strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff writes about behavior, in humans and other animals, on two, four, six, and eight legs, plus the occasional slither.

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The War on Rhinos? It’s an Investment Bubble

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 26, 2016

Carved rhino horn offered at a 2011 Christie's auction in Hong Kong (Photo: Xinhua/Song Zhenping)

Carved rhino horn offered at a 2011 Christie’s auction in Hong Kong (Photo: Xinhua/Song Zhenping)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Since the start of the current war on rhinos, in 2006, journalists and wildlife trafficking experts alike have treated the trade as a product of Asia’s new-found wealth combined with old-style traditional medicine: Rich buyers pay astounding sums for rhino horn in the belief that it will cure cancer or a host of other ills.

This reporting often comes with an undertone of bafflement or even thinly veiled condescension. Buyers, mainly in China and Vietnam, appear to be so naive that they ignore the total absence of scientific support for the medicinal value of rhino horn and put their faith instead in a substance that is the biochemical equivalent of a fingernail.

But a new paper in the journal Biological Conservation raises a startling alternative theory. Rhinos are dying by the hundreds for what may be in essence

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Posted in Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Animal Music Monday: “Wondering Where the Lions Are”

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 22, 2016

Given the rapid disappearance of lions from entire regions of Africa, this song seems appropriate, though mostly for its title.

Singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn has said he was inspired by reading Charles Williams’s fantasy novel The Place of the Lion, which I suspect is about lions the way C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is about lions, and in that one the Aslan the lion is Jesus Christ’s avatar.

Anyway, here’s a Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Funny Business | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

China Drops the Hammer on Tortoise Smugglers

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2016

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

A radiated tortoise in Madagascar (Photo: Insights/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Get caught smuggling illegal wildlife in most countries in the world, and you can expect a slap on the wrist. A very gentle slap at that. “Somebody could take an AK-47 and just shoot up a pod of pilot whales,” one frustrated investigator recently complained. “That’s the same as a traffic offense.” It’s why wildlife crime has become a $10 billion-a-year industry: It’s safer than robbing the bank. It’s more lucrative than selling drugs.

So it should be big news that China, the leading market for wildlife trafficking worldwide, has just handed out jail sentences ranging from 21 months to 11 years to seven defendants caught smuggling hundreds of Madagascar’s critically endangered radiated tortoises. “This sentencing sends a strong message to illegal wildlife dealers that the punishment for these activities will fit the severity of the crime,” said Brian D. Horne, a Wildlife Conservation Society herpetologist who provided expertise to the prosecution.

The sentencing is the result of an investigation that began with the 2015 arrest of an airport security worker at Guangzhou Baiyun Airport toting two backpacks containing 316 juvenile tortoises. The animals had come in on a flight from Madagascar, as part of the baggage of Chinese immigrant workers there. The animals were wrapped in tinfoil, a precaution to avoid x-ray detection during transit via commercial airlines.

The airport worker, who had access to the baggage area, agreed to cooperate with investigators, leading to the dismantling of the criminal ring. Investigators also seized a second shipment containing another 160 radiated tortoises. The plan was to deliver the animals to an apartment in Guangzhou being used as a breeding facility, in an attempt to Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Huge Tarantula Grabs Naked Danish Model

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2016

In the September issue of National Geographic, I write about how the fur industry has made a big comeback from the name-calling and blood-spattering of the 1990s.  One way they’ve done it is by appealing to fashion designers, who tend to like things that are more sensational, even bizarre, than practical.  This may be the weirdest: It’s a promo item I spotted in Denmark.

IMG_4139

And in case you are wondering, Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Business Behaviors | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

A Toothy Answer to The Problem of Feral Pigs

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 19, 2016

It happened at the Tejon Ranch in California, and a camera trap caught the action:

Posted in Kill or Be Killed | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

How The Fur Trade Made Its Big Comeback

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 15, 2016

Models prepare to show fur coats and hats by designer Simonetta Ravizza.

Models prepare to show fur coats and hats by Simonetta Ravizza.

by Richard Conniff/National Geographic

It was frozen-toe, mid-February, north-country cold, under a cloudless sky, sun glinting off fresh snow. We were tromping out onto a wetland frozen nine inches deep. It felt like how the fur trade began, someplace long ago, far away.

Bill Mackowski, in his 60th year of trapping, mostly around northern Maine, pointed out some alder branches sticking through the ice. Beavers start collecting poplar after the first cold snap, he explained, then pile on inedible alder to weigh down the poplar below the ice, where they eat it throughout the winter. He hacked through the ice with a metal pole, then passed it to me to try. “Feel how hard the bottom is on the run?” Beaten down by beaver traffic, he said.

Nailing the skin out to dry. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Nailing the skin out to dry. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Breaking through the ice in another spot, Mackowski said, “Did you hear those air bubbles?” He widened the hole and began hauling up until a peculiar steel device broke the murky surface. It was a trap, snapped tight around the neck of an enormous beaver. Those air bubbles, a moment locked in ice, were its final breath.

