Travel

Travelogue: India 2019

In July I spent 10 days in India. It was beautiful and wet and green and challenging and I’m still not sure what all I learned because I think I was at max capacity every day and that a lot of things are still filtering through my brain. Here are some thoughts.

First, some context– part of the reason my blog has gone, shall we say, quiet in the last two years has a lot to do with me being in grad school. I started with Miami University’s Project Dragonfly in spring of 2017 (that’s Miami University in Oxford Ohio, not to be confused with U of M in Florida) as part of the Advanced Inquiry Program, or AIP. It’s a program meant to bring a wide range of folks into the conservation biology field from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds, with the idea that the field can benefit from all of our perspectives and knowledge. It’s been, shall we say, interesting to be in this program with a fine arts background, but it’s also given me a chance to pursue things that I’ve been passionate about since childhood and I cannot recommend it enough if you’re looking for a way to get a toe into science-world. 

AIP runs through partnerships with “Master Institutions” that host electives and the in-person portion of the otherwise online degree program, and my master institution is San Diego Zoo Global. (Cool, right?) 

But we were talking about India, right? So, for part of the program, we have the option of taking a course called an “Earth Expedition“– essentially an intensive 10 day experience to learn about conservation happening internationally through various themes explored in each site. Since my focus is on narrative and storytelling for conservation, visiting India was a great opportunity.

India is a fascinating place for conservation because of the presence of sacred groves, pockets of forest surrounding temples and sacred sites connected to the villages dotted across the country. These groves often provide the only remaining resource for native species and are considered* a key piece of conserving biodiversity in an extremely threatened habitat. In order to learn about the ways that cultural narrative and story have preserved these forest remnants, it meant going into India’s Western Ghats.

To give this post a little bit of a lens, I want to talk about it in terms of connections. I honestly think that was the biggest theme for me personally throughout the trip. The reason sacred groves work is, in large part, due to the connection between the local people and the land*. Their beliefs, their culture, their way of making a living is all historically connected to the groves and the land around it. This connection is their buy-in, as it were. But herein lies the rub: in a country where it can be challenging to make a living at all, land becomes a commodity. It can be difficult to persuade folks that standing trees are as valuable as the wood they provide. Long term vs short term investments and all.

This brings us to another connection– our in-country partners and hosts while in India, AERF, and the work they do. AERF has gotten to know the communities connected to the sacred groves and works with them to provide incentives to keep the trees standing. They make personal connections in the villages, train people to be forest protectors, promote conservation through traditional methods**, and more.

Finally, the last connection I want to discuss is a big one: the connection between humans and the other living things on the planet. I think we hear a lot about things like “food webs” and such (and in biology-land there are “trophic cascades” and other things), but the thing that hit me the hardest while standing in the middle of a forest in India, with rain pouring down on me while I looked up at a tree with a height I can only halfway fathom is how connected we all are. The big picture systems of our planet mean that none of this exists without the whole. Heck, there is research suggesting that the minerals that feed the Amazon rain forest come*** form the Sahara desert, halfway across the world. What might the trees in India’s Western Ghats be feeding? (Besides us, and the oxygen/CO2 cycle they help facilitate, of course!)

Want to know more about the Western Ghats as a biodiversity hotspot**** and what makes it so neat? Check out the links below!

Further reading:

*Bhagwat, S. A., & Rutte, C. (2006). Sacred groves: potential for biodiversity management. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment4(10), 519-524. (CLICK TO READ)

**AERF. (2019). Conservation on the ground. [Web page]. Retrieved from https://www.aerfindia.org/cg.html (CLICK TO READ)

***Koren, I., Kaufman, Y. J., Washington, R., Todd, M. C., Rudich, Y., Martins, J. V., & Rosenfeld, D. (2006). The Bodélé depression: a single spot in the Sahara that provides most of the mineral dust to the Amazon forest. Environmental Research Letters1(1), 014005. (CLICK TO READ)

****Gunawardene, N. R., Daniels, D. A., Gunatilleke, I. A. U. N., Gunatilleke, C. V. S., Karunakaran, P. V., Nayak, G. K., … & Vasanthy, G. (2007). A brief overview of the Western Ghats–Sri Lanka biodiversity hotspot. Current science93(11), 1567-1572. (CLICK TO READ)

holidays, photography, this and that

Easter Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden

This will mostly be a photo post, because I think there is plenty to see and I couldn’t add that much to what already exists. This weekend we went to the Chicago Botanic Garden to see the early spring blooms.The garden is free, though there is a per-car fee to park, except for military, which get in for free. Thanks, Botanic Garden! ^_^

BotanicGardenBlooms1
Just the first bulbs are up right now, the rest of the garden still sleeping after a long winter, but those first bursts of color are hope physically formed after all the snow.

