Conservation At The PATT Foundation

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I recently interned at a charity based in Bangkok, Thailand, called the Plant A Tree Today (PATT) Foundation. They plant trees in order to combat climate change, as well as educate students on the environment through awesome trips in the forest. My experience was fantastic and I learnt a lot about conservation that you can’t be taught in a lecture theatre:

• Love for the environment is not something that can be forced on to people, you have to show them and let them be inspired by nature.

• Planting one tree might not save the world, but getting a child to plant that tree can inspire them to do great things and make a huge difference.

• It’s not easy to raise money for a very good cause, no matter how hard you try and how much you glitz it up.

• If you want to make a serious, positive environmental change you need big, reliable funding.

  I thoroughly enjoyed working for the PATT Foundation and appreciate the insights that first-hand experience provides. Not to mention all those beaming smiles and laughing kids, inspiring me as much as I them, with their love and care for the environment.

My PATT bio:

Check out my interview with PATT’s top individual supporter Matthias Gelber (pictured below), also known as The Green Man for his dedication to tackling the climate crisis:

http://www.pattfoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/Matthias-Gelber-Interview.pdf

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Animals of an Indonesian Island

Here is a selection of awesome animals I saw around Pulau Weh, an island just north of Sumatra, Indonesia:

• A flying lizard with a yellow skin flap on it’s neck and fan-like wings tucked away under its body. No known lizards have powered flight, so this flying lizard like all others was a glider, but some can travel hundreds of metres while losing only a couple of metres in height. The male had a blueish head and yellow neck which it was extending, possibly to display to the less impressive, but very well camouflaged, female that was slightly lower on the tree. A similar lizard from Bogor Zoological Museum

• Millions and millions of baby, translucent crabs migrating up the river, where we walked to find a waterfall on Pulau Weh. I’m not entirely sure why they were migrating, but we followed them as they crawled across the rocks (and each other) on either side of the river. Occasionally the stream of crabs hopped into the water and swam for a short while before clambering back onto a rock as the water became too fast and choppy.

 Crabs, crabs, crabs

• Monitor lizards swimming in the clear, aqua-marine ocean in front of our hut and basking in the sun. Then one chasing a rival off the rocks and into the sea as it asserted its authority over a territory.   Monitor lizard showdown

• Fruit bats flying between islands during and just following a storm. From our kayaks we saw around a dozen over a couple of hours. Soaring above us with a wingspan of around a metre, they flew between trees and then started munching on some fruit as they hung beneath the branches. With over 12,000 different species discovered so far, bats make up a fifth of the total number of mammal species on Earth! This they owe to their almost exclusive access to the large, nocturnal-flying niche. 

The last common ancestor of all living mammals* was a nocturnal insectivore that looked something like a shrew and lived alongside the dinosaurs around 140 million years ago.   Maybe it looked a little like this shrew I saw in West Java

This mammalian ancestor scraped by, living in the shadows, at a time when dinosaurs – reptiles – ruled the planet. But the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction 65 million years ago wiped out all of the dinosaurs, except the ancestors of modern birds. This allowed the mammalian clade to undergo massive diversification and to dominate the planet as it does today. 

The bat lineage separated from the rest of the mammals around 80 million years ago and, with the aid of flight and echolocation, has enjoyed huge success in colonising the world. Most bats use echolocation to navigate in the dark – they emit high-frequency sound which bounces off the environment and is detected by their ears, giving them a sound scape, a mental ‘image’ of the scene. Despite the saying, most bats are not blind, and many have very large eyes which they use instead of echolocation. Our fruit bats on Pulau Weh were frequently spotted in the late afternoon navigating by sight, which they exclusively use.

Unfortunately, I’ve since learnt that some local Indonesians fly barbed wire kites to bring down these majestic fliers to put them in a soup. Across Asia, many bat species have been pushed close to extinction through human hunting activity, though smoking out caves is a more common method of capture. This illustrates one of the biggest difficulties in conservation biology – educating and convincing local people to care for the long-term survival of a species, rather than over-exploiting it to extinction (as we’ve done time and time again across the continents).

