there is in opera. There would be little justification for going back to gaslight, and there is no reason to completely fossilise a production, but just as the performance of the music is usually to a certain extent sacrosanct, so should the composers intentions for the whole experience be treated with respect. And this concept should be applied to wildlife. Leave it as untouched as possible, and let the viewer make their own assessments. Interpretation is only a fashion, only ephemeral and temporal -- and generally speaking best left out of wildlife. Nature is best when totally untrammelled and untouched by humans -- if you want to see something artificial and man made -- then there is no substitute for opera -- which is probably why I enjoy it, it's such a contrast.

Monday, 27 September 2004

Latest news from Belize

Today, I returned from a flying visit to Belize -- in part literally flying, since we flew over the Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area (RBCMA) -- the land owned and protected by the Programme for Belize, the WLT's local partner. The WLT was responsible for raising a large part of the $6.7 million originally needed to save the forests, and flying over them now, they looked in good shape. However the same could not be said for other parts of Belize.
Cleared forest in Belize
The edge of the world - forest clearance goes right to the edge of the protected areas of Belize.

A great deal of publicity has been given to the construction of the Chalillo Dam, which will destroy some 1000 hectares of forest, and there has been a massive amount of mangrove cleared around Belize City. But I also flew over an area of forest adjacent to the Guatemalan border, an area of about 10,000ha, which was sold to Menonnite farmers about five years ago, and that is now almost totally destroyed.

Little by little the Menonnite farmers have been buying up Belize, and while most would agree that they are very good farmers, they also appear to have an almost pathological hatred of trees. And although some Menonnites eschew modern machinery and ride around in a horse and buggy, wearing traditional clothes, many of those in Belize use big machinery, that is capable of clearing forest and turning into productive farmland within 2-3 years.

Although superficially living outside the modern world, pacifists, without TV etc etc, the reality on the ground in Belize, is that these farmers are destroying some of the last remaining forests in Northern Belize, and whenever forest comes on the market, they are among those who have the cash to buy it. This is particularly alarming as Belize has recently introduced a 'Speculation Tax' on land holdings of over 300 acres. In theory a very fair and equitable type of tax, to prevent wealthy landowners holding on to large areas for purely speculative purposes. But a negative effect is that large areas of forest are likely to be broken up, and sold off in small parcels, which almost certainly mean they will be cleared for agriculture and short-term gain -- and the most likly buyers are Menonnites, who will avoid the speculation tax, by 'developing the land' i.e., chopping down the trees, and planting crops.

It is no good suggesting that the Government should step in -- Belize has one of the highest proportions of land under some form of government protection of any country in the world -- it is unrealistic for it to be expected to buy land on the open market.

It is equally unrealistic for conservationists to expect to be able to buy land and simply lock it away as 'protected'. Conservation, if it is to play a part in the future development of Belize must not only produce sustainable incomes, but it must also be seen to be benefitting the people of Belize as a whole. This was always the original aim of the Programme for Belize, and conservationists can play their role, by supporting those efforts -- go to Belize, stay at the RBCMA, travel around, go snorkelling on the reef.

Tourist dollars (and pounds and euros) are the best way of demonstrating to the people of Belize, that the wildlife they value, is also valued by the rest of the world. Otherwise, the Menonnites will soon isolate more and more of the remaining forests in northern Belize.

Thursday, 2 September 2004

Is the Jaguar endangered or not?

Although the IUCN lists the Jaguar as NT (=near threatened), throughout its range it appears to be endangered, and it is difficult to understand how this classification was arrived at. Almost every country, province or other administrative unit in its range that has produced a Red Data Book or a Red List, includes the Jaguar as Endangered, and in a few cases it is listed as extinct. And earlier editions of the IUCN Red lists included it as threatened. Since there is little or no evidence that the species is getting any commoner (except in a few places such as Belize), it is even more difficult to understand IUCN's listing. There is little doubt among most naturalists within its range that it is seriously threatened. The same problem occurred with the African Lion, which was not listed as threatened for many years, despite disappearing from most of its range. Now when only an estimated 10,000 are left, in highly fragmented, often very small populations, is its possible extinction being considered.

Thursday, 26 August 2004

Migration of Swifts

Last night, just after 7 pm there were several hundred swifts moving west, just above the height of the trees. It was a very clear and visble movement in one direction, lasting for between 10 and 15 minutes. The weather had been wet for most off the day, but cleared up around 7 pm, and I presume the insects on which Swifts feed had been brough low by the weather. Over 40 years ago I had been an avid bird ringer in the suburbs of South london, and each year we caught and ringed several hundred Swifts over Beddington Sewage Farm. And it was then that I first became enthralled by Swifts. These amazing birds are among the world longest living (for a small bird) -- surviving for 20 years or more, and they fly to Central Africa and beyond each year. One of the birds we captured at Beddington was later killed by a boy with a catapult in the Congo. And the nestlings can go torpid during bad weather when the parents fail to bring food. And perhaps the most remarkable of all is that once the young leave the nest, they may well fly to Africa and back, not actually breeding until they are four years old, and sleeping on the wing, never settling. Remarkable birds.

Splitting hares and other species

In the last couple of decades numerous species have been 'split'. That is to say, what was once thought to be a single species has been split into several. The European Brown Hare, which was once thought to be a single species spreading all over Europe, and over most of Africa and Asia, is now believed to comprise at least three species, possibly more, in Europe, and the classification of the hares of Africa and Asia is still being worked out. In South America the situation is even more dynamic, with numerous new species of primate being separated. The reason for these new classifications is largely the advances in DNA studies, but also for some species studies of behaviour such as song and calls. Important as these studies are in demonstrating the existence of discrete populations, I do have some worries, that we are over-emphasising these differences, and that they may not actually represent separate species. Afterall what happens if, just because a bird that is virtually identical in all other respects to another species, but has a diferent song or call and is considered a separate species? Should we apply the same criteria to humans? This would mean that someone speaking a different language would become a different species. And the differences in the DNA of some of the primates, may be no greater than the extremes found in human populations. Language in humans is often a perfectly good barrier to interbreeding, particularly when combined with other cultural separators, but it still does not make the Otrthodox Greeks a separate species from the Muslim Turks. In the rush to split species, we are in danger of losing sightt of the most important factor in conservation, and that is the ecological integrity of an area. Does it matter if two allopatric populations have slightly different DNA, if either one of them will fulfill the same role in an ecosystem? There is talk of splitting the White Wagtail and the Pied Wagtail into two different species -- but if one or the other disappeared, the one remaining would fill the niche in the ecosystem perfectly well. Or am I missing something?

