wildlife

How collaboration is saving rhinos

Early last week I attended one of the most inspiring events that I’ve ever been to. It was the launch of Remembering Rhinos, a collaboration in book form of some of the world’s best wildlife photographers with the collective goal of raising much needed funds for rhino conservation. Not only is the book a stunning collection of breath-taking photos highlighting the five species of rhino in Africa and Asia, but it has so far to date raised £115,000 of which 100% is going directly into helping these prehistoric creatures in the areas where protection is needed the most.

The book

The book itself is the second in the series following last year’s Remembering Elephants. This ran on the same principle and has since raised £135,000 which has gone directly into elephant conservation in Kenya, Mali, Malawi, Ethiopia and Zimbabwe.

After seeing a poached elephant first hand, founder Margot Raggett decided to spring into action and really do something to help; not wanting to be someone who sees the destruction in the world and simply despairs about what to do before going back to her everyday life. After speaking out to photographer friends and getting in touch with some of the current leaders in the industry, she quickly found that everyone was willing to help when it came to an initiative to protect these creatures that are so terribly running out of time. All of the photos in the book were donated by the photographers, and the initial funding of the book printing was raised by a Kickstarter campaign back in February, meaning that 100% of the money spent on purchasing a copy of Remembering Rhinos goes straight into conserving them on the ground.

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Why do we need to protect rhinos?

Rhinos are in dire need of our help. We hear about their declining numbers but do we really know the full extent of the problem? There are currently five species of rhino left in the world, two in Africa and three in Asia, of which one of the species, the Javan rhino, have less than 60 individuals remaining.

The preposterous reason behind the slaughter of so many of these huge mammals is for their characteristic horn. Rhino horn is made out of keratin, which is the same substance that makes up our own human hair and nails. Yet there is a huge market for it in Asia, both for medicinal use, of which it has none, and for use as a status symbol.

There have been countless claims from these markets where there is demand that rhino horn can be used as a cure for everything from a hangover to cancer. Together with this, the rhino horn market has recently had a huge shift with the demand being more for use as a status symbol. Yes, people would gain a product that a precious animal has lost its life for to be used to brag to friends, in the form of carved bracelets and jewellery pieces, as well as ground down as an alternative to cocaine.

Poaching

Poaching has now got so bad that for one species, the northern white rhino, there are only three individuals left in the entire world, two females and a male, all of which are incapable of reproducing. Anti-poaching patrols work tirelessly to protect these animals, but it is simply not enough. There is not enough funding to sustain it, and purchase the technology needed to aid these heroes in protecting these wonderful animals. But that is where Remembering Rhinos is doing a terrific job.

Rhino horn trade

During the event, I was honoured to be in the presence of great conservationists who risk their lives to protect these precious creatures. But unfortunately, that also means learning about the horrendous rhino horn trade. I was absolutely astonished to learn about the prices that people in Asia would pay for something that is exactly the same as the nails on their own hands; $80,000/kg for a rhino horn bracelet, $50,000/kg for a slice of rhino horn, and $120,000/kg for a rhino horn wedding ring, to name just a few of the many preposterous items.

To legalise or not

There is currently debate occurring about whether to legalise the sale of rhino horn or not. The thinking behind this is that rhino horn, unlike ivory from elephant tusks, grows back. Rhino horn is not connected to a rhino’s skull, and if done properly, it does not cause much harm to the rhino to “trim” the horn just as we would do our nails and hair. So why not just legalise the sale of rhino horn to eliminate the illegal market and stop the killing of rhinos?

This is the argument of some people, but unfortunately it is highly flawed. In a perfect, imaginary world perhaps harvesting rhino horn would work, but sadly, not in our world. If rhino horn was sold legally for, $50,000/kg, poachers would sell it for $40,000. If rhino horn decreased to $40,000, the poachers would sell it for $25,000. At those prices, there is still an enormous profit to be made. We must also remember that the poachers on the ground are not the problem, and would do a lot of things to earn some money to feed their families; it is the heads of the poaching syndicates that are the cause of this market and the killing of the rhinos.

Together with this, well calculated figures have shown that “rhino farmers” who harvest rhino horn do not have nearly enough to sustain the market, meaning that poaching would still continue to fill the current demand. Added to this the fact that the same idea was thought about legalising the ivory market a while back, thinking that this will eliminate the killing of elephants as demand for ivory was met with stockpiles. They were incredibly wrong which had a disastrous effect on elephant populations.

