29 December 2011

Holes to Heaven

Some pictures and anecdotes from my trip to the Andaman Islands.

We were first based in Port Blair, around which we did some exploring.

Sunset at Chidiya Tapu (Bird Island - it did give me some sightings of an Andaman Cuckoo Dove and Red-breastd Parakeet)
Boat weaving through mangroves to get to the limestone caves at Baratang

From Port Blair, we took a sea plane (amazing experience) to Havelock island. There, we ended up spending most of our time at Radhanagar Beach. It's renowned to be one of the best beaches in South-east Asia but I was skeptical. When we got there I decided it was the best beach I've been to in my life (and I've been to some great beaches). The sand was white and soft, the water absolutely crystal clear. You could be in deep enough water that you weren't standing but still be able to see your toes. When you're in the water, you look around and are surrounded by dense forest and ocean. And out of the water, I explored the forest and discovered it was magical and full of birds. It was also walking distance to Barefoot Resort which had the best restaurant after a day swimming in the sun.

View from the sea plane we took from Port Blair to Havelock Island

Radhanagar Beach

One morning at Havelock, I went on a walk into the jungle with a guide at the resort, who also happened to be a self-taught local snake catcher! I had tunnel vision for doing some proper birding in the forests, and so I did. One of the highlights was being constantly teased by the sound of a woodpecker doing as woodpeckers do... After struggling to pinpoint the noise on several different occasions, we finally saw a small flash of red in the trees, followed by a sighting of an Andaman Woodpecker. Sadly I couldn't photograph it.

All around the islands you get these little lizards. I have no idea what species they are but I went a little mad taking pictures of them and trying to get the perfect shot, though they're extremely skittish. When they run, they remind me so much of those Basilisk Lizards, also known as Jesus Christ lizards for the way they run across water. There also seems to be so much colour variation in them, I'm not even sure if they're all the same species. I found the first two in leaf litter during my forest walk, and the others around the resort. Whatever the reason for the different colours, they've got amazing camouflage! I had so many pictures of them, I couldn't decide which ones to put up here so I've put a view to show the different colours (note the eye colour too).

note the different eye colour to the one below

little baby one next to the beach shower 
these last two are a couple of my favourite shots :)
Bird List (lifers with *)
Indian Myna
House Sparrow
Rock Pigeon
House Crow
Cattle Egret
Red-whiskered Bulbul*
White-bellied Sea Eagle*
Red-breasted Parakeet*
Andaman Cuckoo Dove*
Glossy Swiftlet*
Common Snipe*
Andaman Serpent Eagle*
Great Egret
Red-collared Dove
White-throated Kingfisher
Black-headed (Andaman) Bulbul*
Oriental Magpie Robin*
White-rumped Shama*
Black-naped Oriole*
Black Baza*
Andaman Woodpecker*
Fulvous-breasted Woodpecker*
Brown (Andaman) Coucal*
Crested Serpent Eagle
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo*
Edible Nest Swiftlet*
Emerald Dove*
Long-tailed Parakeet*
Forest Wagtail*
Collared Kingfisher
Orange-headed Thrush*
Brown Shrike*
Sunda Teal*

I definitely could have done better, and I'm sure there's some I missed/couldn't identify, but I'm chuffed with what I've got. In the past I've been more of a pseudo/wannabe birder, but for the first time, on this trip I was pretty happy with myself. Normally I'll see a bird and panic because I have no idea what it is and end up not being able to ID it, this time because I did my homework, I felt like I was instantly able to look for, spot and identify many species, even quite a few endemics. I'm improving! Also I made a point to grab my mum's good camera with the big lens and wander off on my own into the forest on many occasions. With the ability to zoom in that much, I was able to identify many of the birds that I otherwise wouldn't :)

Black-naped Oriole
Binu spotted this one at sunrise
Black Baza
Horrible photo, but I was so chuffed about the bird, I didn't care
Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
These were my favourites, they're so bird of paradise-like! You'd think those tails are easy to see and photograph, but they get completely lost in all the foliage. The first few times I saw them, I couldn't even see the end of the tail and thought they were Black/Andaman Drongos.
Crested Serpent Eagle
I had this guy right above my head, a Racket-tailed  Drongo on one side, and then out of nowhere, a couple of noisy Andaman Coucals came out of the undergrowth. I wish I'd been able to photograph them, but they disappeared again. They're clumsy little things!
Emerald Dove
I went off stalking this one while my family was still busy having dessert at Barefoot Resort on Beach No. 7 
Long-tailed Parakeet
Also at Barefoot Resort 
Right above us on Beach No. 7 
White-throated Kingfisher
Very common birds, but nice to photograph one for a change
One thing that really excited me was the fact that Jack Johnson's got a song about his own visit to the islands. Of course, he doesn't talk about it in the most positive light, but having now been there myself, I've gotta say he got it quite right:

"The air was more than humid and the heat was more than hungry,
And the cars were square and spitting diesel fumes.
The bulls were running wild because they're big and mean and sacred,
And the children were playing cricket with no shoes.
The next morning we woke up man with a 7 hour drive,
There we were stuck in Port Blair where boats break and children stare.
There were so many fewer questions when stars were still just the holes to heaven"

The islands are beautiful beyond words, but I was left with a bittersweet feeling afterwards, something that tends to happen with travels in India. But that's for another post....

