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 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:42 AM 
Started by Steve - Last post by Rad
French climate ambassador concerned over slow progress of draft Paris deal

France will intervene to take action in October if sluggish pace continues on agreeing a text for a new deal on global warming, says Laurence Tubiana

Adam Vaughan
Tuesday 28 July 2015 08.47 BST

France’s top climate ambassador has said she is very concerned at the slow rate of progress on a negotiating text that will form the basis of a new international deal on global warming in Paris later this year.

But Laurence Tubiana also said that negotiators from nearly 200 countries were making headway on the document, and made clear that the French government would take action in October on the text if more progress has not been made.

The comments, in an interview with the Guardian, came as climate ministers met last week to advance international climate talks before a crunch UN summit in Paris this November and December.

The UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon said in June that the negotiations were proceeding at “a snail’s pace” after a fortnight of talks in Bonn cut the 90-page text by just four pages. Last Friday a new streamlined version was published, with the two officials overseeing it warning the “pace was slow” and there was an “urgent need, owing to serious time constraints, to accelerate the work”.

The final document that governments hope to agree in Paris will have to be far shorter - with points of disagreement ironed out and swathes of potential text currently in brackets removed.

“We are all very concerned, but it’s progressing,” Tubiana said, hours before the latest version was published. “What we do as a normal presidency [of the talks] anxious to have a result in Paris not at the last minute, is to say we need something [a better, shorter text] to be cleared in October.”

She said that making the deal legally-binding was less challenging, as only certain elements of any accord would need to be binding.

But she said the most difficult element of an agreement would be the issue of the rich countries most responsible for global warming financially helping poorer countries adapt to climate change, echoing previous comments by the French foreign minister, Laurent Fabius. He said in May that financing would be “decisive” in reaching a deal in Paris.

“I would say the most difficult [part of an agreement] is finance,” she said. “It has to be clear that money is flowing from developed to developing countries, that’s for sure. It should be a significant share of public money as well.”

What form such finance took after 2020, when $100bn of private and public money is meant to be delivered to poorer countries each year, was “less clear” and “conceptually difficult”, she said.

However, Tubiana was upbeat about the big picture on renewable energy and prospects for a deal in Paris, saying that “powerful interests” in the business world were pushing for a cleaner economy.

Comparing Paris to the run-up to the Copenhagen climate summit in 2009, which ended in scenes of chaos and confusion, she said: “the business sector [then] were looking for a signal to deliver it [the low carbon economy]. Now they are pushing for the signal.”

In June, the heads of Europe’s oil and gas majors wrote a letter to the FT urging governments to take “decisive action” at the Paris summit, and introduce carbon pricing.

Negotiations ahead of Paris were already on a better track than Copenhagen, Tubiana claimed. “Before Copenhagen, there was a disconnect between the political process and technical process at the negotiator level. Here we have a very good connection between the two.”

Tubiana said that while president François Hollande would be inviting heads of state for the first day of the Paris summit to create political momentum, they would not be part of the talks as they were in Copenhagen, when Barack Obama, Angela Merkel and other leaders debated the fine detail of an accord.

“We do not want to recreate the Copenhagen scenario where everybody hopes they will solve the problem. What we do not want is them enmeshed with the process, which would be terribly difficult to manage.”

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:40 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Happy birthday, Jia Jia: Hong Kong giant panda becomes oldest ever

Celebrating her 37th birthday in enclosure at Ocean Park, Jia Jia claims title of oldest ever panda living in captivity

Agence France-Presse in Hong Kong
Tuesday 28 July 2015 09.53 BST

It may not be considered a landmark birthday for humans, but turning 37 has made Hong Kong’s Jia Jia the oldest ever giant panda in captivity, and she celebrated in style.

The equivalent of more than 100 years old in human terms, Jia Jia was presented with a towering birthday cake made from ice and fruit juice with the number 37 carved on top, in her enclosure at the city’s Ocean Park theme park.

“Jia Jia has achieved two Guinness world record titles – the oldest panda living in captivity and the oldest panda ever living in captivity,” said Blythe Ryan Fitzwilliam, adjudicator of Guinness World Records, during a ceremony at the park.

He offered her his congratulations, saying it was an “amazing longevity achievement”.

Jia Jia was born in the wild in Sichuan, China, in 1978 and was given to Hong Kong in 1999 to mark the semi-autonomous city’s handover by Britain two years earlier.

The previous record was held by a male panda called Du Du, who was also caught in the wild and died in July 1999 aged 36 in a zoo in China’s Hubei province.

Vet Paola Martelli said Jia Jia was still “moving about” though she suffered from cataracts and high blood pressure. “She is sleeping more, so is doing everything less. But she is ageing gracefully, just like your grandma,” she said.

Because she eats less bamboo she relies on fibre supplements, Martelli added.

Although the exact birth dates of Du Du and Jia Jia are unknown because they were born in the wild, Guinness said that based on the evidence, they concluded that Jia Jia had claimed the title by a few months.

There are fewer than 2,000 pandas now left in the wild, according to the World Wildlife Fund, as their habitats have been ravaged by development. Roads and railways cut through the bamboo forests they depend upon in China’s Yangtze Basin, their primary habitat. Pandas rely on bamboo and eat almost nothing else.

