Category Archives: Environment

To the unsung heroes of conservation

Sometimes, I feel like we do not recognize or celebrate the large group of people who work in the field of conservation. If you didn’t know better, you would think that only environmental organisations were solely responsible for the protection of plants and animals around the world. For me, I feel like this is unfair as there are so many categories of individuals who have done more for conservation then we give them credit for. So here is to the unsung heroes who quietly go on protecting the world and continually inspire people like me to keep fighting.

Scientists:

As an environmental scientist, I have great appreciation and respect for the lengths that many scientists go to collect data and record observations. Scientists have been working to protect nature for as long as science has been in existence. They spend their time stranded on remote islands for months on end, carry their instruments across great distances and live in extreme climates all in the name of conservation.

Many years ago, I remember helping my friend Leroy Gonsalves when he was collecting data for his phD thesis into microbat ecology. That evening we stood for four hours in a mosquito infested saltmarsh setting insect traps and observing the flight pattern of microbats. No amount of aeroguard could have kept us safe (believe me, we sprayed on many cans each).

Here is to the conservation scientists who are the forgotten foundations of conservation movements around the world.

Volunteers:

If you know me, you would know that I have a great affinity for volunteers. I think anyone who is willing to donate their time rather than their money for a cause they believe in is a true hero. Volunteers spend their time planting trees, cleaning beaches and parks, caring for injured animals and saving native seeds. They also take part in citizen-science projects which provide much needed resource for conservation research. Somewhere along the way, we seem to have forgotten that many of Australia’s most prominent environmental organisations were started by a group of passionate volunteers.

I find volunteers such as Malcolm Fisher and Frances O’Brien inspiring. The former has single-handedly helped coordinate the rehabilitation of Mermaid Pools in Manly. Almost every week he organises litter collection, weeding and planting in his favourite patch of bush. The same goes from Frances O’Brien who has been working with equally like-minded and passionate volunteers and staff to protect one of the last remnant bushlands in Lane Cove.

Here is to the volunteers, without whom the conservation movement would be non-existent.

Rangers:

Rangers working on the frontlines of conservation protecting endangered animals against armed poachers are often left out of the conservation narrative. These men and women are risking their lives to protect endangered animals. Indeed, it is estimated that around one hundred rangers die every year in places like Africa, South America and South East Asia. Whenever I hear about the death of a ranger while on duty it makes me remember that conservation goes far beyond sitting at a desk writing strategies and fighting over campaign budgets.

If you are unsure about just how far a ranger will go towards protecting an animal then do yourselves a favour and watch Virunga (2014). It is a documentary about a team of rangers who arm themselves to defend their mountain gorilla orphanage against an armed militia. The documentary is both frightening and moving and the love the rangers have for the baby gorillas will make you fall in love with them.

Here is to the rangers. The brave men and women who risk their lives daily to protect endangered animals.

Indigenous leaders and communities:

Indigenous leaders and communities are the original custodians and stewards. They have been protecting nature since the time of their own creation stories. Sadly, these days many indigenous communities find themselves at the frontlines of the impacts of environmental and climate change disasters. Many traditional lands are becoming unviable to live on, even for those communities that have the smallest of environmental footprints.

For indigenous communities, conservation is often embedded into  broader challenges of land and political rights. And these days, many of us tend to forget that the conservation, climate and environment movement (as we know it) began in indigenous communities as people of colour and minority groups stood up to large corporations and bad government policies. Take Dr. Vandana Shiva for example who is an activist who has been working with Indian farmers to protect their seed rights against big pharmaceutical companies. She has also been encouraging sustainable farming practices in an effort to help the farmers maintain the land.

Here is to the indigenous communities and leaders who tirelessly fight to protect sovereignty and nature.

Non-traditional conservationists:

I think it is time we accepted the fact that you do not have to be a ‘conservationist’ or a conservation organisation to protect nature. In fact, there are a lot of amazing people such as hikers, mountaineers, snowboarders and surfer who do great things for the environment. Even famous movie stars and the occasional politician. They reach out to their own community and often encourage them to become more environmentally conscious. The common thread that binds them is often their love for being out in nature. Take for example my two friends Michael Scheper and Bridget Canham. Michael is a software engineer who collects rubbish while hiking and Bridget is a nurse who cleans places close to where she is camping.