I’ll never forget the time that I was working in South Africa with an anti-poaching unit and they told me that even if a rhino has had its horn safely removed by its owner, this will not deter the poachers and they will kill the animal anyway. It takes a lot of effort to poach a rhino, sometimes trekking for many days, cutting fences and risking their lives unseen, whilst tracking a rhino day and night. If the poachers then finally get to the animal to find that all they have is a small stump of a horn, they will kill it regardless and hack out that stump, knowing that that small part will still earn them more money than they would ordinarily make in years.

How can you help?

It’s simple. Spread awareness. Share articles, images and videos that highlight the plight of our rhinos, how crucial it is to protect them and how important it is to educate people about the non-existent medicinal uses of rhino horn.

Chew your nails. Save a rhino.

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Why we should all love vultures

When most people think of vultures, they envisage giant, feathered, dirty scavengers, the characters from the Lion King hanging around on the branch without really contributing much, and big scary birds to be afraid of. But vultures are in fact hugely important to a healthy ecosystem, and keep everything in balance in the natural world. Today is International Vulture Awareness Day, which is a day to understand and share the plight of these ancient creatures that frankly, the world would be a very different place without.

What actually are vultures?

Vultures are birds of prey that can actually be split up into a total of 23 different species, and each have their own unique role to play within an ecosystem, which they are specially adapted for. In fact, at least one type of vulture can be found on every continent except Australia and Antarctica. Primarily, they can be split into two types, the New World vultures, which include the Andean condors and are found in the Americas and Caribbean, and the Old World vultures, which are those that can be seen around carcasses in Africa. For this article, we are going to focus mainly on the Old World vultures.

Known as ‘nature’s garbage collectors’, these birds are classed as scavengers because they often eat the leftover parts of carcasses that have been discarded after the initial predators have eaten the main parts of meat, or the parts that other animals are unable to digest.

Why do they get a bad name?

Due to their scavenging nature, vultures have been given a bad name, both when seen by tourists in the wild, by the media and in fiction films. People have the perception of scavengers scrounging from others who have made huge efforts to get their kill, instead of finding their own food. But the truth is, vultures often indulge in the parts of the carcass that would otherwise be left to rot, meaning that diseases would be spread, and frankly, the wild would be a very messy place. According to the IVAD website, studies have shown that in areas that contain no vultures, carcasses can take up to four times longer to decompose, which means a much higher spread of diseases in wild and domestic animals, which can be further spread to humans.

Another reason why they get a bad name is because it has been commonly said that vultures circle above a dying animal, waiting to feed. This is a myth. Whilst it is true that vultures can be seen circling in the sky, what they are actually doing is catching thermals which helps them to stay in the air whilst they look for food using their incredible sense of sight or smell.

Why are they so important?

Although vultures prefer to eat fresh meat, they are still able to consume rotting carcasses due to their strong stomach acid which kills any bacteria from the carcass that would be toxic to other animals. In this way, they are crucial to an ecosystem because they prevent the spread of diseases to many other animals.

When you look at vultures, you will also notice that despite their huge feathers, their head and neck is completely clear of any feathers at all. This is a special adaptation which means that any bacteria or parasites from the rotting carcass cannot latch on to the vultures, which therefore stops any infections.

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How are they under threat?

Perhaps lesser known than the plight of rhinos, tigers and elephants, vultures are also severely under threat for many different reasons. Out of the 23 species of vulture, 14 of those are currently considered to be either threatened or endangered.

One of the factors that aid hugely in their decline is the act of poacher poisoning. This is done in a few different ways depending on the desired outcome. One way is not targeted directly to vultures at all, but can result in a huge number of bird deaths. This involves poachers poisoning an elephant with a dart, for example, which will eventually kill it. Not only is this devastating due to the loss of an elephant, but it also means the death of any other animal that feeds on that carcass, which is now poisoned throughout. Just one elephant that has been killed by dart poisoning could then unintentionally cause the death of a large number of lions, hyenas, leopards and vultures. Furthermore, as many species of vultures work on a single carcass together, this one elephant poisoning could cause the death of hundreds of vultures.

Another way that vultures are poisoned is one that is specifically targeted at killing them. Due to the huge illegal wildlife trade in rhino horn and elephant ivory, there are many carcasses for the vultures to feed on. However, as the vultures are seen locating the carcass in the sky before swooping down to have their meal, these sights of huge numbers of vultures above a carcass are a key signal for the authorities to find the carcass quickly, and be on the tracks of the poachers. As poachers do not want an increased chance of being caught, they purposely poison the carcasses, causing vulture populations to severely decline.