Tuesday, 24 August 2004

Islands for sale update

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about an island in Belize. This week I have found an island of over 2000 hectares for sale in Argentina for $580,000. That works out at around £60 an acre or $100 an acre. It is being advertised as ideal for hunting, and is situated in the middle of a river in the more tropical part of Argentina, and no doubt teeming with wildlife.

It is very frustrating, since all the time we are hearing of beautiful unspoiled pieces of land, in all parts of the world, but we lack resources to acquire them. Many of our supporters write in suggesting places, while others suggest we put pressure on governments to do something. The reality is that very often there is little or nothing governments can do -- in most poorer countries they lack the resources to protect existing parks and reserves adeqately. And in many cases the land is privately owned. The only solution is for the land to be acquired by a conservation body. However, funding for the purposes of land acquisition is difficult. International agencies and government agencies rarely support land acquisition -- presumably because of fears of being accused of colonialism. Aid agencies will fund research and training (which usually benefits the donor country more than the recipient), but not the actual acquisition. So this is where the public come in. This is why public support for the work of the WLT is so vital. If the public can help us buy land, we can set up the infrastructure for a local non-government organisation (NGO) to manage the land, and then aid agencies will usually support the management costs of looking after the land.

But the WLT is too small. We need to grow. We need to have in hand enough capital to make purchases when they come on the market. Unlike many other conservation activities, land acquisition usually has to move very fast, otherwise speculators and devlopers will move in, particularly when we are trying to buy the land as cheaply as posssible. The cost of a single tank used in Iraq would solve the WLT's problems......

The WLT is cost effective, and proportionately it has achieved more than many much bigger organisations, but there is little doubt we could do a lot more. Biodiversity is the buzz word of the 21st century, and the WLT's projects conserve biodiversity as one of their prime objectives. The WLT's network of partners conserve over 300,000 acres of land for wildlife -- that's significantly more than the RSPB, which has over a million supporters. Not a particularly fair comparison, but nontheless, acre for acre, the WLT's projects conserve many times more species, many more endangered species, at a fraction of the cost. Ideally we would like to create a large endowment fund, so that we had enough funds to run day to day activities, and then all efforts could be devoted to land acquisition. But where is the wealthy donor who will estblish such a fund? For the super rich of the world, whether it is a Bill Gates or a David Beckham, $10 or $15 million is insignificant. But it could make a huge difference to the future of wildlife.

Thursday, 5 August 2004

For Sale: A pristine island at $40,000 an acre

To give our readers an idea of the sort of battle we are struggling against, I can do no better than quote a Real Estate advertisment from Belize:

Beyond the Reef it's unbelievable, un-imaginable and unbeatable. It's a divine Paradise. To the west it lays only a stone throw away from History- the fascinating and enchanting world of the Mayas and their civilization and nestles among the lush Tropical Forests of Northern Belize. Accessible – year round, Archeological sites of Altun Ha and Lamanai, World Famous Archeological sites.

It's a real and alive world of birds and plants and animals living in harmony with man and nature.

This island is a virgin paradise and if you need sand to develop, there is plenty surrounding this beautiful and unique island. Also, not to mention great fishing for tarpon, permit, fighting bonefish and various areas where the manatees feeds adding more attractions to the island for a resort development or just your private get-away!

End of quote

A 25 acre paradise, ripe for development (=despoiling) for $1million. And since it is not in any top priorities for conservation, it will almost certainly end up being developed, the manatees may get chopped up by propellors from speed boats, nesting turtles will disappear, and yet another bit of paradise will have gone. Our resources are so limited, we have to concentrate on areas which are really important, but it is depressing to have to ignore such islands, and allow them to slip away.

Monday, 19 July 2004

Global warming and the population problem

The past month has seen an increase in the publicity surrounding global warming. The UK Governments Chief Scientist, Sir David King, has given dire warning about the impact that continued warming will have on rising sealevels. But what does not seem to have happened, is that the public at large do not really seem to be taking on board the connection between global warming and human populations. The areas which are likely to be most seriously impacted by continuing -- or even accellerating -- rises of sea level, are going to be large conurbations. And a very large proportion of the world's largest cities are in low lying areas, close to the seas and oceans of the world. From London to Aukland, from Amsterdam to New York, all over the world millions of people live in places no more than a few metres from from sea level.

In addition to the sea levels rising, the future may well see dramatic increases in violent weather, but extreme weather occurs erratically in almost all parts of the world from time to time, and so the sort of weather encountered in Britain in 1952, coupled with a sea level rise of less than a metre would be devastating -- imagine what would happen if the London underground was flooded. [A first rate disatster movie scenario]. London may be able to deal with it, in terms of human lives, but other places will not be so fortunate. The coastal cities of Asia -- Calcutta, Dacca, Madras, Hong Kong, Osaka, Singapore, -- to name but a few, could be inundated with the loss of millions of lives. And of course, the economic impact of such disasters is almost incalculable.

The problem is that still the mentality that pervades much of the wealthiest nation in the world is exemplified in the claim by Lee Raymond, Chairman of ExxonMobil in June 2002:

"We in ExxonMobil do not believe that the science required to establish this linkage between fossil fuels and warming has been demonstrated"

With massively powerful corporations expressing such views, and with George Bush leading the US, and with China and India both sitting on massive supplies of fossil fuels (coal), the future is unfortunately predictable. But fortunately not everyone in the world is quite as short-sighted as Bush and Raymond. Some governments are trying to reverse the process, but few have bitten the real bullet, of increasing human populations. Building another million homes in Britain won't do much to control emmissions, however well insulated they are. It is simply a recognition of the fact that the more affluent a nation becomes, the more resources its population consumes. Confirmation that the population problem is one that is most serious in countries such as Britain and America. Not Bangladesh or Malawi. It is the populations of the developed countries that consume the most non-renewable energy, and the same people who consume the majority of other resources, from food to rare metals. And it is the affluent nations that are resposible for the destruction of the world's rainforests.

The WLT may be small, and it may not have achieved much on a global scale, but multiplied up, pro rata per head of population that have supported its work, it could become a major force -- we just need more supporters. A few thousand supporters have helped save over 300,000 acres. Think what a million supporters (the membership of the RSPB or National Trust in the UK) could do. And the cost of an army tank or fighter jet alone could buy in excess of 2million acres of rainforest.

It's time we sorted our priorities. The real terrorists are those destroying the natural environment -- and that, indirectly includes most of us in the developed world.

