Friday, 29 June 2007

Scientists are a threat to endangered birds

US Scientists are a threat to endangered birds

The current issue of the American Bird Conservancy's newsletter (June 2007)
raises an issue that appears to be controversial in the Americas. I write it like this, because in Britain and most other parts of the world the issue would not be controversial; it would be clear cut. And that issue concerns collecting rare and endangered birds, and birds new to science.

Some American ornithologists still believe it is OK to kill birds for museum collections, even if they are very rare -- an anachronistic position hardly any British ornithologists would condone. And in case anyone doubts this, there is a very clear example: in 2006 scientists from Louisiana Museum netted and killed two out of the three known specimens of the Jocotoco Antpitta just discovered in Northern Peru.$Content/Newsletters/$File/2006+-+November.pdf

With a total world population, including the Ecuadorian population at no more than 200 birds, and the possibility that the Peruvian population was less than 10, it was clearly totally unjustified for the birds to be killed, simply to adorn the drawers of an American museum. Old World scientists have been describing new species (let alone confirming known ones) by methods that do not involve destroying them for several years. Advances in DNA sampling, combined with digital photography have made the conventional type specimen, if not redundant, at least non-essential, for critically endangered species.

It is high time that all responsible scientific institutions, as well as conservation organisations, came out with unequivocal positions condemning the scientific collecting of endangered species. And, as the ABC article points out, that almost inevitably includes almost any newly discovered species, as the very fact that they have only just been discovered will almost certainly mean that they are very rare, if not endangered.

It is also an example of how CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) fails to protect some of the rarest wildlife. The species protected under CITES have to be listed in one of the three Appendices; consequently if a species is newly described or so rare that there is arguably no trade in it, then it is likely to be unprotected. And while there are exemptions for scientific specimens to be moved around the world, it should be totally contrary to the spirit of CITES to allow specimens of this nature to be collected and shipped to American museums.

First of all, the international scientific and ornithological community should publicly condemn the museum, and its staff for these actions. They should also condemn the National Geographic Society for funding such an activity.

Second, the Parties to CITES should find a mechanism to prevent such specimens being allowed to be sent to museums.

The following quote from the Louisiana Museum Newsletter for November 2006 illustrates the cavalier attitude the the killing of some of the world's least known and probably rarest birds:

With his fifth grant from the National Geographic Society’s Committee for Research and Exploration, and a gift from a good friend of the Museum, Staff Research Associate John P. O’Neill planned and led an expedition to a remote area of northern Peru. The aim of the expedition was to explore the southern section of the Cordillera del Cóndor on the border of Ecuador in the department of Cajamarca.....

..... After only a few days Santiago was able to see and then collect an antpitta – the first specimen from Perú and a new species for the LSUMNS collection! He also found other interesting birds such as two species of tapaculos (family hynocryptidae), a variety of hummingbirds and tanagers, and many other birds, most of which did not occur at the 1800 meter base camp. He soon also collected a specimen of the Flammulated Treehaunter, Thripadectes flammulatus, a member of the family Furnariidae, and one of the few members of that family for which no tissue existed. This is especially important because of Dr. Remsen’s and Dr. Brumfield’s NSF-funded project to study the phylogeny of this huge Neotropical family of birds .....

