Wednesday, July 30, 2008

About shooting Orang Utans

Have you read "The Malay Archipelago"?

First published in 1869, this captivating book chronicles the scientific explorations of Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist, explorer and biologist who traveled through the Malay Archipelago or East Indies (now Malaysia and Indonesia) to collect specimens for sale and to study nature. His observations of the marked zoological differences across a narrow strait in the archipelago led to his proposing the zoogeographical boundary now known as the Wallace Line. Wallace collected more than 125,000 specimens in the Malay Archipelago (more than 80,000 beetles alone). More than a thousand of them represented species new to science. While he was exploring the archipelago, he refined his thoughts about Evolution and had his famous insight on Natural Selection.

Among his fascinating descriptions of foreign landscapes and peoples and mysterious animals, we can read a meticulous account about how he hunted, shot, and the number of bullets it took him to kill several Orang Utans.

Not cool.

But only by today's standards.
Back then, people like Wallace were merely providing specimens for naturalist collections set up for the advancement of scientific knowledge. In fact, the rarer the animal, the more sought-after and valuable it was and there are documented incidents where some collectors commissioned entire hunting expeditions, and then prided themselves in owning the very last specimen ever recorded of a particular species. Killing, and even exterminating animals for scientific purposes in order to "preserve them for posterity" was perfectly acceptable.

According to Inuit myth, a urine-soaked cloth was once whipped from an old lady's hand and carried out to Sea, where it turned into a sea monster called "skalugsuak". Of its legendary peculiarities, skalugsuak lives for 200 years, has thousands of teeth, weighs over a ton, eats caribou whole, has skin that can destroy human flesh, and may even possess—in place of eyes—living, glowing creatures which lure its prey.
But skalugsuak isn’t a fable—it’s a real Shark, whose flesh is so packed with urea that it smells and tastes like urine. Commonly known as the Greenland Shark, the animal is the apex predator of the eastern Arctic. When their carcasses have washed up, scientists have opened their stomachs to find eels, sharks, beluga whales, sea birds, dog, horse, polar bear, reindeer, a human foot, and a lot of fish, and they’ve even been reported to hunt caribou in the manner of a crocodile ambush.
Very little work is currently being conducted on the smelly monster, and virtually nothing is known about its behavior.

In the name of science, University of Windsor's Aaron Fisk hauls monster Greenland Sharks out of the frigid Arctic depths, then guts them to see what they had for dinner. Research has shown they grow very slowly -- about one centimeter a year - so the Sharks Fisk has studied that measure three to four meters probably lived several hundred years.

Somebody has to do it, says Fisk.

Yeah - right (and yes, I'm about to embark on yet another rant....... again).
"Somebody" just has to go kill an animal that is several hundred years old in order to find out what it eats. With a name like Somniosus microcephalus, i.e. the sleepy tiny brained one, it's likely to be too sluggish, and too dumb to notice anyway.
After all, it's all being done for the advancement of scientific knowledge: thus in the Big Scheme of things, the small sacrifice of a few individuals is absolutely irrelevant.


Try substituting "Greenland Sharks" with another arctic top predator and see how you feel about that. How about
"Beluga Whales"?
"Polar Bears"?

When i was a student in the 70ies, Biology was largely being pursued for the sake of increasing scientific knowledge per se.
All too often, the objects of the research were just that, Objects: to be examined in an objective , dispassionate, analytical way. Any emotional attachment, let alone Love and Awe for the animals was being frowned upon as being highly suspect of carrying the risk of unduly influencing the findings.
Thus, to make an example, killing a couple dozen Sharks in order to explore the anatomical peculiarities of their vision was perfectly acceptable, the same way as it was acceptable to kill a dozen Orang Utans in the 19th century.

But in the 21st century, the Big Picture I believe is this:

In this day and age where the Planet is going to shit largely because of us, Life is just too precious - even that of a greedy, ungainly, smelly, poisonous, stupid and ugly deep-sea monster.

Today, investing scarce and valuable scientific resources both in terms of brainpower and funds can only have one possible justification, and that is that to preserve what's left and hopefully, to reverse the tide of ecological degradation and species extinction.

Thus, I believe, modern age Biological Research has to be able to withstand the following double test:
- are the purpose of the research, and its likely results, aimed at achieving those aims?
- and, is the method employed to collect the required data the least invasive one possible?

Everything else is not only frivolous and wasteful, it is also profoundly unethical - especially when it involves killing wildlife.
And guys, please: show the Love and the Respect!

This is precisely why before engaging in Research on Shark Reef, we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the Why and the How.
This is why instead of attaching our radio tags externally where they would be happily beeping away for years to come whilst however greatly irritating the skin, we prefer to feed them to the animals, this despite the fact that we will only be able to collect a maximum of two weeks' data.
This is also why when we deploy satellite tags on the Bull Sharks, we do it underwater, at the risk of losing the tags at a rate of several thousand dollars a pop. The alternative would be catching them, hauling them aboard and using a drill to secure the tags to the dorsal fin . Very effective for sure - but at what consequence to the animals?

Investigating a Shark's diet may conceivably allow for the formulation of better-adapted Conservation strategies and thus, contribute to its survival.
But is it equally cool to go out of one's way, undoubtedly at great expense of money and personal hardship, to go catch, and then kill them in person when there must already be thousands of available and equally valuable specimen caught by local fishermen? In a sub-zero environment where carcasses don't rot?