Friday, 16 July 2004

e-philanthropy - Internet volunteering for the WLT

The WLT’s Web Manager passed me a copy of an article published on the internet on “How your non-profit can use the internet strategically” (www.guidestar.org/news/features/using_the_net.jsp). This was a fascinating insight into the use of the internet, but particularly interesting, as once again, it showed that the World Land Trust was certainly performing well above average.

According to the article, developing an effective e-philanthropy site typically costs hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. Yet when I evaluated the WLT’s site against the criteria listed for an effective e-philanthropy site, we rated very high indeed. There are a few functions that we are currently unable to fulfil, but these are either irrelevant to our activities, or ones we have under consideration. One particular function, which we only started last month, was the involvement of e-volunteers. I see this as a very important part of the WLT’s future. Because of our effective and efficient web site, we are attracting supporters who are both computer literate, and also confident about making on line donations. There are plenty of other websites which have fancier graphics, but most serious we users don’t want this, they want a fast, efficient site.

Our next target is to spread the word –- and this is where our e-volunteers come in. They can help us refine and improve our existing web site, and they can also help us spread the word by passing on our website to friends and colleagues. They can also help us answer questions about how supporters use our site. If you are reading this blog, the chances are you will be an ideal e-volunteer – so why not contact helena*at*worldlandtrust.org, and sign up? (replace *at* with the symbol @ in your email address field.)

Going, going, ....

For the past week or so I have been asking friends who have been birdwatching most of their life about the changes. It is scary. We are all aware of the huge drop in numbers of so many species. Even though the conservation groups such as the RSPB are publicising declines, they don't really seem to me to reflect the scale of decline.

Back in the 1950s, there were far fewer birdwatchers, and the data was scant. But so many species that we took for granted had declines or become locally extinct. Wrynecks and Red-backed Shrikes no longer nest in souther England, while Wheatears (aleady much reduced in numbers by the second half of the 20th century) are now comparaive rarities as breeding birds, and yellow wagtails, reed buntings, turtle doves are among those fast disappearing. But this is hardly surprising when one looks at the lack of insects. The pesticide revolution of the 50s and 60s was partly to blame, but it is now in suburbia where the problem lies -- massive amounts of toxic sprays are unleashed in gardens every year, so it is no surprise that there are no insects.

In the 1950s there were still small numbers of horses in the towns, and the countryside was full of animlas. Now, urban horses are a rarity, and the countryside is largely bereft of free roaming cattle over large areas of England. So it is not surprising there are hardly any insects for the birds to feed on.

I have recently been involved with a survey of European red lists (of endangered species) of invertebrates -- and it is really alarming to realise just how many insects, molluscs and other invertebrates are disappearing. And the problem here is that they are so little studied, that it appears that whenever someone studies a group of insects or other invertebrates in detail, they find they have problems.

All very gloomy. However, at least locally in East Anglia, there are some glimmers of hope. Declining markets for farm produce, has led to some fairly major changes in the countryside. More and more land is being used as amenity land, for horses, or simply small meadows. People like myself, have a couple of acres, and need to graze it, so they bring livestock back, not for commercial gain, but for management purposes, and these are usually kept organically -- or near organic. Hopefully copious quantities of sheep dung will benefit the swallows by breeding flies, and the pond I plan, should become infested with mosquitos and benefit the bats. And the dragonflies will attract Hobbies.

When thinking about wildlife, think insects: anything that can increase the number of insects is a sure-fire way of helping a lot of other wildlife.

Friday, 9 July 2004

Why big trees?

I've been involved with conserving rainforests and other habitats or over 30 years, and it has always been the accepted wisdom that the big, mature tropical forest trees are paramount, and we must conserve virgin forest whenever possible. I am not disputing this, but I am intrigued to know what the science is to back it. After all, nearly all the forests of Europe are secondary forests, and so are those of much of Central America, and a large part of Asia. And there is plenty of species diversity.

In England, almost every naturalist will know that hedgerows are among the most species rich areas for nesting birds -- and these effectively mimic forest edge habitats. I recall that when I was first working in Belize, the best place for seeing as many bird species as possible in as short as time as possible, was in a derelict milpa (slash an burn farm). In fact this is true in almost all parts of the world that I have visited. Most of the large mammals of South East Asia, such as Kouprey, Banteng, Gaur, Deer and even rhinos, all prefer forest clearings, and avoid dense closed-canopy forest. Dynamic, regenerating forests with a mixture of trees of different ages, almost always seem to have the greatest species diversity.

But if I was to postulate not worrying about old growth forest, there are some obvious flaws in this argument. There are some species that are only found in large stands of old growth forest. The best known is perhaps the ivory-billed woodpecker -- alas now extinct, largely through loss of its habitat. But it would be right to ask the question: How many species are restricted to old-growth forests with really big trees? And in the 21st century with all the pressures on the forest can forests really be maintained for these few species? I ask the question, because the alternative might be to selectively log forest, thereby providing a sustainable income, and increasing the numbers of other species, most of which thrive.

Conservationists do not have the funds to buy every bit of remaining forest, and neither do governments have the resources to protect from exploitation all the resources they control. Logging out big valuable trees reduces the value of land, in commercial terms, but does it reduce its value for wildlife? If it doesn't, then it makes sense to save heavily logged, cheap land, rather than virgin forest which may be more expensive.

Any ideas?

Mass extinctions

Back in the 1970s and 1980s there were widespread predictions of mass extinctions, and the disappearance of hundreds of thousands of species by the end of the 20th Century. But looking back it is very difficult to see if those predictions were wholly accurate. Certainly forest loss, and the destruction of natural habitats continued unabated, and those gloomy predictions were largely fulfilled. Equally depressing is the fact that the world's population growth, continues out of control, but by the begining of the 21st century was hardly mentioned as an issue. The gap between the poor and rich nations continues to widen, and the consumption of natural resources has spiralled virtually out of control. At the turn of the century, while some countries tried to impose controls and limits on the exploitation of natural resourse, the US continued on its growth path, and there was widespread concern that the Bush administration was very retrograde in terms of its environmental policies. In the UK quick-fix energy policies by the Blair government sought to develop masses of wind farms, despite the fact that not all conservationists are convinced of their enrgy efficiency, and they are known to kill wildlife.

But back to where I started, have the predictions of extinctions been fulfilled? The answer is that nobody really knows, but we can be pretty sure that unles the human population growth is slowed, at least in the developed world, the demand for natural resources, will ensure that wildlife habitat continues to disappear. That's why the WLT's acquisition programmes, though tiny, are still significant. At least we're doing something.

