Feb 14

Today the dingo has been crowned the World’s Favourite Unloved Species, after two weeks of voting and some fierce competition. Here Bret Charman discusses his experiences with photographing this misunderstood yet beautiful species.

The world’s wild dog species, for the most part, are on a downward spiral – none more so than the iconic dingo of Australia. Unlike the profile of many of the world’s apex predators, many people still see the dingo as a pest species, particularly by some livestock farmers in the outback, and as such, there is little in the way of protection for this vital predator. Perceptions are starting to change though, as many have started to realise the species’ importance in managing the populations of rabbits, kangaroos and even feral cats.

Award-winning wildlife photographer Bret Charman spent 10 months exploring the south and east of Australia, getting up close and personal to these fascinating predators.

In 2014/15 I was incredibly lucky to spend 10 months exploring a remarkable country – Australia. The wildlife here is unlike anywhere else on earth, uniquely adapted to the diverse habitats that make up the Australian wilderness. Deep down, I have always had a love affair with the world’s canids and the dingo was a species I was desperate to see.

Like any of the world’s apex predators, there are fantastical stories about the dingo and their blood-thirsty habits. Headlines such as 6-year-old escaped by the bare buttocks from a dingo attack’, give an impression of a savage, mindless predator out to get the average person. However, when you dig a little deeper you realise that it is rarely the dingo that is to blame, and actually these wild dogs are an incredibly intelligent, resourceful and adaptable species.

I am happy tell you I have had multiple close encounters with wild dingoes, and I never once felt in danger or lost any item of clothing in the process. In fact, just like a domestic dog, dingoes give incredibly clear signals as to how they are feeling and are much more afraid of people than many would have us believe.

My first experience was on the western coastline of Fraser Island, I knew there were dingoes in the area as I had seen their tracks around a washed up turtle carcass. Setting off down the beach, following these tracks, I sighted a small group of dogs on the water’s edge around 300 yards away. I got low down so as not to spook them, but my efforts were in vain as they immediately clocked me and disappeared into the island’s forested hills. I thought I had lost the moment, annoyed at myself for disturbing them – as a wildlife photographer my job is to capture striking images but not directly affect the subject’s behaviour.

I turned my attention to the setting sun and after a few minutes I had that primeval feeling … I was being watched. I turned around and looked up towards the top of a sandy bluff. There were the three dingoes I had sighted only 20 minutes before, all three watching me intently before suddenly two individuals headed off into the forest. One lone dog remained and watched me … we both seemed to be fascinated by the other’s presence. Neither of us made any attempt to approach each other, we simply sat and watched one another for around 5 minutes (and in my case managed to capture a few images) before we both knew it was time to head home. I have never had an experience with a predator in the same way before. Neither the dingo, or myself, were afraid of one another, there was simply a mutual respect. There was a silent understanding that if we stayed put, we were both comfortable in each other’s presence. These dingoes weren’t the mindless predator I had heard so much about, they had foresight, planning and in-depth understanding of human behaviour. Of course that remarkable evening only left me wanting more!

The danger of getting involved in photographing the world’s predators is rarely any attack from the animal itself, the trouble in fact starts with the emotions that these encounters stir up. You get an attack of passion, an addiction! I was completely hooked, but I knew I hadn’t captured an image that reflected the true nature of the dingo. I had to keep trying. I had to hope another chance would come my way – luckily for me I was fortunate enough to capture the image below in a separate encounter.

I spent over an hour following this beautiful female as she went about her daily business.  I believe this image really shows the true character of a dingo – a species of wild dog that is perfectly suited to Australia’s harsh environment, a predator that keeps a natural balance in an ecosystem and actually controls the numbers of other pest species which are far more damaging for agriculture. Quite simply this species of wild dog is an integral part of the landscape and that is why it fits so comfortably across this vast land.

There can be no denying that there is always going to be issues with livestock being killed by dingoes, and this will always be a flashpoint. However, there has been some recent evidence which has actually suggested that where these apex predators occur on farms with livestock, the farmers often have better grass yields as a result of fewer grazers competing over this limited resource. This in turn increases the farmer’s revenue from the healthier livestock reared on this land.

Dingoes will always carry out the odd raid on livestock, but just as the wolf has transformed the landscapes of Yellowstone NP since its reintroduction, perhaps the Australian equivalent can play a pivotal role in the restoration of the outback. If all sides can come together and better understand the dingo and the role it plays, there could be unknown benefits for all involved. There is hope yet to save this iconic species, but if no one is prepared to make a stand then they could all too easily slip away.

