Japan won’t stop whaling

You will never have seen a room clear more quickly than when Japan brings up talks of whaling. Sure, Iceland and Norway would hang around for shits-and-gigs, but almost everyone would throw japan under a bus – or maybe a ship? – on whaling. Though it has not always been this way. Japans views on whaling were once the global norm.

In the closing years of the 20th century many whales were on the edge of extinction due to hunting. Only by an 86’ Moratorium on ‘commercial whaling’ were these denizens of the deep given the chance to return. Now, some 30 years on, whales are looked at entirely different, for the most part. They are no longer just a source of meat, blubber and oil. They have gained a cultural value. A creature to be revered for its size and beauty (a token animal of peppercorn greenies).

The Moratorium remains one of the greatest environmental success stories of the last hundred years – Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society

It is not surprising then that Japan’s call to renew commercial whaling has been met by – let’s say – a bit of opposition from the outside world. But, this has only driven feelings of resentment in Japan where traditionalists believe their voices are being unfairly ignored. And, it’s starting to have an impact. Japan has made no secret of its plans to resume commercial whaling in the new year.

Whale tied to the side of Japanese Research vessel Yushin Maru No. 2 is dragged through the ocean in Mackenzie Bay, Antarctica
Japan has continued to hunt whales ‘legally’ through a loophole which allows whales to be killed for science. Apparently, ‘science’ is a loose term. Source: Sea Shepherd

Onomi and Pork

Whales can be hunted sustainably. Does this statement fill you with anger? Opposition? Or, maybe, agreeance? The very idea of whaling tends to draw a visceral response from most. (This ties into the rise of whales as symbolic animals). Though, where some peoples have come to praise whales, others have not. Japan was part of this latter group. So, when news arose of a recent whaling summer by Japanese vessels that harpooned 122 pregnant whales (333 whales in total for the year or more appropriately 455), it was shocking to much of the world.

Japan wholeheartedly defended their actions: onomi is pork is beef is chicken. It’s the same old story with a new punchline. Whaling is not widely opposed because it is explicitly disastrous for the world or even the species. Otherwise, how would the pork, beef and chicken industry have persevered? Whaling is opposed because it challenges the ideas some people have been fed from birth – it hits people right where it hurts. In the ‘feels’. Where pigs, cows and chickens have largely exited this arena – more than 99.99 percent of chickens, for example, will spend their entire life in a 1x1ft cage and likely never see the light of day – whales are firmly positioned near the centre.

Although the IUCN listed the fin whale as endangered in 2008, there are no concerns about sustainability since the Icelandic quota represents 0.9% of the lowest estimate of fin whale numbers off the Icelandic coast – Professor Rachael Johnstone

Some whale populations, like the Minke Whale – listed on the IUCN as ‘least concern – can be fished sustainably and indeed the Icelandians are doing exactly this. Even the harvesting of endangered Fin Whales in Iceland could be called sustainable if it doesn’t threaten the future of the species. After all, sustainability welcomes instrumentalism with open arms.

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There was international outrage when people learned that Iceland had killed an endangered Blue Whale-hybrid. Few animals garner such passionate opposition to their killing. Source: Hard to Port

Japan Pushes to Resume Commercial Whaling

It was by a 1986 International Whaling Commission (IWC) proclamation that commercial whaling ended. Though it was not ended for the reason most people think. There was no concern for the sustainability of whales nor the ethicality of whaling. Rather, it was to “make possible the orderly development of the whaling industry”. Essentially, whales were probably going to be extinct if nothing was done, what would become of the whaling industry then.

“Science is clear: there are certain species of whales whose population is healthy enough to be harvested sustainably” – Japanese Proposal, titled Way Forward

While there is a lot behind Japans infatuation with whale meat, the basis of their most recent push for legalisation is simple. Whaling was banned because it was unsustainable. It is no longer unsustainable, so they say. If this claim holds water it would mean there is no instrumental basis for most people’s opposition to whaling. Only a different perception. Only cultures with different values.

You may already think me a demon for sympathising with Japans perceptions of whaling. But, rest assured the leisurely cruise ends here. For the question is no longer why Japan hunts whales. Rather, is Japan capable of harvesting whales sustainably? (Spoiler… they are not).

Lessons from Iceland

Iceland – Japan’s kindred whaling partner – is one of the few nations defending whaling. Here, whale meat is somewhat of a fleeting cultural practice. (The Icelandians have hunted whales for aeons though fewer and fewer people are eating them nowadays). The few that continue this practice do so because they stand by the notion of ‘sustainable whaling’ – how much of this support is guided by their desire for the meet is beside the point. A few hundred whales a year is enough to satisfy the needs of the nation with a surplus for export to Japan. Though, there are issues.

Consumption at this level is not enough to sustain a business i.e. the industry is failing and businesses operate on a deficit. It takes a lot to run a whaling operation. Ship maintenance. Crew salaries. Processing fees. Fuel. All these operational costs and more take a serious toll. The only thing keeping the operations of Hvalur hf. – the last whaling company in Iceland – alive is government subsidies and traditionalists digging in their heels against international meddling.

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Hvalur hf. is the last commercial whaling ship in Iceland. It’s operation has not be without issue – or with much support. Source: Iceland Mag

Whaling may be called sustainable because demand is so little. But, it is not economically viable for this very same reason. Now, extrapolate this model from the 330,000 Icelanders relying on a few hundred whales to the 126.8 million people in Japan. There is certainly a lot more people and a bigger market. But, demand for whale meat in Japan has fallen to less than 5 percent of the population. Already supply has outpaced demand and there is an increasing stockpile.

It would be all too easy to go with the flow and let bygones be bygones. Japan seems set on the alternative: reinvigorate interest in whale meat. Prior to the ban on commercial whaling, Japan was hunting around 30,000 whales a year. It is not too hard to imagine that this meat could once-again be popular with the help of a well-funded social engineering scheme. At the same time, Japan will exit the humble backyard slaughterfest of Iceland and make its way down the path of commercialisation. Surely, you do you see the dilemma?

A Bleak Future

Whales have made their way back from the edge of extinction (It is one of the great conservation stories of our time). With Minke whales numbering close to half a million, it is easy to believe those who support ‘sustainable harvests’. But, whales have been welcomed back into an increasingly hostile world and these populations hide a troubling trend: many whales are actually in decline.

The populous Minke whales, for example, are declining. In fact, each survey following the 1986 Moratorium has estimated a lower and lower population. A trend which is especially prominent since the mid-2000’s. Right whales too and Killer Whales – technically a member of the cetacean family – have recently experienced a 30 year low. The exact cause of these declines is debated. The usual suspects, such as climate change, pollution, competition with fisheries, food shortages and other things are believed to have an influence.

You don’t have to look far to see that things are not getting better. It is quite possible that soon even the hundred or so Minke taken by the Icelandians will begin to affect the longevity of the species. For if you consider the whales as more than a means to an end, it is simple to see that the future of this species – and much of the world – is bleak if we continue our ‘survival of the convenient few’ attitude.

Should a sustainable harvest quota be set for some whale species like Minke?

The sport of spearfishing is not sustainable.

Humans have brought the marine world to its knees. With a rod in one hand and net in the other, we have managed to reduce fish in the ocean by half since the 1970s. For some people this has been a wake-up call. Where the f**k are all the fish? The search for an alternative was on. For a more involved, raw and… sustainable approach.

Spearfishing. The favoured pastime of moderate environmentalists (it’s almost a cliché). And, for good reason. Against the shadow of industrialised fishing there’s almost no contest for sustainability. From the size and species of your target to how many fish you bring home, every aspect of the hunt is under your control.

Spearfishing is in fact the most sustainable and ethical forms of fishing
– ADRENO, Spearfishing brand & advocate

But, spearfishing has been operating on a pretty slanted playing field. With monoliths like bottom trawling and Pa’aling in one corner, spearfishing has navigated the backfield relatively unseen. Indeed, it is hard to even consider the impact of the lonely spearfisherman when a single Trawler can bring in over 5,000 fish an hour. However, this evaluates spearfishing in relativity to larger issues, not of itself. This simply will not do.