A further factor that causes the decline of vulture populations is ancient traditions in certain cultures that use various parts of a vulture for medicines, of which 29% of vulture deaths are attributed to. In some cases, individuals will use the eyes of a vulture, as they believe that this helps them see into the future due to the impeccable eyesight of the birds, whilst in other cases they will smoke the vulture brains, as they believe this will bring them good luck.

What can you do?

As always, the best thing that you can do is spread awareness on the issues surrounding the drastic declines in vulture populations around the world. The majority of people will not know about their decline, or about why it is so important for us to protect them. The main reason why the drastic decline of vultures is so devastating is because the loss of vultures will also lead to the loss of many other species.

In addition, you can support and donate to organisations that work to protect vultures in the wild, including monitoring their numbers and reducing their threats. These include VulPro, 4Vultures, Tusk, and BirdLife.

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Nothing sacred: oil drilling on Leith Hill

There are 46 recognised Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty spread across England, Wales and Northern Ireland. These sites, considered to be some of the finest landscapes in the country, are protected under the 1949 National Parks and Access to Countryside Act, as well as the 2000 Countryside and Rights of Way Act. The apparent purpose of this designation and protection scheme is to ensure that the fragile natural beauty of these areas is conserved and enhanced. In addition, the AONB designation aims to meet the need for quiet enjoyment of the countryside, whilst simultaneously having regard for the interests of those who live and work there.

One might assume, therefore, that carrying out exploratory drilling for oil might not be permitted in such areas, yet this is exactly what is being proposed – and is on the verge of being successfully pushed through – at Leith Hill in Surrey.

Not just an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty but also an Area of Great Landscape Value, Leith Hill is seen by many as the jewel of the Surrey Hills. A great place to hike, cycle or just enjoy some family time together, Leith Hill is an area synonymous with tranquillity, rich in wildlife and boasting some stunning views of the surrounding areas. Unfortunately, it is also an area which has caught the attention of Europa Oil and Gas (Ltd), who since 2009 have been seeking permission to explore the area for hydrocarbons, with a view to extracting oil. Despite Europa’s own claim that there is only a 30% chance of detecting hydrocarbons, the company has continued to file a series of planning applications and legal appeals.

Naturally, local citizens have fought hard to stop Europa, alongside the Surrey Hills AONB Board, the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England. In the early stages of proceedings it looked as if Europa’s hopes would be dashed as Surrey County Council refused the initial application. However, in a crushing blow to local democracy and in the apparent “national interest” this was overturned by appeal to the High Courts.

So what now? Sadly, after years of back and forth it seems that Europa may have finally secured the right to carry out the exploratory drilling, pending some final application approvals. What this means for the area could be devastating. Not only does the drilling jeopardise the safety of the local water supply, it could also have permanent damaging effects on the surrounding countryside and the wildlife that inhabits it.

It has been estimated that the project will involve over 1000 heavy goods vehicles having to make their way up the hill to the drilling site which is located near the picturesque village of Coldharbour. Not only is this likely to cause severe congestion and risk road safety, but will also likely cause significant damage to the delicate sandstone banks of the sunken lanes, which are home to a number of highly endangered species such as dormice. In addition, the banks themselves are not only incredibly delicate, but also unique, historic and – most importantly – irreplaceable. Even one collision between an HGV and the high banks could have a devastating effect, not only to the bank but also to the trees whose roots hold the sandstone together in many places. Despite Europa’s claims that their HGVs will be able to pass along the sunken lanes, their simulations are flawed and it is naive to think that not one collision will occur with over 1000 vehicles using the roads.

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As well as a sudden increase to road traffic, a combination of gas flaring and bore hole venting during the proposed drilling will also cause significant air pollution which can have a range of negative effects on local residents and wildlife. As well as badgers, foxes and deer, Leith Hill is also home to a number of bird species, some of which are on the RSPB Red List, meaning that they are globally endangered and that their numbers are in rapid decline. And it’s not just pollution that threatens the wildlife on Leith Hill, as areas of land will also need to be clear felled to accommodate the operation, leading to wildlife habitat loss.