..... While the saga of new birds was ongoing at the higher camps, the Schmitt’s and Sandesh Kadur arrived at the base camp on June 29, adding great talent to the kinning and hunting efforts. Jonathon, only 17 years old, has already been on several expeditions and is now a skilled hunter and an excellent preparer of specimens. He concentrated his efforts on collecting the dozen or more sympatric
species of Tangara tanagers that were at the 1800 meter camp, as well as other interesting species (including the only specimen of the Equatorial Graytail, (Xenerpestes singularis), collected on the expedition. This small member of the furnariid family is very poorly known. Shortly after the Schmitts arrived, Santiago went out one morning and came upon a flock of Whitebreasted Parakeets and managed to collect two specimens – a new species for Perú and also for the LSUMNS collection!
Finally we had to make a schedule to take down the camps, stop preparing birds, and prepare to leave. Our allotted time had run out. With the almost continuous rain of the previous 50 days or so the trails were now nearly three feet deep in thick, gooey mud. Thanks to our new local friends we were able to get enough mules to get all of our stuff off the mountain and down to where trucks could be used in only two days. Some work had been done on the road and we were able to slip and slide down to where it was dryer. We actually made it out from camp to Jaen in three days – a iracle! Soon we were in Jaen where it was warm and dry, sleeping in beds, eating in a restaurant, and all was peaceful. But, in reality, we knew that we had not finished our work in the Cordillera del Condor, and likely would not be able to go back. That’s the way it is in Perú – there is always more to do and there will always be new discoveries. We do not seem to have found any new species, but we did get two species new for Peru and new for the LSUMNS collection and we have many interesting records of birds from an area that was once a total biological unknown.
I might also add that a major book on the birds of Peru written by Tom Schulenberg, Doug Stotz, Dan Lane, and I, and illustrated by 13 of the world’s best artists is now in press (Princeton University Press).

When the World Land Trust first learned of this issue, the Chairman of the Trustees immediately wrote to BirdLife International requesting that it take a firm stance against such collecting.

Thursday, 28 June 2007

Poverty: who is responsible

For the past 50 years aid agencies have been sending billions of dollars-worth of aid to Africa, propping up, often corrupt, governments, creating markets for the products of the industrialised world, dumping unwanted surpluses, and distorting local economies and creating dependency. Droughts and other catastrophes, both natural and man-made occur, and will continue to occur, at regular intervals, and the aid agencies launch emergency appeals to save the starving, to send food, medicines, shelter etc. And meanwhile the human population continues to grow, further outstripping local resources. Millions of people are forced into urban slums or refugee camps, where they become totally dependent on further aid.

When an aid agency rushes in, does it ever consider the long term consequences? Or the ecological implications? Now don't get me wrong, I am not saying we should not show compassion, but when compassion is highly selective, and politically or economically motivated, then I think searching questions should be asked.

None of the aid agencies, whether government funded or NGOs are consistent in the way they apply their criteria. They are always making subjective judgements on where to send their limited funding. They are already 'playing god' -- all I am suggesting is that the short term tactics should always consider the long term strategic implications of aid; and in particular the ecological aspects, as in many cases the human population is part of that ecosystem. This is very rarely considered, and as a consequence, throughout the world impoverished populations continue to grow at an alarming rate. When disasters strike they will cause untold misery and suffering -- surely it is just another form of genocide? Most aid to Africa appears to be used to treat the symptoms of poverty not the causes. To use a single example close to my heart -- goats and livestock are given to poor farmers to alleviate hunger. But the cause of the poverty is often the habitat destruction caused by too high a human population, which in turn owns too many grazing animals, which are destroying the very resource on which livestock depends -- as well as displacing entire ecosystems.


SS Bob, Bono and others may believe they can 'make poverty history'. Personally I think this is an utter delusion if you try and do it with aid, whether it is food or cash. And history is on my side. Aid the way it is delivered by most western agencies is another form of imperialism -- thrusting our values on unrelated cultures. What appears superficially altruistic is in fact far from it. As many more qualified than I have pointed out most foreign aid benefits the donor country more than the intended recipients.

And finally, have any of the agencies, and altruistic individuals claiming to want to wipe out poverty actually thought what the implications are? How much water, how much energy, how much food is needed? Where will it come from? I personally do not believe in miracles. I am a rationalist. And if you look at these issues rationally, there simply are not enough resources to go round.

Intelligent Giving

Intelligent Giving is a website that provides summary data about charities. It is critical, and certainly aims to keep us all on our toes. While there is room for improvement in the way the WLT reports its activities, I was very please to read the following description of the WLT

It's clear that the purchases involve plenty of hands-on evaluation before they go ahead, but the solid annual report and patronage by David Attenborough suggest to us targeted and efficient work.

