25 February 2011

Life, Times and Japanese Whaling

It's time to post again! This is going to be one of those rambly slightly personal posts of mine, but I need an outlet. I've been feeling a little off and uninspired lately, and I don't know why. If anything, at the moment I should be feeling more motivated than ever before, but alas, things haven't been so fortunate. That said, I'm feeling good tonight (at 3am somehow). I've been sick since India but I think the antibiotics are starting to work and make me feel better, mentally as well :) There's been a lot of drama in the last couple of months but I think (fingers crossed) everything's finally back to normal and to a point where starting afresh is an option at last. That means it's high time that I really start focusing on varsity. I always figured that once I got round to second year, doing courses I'm passionate about and being surrounded by people with similar interests, I'd calm down and get my act together and work hard. Apparently not, looks like I'm a true procrastinator at heart. But anyway, all that is way besides the point. The point is I think I'm ready to get serious, my holiday's very much over. I really have no reason at all to be as lazy as I have been, I'm doing ecology, oceanography and environmental science, why the hell would I want to lag behind on them? I just need something to keep me motivated and excited to keep up with the work and notes...we'll see.

Meanwhile, I've joined the UCT Green Campus Initiative (GCI) and signed up for their COP17, Green Police and Consumer Activism projects. I'm extremely excited about it. I love being with like-minded people like that, sharing ideas, having an action group and a dedicated cause. I'm most excited about the COP17 project. I don't yet know what the GCI plan to do with the summit, but I already had my own agenda of going up to Durban at the end of the year to try get in on the talks. We'll see how it all pans out, either way, I'm really looking forward to getting heavily involved in this.

Speaking of like-minded people, I mention them quite a bit, but I've got to add in a little shout out to Kyran and Nick and I want to give them a bit more than a couple of little 'by the way' lines in random blog posts. I cannot stress enough that I'm so glad I found them. They've absolutely changed my life and they're the best company you could ever ask for. Meeting people with whom I have so many interests in common, be it cricket, conservation or evolution, is very new to me and they filled a serious void in my life. It's not everyday that you meet people who are passionate about all the same things as you. They both just finished their honours in zoology/botany/ecology and now they're doing their masters in environmental law. Rather inspiring. They made me their apprentice for the days when their firm Wright, Fordyce (Suri :P) and Sons gets started. They like to joke about how they're my mentors and I'm the student, but in some (sick) ways, it's actually quite true. I've learnt so much in the six months I've known them. There's Ky with his stories about mass whale strandings in Kommetjie, penguin research and thesis and let's not forget his mom, full of a ridiculous amount of knowledge, who I'm completely in love with - just click on the link, I don't need to say more. Then you have Nick with his letters to creationists, endless supply of nature documentaries and immaculate fish tank. Together they've inspired me, turned me into a militant atheist/evolutionist and sorry to be cheesy, but opened my eyes. I love them to bits. Definitely two of the best things that happened to me this year.

I'm currently working on getting Ky and Cait (making great progress with her) into Whale Wars. I've given them all seasons 1-3 and I'm keen to spread the love. Ever since I started watching Whale Wars in Joburg, I've become really interested in the politics of whaling, the Japanese agenda, Sea Shepherd, the IWC and all that jazz. It's one of the few issues I follow so closely. I've been won over by Sea Shepherd. Their cause and their tactics appeal to me. Call it eco-terrorism, fundamentalism, piracy, aggression, but at the end of the day, even if they cross lines that others wouldn't and probably shouldn't, it comes down to the fact that they are effective. More effective than any other conservation NGO and most certainly more than any government's actions. The reason I say this is the sheer results that they produce. Because it's something I'm passionate about and clued in on, I'm going to summarise the whole issue and put it in as good a nutshell as I can. In 1986,  the IWC placed a moratorium on commercial whaling, meaning every nation that's a signatory to the IWC is banned from killing whales with intent of selling the meat. There are some countries that have a way out of these rules. There are objection countries like Norway who basically reject the IWC's rules, aboriginal ones who are allowed to hunt an amount of whales for subsistence food, and then the controversial one - the ones who whale for scientific purposes, e.g. Japan. The Japanese have a "scientific whaling program" through which they are allowed to kill almost 1000 whales every year in the Southern Ocean. There are so many things wrong with this, I don't know where to start. For one, they hunt whales in an Antarctic sanctuary that they shouldn't be anywhere near. Then the fact that they say they need 1000 whales a year for research is ABSURD. Then of course there's the fact that once they're done with the "research", they're not allowed to let any of the meat go to waste, so of course, it goes for sale in Japanese markets, ultimately making it that which is banned - commercial whaling. The stance Japan has taken on whaling is so ridiculous, the fact that they've been allowed to carry on for so long is just shocking, and a serious question mark over the IWC's credibility. The IWC has been accused of being a toothless organisation, where pro-whaling nations buy votes from small neutral nations in order to carry on their operations and where the whalers are allowed to get away with their actions in spite of opposition from some big countries, Australia being the most vocal. Where government and IWC intervention falls short though, Sea Shepherd come along to save the day. For the last few years, they've been following the Japanese whaling fleet down to the Southern Ocean to directly intervene against their operations. Their tactics? Throwing stink bombs of butyric acid, boarding ships, chasing the fleet away from whales, attempting to stop ships' propellors - it's harassment but the fact remains that they prevent the Japanese from getting a substantial amount of their whaling quota. Over the last couple of years, most likely due to the publicity from Whale Wars being on Animal Planet (Whale Wars is a reality TV like account of Sea Shepherd's Antarctic campaigns), Sea Shepherd have gained more support and as a result become stronger and more effective against the whalers. In the past, they used to go down with just one ship, the flagship Steve Irwin and a couple of inflatables against the daunting Japanese fleet. Currently they've got three ships, a bigger than ever crew and an increasing success rate. What you'll always hear them say in the show is that they're in business to put themselves out of business by putting an end to poaching of marine life. Just last week the Japanese announced that they were suspending their whaling activities in the Southern Ocean, for this season at least. The reason they cited for their decision is that it wasn't safe for their crew down there because of Sea Shepherd's harassment. Either way, it's a huge victory for Sea Shepherd. They've estimated that this year, the Japanese probably only got less than 10% of their quota, meaning over 900 whales were saved. I can say right now that when this season of Whale Wars comes out, I will probably cry over this moment.