[A review in the early 2000s of scientific literature] indicated there were 84,200 articles on fishing and only 145 of these had any reference to spearfishing – Dr Adam Smith & Dr Seiji Nakaya

Maybe spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing. Maybe that’s because it has only ever been considered by comparison. Or maybe it is an activity worthy of the ‘sustainable’ branding by its own merit. Who knows? So, what do 145 or so ‘references’ have to say on the matter?

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Pa’aling is one of the most dangerous fishing methods in the world. Source: The Coral Triangle

A Fishing Paradigm

Bottom trawling is a near-indiscriminate pillage of the oceans floor. Gillnet fishing… ghost net fishing has problems. Even recreational line fishing has led to dead zones in the ocean. Everywhere you look fishing bequeaths its own failings. And no failing stands out more than its success.

Overall, 80 percent of the world’s fish stocks [are reported] as fully exploited or overexploited… [of which] nearly two-thirds of the stocks (64 per cent) are classified as overexploited, depleted or recovering – FAO

Perhaps, it is inappropriate to consider spearfishing in this light? (Collectively that is).

Ask any hard-breaded spearfisherman and he will surely tell you of the sports uniqueness against standard fishing techniques. Of bycatch-free hunts, snagless lines, no pollutants and minimal catch rates. And, of course, of conscious hunting. But, here’s where things go downhill. Any possible aspect of sustainability in spearfishing is down to the individual. What happens when the act is not of subsistence and with sustainability firmly in mind?

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Spearfishing is an act of subsistence in most developing nations. Source: Alex Seong

The Sport of Spearfishing

Spearfishing is a big game sport. No one pursues this sport with the intention of spending their days seeking out the plentiful and foul Butterflyfish or the meek Southern Garfish. Your offerings at dinner would be little more than a jar of chunky red ocean water. If you want an intact meal, you will have to hunt something more substantial.

Spearfishing mainly targets large individuals measuring more than 30 cm in length – Dr Josep Lloret et al.

It takes a lot of resources to produce big fish – big anything really. This is not just because they eat more. They eat more of things that eat more of other things. The larger something is the more moving parts involved in supporting it. Take, for example, an apex predator like Tuna. It feeds on intermediate predators like Mackerel, which in turn feed on smaller fish like Herring, which feed on microscopic Copepods, and so on.



If you work from the base of a food web upwards, you will find that at each level there are more and more ‘lower level’ creatures involved in supporting a single ‘upper level’ creature. A single Copepod will consume a hundred diatoms before it becomes food for a single Herring. The Herring will eat a hundred Copepods before it becomes food for a single Mackerel, which will eat a hundred Herring before it is food for a Tuna. That Tuna will eat a hundred Mackerel before it is food for a single human. In this example, there are millions of individuals involved in that single Tuna catch. This is the essence of a comprehensive life-style assessment.

You may not find this science lesson overly rousing. Nor should it be. This simply means that you need to be mindful of what kinds of fish you are taking. Catching a hundred Mackerel may have the same impact as that single tout-worthy Tuna.

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Tuna sit atop the food web and play a fundamental role in marine ecosystems. Source: UIFSA

Spearfishing in a Dwindled Ocean

Our oceans have found themselves in a fragile and precarious position. Now more than ever it is imperative that we find ways to condition ourselves to take fewer fish. Spearfishing often puts its hand-up to fill this void. The selectivity of the sport – being in the water and able to visualise the prey – allows the hunter to choose what they shoot. But, more importantly, what they don’t shoot. This paves the way for a sustainable harvest. Though, there’s a flipside.

The same characteristics that allow spearfishing to be selective also allow it to be efficient. Instead of using techniques that work on a chance mechanism, spearfishing puts you directly in control of what you target and in what numbers. In the hands of a proficient hunter, this opens the door for increasingly destructive harvests.

Spear fishing had a greater overall impact on reef fishes than shoreline pole & line fishing, accounting for 70% of the total reef fish harvest at Waikiki, despite accounting for only 25% of fishing activities observed – Dr. Carl Meyer

When managed incorrectly spearfishing can lead to greater amounts of biomass being removed from the ocean purely by the ease of doing so and the allure of seeing those ‘big ones’ pass right by your face.

Overall, spearfishers remove larger fish and more biomass per outing than fishers using other recreational modes. Although bycatch, gear loss (hence, increased debris), and removal of fish biomass as bait are higher with hook-and-line fishing than with spearfishing – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

Recklessly pursuing spearfishing will accompany the decline of the sports image as a sustainable venture. Like everything, the best practices can be devastating in the worst hands: A spearfisherman could fill a boat. A great spearfisherman is complacent with an empty one.

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Targetting larger fish dramatically increases the biomass removed during a single hunt. Though, this issue may be offset by targeting R-selected species, for example. Source: Zanzibar

For the concern of spearfisherman…

This sports image paints one of sustainability and coexistence. But the malpractice of some has aligned the sports damage, in some cases, with that of standard rod-and-line fishing, disrupting essential elements for a complete and balanced structured ecosystem. What has followed includes:

  • Altering composition of local fish communities
  • Lowered fish density and size between regions.
  • Removal of large females with highest spawning output
  • Population sperm limitation
  • Behavioural shifts in fish
  • Species migration
  • A threefold increase in the discard rates of dead fish.

While the damage of spearfishing would be incomparable to industrialised methods like bottom trawling and long line fishing, it seems foolhardy to qualify the merits of spearfishing against the worst events befalling the ocean. In a world where fishing techniques and catch rates have devastated marine environments, there is a begging need to find a way to harvest in a sustainable manner. Of all the techniques out there, spearfishing has the most potential. If only its defining feature did not rely on the sustainable inclinations of humans.



Spearfishing could be sustainable. But, such a feat will only be achieved if those participating in the sport first recognise how fragile marine ecosystems are. People regurgitate the credo of ‘spearfishing is the most sustainable form of fishing’ without understanding it. It does not mean that caution can be thrown to the wind and you may ‘pillage and prosper’ to your hearts content. No. Spearfishing is sustainable only if individuals are sustainable. And, if individuals are not sustainable then the sport of spearfishing is not sustainable.

Do other fishing techniques have the potential to be more sustainable than spearfishing?

 

What if everyone picked up just one piece of trash a day?

What would become of the ‘garbage crisis’ if everyone picked up just 1 piece of trash a day? Convincing even 1% of our 7.6-billion population to do so, would remove more than 27.7 billion pieces a year. At this pace, the crisis would soon fizzle out – at least the visible crisis. These simple ideas will often translate to powerful action if they can manage to bridge the gap between conceptual and reality. Most never do. And so, the impacts of our ‘throw-away culture’ have persisted.

In 2016 the world generated 2.01 billion tonnes of solid waste. This figure has increased year-on-year. By 2050 it is estimated that we will generate around 3.40 billion tonnes.

At least 33% of this waste is mismanaged globally today through open dumping or burning – The World Bank

In many corners of the world this issue will not be forthcoming. In other places, you would struggle to avoid it. Indeed, the build-up of waste largely occurs in developing nations. Here, the localised difficulties have favoured an unsustainable approach to waste management. But, these nations do not exist in a bubble – their impacts have broader implications that affect us all. For any hope of addressing the garbage crisis, these nations will need a foundation.

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Taken near a popular Holiday destination in Lebanon. Source: Gino Raidy

‘Think global, act local’ is a common phrase heard in green movements. It terms how global changes can be achieved if a disjunct community of like-minded people pursue sustainability in their immediacy. Essentially, by making local changes you are a part of a global community all making local changes simultaneously. Though, this begs the question:

How can you actually encourage people to get out and make a difference?

Enter ‘the adventure bag’…

Humans are social creatures. We are naturally inclined to pursue a community with whom we share common interests. We are also simple creatures with a dislike for complicated matters. Combine these in a social movement and you’ll have a powerful concept.

Recently, Jackson Groves, a photographer and blogger, breathed life into a very simple idea: what if people just picked up a bag of trash on their daily outings? From the outset, it wasn’t a revolutionary concept and more idealistic than anything. It needed a spin.