Here is to the non-traditional conservationists, those who protect the environment without regard.

Street fundraisers:

Many conservation organisations would not exist, let alone be able to save nature if it was not for street fundraisers. Without street fundraisers, conservation in Australia would be many years behind. For many of us, street fundraisers are a nuisance. However, next time you walk past them try and remember that they are under extreme pressure to meet a quota for sign-ups as more and more charities compete with each other. More importantly, remember that they may have been verbally abused during the day. And in some cases, physically abused.

Here is to the street fundraisers without whom funding for conservation projects would not exist.

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Frostpunk – surviving a virtual cold snap

Over the past few days, I have been watching Christopher Odd play Frostpunk. Developed by Warsaw based 11 bit studios, the game is essentially a city-building simulator. However, game’s story centres around a small group of people who are trying to survive a very severe coldsnap. As a captain of this band of survivors, your goal is to ensure that your city has adequate shelter, food, medical care and most importantly, warmth.

Frostpunk is a city building simulator where the ultimate goal is to survive a global glaciation. (11 bit studios, 2018)

Watching the gameplay, two underlying environmental themes strongly stood out for me. The first was climate change. Although the game was unclear at the start about the cause of the coldsnap, there were some hints along the way with mentions of ‘global glaciation’ the ‘north-pole’. There are two theories among climate scientists that could actually lead to an actual global coldsnap. The first is the shutting down of the great ocean conveyor belt that helps circulate ocean temperatures. And the second paradoxically, can be caused by the warming of the Poles. As the Poles warm, the polar vortex (area of cold trapped in the atmosphere) weakens and the changes in air pressure led to the trapped cold escaping south.

In fact, earlier this year, Europe experienced an unusual, week long coldsnap that brought snow from the North-pole to as far as the Mediterranean. A number of people died, including in Poland where temperatures plunged to as low as -20 degrees. To help the most vulnerable such as the elderly and the homeless cope with the weather, emergency shelters were built across many European cities. In Greece and Italy, many Syrian refugees living in shelters reportedly died of hypothermia and many had to be moved to heated tents to prevent further loss of lives. The popular belief was that the coldsnap was due to a weakening of the Arctic polar vortex.

Frostpunk’s virtual world (perhaps inspired by the European coldsnap) is very, very cold, with temperatures ranging from -40 to -70 degrees (even colder). The deep snow and ice makes the world predominantly white. Trees are hard to comeby and the ones that are found in the game have no leaves and lean with the wind. To survive, the limited amounts of timber, coal and steel need to be harvested and used to build houses, medical facilities, streets, steam heaters and mess halls.

The second environmental theme evident in Frostpunk is overpopulation. As the city grows, more streets are built, the houses get bigger. To maintain warmth, more coal needs to be consumed and the chimneys and steam towers subsequently spew more smog into the atmosphere. Difficult decisions need to be made to keep your population safe as resources continue to dwindle. Do you burn your precious coal to keep the medical tents warm for the night or do you use the coal to keep the kitchen going? Failing to do so leads to hunger, illness and even death.

As your city grows, so does the use of scarce resources such as coal. As temperatures drop, more coal is needed to keep warm resulting in smog. (11 bit studios, 2018)

Watching Frostpunk made me wonder what we would do if we were in a similar situation. How would city and government officials prioritise precious resources? And more importantly, what will our society look like if we were to experience a global, natural disaster? Perhaps we will have to introduce new ethical and moral norms to survive. Even if they are controversial by today’s standards such as passing laws to legalise child labour (like Christopher Odd).

The team at 11-bit studios has done a marvellous job in portraying a virtual world built on environmental themes such as climate change and overpopulation. Frostpunk was compelling, beautiful and challenging and it once again reinforces the brilliant and powerful medium for storytelling provided by video games. I hope 11 bit studios continues to explore more environmental issues through this platform.