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27 November 2011

The Real Deal!

The real deal! Get it? They're negotiating a new climate deal at COP17! Oh no she didn't! Yes, I did. Anywho, my dry sense of humour aside (I still find it highly amusing) - yesterday the real thing started, the reason I'm here in Durban - the 17th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change and the 7th Session of the Conference of the Parties serving as the Meeting of the Parties to the Kyoto Protocol, otherwise known as COP17. It actually feels so strange typing COP17 without a hash tag in front. But I'll get back to twitter-talk later.

The excitement of COP really started to hit on Sunday when I got my badge to enter the ICC. I've been in Durban since Thursday and I was starting to get a bit sick of being driven around the ICC, navigating blocked roads and whatnot, but not actually being allowed anywhere too close to it. So finally being able to enter the complex, beyond the central transport hub was a massive deal (there she goes again with the puns!) to me. On top of that, just like when I interned at WWF, the excitement of having an official lanyard with UNFCCC on it was possibly the coolest thing in the world. In fact, the novelty of the badge still hasn't worn off.

I had to
Sunday was also when I finally met the kids I'm supervising. It's something I had been anxious about ever since it was organised. I knew nothing about the children, how old they were, if they spoke  fluent English, what I would have to do with them in Durban - all I knew was that with them I'd be at COP17. Now, I know it all. There are four of them, two boys and two girls - Shreya Bharti, Lakshay Rastogi, Vineeth Udayakumar and Charu Dixit. What I instantly loved was that all of them are from four completely different corners of India and that they're all only in 11th grade. There's Lakshay from Gurgaon - an area on the outskirts of Delhi, which in my lifetime has developed at a ridiculous rate. So he comes from the land of skyscrapers and shopping malls. Charu is from Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh - India's most populous state. Shreya comes from Jammu, all the way up north, in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir. And then Vineeth who's come all the way from the Lakshadweep islands, which are actually closer to the Maldives than India (which I also imagine are very relevant when it comes to climate change and sea level rise). Through a selection process which lasted almost a month, the four of them were eventually chosen to be the lucky students to attend COP17 in Durban with the official Indian delegation. As an initiative of the Indian Ministry of Environment and Forests' Centre for Environment Education, they did online quizzes, essay-writing competitions and workshops to get here. Now that they're in Durban, I'm their local guardian and "mentor". The fact that they're here and attending COP17 is huge and I want them to feel like they're in the most important place in the world right now (because it is). They need to realise the gravity of the negotiations and take that back with them, regardless of the outcome of the talks.

Sunday night ended with a dramatic thunderstorm, so appropriate on the eve of COP17. Ironically enough, the next day there was news of people dying due to flooding in the region. But to put a more optimistic spin on it, as Christiana Figueres mentioned in her opening speech at the talks, "the gods rained on us with blessings before COP".

Day 1 of COP17 was overwhelming, to put it simply. The venue is massive, there is so much happening simultaneously in so many places, so many people buzzing around and so many documents to collect. Absolute madness (though very organised madness I must say - well done Durban!). However, once you finally get your bearings and figure out what's happening where, it doesn't get much easier. The first event we attended was a meeting of the G77+China group. To be honest, it made no sense to me. They just dealt with formalities and a provisional agenda and it was difficult to follow. Only later, when speaking to one of the Indian delegates, did I realise that what they were talking about is actually really important. There was a lot of debate over the agenda because India added three new points of discussion to it, which they want to have considered in the negotiations but some countries disagree with. I won't go into that now because it's too long to explain but when I do a post that's more about the substance of the negotiations, I'll mention it. Then there was the opening plenary session, which was straightforward as it was just a series of opening speeches, the highlights being President Jacob Zuma, Christiana Figueres and Minister Maite-Nkoana Mashabane. JZ didn't say anything too special, in fact many people think he didn't show enough leadership. But the two women were absolutely inspirational, I've become a huge fan of both. Another thing I still can't get over is how cool it is to be in the room where an international UN conference is happening. It's everything you expect from TV! UN flags and rows of tables with country placards, each with the little mic to speak from - amazing. For the rest of Day 1, we sat in on the rest of the plenary and the beginning of the CMP to the Kyoto Protocol session. Again, the formalities and the jargon were a LOT to keep up with and only made sense when broken down to us by one of the Indian delegates. Mr. T.S. Tirumurti, one of the men who helped organise me being at COP, has regularly been meeting with the kids to check in with them and also to give them little briefings on what's happening at COP and what India's stance is. It's been so valuable, both to them and myself. After his first briefing to us yesterday, the children had two interview sessions with the press where they each got to tell their story. After a long day at the ICC, heads full of technical jargon and climate policy, we came back to the hotel.