*excluding the five species of monotremes, the egg laying mammals (echidnas and platypus of Australia), which diverged earlier, maintaining their reptilian oviparity.

• Moray eels, lobsters, octopus, barracuda, sting rays and more on two scuba dives off Pulau Weh. Plus countless numbers of other fish swimming in every conceivable direction around us. And the occasional tiny sting of a jellyfish, barely visible to the naked eye. 

• Cats, damn cats! On Pulau Weh in our 5 day visit we had the misfortune of seeing cats toy with and kill a praying mantis and a frog. 
 
 A similar, dead praying mantis

Domestic animals reach remote islands by deliberate and accidental introduction. And domestic cats are one of the most harmful alien species you can take to a remote island, especially in places that have no large mammals of their own. This is because the native community of species are not used to living alongside such predators. Without the strong selective pressure of mammalian predators, endemic island species are able to thrive while being relatively defenceless. But throw in a handful of cats and they can quickly eat their way through a huge proportion of the naive local species. 

Other invasive species that typically do serious damage to island fauna are rats, snakes, rabbits and toads. Not to mention the foreign parasites and diseases they bring with them, to which the local species have no immunity. It requires huge operations to try to rid an island of an invasive species, and often the efforts are in vain. Hence why there are such strict customs regulations in countries like Australia, where Johnny Depp recently took two un-quarantined, illegal-immigrant Yorkshire Terriers. 


All pictures from this article were taken by me, except the crab photo, which was taken by my travelling companion Samuel Holdway. 

The Hopeless Hopeless

Last night I met someone who frustrated me a lot. He seemed to be an educated man but when I mentioned saving water his response was essentially “There’s no point as it won’t change anything, it won’t go to poor people who actually need it.” His stance likely represents a large chunk of society, a group of people who believe that trying to do anything about very large, global problems such as climate change and water and food shortages is useless, as what can one person possibly hope to achieve?

These hopeless people are not denying that the problems exist, they are fully aware of them. And this makes me very angry at their incredibly pessimistic outlooks. I’m all for being skeptical – there are no doubt many ways we can attempt to solve a problem that will not work. But taking a look at a big problem and then declaring it hopeless is simply pathetic.

Back to climate change. There is a consensus, an overwhelming tsunami of evidence that backs the fact that humans have caused and are causing dramatic climate change, most notably in the past few hundred years. It’s clear that this is mainly down to the burning of fossil fuels, destruction of forests and agriculture (especially meat production), to fuel and feed our 7.3 billion-strong population. Just as there were small steps and changes in lifestyle that got us to this point, we can now take small steps to reduce our impact through what we consume and what we waste.

It’s pretty simple: we produce and consume more water, meat, plastic and energy than ever before. And we waste huge amounts of these resources, which we simply cannot afford to do. Our planet will not allow it. Certainly not for 7 billion people.

But the situation is far from hopeless! Even the most basic adjustments that reduce the excess food, water and energy that are currently wasted can have a tremendous positive impact on our environment. The only problem is that there are too many hopeless individuals out there who are too pessimistic and selfish to take some responsibility and join the rest of us in doing something good.

Finally, back to the man who sparked my anger. He’s probably right that saving water in a rich country is not going to magically provide a poorer country with much-needed water. But the world doesn’t care for our country borders – we all share one planet! Reducing water consumption in one country takes a little strain off that precious resource and ensures there is enough to go round for everyone. And minimizing emissions of greenhouse gases is literally felt across the globe.

 

Our situation is not hopeless unless we think it is. Be positive and make little changes to reduce waste. It’s an easy first step.

Thanks,

The Environment

Why Are Environmentalists A Rare Breed?

