At Safari West, much of our daily work deals with scarcity. As a wildlife preserve and conservation breeding facility, we’re constantly working to help disappearing ecosystems, declining populations, and endangered species. That may be why we love Thanksgiving as much as we do. The spirit of Thanksgiving is all about recognizing the bounty of the Earth and being thankful for what we have. It’s a beautiful annual reminder that while many of our creatures are facing tremendous challenges today, the fact that they continue to exist is something to appreciate. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day of conservation work, and being reminded to step back and appreciate how far we’ve come is a much needed encouragement.
We’ve long cared for a herd of scimitar horned oryx, a species that has been extinct in the wild for nearly 30 years. This year a grand reintroduction project began in Chad and even now wild oryx are roaming through their ancestral range once again. Our rhinos are members of a species facing tremendous persecution in the wild, but just a few months ago nearly 200 countries came together at the CITES conference to establish new protections for them. In our aviary, we house a small flock of Waldrapp Ibises, the most endangered birds on property. In the last year, their wild population has actually grown. They’ve gone from roughly 300 individuals left in the wild to 600! Good news is all around us if we just take a moment to appreciate it.
November is a beautiful time at Safari West as autumn begins a slow shift toward winter. It’s a little quieter, a little cooler, and as Thanksgiving approaches, even the most diligently hardworking among our dedicated staff are encouraged to take a breath and appreciate what we have here. This is a wonderful place filled with incredible creatures and we are lucky to have the greatest people in the world helping us keep it going. Even beyond that, the guests who come visit our preserve each year are some of the most inquisitive, thoughtful, charismatic people we’ve ever had the privilege to meet.
We’re thankful for everything Safari West has given to us over the years, and deeply honored that your patronage has allowed us to continue our conservation work. Thank you all so very much and Happy Thanksgiving!
Nancy & Peter Lang
Founders of Safari West
Conservation Corner: Seafood Watch
By: Jared Paddock
There is a major problem in our oceans. Once seemingly inexhaustible in number, the fish in our seas are somehow vanishing. It sounds crazy, but it’s true. Once giant schools of mackerel and sardine, shoals of tuna, magnificent sailfish and marlin, even sharks; all of these and more are disappearing fast. What could have such a major impact on an environment that covers over 75% of the surface of the Earth? The simple answer? Us. Fish are disappearing and they’re disappearing right into our mouths.
I recently watched “The End of the Line” an award winning documentary about the overfishing crisis. In it the opposing claims of two respected scientists were debated. The first, Dr. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University conducted a study with results that indicate a 90% decline in populations of virtually all commonly targeted fish. That’s species like tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, all the fish you see in the supermarket, all of them with populations barely 10% of what they were just a hundred or so years ago. A conflicting view was proposed by Professor Ray Wilborn of the University of Washington who took exception to Worm’s methods and results. “Totally wrong,” he rebutted. “There’s just no question, that’s totally wrong.”
If you’re like me this all sounds pretty familiar. Over the last decade or two we’ve seen countless debates play out between climate scientists and climate change deniers. Before that it was between lung cancer specialists and the scientists employed by tobacco companies. It seems as though any scientific whistle-blowing has it’s contingent of ardent opposition. I assumed that once Prof. Wilborn finished picking apart the work of Dr. Worm he’d move on to explain how fish stocks remain healthy and abundant. I was wrong. His argument was simply that a more accurate measure of global decline would be 70%.
I was stunned. When it comes to fish, the argument isn’t about whether or not there’s a problem. The debate among academics is merely about exactly how catastrophic the problem is. As it turns out, global overfishing may be the most pressing conservation issue facing us today. It is for this reason that Safari West recently became a Conservation Partner of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. As a facility specializing in terrestrial mammals and birds, it might seem like Seafood Watch is a bit outside our wheelhouse. The truth however, is that the situation faced by species like bluefin tuna is eerily similar to that faced by our own white rhinos.
