Conservation News: Storks, Fur Farms, and Toxic Algae Blooms

An All-Woman Army Protecting the Greater Adjutant Stork

In a few months, the greater adjutant stork, also called the hargilla, will be descending on a remote village, situated in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley of northeastern India, to breed in large numbers. Dadara and two nearby villages, Pasariya and Singimari, are surrounded by food-rich wetlands with tall trees perfect for nesting and have become a major stronghold for this species.

Greater adjutant storks stand near a garbage dump on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, on June 5, 2012. Photo By: Anupam Nath

“You will soon catch sight of this dark, quirky-looking bird, with large, thick bills, stalking over the beds of these wetlands or on the rain-soaked paddy fields in its typical military gait,” describes Charu Das.

Due to deforestation and widespread development of wetlands, only about 800 to a 1,200 greater adjutant storks remain in India and Cambodia.

But thanks to the efforts of the Hargilla Army, a conservation brigade of 70 local women, the greater adjutant stork has found a refuge. The Hargilla Army has been successful reducing threats and protecting habitat of the stork, backed by the direct administration and local conservation groups. With their efforts, the region has become “the biggest greater adjutant nesting colony in the world,” according to the Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist from Aaranyak, a conservation nonprofit in Assam, with around 550 of the birds living in these three villages.

Before the birth of the Hargilla Army, many of the villagers disliked the stork. In the three villages, the birds were considered “filthy” because of their droppings, harsh calls, and tendency to litter their food (sometimes collected from garbage dumps). And because the birds are so large, up to 18 pounds (eight kilograms), and live in colonies, they need trees strong enough to hold them and their nests. But, most of those trees grow on private lands and the locals would also chop down the trees to get of the storks.

Barman believed the solution was to work with the local communities. She began befriending women, as they play decisive roles in Assam’s rural households, especially those from the families of tree owners. Afterwards, she organized small, informal meetings to talk about the bird’s role in the environment, such as scavenging and disposing of dead animals and its essential link in the food chain of the wetlands.

One of the brigade members and active conservationist, Nilima Das recalls her time at the meetings. “We were awestruck … by the newfound importance of our villages due to this bird and the trees. “Soon we realized that the bird in our backyard is not ordinary. It is sacred, and with just a few hundred left in the world … we are fortunate to own the trees where they breed.”

Purnima Devi Barman explains the religious importance of the greater adjutant stork in a temple courtyard. Photo Courtesy of Aaranyak Organization

Once the women convinced their families to save the nesting trees, the people began developing a sense of ownership towards the storks. So much so that Barman claims that since 2010, no one has cut down a tree.

Since then, the conservation brigade has helped raise awareness for the species. They have taken their message to schools where they teach children the importance of the hargilla. The women weaved stork motifs into traditional products and garments and put them up for sale. Sometimes, the women don masks in street-corner plays or sing hymns written for the storks.

Despite the Hargilla Army’s success, more challenges remain, particularly chick deaths due to strong winds or storms knocking them from their nests. As a result, the local government and conservation brigade has placed nets around trees to catch the fledglings. Once the local police station is notified, officials take them to the Assam State Zoo where they’ll recover before being released back into the wild.

Their accomplishments have encouraged the brigade to expand their protections to other greater adjutant nesting colonies in the Brahmaputra Valley.

“Our Hargilla Army is an army without arms,” she says, “yet armed with the commitment and determination to battle against all odds in saving this endangered bird.”

All-Women ‘Army’ Protecting Rare Bird in India

IUCN: Leptoptilos dubius

Current Practices in the Fur Farming Industry are still Inhumane

After the animal welfare movement hit its peak in the 1990s, the movement has lost some ground. Fur has been making a high fashion comeback, reports the September issue of National Geographic. According to the International Fur Federation, nearly two-thirds of women’s 2016 fall fashion collections featured fur.

Richard Conniff writes, “The current revival is a story of the fur trade responding to its critics and often outmaneuvering them, combined with increased demand from the newly wealthy in China, South Korea, and Russia.”

Many different animals are raised in captivity for the fur trade such as minks, foxes, chinchillas, and raccoon dogs (also known as tanuki or Asiatic raccoons). Furthermore, there are a myriad of species that are trapped in the wild, including bobcats, beavers, lynxes, sables, seals, and weasels.

A worker handles a mink on a farm in China, the world’s biggest producer of mink pelts. Photo By: Diego Azubel

But out of them all, mink is by far the most popular farmed fur, with the Chinese mink dominating the market at about 40%. Denmark, Poland, Netherlands, United States, and Finland soon follow as the biggest producers for the mink fur industry. In 2014, the country produced 35 million pelts says the International Fur Federation, and Chinese fur farming is virtually unregulated when it comes to animal welfare.

Majority of Chinese farms are small, family-owned operations, according to a 2010 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. A 2005 report by Care for the Wildlife, a U.K.-based animal welfare nonprofit, found animals that were kept in small, dirty cages exposed to the elements, experienced rough handling, and suffered high infant mortality rates. The report’s authors, investigators from Swiss Animal Protection and EAST International, observed abnormal behaviors like extreme fearfulness, unresponsiveness, and self-mutilation which indicate poor welfare. Farmers also reported infanticide and difficulty breeding, which are also signs.

