LIVE Animal Key Rings – The latest fashion must have.

It is not often that I present only one side of an argument. I like to give both sides of the debate, or at least not only represent my own opinion – in practice for my future career (fingers crossed!). In a lot of my posts, I look at why circumstances are as they are, and try and see the bigger picture. That said there are times when I feel exceptions can be made and here is one of those exceptions:

A couple of weeks ago I came across an article that literally disgusted me. I thought animal cruelty only happened because of a minority of individuals who didn’t care or were more concerned with self-interests. I had faith that the vast majority of humanity would be as outraged with animal cruelty as me. That was until I read this article, describing the new fashion craze to hit Beijing: Live animal key rings.

I was outraged to read that the younger generation are being sold turtle hatchlings, a newt or two small fish. These helpless animals are sold in a sealed plastic bag, with a brightly coloured liquid and enough oxygen to survive a couple of days at the most. Worse still, because these animals are not endangered there is no legislation to protect them from abuse, cruelty or being shaken in a plastic bag until they die of shock or complete deprivation of oxygen.

The RSPCA are working with the Chinese government to draft legislation but you have to wonder how effective it will be. In a country where it has always been ok to mistreat animals, will people change their opinions? Furthermore with future generations learning the bad habits of their elders, with ridiculous fashion accessories, can the mind-set of China change? Adding to this problem we shouldn’t forget despite this being a truly awful case, it is by no means the worst thing going on in China. So is it even a priority? And how do you enforce something so few people seem to care about? There are certainly many issues that face China, I just worry that asking for an almost complete transformation of culture and beliefs is really going to happen. Is it just too much to ask for?

Live animals as key rings
Live animals as key rings - the latest fashion must have!

Ivory Crisis: A simple case of supply and demand.

Those of you who regularly read my blog will be aware I have more than a soft spot for Elephants. I’ve never had a favourite animal but I think the Elephant is fast becoming a contender. Like so many animals, Elephants have never had it easy and it seems things won’t get better any time soon.

A study published this year called The Ivory Dynasty, discusses the soaring demand for elephant and mammoth ivory in southern China. The results of the study are shocking. A 50% increase in the number of ivory items in Guangzhou (the largest city in southern China), is suspected to be a result of a wealthy Chinese population. In 2009 factory sales were low due to the recession, but have steadily improved in 2010 with an increase in Chinese buyers demanding luxury items. All ivory sold in China must carry an ID card, proving that it has been imported legally. Of all the Elephant ivory counted in Guangzhou and Fuzhou (a city famous for carving) 63% did not have ID cards and are therefore illegal pieces of ivory.

The only legal elephant ivory to enter China since 1990 was 62 tonnes of confiscated tusks, and tusks from elephants that had died naturally. This ivory came from southern Africa in 2009. Some experts believe this one-off shipment has fuelled demand for Elephant ivory. Mammoth ivory is imported legally from Siberia, to Hong Kong (to avoid import tax) and then on to China. The ivory then goes to various factories, usually in either Guangzhou or Fuzhou to be carved. Some experts have speculated that the increase in mammoth ivory objects may have taken away some of the demand for Elephant ivory. However, both types of ivory are in increasing demand with the rising wealth and population of China.

The Ivory Dynasty goes on to call for stronger enforcement of the laws already in place. The authors of the study recommend regular inspections of the small stalls and shops in market areas, as well as the shops registered to sell ivory. The authors also ask for mammoth ivory to have a similar ID card system, to stop elephant ivory being sold as mammoth ivory.

The final sentence of The Ivory Dynasty is “If Chinese officials and traders can tighten their controls and law enforcement; they can reduce the illegal ivory trade in China”. However, the chief enforcement officer of CITES (Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species) criticises The Ivory Dynasty’s recommendations stating that it is anti-poaching measures that will save Elephants. I am not sure I agree with either of these statements. The fact of the matter is that if the demand is there (I.e. people want ivory) there will always be someone prepared to supply it – whatever the cost. I believe it is the demand that must be stopped before there is any chance of stopping the trade. Saying that, it is easier said than done and as ivory becomes more and more difficult to supply, so the demand (or desirability) increases. Unfortunately for the Elephant, it is hard to see an end to this trade.