How video games imagine the natural world

When I am not working to protect nature, being outside or reading books, I like to play video games. They offer a necessary escape from the constant knowledge and understanding of just how badly we have damaged – and continue to damage – the Earth’s environment. Throw in a daily dose of constant news cycles covering war, refugees, famine and geopolitical tensions, a half hour escape into a virtual world is refreshing if not mandatory. Now that I have a bit of time on my hands, I have decided to dive back into the virtual world of The Last of Us. Developed by Naughty Dog, the game follows two individuals who are navigating their way through a dystopian America that has been devastated by an infectious fungus. The pockets of humanity that survive do so behind dysfunctional quarantine zones, wrecked vehicles, crumbling buildings and armed militias.

Playing through this unique story made me realise how powerful videogames can be as a tool for helping people imagine a world where nature thrives. One of the most striking scenes in The Last of Us is when Ellie and Joel find a herd of giraffes in the middle of a crumbling city. They let their guard down and interact with one of the giraffes. And through this, so does the player.

Ellie interacts with a giraffe (Naughty Dog, 2013)

After the encounter, Ellie and Joel take a moment to look at the city. In amongst the crumbling, grey and depressing buildings and bridges are pockets of green trees, shrubs, grasses and vines. In reflecting over the entire game, I realised that the most tense, dangerous places were built environments where the violent infected were present. By contrast, the scenes that took place outdoors were serene, peaceful and safe.

Ellie and Joel take in the views after the encounter with the giraffe (Naughty Dog, 2013)

The Last of Us made me wonder what a city would look like if planners and government officials paid attention to the role of nature. A city that was built in such a way that wetlands, rivers, meadows and native forests were left untouched. One that took account of the movement of animals so that we could look out our office windows and see them. Sadly, nature is still treated as an afterthought when we build cities and suburbs. Even in the greenest cities around the world, the nature that exists is often tamed and manicured to conform to our needs.

The Last of Us is not the only game where the natural world has been so wonderfully imagined. I remember having similar experiences when playing through games like Horizon Zero Dawn (Guerrilla Games) and Uncharted: Lost Legacy (Naughty Dog). While each of the games told a different story, the underlying themes were the same. Both featured ancient civilisations that had fallen while nature slowly reclaimed the built environments.  

Nature reclaiming remnants of the human civilisation (Guerrilla Games, 2017)

As a conservationist, these games reinforce the message that nature will thrive without people. It is us who cannot thrive without nature. Playing these types of games is one of the reason why I like being outdoors so much. They help me imagine the possibilities of a world where nature is allowed to thrive. I think that these video games are a powerful tool for fueling the imagination and we should learn from them when it comes to telling stories about conservation.

A different game, a different re-imagining of nature in the absence of human interference (Naughty Dog, 2017)

Blockchain technology – what does it mean for NGOs

Over the past 12 months the cryptocurrency space has attracted a lot of attention. No doubt, you probably know someone who has invested money in bitcoin (or an alternative currency). Some have even managed to make a return on their investment. But the market volatility and the overnight millionaire stories have been a distraction from the technology that is driving cryptocurrencies. In the Internet of Things, this technology is referred to as blockchain. 

Blockchain technology is difficult to define. I have simply come to understand it as a unique code that can be attached to any unit of online transaction. As more transactions take place, more ‘blocks’ are added to the unit which allows it to grow into a chain. As blockchain operates on a peer to peer system, everyone who takes part in the online transaction owns a piece of the code.

This makes blockchain unhackable.

Blockchain proponents firmly believe that the technology will make online transactions rapid and highly transparent. It will allow also companies to  identify and iron out any inefficiencies within its supply chain. By doing so, they will be able to maximise profits, particularly, for those companies that have supply chains spread across the globe.

Sounds great for businesses. But what about NGOs? How will blockchain technology impact their daily operations?

For starters, blockchain has the potential to be a very powerful tool for NGOs. Because it’s ability to greatly increase the transparency of a supply chain, NGOs will be able to see exactly how a business operates and how it is structured. The increased transparency will mean that that companies who breach environmental and human rights standards will no longer be able to hide behind the shield of a complex supply chain (read here for a pilot program involving Tuna). People will have the power to trace the exact source of the products they are consuming, when and who picked it and if they were paid a fair wage. As blockchains are unhackable, companies will not be able to manipulate any information to cover up any unethical practices.