The ‘Adventure Bag’ was born.

Groves himself affirmed that the idea is not new. But, he has succeeded where others failed because of how the idea is shared. It is not some discrete task that takes up your free time nor a burdensome shift in lifestyle. The very root of the movement is non-invasive. You don’t have to change your life. Just bring a bag with you.

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Jackson Groves with an Adventure Bag collected in Panama. Source: Journey Era

The Adventure Bag is exactly what it sounds like – a bag of trash collected on adventures. Whether you’re hiking Panamanian ridges or exploring Barracuda Point, bring a bag and pick up a few pieces of trash. The size of the bag is rather irrelevant. The goal of the movement is not to consider yourself as an individual tackling a seemingly insurmountable problem. This is a community movement. Your single bag of trash contributed to the removal of hundreds or potentially thousands of bags by the Adventure Bag community.

Most adventurers are good people, they enjoy nature and they understand we must protect it. But we are all busy and often brush aside any potential action. The Adventure Bag movement aims to inspire these very adventurers to join the movement and start collecting their very own Adventure Bags – Jackson Groves

Get outdoors. Go on adventures. Explore the environment. The adventure bag demands this. It is an extension and reflection of this love for the world that underpins the movement.



So far, the Adventure Bag movement has motivated several mass clean up days, each garnering a few hundred kilos of trash. Other individuals have taken to their local trails and collected their own #adventurebag, sharing it on social media. The Adventure Bag is bringing change. One bag at a time.

The power of positive social action can be global, it can be big and it can begin to make a dent. But most importantly it can influence many people to make a positive attitude and behaviour change on key issues such as plastic pollution – Jackson Groves

Think Global. Act Local.

The waste crisis can often seem insurmountable and stop people from pursuing seemingly fruitless endeavours. This is a common thread in environmental and social movements. But, these little actions will often be the foundation for something greater.

It took a single man collecting a bag of trash on his daily outings to prompt a movement which has presently collected several tonnes of trash in less than a month. Over this time, the Adventure Bag movement went from a single person to hundreds and soon thousands, with tonnes of trash under their belt.

This is not an uncommon story. Indeed, all movements begin with a single act of rebellion against an established norm.



The One Youth Movement was started by Jasilyn Charger in response to high suicide rates among Native Americans. The movement expanded and later went on to play a pivotal role in halting the Dakota Access Pipeline’s construction in 2016.

The Earth Force Society was founded in 1977 by Paul Watson with the main goal of protesting illegal whaling and sealing operations. This movement has since renamed itself to Sea Shepherd and runs a global operation with numerous conservation accolades.

You need only look to some of the greatest social movements to see how powerful a single act can become. While there will be no single solution to the waste crisis, the Adventure Bag and alike movements form the foundations for a perception shift. And this is what the waste crisis is – a discordant perception. The waste crisis will be solved by those who can change the way people navigate the world. And, it could start on your next hike.

 Do you have your adventure bag?

A lonesome predatory Tiger Shark stalks the shallow coral regions of the Great Barrier Reef

The politicising of shark attacks drives culls

Australia is no stranger to shark attacks. Its temperate and nutrient-rich coastal waters have long been the favoured hunting grounds of some 36 percent of all known shark species.

So, when a 46-year-old woman was attacked in the Whitsundays, Queensland by a suspected Tiger Shark, it was little more than fodder for news outlets. But, when a second attack occurred in the same area not more than 24 hours later, some people thought this may be the emergence of a frightening trend.

The Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries soon had the area filled with 3 baited drum lines. And within several days had indiscriminately caught and killed 6 sharks found in the area, including Tiger Sharks and a Black Tip Shark.

“It is unclear if [the sharks] were responsible for injuries caused to two swimmers this week,” a statement from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries read.

The Queensland Fisheries response soon overshadowed the earlier attacks. Environmentalists and regular citizens alike criticised the basis and goal of the culling campaign which had become publically bloody and confronting through social media.

Indeed, the more public the cull became, the more people it appalled. The government’s actions brought light to a systemic history of scientifically unfounded and knee-jerk responses to sensitive and complex issues. Furthermore, it raised a frightful proposition:

If culling and the devices that underpin the action are without merit, why have state governments utilised it so widely?

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Drum lines are large baited-hooks that dangle from a buoyancy device on the surface. Naturally, it catches more than targeted species. Source: Australian Marine Conservation Society                                                                                                                                      

Shark culls are scientifically oppositional

Shark attacks tend to hold our attention because they impinge on a primal fear. This fear is magnified when an event suggests an emerging trend with wider consequences, as the Whitsundays attacks did. But, during these times it is important to remain grounded in the facts – this situation is extraordinary though not unprecedented.

In Western Australian, for example, without known cause, shark attacks doubled in a six-month period in 2017. The next year, 2 shark attacks occurred within a day of each other, twice and in the same month. Both cases are believed to be the outcome of freak circumstances, such as the presence a large school of fish in the area.

For the moment, what caused the rapid succession of the Whitsundays attacks is unknown. Regardless of whether it was down to the presence of some external forcing or simply a case of unfortunate coincidence, a shark cull was the chosen response.

 “While shark control equipment does not provide an impenetrable barrier between swimmers and sharks, it is effective in reducing the overall number of sharks in the area, making it a safer place to swim,” stated Jeff Krause, the shark cull Program Manager.



The Queensland Fisheries have repeatedly affirmed their support for the use of drum lines in shark culling as a pre-emptive safety measure. Though this has drawn harsh criticism from most independent scientific bodies who have chosen to speak on the issue.

The problem is simple – perception. Proponents of drum lines often favour it on the appeal of its simplicity. Fewer sharks should equal fewer attacks. Logically, it makes sense. But, it does not pan out this way. This is because a cull in general has no positive influence on public safety, yet alone drum lines, which act as indiscriminate killers of sea life.

During the years 1959-76, a Hawaii-based culling program sanctioned the killing of more than 4500 sharks in an effort to curve growing shark attacks. By its conclusion the Hawaii Institute for Marine Biology and the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources declared the whole program ‘ineffective’ because it had no influence on shark populations and attacks.

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Hawaii has a high population of sharks despite an 18 year long cull, which had no influence on shark attack. Source: Doug Perrine                                                                                                                                            

Though, more often than not, it is impossible to devise a definitive conclusion on the efficacy of culls benefit for public safety. Shark attacks are such rare events that differentiating between random coincidence and underlying patterns is fraught with difficulty.

The problem is that shark bite numbers can lie. They lie in three ways. First, shark bites are discrete, random events that do not look random. Second, clusters of shark bite incidents are misleading. And third, we only count when human-shark interactions occur, not when they don’t. – Christopher Pepin-Neff

This highlights a gap in our understanding of shark attacks. We do not yet know the best way to address human-shark interactions. But, history has revealed much of what does not work.

Techniques that utilise drum lines and nets often harbour negative externalities for the broader environment, including; indiscriminate high non-target species catch rates; high mortality rates; undermining scientific research that plays a fundamental aspect in public safety; promotes food web collapses, such as the 1970s North Carolina scallop decline; has no evidence that it translates to public safety; et cetera.

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The decline of sharks in North Carolina waters and the associated food web disruption had many unintended impacts, including plummeting scallop populations – a lucrative business in the region. Source: Michael Wright                                                         

2014 submission to the Western Australia Government regarding its culling programme, contained the signatures of 301 scientists whom affirmed the scientific communities position that there is no evidence to support the culling of sharks.

To say that something is ‘scientifically unfounded’ suggests there is a lack of evidence to provide direction on an issue. To label something as ‘scientifically oppositional’ means that there is evidence suggesting that an action being undertaken will fail. Shark culling is scientifically oppositional.

“[Shark culls are] not even a false sense of safety, it’s actually a placebo.”                   – Jonathan Clarke of Sea Shepherd Australia

Studies have revealed the futility of shark culls. The Australian Government has acknowledged the inferiority and arbitrary selection of this response. Humans oppose these actions on moral grounds and as little more than a speciesism killing spree. So, why are the Queensland Government culling sharks? 