Further Reading

The Ivory Dynasty –

The Natural History Museum – fantastic, if not a little misleading!

Last weekend I took a trip down to London to visit a friend. As I haven’t been to the capital in around 10 years this was an ideal opportunity for me to “do the museums”. By that I mean the Natural History Museum (NHM) and the Science Museum. In particular, I found the NHM was excellent. Not only did the exhibits cater to the interests of me, a humble Zoology student, but also to the needs of young children and adults. There was a life size (and moving!) Tyrannosaur Rex, a huge collection of mammals and a detailed human evolution section.

I found it commendable that despite some of their taxidermy becoming discoloured, they had no intentions to replace it – to prevent more animals from being killed. The whole museum was alive with children running around fascinated by what they were seeing. Don’t forget, these children are the future of science, potentially discovering things in the future that we can’t even begin to imagine!

HOWEVER, I was a little disappointed when I saw a sign stating that the reason Stegosaurus’ had plates on their back was to regulate body heat.  It is true that some scientists believe this, but there are many other potential explanations for the characteristic plates (such as armour, strengthening of the back for locomotion, or a source of calcium for egg shells and many more). While each of these explanations has evidence to support it, there is no majority consensus. As a result I found it bizarre that the NHM would make such a statement, which was completely misleading to the general public.

But it is not the first time the general public have been mislead or misinformed by the scientific community. I have recently read “The Discovery of Global Warming” by Spencer Weart, and I found the book to be riddled with examples which mislead or confuse the public. It seems to me, the problem is the very fundamental principle of science – debate, and criticism. Theories are constantly being disproved, or rather improved, as our understanding grows. This is how science works. But how are the public meant to have confidence in scientists when they are always changing their mind?

The situation is not helped by the media. A good story is something dramatic and striking, such as a huge volcanic eruption, a 20°C temperature crash/rise, or a 5m rise in sea levels. When the IPCC released their “Hockey Stick Graph” (see below) in 2001, showing there had been a warming of the northern hemisphere of a couple of degrees at the very most, journalists were not particularly inspired to cover the front pages. They found more time for the controversial scientists who predicted extreme changes in weather in the very near future.

The Hockey Stick Graph - Millennial Northern Hemisphere (NH) temperature reconstruction (blue - tree rings, corals, ice cores, and historical records) and instrumental data (red) from AD 1000 to 1999. Smoother version of NH series (black), and two standard error limits (gray shaded) are shown". Adapted from the MBH99 graph which Jerry Mahlman nicknamed the "hockey stick".

So what does this all mean for the relationship between science and the public? The way science works is not going to change. The way the public trust what the media is telling them is also unlikely to change. And the majority of members of the public are not going to pay to access papers from the experts that their colleagues can scarcely understand. So what would solve this problem? I think the journalists reporting on science should be educated, or at least have a background in science. They would therefore be able to give a reasonable version of events and current thinking in the science community. It may not make the front pages, but surely that is better than the public losing all confidence in science.



Further reading

Internal vascularity of the dermal plates of Stegosaurus by Farlow et al (2010).

Britain’s badgers – is a vaccine enough to stop the cull?

Britain’s badgers – is a vaccine enough to stop the cull? – Another case of too little too late.


If you have read any of my previous blogs (if not I encourage you to do so!!) you will be aware that I grew up in the heart of the English Lake District. Well known for its beautiful views and incredible wildlife, the Lake District has been a wonderful place to grow up. However, living in an area with so much wildlife, humans and animals inevitably collide. In my younger years I remember quite clearly seeing road kill and being quite effected by it. It seemed to me that one animal, the badger; I only got to see when it was dead at the side of the road. As I got older I began to understand the issue a little more and even came across rumours that the mysterious badger is not always killed accidently.