Like rhinos, bluefin have been hunted by humans for centuries. Also like rhinos, advances in technology, staggering increases in human population and demand, and economic pressures valuing short-term gain over long-term sustainability have lead to nearly insurmountable devastation within the population. The northern white rhino in particular serves as a poignant example as there are now only three left in existence (Please link to http://safari-west-rec.tumblr.com/post/143815154990/conservation-corner).
The plight of fish in our seas has many variables—climate change, ocean acidification, pollution—but Seafood Watch is specifically concerned with overfishing. How on earth could human beings in boats have overfished something as massive as the ocean?
First of all, bear in mind that for most of our history the seas have been like the vending machines that stand in many of our offices and break rooms. We usually can’t see into the office Coke machine, but we take for granted that if we drop in some change, we’ll be rewarded with a refreshing beverage. The sea has always been the same. We’ve generally been unable to tell how many fish are swimming off our shores but we could safely assume that if we dropped in a hook, we’d eventually pull out a fish.
For much of human history that technique has served us beautifully. In pre-industrial times the ocean kept us supplied with nutrition and our take was insignificant enough to not overly disrupt the system. Even as we took to the seas in boats designed for fishing, our impact remained relatively unchanged. We’d drop in hooks and pull out fish, but at a rate that went seemingly unnoticed by the oceans at large. It wasn’t until fishing became a large-scale commercial venture that our efforts began to have a significant impact.
A good example of this is Georges Bank, one of the most famous fisheries in the world. Situated off the north east coast of the United States, the bank used to teem with cod and halibut. It was such a profoundly fertile source of fish that in the 16th century, over half the fish consumed in Europe originated from Georges Bank. New England’s history as a commercial fishing center is based on its proximity to the bounty of Georges Bank. For hundreds of years the Bank was fished by ships dropping hooks. Even with this simple technique, the scale of the of Georges Bank catch was such that by 1850 halibut populations were nearing collapse.
But the worst was yet to come as technology improved and new gear revolutionized the fishing industry. Single hooks developed into long lines, which are literally miles-long lines of filament dangling thousands of baited hooks. With the advent of steam power drag nets came into play. Eventually, we saw the invention of the bottom-trawler; a tremendous net dragged behind a boat and scraping against the sea floor. Bottom-trawlers made it to Georges Bank by the 1920’s and were able to catch in an hour or two what the old hand-reel fishermen could catch in a month. The impact was devastating.
Bottom-trawlers—with their unfortunate side effect of demolishing the sea floor—were the worst offenders, but other commercial fishing devices were devastating as well. Gill nets and longlines are exponentially more efficient at bringing in fish that single hooks but at the cost of being completely non-discriminatory. A ship trawling for cod will inevitably haul aboard a lot more than the fish of choice including other fish species, sea birds, dolphins, sea turtles, and even sharks and rays. All this extra stuff is called “bycatch” and generally speaking, it goes right over the side and is usually dead or dying when it happens.
Let’s compare this style of fishing to some of our terrestrial hunting techniques. A single human fishing with a single baited hook or harpoon is roughly analogous to a single human hunting with a bow or spear. The take is minimal and relatively non-disruptive.
As fishing gear advanced from hooks and lines to shrimp boats and trawling nets, so too did our bows and arrows give way to high powered rifles. When it comes to the mass-capture capabilities of fishing nets however, there are few terrestrial analogues. Possibly the closest comparison we can make between hunting and our current fishing capabilities is the method of driving stampeding animals off cliffs once employed to hunt herds of American bison. By panicking an entire herd and driving them toward a precipice, hunters were able to save tremendous amounts of time and effort and kill hundreds of bison in one go. The trade off to this bounty was incredible waste since the method usually killed more animals than could be effectively used. The simultaneous annihilation of entire herds—young and old alike—had major ramifications for the long-term stability of the bison population as well.