Without regulations to protect the animals and cheap labor, fur farming in China has grown, according to a 2010 paper by the Animal Legal and Historical Center at Michigan State University College of Law. This means that many more animals are also likely subjected to inhumane conditions. And despite adopting new rules that require animals to be stunned before they’re skinned, cruelty and inhumane treatment remain rife. That because under Chinese law, animals on fur farms are considered economic animals. Productivity takes precedence over welfare.

Workers skin minks at a farm in China.  Photo By: Diego Azubel

To combat the cruelty of fur farming, a new animal welfare regime called WelFur, developed by the Europe’s fur industry in 2009, will roll out next year in the European Union. WelFur will score European mink farms on qualities such as health, behavior, and housing of the animals.

However, animal welfare advocates, almost all of whom support a total ban on fur farming, are critical of the effort. One particular concern is that WelFur continues to allow the use of small wire cages, which doesn’t allow the animals to run, swim, or climb as they would in the wild, often causing boredom that results in tail-biting and fur-chewing.

The goal of any animal welfare regulation is to prevent unnecessary suffering. But for many, the issue of fur farming is the basic moral test of necessity. Fur clothing and accessories are luxury items, therefore fur farming for that purpose is immoral.

“Fur is a luxury item. Fur is not essential to human health or well-being,” says Oxford University ethicist Andrew Linzey, author of Why Animal Suffering Matters. “Causing suffering for fur is morally beyond the pale.”

Ethicists and philosophers argue that humans benefit from living in a society in which cruelty is discouraged. Animals, like children, are unable to give consent or advocate for themselves and are considered morally innocent. Linzey argues that the law’s role is to defend the weak and vulnerable from exploitation, and that includes animals ““It’s morally parochial to think that only human suffering matters. Since we know that [animals] experience not just pain, but also mental suffering … it’s inconsistent to oppose the deliberate infliction of suffering on humans but not also animals.”

Minks are highly territorial, swimming and roaming, solitary in the wild except during mating time. In farms, minks are forced to be crammed into close quarters with hundreds of others, bombarded by the scents of others’ feces and urine. A report produced by the anti-fur group Respect for Animals and co-authored by Stephen Harris, a professor at Bristol University stated that minks “cannot respond appropriately to these chemical messages and the impacts on their welfare are unknown, but allowing feces to build up under cages has been identified as a potential cause of social stress”.

Photo By: Diego Azubel

Even on the more regulated fur farms in Europe, U.S. and Canada and minks are provided with objects for entertainment, studies have found that it’s not enough to stop abnormal behaviors reflective of boredom and stress, such as pacing, fur chewing, and gnawing on the cage.

So in the 2000s, the European Council stated that an animal can’t be farmed unless it can be kept “without detrimental effect on its health or welfare”. But beyond such generalities, there are no specific EU guidelines for animal welfare.

To fill the void is WelFur, a joint effort between the European Fur Breeders Association and the International Fur Federation. It is based on “best current practices,” but animal welfare advocates say those current practices are often inhumane.

The Respect for Animals report that reviewed welfare standards stated: “Since ‘best current practice’ involves the use of a farming system with low welfare potential, even the farms that score highest on the WelFur protocols will be providing a standard of welfare that most people would not consider acceptable.”

However, Fur Europe’s Madsen brushed off the report as a product of “animal liberationists” who won’t be satisfied until fur farming is banned everywhere.

Great Britain, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, and the Netherlands have passed bans on fur farming (the Dutch ban has been appealed to the Supreme Court). Switzerland has such strict regulations that fur farming isn’t pursued there, and several other countries have passed bans on the farming of certain species.

Fur Farms Still Unfashionably Cruel, Critics Say

Growing Concern for Toxic Algae Blooms Worldwide

The algae bloom that blanketed the West Coast of the United States in 2015 was the most toxic one ever recorded in that region. The toxic levels were so high that fish, crab, clam fisheries were forced to close down due to reports stating it was too toxic for human consumption. But from the fjords of South Anima to the waters of the Arabian Sea, these harmful blooms, accelerated by ocean warming and other shifts linked to climate change, are wreaking more havoc on ocean life and people. And many scientists project that the blooms will only get worse.

A boat cuts a green wake—a harmful algal bloom—in Western Lake Erie. Photo Courtsey: National Ocean Service NOAA

“There’s no question that we are seeing more harmful blooms in more places, that they are lasting longer, and we’re seeing new species in different areas,” says Pat Glibert, a phytoplankton expert at the University of Maryland. “These trends are real.”

Scientists have been seeing that the blooms are lasting longer, spreading wider, and becoming more toxic all because of warmer water. And some are finding that even in places overburdened by poor waste management, climate-related shifts in weather may already be exacerbating problems.