Tuberculosis is a global killer usually infecting the lungs and an estimated third of the human population is thought to be infected. In Britain badgers are commonly blamed for transmitting bovine tuberculosis to cattle. To a farmer, any single animal lost to tuberculosis puts pressure on the farmer’s finances and of course reduces the public’s confidence in the British meat market. If a population of badgers become infected, it could only be a matter of time before cattle become infected. My research has found speculation that in extreme cases this leads to farmers not slowing down when they see a badger, but in fact speeding up, and killing these animals to protect their livelihood.

After all the years of seeing badgers at the side of the road it is clear to me that this can’t continue. So what is the solution? There are two options available: cull or vaccine. The first option has been at the fore front of the badger debate for some time. Badgers are protected in the UK, but this proposal would see that ban lifted and permit landowners and farmers to freely shoot any badgers they see. The cull has been debated in government for many years and is always met with strong opposition. The problem with culling is it is neither humane nor particularly effective. The badger is a popular part of Britain’s ecosystem and no one wants to be out on a walk, or driving down a country lane and see people shooting badgers. Secondly, for the cull to be effective every single badger needs to be shot, to stop the disease spreading (regardless of if the badger is infected or not). Furthermore, if even one infected badger from a sett survives, it could move to another previously uninfected region, causing even more devastation. To me this does not seem fair, and regardless of the effect the badgers may have on the farming industry, it feels a little immoral.

Vaccination seems like a much more humane option as opposed to a potential extermination. With culling trials set to start as early as 2012, it is a race against time to prove curing is the answer. On face value it might be difficult to understand why culling is ever preferred to curing, but the badger’s mysteriousness is in this case its downfall. It is one thing to find a badger sett, it is another to then catch and vaccinate all the badgers in that sett. It is certainly cheaper to just shoot every badger, if your morals will allow it. Figures released from Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) state that it costs £2,250 a year to vaccinate a square kilometre, but just £200 per square kilometre a year to kill. Bovine tuberculosis already costs the UK £100 million per year, so the ‘nicer’ more humane vaccination may not be an option financially.

Is there any hope for the badger then? For the vaccine to work I believe there are three things that need to change. Firstly the farmers need to be onboard with the scheme and change their attitude towards badgers. This means no longer killing the badgers, but instead working with the government officials, volunteers and badger experts to find a humane solution to the problem. Another stumbling block for the vaccination option is the price. It is hard to imagine the government choosing to vaccinate the badgers, when it costs 10 times the amount it does to kill them (especially in the current economical climate).  It would be much cheaper to use an oral vaccine but that is not expected to be ready for trials until 2015, which may well be too little too late. Under current proposals it would seem that there is little hope for the badger’s future existence. I would like to think that culling will be a last resort, only used when all other possible methods have been trialled. However I fear that the cost to the tax payer and the farming industry in the UK may sign the death warrant for this species.

A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

A month in the life of a Zoo Keeper – My experience of favouritism and guilt.

For the last month I have been working at a local zoo, looking after 3 very demanding, very hungry female Asian Elephants. The last month has been a rollercoaster of emotions and opinions about the ethics and morality of zoos and I hope to outline those feelings to you now.

When I first applied for the work experience position I had what I would call a “typical scientific opinion” of zoos. That is, I thought zoos have a two prong strategy: to inform the public of the threats facing endangered animals (and hopefully gain some charitable donations), and to take part in breeding programmes to change population numbers for the better. Obviously I thought all this went on with the utmost care and consideration for the animals in question. This was my mind set when I started working at the zoo and in the vast majority of cases I was correct.

The elephants were fantastic. I remember saying on my first day that I wouldn’t have a favourite but that quickly changed when I developed a small soft spot for one of the elephants called Kate. Before I knew it I found myself sticking up for her in arguments, and throwing her that extra slice of melon or pineapple on the sly. After my first week I found myself noticing their hierarchy, day to day behaviour and individual qwerks. By the end of the month they knew my face, trusted my voice and (regardless of whether I was right or wrong) I felt like one of the family.

