Tilikum vs J34 A Tale of two Killer Whales

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Original article: Tilikum vs J34 A Tale of two Killer Whales

The Southern Resident Killer Whales are dying. It is happening now, it is happening quickly, and it is happening before our eyes.

Deceased J34 – image via CBC

In 2016, the number of Southern Residents plummeted from 83 to 78, one of the smallest populations since record keeping on the whales began in the early 1970s. One of these whales, J-34, or “Doublestuf,” a well known member of the J-22 matriline, washed ashore in British Columbia on December 20th, 2016. A breeding age male of 18, the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s initial examination revealed blunt force trauma and a hematoma as the cause of death. There is a high probability, though unconfirmed, that J-34’s injuries were caused through a vessel strike.

People examine J34’s corpse – image via CBC

In other words, J-34 was struck violently on the head, and continued to live for up to a few days, before succumbing to his injuries and dying, most likely alone, in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.

Photo by Erin McKinney

In another part of the country, 3 weeks after J-34’s body washed ashore, another well known male killer whale died. At age 36, after years of veterinary and behavioral support for a complicated chronic infection, SeaWorld Orlando’s Tilikum passed away quietly, in the early hours of January 6th, 2017. He was in the company of the trainers and killer whales he’d known for much of his life since his move to SeaWorld in 1992.

Photo by Erin McKinney

Tilikum was well past the average life expectancy (30) listed by the NOAA for a male killer whale. He had been ill, and supported medically, for years, with an infection found in both free-ranging and zoological animals. His death was not violent or shocking, yet it garnered exponentially more news coverage and discussion then the fate of J-34.

Why? Where were the so-called “animal rights” crusaders, so abundant on Twitter and Facebook, when J-34 was suffering? Why is the death of a geriatric, professionally cared for animal a national ignition point, but the slow and steady destruction of a group of wild whales a special interest story?

Tourist disrupting the natural habitat of Killer Whales – image via NOAA

By all logic it should be reversed: J-34 was the 4th death (out of 6 adults and 3 neonate calves) for the embattled Southern Residents this year. His passing was violent, likely caused by human interference and marked the removal of another breeding animal from a population where the survival rate to 1 year for a calf is less than 50%. But animal rights activism, from PETA to The DoDo and beyond, is big business, and it’s a lot easier to sell ethics if you have a shiny corporation like SeaWorld to demonize.

While leveraging Tilikum’s death might do a lot for Ingrid Newkirk’s bottom line, addressing the death of J-34 means confronting a complicated and uncomfortable fact: humanity is failing the Southern Resident Killer whales. Their numbers are dropping. They’re listed as an endangered species. Over 50% of pregnancies are miscarried, and 43% of calves are lost in the first 6 months of life. They are some of the most contaminated animals on the planet, with nauseating levels of toxins building up in their blubber supply. Their supply of Chinook salmon, their primary food source, is being rapidly depleted. The negative impact of vessels, including whale watching boats, is becoming more and more apparent. All of these factors have been confirmed again and again by federal and NGOs seeking to help the whales recover.

And yet, with the overwhelming information that the Southern Residents are crying out for help, it is Tilikum who makes the headline, SeaWorld who catches the outrage and moral grandstanding, all while Justin Trudeau’s federal Canadian government approves a tar sand pipline project through the primary habitat of the Southern Residents that may turn out to be the death warrant for one of the most well known and well studied killer whale populations on the planet.

Tourists disrupting natural killer whale behaviors in the wild. – Image via WhaleResearch.com

There is no time left for British Columbia’s whales. They are dying, and every time the public is told that attacking SeaWorld is how to help orcas, their chances of recovery grow even slimmer. On December 31st, 2016, “Granny,” the J-pod matriarch, was announced missing, and presumed dead, the most recent in 2016’s alarming Southern Resident fatalities. Even that wasn’t enough to draw the spotlight toward the silently vanishing whales.

There is no true “wild.” Everywhere is marred by humanity’s impact. We must make a decision as a society to turn the tables for the wild whales. We must decide what dies with J-34: either a romanticized and outdated vision of the ocean, or the Southern Resident whales themselves.

Works Cited:

James Borrell: Eight reasons why zoos are good for conservation

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Original article: James Borrell: Eight reasons why zoos are good for conservation

The shooting of a gorilla earlier this year reignited the debate about whether animals should be kept in captivity, but we must remember the essential work that good zoos do.