BotanicGardenTrees

We walked along the water where the white trees are still waiting for their leaves.

BotanicGardenCrocus

And we sat in a field of giant crocus, running rampantly out of their plantings.

20150404_144546

All in all, it was a wonderful way to spend the day before Easter.

(Even MORE photos below.)

Continue reading “Easter Weekend at the Chicago Botanic Garden”

food things, Two for Tuesday, wildlife watching

Tuesday Twos

I enjoyed telling you two little stories about the previous week last Tuesday so thought I’d do it again this week.

The first is less a story and more a general thing but I have finally decided to not let the cold win and I’m fighting back by wearing clothes I like (under the heavy coat as needed, of course) and cooking the foods I miss from other places I’ve lived. This includes chilequiles (which are an amazing egg and tortilla dish).Joanna cooks chilequiles

So I clearly picked that one up in California (well, Mexico originally), but then there’s a taste I miss from Hawaii. I can occasionally find this in markets and street fairs, but it’s always made with pork, which I don’t eat. This week I reached the point where I finally decided to try making it at home: (turkey) spam musubi.

Joanna cooks spam musubi

I need to marinade a little longer next time I think, but overall it was good. And I cut up a fresh pineapple to have with it and made a cheapy mai tai out of pog (pineapple orange guava) juice and pretended I was back on the island.

My last recipe isn’t one at all: I found a local Filipino market that sells banana lumpia (among many other tasty things) and Oishi ube pillows, which are my favorite ever Filipino snack. Seriously.

banana lumpia and oishi pillows

So I’ve been fighting the cold with food from warm and sunny and beautiful places and I think it’s helping. I can’t eat the junk all the time, of course, so there will need to be modifications to some (though the chilequiles I made with egg whites and lots of peppers and onion), but it feels good to have tastes I love again.

Now for story time.

Yesterday, J had the day off of work so we went down to the park that runs along the edge of Lake Michigan. It’s only about a mile and a half from where we live, so in warmer weather it’ll make a nice walk, but yesterday was, y’know, still in January, so we drove. We walked along the beach and found some lovely trees and had a really nice time and after about an hour and a half, we decided to head back to the car.

Along the way, we passed the entrance to a section of trail marked as a bird and wildlife preserve, and I stopped to look at some chubby squirrels, all bulked up for the winter, and the fluffy sparrows sitting above them.

chubby squirrel, winter in chicago

As I paused, an older man walked up and started tossing bird seed onto the ground. He smiled at me so I smiled back, and he continued up the trail. I watched the birds and squirrels hop around gathering the seeds a while, then decided to head along the bird trail just for a couple of minutes to see where it went. (J is a very patient guy.)

man feeding birds, winter in chicago

The older man came back down the trail and pointed to the top of the little rise behind him. “There’s a cardinal!” So we went up the rise to look. He came behind us, and when we got there, he walked right down to the bushes, whistling at all the birds, and tossing seed for them. He had a separate packet of different seed. “Special, for the cardinal.”

cardinal in snow, winter in chicago

There on the snow, a single bright red bird landed. He was surrounded by other birds, mostly brown sparrows, but his red feathers shone so brightly it was no wonder we were all watching him. “The sparrows, they’re greedy and eat everything!” the man said. He shook his head and walked away.

sparrow, winter in chicago

We watched the birds for several more minutes before heading back to the car. The man was long gone. I wonder if he comes every day in the winter to feed the birds, and if he’s got a whole list of them he looks for when he’s there. I wonder how long he’s been coming to the park. And I wonder what it will look like in spring when it’s not covered in snow and ice and mud. I’m ready to find out about spring.

cardinal on branches, winter in chicago

Travel

Australia 2014: Queensland and Port Douglas

Australia, Port Douglas, Wildlife Habitat Koala photo

The final leg of the journey (or so I thought; I always seem to have these bonus adventures when I’m abroad, don’t I?) took me to Queensland in northeastern Australia. We did a lot of iconic things, and I’ll give you the rundown here.

