Paradise, Problems, Perpetrators, and Positives

The Paradise

Far away in a tropical land, where few of us will ever visit, there lives a plethora of exotic and enigmatic animals that would be at home in a book on Victorian expeditions and grand discoveries. Scaly pangolins, pygmy elephants, and a species of small rhinoceros that is covered in brown fur represent a drop in the ocean of the immense biodiversity living in the beautiful natural habitats of Indonesia and Malaysia. I hope you are conjuring a heart-warming image in your mind of lush green rainforests; perhaps a huge orange cat with black stripes disappearing into the undergrowth as birds and monkeys join forces to belt out a warning chorus, letting everything nearby know of the tiger’s presence.

Now raze the trees, set fire to everything, destroy the animals, and in the ensuing barren wasteland grow acres and acres of plantations. All for an ingredient called palm oil.

The Problems

What is this magical substance that is worth wiping out entire species of plants and animals for? It’s an edible vegetable oil that is in everything from soap and toothpaste, to cookies and chocolate bars. Pick up a consumable in any supermarket and you’ll probably be holding palm oil. The substance is this omnipresent in the western world and yet 85% of the entire world’s supply of palm oil comes from plantations in Indonesia and Malaysia alone. That should give you an idea of how much of these two Southeast Asian countries has been, and continues to be, burnt to the ground in order to produce palm oil. That biodiversity we spoke off before is hanging on by its finger tips in smaller and smaller… and smaller… pockets of forest.

World map showing countries affected by large-scale clearance of natural habitat for producing palm oil as of 2006 (FAO 20076, via Koh and Wilcove, 20087).

Further to the suffering of the natural world, in many areas, indigenous peoples are forced to abandon their forest homes and their traditional ways of life, in order for the land to be purposefully destroyed. Indonesia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world. What happens to these displaced people? Many of them are forced into working on the plantations as slaves. This includes child slavery. I am sure you have heard of Conflict Diamonds? Conflict Palm Oil is just as inhumane.

If you need further persuasion that palm oil is bad news, the carbon pollution produced by palm oil plantations is a MAJOR player in the line-up of human induced villains that are hurtling our climate out of control. Climate change is a normal, natural phenomenon. What isn’t normal is the speed at which it is occurring due to human activity. It is changing so fast that animals and plants can’t keep up, they can’t evolve or adapt fast enough. So they’re choosing option B and going extinct instead.

In 2015, smog produced as a direct result of fires used in palm oil production was so thick in Sumatra, Indonesia, that it caused air pollution levels to spike in neighbouring Malaysia and Singapore. (NASA, 2015).

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NatSCA Digital Digest – October

What Should I Read?

I was just thinking last week that social media has taken over the world as the most thing in existence, corporeal or not, when this article came out about how scientists should all be trained in its use; Social Media; More Scientists Needed. No hope of escape for any of us then. (I say on a social media platform).

Last Wednesday, sadly, New Walk Museum had items stolen from display; From Rhino horns to Egyptian jewels. Whilst the objects stolen last week weren’t of natural history origin, this article (if you can see it through the adverts) also reveals that rhino horn was stolen from there a few years ago. The huge rhino horn problem faced by museums, primarily in 2012, was largely curbed by museums removing all horn from display. An update on this situation was published on our website recently in Rhinos and Museums.

Finally, if you’re looking for something a little more breathing than the average museum specimen, Jack Ashby recently wrote about Australian wildlife in an article called Does an animal’s name affect whether people care about it?

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The Robot Zoo: A Must-See Exhibition

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

This bat robot is nearly 20 x life-size. The Robot Zoo, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The reaching-for-the-moon aim of any natural history exhibition is to get the perfect combination of knock-your-socks-off-fun and wow-I-didn’t-know-that-informative, for both children and adults, because (obviously) that attracts the biggest crowd.

Appealing to everyone is pretty much an unobtainable goal. A wise man, who I call Dad, once relayed the phrase to me ‘You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time’*. However some, albeit rare, exhibitions, through some manner of dark magic combined with an alignment of moons from all over the universe manage to come together in such a way that the exhibition is branded as ‘outstanding’ and ‘captivating’ by journalists and listed as ‘fun for all the family’ on websites and What to do with the kids this half-term guides. These exhibitions are termed blockbusters and are the envy of their less popular exhibition counterparts.

The Robot Zoo, you will probably have guessed by that prologue, is one such exhibition. I had nothing to do with its inception nor its creation, it’s a touring exhibition that has nested temporarily at the Horniman Museum until October. However, as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at said Museum, I feel a level of temporary ownership and pride in its success. Thus I shall sing and dance about it from now until October when it leaves us for another galaxy gallery far, far away. Continue reading

Rhino DNA database

Rhinoceros horn thefts have been a problem for a while, with several UK museums being amongst those targeted by thieves. If you haven’t hidden away your rhino horn yet you should do it now!

Despite the rather dire situation, it is heartening that in several cases the people responsible for thefts have later been arrested and convicted. It is also interesting to note that rhino horn is being intercepted and seized at airports and in Police raids.

Of course, a seized horn isn’t easy to return to its owner unless it has a unique identification – after all, rhino horns can look rather similar to each other. This is especially problematic when the material is seized in the destination country rather than the country from which it was taken.

To tackle this problem, the Wildlife DNA Forensics – Diagnostics & Molecular Biology Section of Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) have just started on a project to establish a DNA database for rhino horn in museums and zoos in Europe. This service is currently being offered for free to museums in the UK.

Rhino

The database will provide a mechanism for the identification of stolen rhino horn, which will make return of specimens possible and (perhaps more importantly) make it far easier to demonstrate whether seized material has been stolen as well as illegally traded/imported/exported. This would mean longer prison sentences for guilty parties – which may be a better deterrent than the paltry sentences sometimes handed out – and it would also help identify the chain of supply for rhino horn, which could play an important role in restricting the trade.

The database could also potentially contribute to other research on rhinos – perhaps about their past genetic diversity, which may contribute to a better understanding of their conservation requirements in the future.

In light of the obvious security concerns associated with rhino horn, NatSCA have been in touch with the representative for SASA who is heading up the project, Dr Lucy Webster.

Lucy has been very helpful in providing information about the project and addressing security concerns about the database. In her own words:

“We realise the sensitivity of the information you are providing. The information you submit with your samples will be held securely and transcribed into electronic format as part of the database. The database will be hosted on a government secure network, with access restricted to those directly involved in this project.

Some concerns have been raised regarding the security of this information in relation to Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. We have consulted with Scottish Government FOI unit and while we are obliged to consider all requests, the sensitive nature of the information means that we have good grounds for withholding detailed information (e.g. addresses of submitters).

Summary information, such as the total number of samples on the database or the total number of submitters, may have to be disclosed. We are very grateful for your involvement in this project. If you are interested in specific details about your samples (e.g. the species, or the sex of the animals) we will be able to provide these details once the DNA profiles are on the database.”

It’s worth keeping in mind that the project does not ask for the specific storage location of any rhino material and there are no visits to museum sites by external parties involved in the data collection – the specimens are sampled by staff at the museum using the guidance provided below.

Obviously there are still considerations about getting involved in the project, since sampling involves drilling a 5mm hole in specimens (alas the surface sampling technique using a rubber that we saw at this year’s conference only provides enough data for species level analysis, not individual identification), but that has to be balanced against the potential benefits offered by the database.

Whether you send in your samples is a decision for you and your organisation, but if you would like more information you can contact a NatSCA committee member or get in touch with Lucy.

Sampling method guidance

Submitting samples for Rhino DNA database