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Numerous protests have occurred across Australia, particularly in WA, where crowds numbering in the 1000s have voiced their opposition to culls. Source: ABC News                                                                                                            

The politicising of shark attacks

It seems to be a common theme in years gone-by: when a desperate situation emerges, people look to their representatives for answers. The representatives, keen to bolster their image in the publics eyes, engage in hasty actions designed to quell the concerns of the masses and win their favour.

Only, there is no action that can guarantee another shark attack does not occur. (Indeed, alternative technologies like shark shield are still in their infancy and non-lethal approaches like shark spotting are seldom applicable along Australia’s coastline). But, this is not the goal of the action. The goal is to pacify the masses and restore or maintain voter confidence.

“Can you imagine the public outcry if anything else happened in that region during school holidays, if the department of fisheries took no action,” Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, following the Whitsundays shark attacks.

In terms of public safety, taking no action would have the equivalent benefit of a cull, just with fewer victims. The Queensland fisheries and the states ministers are well-informed on the scientific consensus on shark culls, including the use of drum lines – every review has recommended against their use or suggested there is not enough evidence to indicate it has a benefit to public safety.



Where these tactics succeed is in perception. They maintain a symbolic status that capitalises on the primal fear of these predators. So often the debate whittles down to a single emotion-driven question: humans or sharks? The decision to cull is to take a stand with your fellow man. The long history of their use in Australia has engrained the perception that these tactics buffer public safety. When a politician enacts a cull, it is in adulation of humans.

This mentality feeds the Queensland Governments current stance. They not only view their actions as virtuous, but obligatory by virtue of the sanctity of human life.

“While of course we will never know if any of the sharks caught would have harmed a person, this government will always place greatest value on human life,” Western Australia’s Fisheries Minister Ken Baston speaking on the regions shark cull

This is a far simpler position to take than the alternative: recognising the failings of culls, upselling personal responsibility and taking associated action. As is the name of politics, this would open the door to all manner of misanthropic libel of your name and stances.

Few politicians are willing to cast dispersions on their public image and risk their lucrative position for the sake of saving a few sharks; for the sake of doing what’s right. No amount of science is going to change this, until it can offer something better than the shark cull placebo.

Do recent shark attacks heavily motivate your recreational use of the ocean?

The Plastic Island MYTH!

Featured Image: The Ocean Cleanup

You’ve likely heard whispers of the ‘Plastic Island’ controversy. Of a vast area in the Pacific Ocean filled with plastic waste so thick it appears to be an island and so vast it outsizes countries. Naturally, such hyperboles drove scepticism and a controversy was born.

When the controversy gained traction, the issue became ideological and each side evermore vocal. Only, both sides have tended to be wrong or devious, indulging truths, misrepresenting facts and flat out denying inconvenient information.

The situation was enveloped in opinion and the true circumstances became difficult to discern. But, amidst the veil of opinions, there are questions that have objective answers – you need only sift through the garbage.

Is the Plastic Island real? What is it? How big is it? Why is there a controversy?



The North Pacific Gyre

The North Pacific Gyre is a major oceanic current in the northern Pacific Ocean. It spans the area between Japan and the west coast of North America. The name may sound familiar. That’s because it is the underpinning of the Plastic Island controversy.

The gyre acts as a sort-of continental sized whirlpool, slowly collecting waste from a vast area and concentrating it in a centralised location. This location is roughly halfway between Hawaii and California. (Although, it would be more appropriately described as two separate regions connected by a bridge – there are two distinct ‘collection zones’, one in the east and another in the west, connected to each other by the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone).

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The North Pacific Gyre feeds two distinct garbage patches.
Source: NOAA

This location has come to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP) because of the exceptionally high concentrations of plastic found there. The exact concentrations of plastics vary across the region. But, a zone of roughly 1.6 million square kilometres has been established, wherein plastic concentrations are highly concerning.

The controversy around this situation has arisen from people indulging or distorting these facts. Most notably of the plastic concentrations in the GPGP through hyperbole and the evidence provided by aerial surveys.

Plastic Concentrations

Language is an important tool for communication. But, it is easily misconstrued, often intentionally. The use of phrases, like ‘garbage patch’ and ‘plastic island’, mislead the reality of the situation.

There is no ‘garbage patch’, nor is there anything reminiscent of the image that comes from the title ‘garbage island”. There is, ‘a large area of ocean where high levels of plastics give the impression of a diffused soup’. In reality, microplastics constitute most of the GPGP – microplastics are still highly concerning.

“The continued use of verbage such as ‘plastic islands’, ‘twice the size of Texas’ is pure hyperbole that I personally believe undermines the credibility of those that should be focused on helping reduce the source stream of marine debris to our oceans.”
Associate Professor, Dr Angelicque White

The claims may be intended to foster greater interest in the issue, but, as the quote suggest, do nothing more than undermine the credibility of the sources that purport the hyperbole. And this has driven people from the cause.

Those that remained adamant proponents of the issue were faced with yet another challenge when images of the area surfaced.

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Besides the occasional presence of large waste, the GPGP appears relatively free of plastic.
Source: The Ocean Cleanup

‘Plastic Island’ Aerial Survey’s and Satellite Imagery

When Aerial Surveys and Satellite imagery of the area purporting to host the GPGP emerged and there appeared to be no rubbish, various news sites jumped to their keyboards in joyous denouncement of the ‘Plastic Island’ – “Where’s the plastic island these greenies keep talking about?”.

Indeed, this was likely the fault of greenies that belied the situation. The very reason these devoid images were so controversial is because the plastic island has been heavily misrepresented. Even the few larger objects visible in the images did little to quell doubt in people’s minds – they had been led to believe the area was engulfed by a vast swathe of plastic waste.

While these images raised doubt in the general public, they came as no shock to the scientific community. They simply reaffirmed what was already general knowledge and what studies had already concluded – there is a high concentration of microplastics in the North Pacific Gyre.

A study published in Scientific Reports, paraphrased by National Geographic, found:

The [model] shows how the concentration levels gradually decrease by orders of magnitude towards the outside boundaries of the GPGP. The centre concentration levels contain the highest density, reaching 100s of kg/km², while decreasing down to 10 kg/km² in the outermost region.

The GPGP is no myth. But, there is much misinformation out there. The controversy around it stemmed from ideological individuals trying to reinforce a biased and incorrect agenda, and all that resulted was confusion and detraction from the real issue of plastic pollution.

What are you doing to reduce plastic usage in your household?



Local boatman swims amongst plastic trash discarded in Manila Bay, Philippines

Is the Philippines going plastic-free?

Featured image: Loic Druart

In the global war on plastic, each incremental win, no matter how small, stands as prospective grounds for a greener and cleaner future.

Humans are the architects of a marine tragedy unparalleled in the last 66 million years. Our marvel? Plastic.

Plastic was born from our vociferous demand for convenience. Now, it is an essential component in most inexpensive production models. This rise has not been without issue.

Plastic is so fantastically designed, but poorly controlled that it has become ubiquitous in most natural environments.

This statement could not be truer for marine environments. Today, there is around 150 million tonnes of plastic in the ocean. By 2050 it is estimated that marine plastic will outweigh global fish populations.

The severity of the situation is well-established. But, this knowledge merely begs the question: how can we eliminate a product designed to persist? There is no clear answer to this question because most efforts made so far have failed to address the overriding problem.

The Source.

Plastic pollution of the marine environment is largely an artefact of developing countries. Here, the localised economic and social difficulties of the people overshadow any green dispositions and action.

A scathing report by the UN in 2015 found that half of all plastic waste in the ocean originates from just 5 developing countries – China, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.

Most of these countries took their ranking as nothing more than an inconvenience, particular China whose response exemplifies their abysmal indifference for the environment. The Philippines, however, has not taken this title lightly. Instead, they have taken regulatory steps to affirm a previously unknown environmental agenda.

These steps have drawn much interest because they could serve as a precedent for future action if successful.

So, have these steps achieved effectual reductions of plastic pollution? Does the Philippines provide an answer to solving the plastic pollution crisis?

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Plastic covers the beaches of Manila Bay. Regular clean ups fail to mitigate the build-up.