The Biologist 63(5) p9

This summer, a child fell into an enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo with a western lowland gorilla named Harambe, and to protect the child the gorilla was shot. This tragic and much-discussed event rekindled the debate over the role of zoos and aquaria – and much of the coverage was negative.

One would hope that zoos themselves would be proudly showcasing their work, but as I discovered while contributing to an Al Jazeera report on the incident, many are reluctant to speak up due to the barrage of attacks that Cincinnati experienced.

Zoos are not perfect. Should they continue to keep large predators or intelligent primates? Over the next few decades, probably not. Should large new animals be collected from the wild? No, unless there is a compelling case to develop a captive breeding programme.

But are zoos changing and developing? Yes. More than ever, good zoos are aware of their evolving role in conservation and responding to it.

Would I rather have a species in captivity, than not at all? One hundred times, yes.

Here are my eight reasons why zoos are critical to conservation:

  1. There are 39 animal species currently listed by the IUCN as Extinct in the Wild. These are species that would have vanished totally were it not for captive populations around the world, many of which reside in zoos (or, for plants, botanic gardens).
  2. For species whose survival in the wild looks in doubt, zoos often set up ‘insurance’ populations, captive groups of animals that could in a worst-case scenario assist in reintroduction to the wild should the original population become extinct. The Zoological Society of London, as an example, participates in more than 160 of these programmes.
  3. Reintroductions. It is often argued that zoos are bad because so few reintroductions actually happen. I would argue that it’s not the zoos that are at fault – a reintroduction can’t occur if the reason a species was driven to extinction in the first place hasn’t been resolved.
  4. In 2014, 700 million people visited zoos worldwide. Not all zoos are good at engagement, and indeed not all zoos are good full stop. However, surely that number of visits created some sort of connection with the natural world that might not have occurred otherwise.
  5. Zoos are a living museum. What we learn about wild animals in captivity can help us manage and conserve them in the wild – from animal behaviour, to reproductive rates, to dietary requirements.
  6. Zoos raise money for conservation efforts. It’s difficult to engage people with conservation taking place half a world away. But by enabling people to experience wildlife first hand, we can increase participation in international conservation activities.
  7. Helping respond to emergencies. Chytrid fungus has emerged as a deadly threat to amphibian populations worldwide, and 168 species have become extinct in 20 years. Responding to threats such as this is surely one of the greatest uses of zoos around the world. Many have set up specialist amphibian centres and are pioneering treatment and breeding programmes.
  8. They remind us that we can succeed. Conservation is full of bad news stories, yet on many occasions I have peered through glass or mesh at a species that shouldn’t exist. For me at least, zoos remind us that conservation does work – we just need more of it.

Loro Parque releases a turtle found injured in Gran Canaria to the sea after recovering in the Aquarium

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Loro Parque Fundación recently returned a loggerhead turtle (Caretta caretta) to the sea that had been recovering at the zoo’s Aquarium for the last two months after being rescued on a beach in Gran Canaria with a fishhook inside its throat. Once the animal was transferred to the Wildlife Recovery Centre of Tafira, experts concluded that the most adequate place for its rehabilitation was Loro Parque, which has ensured a successful recovery and later reinsertion to the sea.

During the release, which took place at a Punta Brava’s beach, educators from Loro Parque Fundación and Pascual Calabuig, the director of the Wildlife Recovery Centre of Tafira, explained the importance of conservation and the endangerment of the animals by pollution, for example by plastic waste to more than 100 primary school pupils from the Punta Brava’s School. The most awaited moment arrived when students formed a central aisle, letting the turtle slide until its yearned destination: the ocean.

Ethical commitment of modern zoos to wild animals in need is an essential matter for the Foundation. Thus, it demonstrates its responsibility and readiness to foster and accommodate animals that need a temporary home – collaboration with other institutions is thus crucial.

Each year, more than 200 marine turtles arrive to wildlife recovery centres in the Canary Islands, most of them due to problems related to the impact of human activities in the sea; a great part of them can be recovered and returned to the sea. Loro Parque Fundación strengthens its commitment to raising awareness within the Canarian society on the need of acknowledging, protecting and conserving the environment and animal species.