As well as the elephants I also spent a lot of time around the big cats. Similarly to Kate, I soon developed a soft spot for our Amur Tiger called Zam. Tigers are largely solitary animals, but they do come into contact with other members of their species from time to time. But what happens in a zoo environment? In the wild, Zam at least has the possibility that he might bump into another tiger, (hopefully a female!) but in the zoo, day in day out it is guaranteed he will never see a male or female of his species – no exception. This is where I start to question my opinions. There is no question Zam is a vital part of the Amur Tiger breeding programme, and the zoo continually provide enrichment for him but is he living his life to the full? Should we try and save endangered species for future generations of tigers, regardless of the cost, or burden it may put on the current generation? Zam may be very happy when he gets a scheduled visit from a female, but that female can’t stay with him forever – it isn’t in the nature of Tigers to live in breeding pairs. So for the majority of his time he will be on his own. It upsets me knowing how his life will pan out, with no where new to explore, no females to pursue or males to fight. These were my thoughts half way through the month, and they were depressing. But let us not forget successful breeding programmes do exist, and I believe it would be morally criminal to let these beautiful creatures go extinct without even trying to save them.

So what do I think now after my time at the zoo? Well in the case of the elephants: all 3 of them are too old to breed and 2 of the 3 are from the circus. The other has lived all but one year of her life in captivity. Since none of the elephants therefore possess the skills to live in the wild, I personally think they have a very good quality of life – and undoubtedly better than their life in the circus. In the case of Zam I am not so sure. He has certainly made it clear to me that my opinions on zoos a month ago were quite naive.  I feel for Zam, but at the same time, the sacrifice he is making could be the difference between his species surviving or becoming extinct. I guess the real point here is Zam shouldn’t have to sacrifice his life in the first place. It is neither his nor his species fault. So what is the place of zoos? Perhaps the zoos will eventually manage to right some of the wrongs done to animals, and provide a home to those whom no longer have one. Perhaps they won’t. As I said, it would be criminal not to try and save these beautiful animals. Those of you lucky enough to spend long periods of time with endangered animals as I have will agree: heart strings are pulled, moral stances are questioned and finally a sense of guilt and shame overwhelms. These creatures suffer, and the sad truth is: in the most part it is our own species’ fault.

The sad truth about British indigenous species – not exotic or exciting and too familiar?



The sad truth about British indigenous species – not exotic or exciting and too familiar?


Those of you who have read my “About me” section will know that I am currently doing work experience at a local zoo on the Elephants and Big Cats section. The past two weeks have been excellent so far, with many experiences which I hope will stay with me forever. Working at the zoo, I have noticed the incredible number of “opportunities” visitors have to donate money to charities the zoo supports. There are literally collection boxes everywhere! Now don’t get me wrong, there are thousands of endangered species in the world and the sad truth is without the continual financial support of the public they probably will become extinct. However, I think we often forget about the less exotic species, found closer to home.

I was astonished to find that there are 10 species of animal indigenous to Britain that are on the brink of disappearing forever, including the cuckoo, red squirrel (see my second blog) and the iconic British hedgehog. Over the last 10 years the hedgehog population has declined 25% to 1 million. If this decline continues at the current rate, hedgehogs will be extinct in 15 years. A reduction in habitat is the main problem facing the hedgehog, resulting in sharing of their habitat with predatory badgers as well as humans in residential areas. In the residential areas, hedgehogs have to fight against pesticides killing their food (caterpillars and beetles), as well as rat poison, strimming and mowing. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. An additional 50,000 hedgehogs on average are killed by motorists or drown in garden ponds.

As mentioned above hedgehogs are not the only species indigenous to Britain that are under threat. There has been a huge effort recently to understand the 60% decline in cuckoo populations over the last 25 years. The behaviour of these birds is well known in our own country but on return from their annual migration to Africa, there seems to be fewer birds than expected. Researchers decided to fit 5 birds with a 5 gram tracking system to see where and when the migrating cuckoos run into trouble. Currently all 5 birds are in Africa, 4 of which have crossed the Sahara heading south.