Blockchain technology will allow people to truly vote with their wallets.

The same goes for NGOs. Blockchain technology will cast the spotlight on how civil society actors operate. And this is something that has been flying under the radar.

The space where the technology will have the most impact is on the income stream of NGOs. Specifically, how donations from supporters are managed. In a blockchain world, people will be able to see how their donations are used. What percentage of the money is going towards the cause and what percentage is going towards administrative costs. There will be many people who will not care too much about this as administrative costs are a way of life for many NGOs. However, there will be people who will demand more efficient and effective use of their hard-earned money.

Perhaps, some supporters will decide to vote with their wallets and shift their support to alternate NGOs. There will be many NGOs who are not prepared for this level of transparency, even those with rigourous annual financial auditing and reporting.

The second disruption to NGOs comes from the ‘peer to peer’ aspect of blockchain technology. We already know that middle-men such as banks play a very limited role when it comes to trading cryptocurrencies (which is why many are unhappy). Just like banks, NGOs can be thought of as middle-men. They raise funds from the public and direct them to a worthy cause. However, in a blockchain world, supporters will be able to identify what is needed on the ground to make a project successful such as critical equipment, bypass the NGO, purchase the equipment and donate it instead.

For all its potential impacts to the NGO sector and online trading in general, there are a number of limitations to the widespread use of blockchain technology. Firstly, all the actors in the supply-chain will need to be on board with blockchain. If one actor along the supply-chain does not embrace the technology, then the chain will break. Secondly, as with all technology, those who cannot afford it will be left behind.

For those who can afford it, there is an argument that they will not have the time to go through the verification processes to ensure that their donations (and money in general) are being used appropriately. I disagree with this as I think that a tool will be built that will allow people to review their online transactions easily.

Blockchain technology offers an interesting opportunity to reimagine online transactions. It has the potential to significantly redefine how organisations operate by increasing the degree of accountability and transparency and making the information readily available to people. I do not think that many NGOs are ready for this level of scrutiny. 

The Inner Life of Animals – Book Review

Peter Wohlleben’s The Inner Life of Animals is a book that delves into the examination of animal behavior and emotions. The author’s foray into the topic is simple – that if animals and humans are related on an evolutionary tree – then animals must also experience sadness, anger, grief, infidelity, happiness and greed. And just like humans, Peter believes that animals are individuals and therefore uniquely different.

The tone of the book is set in the introduction. Peter’s aim is to write in a manner that is simple to understand, free from scientific jargon so that the book is accessible to as wide an audience as possible.

To substantiate his claims, Peter refers to scientific research such as those emerging from Penn State University on pain receptors in fish and research from the University of Seville into fish brain to name a few. Ultimately though, he draws much heavily from his own observations of animal behavior from his years of working as a forester in Hümmel, Germany where he lives on a farm surrounded by dogs, goats and horses. 

He talks about wild boar that have learnt to outsmart annual human hunters, to foxes playing dead to catch crows to Eurasian jays stealing food from other birds and squirrels eating baby birds in winter. His love for all living things knows no bounds as he even manages to make the life of a forest tick and the humble slime mould more palatable.

The Inner Life of Animals by Peter Wohlleben (2017)

In many ways, the author manages to achieve his goal of writing a book for the masses. The chapters are short (some are only two pages long) and the book is very easy to read. Peter’s continued use of open ended questions invites the reader to continue shifting through the pages. He leaves enough breadcrumbs to make people stop and think back to their own interaction with animals (both domestic and wild) without forcing his ideas. In trying to explain the uniqueness of each animal, Peter also manages to inject each of his subjects with a healthy dose of personality.