The American bison is now the national mammal of the United States and yet relatively few Americans have ever seen one because their range is so drastically reduced. Marked declines like that of the bison have been instructive to us on land and their complete extinction was avoided in part because we were occupying the same space and could see the decline in real time. The opposite is true of our aquatic prey species. We are generally much less aware of what is happening beneath the surface of the sea. Fishing records have long suggested a decline in returns as well as a general shrinking in the size of specimens caught, but this data has gone largely unrecognized and ignored. As a species, we’ve simply been unable to imagine that there won’t always be plenty of fish in the sea.
Here’s the other piece of it; just like bison, tuna, marlin, and other large fish species aren’t born large. They’re born tiny and vulnerable and during this stage in their lives they need a place to hide. Kelp stands, beds of seagrass, coral reefs; all of these seafloor environments act as nurseries for fish fry that may one day grow to become our sashimi. When a bottom-trawler scrapes across them, these nursery habitats are heavily damaged or completely destroyed. I the most fecund of commercial fisheries, the same areas can be trawled over and over again within a single year, leaving the seafloor a sterilized wasteland.
Another misconception about how sea life works is a widespread belief that fish breed readily and often. We ate nearly all of the orange roughy before someone discovered that it takes them two decades to reach sexual maturity. We gobbled them like Thanksgiving dinner without ever realizing how long it would be before the next generation came along. In another spectacular blunder, we developed an incredibly efficient method of catching salmon as they struggled upstream by the thousands. They practically threw themselves into our nets and it wasn’t until the population completely collapsed that we realized we were catching them just before they laid the eggs that would’ve replaced them. So our practices have been ignorantly short-sighted for a long time, and now the oceans are emptying.
This is not an issue of luxury. It’s not just that we won’t be able to enjoy sushi or blackened halibut as much. Over one billion humans (that’s a full seventh of the global population) depend on fish to survive. Beyond strict necessity, fish make up over 20% of the animal protein intake for half the humans on the planet. Currently, as a species, we’re consuming at least 95 million tons of wild caught fish each year (plus an addition 75-80 million tons of farmed fish). That’s approximately 375-Billion pounds of fish! Meanwhile the bycatch—the dead and dying bystander organisms we catch by accident—we throw about 7-million tons of them back into the sea every year. Calling that amount of waste colossal doesn’t even come close.
Luckily there’s quite a lot that can be done, and from what we’ve seen the ocean appears to be both strikingly resilient and quick to rebound when given a chance. The best first step, which it seems most every scientist agrees on, is a massive scaling up of our establishment of marine protected areas (MPAs). These are essentially our national parks but in the ocean. Protected areas free of fishing are as effective than preserves on land. Without us netting them, many fish populations recover quickly.
Unlike our national parks which are usually bordered by urban development, MPAs are usually bordered by nothing but open ocean. This means that as fish populations expand, they naturally spill out of protected reserves. Many MPA advocates describe them like banks. The reserve is the initial investment and the overflow fish are the compounding interest. This methodology already has proven results. Blue Ventures (please link to www.blueventures.org), has already recorded tremendous successes with this system in Madagascar.
Over a decade ago, Blue Ventures teamed up with the people of a fishing village in southern Madagascar to close off a portion of the offshore reef in which the locals fished for octopus. After a relatively short period of time, the area was reopened with staggering results. As news of this techniques spread, other villages mimicked the technique. Eventually this lead to the first locally managed marine area (LMMA). Today there are 64 LMMAs in Madagascar which combine to protect a full 11% of the Madagascar sea floor.
In 2010, over 200 nations gathered in Japan and set a goal of protecting 10% of the entire ocean by 2020. This is an important first step toward the 30% protection determined by scientists to be a requirement for comprehensive, ocean-wide sustainability. Progress is being made but it is unnervingly slow. Numbers vary depending on the source but we’re currently only at 3-4% protection. There’s a lot of work left to be done.