Given their low birthrate, captive breeding programmes have become key to ensuring their survival.

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:37 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Wild beluga congregate in Canada's Hudson Bay – in pictures

7/28/2015, Polar Bears International, Frontiers North Adventures and a group of wildlife experts have launched a wild beluga livestream, broadcasting footage from a boatcam that will follow the whales as they migrate to a small estuary on Hudson Bay. The livestream will run until 21 August, with a guide narrating footage from above and below the water

Click to view all:

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:34 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
The dolphin who loved me: the Nasa-funded project that went wrong

In the 1960s, Margaret Lovatt was part of a Nasa-funded project to communicate with dolphins. Soon she was living with 'Peter' 24 hours a day in a converted house. Christopher Riley reports on an experiment that went tragically wrong

Christopher Riley
July 27 2015

Like most children, Margaret Howe Lovatt grew up with stories of talking animals. "There was this book that my mother gave to me called Miss Kelly," she remembers with a twinkle in her eye. "It was a story about a cat who could talk and understand humans and it just stuck with me that maybe there is this possibility."

Unlike most children, Lovatt didn't leave these tales of talking animals behind her as she grew up. In her early 20s, living on the Caribbean island of St Thomas, they took on a new significance. During Christmas 1963, her brother-in-law mentioned a secret laboratory at the eastern end of the island where they were working with dolphins. She decided to pay the lab a visit early the following year. "I was curious," Lovatt recalls. "I drove out there, down a muddy hill, and at the bottom was a cliff with a big white building."

Lovatt was met by a tall man with tousled hair, wearing an open shirt and smoking a cigarette. His name was Gregory Bateson, a great intellectual of the 20th century and the director of the lab. "Why did you come here?" he asked Lovatt.

"Well, I heard you had dolphins," she replied, "and I thought I'd come and see if there was anything I could do or any way I could help…" Unused to unannounced visitors and impressed by her bravado, Bateson invited her to meet the animals and asked her to watch them for a while and write down what she saw. Despite her lack of scientific training, Lovatt turned out to be an intuitive observer of animal behaviour and Bateson told her she could come back whenever she wanted.

"There were three dolphins," remembers Lovatt. "Peter, Pamela and Sissy. Sissy was the biggest. Pushy, loud, she sort of ran the show. Pamela was very shy and fearful. And Peter was a young guy. He was sexually coming of age and a bit naughty."

The lab's upper floors overhung a sea pool that housed the animals. It was cleaned by the tide through openings at each end. The facility had been designed to bring humans and dolphins into closer proximity and was the brainchild of an American neuroscientist, Dr John Lilly. Here, Lilly hoped to commune with the creatures, nurturing their ability to make human-like sounds through their blow holes.

Lilly had been interested in connecting with cetaceans since coming face to face with a beached pilot whale on the coast near his home in Massachusetts in 1949. The young medic couldn't quite believe the size of the animal's brain – and began to imagine just how intelligent the creature must have been, explains Graham Burnett, professor of the history of science at Princeton and author of The Sounding of the Whale. "You are talking about a time in science when everybody's thinking about a correlation between brain size and what the brain can do. And in this period, researchers were like: 'Whoa… big brain huh… cool!'"

At every opportunity in the years that followed, John Lilly and his first wife, Mary, would charter sailboats and cruise the Caribbean, looking for other big-brained marine mammals to observe. It was on just such a trip in the late 1950s that the Lillys came across Marine Studios in Miami – the first place to keep the bottlenose dolphin in captivity.

Up until this time, fishermen on America's east coast, who were in direct competition with dolphins for fish, had considered the animals vermin. "They were know as 'herring hogs' in most of the seafaring towns in the US," says Burnett. But here, in the tanks of Marine Studios, the dolphins' playful nature was endearingly on show and their ability to learn tricks quickly made it hard to dislike them.

Here, for the first time, Lilly had the chance to study the brains of live dolphins, mapping their cerebral cortex using fine probes, which he'd first developed for his work on the brains of rhesus monkeys. Unable to sedate dolphins, as they stop breathing under anaesthetic, the brain-mapping work wasn't easy for either animals or scientists, and the research didn't always end well for the marine mammals. But on one occasion in 1957, the research would take a different course which would change his and Mary's lives for ever.

Now aged 97, Mary still remembers the day very clearly. "I came in at the top of the operating theatre and heard John talking and the dolphin would go: 'Wuh… wuh… wuh' like John, and then Alice, his assistant, would reply in a high tone of voice and the dolphin would imitate her voice. I went down to where they were operating and told them that this was going on and they were quite startled."

Perhaps, John reasoned, this behaviour indicated an ambition on the dolphins' part to communicate with the humans around them. If so, here were exciting new opportunities for interspecies communication. Lilly published his theory in a book in 1961 called Man and Dolphin. The idea of talking dolphins, eager to tell us something, captured the public's imagination and the book became a bestseller.

Man and Dolphin extrapolated Mary Lilly's initial observations of dolphins mimicking human voices, right through to teaching them to speak English and on ultimately to a Cetacean Chair at the United Nations, where all marine mammals would have an enlightening input into world affairs, widening our perspectives on everything from science to history, economics and current affairs.

