Recently there has been a lot of media attention towards the fact that there are only 6 Northern white rhinos left in the world. For many this is very saddening news, however I can imagine some people wondering; Why do we care so much? What will we actually lose from the extinction of this species?
To answer these questions it is important to know more about Northern white rhinos…
Niche: Northern white rhinos make grazing easier for other animals, by eating grass, legumes, shrubs, noxious weeds and branches that would normally harm other animals.
Predators: in their natural environment Northern white rhinos are at threat of death by crocodiles and lions, however their only real predator is humans who have
Threats: Northern white rhino numbers have been vulnerable for years, as there were only 2000 left as early as 1960. Numbers have continued to decline, predominantly due to poachers killing them for their horns, which can be worth up to $300,000 (about £190,000). Loss of habitat to human settlements and agricultural practises is another threat, as human population grows, the habitat area for many species declines.
There are no longer any Northern white rhinos in the wild, all are in captivity, in hopes of returning the population back into the wild once numbers have risen substantially. So this means that for a fair few years now, Northern white rhinos have served no purpose in their natural ecosystems, and to my knowledge there has been no serious losses of other dependant species due to their disappearance. This makes me wonder why we are really fighting to save this species, and it concerns me that some may be kept around simply for human enjoyment.
Documentaries and their important contribution to education and awareness about environmental, wildlife, and animal welfare issues.
As ‘Blackfish’ has been available for viewing in the UK for a good few months now, quite a few of my friends and family have watched it. Although the topic is obviously not a very happy one, hearing people say things such as :
“Why did we not know this before?”
“If I knew this I would never have gone there”
“What can we do to help?”
.. makes me smile.
The reason for this is that it clearly demonstrates the power of documentary films on public education and awareness of such issues and those closely related to it. Like it or not, we live in an age of technology, and documentaries are a clear, sure fire way to get information across to people that would have been otherwise unaware. People love to watch films, and the shock factor of stories such as the orcas at SeaWorld makes viewing all the better. The viewers then share their shock though social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter, and awareness of the problem grows. As awareness grows, the movement away from such problems becomes easier to tackle with the backing of public support and aid.
It may sound ridiculous, but often we as the public simply assume that we ‘wouldn’t be allowed’ to do certain things e.g. keep animals in captivity, burn fossil fuels or destroy forested areas if they caused any negative impacts to the wildlife, environments or human life itself. I strongly feel that Blackfish has opened the door and shown the great opportunities that lie within documentary film making to change global views on environmental issues, and I sincerely hope that such clear cut, factual, and moving films continue to be made on other issues to have the same impact.
After finishing my final piece of undergraduate coursework, a presentation on how to create a sustainable market for bio-fuels in the EU, I realised that learning about sustainable development has provided me with knowledge and experiences that will become very useful in general life after university.
The group work part of this task was a lesson in itself. A group of 7 individuals were randomly grouped together to create a vision and strategy to complete the task. After numerous group meetings, debates and heated discussions it became obvious that we were never going to unanimously agree on certain topics, nor were we going to get in every single detail into 15 minutes of presenting. Then I realised, the group task and conflict was, in effect, quite an accurate representation of the basic principles of sustainable development itself. The whole idea of participatory approaches, stakeholder analysis and involvement in big decisions such as EU policy changes is to ensure that everyone feels that their needs are met, in order to avoid conflict or blocking of the projects success. Sustainability also aims to ensure that a project or activity is carried out in a way that ensures we “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. This involves ensuring that multiple viewpoints and issues surrounding a certain action, for example producing biofuels in developing countries, is understood and accounted for in the short and long term.
It is not often that skills like this are so obvious from academic work, but in this case I feel that these qualities have now become ingrained into my every day way of thinking, and often find myself thinking more fairly in decision making processes, considering other peoples points of view/wants/priorities more openly in discussions, decisions or when solving argument or disagreements.
Last year, I was lucky enough to gain a place as a Research Assistant for OpWall, in their Marine Ecosystem Monitoring project in Akumal, Mexico. I volunteered for 4 weeks, from 16th June – 14th July 2013. This is easily one the best experiences I have ever had, and here is why…
Doing something on my own
The initial fear that made me hesitant to go on the expedition was the fact that I would be going to a country I had never visited before, on my own, not knowing anyone beforehand, spending a month with people who were essentially complete strangers to me. This experience showed me that I seem to think I am more shy in social situations than I actually am. Contrary to my initial fears, I spent 4 weeks with a group of 13 who some of which will now be my life long friends, even though some of them live on complete opposite sides of the world! It was so refreshing to spend time doing activities that I was interested in, with people who were just as excited and motivated as I was. This made a great difference from my friends at home, and even some on my university course (Environmental Science), who do not share my passion for conservation.
Scuba diving and experiencing marine life
In the first week of my time in Akumal, I completed my PADI Open Water Diving certification and this meant I was able to experience diving in the open ocean for the first time. I think my notes in my diving log book went something like “OH MY GOD BEST DAY OF MY LIFE” …clearly a very exciting day for me. Concentration on breathing completely vanished once I had descended and was buoyant above the vast, open coral landscapes. After seeing so many marine animals up close it really made it clear to me that not enough people get to experience this, and if they did I am sure they they would care a hell of a lot more about what goes on in our oceans.
Conducting research and underwater surveys
The activities conducted on my daily dives varied from estimating algal cover on corals, identifying coral species present and monitoring coral cover on 100m reef transects, fish species monitoring, and gathering sea urchin data. In time that was not spent diving we conducted seagrass transects, turtle behavior monitoring, beach surveys to determine the level of tourism in the bay, and in my final week I conducted turtle nesting research. The turtle behaviour monitoring was one of the highlights for me, as we had to observe each turtle found for 20 minutes solidly, and this meant non-invasively swimming along with the turtle whilst it went about its daily activities, which was a great insight into the peaceful nature of these creatures, and the effect that snorkeling tourists have on their habitat and safety.
Learning to live in another culture
Mexican culture is very relaxed and I definitely enjoyed that aspect, although the phrase “Mañana, Mañana” became all too familiar by the end of my expedition! It was a new experience for me to visit a country not necessarily as a tourist, but in a sense I as a temporary Mexican for the duration of my trip. I made a conscious effort to use Spanish whenever possible, especially in easy and repeating situations such as greeting people, saying please and thank you and asking simple questions. Obviously it also goes without saying that we treated the locals with respect and courtesy, especially the diving instructors who we spent a large majority of our days with, who were great fun to be around and added humour and fun to my Mexico experience.
If the opportunity arose again, and I was able to raise the money to return to Akumal and work with Centro Ecologico Akumal, I definitely would. I would also love to join a different OpWall expedition, as I feel that they provided me with lectures of knowledge, personal advice, employment advice, and a trip that I will never forget.
Photo taken by diver at Akumal Dive Centre, I am on the far left of the image. In this dive we were observing and taking note of the percentage cover of algae on the coral, in order to get an idea of the extent of coral damage and disease caused by anthropogenic waste deposited in the bay from hotels and settlements along the coast.
Spotted Eagle Ray images taken by Akumal Dive Centre photographers, in Akumal bay, Mexico. In my time in Akumal volunteering for marine conservation research with Operation Wallacea we saw one of these on a dive, and one thing I remember … Continue reading →