Bret’s next big photography project is ‘Life in the Clouds’ – a photographic exploration of Ecuador’s cloud forests and the intricacies that altitude plays in the distribution of species. Find out more about the project here.

May 9

We recently caught up with with our friends at Voices for Nature who were keen to tell us about the unique and innovative work that they are doing to save Brazil’s rainforests and what the future holds for their organisation.

What is Voices for Nature?

We are a not-for-profit organisation based in Oxford, UK. Our aim is to inspire and engage people to protect and conserve Brazil’s rainforests through conservation story-telling. We believe that stories are powerful tools for learning and catalysts for change. We use literature, theatre and film to engage people in conservation and give a voice to nature.

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Aerial view of a tree in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest

Voices for Nature was formed in 2014 by Sigrid Shreeve, an environmentalist and campaigner who has worked in Brazil over many years. Voices for Nature employs students and young graduates offering them the opportunity to be creative and engage with conservation.

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Sigrid Shreeve

Sigrid is the author of the novel ‘Jabujicaba’ which was written as an engagement tool under the penname ‘Rosa da Silva’. In the novel, Brazil is bankrupt due to the effects of climate change and the Amazon is up for auction. The royalties from ‘Jabujicaba’ support rainforest conservation through Voices for Nature’s partners the World Land Trust, Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Isle of Wight Zoo.

What does Voices for Nature do?

Voices for Nature is an arts organisation which connects people with conservation. Our work is based on the eco-thriller ‘Jabujicaba’, which forms the basis of various initiatives. These include:

The Jabuji debates – a national debating competition for sixth formers in the UK. The competition is run by Voices for Nature and the debates are hosted by Eton College. The First Jabuji Debates final was in March 2016 with participating schools from London, Berkshire and Kent. The event consists of workshops, mini-debates and a public final debates.

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Debaters with Sigrid Shreeve

Forum theatre – we are producing a play entitled ‘The Amazon Auction’ with pupils from Wheatley Park School near Oxford, which will will be performed in Oxford Botanic Gardens in June 2016. As part of the performance two teams will ‘pitch’ to the audience to convince them to support their bid in a mock auction of the Amazon Rainforest. Performers will play roles of characters from the novel ‘Jabujicaba’.

Documentary film – Voices for Nature supports original conservation documentary filmmaking. We were executive producers of the documentary Uncharted Amazon, which was shot in an endangered part of Peru’s Amazon. We will be screening Uncharted Amazon as part of the Oxford Festival of the Arts in June 2016 and also running campaign film workshops for young people together with the charity Film Oxford.

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Voices for Nature workshop

Rainforest Movie – we have a big screen movie under development based on the novel ‘Jabujicaba’. The movie is a cross over between Apocalypse Now and a rainforest Erin Brockovich. The lead role with be played by the actress Yrsa Daley-Ward and the movie is part of our outreach and educational work, linking to the Jabuji Debates. The movie has been entered into Richard Branson’s #VOOM2016 to raise profile and help fund development.

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View over REGUA site in Brazil

Find out more about Voices for Nature

Visit the Voices for Nature website

Watch the Jabujicaba trailer

Vote for Jabujicaba to win #VOOM2016

Follow Voices for Nature on Twitter or Facebook

Visit the Arts Festival Oxford website to attend a free film workshop or attend a screening of ‘Uncharted Amazon’

Sep 2

What is SINNG?

The Student Invasive Non-Native Group or SINNG is a Local Action Group based at Cornwall College, Newquay. Launched in 2010, our goal is to increase awareness and reduce the impacts caused by Invasive Non-Native Species (INNS) on native wildlife. We do this through practical fieldwork such as pond clearings, Himalayan Balsam removal and much more. We also continue to research the effects, spread and impact of INNS on native species.

Students clearing a pond of Parrot's feather

Students clearing a pond of Parrot’s feather

SINNG is mostly comprised of student volunteers from all seven Cornwall College campuses. We also have an international link with SINNG Helicon in The Netherlands.

My experiences at SINNG

I originally started helping out with SINNG to gain experience of working with children, as I want to become a primary school teacher. Therefore most of my work has involved the educational side of SINNG,  including volunteering at the ‘Saplings’ after school club, helping run workshops in schools throughout Cornwall and creating education materials.

