Saturday, 20 August 2011

Silky Sifakas - Trouble in Lemur Land WATCH HERE

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Primatologist Erik Patel recently sent me Trouble in Lemur Land, a film that he has produced to raise awareness of an ever increasing threat to Madagascar's unique and diverse wildlife (watch the film below). The crisis at the heart of the film is the illegal logging of Madagascan hardwood, and in particular the devastating effect of the wide scale loss of Rosewood on the enchanting silky sifaka lemur, one of the rarest mammals in the world. Erik, who has been studying sifakas for 10 years, told me that less than 2000 these sifakas remain in the wild, and only in a small region of northeastern Madagascar. None have ever survived in captivity.

"Huge risks were taken to get this logging footage. This is a dangerous topic to investigate, but we had to take a stand" 
 - Erik Patel, Primatologist 

WATCH: Trouble in Lemur Land

The Madagascan Hard Wood Crisis

Fuelled by international demand, illegal logging of rosewood, ebony, and pallisandre has emerged as one of the most severe threats to Madagascar’s dwindling rain forests. 2009 was a year of political upheaval in Madagascar due to an undemocratic change of power, this allowed an unprecedented level of illegal logging, several hundred thousand trees were slashed from several UNESCO World Heritage Sites including Masoala, Marojejy and Makira Natural Parks. 

Since the 2009 coup d’etat, all forms of habitat disturbance have surged as international aid has been cut. Poverty has increased, forest monitoring has declined, and corruption has risen due to a weak central government.

Can't see the trees for the wood

The Madagascan hardwood is extremely valuable. Rosewood can sell for U.S. $5,000 per cubic meter, more than double the price of mahogany. Harvesting these extremely heavy hardwoods (each two meter piece can weigh 200kg!) is a labor-intensive activity requiring coordination between local residents who manually cut the trees, but who receive little profit (about $5 per day). The bulk of the progit goes to a criminal network of exporters, domestic transporters, and corrupt officials who initiate the process. 

The impacts of such selective logging include violating local taboos (e.g. ebony is sacred for some Sakalava) as well as ecological consequences such as increased bushmeat hunting, likelihood of fire, invasive species, impaired habitat, and loss in genetic diversity. 

Where the wild wood goes

It is now well established that approximately 95% of Madagascar’s illegally logged rosewood and ebony is shipped to China for luxury Ming Dynasty style furniture including single rosewood bed frames which sell for 1 million dollars each. Some of the largest furniture chains in Shanghai and Beijing have entire floors selling only rosewood furniture sourced from Madagascar and several other Asian nations. Roughly 5% of the exported rosewood and ebony is purchased by musical instrument companies in United States and Europe. 

Madagascan Rosewood

A glimmer of hope

Currently, several environmental organizations are working with the government of Madagascar to gain international trade protection for Madagascar rosewood, ebony, and pallisandre under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). 

For more details and a reference list, see Erik Patel’s National Geographic Blog: Madagascar’s Logging Crisis: Separating Myth From Fact.

Photo: Rachel Kramer (facebook group)

Friday, 12 August 2011

Rot Box - a squelchingly fascinating look at rot @bbcrotbox

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Rot Box is a fascinating project that promises to reveal a hidden world that every living thing on Earth owes its existence to - the world of decay. If you enjoyed the squelchingly gruesome scenes of Channel 4's decomposing elephant in 'The Elephant: Life after Death" then this is sure to get your skin tingling.

To fulfil this morbid proposition Edinburgh Zoo has done a David Blaine with the family kitchen. Between 6th August and 25th September this kitchen, along with a garden and all the leftovers from a typical family barbeque will be sealed in a glass box. Untouched it will be watched by 12 timelapse cameras who will follow the events as maggots, moulds, bacteria, flies and fungus transform the contents beyond all recognition. If you're visiting  the zoo then you too can witness first hand the gut-bursting scene of a chicken as it slowly becomes goo. It's a cross between a Damien Hirst installation and a scene from a Tim Burton movie - fun for all the family.

