TIME Environment

Crimson on White: Hunting the Polar Bear

The images of a polar-bear hunt will be hard to view, but life in Canada's impoverished Inuit communities is just as hard

Ed Ou spent four months in 2013 photographing Inuit communities in Nunavut, the northernmost territory of Canada. Here, many are cut off from the rest of the country — and food and supplies are brought in at an extremely high cost by land and sea. Because of this, the Inuit often depend on hunting for food. Environmental groups regularly criticize them for hunting species claimed to have dwindling populations such as narwhal, belugas, seals and polar bears. In the U.S., Washington has pushed for a global ban on the commercial trade of polar-bear fur, meat and body parts. But the Canadian government opposes this on behalf of the Inuit.

Editor’s note: Given the isolation of the communities in the north of Canada, Ou helped offset the high costs of embedding himself with the Inuit community and contributed money for gas, groceries, heating, Internet and other expenses.


Ed Ou’s pictures are hard to look at. A polar bear emerges from the water, drenched in blood, turning its white fur crimson. Then the dead bear sprawled on the rocks, legs spread and jaw open, as if it were simply caught by surprise, even while the hunters begin the process of butchering the carcass. Finally the bear’s pelt, cleansed of blood, drying in a bathtub.

Polar bears have become the living symbols of climate change, with reason — as the planet warms, the sea ice that the bears use as hunting platforms is melting, putting the animals at risk. The idea of hunting and killing an animal that is listed as an endangered species, one that’s already under pressure from climate change, seems wrong on its face, like crimson blood on white fur.

But look closer at those pictures. Ou, a Canadian, traveled to the Inuit homeland of Nunavut in the far north not to document a polar-bear hunt, but to explore a part of his own country that had always seemed foreign. In remote towns like Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Ou found a culture grappling with extreme poverty, substance abuse and a legacy of mistreatment from the Canadian government, which for decades all but stole Inuit children from their parents, sending them to residential schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language or practice their own culture. The last residential schools were only shut down in 1996, but the effects are still being felt among the Canadian Inuit whom Ou went to document, compounded by the extreme isolation of the Arctic and the painful transition from a traditional subsistence-hunting culture to a sedentary way of life. “Trauma has been passed down from one generation to the next,” says Ou. “Alcoholism is high, drug abuse is high, suicide rates are high. It’s a very traumatized place.”

In his photos, Ou shows Inuit like Kelly Amaujaq Fraser, a young woman who was sexually abused as a young girl, and whose father killed himself when she was just a teenager. Ou shows a near-empty refrigerator, the product of a place where unemployment is in the double digits, and where a simple carton of milk can cost more than $10. Given those bleak conditions, it’s not surprising that the Inuit would hunt polar bears, as their ancestors did before them — albeit not with high-powered rifles. A single polar-bear pelt can fetch more than $10,000 on the open market, and the meat can feed dozens of hungry people. As distasteful as the sight of a butchered polar bear might be to outsiders, to the Inuit, it’s a matter of survival — and of culture. “They feel their ability to hunt is one of their last sources of subsistence,” says Ou. “Before you judge them, you have to understand the socioeconomic factors driving this.”

That doesn’t mean it’s right to allow polar-bear hunts to continue. It’s unclear just how many polar bears are left, and the continued effects of climate change will almost certainly drive the species closer to extinction if nothing is done to save them. But it doesn’t seem that the burden should fall on the Inuit, who’ve already paid such a high price. “They ask, ‘Why do we have to pay the highest price for global warming when we contribute the least?’” says Ou. Justice is something else that’s endangered in the Arctic.


Ed Ou is a photographer with Reportage by Getty Images

TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass Image courtesy of Robert Clark

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

TIME Environment

The World’s Most Endangered Freshwater Turtles and Tortoises

Slow and steady may win the race, but on World Turtle Day, these animals are struggling to survive

Is there anything more harmless than a turtle? (Unless, I suppose, you’re a nice, leafy vegetable.) Turtles and tortoises—the main difference is that turtles dwell at least partially in water, while tortoises live exclusively on land—are slow-moving, peaceful animals whose main form of protection from the outside world is a hard shell. Not for nothing do we have the fable of the slow and steady tortoise winning the race. Turtles have existed in some form for more than 220 million years, outlasting their early contemporaries the dinosaurs. Long-lived turtles and tortoises are symbols of perseverance in the natural world.