Continue reading “Australia 2014: Queensland and Port Douglas”

Travel

Australia 2014: Heading south in Western Australia

Australia, WA open road

Welcome back for another installment of the Great Australia Travelogue of 2014! For the next leg of our journey, we packed up our friends’ SUV and headed onto the open road, south through WA and toward the coast and countryside.

Continue reading “Australia 2014: Heading south in Western Australia”

Travel

Catching up on things and a quick Australia summary

Australia at the Opera House

So, Australia was absolutely fantastic! I had a lot of first-in-my-life experiences (including diving for the first–and second–time), visiting two world heritage sites, and meeting a long time friend for the first time face to face, plus other fun things like a Geek Girl Pen Pals Club tea party and all the local wildlife and…. Well, it’s going to take several posts, and I’ll get on top of things eventually, but you’ll have to be patient with me. It’s coming. And if you’d like to do what we did and see what we saw, I’ll make a list of the places photographed!

A quick summary in the meantime: I both started and ended the trip in Sydney, first with J and then with my folks, so there are quite a few photos of the ever-photogenic Opera House.

Continue reading “Catching up on things and a quick Australia summary”

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing

Thoughts on Copenhagen Zoo

copenhagen giraffeSo I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Copenhagen Zoo euthanizing one of its giraffes for “educational purposes” and feeding it to the zoo’s carnivores. If not, here’s the story.

I was struck by a particular response to this today in which someone I respect a lot (a natural history scientist and educator) pointed out that this was simply a business decision and actually very interesting from an educational standpoint. You can read the original post here. (WARNING: images of said giraffe-being-fed-to-lions.) While I can see the value of teaching the so-called “circle of life,” I disagreed with the statement on several points. Here is my response, slightly edited from the open letter form I used to reply. I may be a very small voice with a very small audience, but I come from the perspective of close association (and employment) with zoos and other animal organizations, so I feel that I can provide some further insight into the situation.

——————-

Hi,

I’m really glad you took the time to respond to this situation as it has created so much controversy in the last 24 hours. It brings to light a different perspective than the knee-jerk reaction people are largely having, fueled by the media.

That being said, I think this response over-simplifies zoos in general and makes sweeping generalizations about them. I have worked and volunteered for multiple organizations that house and exhibit animals, so while I can only speak from first-hand experience and from an American zoo perspective (so, AZA and not EAZA), I fear that some of these simplified statements can harm the overall debate surrounding animals in captivity.

“Zoos are not in the business of saving wildlife, they are in the business of business.”
This is one of the statements that misrepresents zoos when made about all institutions. According to a 2012 survey, over half (54%) of zoos accredited by the AZA are non-profit organizations. Money they make goes to the care of the animals, paying staff, research and education. In fact, the AZA is actively working with other educational institutions like the Ocean Project to improve conservation education in zoos and aquariums around the world. Their most recent study results are here.

“Could the Copenhagen Zoo have sent the giraffe to another zoo? Maybe, but then that zoo would also be faced with the business problem of investing resources into sustaining this animal knowing full well it was not suitable for breeding.”
Not all zoos exhibit animals that have the purpose of breeding. In almost any zoo you visit, there are animals that were injured in the wild and rehabilitated (often re-relased into the wild if at all possible), or that are geriatric and will never breed, or are rescued from illegal private breeders. For examples, check the North Carolina Zoo’s Wildlife Rehab Center, Chattanooga Zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and the Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program. The San Diego Zoo is also well known for its herd of geriatric elephants, also not used for breeding.

“…but I encourage someone who is truly upset about this issue to take their problem up with the nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide. Marius’ fate was quite possibly determined for him before he was born.”
“The nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide” is a vast and varied thing. Most AZA Zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan Program, or SSP. This program monitors how many of each species are in captivity, and strives for a rate of 95% genetic diversity. Animals are paired for breeding only when they are a healthy genetic match. The purpose of the SSP isn’t just for zoos to have animals without taking them from the wild; the goal of the SSP is to preserve these species in order to repatriate them to their native habitats. A good case study of this is the African Bongo. This antelope is being successfully reintroduced to Kenya, with the herd growing from captive-bred animals. Closer to home, the California condor’s success is directly because of the AZA and SSP. The red wolf has also survived because of the SSP and would be completely extinct if not for the intervention of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. Red wolves are now being reintroduced to part of their native range in North Carolina.