Executive producer Marcus Herbert describes the scene "It's only the first week but things are looking pretty gross already. There's lots of food out - a fruit bowl, chicken legs, a suckling pig on the barbeque, lots of wine lying around. There's also two dead mice and a rat – we’ll be seeing how different conditions affect the way they decay. After a few weeks we expect to have about 50,000 flies in there." 

This rotting mess will be used as the slimey foundation on which entomologist, and One show regular, George McGavin, will present a BBC4 programme later in the year - After Life: The Science of Decay. As well as being about the eight weeks of decay in the rot box, it'll also be about the wider world of decay; trying to understand the science behind this process which is so vital to life on earth.  

Follow the latest news from the RotBox on the After Life website.

George McGavin with the Rot Box (Photo: BBC)

The rotting chicken's first week in the Rot Box

Thursday, 11 August 2011

The chimp who would be human - 'Project Nim' in Cinemas NOW!

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General release in the UK from Friday August 12th 

Long before it was discovered that humans share 98.7% of their DNA with chimps, scientists believed that chimps shared many attributes with humans - the most controversial being the capacity for language. In the 1970s Herbert Terrace of Columbia University conceived Project Nim to find out just how much chimpanzees were capable of communicating with us. What transpired was an extraordinary experiment which continues to challenge our ideas about what it means to be human.

40 years later, BBC Films and the Oscar-winning team behind Man On Wire, bring us 'Project Nim' the fascinating tale of a chimp called Nim 'Chimpsky'. Nim was born at the Institute for Primate Studies in Oklahoma in 1973. Two weeks later he was taken from his mother and thrust into a life amongst humans. Living with a family 24 hours a day he was treated the same as any human child - played with, taken on road trips, even breast fed. All this was the context in which they could teach Nim sign language. If he was treated as a human, could he think or communicate as a human?

"Everything was about treating him like a human being, he liked alcohol, he loved driving cars, I breast fed him for a couple of months, it seemed completely natural" - Stephanie Lafarge, Nims first teacher

Nim's first foster family, however, were unprepared for the impact he would have on their lives. As Nim grew stronger, and more aggressive he began to pose a significant threat attacking other males and biting anyone he perceived to be weak. Eventually, Nim was moved to a safer and more secure estate in New York, where he lived with a succession of female students. The experiment ended in 1978 after which he was passed around several institutions before finally being rescued by his human family. Although Nim did eventually learn 125 different signs, Herbert Terrace admitted defeat, concluding that Nim hadn't acquired anything worthy of the name 'language' (as defined by Noam Chomsky). Without combining words and then being able to switch combinations to change meaning, what Nim used was more like a code than a language - he was a chimp who could mimic.

"The language didn't materialize. A human baby starts out mostly imitating, then begins to string words together. Nim didn't learn... He imitated signs to get rewards. I published the negative results in 1979 in the journal Science, which had a chilling effect on the field."  - Herbert Terrace

Using a mixture of interviews, archive, home movies and reconstructions this film focuses on the emotional element of Nim's extraordinary journey through human society. It uncovers the enduring impact he made on the people who loved and worked with him, to bring us an 'unflinching and unsentimental biography of an animal we tried to make human' (visit the official site)

From Falcon to Feather Duster - Crested Caracara of the Pantanal

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The northern crested caracara is part of the Falconidae family of raptors. Unlike falcons however, caracara are not fast-flying aerial predators. Their long legs make them better adapted to walking and running on the ground where they hunt and scavenge anything from seeds and beetles to small birds and rodents. They're found throughout northern South America, and are a common sight amongst the open grasslands of the Pantanal. On my recent trip to Brazil we were staying at a research station in the heart of the Pantanal Matagrossense National Park. We had a few caracara who regularly visited to scavenge a meal. It's hard to believe that they're closely related to peregrine falcons, as they seem to have a sluggish nonchalant disposition and it's quite easy to get close to them.

Northern crested caracara in flight

Feeding Caracara-3.jpg
 A juvenile trying to break open a seed. Juveniles are paler brown with a lighter pink face while the adults are much deeper coloured.