Thursday, 1 July 2004

Giving all your money to charities

When a donor gives money, they generally expect all the money they give to go to the charity they have chosen. But does this always happen? The answer is no. There are several reasons for this, and there is not necessarily anything sinister about it, but donors should be aware.

First, anyone raising funds on behalf of a charity may be entitled to charge reasonable expenses, and may have agreed with a charity to charge a fee for every donation made. The worst example of this is probably ‘chugging’. This is an abbreviation used in the fundraising field for ‘Charity mugging’ – young people, often students, out of work actors etc, on the street stopping passers by with a clipboard, and trying to recruit donors to a charity. They are usually paid for every person they get to sign up – so how much of your donation will benefit the charity?

There are also web sites operating on behalf of a wide range of charities, and these often purport to give the whole of the donation to the charity, but often omit to mention that the gift aid reclaimable may not be passed on to the charity. For a one-off donation this probably does not make a great deal of difference, but if you are considering long term support – such as becoming a WLT partner, it is always best to make your donations direct to the charity you are supporting, it makes a huge difference if they can claim the gift aid. And if you are considering larger donations or legacies, it is often best to speak to the charities representatives or solicitors, as they can advise on cost effective giving and maximising tax benefits.

Wednesday, 30 June 2004

Charity Commission criticises reporting by Charities

It was reported on the BBC today that a report by the Charity Commission criticised a number of top charities on their reporting. This came on the same day as I received the draft of our Annual report from our Auditors, ready to go to the WLT Trustees for approval early next month.

The key findings of the report, quoted on the BBC’s website were

  • 126 charities explained their achievements well
  • 13 said nothing at all about their achievements
  • 92 did not comment sufficiently on the activities of volunteers
  • 12 international aid charities were top performers
  • 73 charities, which mainly rely on government funding, were among the least transparent.
The Chief Charity Commissioner also said that it was among the larger charities that the reporting was least satisfactory.

When I reviewed our next Annual Report, I was pleased to note, that the WLT would out-perform on all fronts. Our report explains all our recent achievements (which of course are also well summarised on this website), and we include a report on the contribution volunteers make (and these are also publicised on this web site), and finally as an international charity we pride ourselves on transparency.

I also reviewed a number of other international charities involved with saving rainforests and other habitats by visiting their websites, and I was amazed how little information most of them impart about the actual organisation. We have a list of all staff, Trustees (including pictures) and details of their background, so that our donors know they are dealing with real people, who know what they are talking about. Some organisations don’t even have a postal address on their site, and very few publicise who their Trustees are. We are proud to have a board of Trustees, together with patrons and officers all of which are relevant and knowledgeable about our mission.

We are convinced that a lot of the World Land Trust’s recent success has been in large part due to its web site – most charities actually subsidise their website, but ours is now making a significant contribution to our fundraising efforts. We believe this is because our web site is more informative than others, and also because we do try and respond to any questions sent to us by donors. As ever, feedback is welcome.

Tuesday, 29 June 2004

Elephant Ivory News release

London , June 24, 2004 : A shocking new exhibit in London’s Docklands was unveiled today to act as a memorial to the millions of elephants gunned down to feed the ivory trade. The exhibit, a huge bloody tusk has been built out of more than 700 pieces of ivory given up by people all over the country during a nationwide amnesty held by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The memorial is on public display throughout summer 2004. Later in the year, prior to the 13th CITES conference in October, IFAW plans to grind-down the ivory and place it into an hour-glass to symbolise that time is running out for elephants.

A great publicity stunt, but will it save elephants? As far as I am concerned the jury remains out. Several years ago, the Kenyan government, amid a blaze of publicity set fire to a huge stockpile of ivory, but it did little to slow down, let alone halt the poaching of elephants for their ivory.

I have been studying the ivory trade for over a quarter of a century, having been one of the first people to calculate the rate of destruction of elephants from the export figures of ivory from Kenya (published in New Scientist in the 1970s). But I am still not convinced that grinding up, burning or otherwise destroying large stockpiles of ivory will ever have the desired effect. In fact I believe it may well have had the reverse effect. I.e. it is likely to push the value of poached ivory even higher, thereby increasing demand for elephants to be killed.

The best way of reducing the value of most commodities is to flood the market with a glut, or at least have the possibility of flooding it. If all the stockpiles of siezed ivory, plus all the 'amnesty' ivory gathered by IFA and others were kept in warehouses, with the constant threat of the market suddenly being flooded, then this would most likely at least destabilise the market, thereby causing a drop in value, which would also lead to panic selling by the holders of the illegal stock piles that are believed to exist in parts of Asia, further reducing value of ivory, and consequent pressure on elephants.

I am not suggesting legalising the trade in ivory until we can be certain that elephant populations have stabilised, but continuing to reduce supply has not worked in the past, so I don't see it working in the future. Stockpiling, would slowly, but possibly surely force the illegal traders out of business. And then if elephant populations stabilised once more, the stockpiles could be fed into the legal markets in a carefully controlled manner -- just as the diamond markets are controlled.

Grinding up the 'amnesty' ivory, is sure to cause an outcry, as it may well destroy some interesting and significant works of art and many of the older ivory artifacts being destroyed could easily have come from 'natural' ivory -- it was not uncommon for ivory to gathered from the bush a century or so back.

I realise that all of the above is a controversial point of view, and would welcome comment. The trouble with the destruction policy is that it is irreversible. At least stockpiling keeps options open. While there is still a huge demand for ivory in China and other parts of the East, until someone demonstrates a similar example of destruction of a commodity reducing demand, I cannot support more destruction.

The problems besetting wildlife in a man made world

I have been following with interest the debate on wind farms. There are some considerable data concerning the mortalities of birds and bats at windfarms, and with the British Government proposing to establish hundreds of wind turbines, there is good cause for alarm. Already hundreds of birds have died in collisions with the huge rotor blades of the turbines, in places as far apart as California and southern Spain. But wind turbines are only one in a long line of hazards that migratory birds now have to avoid. It's a miracle that any survive at all.

The ‘modern’ hazards that spring to mind, that have an impact on wildlife I have noted below, but would be interested to hear from anyone that has any hard data or can provide good references to such data.


One of the first modern hazards, and still kills animals such as deer, foxes and badgers. Often when I travel to London, there is a strong smell of fox, where the train has obviously hit a fox earlier. The electrified linea often kill wildlife, such as badgers as well, even when no trains are passing, though this can be reduced by having overhead cables.