My second day of COP17 couldn't have started more gloriously. I left early without the kids so that I could make it to the ICC in time for the YOUNGO (Youth NGO) spokescouncil which I had missed yesterday. They arrived later with some of the other Indian delegates. Firstly, while on the shuttle and driving past Umgeni River, I saw a group of pelicans. If that's not a good start to a morning, I don't know what is. I arrived at the Durban Exhibition Centre right on time for the meet. Once again, I was in a room of vocal young activists, including many familiar faces from COY, and the inspiration was back. I said this enough in the last post, but I really can't believe how pro-active these guys are. One of the actions they carried out today was to deliver an intervention at the plenary meeting on the Kyoto Protocol. At the meeting, one of the youth delegates read out a statement drafted by YOUNGO members, which urged nations to sign onto a second commitment period of the Kyoto Protocol. A Canadian delegate was chosen to deliver the statement because Canada is one of the countries most strongly opposed to the second commitment period. The fact that we can make our voices heard in front of all the negotiators is amazing. Whether they listen to us or not, a document drafted by us, the youth, was directly delivered to the Conference of Parties. It's pathetic that YOUNGO talk always makes me so emotional, but when I read the intervention statement, my eyes tingled a little. Another thing which is fuelling my excitement about COP17 and YOUNGO is Twitter. Every time I open it on my phone it's full of tweets about COP17, tweets by the various youth coalitions and people engaged in discussion about the talks. It's so encouraging to see COP17 being spoken about so widely. What I love even more is that just because I've tweeting regular updates from COY and COP from my own account @jessleena and from the GCI's @greencampus_UCT (promotion, yes), the number of followers and general viewership has gone up madly. It's amazing that a social networking site like twitter is being used at this kind of scale for an event this significant. I now appreciate Twitter so much more! The fact that it's being used as a platform for activism and awareness on an issue like climate change calls for some twinkles. Don't ask, new thing I've picked up from YOUNGO and am loving. It's like jazz hands. Anyway, because of the buzz, I've been tweeting like a maniac. Follow me and the GCI, it would be much appreciated :) (by the way, I'm aware of what a cliche it is to blog about the power of social networks - apologies but I'm excited by it)

After the YOUNGO meeting I made my kids have a good look around the stalls at the Exhibition Centre. I'd spent all of yesterday in the main ICC building so I saw all the stalls for the first time today and went mad. Every environmental NGO I could think of had a stall with pamphlets and whatnot. I picked up so many things I don't know how I'm going to take it all back to Cape Town. But I did get to pick up stickers - I'm a sucker for stickers and badges - and have put them on my laptop. Little Blue Bear (yes that's my laptop's name) has finally fulfilled his destiny and has a 350.org sticker on it. Get me WWF and Greenpeace and we are in business!

From the stalls, we were called down to the Indian delegation office. The delegation offices at the ICC are being housed in the basement parking lot - serious optimisation of space happening at COP17! It's a labyrinth down there. I got lost repeatedly. We were given another debriefing/policy lesson from Mr. Tirumurti and then the kids were taken to the office of the Executive Secretary for a special meeting with Christiana Figueres. The fact that she took 15 minutes out of her insane schedule to meet the kids says so much about her. As soon as we walked into the conference room of her office, she took a piece of paper and told the kids "whichever one of you is good at drawing, draw me a map of India and then show me which part each one of you is from". She asked all of them about the selection process and about their backgrounds and also taught them a couple of things about what they should take away from their COP17 experience. In short, she was lovely and inspirational!

We also later sat in on a press briefing the Indian delegation gave to the (mostly Indian) press and NGOs. It was an awesome insight into the behind-the-scenes working of such a large conference. The journalists were raising things like "in the media there's a strong impression that India is blocking negotiations on signing a second commitment period, etc, is this true?" and then the delegate answered back - amazing! I even recognised one of the guys from my WWF-India internship last year. Incidentally, I remember sitting in on his post-Cancun debriefing presentation and have the notes from it in the same notebook I'm using here. These interactions with the Indian delegates has been amazing, because we get to hear directly from our country's negotiators on what's going on. I love it!

Christiana Figueres stressed the importance of youth in climate change, and also on how the kids must realise that as important as international level measures like COP and KP are, they need to also understand the impact of lower level work done within countries by NGOs etc. So since there were no sessions to attend, I took them back to the stalls in the exhibition centre to look properly. I've been trying to be more mentor-y by giving the kids little inspirational talks and by testing their knowledge, but I'm not sure how good I am at this. I gave a little lecture to a couple of them about how top-down and bottom-up efforts have to work alongside each other and right after that they went and had a closer look at the NGO stalls. I was well chuffed with that :p I'm going to also try arrange for them to meet with some people I met at COY so they know about the youth climate coalitions and the work they do. Maybe they'll be inspired like I was!

The whole of today was spent between the exhibition centre and the Indian delegation office so I think tomorrow it'll be time to get back in touch with what's going on in the negotiations, but as far as I know, the first couple of days don't cover much of substance so we should be fine. I've currently got a countless number of tabs open on my browser, as I'm busy researching the UNFCCC, previous negotiations, expectations from COP17, country policies and so on. It's an overwhelming amount of information to take in! The whole process is so complex. But I'm starting to get a better grip on it all so that hopefully, once the negotiations start to heat up, I'll know what's actually going on.

Tomorrow won't be too active because I'm first taking the kids sight-seeing, starting with Phoenix - where Gandhi lived when he was in Durban. Only after lunch will we be back at COP17 and the side events. I'm a little upset that I have to be away from the ICC all morning and out of the loop with what's going on. I'd also hate to miss out on cool side events and YOUNGO actions while I'm busy with the kids but I guess I'll just have to rely on Twitter :)

More to come soon!