There are a number of things us average citizens can do to help with this situation. Support the creation of more MPAs and pressure your leaders to that end. Another thing you can do that’s more immediate and ongoing is to join us on the Seafood Watch. The Monterey Bay Aquarium has built a useful downloadable app that highlights seafood that’s caught sustainably and that which clearly isn’t. It’s a simple to use feature on any phone and it can help you avoid buying fish that’s endangered or was caught in a destructive way. Pausing to check if the salmon at your store is a good buy or not may add a minute or two to your trip, but this truly is the most impactful thing we can do to help. Ever heard of dolphin safe tuna? Dolphins had been dying in droves as a form of bycatch and public pressure on retailers and suppliers from consumers like us changed the industry. Regulations, MPAs, and policing are important, but consumer demand shapes the market. Help us and help the seas. Pay attention to what you buy and let your grocers and restaurants know that you’re paying attention. If we each do that, we change the tide.
Safari Spotlight: Ring-tailed Lemur
One of the first species spotted by visitors to Safari West are our ring-tailed lemurs. Just west of the front office four of them leap, scamper, and sunbathe on their island home. The island is a fitting place for a ring-tail to live since all the wild lemurs in the world live on Madagascar, the fourth largest island on the planet.
In case you’ve never seen a ring-tailed lemur, imagine a fox-faced monkey with a long and thin, black-and-grey banded tail. Alternatively, you might imagine a very slender raccoon. They are relatively small, normally no more than 5-7 pounds in weight and behave much in the same way we think of monkeys or squirrels behaving. In the wilds of Madagascar they are typically found in groups of five to maybe thirty individuals capering about on the ground or leaping through the trees. They are quick, agile, and able to disappear into the forest with relative ease. Though they have large, bulbous eyes, they are actually among the most scent-dependent of the lemurs and in fact sport specialized scent glands on their wrists and chests.
These scent glands come into play in disputes and ring-tails are famous for stink-fights in which the males will rub their scent glands along their long tails and then aggressively waft their personalized stinks at one another. The scent glands are also useful for marking territory although, oddly, ring-tails aren’t known to be all that territorial. While they do maintain home ranges, there is a large degree of overlap between lemur troops. It should be noted that the females are typically more territorial than the males; not surprising considering that these primates are fundamentally matriarchal.
Ring-tailed lemurs are the most famous but hardly the only species of lemur to be found on Madagascar. In fact, currently there are roughly 100 or so lemur species scattered across the island. Though endemic to Madagascar and found nowhere else in the world, lemurs are a type of primate just like monkeys, tarsiers, apes, and of course, us. They’re known as “prosimians” and word which translates as “before apes” and are typically described as a more ancient order of primate. Don’t be confused into thinking that chimpanzees and humans evolved from lemurs however, they’re more like our very distant cousins.
Madagascar has long been isolated from the rest of Africa, and indeed from anywhere else in the world. Current theory postulates that the earliest proto-lemur likely floated the several hundred miles from mainland Africa to Madagascar some 40-65 million years ago (the 25-million year margin of error is the result of competing theories and the difficulties of placing much of anything that far in the past). On the mainland these proto-lemurs had to share the world and its resources with ancestral monkeys and apes. These simian competitors were apparently far more adaptable than the proto-lemurs and eventually drove (or at least helped to drive) them to extinction. The expatriate proto-lemurs that managed to establish themselves on far off Madagascar on the other hand, found themselves on an unexploited island ecosystem entirely free of their simian cousins. Settling in, this proto-lemur population thrived and grew. Had humans been present on Madagascar in this long-ago time, we may have considered the little creatures an invasive species. Over time the proto-lemurs began to radiate from their initial niche. They specialized, evolved, and eventually diversified into the many lemur species capering about the island today.
Part of the reason why the ring-tailed lemur is the most famous of the lemur species has to do with their social lives. No other lemur is found in groups rivaling the sizes of those among the ring-tails. This has resulted in highly structured social behaviors including complex vocalizations, dominance hierarchies, and communal grooming behaviors (they have a really cool “tooth-comb” used for grooming each other. Basically their four bottom incisors point forward and are uniformly spaced, like, well, a comb. Look it up, it’s pretty neat).