Perhaps most concerning of all are the plans to erect a 35 metre high oil rig, which will stand at twice the height of Leith Tower, making it one of the highest points in the area. Not only will the rig require an aircraft warning light due to its height, it will also be fully illuminated at night, with the surrounding compound being floodlit for security and safety measures. This is very likely to cause havoc for the number of owl and bat species who rely on the natural darkness of the area to carry out their nocturnal hunts. Such a disturbance could drive these creatures away. Not only would that be a great shame for the area, but could also have implications upon the local ecosystem.

With so much at stake you have to wonder, how and why can this project be allowed to continue? The answer, as always, is money. Prior to Leith Hill being selected by Europa Oil and Gas, five other sites were also assessed yet deemed unsuitable. The reasons given by Europa for not choosing either of these alternative sites were wide ranging but in some cases included highway capacity issues and historical and ecological importance. As it transpires, all the reasons given for not selecting the other sites also apply to the site at Leith Hill. The only difference being an existing track-way of compacted hard-standing at Leith Hill which will reduce primary set-up costs for Europa. It seems the historical and ecological importance is secondary to Europa’s bottom line.

In 1945, as the Second World War came to an end, architect-planner John Dower delivered a report to the Government suggesting that certain natural areas required legal protection. As our country moved forwards into an era of optimism and confidence, he recognised the importance of our natural environment, and the joy it could provide for generations to come. John Dower’s report eventually led to the The National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which in turn brought with it the Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty designation. These terms were more than just labels though, they meant something. They were a message to future generations that the land we live upon is sacred, beautiful and worthy of protection. It seems that this message goes unheard these days however, as commercialisation and capitalism tear through national parks, metropolitan greenbelts and areas of outstanding natural beauty, with little regard for what gets left in their wake.

What can I do?

The campaign that has been fought tirelessly at Leith Hill is far from over. The ball may be somewhat in Europa’s court at present, but they have still yet to secure all necessary permissions to begin drilling. Thankfully a group of hardworking activists at Leith Hill Action Group continue to scrutinise every planning application that Europa submit, and have been working non-stop raising funds for appeals and inquiries for several years. If you wish to help the cause by making a donation, then please click here.

A Voice for Leith Hill are a community group of local artists, musicians and environmentalists who aim to raise awareness concerning the proposed drilling, and peacefully protest against it via a range of local events. If you wish to get involved with their movement, then please visit their Facebook page.

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From town to countryside, British hedgehogs need our help

Hedgehogs are a much loved species. Their distinctive and unique appearance makes them a favourite of many wildlife lovers across the country. Considered by many to be the British national animal, hedgehog numbers have declined rapidly in recent years. In the mid 1950’s it is believed that 36.5 million hedgehogs lived in Britain. The number today sits at just under a million. Most startling of all is that a third of this loss has occurred in the last ten years.

The biggest threat to hedgehogs is habitat loss, mostly brought on by the change from pastoral farming to arable crops over the last 30 years. Most arable farmland is unsuitable for hedgehogs, with limited availability of foraging or nesting sites. In addition, the increase in building developments in rural areas has led to a further reduction of habitat. These factors combined not only make it harder for hedgehogs to survive the long winters, but also force them to share limited space and resources with predatory badgers.

The harsh chemicals increasingly used in farming are also a threat as they kill the animals hedgehogs rely on for food, and in many instances can poison the hedgehogs themselves. An analysis by the People’s Trust for Endangered Species in 2015 showed that rural hedgehog populations had dropped by at least a half since 2000. Increased road traffic has also had a huge impact on hedgehog numbers, with an estimated 50,000 killed on our roads each year.

In urban areas there are many issues too. The “State of Britain’s Hedgehogs” survey found that urban hedgehog numbers dropped by a third from 2000 to 2015. An annual survey by BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine found that 51% of people did not see a hedgehog at all in 2016, up from 48% in 2015. Just 12% saw a hedgehog regularly. These numbers make for depressing reading when you consider that hedgehogs were once considered a common sight in British gardens.

The main threats to urban hedgehogs, other than roads, are mostly found within our own gardens. Chemicals found in pesticides and slug pellets can be fatal to hedgehogs, as well as other wildlife, and should be replaced by natural, humane alternatives. Wild gardens and messy areas can be havens for hedgehogs, but it is vital that gardeners check compost heaps before turning them over, and piles of logs, leaves and other similar materials before burning them. The same consideration should be given to strimming tall grass as hedgehogs often rest there during the day. If you have a pond in your garden then this could be a hazard too and will need to be made hedgehog friendly. This can be achieved by making it easy for a hedgehog to climb out of the water using stones, a climbing net or even a makeshift hedgehog ladder!