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20 November 2011


I've been meaning to do a pre-Durban blog post for the last week or so but pre-Durban times have been quite busy so I'm now writing this from Durban. I'm here for COP17, I finally made it! As soon as it was announced that South Africa was hosting COP17 my first thought was "I'm there". I didn't care how or with whom. Sure enough, soon after that I joined the Green Campus Initiative (GCI) at UCT and we got round to planning how we'd be present in Durban for the talks. Alongside GCI action, I've been trying to get into the talks all semester, attempting to secure a place through various organisations. So after months of uncertainty and plans hanging in the air, I'm here and I'm so glad. So let me give a little overview on what's happening and what I'm doing here.

Firstly, GCI - we're here to represent the youth of South Africa at COP17 and to take part in the civil society events as well as COY7 - the  seventh Conference of the Youth. I have so much to say about COY! It's happening this weekend, right before COP17 and after two days of COY7 I am overwhelmed.

COY7 Day 1:
We started off with various ice-breaking activities - lots of mingling and networking and get-to-know-each-other games. I was immediately struck by the diversity of the people attending the conference. While briefly volunteering at the registration desk I was hearing accents from everywhere - Australia, New Zealand, England Scotland, Nigeria, Sri Lanka etc. We were registering people from youth organisations from all over and I suddenly realised how international COY actually was. Throughout the day, I started to learn more about COY. It's entirely organised by the people who have attended it in the past. For instance, this one was mainly put together by the Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC) and the UKYCC. These people are so inspiring.

The first speaker took us on a short walk to Pigeon Valley Park, just down the road from Howard College - the University of KwaZulu Natal campus where COY is being held. The park is in the process of being declared a nature reserve. The area it covers is only about 10 hectares but it's amazing to see a practically tropical forest in the heart of the city. The people managing it make an effort to ensure that there are no alien species in the area and that all the plants are indigenous. Because of their efforts, the park, as small as it is, boasts over 100 bird species. The message was all about sustainability and conservation in an urban environment and Pigeon Valley has definitely got it down. As far as climate goes, the forest is also an obvious regulator - the moment you walk into the park's gates, the temperature drops by a good couple of degrees. Durban's urban greenery is such a great sight to see!

The rest of day 1 included a workshop on how youth-led community-based actions can make a  huge difference on a larger scale. It was led by Caroline Howe from UNICEF who is so energetic and passionate about what she does. She started off with the question "how many world leaders do you think are arriving in Durban for COP17 feeling inspired by initiatives they've seen?". She told us about how she managed to get waste compost programs going in Delhi. She started off small, with a little compost pit in her neighbourhood. Eventually, the system ended up in one of Delhi's biggest, fanciest hotels. And that was her main message - if you have the inspiration to get a community-based project going, and if you can prove that these projects can be implemented at a larger scale, then you can show the leaders that it is possible to make a significant change with a bit of ambition.

The event that was the highlight for me, however, was the crash course workshop on the UNFCCC. It was led by a UKYCC member who just knew everything about climate policy inside out. I was completely in awe of how he broke down something so complex into an arrangement of post-it notes on the floor, displaying the structure of the UNFCCC. Have a look at the UKYCC's website: http://un.ukycc.org/ and look especially at the resources tab for a taste of how good these guys are at what they do.

COY7 Day 2:
I missed the morning sessions today, which I'm really upset about because I heard there was some amazing stuff from the We Have Faith group (more about them them below). My first session today was a workshop on climate literacy led by a guy from Germany called Kjell. After yesterday's UNFCCC workshop I was worried by how little I knew and decided to go back to basics. Kjell started off by saying climate change and the politics around it are such complex issues, it often feels like having a book but not knowing how to read. His solution to this was to create a "climate change alphabet" in the form of a wiki site that outlines all the basic components of the issues surrounding climate change in a easy to understand format so that people can become "climate literate". It all sounds very basic, but it's such a great concept, and so useful to have it all put into a nutshell.

We then broke into working groups, I chose the 'mitigation' group where once again, I was in awe of the expertise around me and stayed quite silent for fear of embarrassing myself with my lack of knowledge on all the legal details of COP17. The working group will hopefully continue to meet in the next two weeks to plan actions we want to carry out at COP. Once again, I was completely inspired by one of the UKYCC members. He told us about a metaphor he heard that was used to describe the UNFCCC. "The UNFCCC are like a bunch of kids standing at the top of a waterfall. All of them want to be brave and take the plunge, but they're waiting for one of the 'big kids' to go first and jump". I loved it.

Outside of COY, from tomorrow onwards, I'll be the local leader/mentor for four children from India. They were chosen to attend COP17 with the Indian delegation through a thorough selection process run by the Ministry of Environment and Forest's Centre for Environment Education (CEE). So tomorrow they arrive in Durban and they're mine until the 3rd. With them, I'll be at COP and attending various sessions.

After the kids leave on the 3rd, I'll stick around for a couple days. Three GCI members also got accreditation to attend through the UCT delegation (check out their blog: http://www.cop17plusthree.blogspot.com) so we'll still be doing things together after COY. Plus, like I said, today at COY we established working groups that will hopefully be taking action during COP so that should also shape up in the coming days.

I'm excited about what COP will bring. It's such an amazing opportunity and I feel so privileged to be a part of it. It's not everyday that such a huge conference takes place right on your doorstep. On top of that, COP17 holds so much weight at this point because this is the last year of the first commitment phase of the Kyoto Protocol. From 2012, we need a new legally binding framework and COP17 is the last shot at getting that in place. I'm going to stop there though because to be honest, having witnessed the ridiculous expertise of the other COY participants, I've realised how little I actually know about climate policy and the whole UNFCCC process so between now and Monday, I've got a lot of catching up to do. Maybe I'll do a blog post once I know more and I'll try put some of the key COP17 issues into a nutshell if I know them well enough by then.