Yet herein lies the problem with this book. Although some chapters are short, his examinations into each topic often comes across as vague. This has led to his book being criticised by some readers for anthropomorphising animals. I think that a deeper and more rigorous examination of the science would have helped alleviate some of this. In fact, I think that the different types of science should have been the basis of the book with his own observations being used to validate the research. Regardless, I think the book is a fine addition to any bookshelf and is a great compendium piece to his other book, the Hidden Life of Trees.

Clean Up Australia Day – time to life our game

Founded in 1989 by Ian Kiernan, Clean Up Australia Day has become an important date in many of our calendars. The idea behind the day is simple. It is about getting together with your family and friends to help collect litter from local parks, beaches, streets, creeks and rivers. In twenty-nine years, thousands of tonnes of litter have been collected and over thirty million volunteer hours have gone into making Australia beautiful.

Yesterday, my friends and I rolled up our sleeves to help clean up parts of the Cooks River. Starting from Steel Park in Marrickville, we worked our way east along the banks towards Princess Highway (and back). This is a park where all of us enjoy running, biking, walking and picnicking and so we had a sense of responsibility and ownership for making this space safe and healthy.

Armed with gloves and Clean Up Australia Day bags we spent over four hours collecting cigarette butts, plastic bottles, cans, paper, plastic straws, coffee cups and lids and balloons. We even managed to fish out larger items from the river foreshore and mangroves such as share bikes, car tyres, computer cases and shopping trolleys.

Clean Up Australia Day. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2018)
A pile of all the rubbish we collected during our Clean Up Australia Day walk. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2018)

Even though it was smelly, dirty and tough work, the smiles on my friends’ faces said it all. It was a lot of fun and we all felt like we had accomplished something great.

The sad part is though that if we were to go back to Steel Park next week and walk our cleaning route, no doubt it will once again be littered and the share bikes and shopping trolleys will be back in the water. It never stops to amaze me just how careless people are about a shared space and how they are happy to turn a blind eye to the harm litter causes to the environment and wildlife.

And I fear that China’s ban on accepting recycled waste from countries such as Australia will only make the situation worse. At least in the short-term until local councils and the State/Territory governments get some concrete policies in place. Like the newly introduced ‘cash for cans’ program in NSW. In fact, I think that plastic cans and bottles were uncommon on our cleaning route compared to previous years. All the more reason for us to lift our game when it comes to reducing waste. Just like Clean Up Australia Day, every little bit will count.

Some ways I think we can minimise our litter include simple things such as:

  • Take a reusable bag when you go shopping
  • Refuse plastic straws with your drinks
  • Use a keep cup for your take away coffee
  • Put the litter in the actual (and correct) bin
  • Treat everyday as Clean Up Australia Day
  • Buy things that have been upcycled from old items

Queenstown and Milford Sound – low cost adventures

The South Island of New Zealand has some of the most breathtaking landscapes which will continues to surprise at every turn of the road. Below are some of our favourites from our short stay in Queenstown and Milford Sound in late November (2017). They are nature focused, a little off the beaten track, family friendly and often free.

  1. Milford Sound – Kayak and Hike ($)

This is the definite highlight of our trip despite the drizzly, dreary weather. Milford Sound is simply astounding despite getting more rain per year than the Amazon rainforest. The Sound is connected to the ocean which makes it a tidal waterbody where the salt water sits on the bottom and the freshwater from snow and glacial melt sit on top. The water was still (and cold) and we were surrounded by lush, green mountains. Kayaking the Sound almost felt like we were exploring an unknown part of the world. After our kayak, we hiked the last five kilometers of the Milford Sound track and our guide showed us some edible native plants, told us about the creeks and rivers that flow into the Sound and shared with us some stories about the natural features.

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Kayaking the Milford Sound. On the way back, the tide was going out and the bottom of the Sound was becoming more visible. Image credit: Madeline Rhodes (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Walker Creek

A popular lookout on Highway 94 which was an unplanned stop for us as we drove from Queenstown to Milford Sound. When we stopped here, the lupins were in full bloom and created an understorey hued with purple, pink, yellow and lilac flowers. The nearby creek and the distant snow covered mountains add to the magic of Walker Creek. If you happen to be in driving through in late November, we highly recommend this little detour.

