What is freedom?

And what is servitude? Not difficult questions for those living under tyranny, whether at home, behind prison bars or under the watchful eye of a ruthless state. But for those of us living in happier circumstances, fragments of freedom and oppression lie scattered across our lives like an abstract painting. Are you free? Is your partner? Your child? Your boss? Your assistant? How do we make sense of the confusion?

Mirosa painting

The Thames Sailing Barge ‘Mirosa’
by Anthony Blackman, 2012

As someone who loves boats, this painting of Mirosa, a Thames sailing barge, surging down river under a press of canvas speaks to me of one man’s freedom. I can imagine the skipper as a boy dreaming of owning his own sailing craft, and years later as the proud owner taking her helm for the first time.

Forgotten dreams

Sailing barges on the Thames River – abandoned, not forgotten
Photo by Mick Nolan of the Thames Sailing Barge Trust

There is little room for such dreams in today’s high speed world but we sometimes cling to the past, unable to keep the dreams alive, unwilling to let them go. These almost forgotten dreams are important. They may contain clues to the kind of freedom we aspire to, the kind we would hope to enjoy in an open society.

If we look again at Mirosa, we may find that her comely oak prow is pointing at the essence of freedom itself. What she teaches is that personal freedom is found wherever your dreams can be brought to life. That, I believe, is the heart of the matter. Freedom is found wherever people can bring their dreams to life, whether in the family, workplace, or society.

I was fortunate to grow up in the sixties and seventies when freedom of this kind abounded and Britain was a creative powerhouse. I am concerned that opportunities are dwindling today and age-old liberties are being curtailed. It prompted me to write a book . It’s not yet available but it tells the story of an old wooden ketch, Molio, which I found in a backwater and brought back to life.

Posted in Boats, Freedom, Molio | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Payment for Eden?

‘Payment for Ecosystem Services’ or PES is the latest mantra in wildlife conservation. It is not a new concept but was brought to central stage in 2005 by the UN’s Millennium Ecosystem Assessment. It takes the conservation movement another step on a journey towards its economic Nirvāṇa – conserved global biodiversity in the marketplace. Like its 1980 predecessor, IUCN’s World Conservation Strategy, it seeks to justify biodiversity over agriculture and other developments on the basis of monetary value.  It has borrowed the adage ‘if it pays it stays’ previously aimed at game animals and applied it to ecosystems. PES promises tangible benefits to people and wildlife but it has become mired in misunderstandings.

1. Definition bulge

In the first place PES has been saddled with an overly generous definition. It conflates real ecosystem services, like water purification, carbon sequestration and pollination, with the better-established ‘use of natural resources’ (timber, NTFPs, pasture, fish and so on) and other less tangible values of ecosystems such as biodiversity (species richness, rarity, endemism, etc.). Definitions are important and PES has swollen so much that it has become a double acronym: its other persona ‘payment for environmental services’ now growing in popularity. The concept is in danger of dissipating into a catchall ‘payment for any and every economic value of the environment’ or simply ‘environmental payments’. So a good start would be to revisit the definition and pin it down to something useful.

2. Panacea or pipedream?

Secondly, PES is used far too easily in the conservation literature as some kind of panacea for ensuring sustainable development and biodiversity protection. In the real world, it is difficult to implement because it requires change to firmly-established fiscal policies, systems of governance or trading agreements. Take REDD for example. It is held up in conservation writing wherever one looks, or so it seems, as a joint solution to deforestation and climate change. Yet even on its own terms, REDD (and REDD+) are not working. The market for forest carbon is tiny and the price has collapsed. We await agreements.

What price for tropical rainforest?

Take water provisioning by forests as another example. From my own experience in Africa and the Balkans, progress is not promising. For instance in one East African country where I was engaged recently as an environmental consultant, my counterpart (a national expert in forest ecology) asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them (see my earlier post – Post Rio Blues).  I don’t want to appear flippant or defeatist.  I simply wish to point out that a huge amount of work is required on fiscal policy, governance of ‘social-ecological systems’ and trading agreements in order to get PESs up and running. We need to face up to these real challenges.

3. Appropriation of the commons

Thirdly, the international development community is beginning to work with conservationists to open up nature-based markets. Suppose they are successful in putting PES into widespread use. What will be the consequences? One outcome we should be aware of is an expansion in the environmental influence of wealthy investors, multinationals and governments as they begin to purchase and profit from ecosystem services – the same goods that were once held as common property by local people and on which they depend for their livelihoods. By promoting open markets and international trade, PES threatens the traditional rights of local users of common property resources.