Another important and effective way of helping hedgehogs in built up areas is to create a “Hedgehog Highway“; a series of holes in garden fences to create easy access for hedgehogs across neighbouring properties. According to online campaigners Hedgehog Street, “we now know that one of the main reasons why hedgehogs are declining in Britain is because our fences and walls are becoming more and more secure, reducing the amount of land available to them…ensuring hedgehogs can pass freely through your garden is the most important thing you can do to help them“. Because hedgehogs are nocturnal and travel up to a mile each night looking for food, it’s important that you make it easy for them to make their nightly commutes. Even if you don’t have a hedgehog in your garden, working with your neighbours to create a clear access across several gardens is really important.

As well as making your garden generally safer for hedgehogs, you may wish to make it an inviting haven for them to stay in. Turning all or part of your garden into a suitable habitat for hedgehogs is easy, and is a great way to do your part for the survival of the species. Neat and tidy gardens do not make good hedgehog homes, so consider letting an area of your garden grow wild, or creating a log pile or overgrown area for them. You can also supplement their existing diet by leaving out a small amount of good quality dog or cat food for them each evening. This not only makes your garden a more inviting place to stay, but helps the hedgehog get the much needed calories it needs in order to hibernate. Make sure not to give them fish-based foods, bread or milk though, as these are not good for hedgehogs and can cause sickness. It’s also important to leave some drinking water for them too, especially during spells of hot weather.

If you are lucky enough to see a hedgehog in your garden then you shouldn’t pick it up unless you suspect it being sick or injured. Any hedgehog out in the open during the day is likely to be in poor health or injured, and should be taken to your nearest wildlife rescue centre. If a hedgehog looks particularly thin, especially in the months leading up to winter, then it may need to be treated by a professional. In any situation it is generally best to contact a wildlife rescue centre before handling the animal, in order to get professional advice.

If you don’t have a garden, or are unable to create a hedgehog haven, there are still several ways you can help. By supporting groups such as The British Hedgehog Preservation Society and Hedgehog Street you can help others make a difference. Hedgehogs are a much beloved species in Britain, and one that we can all do our bit to protect. By working together to educate, spread awareness and increase direct action we can do exactly that.

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Newlands Corner: commercialisation of the countryside

Newlands Corner is a natural area of outstanding beauty set in the Surrey Downs just off the A25, and owned by the Albury Estate. Thanks to an agreement between the landowners and Surrey County Council, the public have had access to this site since the 1970s. Maintained by Surrey Wildlife Trust on behalf of SCC this beauty spot is a very popular place to visit. It covers approximately 255 acres of open chalk downland and peaceful woodlands. The woodlands are made up of a mixture of deciduous trees like oak and birch and evergreen yew, some of which are hundreds of years old. Shady pathways meander through woods that shelter roe deer as well as being home to green woodpeckers, nuthatches and tawny owls.

I began visiting Newlands corner over thirty years ago when my four children were small. We spent hours walking the meandering trails, stopping to climb suitable trees on the way or playing hide and seek. At other times we picnicked out on the open hillside, taking in the amazing view. Thirty years on I am visiting Newlands Corner with my grandchildren who love it just as much as my children did. I also regularly visit Newlands Corner with my art group to attempt to paint the landscape spread out in the valley below.

I can’t emphasise enough just how wonderful Newlands Corner is. Unchanging, beautiful and a haven for wildlife. It’s not just me who feels this – an estimated 550,000 people visit Newlands Corner every year from all walks of life. With a good size car park, a burger stand with outside picnic tables, a small visitors centre, a little play area and toilets, it caters for every need.

Of course a place like Newlands Corner needs to be maintained and cared for, which is done by Surrey Wildlife Trust. Such maintenance covers activities such as litter picking, clearing paths, dog bins, tree safety and car park maintenance.

So what has changed?

Surrey County Council have decided that Newlands Corner needs upgrading so that the site is more accessible and attractive to people of all ages and abilities. This is a fair point, as everyone from babies in pushchairs to the disabled in wheelchairs should be able to enjoy Newlands Corner. They also plan to refurbish the toilets, another good point as the toilets are tired and run down. Plans also include more benches, again a worthwhile change.

So far so good.

Unfortunately, they also plan to impose parking charges, as detailed below.

Charging details:

  • A 20 minute period with no charge
  • £1 per hour to a maximum of £4 for 4 hours or more
  • An annual season ticket for regular visitors costing £40
  • No charge for Blue Badge holders when parking in the marked disabled bays

As this appears to have been passed, we will soon see parking meters installed on the site.