Source: Adam Cohn

A green agenda.

The Philippines is the third largest contributor to global marine plastic pollution. 81 percent of their plastic waste is mismanaged, equating to 5568 tonnes of plastic pollution per day. This has long been a known issue in the Philippines. (The UN report merely brought it to international attention).

Asian countries are rarely thought of as places that harbour an environmental mentality. However, a peripheral grassroots culture against plastic has been developing in the Philippines for years. Recently this movement, underpinned by the UN report, gained traction and translated into a political motivator.

“I understand the convenience and economics of plastic use. However, we should never let short-term benefits doom us in the long term” – Former Senate President of the Philippines, Koko Pimentel

Following this public statement by the former Senate President of the Philippines, the presence of regulatory frameworks directed at plastic pollution and usage in the Philippines has become more common.

A war on plastic?

The nations topography, complimented by the severity of plastic pollution, puts most Filipinos in daily contact with the material. For example, the clean-up of Manila Bay, a single coastline of this island nation, yielded 1,594 litres of trash.

For many, repulsion is simply an outcome of this daily confrontation. For others, the issue is more of an extensional concern. Regardless, plastic pollution is now a hot-button issue.

Currently, there is no national framework for a complete ban or phase-out of plastics. However, most local governments have attempted to regulate plastic pollution through the passing of ordinances. Some examples include:

Senate Bill No. 1866 prohibits the use of plastic straws and stirrers in restaurants and other establishments.

– The Ecological Solid Waste Management Act of 2000 contains provisions on recycling options and details recyclable materials.

– The Malay municipal government prohibits the use of single-use plastics in hotels, resorts, restaurants and establishments in the accommodation business. Reoffenders can be fined up to P2,500 and have their business permit revoked.

The presence of regulation directed at plastic usage and pollution in the Philippines is undeniable. However, cracks begin to show when analysing its application.

In some cities, ordinances are devised on the basis of a command-and-control approach. But such a system is thwart with administrative difficulties from day one – most parts of the Philippines lack the resources required to adequately mobilise their law enforcement.

Instead most places assume and rely on the sustainable convictions of people. The Philippines approach to mitigating plastic pollution relies on the individual to act responsibly or to act in accordance with a law that is incapable of being enforced.



Govern yourself.

A lack of national guidance has driven many municipalities to devise their own approach for dealing with the issue. Not all actions against plastic pollution, despite their possibly good intent, have been beneficial.

Many regions have dabbled with alternative waste disposal methods, mainly incineration, which is favoured for dealing with the visual component of plastic pollution. But, only leads to more issues.

Most notable is the municipality of Puerto Princesa City, where 100 metric tonnes of POPs will be released per day through a P2.1 billion WtE gasification development.

Incineration emits a wide range of toxic and hazardous air pollutants, including heavy metals, nanoparticles and many persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These toxins are the subject of the Stockholm Convention on POPs and took a place on a UN treaty for the worst of the world’s hazardous chemicals.

Incineration and other kinds of waste disposal methods are used as cheap and swift ways of addressing the issue without dealing with it – out of sight and out of mind. These are appealing to developing countries for obvious reasons.

The infrastructure and funding needed to appropriately address the issue are preferably spent on economic issues. This logic is at the heart of the countries emphasis on self-action rather than national action.

Indeed, self-guidance itself appears to be an issue because it has resulted in a string of conflicting approaches.

While some places have banned plastic bags, others use them in multitudes. While some places have outlawed the use of plastic condiments, others favour them. While some places are limiting plastic bottle usage, others have increased output.

In some cities, you will be fined for possessing a plastic bag. In others, this is limited to hospitals, city halls and government offices. In others, shopping malls may distribute plastic bags to customers. In one store, you may be denied a bag in abidance of a plastic ban, while the adjacent stores offer out bags in droves – one for every item you purchase.

To this discrepancy the Philippines has fostered much inter-municipality confusion. Furthermore, through a lack of national guidance, a push to reduce plastic usage in the country has translated to regional policies that target peripheral specifics of the issue, such as plastic straws.

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Plastic incineration is rarely undertaken in a manner that addresses toxic emissions

Source: somsak suwanput

Too little, too late?

Small changes are evident in the mentality of the Philippines towards plastic pollution.

There is a higher presence of bins in most cities; the adoption of the three-tier segregation system is evident in most affluent cities; alternative straws are now offered in most tourist areas; many stores offer paper bags over plastic bags; et cetera. There are many superficial changes. But, little has been adopted on a scale needed to achieve tangible reductions.

Little has been achieved because the foundational issues are not being addressed. Despite popular opinion, plastic pollution does not stem from large corporations like Nestle or from their ‘sachet economy’. It stems from people.

“What we need is waste reduction. In order to actually reduce flooding, we need to change our mentality from just throwing things away to learning how to reuse our things” – Soap Boxie

Addressing plastic pollution will require behavioural change. Disassociating the notion of plastic from convenience and plastic waste from disposable. This will be difficult.

Despite the existence of a green movement, most Filipinos do not value the environment beyond its benefits for the self. Most people maintain the view that the environment is an entity entirely separate from humans. And it is treated accordingly.

Addressing this mentality is difficult. Most of the world has failed to overcome it. But, it can be circumvented to at least motivate people to act sustainably for themselves id est plastic pollution and more broadly waste mismanagement as an antithesis of progress.

This will require education; strong governance; investment in waste management; regulation of commercial plastic usage; regulating availability of plastic; social adaptation to change and more. (And, an article of its own).

The Philippines does not hold the answer to halting broader plastic pollution. But, every revolution has begun with a single person demanding change.

Will the plastic pollution crisis be solved by governments or people?

Afterword

***The true motive of the Philippines government and its people is hard to discern. Much of the nation perpetuates some of the most damaging of human actions, including a ballooning population, an abysmal meat abstention rate, deforestation, rapidly declining terrestrial species and fish stocks – what’s the point of a clean ocean with no fish in it? Convenience and pleasure remains the decisive factor for environmental degradation in the region. A factor the Philippines seems unable to adequately and logically address.

***The information in this article is accurate as of the publication date preceding the main text. It is important to recognise that all information should be sourced from a wide and varying range of up-to-date articles, before drawing conclusions.



 

A Sea Turtle in the process of consuming a plastic bottle

Plastics are forever.

Featured Image: Rich Carey

The global anti-plastic discourse was born from the visual and palpable effects of plastic pollution. A six-pack ringed turtle, a plastic ensnared dolphin or the waste-filled belly of a whale insights a visceral response that no issue purely founded in academia can.

This is the great failure of plastic and the champion of the green movement – an associative image that draws an emotive response. This is particularly evident of plastic pollution in marine environments.

“Plastic is the most prevalent type of marine debris found in our ocean”

Provocative images can, for example, drive swathes of people to their local beach in tireless dedication to a regular ‘beach clean-up’ for which no compensation is received. And still, at a long day’s end, an individual will look back on the events of the day and take in a breath of self-satisfaction.

The invasive nature of plastic on Our visual perception fuels the anti-plastic movement. But, emerging research has revealed a dilemma.

What if, before days end on the beach clean-up, a net-touting scientist were to pass by only to describe your hard-cleaned beach as filthy? That your days efforts accomplished little more than a face-lift. What if this operation removed little more than a fraction of the plastic on said beach? What if most plastics on said beach remained untouched because they are imperceptible to humans?

The classic idiom ‘out of sight and out of mind’ does not just describe a human tendency to remove from thought that which is out of sight. It also describes how sight motives action. In this case, sight motivates a denouncement of plastic.

Enter, Microplastics.

Microplastics are not a new thing. Scientists and businesses have utilised them in everyday products since at least the late 1960s. But, only recently is the magnitude of their impact being realised.

So, what are these troubling denizens of a largely imperceptible world?

Microplastics are a subset classification given to plastic particles measuring 5mm wide or less. This class is broken again into two subcategories: primary and secondary.

Primary microplastics are intentionally produced as a raw material for use in pharmaceutical and cosmetic products; as an abrasive component; or as an additional component in many other industrial products.