Lilly's theory had special significance for another group of scientists – astronomers. "I'd read his book and was very impressed," says Frank Drake, who had just completed the first experiment to detect signals from extraterrestrial civilisations using a radio telescope at Green Bank in West Virginia. "It was a very exciting book because it had these new ideas about creatures as intelligent and sophisticated as us and yet living in a far different milieu." He immediately saw parallels with Lilly's work, "because we [both] wanted to understand as much as we could about the challenges of communicating with other intelligent species." This interest helped Lilly win financial backing from Nasa and other government agencies, and Lilly opened his new lab in the Caribbean in 1963, with the aim of nurturing closer relationships between man and dolphin.

A few months LATER, in early 1964, Lovatt arrived. Through her naturally empathetic nature she quickly connected with the three animals and, eager to embrace John Lilly's vision for building an interspecies communication bridge, she threw herself into his work, spending as much time as possible with the dolphins and carrying out a programme of daily lessons to encourage them to make human-like sounds. While the lab's director, Gregory Bateson, concentrated on animal-to-animal communication, Lovatt was left alone to pursue Lilly's dream to teach the dolphins to speak English. But even at a state-of-the-art facility like the Dolphin House, barriers remained. "Every night we would all get in our cars and pull the garage door down and drive away," remembers Lovatt. "And I thought: 'Well there's this big brain floating around all night.' It amazed me that everybody kept leaving and I just thought it was wrong."

Lovatt reasoned that if she could live with a dolphin around the clock, nurturing its interest in making human-like sounds, like a mother teaching a child to speak, they'd have more success. "Maybe it was because I was living so close to the lab. It just seemed so simple. Why let the water get in the way?" she says. "So I said to John Lilly: 'I want to plaster everything and fill this place with water. I want to live here.'"

The radical nature of Lovatt's idea appealed to Lilly and he went for it. She began completely waterproofing the upper floors of the lab, so that she could actually flood the indoor rooms and an outdoor balcony with a couple of feet of water. This would allow a dolphin to live comfortably in the building with her for three months.

Lovatt selected the young male dolphin called Peter for her live-in experiment. "I chose to work with Peter because he had not had any human-like sound training and the other two had," she explains. Lovatt would attempt to live in isolation with him six days a week, sleeping on a makeshift bed on the elevator platform in the middle of the room and doing her paperwork on a desk suspended from the ceiling and hanging over the water. On the seventh day Peter would return to the sea pool downstairs to spend time with the two female dolphins at the lab – Pamela and Sissy.

By the summer of 1965, Lovatt's domestic dolphinarium was ready for use. Lying in bed, surrounded by water that first night and listening to the pumps gurgling away, she remembers questioning what she was doing. "Human people were out there having dinner or whatever and here I am. There's moonlight reflecting on the water, this fin and this bright eye looking at you and I thought: 'Wow, why am I here?' But then you get back into it and it never occurred to me not to do it. What I was doing there was trying to find out what Peter was doing there and what we could do together. That was the whole point and nobody had done that."

Audio recordings of Lovatt's progress, meticulously archived on quarter-inch tapes at the time, capture the energy that Lovatt brought to the experiment – doggedly documenting Peter's progress with her twice-daily lessons and repeatedly encouraging him to greet her with the phrase 'Hello Margaret'. "'M' was very difficult," she remembers. "My name. Hello 'M'argaret. I worked on the 'M' sound and he eventually rolled over to bubble it through the water. That 'M', he worked on so hard."

For Lovatt, though, it often wasn't these formal speech lessons that were the most productive. It was just being together which taught her the most about what made Peter tick. "When we had nothing to do was when we did the most," she reflects. "He was very, very interested in my anatomy. If I was sitting here and my legs were in the water, he would come up and look at the back of my knee for a long time. He wanted to know how that thing worked and I was so charmed by it."

Carl Sagan, one of the young astronomers at Green Bank, paid a visit to report back on progress to Frank Drake. "We thought that it was important to have the dolphins teach us 'Dolphinese', if there is such a thing," recalls Drake. "For example we suggested two dolphins in each tank not able to see each other – and he should teach one dolphin a procedure to obtain food – and then see if it could tell the other dolphin how to do the same thing in its tank. That was really the prime experiment to be done, but Lilly never seemed able to do it."

Instead, he encouraged Lovatt to press on with teaching Peter English. But there was something getting in the way of the lessons. "Dolphins get sexual urges," says the vet Andy Williamson, who looked after the animals' health at Dolphin House. "I'm sure Peter had plenty of thoughts along those lines."

"Peter liked to be with me," explains Lovatt. "He would rub himself on my knee, or my foot, or my hand. And at first I would put him downstairs with the girls," she says. But transporting Peter downstairs proved so disruptive to the lessons that, faced with his frequent arousals, it just seemed easier for Lovatt to relieve his urges herself manually.

"I allowed that," she says. "I wasn't uncomfortable with it, as long as it wasn't rough. It would just become part of what was going on, like an itch – just get rid of it, scratch it and move on. And that's how it seemed to work out. It wasn't private. People could observe it."

For Lovatt it was a precious thing, which was always carried out with great respect. "Peter was right there and he knew that I was right there," she continues. "It wasn't sexual on my part. Sensuous perhaps. It seemed to me that it made the bond closer. Not because of the sexual activity, but because of the lack of having to keep breaking. And that's really all it was. I was there to get to know Peter. That was part of Peter."