As well as charging to park SCC also plan to install:

  • 6 timber and rope play structures with metal fixing bolts. Each play structure is to be located in existing woodland clearings, adjacent to the existing Easy Access trail.
  • 8 brass rubbing and magnifying posts placed at different locations also on the Easy Access trail

Parking fees is part of a bigger plan to turn Newlands Corner into a ‘visitors attraction’ that will make money. In these days of austerity it seems ridiculous that SCC are prepared to use funds to install parking meters, when the money could be better used to fund the NHS or to keep libraries open. Will they make their money back from parking fees? Not necessarily. A lot of people who appreciate somewhere beautiful to visit that is free will stop visiting altogether. The whole point of Newlands Corner is that it is free. You can spend money if you want (I like nothing nicer than a cheese burger and chips for lunch) but the choice is yours. Charging to park could also possibly increase problems in the local area as visitors decide to park outside Newlands Corner and walk in.

Assuming that traffic does increase as a result of commercialising Newlands Corner, and people are prepared to pay the parking fees, the impact on the A25 could be horrendous. The entrance on the hill is already an accident waiting to happen and increased traffic will just add to the risk. Consequently more money will have to be spend on a road safety scheme to slow traffic past the entrance and exit to Newlands Corner. And while the changes will be funded separately by the Guildford Local Committee and not the SCC, it is still money that could be better used elsewhere.

I am also disappointed that SCC feel the need to install play structures of any kind at Newlands Corner. The whole point of Newlands Corner is that generations of children have learnt to enjoy the outdoors without the need of play structures. If visitors really need this kind of entertainment they can go to Alice Holt.

There is a lot of opposition to the commercialisation of Newlands Corner, a lot of which SCC have chosen to ignore. The Save Newlands Corner group have fought long and hard to save Newlands Corner, and continue to do so. Their site has in depth information on just what SCC has proposed and how they plan to expedite it. They need the support of us all.

Newlands Corner is not a money making venture, it is a place of tranquillity where nature can be seen at it’s best. We don’t want it turned into  a ‘visitor attraction’ that we can’t afford except on the odd occasion. We don’t want parking meters and pay-and-display signs marring the view. We don’t want or need artificial play structures along the trails. We just want Newlands Corner to be properly maintained and left exactly as it is.

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Sites to visit for the full picture from all sides.

Save Newlands Corner

Surrey County Council

Surrey Wildlife Trust


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Why should we care about bees?

The end of June brought with it the end of this year’s Great British Bee Count. And what a tremendous count it was.

It is increasingly becoming common knowledge that bees are in dire need of our help, as their rapid decline also hinders our own survival as a species. With an increased usage of pesticides and other chemicals that are hugely damaging to the lives of bees, as well as other important insects, together with the tremendous effects of climate change, it is evident that there is a lot going against them.

What is the Great British Bee Count?

The Great British Bee Count is a six week-long annual event that encourages people from all over the UK to spend some time outdoors, looking at nature, and searching for bees. Run by environmental organisation Friends of the Earth, this year’s bee count, which finished just a few days ago, was met with huge success. A total of 16,282 individuals took part in counting bees this year, recording a staggering 320,337 bees all over the UK, from the Isles of Scilly to the Shetland Islands.

It is believed that there are currently 35 species of bee that are at risk of extinction in Britain, and the nationwide bee count allows bee specialists to evaluate whether this is still the case, and precisely which species of bee need our help the most.

For those who don’t know, the bee count involved using the concise photo gallery on the Bee Count app to identify which bees you have seen and tally those up, before sending the results on to Friends of the Earth along with the location that the bee was seen. Bees were counted in various spaces, including gardens, forests and parks. My personal bee count was a huge success, with a total of 41 bees found from 6 different species with just one walk around my garden.

Although these numbers may sound reasonably high, this only averages to 20 bees per person, only half the amount that I saw with one walk around my garden, during the height of summer when bee populations are at their most plentiful. I should also add that I live in an area away from big cities and built up areas, meaning that a higher bee population would be expected.

bees

© Jessica Murray

So what’s so special about bees anyway, and why do we need them?

Did you know that around 75% of the food that we all eat needs to be pollinated, and bees are arguably the most efficient and hardest workers when it comes to pollination?

Since the beginning of the 1900s, the UK alone has lost 13 species of bee, with a further 35 currently considered to be under threat of extinction.