“That’s what we call a superblanket,” said Mackowski. “That’s a nice beaver.” The pelt would bring no more than $25, he calculated, but all the way home he wore the satisfaction of a thousand generations of successful hunters and trappers. Still glorying in the day and in his own deep reading of the landscape, he recalled what another winter visitor once told him: “If people could get past killing the beaver, they would pay to come out here like this.”

In truth, getting past the killing doesn’t seem like much of an issue anymore. Top models who once posed for ads with slogans like “We’d rather go naked than wear fur” have gone on to model fur. Fashion designers who were “afraid to touch it” 15 or 20 years ago have also “gotten past that taboo,” said Dan Mullen, a mink farmer in Nova Scotia. Many in the fur trade now readily acknowledge that activists who protested so loudly had a point: Farmers were not providing a decent standard of care for their animals. But they add that the trade has changed, though activists dispute this. In any case, many people now seem to regard wearing fur as a matter of individual choice. In some cities you are more likely to be glowered at for texting while walking.

Fur farms dominate the trade, and production has more than

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Posted in Business Behaviors, Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | 2 Comments »

Christmas in August: Give to These Wildlife Groups Now

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 13, 2016

One cause worth your donation (Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

One cause worth your donation (Photo: Craig Taylor/Panthera)

 

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

Most writers wait until the Christmas season to put together their recommendations for charitable giving. But the trouble with that timing ought to be obvious: In December, most people are broke or about to be broke. They’re also a little crazy. In August, on the other hand, life is fat and slow, and there’s time to think about our own lives and what we can do to make the world a better place. With that in mind, I’m going to offer a few recommendations for giving, with my usual focus on wildlife.

First, though, let’s talk about two candidates for this year’s charitable giving purgatory: The World Wildlife Fund is in many ways a great organization, but it has a long history of paying too much attention to marketing. That tendency showed up this year when a WWF vice president put out an announcement, widely reported in the press, that tiger populations were on the increase for the first time in a century. Too bad it was totally bogus. Sorry, but the folks at the top need to put wildlife conservation first and fund-raising somewhere down the list. Hoping to see you next year.

My other newcomer in purgatory is Ducks Unlimited. I’ve recommended it in the past for its single-minded focus on increasing populations of wildfowl. But, hey, save your money. Late last year, DU fired a staffer who had the nerve to take on a prominent donor. Media muckety-muck Jim Kennedy, chairman of Cox Enterprises, was trying to block public access to the Ruby River, which runs through his Montana ranch. But defending public access is one of the core beliefs at DU, and Don Thomas, a longtime contributor to Ducks Unlimited magazine, called out Kennedy for his hypocrisy. DU promptly fired Thomas while praising Kennedy as “a dedicated DU volunteer.”

Where should you send your money instead? Let’s start with

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Animal Music Monday: Rock Lobster

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 8, 2016

I’m spending a little time in Maine, so this seems like a natural. Sort of unnaturally natural, that is. The most animal-oriented lyric goes off the deep end, literally:

Here comes a stingray
There goes a manta-ray
In walked a jelly fish
There goes a dog-fish
Chased by a cat-fish
In flew a sea robin
Watch out for that piranha
There goes a narwhal
Here comes a bikini whale!

The B-52s released the song in April 1978, and it became their biggest hit ever. And the infectious looney-toon silliness of the song inspired John Lennon Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

A Miracle Drug Saves People But Buggers The Environment

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 5, 2016

Ivermectin is bad news for dung beetles. (Photo: George Grall/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)

Ivermectin is bad news for dung beetles. (Photo: George Grall/’National Geographic’/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

See if you can spot the pattern here: Widespread reliance on the herbicide Roundup has pushed the monarch butterfly to the brink of extinction. Neonicotinoid pesticides stand accused of knocking down populations of honeybees and other pollinating insects. The veterinary drug diclofenac has killed off 99.9 percent of the vultures in India. Now it looks as though ivermectin, long hailed as a miracle drug, may be doing the same thing to dung beetles everywhere.

Yep, it’s definitely a pattern: Companies find some alleged wonder product and move it to market as quickly as possible, with a tight focus on profits and no regard (or responsibility) whatever for the inadvertent side effects.

The dung beetle story has gotten relatively little attention, perhaps because people have the idea that these funny little feces eaters exist only in Africa and only to help clear the landscape of gargantuan elephant droppings. There are 5,000 dung beetle species, and they do their humble work on every continent except Antarctica. And if you think dung beetles don’t matter pretty much everywhere, try imagining a world neck-deep in

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Posted in Biodiversity, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | 4 Comments »

Animal Music Monday: Ants Marching

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 1, 2016

An ant from Madagascar named Eutetramorium mocquerysi (SEM photo: Molly Gibson)

An ant from Madagascar named Eutetramorium mocquerysi (SEM photo: Molly Gibson)

Yikes, it’s been more than 20 years since the David Matthews Band released its anthem (that may be a pun), “Ants Marching,” in December 1995.  The gist of it was that we sometimes allow our lives to lapse into a state of tedium and repetition, like ants: “All the little ants are marching, red and black antennae waving, they all do it the same, they all do it the same way.”

I think ants are actually way more interesting than DMB lets on. In fact, I once traveled to Madagascar to jump a freight train Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Funny Business | Leave a Comment »

 
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