Unfortunately, the rules of the race are changing. Turtles and tortoises are among the world’s most endangered vertebrates, with about half their more than 300 species threatened with extinction. Only primates—human beings expected—are at greater risk of being wiped off the planet. The threats are many. The animals are collected by traders, eaten in the wild and in fine restaurants, used as pets or for traditional medicine, and sometimes simply killed. The very adaptations that once made them so successful—their long adult life span and delayed sexual maturity—has made them vulnerable as the world around them changed, mostly thanks to human beings. Climate change threatens them as well—a recent study found that as the water warms, more and more sea turtle hatchlings are being born male, which could eventually make it impossible for the species to reproduce successfully.

A 2011 report from the Turtle Conservation Coalition makes it clear: we need to act now if we’re to save the turtles and the tortoises:

We are facing a turtle survival crisis unprecedented in its severity and risk. Humans are the problem, and must therefore also be the solution. Without concerted conservation action, many of the world’s turtles and tortoises will become extinct within the next few decades. It is now up to us to prevent the loss of these remarkable, unique jewels of evolution.

As we mark World Turtle Day on May 23, spare a thought for these armored but endangered creatures.

TIME whaling

Japanese Whaling Ban Won’t End the Whale Wars

A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters.
A photo released in 2008 shows a whale being dragged on board a Japanese ship after being harpooned in Antarctic waters AFP/Getty Images

The International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan will no longer be permitted to hunt whales in the southern Pacific under the dubious pretense of scientific research. But the battle over whaling isn't over

The science in Japan’s “scientific” whaling program has always been a little, well, questionable. Commercial whaling is essentially illegal for all nations that remain part of the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Norway and Iceland, two countries that continue to whale, get around the IWC’s 1986 moratorium by simply rejecting it. Japan, which is still a member of the IWC, has sidestepped the moratorium for years through subtler means, establishing a research program that allows the country to kill 3,600 minke whales since the studies began in 2005. Exactly what scientific information Japan’s whaling fleet is gathering through legal slaughter has never been clear — though what’s not in doubt is the destination of the whale meat taken in the hunt, most of which ends up in the handful of restaurants and markets in Japan that still serve whale.

If a scientific whaling program sounds like an oxymoron to you, the U.N.’s International Court of Justice (ICJ) apparently agrees. On Monday the ICJ ordered a temporary halt to Japan’s Antarctic whaling program, ruling that the country had failed to provide any scientific justification for its whaling. “The court concludes that the special permits granted Japan for the killing, taking and treating of whales … are not ‘for purposes of scientific research,’” presiding judge Peter Tomka said, reading the court’s ruling on a case originally brought in 2010 by the government of Australia. The program, he said, “cannot be justified.”

The Japanese government obviously disagrees with the decision, but Foreign Ministry spokesperson Noriyuki Shikata told reporters that Japan would “abide by the ruling of the court” — meaning that for now, at least, Japan’s annual Antarctic hunt is off. For environmentalists who have fought Japanese whaling for years in international courts, the court of public opinion and sometimes on the oceans itself — as seen in the reality-TV show Whale WarsMonday’s decision was a moment to celebrate. Former Australian Environment Minister Peter Garrett, who originally launched the suit when his government was still in office, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. that Antarctic waters would become a true sanctuary for whales:

I’m absolutely over the moon, for all those people who wanted to see the charade of scientific whaling cease once and for all. I think [this] means without any shadow of a doubt that we won’t see the taking of whales in the Southern Ocean in the name of science.

The court’s ruling doesn’t mean that all Japanese whaling will immediately cease. The country has a smaller scientific program in the northern Pacific that will likely now be challenged under the same grounds. The court also left the door open for Japan to resume scientific whaling if it can redesign its program, as Tokyo has claimed it needs data to monitor the impact of whales on its fishing industry. And Japan has always held out the possibility that it could simply withdraw from the IWC altogether, so that it would no longer be bound by the commission’s decisions.