At the ‘Saplings’ after school club we try to incorporate a broad range of INNS ideas. This has included looking at the effect pets can have on native wildlife if they escape or are released into the wild and become invasive. These after school clubs have also provided good opportunities to test out new materials we have made, including our Alien Invaders game and a game I created called ‘Guess Who’s Invasive’, which went down really well with the children, especially if they had played ‘Guess Who’ before.

During the school workshops that I have helped run, a wide variety of games and activities have been used to engage the children. Using microscopes and ID guides to identify invasive pond plants and native invertebrate always goes down well.

Local children enjoying activities at SINNG STEM club

Local children enjoying activities at SINNG STEM club

With the school workshops, the session is adjusted to fit what the children have been learning. For example, in a workshop at St Columb Minor, Newquay, they had already been learning about food webs, so we talked about the effect INNS can have on food webs and ecosystems as a whole. Using the invasive Australian Flatworm as an example, we showed how they eat native earthworms and the knock on effects that can follow. One important aspect of a workshop is showing pupils what to do if they find an INNS. On our website we have a ‘Submit a Sighting’ page which allows the public to record any INNS in their area.

How did it all go?

One of the great things about SINNG, is that I feel at the end of a session the children have leant something they didn’t know before. I think this is because the sessions are run in a fun and interactive way. Plus at the end of most sessions the children are tested, using our interactive activities, on what they have learnt.

SINNG pairs game

SINNG pairs game

Activities which require participation from the children, such as the bicarb and vinegar experiment, always go down well.

The most important part about the educational side of SINNG is that children can enjoy themselves whilst learning about important environmental issues.

Liam Burton

Find out more about SINNG by visiting their website or Facebook page.

Jul 30

Denise Spaan is the Field Station Coordinator and Conservation Education Manager for The Little Fireface Project which was set up to help protect the slow loris in Indonesia. We caught up with Denise to ask her more about this fascinating species and the important work being done to conserve it.

How did you get into science / conservation and what do you love most about the work you do? What are the challenges you face?

From a young age I have lived in many countries, including primate range countries such as Ivory Coast and Rwanda. It is there that I developed an interest in animals but was also faced with the reality of poverty. I saw conservation issues up close. At school I was very interested in biology and went on to study zoology as my undergraduate degree. When presented with the option of doing a placement year I jumped at the opportunity to study chimpanzees at a rescue centre in the Netherlands. Whilst there, I was introduced to the welfare issues associated with primate pets and gained an interest in wildlife trade. My final year module of Conservation Biology affirmed what I had seen when I was younger and made me want to become a conservationist. I went on to do a Masters degree at Oxford Brookes University in Primate Conservation. It is there that I developed the skills needed to become a conservationist and primate researcher. It was also there that I was introduced to the plight of the slow loris.

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Javan slow loris awareness © Wawan Tarniwan

What I love about the work I do is the versatility that it offers. I am involved in all aspects of the work that the Little Fireface Project does in Java. Seeing the children’s faces light up when we tell them what we have planned for them that day is extremely rewarding. What I love most is seeing them learn and seeing how, every week, they remember more about the slow loris. My nights in the forest with the lorises fill me with admiration and wonder. Learning about a species is one thing, but then seeing them in the wild is very special.

Challenges come in many forms. Some are small, such as the drinking water tank needing to be refilled (we manage to spill water every time), and others are larger challenges. Recently we found a civet trap on one of the paths used by the lorises. Lorises are very vulnerable to such traps and will get caught in them, and of course we are here to instil love for all the wild animals, meaning the civets too. At moments like that it is important to act fast, deactivate the trap, and think up an appropriate education programme. Within one week we had a volunteer draw some civet colouring pages and we went to talk to the farmers.

Why do you think Arkive is important?

Arkive is a wonderful reference tool for professionals, students, and everyday people with an interest in the world.  The information is presented in such a way that is more accessible to a broader audience. Scientists often struggle to present their data to the public so that it can be easily understood.  Arkive is a wonderful reference that presents solid scientific facts, beautiful photos, videos, and references.  This is a wonderful way to unite scientists and animal-lovers across the globe.

Javan slow loris

What can people do to help slow lorises?