It might be argued that having ‘trees’ with PES is better than losing ‘trees’ altogether. But surely what we want is trees that local people engage with and wish to maintain. At the very least, the conservation movement should give equal weight to understanding and supporting self-governance of common resources, including the collective-choice and self-determination principles advocated by Elinor Ostrom and colleagues. (Here is an excellent radio interview with Elinor Ostrom, Njabulo Ndebele and Manju Kapur.)

4. Beware the economic boomerang

Rice terraces on forested slopes of the Himalayas prevent soil erosion
Photo by Eric Monfort

Fourthly, we should have reservations about a conservation rationale that is exclusively based on economic value. Why? For one thing, because economic value is like a yoyo: prices go up and down. An ecosystem that has high value for tourism this year may have higher value for wheat fields next year. If price is the only reason to keep a place wild, then wildlife will soon disappear. Furthermore, most ecosystem services can be duplicated in agricultural landscapes. Even those in a complex natural habitat like a tropical forest can be duplicated by ingenious farmers. As a previous post mentions (Tropical Rain Forests),  terraced rice paddies with a few shade trees and perhaps a reed bed at the bottom could provide most of the water retention and purification services of a catchment forest.

Beekeeping in the Yildiz Mountains of Turkey

The extra payments for this ecosystem service might, perversely, just tip the balance, making the conversion of forest to fields profitable. Similarly, replacing deciduous woodland with fields of angiosperm crops such as pulses, crucifers or fruit trees, together with suitable management of field verges and hedgerows should provide the nectar necessary for bees to deliver honey as well as pollination services.

Despite these problems, could PES be the only worthwhile game in town when it comes to dealing with developers? I think this is where we begin to approach the true nature of the biodiversity dilemma, which has more to do with ethical values than pounds and cents. Take an example in the news concerning the future of Serengeti National Park. Many have argued that the future of the park is safeguarded by foreign exchange takings that have great significance for the Tanzanian economy.  Proliferation of lodges and hotels inside the park has certainly raised the takings enormously over the past 15 years. Nevertheless, the government recently proposed road construction across the north of the park to provide a transport link between Lake Victoria and the Coast. Wildlife managers pointed out that a main road would soon require fencing and that fencing would prevent the migration of wildebeest. The inevitable consequence would be a collapse in numbers of wildebeest with a related collapse in large predators. The substantial economic value of the Serengeti National Park (and neighbouring Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya) would decline sharply.

This is about as strong a case for wildlife conservation through PES as you can get. Serengeti provides a tourism service, road construction will destroy tourism, and therefore the road should not be supported by government. How often will it be possible to mount a PES case against road building of equivalent strength? Few wildlife areas make as much money from tourism as Serengeti; most make little or none. Even so, the economic arguments for stopping the road fell on deaf ears. Government was contemplating a larger economic and political picture: the advantages of connecting the burgeoning Lake Victoria region to the port of Tanga on the Indian Ocean, and the prospect of massive agricultural developments and increased trade. What stopped the threat at the last minute was national and international outrage at the impending desecration of natural heritage. Government relented and agreed to construct a longer road that would pass to the south of the park. It was the sense of unique natural value in Serengeti, strongly communicated by concerned people in Tanzania and beyond which apparently swayed the politicians. No doubt wildlife economics played a supporting role in changing the heart of government, but not the primary role.

Faith in core values

PES offers some real benefits in the difficult task of conserving biodiversity. It can direct the attention of development planners to hidden uses of nature which might otherwise be overlooked. It can provide farmers with new incentives for practising wildlife-friendly agriculture. For instance, it may persuade some to leave an unploughed verge alongside streams or to plant a windbreak of native trees. If we include natural resources within ecosystem services (I’d rather not), then the profits obtained from their sustainable exploitation could ensure their long-term future. It is extrapolation of this kind of thinking which has positioned economics at the centre of conservation policy today. But this is where I part company with PES. I am worried by the narrowness of the economic narrative which now pervades the entire conservation movement. I think it will take us on a wild economic goose chase  as the market economy adjusts to future shortages.

Each society strives to protect what is vital: it cares for its children, the sick and elderly; it protects personal security, public health, electrical power, safe drinking water, and so on. Few nations entrust these vital concerns entirely to the marketplace; usually protection is a matter of policy.  Likewise a strong case can be made for protecting vital ecosystem services through policy, such as water supply. But what about nature in general? We cannot pretend it is all vital to our immediate wellbeing. Each society determines the level of protection it wishes to offer its biodiversity depending on its core values. It determines what wildlife it should try to keep and what wilderness areas. One of the most crucial decision-areas for us today, I believe, concerns our collective relationship with nature. Its variety, wonder, wildness and richness should be protected, not because of economics, but because they are vital to our imagination and our humanity. In the short-term we may do without them, but in a longer timespan our spiritual life will suffer. That bears thinking about. In the rush to develop wealth for a nation, the deeper truths are in danger of being forgotten. I would like  the conservation movement to promote a broader philosophy of humans and nature to guide our development planning and protect our biodiversity. It might start by putting its own house in order by restoring its faith in the core values of nature. That is where Eden begins and that is where its future lies.