Innocent as they were, Lovatt's sexual encounters with Peter would ultimately overshadow the whole experiment when a story about them appeared in Hustler magazine in the late 1970s. "I'd never even heard of Hustler," says Lovatt. "I think there were two magazine stores on the island at the time. And I went to one and looked and I found this story with my name and Peter, and a drawing."

Lovatt bought up all the copies she could find, but the story was out there and continues to circulate to this day on the web. "It's a bit uncomfortable," she acknowledges. "The worst experiment in the world, I've read somewhere, was me and Peter. That's fine, I don't mind. But that was not the point of it, nor the result of it. So I just ignore it."

Something else began to interrupt the study. Lilly had been researching the mind-altering powers of the drug LSD since the early 1960s. The wife of Ivan Tors, the producer of the dolphin movie Flipper, had first introduced him to it at a party in Hollywood. "John and Ivan Tors were really good friends," says Ric O'Barry of the Dolphin Project (an organisation that aims to stop dolphin slaughter and exploitation around the world) and a friend of Lilly's at the time. "Ivan was financing some of the work on St Thomas. I saw John go from a scientist with a white coat to a full blown hippy," he remembers.

For the actor Jeff Bridges, who was introduced to Lilly by his father Lloyd, Lilly's self-experimentation with LSD was just part of who he was. "John Lilly was above all an explorer of the brain and the mind, and all those drugs that expand our consciousness," reflects Bridges. "There weren't too many people with his expertise and his scientific background doing that kind of work."

In the 1960s a small selection of neuroscientists like John Lilly were licensed to research LSD by the American government, convinced that the drug had medicinal qualities that could be used to treat mental-health patients. As part of this research, the drug was sometimes injected into animals and Lilly had been using it on his dolphins since 1964, curious about the effect it would have on them.

Much to Lilly's annoyance, nothing happened. Despite his various attempts to get the dolphins to respond to the drug, it didn't seem to have any effect on them, remembers Lovatt. "Different species react to different pharmaceuticals in different ways," explains the vet, Andy Williamson. "A tranquilliser made for horses might induce a state of excitement in a dog. Playing with pharmaceuticals is a tricky business to say the least."

Injecting the dolphins with LSD was not something Lovatt was in favour of and she insisted that the drug was not given to Peter, which Lilly agreed to. But it was his lab, and they were his animals, she recalls. And as a young woman in her 20s she felt powerless to stop him giving LSD to the other two dolphins.

While Lilly's experimentation with the drug continued, Lovatt persevered with Peter's vocalisation lessons and grew steadily closer to him. "That relationship of having to be together sort of turned into really enjoying being together, and wanting to be together, and missing him when he wasn't there," she reflects. "I did have a very close encounter with – I can't even say a dolphin again – with Peter."

By autumn 1966, Lilly's interest in the speaking-dolphin experiment was dwindling. "It didn't have the zing to it that LSD did at that time," recalls Lovatt of Lilly's attitude towards her progress with Peter. "And in the end the zing won."

Lilly's cavalier attitude to the dolphins' welfare would eventually be his downfall, driving away the lab's director, Gregory Bateson, and eventually causing the funding to be cut. Just as Lovatt and Peter's six-month live-in experiment was concluding, it was announced that the lab would be closed.

Without funding, the fate of the dolphins was in question. "I couldn't keep Peter," says Lovatt, wistfully. "If he'd been a cat or a dog, then maybe. But not a dolphin." Lovatt's new job soon became the decommissioning of the lab and she prepared to ship the dolphins away to Lilly's other lab, in a disused bank building in Miami. It was a far cry from the relative freedom and comfortable surroundings of Dolphin House.

At the Miami lab, held captive in smaller tanks with little or no sunlight, Peter quickly deteriorated, and after a few weeks Lovatt received news.

"I got that phone call from John Lilly," she recalls. "John called me himself to tell me. He said Peter had committed suicide."

Ric O'Barry corroborates the use of this word. "Dolphins are not automatic air-breathers like we are," he explains. "Every breath is a conscious effort. If life becomes too unbearable, the dolphins just take a breath and they sink to the bottom. They don't take the next breath." Andy Williamson puts Peter's death down to a broken heart, brought on by a separation from Lovatt that he didn't understand. "Margaret could rationalise it, but when she left, could Peter? Here's the love of his life gone."

"I wasn't terribly unhappy about it," explains Lovatt, 50 years on. "I was more unhappy about him being in those conditions [at the Miami lab] than not being at all. Nobody was going to bother Peter, he wasn't going to hurt, he wasn't going to be unhappy, he was just gone. And that was OK. Odd, but that's how it was."

In the decades which followed, John Lilly continued to study dolphin-human communications, exploring other ways of trying to talk to them – some of it bizarrely mystical, employing telepathy, and some of it more scientific, using musical tones. No one else ever tried to teach dolphins to speak English again.

Instead, research has shifted to better understanding other species' own languages. At the Seti (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) Institute, founded by Frank Drake to continue his work on life beyond Earth, Drake's colleague Laurance Doyle has attempted to quantify the complexity of animal language here on our home planet.