Whaling has never been just about whaling in Japan. Though some coastal towns in Japan have hunted whales for centuries — I visited one such village, Oshika, back in 2005 — Japan only became a whaling power in the wake of World War II, when some of its decommissioned naval vessels were converted into whaling ships and when U.S. occupation officials encouraged the harvesting of whales as a cheap form of protein. The drive to keep whaling today has much less to do with a taste for whale meat — which has long since waned — than it does with the government’s worry that any limit on whaling could set a precedent for Japan’s far more vital commercial fishing industry. Tokyo is right to worry — bluefin tuna, which can fetch tens of thousands of dollars at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, are highly endangered as well.

There’s also the reality that hunting is just one of many threats that whales face today. Whales can be killed accidentally as bycatch, poisoned by pollution, even driven crazy by noise from ships. And like nearly every other species on the planet, whales are threatened by climate change — especially species like bowhead and beluga that live in the rapidly warming Arctic. But on a day when environmentalists are still reeling from the dire predictions in the latest U.N. climate change report, today’s ruling is a rare glimmer of good news.

TIME Environment

U.N. Court Orders Japan to Stop Whale Hunt

The United Nations' International Court of Justice has ruled that Japan must stop its controversial annual whale hunt, rejecting the country's claims that it targets the sea creatures for scientific purposes

The U.N.’s International Court of Justice ruled Monday that Japan must end its annual whale hunt, despite the country’s claims that the whales are hunted for scientific purposes.

While most of the rest of the world refrains from hunting the often-endangered sea creatures, Japan justifies its annual hunt known as JARPA II with the argument that the whales are hunted for scientific research. Whale meat, however, is commonly eaten in Japan.

But the U.N. called Japan’s bluff this week. The court found that scientific research “cannot depend simply on that State’s perception” and ordered Japan to “revoke any extant authorization, permit or license to kill, take or treat whales in relation to JARPA II, and refrain from granting any further permits.”

Environmental activists have been fighting to end the whale hunt for years, some going so far as to stalk the Japanese fleets to interrupt their hunt. Australia brought the challenge to the International Court of Justice, which led to Monday’s ruling.

TIME endangered species

Save the Polar Bear—Today Especially

One of the planet's most charismatic creatures is being driven into the sea—literally. But there are ways to save the species

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It’s International Polar Bear today, so if you live within shouting distance of the Arctic Circle, hug the closest polar bear. (Actually do not do that—an adult male polar bear is nearly half a ton of hungry predator and they are extremely dangerous.) Still, the beasts deserve a little tenderness.

The polar bear is now considered a vulnerable species, under threat from the loss of its sea ice habitat. To draw attention to their plight, Google is now offering glimpses of polar bears in their native environment, via its Street View program. Cameras in Cape Churchill and Wapusk National Park in northern Manitoba captured images of polar bears doing their polar bear thing during an annual gathering in the region in October and November. You can see pictures of polar bears sparring, and a mother nursing her cub, all against the flat white and brown background of the Arctic. The footage was taken with Google’s Street View Trekker—15 cameras mounted on a backpack—from aboard the decidedly off-road vehicles known tundra buggies

“It provides an opportunity to document what it looks like now, the potential to document what it looks like next year, five years from now, 10 years from now,” Krista Wright, executive director of the conservation group Polar Bear International, told the CBC.

Many scientists and conservationists fear that there may be far fewer polar bears in even that single-decade time frame, thanks chiefly to the effects of climate change. Polar bears use sea ice as a platform to reach their prey, chiefly seals, and summer sea ice is melting fast. Despite a rebound from a record low in 2012, the extent of Arctic sea ice is generally trending downwards, often dramatically. As the ice vanishes, polar bears are forced to swim longer and longer distances to reach those hunting platforms, which is taking a toll on the species.

