Thursday, June 13, 2013

Riding Manatees, or, living with Endangered Species (Sea Turtles: Part II)

So, this post was supposed to be about sea turtles until I became completely upset about that fact that people will not, apparently against all better judgement, STOP RIDING MANATEES! They won't stop and it is upsetting me horribly.

In February of this year, The Daily Show broke the story that Tea Party members in Florida were fighting for the right for people to ride manatees after Anna Gutierrez was caught in photos trying to ride one in Fort De Soto Park. According to Tea Partiers, everyone should be able to ride manatees; it's our God-given constitutional right and no one should interfere (make of that what you will and watch this ridiculous video which may sway you that it's a stupid argument).

When I heard the story about Gutierrez in October, I was really confused. Manatees are not an animal that I see and think, "that must be an awesome thing to ride." In fact, they look proficient at very few things, including swimming, and seem to only have floating down as a form of mobility. In truth, I'm as confused about manatee riding as I am about the sea turtle riding I wrote about in my last post. But, people keep doing it. Some people are even belly flopping onto manatees from piers. Why? Because it's Florida and seriously, craziness shakes south (Think Texas or Antarctica)

Does this look like something you would want to ride? Take note of the tiny appendages and the obvious delight it takes in floating. 

My rage at manatee-riding fits nicely into the post I already had planned about living with endangered species, a topic I've been thinking about quite a bit lately. Alison Reiser's book examines the debate over ways to save the green turtle. According to Reiser, Archie Carr and other activists and scientists believed that the best way to save the species was to have it placed on the endangered species list, so that it would be illegal to sell, trade, transport, or purchase pieces of the organism in the United States. While Carr knew that other steps had to be taken to ensure the survival of the species, especially protecting nesting grounds, he felt that stopping all trade in the turtles was the best path. The other alternative, farming green turtles to supply the market with sustainable products from the species (including meat and shell) was deemed too risky, mostly because of the difficulties with getting these organisms to breed in captivity.  Reiser's work raises some questions about this debate (farming versus protecting as endangered species) but, in my opinion, farming remains an unconvincing avenue because of the difficulty of breeding green turtles in captivity. If you always have to collect turtle eggs from wild sources, are you really going to be able to grow the species in any appreciably manner? There's room for debate, but that's not necessarily what this post is about.

Instead, after reading Reiser's work I came across the manatee business listed above, and then a couple news articles that really made me think about the impact of endangered species conservation on human-nature interactions.

There are a lot of reasons that an animal might become threatened or endangered. In the case of the green turtle, it's tastiness (we'll call this over harvesting). Turtles, bison, passenger pigeons, many many other animals have been over harvested as a commodity, be it food or fashion.

Recently, sea turtles have been back in the news. In early June, Jairo Maro Sandoval was murdered by drug traffickers in Costa Rica while patrolling a beach for sea turtle nests. Maro Sandoval had previously called attention to the link between drug trafficking and turtle endangerment- the same beaches used by nesting turtles are also used by drug smugglers. In addition, it seems that many drug cartels with access to these beaches are poaching turtle eggs to trade for drugs. The ivory trade has been linked to larger networks of terrorism, illegal firearms dealing, drug and human trafficking. Last year, six Kenyan Wildlife Services Rangers were killed by poachers for trying to protect endangered elephants and rhinos.

The intersection of poaching and other illegal activities has caused a crisis, not just for endangered species, but also in the environmentalist community- where deaths of conservationists is on the rise. Below is the chart for the number of environmentalists killed in 2002-11 (see how they compiled the data here).  Animals are still over harvested for commodities. The combination of violent drug cartels, illegal poaching, and a concerned international community of environmentalists has caused a rise in violence.

Another route to extinction is human encroachment upon habitat. In some ways, this is probably the most overarching of the problems. The manatee falls into this category- as do many species, especially plants, that occupy a niche ecosystem and don't evolve quickly enough to combat human interaction, introduced species, or other results of human habitation. Manatees can't get away from boats and they have a very limited range in which to feed and breed- a range that is now inhabited by the dreaded power boat and screaming children. Hence, decline.

The Florida panther is an animal that struggles to co-exist with humans. Most of the deaths of panthers can be linked to automobile accidents. As of April 29, 2013, 6 panthers have been fatally struck by cars in Florida, and the number will rise throughout the summer season. Efforts have been made to build wildlife corridors that will allow panthers to range broadly without encountering humans (or where humans will know to be cautious) but more corridors are needed. The car is not the only danger for Florida wildlife. A highly endangered key deer was found last week on Big Pine Key with its head caught in a Doritos bag. Luckily, a sheriff's deputy saw the deer and removed the bag, but the detritus of human habitation directly effects animals. No need to bellyflop on the deer (although I'm sure someone in Florida has tried- see above statement about insanity shaking south).

But there is another form of extinction that links these two- endangerment due to human intended decline. Let's face it- when we think about extinction, we'd rather think about these other two forms- humans needed food or they just didn't know better. But there is a more pointed form of animal extinction and it usually involves predators that feed on animals we find tasty. Mark Barrow has written about the systematic killing of raptors by Europeans because they were considered unwanted pests that killed the beautiful and yummy birds we wanted around. Other animals, including wolves, big cats, and pennipeds (seals, sea lions, etc) have all been targeted by human ranchers, fishermen, and farmers as nuisance predators that literally take food out of human mouths.