Yushin Maru No. 3 and Sea Shepherd activists

There's so much more I can say about whaling and Sea Shepherd and the Japanese. Instead of rambling anymore, I'll just say this - watch Whale Wars, every season from beginning to end and then read into the issue as well. It's riveting :) I have friends who will disagree with me, but I'd love to one day be an offshore volunteer and get on one of Sea Shepherd's ships. There are few things more worthy or rewarding.

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16 February 2011

Sky to Ground 3: Sonamarg

This post has been sitting in my drafts for waaaaaay too long. In case you forgot, it's a continuation of two earlier posts about my July family trip to Kashmir, Sky to Ground 1 and Sky to Ground 2. What's finally given me the urge to finish and post this is that I'm thinking of writing about Sonamarg for my first EGS assignment.
Heads up - this is quite a dramatic/depressing one.

For me, the highlight (if you can call it that) of our trip to Kashmir was the visit to the Sonamarg glacier on our way to Srinagar. Right from when my dad started planning the trip, the only thing I said to him was "Pa I wanna see a glacier". The logic behind it is a bit sad, but in times of environmentalism and global warming, to me the thought of a real live glacier was exciting. Glaciers have become so symbolic in the whole climate movement and I guess the little cynic inside me had to see a glacier while glaciers still exist, before they all melt away. So when we were finally going to Sonamarg, I was excited. The place itself is beautiful, lush green valley with snow-capped mountains between clouds, little streams and mini-waterfalls of meltwater everywhere - absolutely stunning.

The glacier itself is tucked away behind hills so you have to drive into a "reserve", but even after that it's quite a long walk to the actual glacier. My sister and I went ahead of the parents on our own, probably because I was so eager to see the glacier. We kept walking and walking and it seemed like such a long hike to nowhere until we finally reached this little area full of people and little stalls with tables and chairs selling chai and snacks. We realised it was the end of the trail and we both thought "ok, where's this glacier then?".

It's only then that you realise that you're standing where the glacier should be, typical valley, boulders once carried by the ice and everything. A few kilometres or so ahead of all these stalls, we saw some distant ice, which we assumed must be the Sonamarg glacier. Disappointing doesn't even begin to cover it. So we sat down and got a pack of biscuits and juice while waiting for our parents to catch up. Looking around, in spite of having had to walk a good half an hour through the reserve, it was only then that I really got a sense of the place. On the way there I must have been too excited to notice but the whole place is littered with plastic packets and bottles, the little streams of meltwater are choked with trash, no planning has been given to the walking trails, they've just been put anywhere that gives a simple path to the "glacier" so paths are paved right through the middle of streams, leaving stagnant water on either side of the concrete. Even where there are paths that are meant to be followed, there are just people everywhere doing whatever the hell they want, including skiing around on a little bit of ice which probably should be part of the glacier. And let's not forget! For the people who don't feel like doing the whole walk to the "glacier", no problem, you can just hitch a ride on a tiny emaciated pony that probably can't handle your weight.