Saving endangered species has two key parts. Firstly researchers must work to understand the problems facing the animal in question, and then create a strategy to not only positively influence the animal’s population numbers, but also ensure no damage is caused to the animal’s ecosystem. Secondly, once the strategy is approved money must be injected to see the plan through. In terms of Britain’s situation this may be where the likes of the hedgehog and the cuckoo come stuck. The British public already donate a huge amount of money to charities supporting endangered animals outside the UK, but asking them to support British animals instead or as well as, in the current economic climate may prove too much to ask. I fear it may be true that it is the exotic and unfamiliar that will get the limited financial backing and in this case, that does not mean support towards Britain’s indigenous species. It is of course your decision but I urge you to think about the animals you are supporting and not forget the ones closer to home.



Blog 8 - Hedgehog vs Tiger
Hedgehog vs Tiger, which would you choose?



British Hedgehog Preservation Society –

Cuckoo tracking website – Location via Google Maps of all 5 cuckoos and a link to a donation page –



Humans vs. our 3.7 million year old ancestor: Not so different after all?

Humans vs. our 3.7 million year old ancestor: Not so different after all?

I love my degree (Zoology), but if I had to choose a different degree which I think I would enjoy equally it would be Biological Anthropology, otherwise known as the physical development of the human species or more generally human evolution. I am not alone in my fascination for this subject. It is shared with many people from our own species, all trying to understand who, what, where and when we came from.  The modern technological revolution has resulted in a huge leap forward in genetics and computer simulation which has increased our knowledge in this area astronomically. This allows scientists to refine, and/or recreate previously used methods in a hope to increase the accuracy of their conclusions.

A paper recently published in the Journal of the Royal Society has used new methodology to show that the first known fully bipedal hominin footprints are 3.7 million years old – 1.8 million years older than previously thought. The research was carried out by scientists at the Universities of Liverpool, Manchester and Bournemouth. The footprints, (discovered in Laetoli, Africa) are much more similar to a modern human than expected. Using computer simulation the gait of these hominins can be recreated, and that too is very similar to modern humans.

The method of using footprints as a way to visualise the individual that left them is relatively new one but has revolutionised our understanding of early bipedalism in hominins. First, computer software creates a 3D image of the foot which left the footprint, which is then compared to modern human footprints. The software can also show where the most pressure is applied when making the print. This relates to the posture of the individual and so can also be useful in visualising the print maker. All this information is then brought together to identify the most likely printmaker based on what we already know about the morphology of past hominins. In this case the 3.7 million year old footprints were made by a member of Australopithecus afarensis. It was previously thought that A. afarensis used the side of its foot to walk but the pressure points identified show that was not the case. This research shows that A. afarensis actually used it’s big toe to push off from the ground, much like a modern human. Furthermore the early hominin had a much more upright posture than previously thought and had a gait very similar to modern day humans.

It is widely accepted that A. afarensis is a direct ancestor of the Homo lineage, and therefore a direct ancestor of modern humans too. As I discussed in my previous blog, research is been carried out to try and decipher what it is that makes humans unique. It was long thought the answer was our big brains, which resulted in our upright posture, which was our great advantage. However this research shows that at the time when the hominin lineage developed a big brain (2.4-1.5 million years ago), hominins had already been walking upright for at least 1.5 million years. As a result this quest to know what it is that makes us unique is still left wide open. What is clear is that modern humans have a passion to know things, in particular to know about ourselves and what we came from. The advances in technology are allowing us to take further conclusions from the evidence available to us and to learn from it. There is after all that old cliché: how can you know yourself without first knowing where you came from.


Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.

Humans: not so unique, not so special? The case of the clever Mandrill.  