From Falcon to Feather Duster

I was sitting on the porch of the research station when I saw clouds of dust puffing into the air from just over a hummock. I went to investigate and this is what I found...

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Nice day for a bath... got to keep these pert feathers free of parasites

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This spot looks peachy!

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Feet first...

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Mmmm, cosy, lovely dust.

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Oooh yes. That's crest tingingly loverly

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Rub a dub dub

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Ta daa!

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Check me out!

Wednesday, 10 August 2011

Stuffed to bursting point by a ruthless queen - Empire of the Desert Ants, Natural World, BBC2

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Wednesday 10th August, 8pm, BBC Two

Tonight Natural World delves into the seething antistrocracy of the Arizona desert, where a new honey ant queen wages an intense battle for survival as she attempts to build and defend her empire. Eliminating rivals with ruthless efficiency, sacrificing thousands in her quest for domination, murder, cannibalism, genocide - she will do anything to keep her crown. Empire of the Ants is the epic story of one honey ant queen's dramatic rise to power - her brutal fall from grace.

Honey ant queens share a throne 

Footage of ant queens working together has been captured by a BBC film crew. As the sole reproducer in a colony, ant queens are traditionally considered lone figures. However, in certain species unrelated queens will sometimes co-operate to kick-start a new colony. Read the full article on BBC news 

Stuffed to Bursting Point

The largest honey ant workers take on a very special role in the colony - repletes. They are force-fed load after load of nectar by forager ants until their abdomens become the size of peas. As they get bigger, they haul themsleves up onto the roof of the nest to avoid being damaged. Once hanging from the roof, the repletes refine the nectar into thick honey. During long winters and droughts, repletes regurgitate their contents to feed other colony inhabitants - a strategy to enable these ants to survive in the desert. 

Series Editor: Steve Greenwood
Narrator: Andy Serkis
Producer: Ian Gray
Executive Producer: Tim Martin
Comimg up in this series of The Natural World
Heligan: Secrets of the Lost Gardens, Wednesday 17 August
Shot by Charlie Hamilton James this beautiful film uncovers the secret lives of the many wildlife residents the visitors rarely see.

Komodo: Secrets of the Dragon,
Wednesday 24 August
Using hi-tech tools to take a fresh look at this prehistoric beast, Doctor Bryan Fry discovers there is a lot more to the dragon than meets the eye – from hidden venom glands to its secret origins, thousands of miles away from its Indonesian home.

The Woman Who Swims with Killer Whales, Wednesday 31 August
The Killer Whale is the most feared predator in the ocean and most would consider it madness to enter the water with them. But New Zealander Dr Ingrid Visser things differently – and by swimming with her beloved whales she’s come to know almost all of them by sight.

Animal House, Wednesday 6 September
Sir David Attenborough tells the stories of the world’s best animal architects.

Dates may change

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

A whopper of a series: Ocean Giants - starts Sunday 14th August BBC One

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Sunday 14th August, 9pm, BBC One

Narrated by Stephen Fry, this new series uncovers surprising stories and reveals new insights into the lives of these extraordinary animals. They look like fish, but they are in fact warm-blooded mammals. They dive to great depths, yet they breathe air. And with their big brains, complex communication and the recent discovery that dolphins have individual names for each other, their minds could be far closer to ours than we previously imagined...

Over three hour-long episodes, Ocean Giants comes face to face with the world’s most extraordinary whales and dolphins, teaming up with top whale & dolphin scientists as they uncover their surprising stories and reveal new insights into the lives of these remarkable animals. Insights that will redefine how we see them forever…. 

Ocean Giants share these breathtaking encounters with two of the world’s top underwater cameramen - Doug Allan (Planet Earth’s polar specialist) and Didier Noirot (Cousteau’s front-line cameraman). Travelling from the balmy waters of the Indian ocean to the freezing seas of the artic, Ocean Giants explores the intimate details of the lives of these extraordinary animals, from how they communicate, to how they hunt and mate.
“Once you look in the eye of a whale your whole life is changing. You will never see things the same again.” - Didier Noirot

Episode 1: Giant Lives 
The great whales – such as the Blue and the Bowhead – are the largest animals that have ever lived on our planet. Yet surprisingly these mighty leviathans feed on tiny shrimps and sardines. Giant Lives discovers why size matters in the world of whales.