By the time the parents reached us, I was in tears and honestly angrier than I've ever been in my life, and they were also completely disgusted with the state of the place. My mom's a big fan of giving randoms on the street lectures on civic sense so of course she took pictures of all the rubbish everywhere. They sat down to order chai and my dad told us that when he'd come here years ago when he was a kid, the walk to the edge of the glacier was less than 10 minutes, the whole area was covered by ice. One of those typical, heart-breaking glacier stories. My dad started ask questions to the man who came to give them tea, I tried to have a go at him and shouted (in my broken Hindi between sobs) about having a responsibility for preserving an area like this (I didn't make too much sense). Between my pathetic lecturing and my dad's interrogation, we found out a little more and I felt a bit guilty for blaming him personally. I may have been a little out of line... The people inhabiting Sonamarg, trying to make a living out of the tourists who come there are actually part of a nomadic tribe, they're known as Gujjars - once again I won't even attempt to explain something political. The situation is more complex than we made out, but the bottomline is that the Sonamarg Development Authority doesn't seem to be doing much for the development of Sonamarg and neither is the government of Jammu and Kashmir. It's the same problem all around India, but especially so in J&K because politics and Pakistan take priority up there - not the environment and not the fact that the state is one of the gems of our natural heritage. Hearing the story in full made me feel a bit naive for getting so angry at the locals at Sonamarg, it's a complex tribal rights issue that I really don't feel qualified to talk about. Even if they're whoring out frail donkeys and setting up stalls that lead to pollution, they are just trying to make a living, so I'll let them off lightly and just say that the management of the whole area is just appalling. The best way I can think to explain it is that Sonamarg and the glacier are having to pay for the authorities' inability to provide the Gujjars with sustainable livelihoods which will decrease exploitation of the glaciers surrounding land (which, from what I understand is technically owned by the Gujjars). Ideally, Sonamarg would be a small wildlife reserve with ecotourism activities and attractions, but it's really just a hole amongst some beautiful mountains. I'm not an expert, but I know a landscape in trouble when I see one, and Sonamarg was a sad sight. After hearing what we had to say, the man insisted on escorting us further up the valley, closer to the ice and to the end of the actual glacier. He wanted to show us that in spite of the state of the place, there was a glacier that is "intact". He wanted us to taste the cleaner water and ice from upstream and he wanted to explain their side of the story.

view from the top
I can't say I understand what's happening at Sonamarg. You read all the time about the effects of climate change on Himalayan glaciers, glaciers which are so crucial in the global warming debate, glaciers that provide the world with so much freshwater, glaciers whose melting could trigger significant sea level rise. When you see the lack of commitment to preserving these glaciers right before your eyes it's hurtful. Going back to what I said at the start of the post - Sonamarg was the highlight of the trip for me. Though it may sound like an unsuitable word, it really was the highlight. Even after spending all that time in the breath-taking Himalayas, Sonamarg was the most eye-opening. I compare my experience at Sonamarg to how I felt after watching The Cove. It really depressed me for a few days but that anger gave me a lot of will and inspiration.

Whenever I write depressing posts like this, I end them with happy things or with some solutions. All I've got to end this one on a light note is the song that inspired the titles of these posts - Sky to Ground by Xavier Rudd. For one, the title is so fitting for the trip, but more than anything, it's the lyrics and the mood of the song that got me. As soon as we left Sonamarg, all I wanted to do was stick my earphones in and try make sense of everything on the drive to Srinagar that evening or at least to cheer myself up. That was the first time I heard Sky to Ground and I can't think of a more perfect song for the scenario. Call me a cheesy treehugger but I had to put in the lyrics as well, the song means a lot to me.

I've seen babies begging scratching round for food to eat
I've seen a big old tree still standing strong two thousand years healthy

I've seen the oldest woman shaking her head at what went wrong
I've drank water from a stream so fresh you couldn't see the water at all, at all
I've seen streets so dirty that there's hardly a place to walk
And I've fallen asleep to wild bush birds singing their prettiest songs

I've seen all of the fear and the murder on T.V.
And I've stood free on solid waves, Mother Earth's greatest treat
And I sing

World peace all over and over again

Sending this out to all my friends
This place my home from sky to ground
I've seen the universe connected from the inside out

I've seen people screaming at the car that cut them off

And I've felt the thinnest mountain air cleaning out my lungs
I've seen fast food chains in nearly every place that I go
I've had a belly full of the freshest fish speared with a single throw
There's been changes in weather like never before
Change in the Winter and Summer and Spring and Autumn

Many many people still listening to the Earth and her songs
So I sing it strong
World peace all over and over again

Sending this out to all my friends

This place my home from sky to ground
I've seen the Universe connected from the inside out

And in these times of trouble
In these times of war
And in this time when our Planet it is getting too warm
Give thanks give a smile and take a look around
We are of this Earth and of this Earth we can be so proud.