Posted in Conservation, Nature, Values | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Badger Culling and the ‘Verminization’ of British Wildlife

“I can’t believe this is still happening – it was an issue when I lived in the UK a million years ago.” So wrote a friend of mine from Namibia this week when I mentioned that Nature England has issued a badger culling licence to landowners in Gloucestershire and another to farmers in Somerset.

Wild badger as captured by artist Eileen Soper

The cull of badgers is intended to control the spread of bovine tuberculosis (TB) in cattle. Culling badgers is definitely not the right way to deal with the problem as I will explain in a moment. But the decision worries me for another reason. It marks a new assault on British wildlife by commercial producers that have already ‘verminized’ one after another of our native species. Culling of wildlife by game keepers has a long history with predators like red fox, stoat, hen harrier, peregrine falcon and many others facing the heaviest persecution. Foresters view red deer and roe deer as pests. Farmers growing crops add wild geese to the mix not to mention a huge array of insects. Now it is the turn of livestock husbandry. Without protests from the British public, commercial producers would surely win unlimited support from our parliaments for vermin control. It is a real threat to our countryside and our biodiversity.

Let me be clear. I am not against control per se. What I am against is trapping, poisoning, gassing and shooting wildlife when less invasive methods are available, such as better husbandry, smarter barriers to movement, improved vaccination strategies, and a host of other intelligent ways to control the interaction between wild animal populations and productive systems using our growing knowledge of wildlife biology. Nor am I asking farmers to foot the bill for testing out new control methods. This is the responsibility of government and our research institutions.

Suppose we give the green light to DEFRA and license commercial farmers to blast away until every son of a boar and daughter of a sow badger has been exterminated. What wild species will suffer the misfortune of being next in their sights? A likely target is migratory geese. They have the potential to carry zoonotic diseases – those that can be transmitted to humans. And after the migratory geese are exterminated, what then? This kind of management thinking – the culling of vermin – is a never-ending recipe for conflict between us and our natural environment.

Permit me to explain how I see the conflict progressing.

Sketch of five badger cubs at play by Eileen Soper (Conté crayon)

In the first place we create the problem. In the case of poultry, we provide the incubator for the evolution of new diseases within industrial farm systems in Europe (and elsewhere) or in densely populated rural locations with poor animal husbandry, as for example in southern China, Laos and Cambodia. In the case of bovine tuberculosis in UK, we are responsible for spreading the disease to badgers. TB was first identified in a wild badger in 1971 on a cattle farm undergoing a prolonged herd breakdown (i.e. a prolonged TB outbreak). Since then bovine tuberculosis has been spread about England and Wales by cattle movements, both legal and illegal ones, causing infection of other badger populations.

In the second place, we reach for an easy solution – to cull wildlife. Not only is that something we find easy to do, but it has a big impact factor. Much of politics is about being seen to do something, apparently. In culling badgers, landowners and the general public see that government is definitely doing something drastic. It is easy to pretend that it will also be effective.

In the third place, we are left with an unintended consequence. Well I hope it is an unintended consequence. By creating a national acceptance of the need to continue killing ‘vermin’, our appreciation of British wildlife is diminished. Wild migrating geese are no longer the harbingers of the autumn months, but carriers of disease. Badgers are no longer the noble keepers of the wood but bio-terrorists. It is a dreadful negative spiral.

Do we have an alternative? Assuredly yes. The first thing to do in my opinion is to put away the guns and seek to understand exactly how transmission of the disease between cattle and badgers is taking place. TB is a respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Mycobacterium bovis. The transmission rate is low. But how exactly does it occur? And what are the optimal conditions for transmission? We know something about that. It is transmitted primarily via the airborne route but it can also be transmitted via contaminated food or pasture. Beyond that the facts are few and far between. Is close proximity required for transmission of the bacterium from one animal to another via the cough aerosol? Is transmission more likely under moist conditions? Would UV lighting in cow sheds reduce transmission of the bacterium? Would an improved drainage system that provided a dry floor assist in reducing transmission? Are badgers attracted to cow feeding-sheds by the presence of accessible animal feed? Are there alternative ways of delivering feed to cattle that would reduce the problem? How about placing badger barriers around feeding sheds? Specially designed fences are needed to be an effective barrier against badgers; that may make them too expensive for large scale application but the cost of fencing a feeding shed should not be prohibitive. Could provision of areas of improved habitat exclusively for badgers (they are known to prefer earthworms) play a part in separating them from cattle? Could M. bovis be transmitted in blood such as in the placenta following birth? What are the management implications?