As an aside, I must also say - I never liked Durban too much when I first came here about three years ago, but after just two days here I feel like I've seen so much of the city and it's really changed my mind. It's such a beautiful, green place and from my experiences so far, the people are so friendly! I feel so proud to be an honorary South African right now, I'm absolutely in love with the spirit of this country, and the whole continent too in fact. The city's greenery is also a great opportunity to do some birding alongside all the COP madness. Already 6 species up with my spanking new Sasol book - chuffed!

After a lot of digression, back to the title of the post. I've been thinking a lot about environmental activism in recent months. I've been feeling uncomfortable about something that I haven't been able to put my finger on until now. I've learnt that, in the environmental movement at least, it's so easy to lose sight of the meaning behind the word "activism". From what I've seen in the last two days and will probably see much more of during COP, it's actually more about being proactive. There's a huge difference between the two in my opinion. What I've seen so far at COY has made me feel a little embarrassed of myself actually...I'd say I'm one of those more passive ones who likes to label myself an activist but I don't actually take much action. At COY however, there is a group of over 400 young and enthusiastic pro-activists. They've come from all over the world, with such diverse backgrounds to meet in Durban and make their voices heard at COP17. A lot of them are at COY purely out of interest which is amazing, but there is also a large number that are accredited and will be attending COP17 as part of various youth delegations. What's impressed me the most has been the professionalism and expertise of the Youth Climate Coalitions from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the UK. From the way they all speak about these issues, I'd never guess they're in the same age range as me. Their dedication and knowledge has been truly inspiring. They are true youth leaders. Another thing that's been absolutely mind-blowing is the We Have Faith - Act Now for Climate Justice African youth caravan. About 150 participants from 19 African countries traveled all the way from Nairobi to Durban through 6 countries to come to COP and make their demands heard. They've done this in the form of a petition which they will hand over to Archbishop Desmond Tutu at the faith rally tomorrow.

This whole Durban experience has already been so inspiring. That's probably evident in the amount of times I've used the words inspire/inspired/inspiring in this post. If I were to go back to Cape Town tomorrow, before COP17 has even started, I feel like I've learnt so much and I'd be taking back so many lessons. I now know what activism is really about, what the youth are capable of and what the meaning of leadership is. It's so easy to approach these climate talks filled with cynicism. A few days ago I was filled with thoughts on how COP is just a way to politicise the science behind climate change, how we make all these demands to our leaders to act and solve the issues but come negotiation time, they just end up arguing over irrelevant details, numbers and figures, bargaining with each other. I still do feel that way to an extent, but COY has pushed those feelings right to the back of my mind because I'm now filled with optimism. If a bunch of young people passionate about the issue can make this much noise, surely all hope isn't lost. It all sounds very wishy-washy, I know, but I'm feeling very energised and, yeah, you guessed it - inspired right now.

This post is so long and scattered, I apologise, it's 3am and I delayed it enough already so I decided I had to write it now.  More to come!

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17 November 2011

The Mystery of the Sole

This fish could well be the coolest thing on earth. The sole, Solea solea. I went to the aquarium a few months ago and they were on display in a tank of just sand and a few soles. It's an amazing display of camouflage. You wouldn't know the fish were there until they move. Absolute masters of disguise. But that's not why they're amazing. When you look at them, you would think their bodies are flattened like a ray, dorso-ventrally. Look closer and you can see a little pectoral fin and one of the gills on top of it, but both its eyes are on top of its head. My mind was blown by this. How can this fish be asymmetrical? What does the bottom of it look like? It feels like quite a silly thing to get excited about but I finally looked them up now and solved the mystery of the sole.

When they are born they have a distinct right and left side to their body, with one eye on each side. One eye then migrates to the other side, which becomes the top side of the fish for the rest of its life.
Tell me that's not amazing!! If it's quite a well-known fact then I'm a little embarassed, but it's news to me and it makes these things the coolest fish.

Sole and plaice © Scandinavian Fishing Year Book

Anyway, that's all :) I enjoyed myself. Have a good day!

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11 October 2011

Melting Mountains

Amazing video of before and after photography from some Himalayan glaciers. There may be a lot of controversy about the rate of melting, but you'd have to be a blind fool to deny it.

WATCH! http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-15216875

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09 October 2011

Open Up Your Eyes

Long time no post! Second year is almost over so things are starting to get chaotic. There hasn't been too much excitement of late... On campus, GCI (Green Campus Initiative) has just had its Green Week. Lots of things to say about that but I'll save it for the next post, I've got lots of big posts pending in my drafts. I've sort of chosen third year courses and I'm thinking I'm headed towards doing zoology honours. I'm EXTREMELY excited about COP17 which is just around the corner, though I'm still waiting for a secure internship. I finally watched all of HOME and good lord, it's the most depressing documentary I've seen in a while, possibly since The Cove. Because of all of Yann Arthus Bertrand's amazing aerial photography, it's a film that helps you see the big picture of humankind's place on Earth. Speaking of depressing documentaries, I saw Coldplay live earlier this week, hence the title of this post from the song Politik. If you haven't seen 11th Hour, watch that also. Really powerful film, not to mention an amazing soundtrack, with Politik in the end credits. Such a fitting song..even though I believe he actually wrote it about fair trade. 