Not so long ago the world of science was very different. Leading scientists of their age believed in alchemy, a 6000 year old (flat) Earth and that DNA was unimportant. Another belief was that humans were superior to any other animal on the planet. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin presented his theory of natural selection in the 19th Century that opinions began to change. As we all know, this theory made people think again about where or more importantly from what species originated and ultimately that humans are not so different from other animals.

Since that realisation, more evidence from genetics to behavioural studies has been gathered which further supports the theory. In the 1970s it was thought that humans were the only primates that used tools, but since then evidence of tool use and/or manipulation has been found in a number of primates including chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans and capuchins. Current scientific thinking is to study these behaviours and see how they can help us understand the evolution of our own tool use behaviour.

Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill  

A paper was published in May this year which describes the use of tools by alpha male mandrill monkey in captivity at Chester Zoo, England. To confirm the use of tools the mandrills were videoed over 252 hours, of which the alpha male demonstrated tool use 7 times. The tool use observed involved the alpha male picking up and studying wood chip and bark from the floor surface. The preferred wood chip and bark was then broken down into twigs and again into splinters. The splinters were then used to clean underneath the toenails of each foot. After a splinter broke, or had worn down too much, a new splinter was selected.

It is clear from this observation that this captive mandrill is able to identify, manipulate and use tools. As the behaviour was not a one off, it can be implied that the act was achieved intentionally. It is unlikely the mandrill is imitating a human it has seen behaving in this way due to the mandrill’s environment. But it is possible the mandrill was only able to develop this behaviour due to the extra time available as a result of not having to find food.

While it is obvious more studies, using different mandrills are required to further support this study, mandrills can now be considered as a tool using and modifying animal. The study also provides more evidence that it is not just the great apes that display tool use, but also other old world monkeys such as the capuchins and mandrills.

Final thoughts

A question that has been frequently asked about the human species is: what makes us so special? For a long time people thought it was our tool use, but with so much evidence to contradict that being our unique feature it seems unlikely. A relatively new theory presented by Professor Paul M. Bingham and Joanne Souza suggests that our uniqueness is our ability to demonstrate non-kin independent social cooperation. That is, our ability to form a culture, to socialise within that culture and to cooperate regardless of relatedness. Obviously this is and can only be a theory, and like any theory it is being tested, but it is gaining scientific backing.

This case is an example of how scientists do get some things wrong, even fundamental knowledge such as the shape of the earth or the origins of our species. What is important is the progression from one theory to another one, with better evidence supporting that new theory – otherwise known as the scientific method. This method is the foundation of science and with its continual use we can begin to understand some of the most fundamental questions facing science.


Further Reading

Journal Article:

Pansini R, Et al. 2001. Observation of tool use and modification for apparent hygiene purposes in a mandrill. Behavioural processes.

News article covering the story:

The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?

The snow leopard: a forgotten casualty of war?


In the busy modern world we all live in it is sometimes easy to forget the bigger picture. I for one will admit I don’t think about famine, poverty, global warming or war every day. That isn’t because I don’t care, but it is simply easy to forget when comfortably living in the UK. When times are hard in countries experiencing this kind of problem it is also easy to think just of the people affected. But there is a great effect on the animals in these countries too. The official start of the war in Afghanistan was in 2001 and since that time snow leopards have been discovered in the north east of the country.

General Information

Snow leopards are the largest of the big cats currently listed as endangered. They are native to south and central Asia as well as Afghanistan. The snow leopards preferred habitat is steep terrain (3000m – 4500m) with cliffs, ridges, gullies and rocky outcrops, but can also be found in grassland, scrubland and open coniferous forest. Over the last 16 years the population numbers of snow leopards has decreased by 20%, with a wild population between 4,500 – 7,500 and an estimated 2,500 mature breeding individuals. A study has recently been released in the International Journal of Environmental Studies describing the work carried out by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) to manage snow leopard populations over the last 5 years in Afghanistan.

Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor.