"There is still this prejudice that humans have a language which is far and away above any other species' qualitatively," says Doyle. "But by looking at the complexity of the relationship of dolphin signals to each other, we've discovered that they definitely have a very high communication intelligence. I think Lilly's big insight was how intelligent dolphins really are."

Margaret Howe Lovatt stayed on the island, marrying the photographer who'd captured pictures of the experiment. Together they moved back into Dolphin House, eventually converting it into a family home where they brought up three daughters. "It was a good place," she remembers. "There was good feeling in that building all the time."

In the years that followed the house has fallen into disrepair, but the ambition of what went on there is still remembered. "Over the years I have received letters from people who are working with dolphins themselves," she recalls. "They often say things like: 'When I was seven I read about you living with a dolphin, and that's what started it all for me.'"

Peter is their "Miss Kelly", she explains, remembering her own childhood book about talking animals. "Miss Kelly inspired me. And in turn the idea of my living with a dolphin inspired others. That's fun. I like that."

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:28 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Spotting river dolphins in Bolivia

The bufeo (river dolphin) is a creature of myth, but you're pretty much guaranteed a sighting on a river cruise in Bolivia's north-eastern wetlands on the edge of the Amazon basin

Ed Stocker

It's late afternoon and the sultry heat of the day is beginning to diminish. Young people circle the plaza on scooters, eyeing each other up as they cross paths. Oblivious to the sexual tension, a sloth – the most leisurely of tropical creatures – surveys the scene from a tree in the middle of the square while chewing slowly on a leaf.

Trinidad, in Bolivia's north-eastern lowlands, not far from the border with Brazil, feels a million miles away from the Andean culture that dominates the South American country's politics and culture. Capital of the province of Beni, Trinidad sits on the banks of the Marmoré, in an area of vast wetlands, jungles and rivers that flow into the Amazon further north. And the star resident of these waters is the bufeo, a beautiful pinky-grey river dolphin.

There are several varieties of South American river dolphin, the best- known being the pink boutu, a popular draw on Amazon river trips in Brazil. Their less startlingly pink Bolivian cousin was formally discovered by French naturalist Alcide d'Orbigny in 1832: he named it inia boliviensis, borrowing inia from the word he'd heard indigenous people use. Like many facets of life here, the creature comes cloaked in myth. When a handsome stranger appears at a local fiesta, he is said to be the bufeo in human form – dancing all night long and seducing women.

The beauty of this wilderness is that tourism is in its infancy here: you'll share your dolphin sightings with relatively few outside visitors. Some miles west of town, at Puerto Ballivián on the Ibare river (a tributary of the Marmoré), is a settlement of wooden houses on stilts at the edge of the jungle. We're doing a day cruise, within a 25,000-hectare reserve, to spot the dolphins, which are unique to the area and protected under law since 2012.

At the helm of our little motorboat is Roger, a fiftysomething local with salt-and-pepper hair and a broad grin. As we chug down river, he points out tarope plants growing in the water which, he says, act as a natural filter.

"It's clean here," he adds, "but the biggest threat to the dolphin is contamination near urban centres."

We spot a pair of parabas – gold-and-blue parrots – in the trees and hear the thunderous roar of a group of elusive monkeys in the distance. But the dolphin is the star attraction.

The first one we spot teases us, revealing just parts of its body, from the blowhole and beak to a flipper. We play a leisurely game of cat-and-mouse, spotting it in the distance, edging nearer and then watching it disappear, only to surface again further away moments later. Sightings are almost guaranteed here: there are plenty of bufeos in this part of the river, and there's something mesmerising about the graceful way the dolphin, one of several we see, glides just below the water's surface.

While spotting a dolphin in the water is pretty much a given, how much you'll see of them – and whether they'll jump out of the water – depends on patience and luck. But there's plenty to see if they're not playing. The trees are full of birds (a mind-boggling number of species), including toucans, rare jacamars and herons. Its astonishing to see so many weird and wonderful creatures so easily, but that is a major part of Beni's appeal – its untapped feel and sense of being in a place few people even know exists.
• The trip was provided by HighLives (020-8144 2629,, a South America specialist which has a seven-day tour of the Bolivia Lowlands, including the dolphin route, from £1,230pp, including transfers but not international flights. Flights were provided by Air Europa (0871 423 0717,, which flies from Gatwick to Santa Cruz via Madrid from £700 return

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:24 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
India conducts first official survey of Ganges dolphins

Conservation programme aims to protect the endangered species and restore biodiversity of the polluted river, reports The Straits Times

Nirmala Ganapathy for The Straits Times, part of the Climate Publishers Network
Tuesday 28 July 2015 11.22 BST

The conservation of dolphins in India’s holiest, but most polluted waterway, is under the spotlight as the country conducts its first official count of the freshwater species.

An estimated 450 volunteers, government experts and conservationists will take part in the exercise, which spans the states of Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, in November and December.

“This is the first time a unified survey will be done for an aquatic animal. It has been done for elephants and tigers but this is more complicated,” Dr Sandeep Behera, consultant at the government’s National Mission for Clean Ganga, told The Sunday Times. “We are doing the survey in winter, when water levels drop and we can capture numbers in small isolated pockets and get a good idea of the population.”