I should be working but before I have any more build up of blog posts, I'll quickly share some amazing articles I've come across this week.

To start off, an update on Japanese whaling! I've become less vocal about the issue of late because it's become a bit too bureaucratic for my understanding, and also because I've toned down a little on my support for Sea Shepherd. I still love their dedication and the results they get, but I have serious issues with Paul Watson's love for propaganda. Anyway that's besides the point... I read a couple of articles by my favourite, BBC's environment correspondent Richard Black, about how Japan's getting ready to send their fleet down to the Southern Ocean again this summer.  I've gone through this before in Life, Times and Japanese Whaling, but I'm going to do it again quickly. There are so many things wrong with this, I don't know where to start (haha I used the same words in the that post too). I don't see how they can be so stubborn and insist on continuing their Antarctic hunt. NB: Hunt, NOT for scientific research. That's issue number one - as the case has been every year before this, what they're doing down there is illegal. Yes, the IWC says you can catch a certain quota of whales for scientific research (commerical whaling is illegal), but Japan uses this loophole to go ahead and catch almost a 1000 whales each year (because you really need that many for research). What's worse, it's been proven with DNA testing by some lovely Greenpeace activists that the whale meat from these whales does end up on the Japanese market. That, friends, is what you call commercial whaling. Ah, but on top of that, they're whaling in what has been declared a whale sanctuary so they shouldn't be there in the first place - issue number two. This year, on top of these already existing obstacles to their hunt, they've got even more odds stacked against them. Sea Shepherd are one of those - every year, Sea Shepherd have followed the Japanese to the Southern Ocean to interfere with the hunt, and each year they've been more successful, causing huge losses for the whaling fleet and significantly reducing the number of whales caught. Last year, Sea Shepherd did so well that the fleet had to cut their season short and go home early, claiming they couldn't carry on whaling due to Sea Shepherd's harassment = win. Let's not forget that last year, Japan suffered from a terrible earthquake and tsunami, so whaling should be low on their agenda. Plus, if I'm not mistaken, the fleet was a bit damaged by the tsunami. Opposition from anti-whaling nations like Australia and New Zealand has also increased, with Australia having taken them to the International Court of Justice on the issue. In terms of budget, the Antarctic hunt was starting to become extremely costly for Japan, and any profits from the whale meat were being cut by Sea Shepherd. In spite of this, the fleet is returning, this year with extra ships as escorts for security purposes. To add to this:
"From August this year, new International Maritime Organisation (IMO) rules mean ships cannot enter Antarctic waters carrying heavy fuel oil, which the Nisshin Maru has previously used. Japanese officials have repeatedly stressed that they will adhere to the regulations. So presumably the ship will be adapted to run on diesel, which is considerably more expensive"
Just as a bonus, I also have to say, in terms of emissions and fuel consumption - really unnecessary contributions by the Japanese whaling fleet. So there you have it. Absolutely everything is stacked up against them yet they want to go back and kill some more whales. I really don't understand why. I'm sure a big part of it is that they don't want to surrender to Sea Shepherd and other pressure. Disgusting.

Here's a couple more angering ones. One about how Spain is heavily subsidising its fishermen in spite of collapsing stocks, and one about how governments are continuing to subsidise fossil fuels. It's truly bizarre that when we know exactly what the problems are, governments carry on providing subsidies that will only move us in the opposite direction. If anything, cutting subsidies to fossil fuels and fishing and putting them into more sustainable practices should be one of the easier places for a government to start. We talk so much about individual action, but when your government is giving you incentive to carry on with the wrong thing, where the hell do you start?

Anyway, enough pessimism for one post. Here's some about conservation successes. For one, the rare African golden cat was caught on video for the first time thanks to camera trapping. It's amazing that we can use these to catch glimpses of animals that we would otherwise assume to be practically extinct.

Here's another one about the use of camera traps - http://news.mongabay.com/2011/0817-hance_cameratraps_mammals.html?newsmenu

 Central Suriname Nature Reserve, Suriname. A jaguar (Panthera Onca), a Near Threatened species. Of the sites researched, Suriname's site presented the highest number of species diversity. Photo courtesy of Conservation International Suriname, a member of the TEAM network.
Poacher caught on camera in Nam Kading in Laos. Of the sites researched, this one presented the lowest number of species diversity and the highest habitat fragmentation. Photo courtesy of Wildlife Conservation Society, a member of the TEAM network.
poacher caught on camera

Giant anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) a Vulnerable species in Manaus, Brazil. The study found that habitat loss hurt insectivore populations, such as this anteater, first. Courtesy of Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazonia, a member of the TEAM network.
giant anteater
Lowe's Servaline Genet  (Genetta servalina lowei), a small african carnivore in the Udzungwa Mountains, Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Museo delle Scienze (Trento Museum of Science), a member of the TEAM network.
Lowe's Servaline Genet
Full body photo of an African golden cat – Gabon. Photo by: Laila Bahaa-el-din/Panthera.
African golden cat

I can't go into much detail about this article because it's quite technical, but have a read - a Revolutionary Technology is Unlocking the Secrets of the Forest - it's basically about how a team of scientists, led by Greg Asner have developed some amazing technology to scan rainforests from a plane and receive all sorts of data about the forest's composition, ecosystem services, etc.