Episode 2: Deep Thinkers 
In some respects the brains of whales & dolphins are more complex than ours. Wild whales & dolphins work co-operatively, show empathy and are self-aware. Deep Thinkers finds out how clever – and how much like us – whales and dolphins might be.

Episode 3: Voices of the Sea 
Humpback whales’ songs carry thousands of miles, while a sperm whale scans the ocean depths with a sonar laser beam louder than a thunderclap. Voices of the Sea reveals a surprising underwater world where sound takes the place of sight.

 Didier Films humpback whales as they compete to mate (Photo: BBC)

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Backshall almost strangled by a constrictor - It's Deadly on a Mission! Don't try this at home.

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Sunday August 7th, 6pm, BBC One

Calm your wives and daughters Steve Backshall is back! Starting this Sunday 'Deadly 60 On a Mission' sees Steve head to the steamy rainforests of Costa Rica, where he sets out to hunt down some of the deadliest animals in Central America. Almost strangled by a giant boa constrictor, struck dumb by the strike speed of a viper, followed by a game of hide and seek with a deadly bushmaster - all in a days work for our Steve. And as an aperitif he gets hands-on with the world's most poisonous frog, nearly gets a nip from a blood-sucking vampire and has a dramatic encounter with a huge American crocodile. Phew...

For more information and preview clips see the BBC programme page

Steve gets in a tangle with a boa constrictor (Photo: BBC)

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Facing Extinction - Help save the BBC Wildlife Fund @savebbcwildlife

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I can't believe it. All that hard work and effort, and now they're going to make it extinct! What a waste. Having worked with a number of projects supported by the BBC Wildlife fund, as well as helping with the broadcast of 'Wild Night In', I am especially saddened by the announcement of the BBC executive board that the charity is to be closed as part of cost-cutting measures. As The Guardian points out, it's a legally separate charity, so abolishing the fund will not save the BBC, or the license fee payers, any money, so why do it?

A BBC Spokesperson gave this response:
"The BBC has a clear commitment to a number of charities and we are proud of our achievements in support of the Wildlife Fund,"  "However, as with the many difficult choices we currently face, we must focus our efforts in areas where we can have the most impact. We have therefore regrettably concluded that we can no longer support fundraising programming around our wildlife output but will instead focus our appeals around Children in Need, Comic and Sport Relief. We remain committed to working with the Wildlife Fund's Trustees to find other ways to support wildlife and conservation charities."

Sign the petition

Now IUCN-UK has launched a campaign to reverse this decision. A letter strongly urging the BBC not to close its Wildlife Fund was sent to the Chair of BBC Trustees, Lord Patten, on Monday 1st August and an online petition has been launched at

Just consider the Wildlife Funds brief history...

I remember the launch of the BBC Wildlife fund in 2007. It was the 50th anniversary of the BBC Natural History Unit and a chance for us to give something back following years of producing wildlife films which celebrate the diversity of life on earth. We had all witnessed an alarming decline in the populations of many of the animals that we had filmed and yet we were frustrated about how little we could do to help. The Wildlife Fund was an opportunity for us to be more active about conservation. It offers us an unique opportunity to capitalise on the creative skills of the BBC and to engage a wider audience in the plight of wildlife - using the magic and power of TV to help save wildlife. Brilliant!

Our first live appeal was 'Saving Planet Earth', which raised £1 million on the night, and this was added to by donations throughout the year raising a total of just under £2 million. This appeal was supported by a raft of TV personalities. Edith Bowman travelled to Cambodia on the trail of the very rare Siamese crocodile, Jack Osborne reported on the plight of the desert elephant in Namibia, and Graham Norton discovered that encroachments by the human population threaten the Ethiopian wolf's survival. These were the poster animals for the campaign - Orangutans, Tigers, Gorillas, all the animals we've come to love and admire on our TV screens. Each story sent a powerful and poignant message that wildlife around the world was under threat. But the charity is about much more than just the fuzzy, cute and mighty. It's about helping biodiversity and some of the less glamorous animals too such as the conservation of an endangered caecilian (worm-like amphibian) in Kenya, or the solenodon of Haiti. The fund now supports 87 projects around the world.