“If this has to be the way in which zoos function – the continuous breeding, inbreeding and culling of their stock…”
This—“inbreeding and culling”— isn’t how all zoos function. It isn’t how they should function. This is why the Copenhagen Zoo is under fire, because the overall situation at that individual zoo is a problem. It may be a problem at large with the EAZA, but I am not as familiar with that organization and cannot speak to that. The AZA, however, has a contraception program in place specifically to avoid this type of situation.

Zoos worldwide do have problems. They are not perfect, and it is fair to criticize the way individual zoos are operated, and the way they treat their animals. We should also be critical of standards as they are now in terms of space and enrichment and diets for animals in captivity. It’s fair to question many aspects of zoos. But is it fair to make these generalizations about all zoos being for profit only, and serving no purpose for conservation, research, education? No. Should a young and healthy individual be put down simply for education? I also say no.

All of that being said, your perspective is an interesting one that I had no considered. Zoos lose geriatric animals as the population ages, and it could be highly educational if they allowed such things to be public. If this situation was different, if the giraffe was old or unhealthy (but not sick where he would harm the other animals), would I view this differently? I think I might.

What I am trying to say is that this is a very complex issue with more involved than the immediate knee-jerk reaction.

—————————-

So those are my thoughts. I do think the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision should be questioned. For instance, should this giraffe have been born in the first place if he wasn’t going to be in a healthy population? Why did they breed their giraffes if too-close-genetics was a problem? What can we do to change the situation for a better outcome in the future? What can the EAZA do to make it easier to transfer animals between facilities in these cases?

On a wider scale, how can we better regulate zoos with breeding programs not part of the SSP? To me, that’s a huge issue. There are so many institutions worldwide not part of the carefully monitored SSP, so how do we ensure that animals are genetically viable and healthy individuals, and that populations aren’t too large for the places housing them?

The Executive Director of the EAZA has issued a statement about the reasons behind the giraffe’s culling, which you can read for yourself here. He expresses that neutering the giraffe would create “side effects” and that it takes the place and resources of a more genetically viable individual. I still question how this giraffe was allowed to be bred in the first place if they knew he was going to be surplus for them. And then how did he reach the age of two?

I hope this helps put things into a little perspective. The situation at Copenhagen Zoo definitely shines a light on a broader problem with zoos worldwide, and I hope the zoo community can move toward a better future.

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, zoo stuff

The lion in my profile picture

Me_Ajani

Because I am asked all the time about my profile picture, I thought I’d take some time today to tell you the story of how that photo came to exist.

This photo was taken in summer of 2009. At the time I worked and volunteered for an AZA-accredited institution, working in the education department and volunteering (through the city) to assist with animal care. I volunteered in the section that included large carnivores, and in 2009, four lion cubs were born; this is one of them. He was the largest of the cubs, which included three males and one female, and it took a whole group of us to get them through their weekly veterinary assessments, especially when they got big enough to run around the room.

These lion cubs are now 4 years old and at other institutions as part of the SSP– Species Survival Program. Many zoo animals are part of the program, which includes extensive genetic documentation and husbandry information, all for the sake of maintaining a genetically healthy and diverse captive population with the intention of one day returning these species to the wild. The goal is to have 95% diversity, which means any given individual can only be related to 5% of the total captive population. This is why big cat births like this are so rare: they are managed so as to not be over-populated in captivity, and to keep diversity high. A more genetically diverse population is better equipped to survive diseases and less likely to have birth defects.

Important things to know about this specific situation: it happened under very strict supervision, and was for an extremely brief period of time. The cubs were separated from their mom for less than 30 minutes while she ate. Once the cubs reached about 3 months old, contact like this ceased, in part because they were getting too big to handle and in part because they were simply done with their “kitten” vaccines. The purpose of handling them was not only to help the veterinary exams go more smoothly, but also to help the cubs feel comfortable around humans, since they will spend their entire lives in captivity. Socialization reduces stress.

And that brings me to another important point. While I do have this photo posted, I do not encourage people to seek out photo opportunities with big cats or other wildlife. Paying for photos with cubs creates a market for breeding and exploiting big cats, and the cubs are the ones who suffer being taken from their mothers far too early (remember at 3 months they were too big to handle, but still not weaned) and often don’t survive. Even lions “raised” by people maintain all of their wild instincts, and should be respected as wild animals. My situation was in the course of work I was doing and not as part of a profit-making scheme.