Illustration of Mr. Badger by Ernest H. Shepard for Kenneth Grahame’s The WInd in the WIllows

I have not studied badgers and no doubt there is much I have missed but surely there is room for further work on the behavioural ecology of badgers and livestock with regard to epidemiology. Such work would provide a rich context of information for the next step – implementation of effective cattle husbandry and non-invasive badger management to reduce disease transmission. This kind of research work need not be expensive: a few well-placed PhD students could do wonders. Currently Defra’s annual expenditure on bovine TB is in the order of £100 million. If 0.5% of this had been directed at focussed studies designed to answer these questions over the past 5-10 years, I am confident we would now know how to manage disease transmission successfully. A few well-placed grants today in the right hands – independent universities with a reputation for mammal and wildlife epidemiology research – could quickly deliver a herd and badger management system to supplement vaccination strategies of the future.

Returning to the current culling decision, what is government hoping to achieve? According to independent scientific studies, farm managers need to kill more than 70% of all badgers in an area in order to reduce TB in cattle by some 16%. If they do not achieve 70% dead, the spread of TB may actually increase as the disturbed badgers disperse across the countryside taking TB with them (Donnelly et al 2003; Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB, 2007). Most people would agree with Lord Krebs that it is crazy to cull under these circumstances. After their uncompromising stance in favour of culling, the Welsh Government rescinded, accepting the scientific logic and opting for a system of vaccination instead. This courageous action is greatly to their credit. Scotland is free of TB but doubtless the same issues would arise should TB spread north of the border.

I hope the above convinces you that it is worth trying to find a different way to manage our countryside. (This is what I call for in my book, The Storm Leopard.) In relation to badgers, perhaps you would consider signing a petition being supported by guitarist Brian May to stop the cull. This petition will make a difference because 100,000 signatures is a realistic target and should get the issue debated in Parliament. Thanks from our furry friends. PS I used to have them visit my front door at night looking for peanut butter sandwiches – magic!


Donnelly et al (2003) Impact of localized badger culling on tuberculosis incidence in British cattle. Nature 426: 834-837.

Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB (2007). Bovine TB: The Scientific Evidence; Final Report of the Independent Scientific Group on Cattle TB Presented to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs The Rt Hon David Miliband MP, June 2007.

Posted in Conflicts, Conservation, Nature, Values | 5 Comments

Laws of the Wapichan

I came across some customary laws of the indigenous Wapichan* of southern Guyana which I guess are not atypical of native American forest peoples. Calvin Martin describes similar kinds of beliefs amongst the Northeastern Algonquian Tribe (eastern Canada) in his marvelous book Keepers of the Game (University of California Press, 1978). So these are some of the Wapichan customs relating to their use of the environment:

Daniel Kinchin, a Wapichan elder and elected village head

  • We will maintain the abundance of game animals by: respecting doronainao mashapkiizi (homes of the grandfather spirits);
  • Grandfather spirit masters of the game animals must be respected and decorative animals such as the giant anteater must not be killed;
  • Announce your presence to the mountain spirits and do not disturb sensitive sites;
    • Do not cut trees with spirit masters and do not set fires nor make camps at sensitive sites in the forest;
    • Do not trouble sensitive pools with kadorara (water spirits);
    • Never carry away the belongings of the tapikinao watching over caves and burial grounds.


    Some might consider these kinds of belief to be based on superstition with little relevance to the way we manage our environment in the modern age. But suppose we think about this from a more pragmatic starting point.  What might the Wapichan’s belief sytem achieve in practice? It would presumably have avoided overhunting and overharvesting. It would have prevented excessive loss of forests. It would have prohibited pollution and sedimentation of lakes and rivers. It would have acted against the accumulation of rubbish in the vicinity of beautiful spots like waterfalls, viewpoints and majestic trees.  It similarly would have stopped desecration of caves and burial grounds.

    Suppose our modern culture could achieve just one of these things. I don’t just mean in a few protected areas or privileged zones but all across our living landscapes. Would we not celebrate and consider it  a great achievement? What comes across to me is that these customary laws have arisen in a culture that has learnt the necessity of caring for its natural environment. I don’t think we can truly look after ours, unless we learn our own similar way of caring. That of course will mean a culture that also cares for its own people.

    * Further information on the Wapichan at: <www.forestpeoples.org/publications/results/Wa Wiizi Wa Kaduzu>
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Post Rio Blues

“Hi Martyn, I finished your book last night. It was wonderful. And sad. Thanks for sharing your experiences and your love of wildlife/the wild. You are more optimistic than I. I think the old-timer is right. It certainly seems to be enforced by Rio+20 and the everyday news.”