The government also hopes to gauge the health of the river in the process. “This time we have taken aquatic biodiversity as an indicator of how pollution is affecting the Ganges,” said Dr Behera.

The 2,500km-long river, which is considered holy by Hindus, who believe a dip in it cleanses sins, is heavily polluted with millions of tonnes of industrial effluent, sewage and pesticides. Cleaning it up has been a goal for decades and the Modi government has pledged more resources to tackle the pollution, including allocating more than 200bn rupees (S$4.3bn/£2bn) to the river.

Restoring its biodiversity, with the dolphin as the centrepiece, has also now become a part of the action plan for the Ganges.

The dolphin unified count – meaning it is not just a piecemeal effort by individual conservationists – will provide baseline data that environmentalists say is crucial for saving the endangered species. Estimates put the number of the grey-brown mammals at between 1,500 and 3,600.

“After the count, we will identify the hot spots and those areas will be given priority for protection and conservation,” said Dr R K Sinha, head of zoology at Patna University, who has dedicated 35 years to the conservation of dolphins. The count would also help create a conservation network.

Known locally in some areas as Susu because of the sound it makes when breathing, the Ganges river dolphin, distinguished from its ocean counterpart by a longer snout and stockier body, was once found in large numbers in the river and its tributaries. Over the past few decades, its numbers have dropped dramatically. Pollution, low water flow because of irrigation demands, and barrages and dams have taken a heavy toll.

Poaching has also been a problem, with fishermen catching dolphins for their oil, but conservationists say that is now less common.

Still, in 1996, the dolphin went from vulnerable to endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature list. “Degradation of habitat is the most important factor in the fall in dolphin numbers. Water flow is declining because of water-intensive farming and increasing pollution,” said Dr Sinha.

Conservationists want India to avoid the fate of China, where the Yangtze river dolphin, which was last spotted in 2002, has been listed in some reports as extinct.

There is only one other river dolphin species, in the Amazon, and a subspecies of the Ganges dolphin in the Indus river.

“We want to know the exact number. It is very important for conservation efforts,” said Mr B A Khan, principal chief conservator of forests in the state of Bihar. “We will also be surveying the smaller tributaries, which has not been done before.”

Dr Behera said: “We hope the population has increased in pockets where they are getting support and food. But the target is to bring the endangered species back to the river system.”

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:22 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Why are so many cats being poisoned?

A spate of malicious cat killings have hit the headlines recently, spreading fear among pet owners. But what’s behind the attacks – and how can we protect our feline friends from grisly deaths?

Patrick Barkham
Monday 27 July 2015 17.13 BST

From salmon doused in weedkiller to tinned tuna soaked in antifreeze, an array of nasty poisonings have killed cats recently. Six attacks on two streets in Baxenden, Lancashire, one killing Jaffa, the ginger cat of local MP Graham Jones, have hit the headlines, but the fatalities have been nationwide, from South Shields to Southport.

Calls to the RSPCA about poisonings increased from 862 in 2013 to 919 in 2014 and already stand at 767 this year. So, why are we dishing out such cruelty to humankind’s second-best friend?

It may be partly that there are many more cats. The Pet Food Manufacturer’s Association estimates that their population has nearly doubled from 4.1m in 1965 to 7.9m in 2014.

More cats means more deaths, but a large cat population is also increasingly controversial. Earlier this year, I was savaged online for fantasising about humanely reducing the cat population to zero (it was a thought experiment, your honour), but wildlife lovers from Chris Packham to Jonathan Franzen have highlighted the domestic moggy’s devastating impact on wildlife. Franzen even admitted contemplating stealing a neighbour’s cat and placing it in a cat sanctuary – eventually getting the cantankerous fictional hero of Freedom to perform this dastardly act.

But animal lovers would never deliberately kill cats. Would gardeners risk six months in prison for cruelly killing a cat that soils their blessed plot?

Caroline Reay, chief veterinary surgeon for the pet charity Blue Cross, injects a dose of perspective. “I wouldn’t want to say it’s all hype, but far more cats get run over than poisoned by antifreeze,” she says. Reay believes the poisonings appear to be increasing due to growing awareness – and so vets are more likely to investigate the cause of death.

According to Reay, many poisonings are accidental: cats are given paracetamol by misguided owners or ingest poisonous lily pollen. And antifreeze? If a cat naps under a car and antifreeze drips onto its coat, it will lick it off.

Some cat lovers want a bittering agent added to antifreeze, but cats still lick bitter substances off their coats. Both Reay and Cats Protection suggest solutions that might unite cat lovers and haters: keep your cat indoors at night and get it neutered to reduce its daytime wandering. This will protect it fromdangerous roads, as well as from the occasional psychopath with a feline grudge.

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:21 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Spanish town set to spend subsidy on books instead of bullfights

Traditional bullfight which costs Villafranca de los Caballeros around €18,000 a year may end after council votes on using fund for school supplies

Ashifa Kassam in Madrid
Monday 27 July 2015 16.49 BST

In the small Spanish town of Villafranca de los Caballeros, bulls are taking a back seat to books.

For more than a decade, the small town 80 miles south of Madrid has celebrated its local fiesta with a bullfight. But the tradition could end this year, after the council said it would direct its annual subsidy for the bullfight towards books and school supplies for the town’s students.