Exactly how vulnerable polar bears are is not clear, partially due to the fact that they live in such a forbidding climate and are themselves not exactly friendly. That makes getting a proper count challenging. (Google is helping with this as well: researchers are using Google Earth satellite images to count polar bears from space.) Still, most experts agree that there are about 20,000 to 25,000 polar bears alive, scattered around the Arctic—a perilously small number though some subpopulations have rebounded, in part because of restrictions on hunting. There’s also evidence that polar bears are changing their dietary habits, possibly to adapt to the loss of sea ice, shifting from seals to snow geese, caribou and berries. But polar bear subpopulations are still trending downward in many areas of the Arctic, and if climate change keeps vaporizing sea ice, the pressure on the bears will only increase.

Of course, that’s true of many, many species; in fact, a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change just found that global warming dramatically increases the risk of extinction for amphibians and reptiles. Yet how many other species are so popular that Coca-Cola will change the color of its cans just to draw attention to their plight, as the company did in 2011? Last year a policy paper in Conservation Letters laid out an ambitious plan to save polar bears in the face of global warming, even going so far as to feed starving bears directly—an amazing thought, given the obvious risks. Why go to such great lengths to save the polar bear, and not, say Mexico’s critically endangered pygmy raccoon?

The truth is there’s no perfect reason, but it’s the sort of triage we’ll be doing more and more often in the future as we face down the sixth extinction. (For more on that, check out Elizabeth Kolbert’s excellent new book on the subject.) Which brings us back to Google Street View and those candid shots of polar bears in their element. There is something majestic about a polar bear against the backdrop of the Arctic, something wild and worth saving. And the polar bear dearly needs saving.

TIME endangered species

Prince Charles and Prince William Condemn Wildlife Trafficking

Royals urge world to join fight against illegal trade in endangered wildlife

Every day, nearly 100 elephants in Africa meet a bloody end at the hands of poachers. The number of African elephants has fallen by 76% since 1980. They aren’t alone: poachers have thinned the once vast herds of black rhinos in Africa, leaving just 5,000 alive in the wild. These animals are being hunted to death.

But that’s only where poaching starts. Wildlife trafficking has become a global criminal enterprise, worth up to $10 billion a year and fed by the growing demand in Asia for ivory products. Money from the illegal wildlife trade goes to gangs of insurgents like al-Shabab, the al-Qaeda-backed Somali terrorist group responsible for last year’s devastating attack on a Nairobi shopping mall. Wildlife trafficking is no longer just a niche problem for conservationists. It’s something that threatens us all.

That’s why it’s so heartening to see world leaders beginning to get serious about the issue. Later this week British Prime Minister David Cameron will be hosting the highest-level conference ever on the illegal wildlife trade. In advance of the meeting, Prince Charles and Prince William took the time to record a video message urging the world to support organizations fighting to end wildlife trafficking:

TIME China

Exposed: The World’s ‘Biggest’ Slaughter of an Endangered Species

Whale shark fins are dried and stacked for export. This processing plant processes over 600 whale sharks per year.Puqi, Zhejiang Province, China. Photo: WildLife Risk  (HAND OUT PHOTO ONLY, NO ARCHIVES )
Whale-shark fins are dried and stacked for export at a processing plant in Puqi, Zhejiang province, China Hilton/Hofford for WildLifeRisk

Scared of sharks? The feeling is mutual

Conservationists in Hong Kong have released photos of a massive shark slaughterhouse in Puqi, in the Chinese province of Zhejiang, calling it the “biggest” killing floor for whale sharks on the planet.

Investigators for WildLifeRisk spent two years staking out the factory, which was under the perfectly inscrutable front name: China Wenzhou Yueqing Marine Organisms Health Protection Foods Co. Ltd. The conservation group said that the factory “appears to be the world’s largest wholesale slaughter of an internationally protected endangered species.”

Inside the plant they found carcasses of endangered sharks skinned, de-finned and processed into oil. The group says the annual haul included protected species such as great whites and basking sharks as well as more than 600 endangered whale sharks — docile giants that can grow up to 40 ft. in length.

WildLifeRisk captured undercover footage of the killing floor for those with strong stomachs.