There was a time when every man, woman and child was at heart an environmentalist. Their lives directly depended on rivers for water, land for food, animals and the sea for meat, forests for fuel and building material, and so on. Our ancestors were not perfect; many overexploited resources as we do today, sometimes resulting in the collapse of entire societies, e.g. Easter Island. This is a clear example of failing to estimate the long-term effects of consuming natural resources – typical of our species on a global scale in modern times. But hunters and gatherers had and still have a closeness to the environment that meant they understood just how greatly they depended on it, unlike the majority of the world today.

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We simply couldn’t exist without a healthy environment, so shouldn’t we all be environmentalists? These kids have the right idea – plant some trees!

 

The industrialisation of agriculture has led to a fundamental disconnect between the production of essential goods like food, water and fuel, and the consumption of them. The average person no longer appreciates or even acknowledges the role of the environment in their life, since a small fraction of society produces the sustenance for everyone else. Most of us are ignorant to the intricacies of generating consumable calories from the soil, as the supermarket is our first contact with food. And we’re similarly oblivious to the chain of events leading to electrical outputs that power most of our activities. So it is no wonder that environmentalists are rare; the average person has little respect, understanding and appreciation for the natural world, which, quite literally, provides every requirement for our lives.

To put it as plainly as possible, energy comes from the sun and is harnessed by plants and microorganisms in the sea. We rely on plants to convert the sun’s energy into a form that we can eat, or we eat animals that have converted and concentrated it into more usable calories. To power our technologies and industry we burn fossilised stores of organic matter; dead trees that were buried and put under immense pressure over millions of years, turning them into coal, gas and oil. Unfortunately, it’s difficult to see the link between turning our washing machines on, driving our cars, buying meat and vegetables from a shop or heating up/cooling down our homes, and the negative environmental effects of these actions. Hence why it is so difficult for people to change their behaviour in order to lessen their impact, as they don’t clearly see or understand the relationship between what they consume and the environment.

We’ve become scarily distanced from the environment by living in our concrete urban areas and gathering dinner from shelves; food that’s biotic origins are often hard to determine. This means that great effort must be made to encourage environmentalist attitudes in current and future generations, since our present lifestyles and eating habits fail to promote a green conscience.

If we want to move forward into a greener world we need to start by teaching our kids about where food really comes from, and about the importance of complex ecosystems and forests in maintaining a healthy, liveable climate. One of the best ways to do this is to simply get them outside and enjoying what nature has to offer. The great outdoors is where our species has been educating its children for millions of years, before we started mass-destruction of the planet’s wilderness, so perhaps we’d do well to try to recreate this method of learning. There’s also good evidence that quality of life and happiness improves with increased connection to our wild, ancestral homes.

Why should we be environmentalists?
We’re threatening our planet and our only home by driving climate change, deforestation and mass species extinctions. These are all tough, pressing problems that we are responsible for and which require immediate and effective action. We’re poorly equipped to combat these problems because most of us lack the attitudes of an environmentalist – we don’t value the very thing we depend on to survive. Only by actively encouraging these attitudes do we stand a chance of saving our planet.

 

Inspiration for this post came from ‘The Omnivore’s Dilemma – A Natural History of Four Meals’ by Michael Pollen, which investigates the true costs of industrial-scale agriculture on society. I highly recommend it.

Guest Blogging For SciLogs.com

My Article

I’m at it again! Here’s a new guest blog post for SciLogs.com titled ‘Insights of Evolutionary Psychology: Humans Are Not Special’.

“appreciating our position in the grand scale of evolutionary history is key to inspiring people to preserve our planet and the other species we share it with”

Hope you enjoy.

http://www.scilogs.com/guest_blog/insights-of-evolutionary-psychology-humans-are-not-special/

Guest Post For Nature’s ‘Eyes On Environment’ Blog

Eyes on EnvironmentJust had my first guest blog post published on one of Nature’s Scitable blogs called ‘Eyes on Environment’.

Unique and Alone on the EDGE of Existence
How to maximise biodiversity when resources are limited: calculating priority species in conservation.