Once cars started moving at more than about 10 miles an hour they started killing wildlife on an ever increasing scale. The dead hedgehogs, birds and other larger animals are easily see, but what about insect life? At the end of a journey a car windscreen will often be smeared with the remains of butterflies, moths and other insects, and the radiator will be clogged with them. What impact does this have on populations? Another effect of roads on wildlife is the fragmentation of habitat -- they are so wide that some species cannot cross them – they are barriers as effective as rivers.

Overhead Cables

Back in the 1960s I remember walking across Dungeness peninsula inspecting the ground beneath the powerlines that ran from the newly built nuclear power station. We were collecting corpses of birds that had crashed into them I don’t recall how many we found, but however small the number, multiplied up across the country the number will be significant. And most are never noticed as we found that foxes soon learnt that there were rich pickings.


Birdwatchers have known for years that lighthouses attract birds by disorientating them, and until the towers were floodlit, thousands of birds were killed when they crashed into the towers. They still kill birds, albeit fewer. What is not so widely known that almost all tall buildings are potentially dangerous to migrating birds. And world wide, probably resonsible for thousands of deaths.


The impact on wildlife of pesticides is well documented – but it is probably in suburban gardens that the impact is now the greatest. And many wood worm treatments are know to be detrimental to bats. But what impact do all the garden pesticides have on butterflies and moths? Why are there so few flies in modern towns?

Fishing tackle

Tons of lead from fishing weights (as well as from shotguns), together with miles of nylon thread present yet another hazard to any aquatic wildlife.And in the oceans miles and liles of monofilament nets kill birds in their thousands.

Garden and agricultural Machinery

When I was in Belize, I once watched an Ocellated Turkey following a gardener with a rotary mower. The turkey was picking up the bits of mashed insects, lizards and frogs. Every time a gardener uses machinery of this sort they are probably reducing the populations of grasshoppers and other wildlife.

Farmers with time on their hands flail hedges. Most farmers are now conscious of the fact it is illegal to do this in the breeding season when it might destroy the nests of protected species. But they are now just as likely to flail the hedges in September, and destroy the berry crop on which so many winter migrant birds, as well as voles and mice, depend.

Street lighting and lighting on tall buildings

Both are known to either disorientate migratuing birds, or cause actual collisions.

These are just a few of the modern hazards that wildlife faces – comments on others you may have concerns about would be welcome.

Monday, 14 June 2004

Gap Year Students, internships and volunteers

Over the past four years, the World Land Trust has developed a highly successful intern programme. Unlike many other organisations our intern programme is designed to give real benefits to the intern – they are not a form of cheap labour, as is usually the case. All WLT interns get a formal training programme, travel allowances, and are sent on training courses, often in London. So successful has this programme been that the WLT has now become accredited as part of a Diploma course, in Conservation & Project Administration – – this is a graduate course, resulting in a formal qualification – probably the first of its kind in the UK. Deatils are now on the web site of Norwich University (University of East Anglia).

While the World Land Trust was developing these courses we were often asked why we don’t take on gap year students for our projects. The answers are complex, but in a nutshell, I don’t think they [gap year students] are particularly useful, or cost effective. Additionally there are a number of companies organising expeditions and facilities for volunteers of this type, and it would be a diversion of our activities away from the main objectives of the WLT. Furthermore, we believe that it is a much higher priority to facilitate students from the areas around our projects, rather than import teenagers from Britain. And, as an aside, I believe that many of the British run expeditionary services exploit the students, and the public. Many appear to be charitable – but even when they are not for profit it does not always mean they are charitable.

Unlike Registered Charities, companies do not always make their accounts public, or disclose salaries overheads etc. Thousands and thousands of pounds are spent every year on ‘expeditions’, which are in reality little more than holidays, which provide very little real research data, but do make a large profit for the organisers.

Before students go rushing off and book air flights all over the world to carry out two or three weeks ‘scientific research’ into the rainforests or coral reefs, they should think very carefully about the real value of what they are doing and the real costs. What costs £2000 and an international airfare for a British student, can often be done by a perfectly competent local student for a couple of hundred pounds or less, with no travel costs.

Have a holiday, do some good works, by all means, but do think carefully and do check out the organisations very carefully indeed. And if you want to volunteer, why not go direct, it’s usually cheaper, and provides greater benefit to the local organisations. There are plenty of non-government organisations that would welcome volunteers, even gap-year students, but the students must be prepared to put in real hard work, or have some real expertise as birdwatchers, botanists etc. And they should also be able to demonstrate that they have done similar things in Britain or wherever their home country is. Otherwise they will be perceived as little more than tourists, out for a cheap holiday.

The Big Bird Race and its sequal

Back in the 1980s David Tomlinson (then an Editor of Country Life magazine) and I hatched the idea of The Big Bird Race. At the time I was the Secretary of the Fauna & Flora Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International) and we persuaded Sir Peter Scott to give us an adled Nene’s Egg to create a symbolic trophy – a sort of ashes of birdwatching. I was fortunate to be able to recruit Bill Oddie to our noble team, but despite having some of the best birding ears and eyes in the country – they failed to wrest the trophy from Tomlinson’s better prepared, and faster driving team.

A book – The Big Bird Race was published – an entertaining account, but sadly long out of print – and a TV film was broadcast – it made surprisingly good TV. And it all raised money for conservation.

All that was a long while ago, but over the years Bill Oddie has continued to help various conservation projects I and many others have been involved with. British TV has recently been showing a lot of Bill Oddie in action as a birder – and some of the best wildlife TV it is, showing wildlife as it really is – not reconstructed in an edit suite. I was therefore very pleased indeed, when I found out recently that Bill was going to Patagonia to film for his next TV series. And even more delighted when I heard that his team were keen to visit the Estancia La Esperanza. No birding records will be broken on the steppes of coastal Patagonia, – but I am sure we will be able to show Bill some life birds. The Patagonian steppes are a good example of how dangerous concentrating on so called Biodiversity hotspots can be – steppes, deserts, tundra are all very important habitats, but they are not species rich. So if we concentrate on biodiversity hotspots, they are liable to get ignored. Until the WLT and its partners acquired the Estancia La Esperanza, there were no reserves in the coastal stppe, despite its enormous size and importance.

Friday, 4 June 2004

Where have all the flies gone?

This is an article I first published on the Birdsofbritain website in November 2002. I was very interested to see that the RSPB have launched this month a survey of insects. Perhaps they will be able to answer some of the questyions raised in my article.