“It’s a question of priorities,” said the town’s newly elected socialist mayor, Julián Bolaños. “There is a lot of unemployment in this town and many people simply don’t have money to buy school supplies for their children.”

The town council will vote on the motion on Thursday. It was expected to pass easily, said Bolaños, whose socialists hold a majority.

While he dislikes bullfights – describing them as a “cruel spectacle” – he stressed that the decision wasn’t based on personal opinion. “We’re not against bullfights. But it’s money that we can use in other ways,” he said. He estimated that the town, which has a population of 5,200, was spending as much as €18,000 a year to hold the annual event.

He was doubtful that the bullfight, usually held in September, would be able to go ahead without the town’s funding. “But if any company is interested and wants to assume the cost, they can go ahead.”

So far he had only received positive responses to the decision. “Even people who love bullfights have called me to say that they agree with us. They tell me they can go to other places to see bullfights but that these families don’t have other options available to them.”

After May’s municipal elections sent an injection of socialists and leftists into councils across the country, Villafranca de los Caballeros is one of a dozen municipalities across Spain that has begun questioning whether public funds should be used for bullfights or bull runs.

In Madrid, the mayor, Manuela Carmena, has vowed that “not one euro of public money” would go towards funding bullfights, while the mayor of A Coruña, Xulio Ferreiro, announced the city would seek to cancel a planned bullfighting festival in August by revoking its permit to use municipal land. Both Carmena and Ferreiro front citizen platforms whose roots lie in the indignado movement.

The new government of Alicante said it plans to do away with subsidies destined for bullfighting and ban municipal land from being used in bullfights by 2017, while in nearby Alzira, the new leftist council began its term in council by ending the bull run introduced by the conservative People’s party seven years earlier.

Animal rights activists in Spain have welcomed their actions but point out that more needs to be done, with more than 16,000 fiestas involving bulls being planned this year in some 3,000 municipalities across the country.

In a nod to the polarised sentiment among Spaniards on fiestas involving bulls, Valencian cities including Dénia, Aldaia, and Sueca have said they want to hold referendums to poll their citizens on the matter.

Others have taken aim. In Valencia, People’s party politician Luis Santamaría vowed to take legal action against local councils. “You have to keep in mind that fiestas involving bulls are part of our identity and have been declared a key part of the country’s cultural heritage,” he said.

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:14 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Scientists name world's 100 most unusual and endangered birds

'Little dodo', flightless parrot and giant ibis among species ranked by evolutionary distinctiveness and global extinction risk

Jessica Aldred

The "little dodo", a flightless parrot and the world's largest ibis are among the world's 100 most unusual and endangered birds, according to a new study.

Scientists from the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and Yale University assessed the world's 9,993 bird species according to their evolutionary distinctiveness and global extinction risk to produce a list of the world's 100 most Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered (Edge) species.

Topping the list is the rare and striking giant ibis (Thaumatibis gigantea) – the world's largest ibis weighing in at 4.2kg and reaching more than one metre in height. With only 230 pairs estimated to remain in the wild, it is a critically endangered species. Habitat loss, human disturbance and hunting have reduced its range to an extremely small, declining population concentrated in Cambodia.

At number four on the list is the kakapo (Strigops habroptila), a nocturnal parrot that has evolved to be flightless due to the historic absence of mammalian predators in its New Zealand habitat. Hunting, the introduction of predators, forest clearance and habitat degradation have caused a catastrophic decline in numbers. It is now extinct in its natural range, and survives only on three small, intensively managed islands after being relocated. Dedicated conservation efforts have increased the population to 125 individuals.

At number 34 on the list is the tooth-billed pigeon (Didunculus strigirostris), also known as the "little dodo" and found only on the island of Samoa. With less than 250 adults estimated to survive in the wold, conservationists say urgent action is needed to prevent the species from meeting the same fate as its closest relative, the dodo. Loss of its forest habitat to agriculture and cyclones, hunting and invasive species are the greatest threats to this bird.

Half of the 100 highest ranked Edge bird species are receiving little or no conservation attention, the study warned. Carly Waterman, Edge programme manager at ZSL, said: "We lament the extinction of the dodo, but without action we stand to lose one of its closest relatives, the tooth-billed pigeon or 'little dodo', and many other extraordinary birds.

"The release of the Edge birds list enables us to prioritise our conservation efforts in the face of a mounting list of endangered species. These one-of-a-kind birds illustrate the incredible diversity that exists in our natural world."

Only three of the 100 Edge species are found in Europe. The Egyptian vulture (Neophron percnopterus), ranked at number 30, is found from the Ukraine, south throughout the Balkans to Greece and Turkey, but is threatened by poisoning, poaching, electrocution and human disturbance. At number 49, the sociable lapwing (Vanellus gregarius) has been found in Armenia, Turkey and Ukraine – and once in Essex – while the slender-billed curlew (Numenius tenuirostris) breeds in Russia and spends the winter in several eastern European countries.

At number 11, the spoonbilled sandpiper (Eurynorhynchus pygmeus) has become a temporary resident of the UK, with a captive breeding population of 25 birds at the WWT Slimbridge reserve in Gloucestershire. Eggs from the birds will eventually be taken back to the Arctic in a bid to rebuild the rapidly declining wild population.