You be the Judge of that.


redapes said...

Every so often that reference to poaching orangutans pops up online, and the insanity of it never ceases to amaze me.

I work in the field of orangutan conservation and we have such a hard time getting people interested enough to protect orangutans from imminent extinction (due to palm oil plantations encroaching on their forest at a rate of 6 football fields a minute!).

Your advocacy on behalf of sharks must be tremendously frustrating as not only do people have a hard time 'relating' to sharks... they've actually been conditioned by the media to fear and loathe them.....

I just saw a piece about the growing demand for shark fin soup among the growing Chinese middle class.... How can you stop that?

Keep fighting the good fight...

I invite you and your readers to visit the Orangutan Outreach website to learn about our work to protect the red apes:


Richard Zimmerman
Director, Orangutan Outreach
Reach out and save the orangutans!

DaShark said...

Whow, I would have never dreamed to get a response from your nick of the World - aint communication a wonderful thing!
Great website and great cause, good on 'ya! And very interesting to hear that Orangutans have been re-classified into two species!

To answer your question, Yes I'm sometimes frustrated.

Not as much at the conditions though. I consider them to be somewhat inevitable - if you will,they are the Extended Phenotype of Homo sapiens, to reap and pillage in his quest for Lebensraum.

All we can do is to give it our very best in trying to slow down what often seems to be inevitable.
Are we going to succeed in saving Sharks (and the Great Apes) from extinction? Quite frankly, I don't know. When it comes to pelagic species, i fear we won't.
Mind you, we're talking of select "lucky" iconic species. Other equally threatened ones, like, say, Tuna and Swordfish, have no advocates whatsoever. Is that "fair"?

So, I try to concentrate on what's left in the glass and try not to get too frustrated by its emptiness. Shark Conservation has come a long way and that in itself is a good thing.

What however riles me is heartless and frivolous science.
And the infighting, fragmentation and squandering of resources by conservationists.
Supposedly, those are the people with the brainpower and one would have hoped that they would have known better.

the One called "Bitey"... said...

I watched this particular episode of Shark Week, and I was really torn on the activity - while I would normally prefer to see sharks protected and studied in much more natural terms (i.e., behavior, as opposed to dissection), the greenland shark does pose a special hardship here, since the water is normally too cold, too dark, too deep and too remote for long-term diving studies. We also do know a great deal about the eyes and ears of sharks from these very dissections in general. So I don't know.
I would have to say: if you can readily dive with and take notes, do that; if a specimen must absolutely be killed (and I'm not sure they must anymore, like you say), find one or two that died from other means and get everything you possibly can out of them.

As a general matter, I can't see much justification for any shark killing, under any circumstances. Are the people studying bears & cheetahs killing every one of those they find? Hardly....

DaShark said...

Terry: Exactly!

And mind you, nowadays, there are not many Cheetah carcasses available to science - but I'm sure, plenty of Greenland Sharks caught by fishermen!

Plus, considering the wealth of information you can find on some of the links in the post, what possible novel conclusions can result from this? And at the price of how many killed Sharks in order to make it all statistically relevant?

We constantly get requests from scientists for DNA samples (which we take underwater), invasive and frivolous research (do Bull Sharks prefer chicken or ham - serious!), and dead animals, which we politely decline.

The point I'm trying to make is that "nice to know" Biology isn't good enough anymore.
It has to be "need to know", and that in function of its utility for Conservation.

Horizon Charters Guadalupe Cage Diving said...

I think this blog post is on the money, well done, well written, and well said.

Killing a shark for Discovery, or was Discovery on hand for the shark necropsy?

Reminds me of that old S.W South African show with Dr. Rocky Strong where they towed a dead whale they found into a closed feeding environment to see what would happen. The show culminated with Dr.Strong sitting on the carcass while sharks chomped through his "blubber island".

DaShark said...

Thanks, Appreciate! Really!

Let me cite from an e-mail I've just received from somebody "in the know".

"I watched that particular program and was insulted and dismayed by the whole debacle.
From the beginning the "talent" kept saying repeatedly thrughout the program that the producers at Discovery would be really upset if he could not fulfill their assignment.....of catching, studying and tagging a Greenland the name of "much needed science" for this species of shark. They had weather issues, equipment issues, time constraints, over budget and most sharks initially.
This is how Discovery has always worked in the numerous films I did with them. The producers tell the field crew what they are to matter how absurd it can be......and never considering the nature of whatever animal they are maybe it is impossible to get that animal to "perform" that exact way as the producers perceived!"


"In the Greenland shark show they inadvertantly killed the first shark....then justified his death by butchering it in the name of science. They caught a second shark and it was obviously dead however they had to tag and release a shark in the name of science and to satisfy the Discovery bosses so they pretended it was alive, tagged it, measured it, talked about it at great length while it lay on the ice in a spreading pool of blood and feces before ceremoniously sliding it back in the ice hole...."releasing" it to collect data. (I wish I could have had that Sat tag they wasted!) The animal never twitched a muscle or moved a fin from the time they brought his line entangled body up on to the ice to the time it sank out of sight upon its tagged "release".
After this we stopped watching anymore Shark Week."