[South China Morning Post]

TIME

Lions Are Almost Extinct In West Africa

Only 400 left

Researchers have found only 400 lions in West Africa and only 250 of those are of mature mating age, raising alarm that the West African lion may soon go extinct.

Panthera, a non-profit research organization, spent six years tracking lions in 17 West African countries, from Senegal to Nigeria, BBC reports. In 2005, West African lions were spotted in 21 different sites, but the Panthera survey suggests that lions now live in only four of those areas. According to the report published in PLOS One, West African lions now roam only 1.1% of their natural range. Panthera is calling for West African lions to be listed as critically endangered, since they have a unique genetic makeup not found in other lions living in captivity.

Most of the parks surveyed by Panthera were “paper parks,” with no budget or staff to actually patrol the grounds and protect the wildlife. Most of the West African countries in question lack the funds for serious conservation efforts, BBC reports.

“We are talking about some of the poorest counties in the world—many governments have bigger problems than protecting lions,” said Philipp Henschel, co-author of the report.

[BBC]

TIME endangered species

The Dingo Didn’t Eat Your Tasmanian Devil

Dingoes are blamed for driving the Tasmanian tiger to extinction
Dingoes are blamed for hunting the Tasmanian tiger to extinction. But humans bear the blame Jason Edwards via Getty Images

Dingoes were long blamed form hunting the Tasmanian devils off Australia. But a new study shows that human beings should get more of the blame

Dingoes get a bad rap. A free-ranging dog found in chiefly in Australia, dingoes have been blamed for killing sheep and hunting the Tasmanian tigers and devils to death. Oh, and snatching the occasional baby, which you might remember from that classic Elaine Benes line on Seinfeld.

But there’s good news for the Canis lupus dingo: it’s been cleared of one of those charges. Dingoes, which came to the Australian mainland from Southeast Asia over 4,000 years ago, were long believed to be primarily responsible for the extinction of the marsupial thylacine, also known as the Tasmanian tiger, as well as the elimination of a different marsupial, known as the Tasmanian devil, on the Australian mainland. Dingoes are voracious hunters, closer to a wolf than a dog, but while they established themselves through much of Australia, they never reached the island of Tasmania, which is now the only place that the devils can be found. That fact was enough for many experts to put much of the blame for the extirpations on the dingo’s shoulders.

(MORE: How Human Activity — and Extinctions — Are Driving Evolution)

But a new study by Australian scientists has found that it’s humans, not the dingoes, that are primarily at fault. The researchers created a mathematical model of the interactions among predators (including dingoes and human beings, who came to the Australian continent 50,000 years ago) and their prey, in prehistoric Australia. The model included climate variables and possible changes in vegetation, both of which could affect animal populations. They then experimented with the models to see which factor played the biggest role in the losses of the Tasmanian devil and tiger.

It shouldn’t be surprising that human beings took the rap. When prehistoric humans first came to Australia, the continent was full of unimaginably large animals: the rhino-sized Diprotodon, massive kangaroos, marsupial lions that weighed more than 200 lbs. (91 kg). And once they got there, humans proceeded to hunt those animals to death, part of a global event known as the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction. That “overkill,” as Jared Diamond has called it, likely wiped Australia clean of megafauna. And while humans—and dingoes—would have hunted the Tasmanian tiger and devil, the model found that rapid human population increase would have reduced the animals’ prey, essentially displacing them. The dingo, in turn, took the Tasmanian tiger and devils ecological role as a top predator and scavenger.

Far from being a scourge, big carnivores like the dingo play a vital role in ecosystems—and their loss can have major impacts on animals and plants below them in the food chain, as a Science paper published this week showed. Here’s my colleague Veronique Greenwood:

In Australia, areas in which dingoes are suppressed experience increased predation by red foxes, which feast on endangered creatures like the dusky hopping mouse. One study surveyed in the new paper showed that the mouse’s numbers were 40 times higher in areas where dingoes roamed—or at least in the two dingo-rich areas surveyed by the researchers.

So give the dingo a break. They’re doing more good than harm ecologically—which is more than you can say about most human beings. Now about that Seinfeld episode

(MORE: Why it’s Good (For Someone Else) to Get Eaten By a Lion)

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