Thanks Erin, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I understand your feelings about the way things are going.  There is no point in pretending that we don’t have massive problems; on the other hand I think we are still some way off from the end-game that the Old Timer talked about. Don’t forget that conservation organisations around the world are good at releasing press briefings on biodiversity declines. It is after all how they raise funds.

Twenty years ago, following the 1992 Rio Summit, one of the two legally binding agreements opened for signature was the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The biodiversity narrative back then concerned genetic resources and chemical diversity in rainforests. We were told that the forests could be ‘mined’ by pharmaceutical companies and turned into economic powerhouses of the future. It didn’t happen. It was the product of over-optimistic, head in the clouds, thinking. Fortunately it didn’t prevent other good work being undertaken on behalf of CBD on species conservation and protected areas. Agenda 21 also arose within the 1992 Rio Summit to promote sustainability in its many aspects. It led us to the main outcome document of Rio+20 “The Future We Want”.

How does Rio+20 compare with its older sister? I agree with you that the results are disappointing. Did the conservationists get it wrong this time? Personally, I think the problem is more that we expect too much from global Conventions and don’t do enough to make things work at the local level. Maybe I should explain that. Much of the professional work of conservationists that I come across is taken up with formulating new policies and then presenting them with impact. They devise strategies for countering the effects of climate change, curbing expansion of Asian markets in wildlife products, monitoring the spread of alien species, and assessing the impacts of commercial farming. This is sophisticated and important work. Linking all this together we arrive at today’s narrative on biodiversity which is about ecosystem services. Forests are a source of water for farms and cities. They absorb carbon dioxide. They yield timber and non-timber resources. They attract paying tourists. They provide a habitat for many plants and animals. They have value for these and other services.


The amazing grey mangrove (Avicennia marina).

Therefore, the argument goes, we need to sustain biodiversity for the sake of the economy and livelihoods into the future. These arguments appear in the Rio+20 working paper “The Future We Want” (see section V. “Framework for action and follow-up”, sub-sections “Oceans and seas” and “Biodiversity”). Whether this narrative proves to be any more successful than the previous one will depend on hard slog at the local level by those who put words into actions. This I think is a bigger challenge than signatures on bits of paper. When I was working recently in an East African country on a UN environmental project, my national counterpart asked a senior representative of the Ministry of Water if they would consider payments to villagers living in mountain forests. The logic was that payment would be in return for cessation of deforestation activities, which would in turn maintain long term water supply to downstream users of water in commercial farms and cities. The representative laughed saying that they were in the business of charging villagers for their use of water not paying them.


Clearing tree mallow on an island in the Firth of Forth to provide puffins with nesting burrows.


Happy puffin!

If we are to be critical of conservation, and I think it is important that we are critical, that we do expect clarity of thinking and effective accomplishment on the ground, it is in the latter part – the failure to put policy into practice – where we should focus. In my opinion, it is easier to devise clever strategies that can be ‘sold’ to politicians at Conventions and to the public in general, than it is to plant mangroves on intertidal mudflats in Southeast Asia, against the backdrop of ill-disposed shellfish collectors, or to persuade through two score meetings with disaffected UK fishermen why they should respect marine reserves for the long-term welfare of fish stocks, or to clear Japanese knotweed from the riverbank. Nature clubs, local branches of government, volunteers and temporary workers undertake much of the physical and dangerous work of conservation gaining small recognition or remuneration in the process. Perhaps conservation organisations and environmental departments could take a leaf from Mao Tse-tung’s LittleRed Book” and require all senior staff to spend stints in the countryside to experience manual conservation work at first hand as a foil to the ‘bourgeois’ tendency to prepare policies for others to implement! The manual work can of course be great fun and I seriously think all would gain from such a practice.

Another observation about good things that can happen where you least expect them  is that poorer nations  are often more open to new conservation initiatives  than wealthy ones where powerful vested interests feel threatened by new ideas. Far from being the problem they are made out to be, poor nations may be able to teach us something about how to live with nature if we care to listen.

I don’t know if any of the above adequately addresses your concerns, which I share. But let’s in any case not forget to enjoy nature whenever we can. We are as much a part of the wild Earth as the tiger stalking deer in the forests of the Russian Far East or the pink-footed geese arriving from Iceland over the estuaries and salt marshes here in East Lothian. We can and should let loose the wild side from time to time and thrill at the beauty and wonder of it all.

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Review of The Storm Leopard

Cover of the Ist edition of The Storm Leopard


This review was published in the October 2011 edition of Primate Eye, the journal of the Primate Society of Great Britain. Could this be the start of a Stu fan club?

The Storm Leopard is a factual account of a journey across Africa. From the opening chapter introducing us to the reasons behind Martyn Murray’s need for the journey to the closing chapters, we are led to question current conservation thinking. This thought-provoking book seeks to address a dilemma facing all those wanting to ensure the survival of species into our future – balancing the needs of a modern lifestyle with the desire to protect the environment.