Other charities carrying out similar work to the WLT, did not come out of Intelligent Giving's evaluation too well.

With all the publicity generated by the BBC Wildlife Fund, and the BBC's Saving Planet Earth season, the WLT has seen a massive interest in its activities, and in particular corporate donations have risen. And this is despite the fact that the WLT is not one of the recipient charities of the BBC Campaign. As one of the Trustees of the BBC Wildlife Fund, I will be closely involved in the disbursement of funds, and am really encouraged by the huge increase in interest in wildlife conservation that this latest David Attenborough series has initiated. Paul Appleby, Neil Nightingale and all the rest of the BBC Natural History Unit behind this innovative series are to be heartily congratulated. Let's hope it becomes an annual event.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

BBC Saving Planet Earth

Today sees the launch, by our Patron, Sir David Attenborough, of the BBC's Saving Planet Earth series. And I was very pleased indeed to read Sir David's quotes in the Radio Times, giving emphasis to the human population problem.

The intention of the Saving Planet Earth series is to raise public awareness of worldwide conservation issues. But in addition, it will also be the first time that the BBC has used a series such as this to raise funds to support conservation. Using the precedents of Children in Need and Comic Relief, appeals will be broadcast in association with the transmission of programmes.

I was honoured to be asked to be a Trustee of the new BBC Wildlife Fund, (
which has been established to gather the funds, and later to decide which projects to support. Of course we have no idea how much the BBC WF will raise, but it could be significant amounts of funds, which will enable us to give support to a wide range of projects. Interestingly the WLT is receiving more enquiries than ever from businesses wanting to support conservation through the World Land Trust. But as I emphasised at our Annual General Meeting, last week, it is the individual supporters that give the WLT its strength. All of you out there in cyberspace reading this blog, are important to us, whether or not you donate regularly, occasionally or never. If it is the latter, I hope you will spread the word.

Last week the Trustees agreed to fund several more land purchases -- one in the tropical forests of the Dry Chaco, and another parcel of land in the Paraguayan Pantanal, completing the first phase of the Three Giants Reserve. And Ocean Contract Cleaning donated £50,000 to our projects in Paraguay. The WLT is really begining to grow, but we still need more support -- forest continue to disappear at an alarming rate, so the more we can save, the better for the future of our planet.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Cool Earth

I have been bombarded with supporters asking what Cool Earth is all about. When David Milliband and Frank Field announced this 'new idea' last year at the time of the Labour Party Conference, I wrote and told them the World Land Trust had been doing precisely what they were proposing for nearly 20 years.

Then with a great song and dance it was announced that this 'new initiative' was going ahead in the the Sun newspaper of 6 June. It's great that more people are following the WLT's model -- after 20 years of hard work, it is now becoming mainstream to conservation. Yet I recall a time when most of the big conservation charities would not lend their support -- that is why the WLT was formed. The WLT has always prided itself on its transparency, and clarity of its projects, as well as the science behind them. We also aim to be innovative, and were one of the first conservation charities to fully utilise the Internet for fund raising and the first to become involved with carbon sequestration. With everyone jumping on the carbon bandwagon, the Trust will continue to maintain its integrity, and put biodiversity first.

So to all those that ask, we did know about Cool Earth, and the founders were aware of the World Land Trust (they must have been, because if you type into Google buy an acre of rainforest, guess which organisation comes up top). Why they felt it necessary to found another organisation, only they can answer. I sincerely hope that they live up to their promises, but until their accounts are published there is no way of telling. I suppose I always have an inherent distrust of anything hyped by governments, and a launch on a grand scale makes one wonder where all the funds are going. But we should give any initiative like this the benefit of the doubt. But as I always advise any donor to any charity, it is essential you look at the accounts and the track record before committing funds.

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Aid charities: A receiver's perspective

The following was forwarded to me from Maneka Gandhi from India.

It is unedited, and a personal opinion, not that of the WLT, though there is much in it that I personally believe needs serious consideration.