Climate change is a result of human impact and not taking as much care and consideration in our daily lives as we should. It is now our responsibility, as a species, to make sure that the animals that we share the planet with are best equipped to deal with the changing climate.

The Great British Bee Count is an incredible way of bringing people together to spend more time in nature, which is reflected in the fact that 97% of participants from last year’s count were inspired to help bees – in the garden, community or via social media.

If humans were to be entirely wiped out from planet Earth, it is believed that the world would eventually rejuvenate and become abundant with nature as it once was. However, if bees were to disappear from the planet, worldwide ecosystems would collapse.

How can you help?

Whilst we know a reasonable amount of information about bees, there is still a huge amount that we don’t know, which is merely heightened by bees changing their behaviour due to climate change. Bee experts are currently tallying up and analysing the results of the count to reveal which bee species are most endangered, and therefore what we can do to help them. After analysing if certain species are declining, they will then be able to study whether this is due to a lack of certain plants, a strong use of pesticides in the area where they normally occur, or changing temperatures.

Monitoring bee populations helps a huge variety of people, from the government and business owners to farmers and gardeners. And through the analysis of this gathered information, we will be able to determine how best to help bees thrive for the future.

Together with species population gathering, taking part in the annual bee count and being conscious of protecting bees sends a vital message to the government about how much we care about their survival. The awareness raised will help the government, as well as the public, to see how crucial a problem this is that urgently needs to be addressed.

Bees need the same things that we do to survive – a safe climate and clean air. So by each of us doing what we can to create the ideal environment to aid bee survival, we are also creating a better environment for ourselves. And if that doesn’t motivate you, I don’t know what will.

Here are 3 simple things that you can do today to help bees:

  • Don’t use pesticides that are harmful to bees
  • Plant flowers in your garden that bees love
  • If you see a bee that looks like it’s struggling, give it some sugary water

To learn more about how we can collectively reverse the bee decline, not just in the UK but worldwide, head to Friends of the Earth.

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Palm Oil: Destruction in Every Drop

In 2012 I travelled to Borneo for what was supposed to be a two week holiday, and ended up being a two and a half year stay. It was a hard place to leave. For the most part still undiscovered and light in tourism, Borneo is a hidden world of ancient jungle and some of the most unique wildlife on the planet.

For me it was love at first sight. Borneo felt like a spiritual home, a place where I could be myself, indulge in nature and live a life free from stress and worry. In my mind, it was pointless trying to imagine any other place that could rival the beauty of the untouched beaches and jungles we found there.

Then I discovered the dark side of Borneo. It started with our visit to a local orangutan sanctuary where we found out that the species, found only in Borneo and Sumatra, is critically endangered. We learned that there are a number of reasons for this, including logging and poaching. However, the reason that was most alarming and seemed to be causing the most damage was palm oil production. Orangutan conservation group The Orangutan Project state on their website that “Palm Oil Plantations are now the leading suppliers for a global market that demands more of the tree’s versatile oil for cooking, cosmetics, and biofuel. But palm oil’s appeal comes with significant costs. Palm oil plantations often replace tropical forests, killing endangered species, uprooting local communities, and contributing to the release of climate-warming gases. The orangutans that are displaced starve to death, are killed by plantation workers as pests, or die in the fires”.

It’s hard to imagine the rate at which palm oil deforestation is occurring, and in our corner of Malaysian Borneo we didn’t really see any signs of it. Surrounded by sprawling jungles and national parks, the scale of destruction seemed both unimaginable and a world away. That was until the next time we flew into Borneo following a holiday to Singapore. On our previous arrival I had seen the neat rows of what looked like manicured jungle stretching out across the landscape, but hadn’t given it a second thought. This time I knew exactly what I was looking at, and it broke my heart. What had once been primary forest, home to countless rare and exotic creatures, had been torn down and replaced by palm trees. Forever changing the landscape, and destroying the lives of its inhabitants in the process, big businesses had pillaged the land in the name of greed.

Malaysia and Indonesia are the leading producers of palm oil, with approximately 86% of the world’s product coming from the two countries. Unfortunately, the rate at which palm oil plantations are replacing jungle in the region is unsustainable. According to a study by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), the rate of deforestation in Indonesia has grown rapidly due to the increased popularity of palm oil. In the 2007 UNEP publication “The Last Stand of the Orangutan“, it is stated: “A scenario released by UNEP in 2002 suggested that most natural rainforest in Indonesia would be degraded by 2032. Given the rate of deforestation in the past five years, and recent widespread investment in oil palm plantations and biodiesel refineries, this may have been optimistic. New estimates suggest that 98% of the forest may be destroyed by 2022.” In fact, according to the Orangutan Project, every hour 300 football fields of precious remaining forest is being ploughed to the ground across South East Asia to make way for palm oil plantations.