And of course, I'll end with some more stunning pictures. Got lots of work in the coming weeks but will try post again soon!

ben canales sky photo

ben canales sky photo

ben canales sky photo

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02 October 2011

How I Fell in Love with a Fish

Awesome TED Talk by Dan Barber on sustainable fish - 

Busy times but more to come soon, lots of drafts waiting to be finished and posted.

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12 September 2011

Highway Steam

Hola! Apologies, I've been quiet again. Lots to update on!

Something minor I must quickly speak about first is my little weekend away at family friends' a few weeks ago. It's nothing that exciting or blog-worthy but I do need to emphasise what an amazing place the Cape Peninsula is. We did a little Peninsula tour, somehow we got a stunning day even though the forecast said there'd be rain. We stopped off at the Scratch Patch in Simon's Town where they sell semi-precious stones as well as some fossils. They had such amazing stuff. I'm a secret geology nerd and fossils are always exciting so I went mad at all these ammonite (I kid you not some were over a meter across), orthoceros, trilobite and fish fossils. I bought a few too, a trilobite for myself (like a mini version of the ones you see in BBC First Life, yes that was my reason behind buying) and a couple as presents including this tiny fish on a tile - amazing to look at with a hand lens, really great detail on it. I also got this fossilised shark tooth on a necklace but I'm still struggling to figure out what species it came from...After that we paid a quick visit to the penguins at Boulders beach. I've been there loads of times before but this time was great because it was the first time I've seen penguin chicks still moulting. There was also a ridiculous number of cormorants out on the beach, also apparently still nesting and moulting. 

sea of cormorants

perfect weather at Cape Point
Cape Girdled Lizard
Cape Point itself was beautiful as always. It's definitely one of my favourite places in the world, I'll grab any chance to go there. The best thing is it's stunning in any weather. I've gone before on cloudy rainy days and it just makes it look more dramatic. This time was perfect and sunny, without a cloud in the sky. I was in full dork mode, enjoying the outdoors, birding and trying to catch little Cape girdled lizards that were everywhere, basking in the sun. Always nice to get out of the suburbs! The highlight of Cape Point had to be the whales we happened to see a few hundred meters from the shore. It was such an amazing experience. Out of the few times I have seen whales, these guys were definitely the closest. Only in Cape Town can you have a bit of casual whale-watching on the weekend! On the way home from there we drove through Scarborough and Misty Cliffs which are just beautiful, and then stopped for lunch at Imhoff Farm which has a) amazing food, b) a stunning view and c) a snake park. Obviously I popped in for a visit while the others waited for food. I was so impressed with their collection. They have a massive black mamba chilling in the reception to welcome you, as well as this rather friendly green iguana. They've got one of the best exotic snake collections I've seen in SA - yellow anaconda, reticulated python, cottonmouth, western diamondback rattlesnake and other great ones. All that's missing is a king cobra and some Australian venomous snakes and they'd be set with all the most dangerous species. All in all, a very satisfying day out on the peninsula :)

Gaboon viper! My favourite!
most beautiful green mamba
amazing view of Noordhoek beach

Now for the real excitement - I just got back yesterday from the camp for our Life on Land: Animals course! I thought last semester's ecology camp was amazing but they just seem to get better and better. I thought we'd be going up to the proper Namaqualand but it was more in the Cederberg area, I'm actually still a bit confused about where we were exactly. It was called Traveller's Rest - somewhere past Clanwilliam, still very much in the Western Cape but on the Cape Town-Namibia route. It's a beautiful place with some really bizarre, diverse landscapes. The drive up there is stunning, we passed all these bright yellow canola fields, farmlands with orange groves, amazing mountains and rock formations, Clanwilliam Dam and the Olifants River. 

Throughout the 4 days of camp (just three full days technically), we did 6 little projects plus one ongoing one everyday which is the one we have to do the report on. That one's pretty simple, we laid out colour pan traps - blue, yellow and red - and filled them with water to catch pollinating insects and test their colour preference (I think?). Unexpectedly we didn't seem to get much in the red but anyway, that's still ongoing.. I'm not looking forward to the data analysis and using this program to map it all out :S The other projects were great though, even better because technically, they were just for fun, we aren't getting marked on them. 