Unfortunately not many of the people actually involved in receiving aid of this sort have access to the internet, so their views are not easily obtained. But it does strike a chord -- I know one of the smaller organisations marketting goats does pay its director around £80,000 a year -- which is pretty galling when you know what that could achieve if it was paid direct to Indian charities.

Nothing irritates me more than the charities abroad that collect money and purport to give it to women or children or for animals in Asia or Africa. Very little reaches the country or the cause for which it is meant - I have seen this happen in the animal world so many times. Most of it goes towards their own "infrastructure", which means rent, staff, travel and "investigation".One organization ran a campaign for many years for saving bears in India . It came to India six times a year to see the situation of bears. It hired consultants from Australia and Argentina. No money came to India. I complained to Charity Commission of that country and it was discovered the fine print said that the organization could do what it wanted with the donated money. Finally, the head of the organization was investigated and removed. A little money was sent to us and a small bear sanctuary was built.

A horse care organization came to India after running a campaign abroad on how badly Indian horses were treated. They brought money, gave it to a lawyer who bought a house and car with it and disappeared. Now it teaches about five farriers a year and that's it. But their international campaign for money continues.

Yet another organization came in to keep donkeys. In 10 years they have kept 70 donkeys in their enclosure and treated another 50. They come from Europe at least once a month, three days at a time, and stay in five star hotels to check whether their Indian doctors are working.

Recently, a watch company held an elephant polo match. The company gave half a million pounds to an international organization that collects money to save Indian elephants for a foreign charity. The Indian elephant NGO that had been reluctantly roped into this illegal and unhappy venture got 8,000 pounds with a promise of 25,000 more. That's it.

Now Oxfam and Christian Aid have come out with their own scam. For anyone who wants to feel good by giving a present to someone who has everything already, you can buy a goat in their name or a donkey, pig, chicken, calf or rabbit. Once the donor pays, the animal is sent to a "developing" country. The scheme is sold by describing it as a "real statement to world development and poverty alleviation". There are 750 Oxfam shops in England. These charities are wooing the ethical shopper with pictures of goats wearing Christmas hats and promises of helping the poor in developing countries. According to environmentalists, it is madness to send goats, cows and chickens to areas where they will add to the problems of drought and desertification. Goats have a devastating effect because each goat eats all the grass and shrubbery on two hectares of land a year. A goat destroys the fertility of land and any milk or dung it may give is very little compared to the havoc it wreaks. Within two years, the people who have goats have an even poorer lifestyle - there are village quarrels on community grazing; the children are taken out of school to graze the goats, water becomes even scarcer.

All farmed animals require proper nourishment, large quantities of water, shelter from extremes and veterinary care. Such resources are in critically short supply in much of Africa and Asia . These programs are irresponsible and misguided. Instead of helping impoverished communities in the developing world flourish it is spreading disease, damaging the environment and wiping out vital water supplies. Two goats can reduce the amount of farmland available to local people and result in villages becoming deserted while a cow, at £750, will drink up to 90 liters of water every single day.

Oxfam and Christian Aid now say that its critics have misunderstood its program. The purchase of a goat, the charities said, did not necessarily mean that a goat was bought! The money goes into a farming and livestock fund to be distributed by local project managers. This means, basically, that more staffers will be given money. If people have paid money for 5,000 animals, less than 200 will actually reach - I can bet on it. This is simply cynical exploitation of animals and poor people. There is a huge appetite for ethical gifts - it has trebled in the last three years. It is easy to use India or Africa as a way to raise money. But basically it is a fundraising mechanism for charities - with about 10 per cent reaching the designated country.

I don't know if this 10% figure is correct for aid charities -- it certainly is not true for the WLT -- we aim to get over 85% of our restricted funds to the actual projects, and the spent in the destination country. It would be interesting to know more about the actual figures. And I certainly would not endorse the descriptions of Oxfam running fundraising 'scams'. I only publish this because it does give a sense of how some people living in recipient countries perceive aid. Normally we only see pictures of happy smiling recipients -- well you would wouldn't you -- and the voices of the critics are rarely heard.