That being said, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had working with and around the cubs for anything, and it’s one I might never have again. They were adorable and amazing and really a joy to watch as they grew, especially knowing they were doing their part to save their species, not only by simply being alive but by being ambassadors. These cubs allowed people a chance to get a glimpse into the wild, and hopefully to care just a bit more about saving their relatives still out there.

conservation, wildlife watching

Wildlife Wednesday: California ground squirrel

ground squirrel, face

The squirrels are different here.

This is a California ground squirrel, and I am fascinated by these little creatures. Growing up on the east coast, I was accustomed to Eastern gray squirrels (which are everywhere) and the occasional chipmunk (which is very small and stripey) but I’d never seen one of these before. The first time I encountered any kind of ground squirrel was in Canada in 2007. It was the oddest looking little fat rodent, and I took a bunch of photos of it as it ran along the sidewalk and into the grass. (Side note: the funny thing about zoo people, even just people who spend lots of time in zoos, is that we get VERY EXCITED over things like this, ignoring the zebra or whatever in the exhibit. After all, the zebra will still be there later, this is WILD NATURE HAPPENING.) Anyway, that introduced me to the idea of ground squirrels. Needless to say, my upper-midwest relatives thought I was hilarious.

ground squirrel, chewing

These squirrels range all over California, all the way to central Oregon and Washington, and can be a foot and half long when full grown. This particular ground squirrel is a juvenile, so very small compared to what it will be. It was having a snack and I enjoyed watching it forage in the plants. The ones I’ve observed have been in groups, with burrows in the ground that they hide in when people (or predators) get too close.

ground squirrel, side

You can see the almost spotted pattern of the squirrel’s fur here. There is another type of ground squirrel in the state, the golden mantled ground squirrel, but it is more in the mountains and has distinct black and white markings that make it look much more like a chipmunk. At any rate, I find these little guys very interesting. Keep an eye out for them if you’re ever out walking.

zoo stuff

Tuesday Zoosday: The Africa Tram at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

 

Safari Park, cheetah

It’s been a while since I took my big camera out to the Safari Park, so one day last week I hauled it along with me. I always ride the African Tram (which is included in my membership) and I got some great photos. Here’s a little overview of the ride. One of the first exhibits you pass on the Tram is the cheetah exhibit, and this pretty girl was enjoying some shade on a very hot day. The exhibit cheetahs aren’t the ones who do the cheetah run; those are kept in air conditioning so their bodies don’t get overtaxed in the heat.

Safari Park,

After going past the black rhinos and the river areas with flamingos, you get to the first savanna-style exhibit. These are waterbuck, and they are shaggy and large and I love their faces. They are in one of the huge mixed exhibits that are part of what makes the park famous. This young one is one of many that are born every year; I learned that between the Safari Park and the Zoo, there is an average of at least one animal birth a day, all year, so seeing baby animals isn’t too uncommon.

Safari Park, wildebeest

These are gnus, or wildebeests. I always liked the word “gnu” as a kid, and it was fun to find out that wildebeest and gnus are one and the same. The striking markings on their faces warn predators that they can bite or jab with their horns if they are threatened. In the wild they live in immense herds, and as many as 1.5 million of them migrate together in late spring when the seasons change.

Safari Park, Somali wild ass

As you continue toward the back of the exhibit, you pass several more sections, including vultures and these, Somali wild ass. They look like they have zebra legs and many people mistake them for a zebra hybrid, but they are much smaller, have bigger ears and, of course, bray– wild asses are, after all, precursors to donkeys! I think they’re pretty.

Safari Park, pelican

Next as you start to round the corner at the top of the hill, you get a wide view of the park and the valley, but you also get to see more ponds and I always enjoy spotting the pelicans. There are three species of pelicans at the zoo and Safari Park, and I’m pretty sure this is a dalmatian pelican. The wide view of the park is gorgeous, but I think it’s easy to miss things like this when you’re looking too far afield.

Safari Park, Arabian oryx

Finally as you round the corner to head back to the Tram station, up on the hill they have a herd of Arabian oryx. These are some of my favorites to see, not only because of their beautiful fur and elegant horns, but because they are a conservation success story. While they still aren’t thriving in the wild at their former rate, they were extinct other than a handful in private collections just forty years ago. Two breeding herds were established in the US, and now several hundred have been born, and have started to be reintroduced into the wild. That is the point of conserving species in captivity: to educate the public and to preserve species until they can go back to their native habitat, if possible.

So that’s a little taste of the Safari Park Africa Tram. Hope you enjoyed the tour. More photos from that ride are here. ^_^