On the first day we started out with the ecophysiology project where we basically went out and collected a whole bunch of insects and brought them back to test how they deal with water/heat stress by putting them in a desiccator. Rather cool stuff plus we collected a lot of cool stuff. Some of the other groups even got some scorpions which we got to handle - amazing, one tick off my to-do list of life :) The second project of the day was probably my favourite for obvious reasons - herpetology. We got briefed on reptiles, handling, venomous snakes etc. and then we went out and hiked around looking for reptiles. We didn't get much, all we found were agamas, skinks and geckos which we were unsuccessful at catching but even so, it was a really cool introduction to herping. Just holding a snake stick for the first time was amazing. The only way I can do it justice is comparing it to playing a guitar (or any other instrument) for the first time. It feels so foreign and strange at first but once you hold it for a while and walk around turning over rocks with it, you get a better feel for it. I can only imagine how it feels to actually handle a snake with one. You also learn to look around you more, check in crevasses and just generally take in more of your environment. The hiking around was actually quite intense, at many points we were rock climbing, edging along ledges on little cliff faces, crawling through caves filled with dassie droppings - all quite adventurous. It must take so much practice because in those kinds of terrains it's hard to multi-task. Figuring out how to get from one point to another is enough of a challenge, let alone trying to look for animals between the two points. Again, it was also awesome chatting to the demonstrators Stephen and Simon. Simon's actually working on bats (fascinating to hear about), but he did this reptile handling course for fun and is the same one who told me about it. I'm so keen to do it myself. Stephen's like this real-life version of all the herp guys you see on Animal Planet. Slight Donald Schultz/Austin Stevens vibes but American...although Austin Stevens is insane so that's probably an offensive comparison. He was staying in our house so one night we went on a walk looking for things. I can't describe how amazing the nights are up there. The moon was casting shadows, you hear frogs and the whole torchlight shining and looking for reptiles atmosphere reminded me so much of Mabula night drives. Again we didn't have much luck but Stephen did catch a frog (his Masters project is on frogs) and got us to hold it. I'm so glad he got me over my reluctance to handle it. I struggled for so long thinking I'd hold it too tight and it would slip out of my hand and fall badly but eventually I got it right. I don't know what it is about handling wild animals that's so rewarding but that's been one of the highlights of camp for me. That same day one of the other groups caught a Spotted Skaapsteker which we got to handle also. Luckily I'm good with snakes because these guys are mildly venomous. Fortunately even if something had happened the bite symptoms are only like a bee sting (as Stephen later found out when they caught another one). I'm quite chuffed because that and a vine snake in India are now the two venomous snakes I've handled :p

I missed the mammals project the next morning because I was sick so I missed out on checking the rodent traps and finding elephant shrews and other exciting things :( But in the afternoon was the bird project so naturally I refused to stay in bed. We essentially went out looking for birds to help out with the bird atlas project. So we drove around a certain area on the map and recorded what species we saw - heaven. At some points we'd stop and one of the guys, Owen, would whip out his old ipod mini filled with bird calls and connected to a (surprisingly amazing quality) speaker which he'd use to attract specific birds. He used it on the cisticolas and a Karoo Prinia and it was quite amazing seeing the male birds suddenly pop out and get all territorial and aggressive, flitting around us and frantically responding to the ipod calls. I've put down my bird list for the project as well as the rest of camp, I don't think I'd have been able to identify half of them without help - badly in need of practice/training.

Bird list for camp (*s are lifers, though there's definitely a few missing that I couldn't identify):
Little Grebe (not a lifer but first sighting in SA)
African Darter
Reed Cormorant
Little Bittern*
Sacred Ibis
Egyptian Goose
South African Shelduck*
Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Kite*
African Fish Eagle
Verraux's (Black) Eagle
Black Harrier
Pale Chanting Goshawk*
Rock Kestrel
Red-knobbed Coot*
Namaqua Dove*
Laughing Dove
Speckled Pigeon
White-backed Mousebird
Acacia Pied Barbet*
Cape Wagtail
Pied Crow (I hate them. Every time without fail I got excited about it possibly being a bird of prey until I saw the white markings)
Karoo Thrush
Cape Robin-chat
Karoo Scrub-robin*
Grey-backed Cisticola*
Levaillant's Cisticola*
Karoo Prinia
Fiscal Flycatcher
Common Fisal
Pied Starling
Red-winged Starling
Malachite Sunbird*
Cape White-eye
House Sparrow
Cape Sparrow
Cape Weaver
Southern Masked Weaver
Southern Red Bishop
Cape Bunting*
Mountain Wheatear*

On the last day the first project was learning about different biocontrol methods used on invasive alien plant species in the area from the zoology Head of Department. First he told us about some projects undertaken on various acacias and prickly pears, how different beetle species have been used to control their spreading. Then we went out to look at the potential for such initiatives on mesquite trees by looking for seed pods that were infested with specific beetles as well as animal dung with seeds in it. The second project of the last day was to go out with Mike Picker (!!!) looking for insects to assess the diversity and also to raid some termite nests. One thing I've found on camp, on both the insect and herp project, was how for the first time my neck and back hurt from looking down and scouring the ground for creatures, as opposed to birding when you get aches from constantly looking up. I found that quite amusing :) I don't think I need to say again how much I love Mike Picker. He's so brilliant to learn from and also just seems like such a sweet man (not to mention how well he catered for us few vegetarians on camp). I think working with him for the afternoon also helped me man up with the insect fear as we went out trying to find whatever we could and catch a lot of them too. I'm so proud of myself for overcoming a bit of my phobia on camp and just learning to appreciate how amazing these little insects are. We caught some amazing stuff and they're just fascinating to learn about. While walking around we also stumbled across this carcass which we decided was a bat-eared fox, the skull of which is now in my possession. Quite exciting because they're one of my top mammals to see but I won't lie, it's a bit disgusting. All these carrion beetle worms came out of it and I'm pretty sure there's still some brain matter in there so it shall be soaking in  water and bleached for a few days before I can appreciate it :S

Anyway this post is long enough, I had to do justice to the most amazing field camp. I've pretty much decided that my future is in being a field biologist (sorry EGS). I can't think of any work more rewarding. Hopefully I can steal some pictures from people and put them up soon. I'm horrible at remembering to take pictures myself even if I do have my camera with me :S

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