Martyn starts with the challenge set from conversation many years ago with a character described as ‘the old timer’, a safari operator working in Kenya who, with dramatic poise, states “You mark my words: they will all disappear one day. Every single wild place.” Thus starts the author’s trip to discern whether the wild places he knew still exist and to answer, if he can, the question “Why are we so destructive of nature?”

Dungbeetles in action with a ball of elephant dung. Sketch by Isla Murray.

In his quest to answer this question, Martyn begins a wandering journey across the continent led by the stories he hears. The descriptive prose leads us on via bushman art and legends. On the way we stop for a discussion of lion fieldwork, the dilemma of elephant culling in protected parks and a healthy section of reminiscing on his own previous fieldwork with antelope, all underpinned with the imagery of the bushman’s storm leopard moving across the continent.

Martyn is accompanied by his friend, Stu, who plays a cynical counterpoint to Martyn’s own beliefs and attitudes. The interplay between the two travellers moves from the tension of differing viewpoints to the camaraderie of the campsite, with Stu’s counter-arguments often proving the perfect foil for Martyn’s perspective.

Throughout the book the descriptive prose brings to life the landscape and animals surrounding the journey, and gives a flavour to the message that Martyn is trying to put across to the reader. It’s easy to feel immersed within the text, and develop a desire to see the places described.

In all, this book was a challenging read for me. Perhaps I should be classed as being as cynical as Martyn’s travelling companion. Even so, I feel this book has tasked me to think more widely and look at my reasoning and beliefs, and I would always recommend that as a worthwhile process.”

Kirsten Pullen

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park

Posted in Nature Books, Reviews, The Storm Leopard, Writing | Tagged | 1 Comment

2011 in review

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2011 annual report for this blog. Here’s an excerpt:

A Scottish pub holds 60 people. This blog was viewed about 1,600 times in 2011. If the average Scot spends the whole evening in the pub, then the pub would have to open about 27 times to serve that many people.


Well it doesn’t quite say that  :^)

Click here to see the complete report.

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Christina and The Storm Leopard book video

Christina came over to North Berwick a couple of months ago and worked with me to  produce a book video for The Storm Leopard which is now posted on YouTube. Chistina is an artist  with a uniquely expressive style that combines beauty with emotion. It is a magic combination which connects her audio, graphic, animation, video and musical compositions.

Rather than making a simple promotional trailer, we wanted to express the motivations that drove me to make the journey across Africa and the even longer journey of writing Storm Leopard – a cogent mix of enchantment with Africa, passion for wild places and irresistible challenge to understand the environmental crisis. It was my first attempt at trying to express such things on video (which shows, despite Christina’s patience and skill) but I hope it may at least give a flavour of what was going on.

Most of the images are from the book or my own collection, but a few are “borrowed” from elsewhere usually to bring home a message. I hope you will forgive me for any transgressions. I’d be happy to have your feedback.

We hope you enjoy the video. Many thanks to Catherine for giving me the idea in the first place, to Des for technical help with de-hissing the audio track, and to all others who helped with the production in one way or another.

Posted in Nature Books, The Storm Leopard, Writing | 4 Comments

Serengeti shall not die—but how?

Serengeti migration

Wildebeest pause their annual trekking to feed on the short grass plains in south-eastern Serengeti which provide minerals for their growing calves.

A BBC documentary on the Serengeti National Park (available here until midnight 30 June 2011) pitches a now familiar story. National Parks were created by Western minded naturalists without regard for the traditional rights of local people. In the case of the Serengeti, those local people were pastoralists who had been living harmoniously alongside wildlife; without them the park would not have survived in its present form, indeed could not even have existed as we see it today. For without cattle and fire, we are told, the Serengeti grasslands will return to dense thicket and woodland. Those thickets might support a few browsing animals, like impala and giraffe (actually bushbuck and lesser kudu would be better choices), but not the wide variety of animals we see today. It is thanks to the pastoralist and their cattle, the experts inform us, that we have grasslands in the Serengeti and thanks to the grasslands that we have migratory wildebeest, zebra and gazelles, and the big cats that stalk them. We owe our enjoyment of Serengeti’s rich mixture of woodlands and grasslands – that gloriously productive ecosystem which we revel in, whether on safari or more usually just watching TV – to the people we excluded. The Serengeti, it turns out, is man-made.

It makes a good story.

But pause a minute and ask two questions?

(1) Is Nature so impotent that she is incapable of generating diversity, or wild beauty for that matter, without a lending hand from Homo sapiens?

(2) If the Serengeti had not been granted national park status but been left open to the pastoralists, cattle and wheat farms as in surrounding territory, how much of the ecosystem would survive today?