The top 100 Edge birds are found in more than 170 countries. The list includes species from 22 of the 29 living orders of birds, with 18% made up of Passeriformes, more commonly known as perching birds. Twelve of the top 100 species belong to the family Charadriiformes (sandpipers), 11 from the family Accipitridae, which includes eagles, hawks and kites, and eight from the family Columbiformes (doves and pigeons).

Sixty-four per cent of the top 100 species are country endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else in the world. India has the highest number of Edge birds with 14 species, while the Philippines has the highest number of endemic Edge birds at nine species.

The study, "Distribution and conservation of global evolutionary distinctness in birds", published on Thursday in the journal Current Biology, found that species representing the most evolutionary history over the smallest area as well as some of the most threatened distinct species are often found far from places that are species-rich or already on the conservation radar.

Lead author Prof Walter Jetz from Yale University and Imperial College London, said: "By identifying these top 100 species, we can now focus our efforts on targeted conservation action and better monitoring to help ensure that they are still here for future generations to come. As we show, conservation priorities can be adjusted to better conserve the avian tree of life and the many important functions it provides."

The study was a collaboration between Yale University, Imperial College London, Sheffield University, University College London, Simon Fraser University and the University of Tasmania.
The world's 100 most unusual and endangered birds

Giant Ibis
New Caledonian Owlet-nightjar
California Condor
Bengal Florican
Forest Owlet
Philippine Eagle
Christmas Island Frigatebird
Sumatran Ground-cuckoo
Spoon-billed Sandpiper
Northern Bald Ibis
New Zealand Storm-petrel
Hooded Grebe
White-shouldered Ibis
Black-hooded Coucal
Madagascar Serpent-eagle
Dwarf Olive Ibis
Rufous Scrub-bird
Noisy Scrub-bird
Junin Grebe
White-collared Kite
Congo Bay-owl
White-eyed River-martin
Red-headed Vulture
Peruvian Diving-petrel
Egyptian Vulture
St Helena Plover
Australian Painted Snipe
Cuban Kite
Tooth-billed Pigeon
Nahan's Francolin
Sulu Hornbill
Purple-winged Ground-dove
Asian Crested Ibis
Sangihe Shrike-thrush
Jerdon's Courser
Lesser Florican
Rufous-headed Hornbill
Masked Finfoot
Bahia Tapaculo
Waved Albatross
Stresemann's Bristlefront
Sociable Lapwing
Eskimo Curlew
Slender-billed Curlew
Bannerman's Turaco
Ashy Storm-petrel
Siberian Crane
White-throated Storm-petrel
Juan Fernandez Firecrown
Dark-winged Trumpeter
Uluguru Bush-shrike
Polynesian Ground-dove
Sichuan Jay
Mountain Serpent-eagle
Sulu Bleeding-heart
Zapata Rail
Mindoro Bleeding-heart
Negros Bleeding-heart
Black Stilt
Makira Moorhen
Great Indian Bustard
Abbott's Booby
Kittlitz's Murrelet
Titicaca Grebe
Greater Adjutant
Western Bristlebird
Eastern Bristlebird
Shore Plover
Udzungwa Forest-partridge
Madagascar Fish-eagle
White-bellied Heron
Subdesert Mesite
Long-whiskered Owlet
Philippine Cockatoo
Spix's Macaw
South Island Wren
Crow Honeyeater
Northern Brown Kiwi
Banded Ground-cuckoo
Flores Hawk-eagle
Tachira Antpitta
Beck's Petrel
Cebu Flowerpecker
Blue-eyed Ground-dove
Javan Trogon
Pulitzer's Longbill
Alagoas Antwren
Pernambuco Pygmy-owl
Jamaica Petrel
Grenada Dove
Wood Snipe
Rio de Janeiro Antwren

• In pictures - top 10 most unusual and endangered birds:

 on: Jul 28, 2015, 06:08 AM 
Started by Rad - Last post by Rad
Last-ditch attempt to save the plains wanderer, Australia's most endangered bird

The ground-dwelling bird is critically endangered due to loss of its grasslands habitat, but a new strategy aims to turn around its fortunes

Guardian Australia staff and wires
Tuesday 28 July 2015 04.20 BST

A plan to save Australia’s most critically endangered bird has been outlined in the nation’s first threatened species strategy.

The plains wanderer, which is only found in small pockets of Victoria’s northern plains, the Riverina district of New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia, requires “emergency action”.

The ground-dwelling bird’s numbers are low because its habitat, natural grasslands of the Murray Valley plains, is one of the most endangered ecosystems in Australia.

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“The plains wanderer was recently ranked number one in Australia and fourth in the world on a list of Earth’s 9,993 recognised bird species we could least afford to lose,” Britt Gregory from the north central catchment management authority said.

Plains wanderers inhabit sparse native grasslands and are often absent from areas where grass becomes too dense or too sparse.

Some farms still contain small pockets of uncleared land, which remain the only habitat for the bird.
Threatened species commissioner appointed to help save native wildlife
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The project aims to support landholders to protect native vegetation on their property and improve habitat condition through strategic grazing.

There are 12 other threatened birds currently identified for action in the strategy, including the orange-bellied parrot and the western ground parrot, both of which are also critically endangered.

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