Secondary microplastics are a by-product. It results from the fragmentation of larger plastic products, such as the breakdown of beach litter or the shedding of synthetic fibres in laundry. For example, synthetic clothing can release up to 700,000 microfibers during the average wash cycle.

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Most microplastics are imperceptible to humans.
Source: Julianna DaSilva

Whether primary or secondary, all microplastics share at least one commonly concerning characteristic – durability.

The durability of microplastics and plastics in general, is the favoured property that spurred human interest. Now, this property presents one of the biggest threats to marine environments. As structural pollutants, they do not easily biodegrade and are highly persistent in marine environments.

“Nearly all plastic that has ever been released into the environment still exists today”      – Aaron Jackson

The Problem.

The study of microplastics is an emerging field in the sciences and has only recently gained traction. Hitherto research ventures have been poorly funded and the field is understudied. There is little known about the impacts of microplastics on marine life and food webs, for example, and the exact severity of their presence in the world’s marine environments.

As a fault of, the extensity and density of microplastic concentrations in the world’s waters is constantly being revised up, as study after study finds new regions with increasingly higher concentrations.

The findings of a study published in Nature Geoscience concerning the River Tame near Manchester took samples from 40 sites and found upwards of 500,000 particles in these areas alone. The same study discovered that during heavy flooding, around 40 billion particles are washed into the ocean.

A study in British Columbia found microplastic concentrations of 9,200 particles/metre² in seawater. A separate study found that the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, increased from 331,809 pieces per square kilometre in 1999 to 19,912,037 in 2014.

Studies estimate a global microplastic index of around five trillion pieces. (Although this figure is believed to significantly underestimate the true circumstance).

So?…

While studies are limited, the effect of microplastics on marine life is being realised. To many of these creatures, the true nature of microplastics is indiscernible, and it is mistaken for food or consumed unintentionally. Herein lies the danger.

Filter feeders, for example, are particularly susceptible to unintentionally ingesting microplastics. Creatures like whale sharks and manta rays swallow hundreds of thousands of cubic metres of water every day. This introduces microplastics into their body on a grand scale. In the Sea of Cortez, whale sharks were found to ingest 200 pieces of plastic per day. In the Mediterranean Sea, fin whales swallow about 2,000 microplastics per day.

Large filter feeders are not the only affected creatures. Microplastics effect all levels of the food web. Zooplankton have been observed ingesting up to 30.6 μm of microplastics – a hefty meal by the standards of Zooplankton.

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Marine animals will often mistake plastics for food or consume them unintentionally.
Source: Rich Carey

The effects of microplastics on the body is an equally understudied field. But, evidence is emerging to suggest that the ingestion of microplastics is hazardous to marine animals. Known effects that occur from the ingestion of microplastics include nutritional stress, digestive system blockage, entanglement, inflammation, asphyxiation and more.

More concerning still is emerging evidence that suggests microplastics transport and bind to toxic chemicals, like phthalates; concentrates chemicals, like pesticides, in localised areas; and transports bacteria present in the surrounding seawater or that has been acquired during the transition from land to sea. All of which may be transferred into the body and have adverse toxicological effects.

Small enough microplastics have been observed crossing the cell membrane and causing tissue damage; ingesting these chemicals and pollutants can affect the physiology of the host organism; persistent exposure can compromise a species fitness et cetera.

In the current timeframe of awareness and with the minimal breadth of information available to us, it is difficult to surmise the precise scale and breadth of potential issues. But, precedents set by past and current anthropogenic problems raise concerns around several potential effects, including bio-magnification and chronic toxicity. The concerns don’t stop here.

The most confronting insight for many is the realisation that microplastics have long been impacting humans. While indirectly affecting humans through bioavailability, microplastics in the food web has transpired into direct consumption of said plastics. For example, a study in Europe found that occasional consumers of shellfish may ingest up to 11,000 microplastics a year from this meal alone.

A review of 250 bottles from 11 leading water distribution brands found that 93 percent of the samples had on average 315 microplastics per litre. One sample contained more than 10,000 particles per litre.

Our future.

Plastic pollution has been synonymous with the recent history of man. As our societies have continued to move forward founded on ineffective waste management strategies and outdated perceptions, the issues of plastic pollution are worsening.

Each year we produce more than 330 million metric tons of plastic globally. There are few adequate ways to dispose of said waste. Landfills simply concentrate plastics in a localised area and kick the can down the road. And, this most popular of methods collects microplastics that eventually reach marine environments through the airways during the breakdown process.

The failings of other disposal methods are far less… subtle. In the Pacific Ocean, nestled between California and Hawaii, an expanse 3 times the size of France contains a massive garbage patch. It boasts the highest recorded concentration of plastic, comprising an estimated 80,000 tonnes of the material.

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The North Pacific Gyre is fed by four ocean currents.
Source: J. Jeronimo Sainz de Agüero

A seemingly endless and unbelievable list of the impacts humans have had on the environment through plastic pollution are easily searchable. But, even without research, it seems common sense that plastic pollution has been disastrous and requires drastic action.

The answer to halting future pollution is simple: stop using plastics. The solution to our past is nowhere near as simple. For in the same manner as diamonds, plastics are forever. (Diamonds are not actually forever. It eventually breaks down into graphite).

What habits have you changed to limit your plastic usage?

 

A man straddles a captive element during the last minutes of daylight

Why you should NOT ride elephants.

Featured Image: El Vaquero

Humans are drawn to elephants. Whether by their size, intelligence, beauty or any other coveted quality, people are willing to travel great distances just to lay eyes upon them.

This attraction is the foundation of a booming tourism industry in Asia.

Unfortunately, by virtue of their magnetism they are subjected to practices that threaten the survival of the species. When most people think of issues that have befell the elephant, few would consider more than ivory poaching.

However, in order to support a growing demand for elephant tourism, operators engage in cruel and systemic practices that transmute wild elephants into docile and submissive creature capable of being ridden.

The rising demands to outlaw elephant rides in Asian countries may seem excessive to those unaware of the situation. But, they have resulted from these practices.

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It is common practice to ride elephants in most asian countries.

Image source: El Vaquero

The situation.

The Asian elephant is listed as ‘endangered’ on the IUCN Red List of Threatened species. Most of the species native countries, except India, host less than a few thousand individuals – several nations have less than two hundred.

In total, their population is estimated to be around 45,000. (Several studies, however, suggest that this is only a crude guess and the true population level is much lower).

A slew of factors contribute to this hastening decline, including: environmental degradation, population fragmentation, human encroachment into habitat, poaching and skewed sex ratios.

Asian elephants are expected to be extinct in the wild in less than 10 years if intervention does not occur.

Tourism.

Poaching tends to sit at the forefront of peoples mind in this situation. But, poaching needs to be understood as a response to an incentive.

Tourism promotes poaching. In order to meet the growing demands of tourists to interact and ride elephants, you need elephants. And, year-on-year, more and more elephants are plucked from the wild to meet this demand.

So prevalent is this demand that in many countries, captive elephants outnumber wild elephants. In Thailand, for example, of the countries estimated 5,000 elephants, more than 4,000 are in captivity.

Supplying a constant need for elephants from a population diminishing at an unprecedented rate is one thing. But, how do you turn a 4-tonne wild animal into a submissive prisoner of your tourism venue?



Crush their spirits…

This title is not intended to fuel an emotion-driven sentiment. Rather, the process of domesticating an elephant is called Phajaan, literally translated to ‘the crush’.

Phajaan originates from Indian hill tribe communities. The traditional practice comes from the idea that shaman can physically separate spirit from body.

The process is rather simple, although macabre. As the name implies, you need to break the animal into submission.

“the brutal truth is that breaking these animals’ spirits to the point that they allow humans to interact with them involves cruelty at every turn”

– Dr Schmidt-Burbach

The process begins around infancy. The baby elephants are dragged from their mothers and place in a kraal or ‘crush cage’ – this often results in the killing of the protective and aggressive mother. Here, it is completely deprived of movement and starved for several days.

Phajaan begins. This involves brutalizing and torturing the baby for around 3 days or as long as needed, using methods of burning, stabbing and beating. Literally breaking the elephant into docile submission.