Naturalists are all conscious of the decline in species of birds, such as spotted flycatchers, marsh tits and skylarks, but there has been very little comment on the disappearance of flying insects. Of course it is difficult to be objective so I start from a purely subject point of view. Twenty or more years ago I recall often having to clean my windscreen because there were so many squashed insects on it when driving around at dusk. I also recall cycling to the local pub on a summer's evening and on arrival having my beard literally pale green with aphids trapped in it. And when I first moved to Suffolk full time in 1978, I recall buying the nasty old sticky flypapers to hang in my study, and they soon became the ghoulish graveyard of countless flies. I grew up in an era, when most houses still had net curtains, which were not, as is so often assumed today to conceal the goings on inside, but to keep the flies from flying through a window open for ventilation.

As I write, I have before me a book entitled: Fighting The Fly Peril: a popular and practical handbook, published in 1915, at a time when horses were still a major form of transport, and consequently manure still a major source of breeding grounds for flies, even in towns. Now even in the wider countryside, flies are a rarity, and along with them it appears that numerous other insects are disappearing.

If this entirely subjective, anecdotal evidence is remotely true it is very worrying since so much wildlife is dependent on insects. It would certainly help explain the dramatic drops in numbers of birds. But where is the data on insect numbers? Years ago I often dabbled in entomology, but do not recall ever keeping records of sweep net catches - we just picked out the interesting specimens and shook the rest free. The same at light traps for moths. Presumably someone, somewhere has some quantitative data. If so I would very much like to know about it. I have tried finding references on the internet, but failed. A lead or two would be very useful.

Why are dead species worth more than the living?

I recently attended a conference in Cambridge on the history of natural history, and one particularly interesting paper chronicled the history of the Thylacine, an extinct marsupial wolf from Tasmania. Depressingly, the moment the species was declared officially extinct – 50 years after the last authentic sighting of a living specimen, the value of its dried skins and pickled specimens leapt up. Now a skin can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. And last night I was looking at a sale catalogue for a natural history auction held in California recently and some of the prices realise were truly astounding. A cave bear skeleton fetched $11,000, a pliosaur skeleton, $58,000, an elephant bird egg $41,000, and so it went on, with tens of thousands of dollars being paid for fossils and minerals.

Why is it that so many people are prepared to pay such vast sums of money, when an equal amount would save thousands of living species. Fossils are interesting, just as works of art are important markers in the history of humankind, but it is inconceivable that anyone should value them more highly than living, unique species. Yet while wealthy collectors pay astronomical prices for long dead species, species are disappearing from the planet for ever. Does anyone know how I can contact these collectors, and persuade them to leave a better bequest to the planet than a heap of rocks or dried skins?

Tuesday, 1 June 2004

Saatchi Warehouse modern art disaster

Much has been made in the news of the loss of an enormous collection of modern art, when the Saatchi warehoused collection burned down. Some have suggested that the actual burning should be treated as an example of performance art, and in general the public reaction has been pretty scathing, as few people can understand why Tracy Emin’s ‘dirty washing’ should be treated as art in the first place. Defining art is difficult, but to the majority it still involves a degree of skill or craft, as well as concepts. Which makes much contemporary art hard to swallow, and since it is not particularly original – the ability to shock was played out at the end of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries – one is left with a rather vacuous sensation that art is now largely defined by collectors and galleries. Anything that can persuade a fool to part with money becomes important art.

But the real tragedy of the burning warehouse was that it drew attention to the ridiculous value placed on worthless objects. I say worthless objects purposefully, since their only real value lay in the fact that someone had paid a huge amount of money for them. Most, if not all the works burned are reproducible. Unlike endangered species. The art world has got completely out of control, when millions of dollars are paid for a single painting by Van Gogh of a vase of sunflowers, but the natural world that produced the sunflowers is disappearing before our eyes. The loss of Sara Lucas’s bathtub, is no great loss – Man Ray’s Fountain showed that many decades ago. But the loss of a single species is an irreparable loss to the world. For the price of a third rate work of contemporary art, the World Land Trust could create a whole nature reserve, and save an entire endangered species. Our Green Ink initiative has got writers and illustrators supporting conservation – perhaps some contemporary artists could think of a way of making a really significant contribution to the future of the world’s wildlife.

Monday, 24 May 2004

BAFTAs, Oscars and Prizes for Conservation

In recent months several of our supporters have suggested that the World Land Trust deserves an award for its conservation successes, and asks why we aren't better known -- surely getting an award would promote wider recognition. This is probably true. But my response is that awards are inevitably time wasting and I also have a strong personal dislike of them. In over 30 years of involvement in wildlife conservation I have seen, or known about, numerous awards being made, and inevitably many go to the ‘wrong’ person. Not actually the wrong person, but one can often think of someone who was a lot more deserving, but kept out of the limelight. And this is part of the problem -- most awards are made to people, not organisations.

Each year Charity Times (a trade newspaper) organises awards, not unlike the BAFTAs or Oscars, but not only does it take a lot of time to complete all the submissions, it then costs over £100 a head to go and find out who's won. In my view this is a totally inappropriate use of charity funds, and I doubt if the Charity Commission finds it acceptable. Of course some other awards are entirely justified, but usually they are given to people who are already at the peak of their career, and/or probably don't need recognition. Other awards are often based on political correctness.

Meanwhile, back at the World Land Trust, we are just getting on at what we feel we do best -- raising funds, and spending them wisely, and ensuring that some bits of the world survive for the future. It's far more rewarding than sitting on Committees, and going to conferences, and attending awards ceremonies. I have done my share of all of these, and I certainly enjoy conferences -- I've just been to one on the history of natural history, out of pure personal interest, nothing to do with, and certainly not funded by the WLT. And I suppose even a conference like that does have some relevance to conservation, but that's not my point. Conservation funded by public support needs more ACTION and less talking. There are plenty of other sources of funding for awards, conferences and the like. And time is running out for so many species...

Tuesday, 11 May 2004

Wildlife introductions and other ramblings

We in Britain, together with most of the developed world, are fairly good about preaching wildlife conservation ethics. But how many of the British public who so warmly respond to fundraising appeals to save endangered tigers or elephants actually give a second thought to the villagers and livestock in the Sunderbans who are killed by tigers? And the elephants that draw so much public attention do trample on subsistence crops of poor villagers with no other means of livelihood. Having turned most of our forests into farmland or plantations of conifers we condemn anyone else for cutting down rainforest.