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Lupins blooming at Walker Creek. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Queenstown – Hill Loop Hike

This is a popular hike that starts at the edge of town. Be well prepared if you are planning on tackling this as it is a tough, three to four hour climb to the top of the hill depending on your fitness level. As the trail slowly climbs up the hill, we passed through groves of pine trees which provide much needed shade. The information boards provided us with insights into the history of Queenstown and ideal stops for a much needed break. After ascending the canopy, we found ourselves in the sun and surrounded by shrubs with small yellow flowers which added the smell of nectarines to the air. There are two lookouts on this walk. The first is by a sculpture called ‘basket of dreams’ and the second is at the summit of the hill. The summit is called Te Tapunui – the mountain of intense sacredness to the locals. From here, we had panoramic views of Lake Wakatipu, the Remarkables Mountain Range, Cecil Peak and Queenstown below.

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View from the top of Queenstown Hill. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Monkey Creek

This stop is just before Homer Tunnel. Monkey Creek offers a great opportunity to have a quick break from the driving. We stopped here on our drive back to Queenstown. It was morning when we stopped and we found that the area cool and covered in morning dew. The sun was peeking out from behind the snow covered mountains. If you want, you can fill up your water bottle using the glacial fed spring that runs nearby. Monkey Creek was a great place for us to stop, until our car was attacked by a Kea.

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Cold, freshwater stream at Monkey Creek. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – Homer Tunnel

A popular place to stop for photos before driving through Homer Tunnel to get to Milford Sound. Even though it was summer, there was still snow on some of the mountains in the Fiordlands. When we stopped here, the Kea (the world’s only mountain parrot and New Zealand’s bird of the year for 2017) were keeping tourists entertained with their cheeky antics. Driving through the tunnel itself was a new experience. It seemed like we were entering a different world and indeed, the view on the other side was simply stunning.

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Snow capped mountains next to Homer Tunnel. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)
  1. Fiordland National Park – The Chasm

This stop is located about halfway between Milford Sound and Homer Tunnel. From the car park, The Chasm is about a 20 minute return walk that takes you through a lush, green forest. As you get closer, you will be able to hear the waterfall that makes up this natural feature. The Chasm is a result of hundreds of years of water rushing through a narrow rocky valley. The force of the water has created waterfall and carved out rocks into circular patterns.

  1. Queenstown – walk to Frankton

Another easily accessible walk that can be done from the town centre. We took a shortcut when we did this walk and did not go along the Botanical Gardens which sits on a small peninsula on Lake Wakatipu. This walk is flat and relatively easy and took us roughly two and a half hours to complete. The entire time the lake, the small beaches, the amazing homes built to capture the vista and the Remarkables Mountain Ranges in the background kept us occupied. We finished our walk at the Remarkables Primary School which will make lots of people jealous of the students who study there.

  1. Queenstown – Kiwi Birdlife Park ($)

The Kiwi Birdlife Park is tucked away next to the start of the gondola ride. This is the second time I have visited the Park and it is a recommended stop for nature and conservation enthusiasts. The Park has been operating since 1986 and is located on an old tip that has now become a 5 acre sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s unique and threatened birdlife. If you time your visit, you will be able to see their bird and conservation show as well as the feeding of the kiwi. We were there for the conservation show and were amazed to learn just how destructive the iconic Australian possums have been to the local wildlife. Plus, the Morepork owls are damn cute!

  1. Queenstown – Ben Lomond Saddle to Summit Hike

Another very popular hike located very close to the city centre. There are two ways to tackle this hike. For the adventurous, you can hike the entire way up starting next to the gondola station. The walk to the summit is challenging and you need to be well prepared (water, food and weather appropriate gear) before you tackle this. For the less adventurous, you can take the gondola up to the Skyline and start the walk from there. This is the option we took as we were still tired from our hike up to the summit of Te Tapunui. Parts of the hike were shaded by pine trees but soon we were exposed to the sun and walking along hillsides that were being revegetated. Sadly, we did not complete this walk as we were not adequately prepared. Maybe next time.

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Vegetation restoration work being done along Ben Lomond. Image credit: Hasmukh Chand (2017)