Another potential reason why we are so much more familiar with the ring-tails than any of their cousins may have to do with their role as ecological generalists. Unlike some of their more specialized relatives (The five species of bamboo lemur who like giant pandas, survive almost exclusively on a diet of nutrition-poor and cyanide-rich bamboo), ring-tails aren’t picky about what they eat. They are largely herbivorous, feasting on leaves, fruit, and other plant parts. That said, they are also known to snap up all manner of insects, lizards, and bird eggs. Using their nimble little hands they will snatch up spiders and aren’t above eating spiderwebs or even dirt when the impulse strikes.
Alongside their generalized diet, they also tend not to be too picky about where they live. The ring-tailed lemur can be found in gallery forests much like the rainforests you might find in other parts of Africa, however they are also commonly found in the spiny forests of southern Madagascar. If you’ve never heard of a “spiny forest” basically imagine a cactus garden complete with 10-15 foot tall spiny trees called Alluaudias, Euphorbias, and giant baobob trees (big, barrel-shaped trees made famous in movies like The Lion King). Ring-tailed lemurs are as comfortable in ecosystems resembling the Congo as they are in desert-like regions of spiny forest and in fact will move regularly between the two.
Madagascar today is a biosphere like no other and one in deep crisis. Thanks in large part to its isolation, the nation of Madagascar is among the poorest nations on Earth and the people who live there have few options when it comes to survival. Virtually every lemur species known is endangered to some degree and indeed, in 2014 the ring-tail was upgraded from near threatened to endangered; a bad sign indeed. The primary factors contributing to these plummeting populations are habitat loss and hunting.
Lemur habitat is disappearing in several ways, most of which are related to land conversion for human use. Fire is often utilized to clear ground for agriculture or to produce charcoal; both critical components of life in Madagascar. Likewise, mineral extraction is a growth industry and it’s virtually impossible to extract titanium or cobalt from ground with forest growing atop it. Among the people of Madagascar, known as the Malagasy, not only is slash-and-burn agriculture both common and necessary, subsistence hunting is as well. Lemurs are among the larger prey animals to be found on Madagascar and make for an excellent source of protein.
A typically stance to take among the conservation-minded is to establish protections for endangered species and their environments, but in the case of lemurs, the situation is complicated by the needs of the humans involved. In America and other industrialized nations, national parks can protect vulnerable ecosystems with only moderate costs to the surrounding human populations. That is certainly not the case in Madagascar. Learning how to work with local people to provide practical solutions to environmental problems will be key to the future not just of the ring-tailed lemur but to all the unique lemur species found on that island.
Since humans first arrived on Madagascar some 2,300 or so years ago, the forest has diminished by 80-90%. Some experts claim that the entire island will be deforested by the end of the next decade. These are grim predictions, but a great deal of work is being done to push back against this decline much of it sponsored by places like Safari West, organizations like the Lemur Conservation Foundation, and millions of caring supporters like you. Come to Safari West and meet the ring-tailed lemurs. Our four ambassadors of a fragile species are fascinating to watch, whether they’re posing like tiny buddhas in the morning sun, calling from the tops of their island trees, or waving their long tails playfully at us and one another. One visit will make you a fan, and a strong network of supporters are what these animals truly need.
Wild Holiday Gift Cards
The holiday season is almost upon us! Trick-or-treating has come and gone, Thanksgiving is just around the corner, and beyond that, the gift-giving bonanza of Christmas, Kwanzaa, and Hanukkah! During this busy time of year, it can really be stressful to come up with gifts for all those you hold dear.
Allow me to suggest Safari West Gift Cards! Forego the trinkets and throw-away gifts and give your loved ones an experience to remember! A safari across our Sonoma Serengeti is an adventure like no other where we come face-to-face with giraffes, rhinos, lemurs and more! With a gift card in hand, the hard work is done and all your loved ones need to do is pick a time to visit.
Safari West Gift Cards are good for safaris, tent reservations, and can even be used in our gift gallery. Simply call us at 1-800-616-2695 or email us to order. You will receive an email confirmation of your purchase, and certificates can be emailed out as late as Christmas Eve!
Why wait? Purchase a Safari West Gift Card today and give someone an adventure this year.