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.