The thought of permanently losing the jungles of Malaysia and Indonesia is devastating. The current rates of deforestation are already killing 6000 orangutans per year. In an interview with the Independent last year, Greenpeace Chief Executive Alan Knight warned that “if the current destruction of the rainforest continues, then I have absolutely no hope that any orangutans will remain in the wild“. Asked how long they might survive, Mr Knight said: “I would probably say 10 years if we cannot stop the destruction. I think the Sumatran will go before then if they don’t sort out the situation they are in.”

The destruction of jungle in Borneo and Sumatra isn’t just devastating the habitats of orangutans, of course. Proboscis monkeys, Borneo pygmy elephants, Sumatran tigers, Malayan sun bears, Sumatran rhinos, mouse-deer and Sumatran elephants are just some of the rare and unique species being driven to extinction by this industry. Furthermore, the global impact is something that cannot be ignored. Fast becoming one of the leading causes of climate change, palm oil production is something that affects us all.

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists: “when tropical forests are cleared to make way for oil palm plantations, carbon is released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2), the gas that is the leading cause of global warming; tropical deforestation accounts for about 10 percent of total global warming emissions. But precisely because tropical forests store large amounts of carbon—both in primary (old-growth) forests and secondary (disturbed and regenerating) forests—it is important to protect these lands from oil palm development.”

The palm oil industry has also been linked to a number of human rights violations including child labour in remote parts of Malaysia and Indonesia. In addition, although the industry has created jobs and arguably injected money into some communities; there have been numerous cases of governments allowing large corporations to seize the land on which indigenous people have lived and worked for thousands of years.

No industry that puts profits before the lives of humans, the welfare of animals and the survival of our planet should be supported. As consumers, we have a responsibility to take action against it.

Living in Borneo was an experience that I will always remember as one of the best times of my life. I’ll never forget the freedom and wonder I felt when trekking through the beautiful jungles, swimming in the crystal clear waterfalls and spotting the amazing wildlife. I hope that one day my young nieces and nephews will be able to visit the place I talk so fondly of, and experience what a truly magical place it is. The way things are currently going, that won’t be possible. The jungles I trekked in my twenties could be gone before my nephew reaches adulthood, the last orangutan already a distant memory. This is not the future I want, and it’s not a future any of us should be paying for.


What can I do?

Palm oil is the most commonly produced vegetable oil, and is now found in half of all supermarket products. From pizzas, bread, cakes and biscuits to hair products, body creams and makeup, palm oil is everywhere. Unless you eat an entirely whole food diet, and prepare all your own food at home, you almost definitely consume it at some point during your day. But don’t give up hope; identifying and avoiding the majority of products containing palm oil isn’t as hard as you might think.

As of December 2014 it has been a requirement under EU law to clearly label food products containing palm oil. Although this doesn’t extend to other items such as soaps and makeup, you can either contact the manufacturer or do a quick check on the internet. A handy guide to palm oil-free products can be found here. If you do decide to stop using a product because is contains palm oil, make sure you contact the manufacturer to let them know that’s what you are doing. It’s important to let companies know that we as consumers will not give our money to the palm oil industry.

As well as avoiding palm oil in the products we use, it’s also important to continue to put pressure on the governments and the industry leaders responsible for it’s production. It’s vital that we give our support to groups that work to encourage ethical and sustainable moves within the industry, and petition to bring in stronger laws for palm oil production. RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) is the largest sustainability-focused organisation in the industry. Since forming in 2004 they have gained recognition for their work in ensuring products carrying their label only contain palm oil obtained via sustainable methods. However, at this stage its standards do not ban deforestation or habitat destruction and their stamp of approval therefore does not guarantee an ethical product. That said, it is groups such as these that will make a difference within the industry so it’s important that we work on helping them reach better goals every year.

Finally, support charities such as The Orangutan Project by adopting an orangutan, volunteering, donating or joining their Palm Oil Resistance group. Other charities such as Rainforest Rescue support people on the ground planting trees in Indonesia to try and reforest the region.

However you decide to help, your efforts can, and will, make a difference.

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