Have a read!

http://www.nature.com/scitable/blog/eyes-on-environment/unique_and_alone_on_the?isForceDesktop=Y

Mass Extinction Event, BEWARE!

Most people probably don’t realise it but we are currently in the 6th mass extinction event that our planet has ever known! The last one, the K-T (Cretaceous-Tertiary) extinction 65 million years ago, wiped out the dinosaurs and 75% of the species alive at the time – another saw as many as 95% of species disappear. The KT extinction was probably triggered by a large asteriod hitting the earth and causing major changes to the global climate, which could have lasted thousands of years. This one has been called the Holocene or Anthropocene extinction and is being clearly caused by HUMAN ACTIVITY. When we think of it in geological terms it becomes frighteningly obvious that we are making very rapid and unnatural changes to the biodiversity on this planet. Most extinction events lasted for thousands of years yet the current one has been noticeable in just the last 50! This does not bode well for the future; this is our warning! It is our responsibility to recognise and react to this devastating situation and start making serious conservation progress, before we see mass ecosystem collapse. It’s not just a moral obligation but a matter of the survival and well-being of our own species as inhabitants of this planet. So spread the word and stop hoping that someone else will sort out the world’s problems.

Extinction Symbol

This symbol represents the current mass extinction, click it, draw it, spread it around and help raise awareness.

Social Media: the Key to Promoting Greener Living?

We can unite and act as one through the immense power of the internet and we have the tools to be completely transparent in our actions. Social media needs to be utilised for sharing useful information to people in a grand movement to change the small things in people’s lives that can make the big difference. Too many people are still influenced by traditional news outlets that are heavily influenced by politicians, and fail to give unbiased accounts of key issues.

Public opinion on genetically modified organisms is just one example. From where I’m sitting they are a crucial addition to our solutions for global food shortages with very little risk, huge nutritional benefits and greater crops yields. All crops are genetically modified from their ancestral wild types, the only difference is that we can now make specific desirable changes without having to perform years of trial and error selective breeding. GMO’s are no different to other crops or livestock, they are simply derived from a more efficient selection method. Yet the UK and EU still ban them, despite years of evidence proving their worth! Clearly there are far too many barriers in the way of making any sort of meaningful changes in political systems worldwide; if a consensus has been reached in the scientific community there should not be hurdles and endless bullshit standing in the way of change. Similarly for climate change, the damage we have done (and continue to do) requires us to act quickly else catastrophic extreme weather is only going to become a more regular occurrence. Yet as a global community we are infuriatingly sluggish and flakey when it comes to committing to ambitious, essential carbon emission targets.

Humans are one of the most social animals on this planet and have possibly the most complicated language system ever seen. This facilitated our huge cooperative childcare as well as food gathering, hunting and sharing. We must use this ability to communicate on enormous scales, now enhanced by the internet, to connect and act as one in order to live sustainably on planet Earth. If we don’t make some radical changes in the very near future then we will simply drive ourselves extinct, along with the majority of all life on Earth.

Here’s a Blog

Well here we have my blog. Simon the Scientist. It’s not a joke my name’s Simon and I’m studying Biology to become a proper scientist, ya know? Got to thank N J Bankhead for that one though.
What I have to offer – a commentary on the quickly changing world that we humans are rather sketchily trying to oversee. I’m trying to make sense of it all myself, perhaps I can help others see things clearer too.
How I see the state we’re in – we’re in a crucial revolutionary state of being, very close to a tipping point that could see the world as we know it cease to exist. But I remain optimistic – I believe humanity has common sense. It’s no wonder we’ve taken so long to recognise these literally global changes, our evolved psychologies’ are tuned to the world around us on a scale orders of magnitude too small, in terms of present day global-community problems. Yet we have successfully transcended the brains of a single man or woman and we are finding long-term solutions that can lead to a healthy planet. We have yet to save planet Earth but we at least know we can and have glimpses of how to do it.
 
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