I hope you agree it’s worth taking a closer look at the justification for national parks. But before doing so, I would like to forestall any wrong impressions by making clear that I am a supporter of conservation efforts outside of national parks. Not only do I believe them to be essential to the future of our wild heritage, but I think they embody the more important long-term challenge for conservation.

I am also a supporter of national parks and here is why.

Lions feeding from the carcass of a Cape buffalo. This pride lived near our house in the Serengeti National Park and picked off the old bulls one by one.

Firstly, in East Africa there is an inverse correlation between the number of pastoralists like the Maasai and the number of large wild mammals. In other words, the evidence of properly conducted surveys (and it’s easy to forget those dry reports when listening to the solemn words of sincere spokespeople on a documentary) show that wildlife and Maasai only coexist at low human density. There would be no ‘Serengeti’ today if there was no national park protecting it.

Secondly, parks are the most successful tool (at least so far) in the rather ineffective conservationist’s tool kit for sustaining wildlife populations. This has been revealed by comparisons (more dry survey reports) of the changes in large mammal densities within and outside African parks over a period of several decades.

Serengeti choir in one of the villages on the east side of the park supported by the park community programme

Thirdly, when managed alongside a good community programme that helps local people, a well run national park will raise living standards and increase the diversity of livelihood options in surrounding areas. That is my personal experience, but I admit there are plenty of parks without such programmes. The community programme in the Serengeti has been a great success. In neighbouring Kenya, the Maasai choose to maintain the Mara Reserve partly because of the tourism revenue it generates.

Zebra stallions fill the air with their whinnying as they defend their harems and ward off rivals

Fourthly, in the case of the grazing antelope (the wildebeest, zebra, hartebeest, waterbuck, reedbuck, oribi, gazelles, topi and so on) it should not be forgotten that all those wonderful beasts have been kicking their hooves in the African sun since well before hominids first set fire to grasses. We must presume that  they enjoyed a combination of edaphic grasslands (created by natural conditions of soil and drainage) and dynamic grasslands (dependent on the combined effects of elephants, other browsers and natural fires) from well before the time of the first human hunter. In other words, many savannah areas in Africa would be filled with the din of migration and the roar of large predators even without human influence. We make a big splash wherever we go but we didn’t create African grasslands, grazing antelope or animal migrations! The short grass plains of the Serengeti are edaphic. Their fine volcanic soils quickly lose the little moisture that falls (only 300 mm per year or less in some parts) and the mineral hard pan is near the surface further inhibiting tree growth.

Lastly, it’s worth bearing in mind an experiment that was attempted in Kenya back in the 1990s which I happened to observe at first hand. At that time part of the budget of the Kenya Wildlife Service was switched from national parks and the support of park rangers to conservation programmes outside of parks. The result was an uncontrolled outbreak of poaching within parks and a measurable decline in wildlife populations. Morale in the ranger force collapsed. Eventually so many people complained that the experiment was brought to an abrupt halt. The budget was reversed and the ranger force given new direction. The poaching was brought under control and wildlife populations began to recover. The lesson is clear. We need our parks.

So why, given the benefits of our national parks, do documentary-makers still like to knock them? I’ll leave that up to you to decide.  For my part, I try to avoid choosing any particular narrative to plug. Or rather the narrative I select derives from one rule and one choice. I aim to be guided by facts (properly gathered data), and I put my hat in the ring with wildlife. I do the latter because, like Bernhard Grzimek, I thrill to the roar of lions at night, and the nibbling of gazelle by day. I think there is something very wholesome in having a few areas where we can experience natural (ish) ecosystems. I think it is good to be reminded of life that is free (ish) of human control. And I think it is important that there are places that inform us about ecological processes that ultimately, I believe, affect us all.

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My favourite quotations from The Origin of Species

I’ve been reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1st ed., 1859) whilst preparing an abbreviated edition Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species: Bite-Sized for publication. Along the way, I came across several passages which seemed especially formative, telling or charming – in the magical sense of the word. Here are some of my favourites:

When on board H.M.S. ‘Beagle,’ as naturalist, I was much struck with certain facts in the distribution of the inhabitants of South America, and in the geological relations of the present to the past inhabitants of that continent. These facts seemed to me to throw some light on the origin of species—that mystery of mysteries, as it has been called by one of our greatest philosophers.

…I can entertain no doubt, after the most deliberate study and dispassionate judgment of which I am capable, that the view which most naturalists entertain, and which I formerly entertained—namely, that each species has been independently created—is erroneous.

Chapter 1.  Variation under domestication
That most skilful breeder, Sir John Sebright, used to say, with respect to pigeons, that ‘he would produce any given feather in three years, but it would take him six years to obtain head and beak.’