This stands as an introduction to the tourism industry. For the rest of its life, the relationship of elephant and mahout is one of master and slave – submission through fear.

Mahout continue to brandish a bull hook or some nostalgic weapon of fear when in the presence of the elephant to reinforce submission through visceral fear. The intentional use of these techniques to induce submission in an elephant is hard to view as anything but the most heinous inclination of humans.

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An award-winning photo by Brent Lewin of the Phajaan process.

Image source: NBC News

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A Bull Hook is the weapon of choice when ‘breaking’ elephants.

Image source: A Beating Heart

A lifetime of problems.

Beyond the torturous initiation into the tourism industry, any issues that follow seem banal. But, the life of such an elephant is filled with hardship. The biggest draw of tourism operators is elephant rides. An action elephants are simply not built for.

When considering the elephant in its simplest form, a creature of mass proportions, it is difficult to assume that riding such a creature would have any substantial impact. But, this is because we draw assumptions from other aspects of our life.

When we think of riding elephants, it is likely in the same light as horses? (Horses, however, have undergone selective breeding to achieve a specimen that can bare great weight on their back).

Unfortunately, the spine of elephants is distinct in the animal kingdom.

“Instead of smooth, round spinal disks, elephants have sharp bony protrusions that extend upwards from their spine. These bony protrusions and the tissue protecting them are vulnerable to weight and pressure coming from above.”

– Carol Buckley, president of Elephant Aid International.

Elephant tours can total more than 8 hours a day and have up to 5 passengers, plus a saddle. In the immediacy, this can cause damage to the skin, promote the development of painful skin lesions and bring about general pain and discomfort. Over years, like most spines, improper posture and movement can cause degenerative spine conditions – an elephant that cannot perform profitable tasks is discarded in the cheapest manner.



YOU are the problem… and the solution.

It is the demand from tourists for entertainment that drives the poaching of baby elephants, their torture and a life of hardship. But, tourism in and of itself, is not a bad thing. There are many examples of the good that has come from an ethical and sustainable tourism industry.

For all those anthropocentrists, tourism could support the transition of those that rely on this cruel practice to an alternative where the welfare of the elephant and its carers are equal. For example, much of Africa’s elephant tourism industry offers non-invasive interactions and remains a highly lucrative industry for the economy.

“Elephants need to eat and mahouts—lacking any government financial support—need money to survive.”

– Chanantpha from the Elephant Nature Park

The Elephant Nature Park in Northern Thailand is a rescue and rehabilitation centre that operates on a caring ethos. While the elephants are rescued from the tourism industry, their indefinite care relies upon the continued operation of the Nature Park.

In order to support its operations, the park offers guests the chance to feed, bathe and simply observe the animals’ nature behaviours. For those particularly keen souls you are even able to volunteer your services for the nitty-gritty of elephant care – if you know what I mean. Elephant rides are vehemently opposed.

The Elephant Nature Park symbolises the development of a multi-national mindsight that emphasises the importance of ethical tourism. And, its sending ripples through businesses that continue to offer elephant rides. Nowadays, there are only two kinds of people that ride elephants – the ignorant and the cruel.

Will you be riding elephants in Asia?



A famous photo, taken by Joel Satore for the Photo Ark, depicts a young Loris wearingly looking at the camera with notably large eyes

Hands-off the Loris!

Featured Image: Joel Satore, founder of The Photo Ark

Most people could presume the story of the slow loris that met the hands of a tourist attraction – an exotic creature with desirable qualities is subjected to deplorable conditions.

It’s a tale heard over and over again, from the petting of tiger cubs in India to elephant rides in Thailand to dolphin dives in Indonesia. Industries that cater to the desire of tourists to interact with these animals offer big returns. The more intimate the interaction, the greater the return. The welfare of said animals does not fit within the parameters of the most profitable interaction.

In the case of the loris, there is a simple business model: engage the curiosity of tourists with an exotic creature and offering photo-ops that they can parade to acquaintances. Or, seek out those that desire a rare and exotic creature that they can boast about to acquaintances.

In either case, the success of the business is founded on an individual’s need for external validation.



Ohhh… what is that?

The slow loris is a general term used to describe a group comprising nine Strepsirrhini primates that share, among several qualities, brachial glands on their upper arm that secrete a liquid toxin and a nocturnal lifestyle.

The latter quality laid the foundations of our attraction to the loris. Not because they are active at night, but because their body became adapted to being active at night. Specifically, their eyes, which have become enlarged for higher light sensitivity.

Coupled with their timid persona and gentle movements, the slow loris is the pinnacle of adorability. It is no wonder they have become so popular as a portrait partner – even the likes of Rihanna sought to be graced by the photogenic loris.

Even when engaging its venomous defence, the loris can’t help but attract more people. When threatened the loris will raise its arms above its heads and lick the toxins from its brachial glands. When mixed with saliva the toxins are activated. Unfortunately, this is its response to being touched and tickled. A response that we perceive as a comedically adorable gesture. (The loris was first shot into popularity when a video surfaced on YouTube of this exact behaviour).

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A screen shot from a viral video of the loris being tickled.

Image Source: Share the Buzz

This popularity has done little to slow the decline of the loris species – it has hastened it. Every member of the slow loris group is listed as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. The Javan Slow Loris is listed as ‘Critically Endangered’.

The slow loris decline has resulted from habitat loss and degradation through deforestation and other factors; poaching to supply a demand on the Asian market for ‘traditional medicine’, which utilises the supposed healing qualities of the loris; and supplying the illegal exotic pet trade – this includes those that end up on the shoulders of tourists.

The illegal wildlife trade is widely stated as the biggest factor in the loris’s systemic decline. But, how does this toxic denizen of the night become the ephemeral curiosity of a feeble day-dweller?

Behind-the-scenes

Transforming the only toxic primate into a hands-on attraction or innocuous household pet is really a simple task that could be performed by a halfwit. If the loris’s bite is toxic, then its bite needs changing? What harm could a toothless mouth do?

To make the loris harmless, it needs to have its teeth removed. And, the simplest and cheapest way to remove teeth: take your average toe-nail clipper and start removing teeth.

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Typical method used to remove loris teeth.

Image Source: Wikipedia

While the cruelty of this systemic practice is blatant, it is often only the beginning. In order to satisfy the demands of tour operators and potential pet owners alike, the loris must be subjected to conditions that are oppositional to its very nature.

Who would desire a creature that sleeps all night, demands only high quality exotic fruits and insects, and travels vast distances into the dark yonder every day? No one would. People in the market for this kind of ‘pet’ desire something whose nature is catered to human desires, not its own. But, this only results in more problems for the loris.

Loris are strictly nocturnal animals. Exposing them to day light causes discomfort and stress. It is hard to detail and relate to this kind of discomfort because the eyes of diurnal creatures allow them to transition between light and dark reasonably easy.

(To all those photographers who have stumbled upon this article, imagine trying to achieve the correct exposure in harsh daylight when your camera has become locked on extended high ISO. You will toggle the shutter and aperture, but achieve little more than the outline of shapes. No matter how you buffer the ISO with alternative settings and tricks, it cannot be denied that the ISO is simply too high to offer an appropriately exposed image – it’s not an exact one-to-one comparison, but you should have an idea of the exposure issues faced by the loris’s eyes).



The loris are naturally inclined to travel long distances at night in the search of food. Confinement in cages or relatively small enclosures perplex this natural desire. Again, this induces a highly stressed creature that results in higher mortality rates; general discomfort; an overall poorly mental wellbeing; et cetera.

On these night prowls the loris will source a large and varied platter of food. Their optimal diet is complex, consisting of fruits, bird eggs, insects and tree sap. Ignorance of these requirements or an inability to meet this complexity results in the high rates of health problems in gaoled loris. These health problems include: obesity, diabetes, pneumonia, malnutrition, infection, metabolic bone disease and more.

With the plight of the loris founded on the human interaction itself, there is only one way to mitigate this issue: keep your hands off the loris!

What are your thoughts on the use of animals as dispensable objects of curiosity?