Wakhan is located to the north west of Afghanistan and the corridor connects it with China. The first aim of the study was to confirm local villagers’ reports that snow leopards are present in the Wakhan corridor. This was achieved by setting up camera traps and then using the photographs to identify individuals and attempt to estimate the population size. The results suggested there was a high population of snow leopards in the area, but more testing was required to eliminate pseudo replicates.

The next step was to identify the threats facing the snow leopards and then create a management plan which not only aids the snow leopards, but also the local villagers. The threats identified were poaching for fur, removal of live specimens for private wildlife collections or zoos, and killing of the snow leopards by shepherds to protect their livestock. All these factors contribute to a possible local extinction if a management plan is not introduced.

As previously mentioned the management plan needs to aid the villagers as well as the snow leopards. The communities that live in the Wakhan Corridor are very poor and disadvantaged, as well as having a very high child mortality rate. Unfortunately this means in times of extreme hardship the villagers see the snow leopards as a source of income. To educate the villagers, the Wakhan Pamir Association (WPA) was formed. The WPA is a group of elected villagers that receive support and training in conservation management and livelihood development. These skills are then implemented to plan ways to sustain and manage the natural resources in the Wakhan Corridor. A group formed by the WPA is the ranger program. This is a group of 54 villagers and 5 experts responsible for monitoring illegal activities as well as patrolling and surveying the local wildlife. Furthermore the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has provided assistance for the villagers in constructing predator proof livestock pens to attempt to stop local shepherds killing the snow leopards.

Another important aspect of the new management plan is educating the villagers. This involves village to village consultations as well as taking villagers to visit neighbouring Pakistan where snow leopard and villager communities live together successfully. Another highly valued aspect of the programme is educating the children on snow leopards. These practices show a gradual cultural change in Wakhan adults towards conservation. The key towards this cultural change is giving the people in the Wakhan corridor facts rather than myths and rumours. For example, it is believed that snow leopards are responsible for the death of many of the livestock found in Wakhan. However, after this study it was found the actual number of livestock mortalities snow leopards were responsible for was 0.5%. It was in fact found that the vast majority of livestock mortalities were a result of wolf predation.

It is clear a significant proportion of the threats facing snow leopards are due to villager misunderstandings. In an animal population which typically has very low densities, such misunderstandings could be detrimental. Furthermore, in a country struggling to cope with the social, economical and political effects of war, a top-down strategy from government to community may not be effective or quick enough. It seems the current bottom-up strategy will have the greatest effect, and hopefully will avoid further population decline. The future of the snow leopard is uncertain but hopefully the WPA and WWF can work with the villagers to rescue population numbers before it is too late.


Further Reading

WWF snow leopard page –

Journal paper – Simms, A. Et al, 2011. Saving threatened species in Afghanistan: snow leopards in the Wakhan Corridor. International Journal of Environmental Studies, 68 (3), pages 299-312.


Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

Invertebrates telling water’s dirtiest secrets – L’Esteron River, Saint-Auban, France.

As promised, here is a brief overview of the work I did in Saint-Auban, France on L’Esteron River. I decided to study the possibility of pollution from a water treatment works (WTW) that has recently been built entering the river.



Pollution – At its worst is a global killer. As our population increases so does pollution, potentially resulting in major disease and catastrophic environmental issues. This is not just an issue in cities, but also in the countryside as people look to less built up areas to live. In some cases this leads to pollution disturbing the environment we would otherwise describe as clean and natural.

So what part do invertebrates play in pollution? Each family of invertebrates differs in their ability to tolerate different types and different levels of pollution. This coupled with their high prevalence and ease of capture makes the invertebrates an ideal indicator of pollution. To quantify the water quality in a river system the Biological Monitoring Working Party (BMWP) score is used. This takes pollution tolerant families such as the worms and gives them a score of 1, and pollution intolerant families such as the mayflies and gives them a score of 10. The assumption made is that pollution intolerant families are found in non-polluted water, and that pollution tolerant families are found in polluted water. Every family present at a sampled site is given a score from 1-10, and the sum of those scores is used to relate to the BMWP to give an indication of water quality.