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11 February 2011

Fresh Feeling

I'm feeling the need to write one of those slightly more personal posts because I'm really happy with life and Cape Town at the moment. I feel so settled and focused this year and I'm appreciating everything more than normal. Very at peace with the world.

We had introductory lectures today. I missed the Ecology and Evolution one since there was much confusion about venues etc. That said I cannot wait to get my hands on the textbook. An Ecology textbook, imagine! :) The oceanography lecture has gotten me so excited for 2nd year. It's all so new and interesting. The course convener was telling us about the six modules of the course and they all seem like they're going to be a blast. Once she's done teaching her two-week module she's off to the Southern Ocean on a cruise - heaven. The EGS course sounds great too, there's three modules - climatology, water/catchment areas and land processes. I am so excited to finally be pursuing subjects I've wanted to study my whole life.

I feel like lately I keep getting asked what my plans for the future are in terms of specialising and choosing a career. This year is technically the last year I'll be able to keep my options open. After this, specialisation is inevitable. Choosing between wildlife conservation and climate change is going to get harder than ever I think. It's something I've always struggled with. Wildlife and conservation is where my passions really lie, they're what get me going. But I know there's more for me to do if I go into a climate related field, it's the more practical choice. The choices for third year courses are going to be impossible to narrow down and I'm probably going to end up doing an extended degree with two third years and a triple major-esque plan. But I think that's just taking the easy way out by not making a decision...I don't know if I really have a long-term plan. And I want to do post-grad but how will I choose one thing to do it in? All I know is that I want to be in the field and I need an animal fix every now and then to stay sane. At the moment something that I'm really keen on doing is ecotourism and parks/protected areas management. It's something I've blogged about a couple of times, see January Galavanting and Literally a Conversation on Conservation. I think it's an area with so much potential. Going to reserves in India and hearing about paper parks from Kyran has stressed that even more. It just requires some basic policy changes and monitoring and it could have the biggest impact on biodiversity conservation. Another thing I'd love to do is do a course in photography and film-making (particularly wildlife). Decisions decisions...

To end the post with a few pictures, today after lectures we went down to the Old Zoo - one of UCT's little secret places. It used to be Cecil Rhodes' personal zoo and now all that's left of it is the Lion's Den. It's such a little gem of a place. We climbed up on top of the cage bit, the view is absolutely stunning from there. And I heard a bird call up there that I didn't recognise... UCT is such an amazing place and Cape Town is such a spectacular city. Times like these make me feel like I made the best decision of my life by coming here. Truly happy with where life is taking me at the moment.

(sorry for the quality, they were taken from my phone)

Oh and one more thing - without a doubt, this year I am getting PADI certified and I will start diving. It has to happen.

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10 February 2011

Love Species

Here's a little Valentine's Day campaign by ARKive :)

If you're on twitter, follow @ARKive and tweet what your favourite ARKive species is and why. Don't forget to add in the #lovespecies tag!

I just tweeted about the snow leopard because I thought of the footage in Planet Earth. What I love about the snow leopard is that it's so mysterious. It took the BBC crew three years to catch that footage and they were extremely lucky to catch such amazing behaviour on camera. People who have lived their whole lives in the Himalayas are unlikely to ever see one because they're so elusive. Shows how they're in control and not us :)

Snow leopard portrait

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09 February 2011


I knew the travelling and coming back to Cape Town/university life would mean less posting. I really want to try keep this up, although I'm sure once I'm back at varsity all I'll have to post about is news articles I come across or lecture highlights - not very exciting sadly, not to mention the fact that I still need to do my Sky to Ground 3 post...

I got back last week after a very crazy time in Delhi. Of course the week since my return has been even crazier and busier. It's great to be back though. I forgot how beautiful Cape Town is. Transport's been problematic so we've been walking a lot, can't really be complaining. One look at the mountain from across the Rondebosch Common is enough to make you smile on a bad day. Cheesy but I lie not. It's absolutely stunning over here in summer. Hopefully we're going to Kalk Bay tomorrow so that should be lovely. Anyway, this post is just to make myself feel better for not having written in so long. The only exciting thing I have to say is that I finally registered for all my 2nd year courses today and I'm so looking forward to it. Here's what it looks like:

- Principles of Ecology and Evolution
- Life on Land: Animals (I'm skipping the plants one for now, botany and I aren't friends)
- Life in the Sea
- The Physical Environment
- Contemporary Urban Challenges
- Principles of Oceanography
- Bionumeracy (just stats really but I thought I'd make it sound more appealing)

All in all I'm VERY excited. I have high expectations of ecology and the physical environment so I hope I haven't just been building it up. Oceanography also should be challenging but interesting.

Here's to a fresh year in Cape Town and to finally studying what I'm passionate about after 13 years of foundation :)

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