An elderly lady sits on wooden stairs covered in dust. The house appears old and without modern amenities. The lady has been worn by time, but still carry outs the tradition of neck elongation, sporting around 15 brass rings around her neck

Why the Long-neck Village of Thailand is controversial.

Feature Image: Matteo Selva

Northern Thailand’s ‘cultural tourism’ industry is founded upon the villages of the Kayan long-neck tribe, whose woman stack solid brass rings around their neck. This practice has long been ubiquitous with Kayan culture in which the subsequent elongated neck is a symbol of beauty.

This practice achieves this illusion by placing pressure on the base of the chin and top of the shoulders. Rings are continually and routinely added until the shoulders become depressed and the wearer seemingly sports an elongated neck.

Despite the mounting pressures of our technocentric modernity and the fading of this practice in Myanmar, the Kayan tribes place of origin, said practice has remained strong in Thailand. Their key role in Thailand’s tourism industry has placed economic pressures on the woman to maintain this practice – this economic incentive has been vital to maintaining this practice, despite the fading of many other people’s traditional practices.

But, all is not well for the Kayan tribe.



While the long-neck villages of Northern Thailand draw much tourism, particularly from the Chinese market, the women of these villages are not the beneficiaries of said tourism, only the attraction.

Through market incentives and corrupt governments, the Kayan have become exploited and essentially imprisoned by those whom have seen the monetary value of this practice and the women’s’ vulnerability. The practice of the Kayan tribe has continued because it is a spectacle in current times.

The events that led to the Kayan Tribe’s current circumstances and the formation of a tourism industry begins in a country entirely distinct from Thailand. So….

Who are the Kayan?

Despite being synonymous with the mountainous regions of Northern Thailand, the Kayan are not of Thai heritage. Their origins are to be found in Myanmar, at the time Burma. Here, they identify as a sub-group of the Red Karen People – the Tibeto-Burman ethnic minority of Myanmar. Their presence in Thailand is an unfortunate story, which has resulted in much backlash in the international community.

During the late 80s, the Kayan were made refugees by an intensifying civil war between the Burmese army and Karenni separatists. They were forced to flee the country eastward to Thailand. Under the status of ‘conflict refugee’, the Kayan were granted temporary asylum by the Thai government and allowed to inhabit guarded villages in the country’s north.

These villages offered a solution to the initial issues of the Kayan, but they were never designed as anything more than a temporary option. Two decades on and little changed. There is no sign of the conflict abating and few Karen are willing, nor desire, to return to a country in the midst of the world’s longest running civil war.

BURMA: ETHNIC WAR IN SOUTHEASTERN ASIA

The civil war in Myanmar if the longest running war you’ve never heard of. It is often called the ‘Forgotten War’.

Source: Democracy for Burma

The Kayan of northern Thailand now occupy a perpetual state of stagnation stemming from national ostracism. Surely, there are laws to mitigate such issues?

The Thai government class the Kayan as ‘temporarily displaced persons fleeing fighting’ and are judged prima facie. (At the national level, Thailand has minimal regulation on the handling and labelling of refugees). Essentially, this washes-their-hands of any legal obligation. The Kayan are allowed asylum in Thailand, but with minimal protections.

The Kayan have no citizenship and few rights; limited access to essential and basic utilities, including health care, education and electricity; minimal incomes; are forced to occupy predetermined tourist villages or overcrowded refugee settlements, from which they may not legally exit; et cetera.

The lack of official recognition by the Thai government deprives the Kayan of any rights and civil liberties that should be afforded. Instead, they are the main attraction at a human zoo.

(It should be noted that there are many settlements in northern Thailand that continue to take-in refugees from Myanmar. These villages have many issues, including overcrowding, limited access to potable water and high rates of disease. However, they are distinct from the tourism village that hosts the Long-neck Karen woman. This article should only be considered as an analysis of the tourism village).

A Tourism Spectacle.

There is an earie vibe to the Long-neck Village. As a steady trickle of tourists depart a long-line of tour vans, they are welcomed to the village by heavy smiles. The colourful shops sport a bounty of skilfully hand-made trinkets and the children play on the paths. It gives the impression of a simple and peaceful existence. But, something seems off.

You would not be able to work out exactly what, had you not done some prior research. There will be no information provided by tour operators on the real history of the Kayan-Thailand relationship beyond a pale description of a ‘mutual business arrangement’.

They do a good job at reinforcing this illusion. But, the Kayan are not viewed beyond their worth as a product. Their captors provide an illusion of a seemingly peaceful and reciprocal relationship – people pay a fee to enter the village and gawk at the Kayan who, in return, receive a portion of the profits. But, this is not the case.



 

The Kayan are, essentially, chained by circumstance. They have no resources or, at least, not enough to go their own way, nor any knowledge of a way to utilise their attraction to leverage themselves above their exploiters. The fee you pay at the entrance only reaches the Kayan in the form of small incomes, just enough to live on. (This is a common misconception. These entry fees rarely support the Kayan people and few are actually dependent on them for subsistence).

For many of the Kayan, the only time they are able to find some form of frugality in their life is when a tourist pays them for a service, such as a photo-op, or when a trinket is purchased from their shop.

Tourism: Enchain and Liberate.

The Kayan Tribe have remained a marginalised and exploited people at the hand of the Thai government. While tourism continues to stoke-the-flames of this injustice, the fire burned long before the Kayan became a tourist attraction.

The specifics of this issue can be understood by breaking it down and analysing three formational dynamics – institutional abuse, relative poverty and misinformation.

When the Kayan fled Myanmar during the civil war, the Thai government’s non-status label enabled the foundations of institutional abuse – abuse validated by law, but that, nonetheless, remains an abuse.

A non-status by the Thai government stripped the Kayan of any rights and capacities needed for independent subsistence and self-sufficiency. The boarders of their small village symbolise the boarders of their existence – nothing more may be gained from the world legally, besides that which can be found within this boarder.

This led to an unwilling dependence on the village for otherwise unobtainable resources – they may refuse to participate in the sideshow, but this would result in nothing more than their own end.

By law, they are limited to utilise resources only attainable inside the boarders of their small villages. And there is only one ‘substantial’ resource in the village – tourists. The Kayan must accept it and join the scores of their peers reluctantly marketing themselves to tourists. With these villages, they are prisoners. Without these villages, they live in relative poverty.

Long-Neck-village-Mae-Hong-Son-Thailand-1

The Kayan Long-neck Village as depicted in a Thailand promotional magazine.

Source: The Thailander

But, without the Kayan, specifically the profitability of cultural tourism, these villages would cease to exist as a source of wealth for the local and national governments. In order to maintain this dependence, the Kayan are fed a false narrative about the importance of maintaining their cultural practice.

Specifically, that the brass rings around their necks are an unreturnable endeavour. Once they are on, they cannot be taken off without subjecting the neck to many risk. Of course, it is nonsense – the neck is not actually elongated, the shoulders are merely temporarily depressed.

While the Kayan are not actually allowed to leave this settlement, and many who have attempted to were arrested, it is much easier to keep someone complacent when they are uninformed. What would happen to the fabled Long-neck Village of Northern Thailand’s tourism industry if all the villages suddenly became filled with normal-neck people?

While the Kayan lack the necessary intellectual resources required to help themselves. Most people do not. Internationally, the exploitation of these people and support by tourists has been condemned and most articles on the matter recommend avoiding them altogether. However, in Thailand you will scarcely find any tourism operator that avoids them. Most, in fact, have them displayed in their shops and will happily take any tourist to the village for a fee.

Unless people are engaging in international affairs prior to visiting Thailand, few would have any knowledge of the issues surrounding the Kayan and hence would not see any issue in visiting this seemingly raw example of cultural expression.

Information will be the decisive factor in determining the future of these villages. If people continue to enable an industry founded on the exploitation of an oppressed people, the issue will continue. Short of international intervention or the Thai government gaining a conscious, the only thing that will end this human zoo will be the days when the trickle of tourists entering these villages runs dry.

It will not solve the issues of the Kayan. But, it will solve the issue that is Thailand’s exploitation of refugees.

Will you be visiting the Long- neck Village of Northern Thailand?