Britain’s fauna is not particularly rich - but it was once considered richer than now. Within historic times we have lost bears, wolves, wild boar, beaver, cranes, storks and other species such as polecats, pine martens and wild cats have been reduced to a few remnant populations. Going back even further there are recent prehistoric extinctions such as bison, elk, reindeer and eagle owl, but the case for reintroducing these is even more controversial. I am not advocating a programme of mass introduction or reintroductions, but I am suggesting much more serious consideration be given to it. Wolves in Europe are teetering on the brink of extinction in most places. Perhaps some could be introduced into the Scottish highlands? Beavers have been widely and successfully reintroduced into Europe in recent years but it took over 40 years of campaigning before small-scale introductions were even considered in Britain. The success of the recent reintroduction of otters is a tribute to the extremely thorough preparatory work undertaken by the Otter Trust and English Nature – and it also shows that where there is a will, there is a way.

What should be the criteria for reintroductions? Reams of paper have been written relating to this subject, but perhaps the most important factor should be that the original cause of the species’ demise must have gone, otherwise any reintroduction is doomed from the start. Sea Eagles are probably succeeding in western Scotland, because they are no longer persecuted on the same scale as in the 19th century. But what of some of the other species? Sea eagles in remote Scotland are one thing, but what about the wildlife of lowland England? Every year pigs were put out to pannage in the New Forest and many people have suggested that boar could live in the New Forest - I do not know if they could, but I would like to see a feasibility study. And having been just an idea in a few naturalists’ brains, boar took the matter into their own hands in the 1987 hurricane, escaped from farms and are now colonising southern England – they will probably soon be common in the New Forest.

The case for reintroducing the pine marten is one of the strongest. It was hunted for its valuable pelt, and finally extirpated by gamekeepers. Both causes are largely gone, and furthermore since it frequently preyed on squirrels it may have benefitted by the spread of the alien gray squirrel. Also, it is already slowly spreading from its few remaining enclaves, but will probably not be able to cross such natural barriers as the Midland urbanisation, or even motorways. But in fact the habitats in modern Britain are actually more suited to the closely related stone marten, which occurs just across the Channel. Similarly, the polecat once so widespread that the first one exhibited in London Zoo came from Regent's Park (1824), could do with a helping hand.

I once did some very superficial research into the possibility of reintroducing some of our lost animals; I concluded that bears were not feasible - there was nowhere in Britain with a sufficiently large area for even the tiniest population to live without coming into too frequent contact with humans. Even Beinn Eighe NNR and adjacent areas in Scotland, which, together form one of the largest areas of nature reserves and lands with some form of protected status, probably could not support a viable population of brown bears. But most other lost animals of Britain could perhaps return . . .

It is not at all fashionable to support introductions, or even reintroductions - in fact, most conservation bodies are firmly opposed to introductions. But at one time everyone was at it - from hunters to conservationists. Richard Fitter's ‘Ark in Our Midst’ chronicles the numerous attempts which included wapiti, mule deer, axis deer, chamois, mouflon and bob white quail, all of which ultimately failed, and Sir Christopher Lever's ‘The Naturalised Animals of the British Isles’ (1977) summarised all those that were successful. I confess I still have an ambivalent attitude. While on an international scale, I agree with the hard-line scientific ecologists who resolutely oppose all introductions, I have a sneaking suspicion that at least as far as Britain is concerned, there is a tendency to be a little bit too rigid. After all, there is very little left of Britain that can, by any stretch of the imagination, be called 'natural'. Most of the trees we see in towns and even on a country walk are introduced, and many of our commonest flowering plants are aliens. The well established alien animals include brown rats, house mouse, grey squirrel, marsh frog, pheasant, mandarin duck, ring-necked parakeet, Canada goose, Egyptian Goose, muntjac, fallow, Chinese water and sika deer, mink, and a large number of insects and some molluscs. In fact the ‘natural’ landscape is a man-made artefact, and Britain now has the highest recorded ‘biodiversity’ ever recorded.

Some of these introductions are alleged to cause 'damage'. But is it not time we really questioned what we mean by 'damage'? Copyu ate a few sugar beet, and occasionally tunnelled into a river bank, so they were exterminated at great cost. Deer may graze on monocultures of winter wheat and eat a few exotic conifer seedlings. This is 'damage'. But at the same time water authorities destroy waterside vegetation and turn a blind eye to nitrate pollution; some farmers spray with pesticides which do not distinguish between harmful or beneficial insects, others have grubbed out hedges and drained marshes - I call that 'damage'. In fact, if the choice is between even larger agricultural surpluses and wildlife I know which I prefer. And I believe that the majority of people in Britain would prefer fewer surpluses and more wildlife too. Even the government has at last recognised public opinion and introduced payments for farmers managing land in sympathy with wildlife, and setting aside land out of production. Economic benefits do not have to be measured entirely in terms of bags of corn, board feet of timber, or sacks of potatoes. But benefits do have to be looked at from a broad perspective. I have been involved with many projects demonstrating the 'value' of wildlife, and mountain gorillas are now 'worth' considerably more than the pyrethrum crop that much of their habitat was destroyed for. The avocets at Minsmere are undoubtedly 'worth' far more than the crops that could be grown on the land they occupy. The jocotoco antpitta has the potential of generating far more revenue from birdwatchers than the destruction of its habitat for timber and cattle pasture would ever generate.

An argument often made against reintroductions is that they are costly. But then so are Rembrandt paintings and Porsche cars. If we decide we want them we have to raise the money to support them. Conservationists will then assume that such a project will then drain money from programmes they consider much more important. But there is absolutely no evidence for this, as far as I am aware. In fact, probably the truth is the opposite. the active involvement of organisations with high profile reintroductions of species which the general public like creates a greater support for the less spectacular but nonetheless important ongoing conservation work.

In conclusion, I would emphasise that I am not suggesting that there should be an irresponsible rash of introductions or reintroductions. But I do strongly advocate a major effort to re-establish, under carefully monitored conditions, as much of our extinct wildlife as possible. In so doing, we should not be over-pressured by economics. Britain can easily ’afford’ to devote much more land to wildlife - if we expect the third world to suffer the depredations of wildlife, for us to go on holiday to gawp at - it is surely not too much to expect some of our vast agricultural subsidies to be used to compensate farmers who lose the odd sheep to wolves or sugar beet to a wild boar?

These are just a personal view, but I would be interested in any feedback

Monday, 19 April 2004

Charity begins at home -- make your garden wildlife friendly

I hope we all try and practice what we preach. On a modest scale I try and make sure that the gardens of all the places I have owned are havens for wildlife. At the end of last year my wife and I moved home, and now live just over a mile from the HQ of the World Land Trust. And this spring my latest book "Attracting Garden Wildlife" was published, in which were included many pictures taken in my previous garden. I am now in the process of developing a new 'intensive' wildlife garden. Doing everything I can think of (within a very limited budget).