Slow lorises are often made victims of their own cuteness. Because of their big eyes and soft fur, many people think that they would make a good pet. Many tourists are not aware of the critical state in which lorises exist. Therefore, one of the most important things anyone can do is not to buy a loris in an animal market. By buying a loris you endorse the trade and as most are wild-caught, you thereby endorse taking animals from the wild. Additionally, many lorises are used in the photo prop trade. Please don’t have your photo taken with a loris when on holiday in places like Thailand, or buy it thinking you can simply hand it over to a rescue centre – there is always a new one ready to take its place on the streets.

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Two bleached long tailed macaques in Jatinegara market in Jakarta. We perform regular market surveys of some of Java’s biggest wildlife markets.

Be a responsible consumer. Products that contain palm oil are some of the biggest contributors to loss of habitat, and therefore loss of species in Southeast Asia.  Many people know that this industry has a negative effect on orangutans, but numerous other species, including slow lorises, macaques, langurs, civets and leopards, suffer from this loss of habitat as well. Try and buy products with sustainable palm oil or without palm oil.

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Dendi Rustandi hanging up the first slow loris bridge in West Java to help young animals disperse safely © It’s A Wildlife

People can also support organisations like the Little Fireface Project that work to save lorises.  By visiting www.nocturama.org you can see exactly what our project is doing to protect these species.  We have an adoption programme for some of our study animals as well as a shop with project t-shirts and other items. Of course, donations are always appreciated.  These contributions make a vital difference to what we are able to do in the field to protect these species.

Denise Spaan in West Java, Indonesia

 

May 27

Everyone remembers their first encounter with a whale shark, just as we all remember that first kiss, but experience has taught me that each encounter is in some manner just as unique as the first time.

When I first began diving the northern islands of Wolf and Darwin in the late 1980´s, we really had no idea of the species that we were going to find. Already Darwin´s Arch had begun to get the reputation as being the best dive site in Galapagos. Within days of my arrival to these distant shores I heard rumours of schooling hammerheads, Galapagos sharks and the strangely named ¨Pez Gato¨ or ¨catfish¨ as the fishermen referred to whale sharks. I later learned that the white spots on a whale shark where likened to those of the jaguar. Perhaps some of the fishermen had spent some of their formative years in the Ecuadorian Amazon jungle!

1 Whale Shark with Creole fish - Jonathan Green

Whale shark with creole fish © Jonathan Green

As time progressed we became aware that the whale sharks were aggregating on a seasonal basis, much more frequent during the cold garua season between June and November. The larger animals were thought to be males, although as with many shark species the female whale sharks are larger on average than males. It was only when we began actively checking for male claspers that it became apparent that most of the sightings were actually of females.

By the beginning of the new millennia I was already convinced that most of those whale sharks that passed by Darwin were not only adult females, but that they were also pregnant! Their distended abdomens appear to confirm this, but how could we get solid scientific evidence? It’s not so easy when they average over 10 m in length and weigh upwards of 20 tons. Researchers working with other large pelagic sharks such as tigers and great whites are able to capture the animal and carry out certain medical procedures in a controlled environment, much as we do with humans. The shark is winched onto the deck and immobilised and although there are strict time limitations, blood samples may be taken and an ultrasound test carried out.

1 Whale Shark - Jonahtan Green

Whale shark © Jonathan Green

This is simply not possible given the size and nature of the whale shark, so how do we propose to do this? Certainly a challenge as this has never been tried before. Blood samples have been taken from captive whale sharks, but never ¨on the fly¨. Picture a diver with no means of propulsion but his fins and leg muscles, chasing down an animal the size of a single decker bus with a 4 knot current in a thousand feet of water! Sound exciting?

Next season we hope to have members from the Georgia Aquarium join us in the field to attempt taking a blood sample from a whale shark in the wild, for the very first time. They already have extensive data of the blood chemistry of captive juvenile female whale sharks that are not pregnant. By comparing the blood chemistry of a female in the wild that we are 90% certain is pregnant, we may be able to determine how close to birthing she is. We also hope to try the worlds first underwater ultrasound using a waterproof prototype unit that is self contained and can record video and still images. Perhaps this will give us an indication of the stage of development of the embryos, as well as numbers of pups. Each encounter with a whale shark provides us with more information.

Alan Purton

Whale shark © Alan Purton

Developing new techniques in order to answer some of the many questions that still remain about their natural history has always held great appeal, for it is that voyage of discovery and the resulting data that may help protect whale sharks in the future, wherever in the world they roam.

If you would like to learn more about the project in Galapagos and how you can get involved, visit whalesharkappeal.co.uk.

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