Fish kills stemming from harmful algal blooms are on the rise rise off the coast of Oman. Earlier this year, algae blooms suffocated millions of salmon in South America, enough to fill 14 Olympic swimming pools. Last year, more than 300 sei whales in Chile dead points to the algae. In Qingdao, China, the green blob stretched 7,500 square miles. In May, a 33 square mile bloom took over Lake Okeechobee, the vast headwaters of the Everglades. Due to water buildup, the Army Corps of Engineers was forced to discharge the water from the lake to lower water levels, spreading the ooze until it coagulated along the shores of Treasure Coast. The Great Lakes experience annual blooms.

Algae is a catchall term referring to a wide variety of aquatic organisms that generally rely on photosynthesis for energy and reproduction.  Blue-green algae are cyanobacteria, for instance, while red tide is composed of tiny dinoflagellates. Seaweed and kelp are sophisticated alga. As conditions change, the environment can become perfect for one or two species to overgrow.

“Every organism on this planet has its ideal temperature,” says Chris Gobler, a professor at Stony Brook University. “In a given water body, as it gets warmer, that’s going to favor the growth of some over others, and in some cases the harmful ones will do better.”

The algae Pseudo-nitzschia, Photo By: NOAA Fisheries

Many algal species produce toxins. Dinoflagellates that cause bioluminescent water also produce a hazardous neurotoxin. Cyanobacteria produce microcystins, which can affect the liver and can be deadly to humans. A regular sampling from the toxic bloom along the West Coast last year showed dangerous levels of the biotoxin domoic acid from the algae Pseudo-nitzschia. So when vast blooms occur, these poisons may spread throughout the environment and up the food chain to fish and animals that feed on them.

With ice melting, blooms spreading north and are on the rise in places like Greenland. This year, scientists showed that domoic acid from toxic algae was showing up in walrus, bowhead whales, beluga, and fur seals in Alaska’s Arctic, where such algae species weren’t believed to be common.

“We expect to see conditions that are conducive for harmful algal blooms to happen more and more often,” says Mark Wells, with the University of Maine. “We’ve got some pretty good ideas about what will happen, but there will be surprises, and those surprises can be quite radical.”

“Some of the features of climate change, such as warmer ocean temperatures and increased light availability through the loss of sea ice in the Arctic, are making conditions more favorable for phytoplankton growth — both toxic and nontoxic algae — in more regions and farther north,” mentions Kathi Lefebvre, a biologist at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle. “It is likely that toxic blooms will continue to increase and expand as these features of climate change continue,” she added.

Joaquim Goes, research professor at Columbia University’s Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory, has been tracking climate’s role in transforming one of the world’s rapidly changing marine environments: the Arabian Sea.

In early 2000s, scientists documented blooms of bioluminescent Noctiluca scantillans, a green algae that makes the sea light up and sparkle. Now, it shows up annually, in ever larger densities and covering more area.

“Globally, I’ve studied lots of ocean basins, and here the change is just massive—this one species is just taking over,” Goes says.

He believes that the rapid melt of Himalayan glaciers has helped reduce oxygen levels in surface waters, making them more conducive to that algae’s growth. The change will change the current residing populations. Animals that feed on this particular algae or can thrive in low-oxygen environments will outpopulate the ones who won’t survive the new environmental conditions. Goes fears these changes will ultimately spell disaster for that region’s fisheries, which provide millions of dollars and help support life for 120 million people.

Still, it’s not always obvious what the trends really show or how all these pieces fit together.

University of Western Ontario’s Charles Trick argues that the physics of ocean environments are so complicated that climate change is likely to worsen algal blooms in a select few places, but not necessarily as a general rule. He is skeptical about climate impacts on blooms in the Arabian Sea, for example, but believes environments like the U.S. West Coast are prime for more massive blooms.

“Everything in this field is controversial. There’s a lot of enthusiasm to challenge the big questions, but not a lot of data.”

Kathi Lefebvre collecting krill that died en masse along a beach near Homer, Alaska. Tests later showed the dead zooplankton were loaded with toxins associated with a harmful algal blooms.
 Photo By: Paul Nicklen

What information there is often isn’t so clear. Kathi Lefebvre has been tracking the domoic acid in hundreds of marine mammals in Alaska. While the discovery of the toxin in walrus, bowhead, and other Arctic mammals, there is no data to compare the trend to.

“It’s a weird thing—we saw domoic acid in every species we looked at, so they are all being exposed to it,” she says. “Has it happened all along, but the region is so sparsely populated that no one noticed?  Is it just starting? Is it getting worse? Is it the same as always? I have no idea.”

Although they occur naturally, algal blooms are also being intensified by human activity: runoff from farms, feedlots, and municipal sewer systems.

“The bloom itself is the visual manifestation of nutrient overenrichment in lakes,” said Tim Davis, an ecologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory. “In freshwater systems, both nitrogen and phosphorus are the main nutrients.”

Dr. Davis also believes that climate change was working against efforts to prevent algal blooms.

“I certainly believe as a scientist that climate change will influence the size and intensity of these blooms,” he said. “If nothing changes — the increase of rainfall, the increase nutrient loads, warmer water — all of this could lead to larger blooms that last longer and are more toxic.”

Ocean Slime Spreading Quickly Across the Earth

Miles of Algae and a Multitude of Hazards


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s