The donations were distributed through grants to programmes which have a track record of saving our species - 80% to UK charities working to conserve wildlife outside the UK and 20% to UK charities working on projects on our doorsteps. Our latest live appeal in June 2010 'Wild Night In' raised another million. Bear in mind that this was in comparison a very low key affair, it was hidden in the schedules and with hardly any publicity, yet per viewer it raised more than Children in Need!

'The range of conservation projects funded by the BBC WF is impressive. The fund has helped finance the work of people committed to making a difference to wildlife'.

- Renowned conservationist Dr Paul Jepson or Oxford University.

Sign the petition to help the BBC Wildlife Fund continue its work

David Attenborough with a photo of the highly endangered Panama Golden Toad. BBC Wildlife Fund.

David Attenborough joined the 'Wild Night In' team to talk about his experience and passion for the natural world now and over the past 50 years. As a great traveller, he has seen the world change and he shared his favourite moments and showed us what we stand to lose if we don’t act effectively, and fast. David also provided his own personal testimony to dramatic the changes he has seen within his lifetime including the extinction of the golden frog in Panama, as well as the decline of the species with which he will be forever linked – the mountain gorillas of central Africa.

Chris Packham learns about vital work to save the scarlet macaw. Photo: BBC Wildlife Fund

For 'Wild Night In' Chris Packham travelled to the Maya Biosphere Reserve, the biggest in Central America, to see how a conservation project, supported by the Wildlife Fund, is helping put scarlet macaws back on the map. Only 30 years ago, the wild scarlet macaw population was estimated in the thousands; in 2009 the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) conservatively estimated that just 160 wild scarlet macaws remained in Guatemala.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Watch 'ASTONISH ME' here - celebration of new species by @WWF_UK

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Last week I was at the premiere of the WWFs new film 'Astonish Me', where I met Bill Nighy who stars in this 5 minute gem, and Stephen Poliakoff, who wrote it (read more on my previous post). I'm pleased to now be able to show you the film (albeit on the very small screen), which has just been released on the WWFs website.

'Astonish Me' was created with two intentions, firstly to raise awareness of the WWF in their 50th year, and secondly to send a 'wow nature is awesome' message to the audience - primarily the 1.5 million Odeon cinema viewers who will see it ahead of the main feature this summer.

WWF decided not to dwell on extinct or endangered animals but instead to focus on the wonder of discovering new species and the tantalising thought of what else there might be out there.

As Poliakoff told us "We've seen it a hundred thousand times, that animals are endangered. What astonishes me is that in the 21st century we're still discovering new animals. A wild cat, big lizards, the colossal squid - even bigger than the giant squid. There's a strong possibility that a new bear lives in Bhutan. I thought that that would be a way to inspire people - that there is so much that we don't know"

Colin Butfield, of WWF UK, followed by saying "There's 1.5 million species described by science and we only know about 10% of what is believed to exist - we've only touched the surface, it's a really exciting time"

Colin went on to say that "unfortunately most of the images of these new species are from scientists working in remote locations, and facing extreme challenges - they don't usually have the right light, or a good view - it's not the glossy images that we've come to expect from watching BBC wildlife films"

This was one of the biggest challenges than Stephen Poliakoff faced "the footage is so rudimentary, so how to make that for the cinema. It's the way a child sees it. That is what makes it so magical"

They did give away one simple trick that they used to get the most out of this material. Many of the animals you see in the film are still images, photographs, but a subtle animation has been added so that they appear to be slowly moving. It works for me.

The film ends with the poignant words...

There is still so much to discover
If we preserve what we've got,
we have a chance to find it.

Read more about the new species featured in 'Astonish Me'

Transparent Headed Barreleye Fish

The original footage of Macropinna microstoma, discovered by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.