Hypothesis 1: The water quality is poorer downstream of the Water Treatment Works relative to upstream of the Water Treatment Works

Hypothesis 2: The water will be of better quality the further downstream of the Water Treatment Works is sampled.


Methodology & Results

Three sites were sampled, one upstream of the WTW two downstream and six kick samples taken

Figure 1

at each site (See Figure 1 – adjacent). The kick sample collects any sediment and invertebrates within that sediment into a net. Once each sample was transferred from the net to a

box, it was taken back to the lab for identification. The kick samples showed

which invertebrate families were present at each site. Each family was then given a score, and the scores combined to give the BMWP score.

From Figure 2 (bottom of post) it is clear two dominant families were found at sites 1 and 3 – the Freshwater Shrimp (Gammaridae) and the Mayfly nymphs (Ephemeridae). Both these families are indicative of non-polluted water. At site 2 the most dominant family is the worms (Oligochaeta).The worms are particularly indicative to polluted water. This would comply with hypothesis 1 in that the invertebrates found at sites 1 and 3 differ dramatically to those at site 2. Furthermore the invertebrates found at site 2 indicate more polluted waters compared to the water at site 1.

Site 3 also seems to have a mixture of the diversity found at sites 1 and 2. The BMWP score for site 1 was moderate water quality, site 2 was poor water quality and site 3 was moderate water quality. The mixture of diversity at 3 insinuates the water can support both pollution tolerant and intolerant invertebrates, and therefore there is a relative water quality recovery from site 2 to site 3.

A general observation made from the samples was that the size of freshwater shrimps, as well as the total number of pregnant females was much greater at site 1 compared to site 3. It could be hypothesised that this is because there are more appropriate nutrients at site 1 compared to site 3. For example there could be more calcium at site 1, which is required for the crustaceans’ exoskeleton. At site 3 it could then be speculated that this free calcium has combined with any nitrate or phosphate pollution from the WTW, making calcium nitrate or calcium phosphate, which is inaccessible to the crustaceans in this state.

A chi square statistical test was used to test the data obtained for significance. For a degree of freedom of 22, the critical value in the chi square table at the 1% level is 48.27, and the chi square value from the data obtained here is 125. Therefore the data obtained is significant at the 1% level, or the probability of the data being obtained randomly is less than 0.01.



It is important to note that while these results do show that there is more pollution in the river at site 2 compared to site 1, there is no evidence as to where this pollution has entered the river. It is true that the only human activity between site 1 and 2 is the WTW but there could be other unknown contributions to the poor water quality such as surface run-off, or dumping of rubbish and other human waste. Therefore the results from this report can justify claiming there is pollution entering the L’Esteron River between sites 1 and 2. The source of that pollution can be speculated to be the WTW, but ultimately there is no evidence to directly prove or disprove that claim.

It is of vital importance that the pollution entering the river is monitored at least annually to ensure the pollution does not get any worse. If it does worsen the findings from this report and the findings from future reports should be forwarded to the WTW and the local governing body to try and solve the problem.



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Croft, P. S. (1986). “A key to the major groups of the British Freshwater Invertebrates.” Aids to identification in difficult groups of animals and plants 6: 531-579.

Dos Santos, D. A., C. Molineri, et al. (2011). “Which index is the best to assess stream health?” Ecological Indicators 11(2): 582-589.

Greenhalgh, M. and D. Ovenden (2007). Freshwater life. London, HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.

Martin, R. (2004). “Information on Distribution Maps and Histograms.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from

NIEA. (2009). “The Biological General Quality Assessment Scheme.”   Retrieved 05/07/2011, from

Sigee, D., C. (2005). Freshwater Microbiology. Sussex, John Wiley & Sons Ltd.

Smith, J. G., C. C. Brandt, et al. (2011). “Long-Term Benthic Macroinvertebrate Community Monitoring to Assess Pollution Abatement Effectiveness.” Environmental Management 47(6): 1077-1095.

Figure 2
Figure 2