Chapter 3.  Struggle for existence
Nothing is easier than to admit in words the truth of the universal struggle for life, or more difficult—at least I have found it so—than constantly to bear this conclusion in mind.

Not until we reach the extreme confines of life, in the arctic regions or on the borders of an utter desert, will competition cease.

Chapter 4.  Natural selection
Can the principle of selection, which we have seen is so potent in the hands of man, apply in nature?

I can see no good reason to doubt that female birds, by selecting, during thousands of generations, the most melodious or beautiful males, according to their standard of beauty, might produce a marked effect.

Chapter 5.  Laws of variation
It makes the works of God a mere mockery and deception; I would almost as soon believe with the old and ignorant cosmogonists, that fossil shells had never lived, but had been created in stone so as to mock the shells now living on the sea-shore.

Chapter 6.  Difficulties on theory
Long before having arrived at this part of my work, a crowd of difficulties will have occurred to the reader. Some of them are so grave that to this day I can never reflect on them without being staggered; but, to the best of my judgment, the greater number are only apparent, and those that are real are not, I think, fatal to my theory.

Look at the family of squirrels; here we have the finest gradation from animals with their tails only slightly flattened, and from others, as Sir J. Richardson has remarked, with the posterior part of their bodies rather wide and with the skin on their flanks rather full, to the so-called flying squirrels; and flying squirrels have their limbs and even the base of the tail united by a broad expanse of skin, which serves as a parachute and allows them to glide through the air to an astonishing distance from tree to tree. We cannot doubt that each structure is of use to each kind of squirrel in its own country…

Chapter 7.  Instinct
It has been remarked that a skilful workman, with fitting tools and measures, would find it very difficult to make cells of wax of the true form, though this is perfectly effected by a crowd of bees working in a dark hive. Grant whatever instincts you please, and it seems at first quite inconceivable how they can make all the necessary angles and planes, or even perceive when they are correctly made. But the difficulty is not nearly so great as it at first appears: all this beautiful work can be shown, I think, to follow from a few very simple instincts.

We can see how useful their production may have been to a social community of insects, on the same principle that the division of labour is useful to civilised man.

Chapter 9.  On the Imperfection of the Geological Record
I have found it difficult, when looking at any two species, to avoid picturing to myself, forms directly intermediate between them. But this is a wholly false view; we should always look for forms intermediate between each species and a common but unknown progenitor…

A man must for years examine for himself great piles of superimposed strata, and watch the sea at work grinding down old rocks and making fresh sediment, before he can hope to comprehend anything of the lapse of time, the monuments of which we see around us.

What an infinite number of generations, which the mind cannot grasp, must have succeeded each other in the long roll of years! Now turn to our richest geological museums, and what a paltry display we behold!

Chapter 10.  On the Geological Succession of Organic Beings
No one I think can have marvelled more at the extinction of species, than I have done. When I found in La Plata the tooth of a horse embedded with the remains of Mastodon, Megatherium, Toxodon, and other extinct monsters, which all co-existed with still living shells at a very late geological period, I was filled with astonishment…

Chapter 11.  Geographical Distribution
In the course of two months, I picked up in my garden 12 kinds of seeds, out of the excrement of small birds, and these seemed perfect, and some of them, which I tried, germinated.

As the tide leaves its drift in horizontal lines, though rising higher on the shores where the tide rises highest, so have the living waters left their living drift on our mountain-summits, in a line gently rising from the arctic lowlands to a great height under the equator.

Chapter 12.  Geographical Distribution — continued
I well remember, when first collecting in the fresh waters of Brazil, feeling much surprise at the similarity of the fresh-water insects, shells, &c., and at the dissimilarity of the surrounding terrestrial beings, compared with those of Britain.

In the Galapagos Archipelago, many even of the birds, though so well adapted for flying from island to island, are distinct on each; thus there are three closely-allied species of mocking-thrush, each confined to its own island.

Chapter 13.  Mutual Affinities of Organic Beings: Morphology: Embryology: Rudimentary Organs
Embryology rises greatly in interest, when we thus look at the embryo as a picture, more or less obscured, of the common parent-form of each great class of animals.

Community in embryonic structure reveals community of descent.

Chapter 14.  Recapitulation and Conclusion
I can see no limit to this power, in slowly and beautifully adapting each form to the most complex relations of life.

Therefore I should infer from analogy that probably all the organic beings which have ever lived on this earth have descended from some one primordial form, into which life was first breathed.

Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history.

Whoever is led to believe that species are mutable will do good service by conscientiously expressing his conviction; for only thus can the load of prejudice by which this subject is overwhelmed be removed.

When I view all beings not as special creations, but as the lineal descendants of some few beings which lived long before the first bed of the Silurian system was deposited, they seem to me to become ennobled.

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.

Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows.

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

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