It's easy to think that humans might have outgrown this ridiculous stage of over killing large predators. It makes sense in some respect that a rancher would protect their cattle by shooting a single predator that has found a tasty hunting ground, but merely killing animals because they are of a predatory species doesn't make much sense. We understand, right, how important these creatures are to a healthy ecosystem? But it's clear that humanity hasn't outgrown the inclination to kill "pest" species and this has made the news lately.

In an interesting article in the New York Times Magazine entitled "Who Would Kill a Monk Seal" Jon Mooallem looks at a spat of recent monk seal killings in Hawaii. In a previous post, I talked about the Hawaiian monk seal and the lengths that are being taken to preserve this species. Since 2009, several monk seals have been viciously killed- beaten to death or shot. But no one has come forward regarding these killings, even though there is a sizable reward involved. But why would someone kill a monk seal?

Protection of the monk seal has changed the environment of the Hawaiian islands- not just for the seals but for humans. When endangered animals move back into human populated areas, human use of those areas can be changed- fishing rights might be revoked, access to resources decreased for humans and increased for the seals; even beach goers have to monitor their activities so as not to startle monk seals that may be nesting on the beach. This protection of nature is seen as coddling by many human inhabitants of the islands- if an animal cannot survive on its own, it should not survive. But, it is also seen as inherently unfair to the human population and the protection of these animals has lead to violent episodes against endangered species. Mooallem highlights the bizarre overkill of endangered species throughout the United States. Check out the horrible list of killings:

In North Carolina, for example, hundreds of brown pelicans have recently been washing ashore dead with broken wings. The birds, nearly wiped out by DDT in the 1970s, are now plentiful and often become semi-tame; they’re known to land on fishing boats and swipe at the catch. One theory is that irritated fishermen are simply reaching out and cracking their wings in half with their hands. In March, in Florida, someone shoved a pelican’s head through a beer can.
Around the country, at any given time, small towers of reward money sit waiting for whistle-blowers to come forward. This winter four bald eagles were gunned down and left floating in a Washington lake (reward: $20,250); three were shot in Mississippi ($7,500); and two in Arkansas ($3,500). Someone drove through a flock of dunlins — brittle-legged little shorebirds — on a beach in Washington, killing 93 of them ($5,500). In Arizona, a javelina, a piglike mammal, was shot and dragged down a street with an extension cord strung through its mouth ($500), and in North Carolina, 8 of only 100 red wolves left in the wild were shot within a few weeks around Christmas ($2,500). Seven dolphins died suspiciously on the Gulf Coast last year; one was found with a screwdriver in its head ($10,000). Sometimes, these incidents are just “thrill kills” — fits of ugliness without logic or meaning. But often they read as retaliation, a disturbing corollary to how successful the conservation of those animals has been.
It's clear that some animals, especially predators, are considered more dangerous than other endangered species. The debate over legal wolf hunting seasons has escalated in the last few years- spreading from the west to Wisconsin and the midwest. In an article today in the Times, Guy Gugliotta reports that the spread of large cats has caused less problem than wolves, possibly because cats scare easier or perhaps because a larger cultural stereotype of wolves (which they consider vermin and disposable).

Regardless of cultural perception of certain species over others, the reintroduction and success of certain  endangered species has hit an unexpected roadblock: What happens when you successfully bring back a population of animals that might not be able to co-exist with humans? In Mooallem's article, he raises an interesting point. While it is scientifically proven that these animals were part of the food chain and the environment before they started to decline, they are not perceived by the humans inhabiting the area now as being part of the natural landscape. They are perceived as dangerous interlopers.  Instead of seeing these organisms as a triumph of human action and science, they are seen as soaking up human resources and changing an environment that can and does exist without them. And in a sense, it's hard to argue with this reasoning: if you've lived your entire life in the same spot and never seen a bear in your neighborhood, is it going to seem very natural to see a grizzly strolling down your street?

Environmental Historians have often struggled with the problem of how humans perceive "wilderness." It's a question that has been asked consistently in the field. Something to add to this is the question that seems to come from reintroduction of species: how important is the lived experience of environment to the conception of "nature" and "wilderness?" And how does this lived experience limit certain aspects of conservation and environmentalism? While we might be able to scientifically save species, will the culture developed around their absence allow them to be reintroduced and thrive next to human populations?

I hate to be such a debbie-downer about species preservation. And I hate to leave you with such a sad taste in your mouth. I suggest reading Mooallem's article- it is both informative and even handed. The voices of islanders who clearly dislike the encroachment of monk seals are balanced by those of conservationists and I think presented the issues from both sides nicely (something that is rarely done even-handedly in my opinion). It is sometimes easy to dismiss individuals who would kill an organism we ourselves find precious and worth saving- but often the reasons for the resentment and killings are dehumanized. I'm not saying that there is anything right about ivory poachers or anyone that has killed a monk seal, but the reasons that these people believe are valid deserve to be reported on and Mooallem does this nicely.

But I hate to leave you in such a sad state. Really, not everyone is out there bellyflopping on endangered species all summer- and conservation efforts at zoos, aquariums, and public schools has lead to more and more children and adults that recognize the importance of preserving endangered species. So here's something huge:

This week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife suggested that chimps in laboratories be added to the endangered species list. Read here for the implications of this suggestion.

The very fact that I am forced to ask the questions above means that the efforts of conservation and environmental groups have, in so many ways, surpassed expectations. We are struggling with how to live with panthers, manatees, chimps, monk seals, and key deer. 10 years ago, I don't think many environmentalists would have thought this would be a problem. Instead, they saw a clear and quick path for all of these species to extinction. So we keep trying, and in the process, we address the issues above. Because it matters.

**I apologize for all the Florida Bashing but really, my fellow Floridians make it too easy**