I have already put down sheets of corrugated iron, and found at least five grass snakes and three slow worm under them. Nest boxes have gone up, including some for house martins and tree creeper. A single large oak contains 14 nests in a rookery, Barn Owls hunt the meadow areas, and we have seen Muntjac less than 100 metres from the garden. The main features missing are ponds, but that will be rectified as soon as funds permit.

Future plans include owl boxes, jackdaw boxes, wood piles for lizards and a manure heap for the grass snakes to nest in. Time will tell which birds nest, but there are several chiffchaffs calling and at least two pairs of blackcaps.

The adjacent churchyard is full of cowslips, and there are a few snakes' head fritillaries – perhaps there will be orchids in a few weeks time.

We are fortunate in having nearly three acres, but perhaps more important than the size of our garden is the fact that it is adjacent to other gardens, as well as the churchyard. Many suburban gardens are small, but taken en masse, they are part of a very large habitat for wildlife. So if you have a garden, maximise its potential for wildlife -- in particular avoid pesticides, as many gardeners use them more profligately than the most cavalier farmers. And add features that will attract wildlife -- areas of long grass, compost heaps, wood and brush piles, nettle patches, as well as the more obvious features such as nest boxes and feeders.

Friday, 16 April 2004

Foreign aid still aids the donor

Many years ago, when I was Secretary of the Fauna Preservation Society (now Fauna & Flora International) the guest speaker at an AGM was the late Professor Kai Curry Lindahl, an eminent Swedish international conservationist. His address to the society dealt with how foreign aid inevitably benefited the donor countries more than the recipients.

As an example, if a UK foreign aid project donates a Land Rover worth £20,000 it may end up that over the 15 years of its working life, it costs more than that in maintenance and spare parts, all of which have to be purchased from the UK. And numerous projects insist on 'experts' being provided by the donor country.

The WLT recently applied for a Darwin Initiative grant towards its work in N E India. A condition of the grant aid was that the project had to include British technical expertise and training. This ignores the fact that there is plenty of local expertise, which would be a lot more cost effective. But by giving a grant that involves paying British experts the UK government are ensuring that the money is not only largely cycled through the British economy, but the experts also pay British taxes so they actually get some of the money back. And we are not talking small amounts of money. A field Assistant in India would cost around £600 a year, and a Field Officer £2000, somewhere between one tenth and one twentieth of their British counterparts. It is a new form of Imperialism -- using foreign aid to ensure a country is kept in debt – even if it is intellectual debt – as well as ensuring they receive as little of the actual cash as possible. In a country such as India, real aid would allow the decision on who to employ to be made on grounds of merit, experience and capability, not nationality. This is not to say that there should not be controls on foreign aid -- having seen the abuses in Uganda, I believe it essential that donor countries exert strict fiscal controls – but recipients need to be empowered, and not become intellectually enslaved. Since it started, the Darwin Initiative has been used to plough hundreds of thousands of pounds into the Natural History Museum and various British Universities, thereby saving the government funding from other budgets -- a blatant case of robbing Peter to Pay Paul.

The WLT complied with the conditions for the Darwin grant, added in British experts, but still did not get a grant – apparently because the UK government's experts did not think the project was achievable. The fact that we are now making it work despite their rejection is another story. Unlike many government funded foreign aid projects one of the key objectives of all WLT projects is to ensure that they have long term sustainability. The world is littered with projects that were funded by foreign aid, often lavishly, then the day the aid stopped, the project collapsed. This is often worse than if the project had never been started in the first place. Fortunately some governments do realise the failings of the foreign aid system, and look increasingly to NGOs to deliver projects, and their success rates do appear to be higher.

Monday, 5 April 2004

Where has the human population gone?

One answer to this question is of course, ‘Through the roof’. Human populations are spiralling upwards virtually out of control. Another answer would also be ‘Off the agenda’, since there seems to be virtually no mention of the impacts of human population when major environmental issues, such as global warming are being addressed. Yet without question, the world’s spiralling human populations are to blame for the current environmental crisis.

Increasing populations coupled with increasing aspirations lead ever greater demands for energy, and despite treaties, despite pollution control, there is no sign that energy demands are slowing down or that global pollution is decreasing. And the reality is that if the world’s population was to aspire to live at well below the accepted ‘poverty’ level in the UK, for instance, there would not be enough resources to go round. And yet the world’s population continues to climb.

As was predicted over a quarter of a century ago, resource wars will increase -- the war in Iraq was probably only the first of many – and natural disasters will claim larger and lager numbers of victims. When (not if) the San Andreas fault finally slips how many people will die, and how much damage to property will there be? What would a volcanic irruption the size of Thera (Santorini) 5000 years ago do?

In South America, forests are cleared by squatters, in Africa deserts are over-grazed by pastoralists. The world’s oceans are almost universally over fished. And yet even if the populations of the poorest, most rapidly growing countries stabilised, it would have virtually no effect. Simply because it is the developed nations that are causing the real damage. It is in Canada, Denmark, Britain, America, Germany and the rest of the EU that the consumer-orientated societies are based, and even a tiny increase in population leads to a dramatic increase in resource consumption, and all its concomitant problems.

However, there is a significant group of people who are in total denial over the population issue. A quick search of the internet reveals several sites claiming that the world can cope with even more people. The denialists rely on distorting and misrepresenting data, and not acknowledging the inequalities of distribution of wealth and resources. And most important of all, never acknowledging the dramatic and rapid depletion of the world’s natural resources and ecosystems, which are irreversible processes.

So how do we put the world population back on the agenda? Probably difficult, looking at the world's current political situation, and attitudes of its leaders. But we must, if we are going to save the remaining wild places.

Wednesday, 31 March 2004

Latest newsletter, SPAM and the ebulletin

Supporters of the World Land Trust will soon be getting their printed newsletter. While we are very encouraged that large numbers are also signing up to our ebulletin, the old fashioned paper version still has a role to play. But for how much longer? If you would like to help spread the word, and have somewhere you could place some WLT brochures, or back issues of newsletters, please let us know. Ideal places include vetinerary surgeries and doctors waiting rooms -- our local surgeries were please to help us in this way. It's still the best way of reaching those who do not use the internet.

At present we still have problems to overcome with the electronic version. We sent out over 2,500 last week -- a very cost effective way of communicating with our supporters. But over 100 bounced back, probably because the recipient's server treated the newsletter as SPAM. So if you read this and think you should have received our ebulletin, you will need to resubscribe, and ensure that you make changes to your settings to allow it through your filters. We in turn will be working with those ISPs that we identify as blocking us, to ensure they realise that these are not unsolicited emails, and certainly do not have dodgy content.