Elephants recognize the voices of their enemies

[This is true of many other animal species as well…]

African elephants can distinguish human languages, genders and ages associated with danger.

  1. An African elephant listening intently. Elephants can recognize which humans are more likely to pose a danger depending on what they sound like.

    Karen McComb

  2. A matriarch reacts with alarm after the play-back of a Maasai voice.

    Karen McComb

  3. An elephant family group on the move.

    Graeme Shannon

    Humans are among the very few animals that constitute a threat to elephants. Yet not all people are a danger — and elephants seem to know it. The giants have shown a remarkable ability to use sight and scent to distinguish between African ethnic groups that have a history of attacking them and groups that do not. Now a study reveals that they can even discern these differences from words spoken in the local tongues.

Biologists Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, guessed that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) might be able to listen to human speech and make use of what they heard. To tease out whether this was true, they recorded the voices of men from two Kenyan ethnic groups calmly saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their native languages. One of these groups was the semi-nomadic Maasai, some of whom periodically kill elephants during fierce competition for water or cattle-grazing space. The other was the Kamba, a crop-farming group that rarely has violent encounters with elephants.

The researchers played the recordings to 47 elephant family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya and monitored the animals’ behaviour. The differences were remarkable. When the elephants heard the Maasai, they were much more likely to cautiously smell the air or huddle together than when they heard the Kamba. Indeed, the animals bunched together nearly twice as tightly when they heard the Maasai.

More: http://www.nature.com/news/elephants-recognize-the-voices-of-their-enemies-1.14846?WT.ec_id=NEWS-20140311


Stop the Apocalypse—Now

It all started (or should I say, ended) back in 1998 when the Makah tribe was preparing to hunt a grey whale off the Washington coast. Like many people who grew up during the 1960s and ‘70s, I was taken with the idea of returning to a more primitive lifestyle, in “harmony with Nature” as I believed the American Indians surely were. I even spent a summer in the southeast Oregon desert, studying “Aboriginal life skills” of the Paiute people of the Northern Great Basin. It was the same survival course (taught by the same instructor) that Jean M. Auel later took as research for her “Clan of the Cave Bear” book series.

But I began to think that not all tribal people are cut of the same loincloth as the Makah made preparations to kill their NMFS quota of five whales to use for ceremonial and unspecified “commercial purposes.” You may remember the media frenzy surrounding the issue and the animal activists, including Captain Paul Watson at the helm of a Sea Shepherd ship, as well as devoted land protesters whom my wife and I supported and joined whenever we could. Unfortunately, despite months of protests and pleading, the tribe’s rag-tag whaling crew (aided by the federal government) was successful in killing a young female whale with a bullet from a highly untraditional high-powered 50 caliber rifle.

Sadly, “Yabis” (as a Makah elder and lone whale hunt detractor named the whale) could not be saved. The media, of course, defended the kill to the death, comparing the tribe’s right to shoot a whale with their own right to eat unlimited hamburgers. They did their darnedest to convince readers that the road to political correctness was through backing the tribe’s revival of their cultural tradition of killing whales. And besides, who wants to give up their hamburgers anyway?

Well, I for one. I finally saw the hypocrisy of objecting to hunting while continuing to eat farmed animals. From then on we vowed not to be complicit in the unnecessary taking of lives—150 billion a year, at last count. Up until then I had been a meat eater and an occasional fisherman. But from that moment on, I hung up my rod and reel and swore off meat and dairy, never once looking back.

Yet, I know dyed-in-the-faux-shearling vegans whose solid anti-animal abuse stance melts away like a sno-cone on a hot summer day at the first hint that an animal abuser is of aboriginal decent (not that any human being is really “native” to the America’s—some just arrived sooner than others). I may seem obstinate, but I don’t believe a prayer, a chant or any other song and dance makes an animal suffer less or end up any less dead if they were killed by a Native American.

Yet, some people buy into the notion that the mistreatment of a non-human by a native is some sort of spiritual event. Whether elk or bison, fish or whales, a killing that would normally be frowned upon is a joyous occasion when perpetrated by a tribal member. While anyone who holds to their ideals is somehow considered a “racist,” it’s the animal advocate who looks the other way as certain people do the killing who’s the real discriminator.

Shocking as it sounds, the Yellowstone bison are equally exploited fenced-in on a ranch on reservation land as they would be anywhere else in Montana; a deer or elk ends up every bit as injured or dead when shot by a tribal hunter as by the average American sport hunter; tribal gill nets do as much damage to a struggling salmon as those set out by non-Indian commercial fishermen, and a 50 caliber bullet rips into a whale with the same destructive force, no matter who pulls the trigger.

Yes, I used to be a meat-eating fisherman. I changed my ways after allowing myself to absorb facts like, “humans slaughter 6 million animals per hour!” and “20,000 more will die in the time it takes you to read these sentences!” That’s a Holocaust of farmed animals every 60 minutes! And that’s not counting fish, lobsters, shrimp, oysters, clams, krill or other sea life.

Call me a zealot, but when you realize there’s an apocalypse of animals happening right now, you want it stopped, once and for all, and by all—no exceptions.

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Text and Wildlife Photography ©Jim Robertson, 2013. All Rights Reserved

Yellowstone Bison Back Under the Gun

Wolves aren’t the only once endangered species being targeted right outside of Yellowstone National Park. Bison, the symbol of our National Park system, have been killed by the thousands in recently imposed state and tribal hunting seasons and by the Montana Department of Livestock, who, with the full blessing of the National Park Service, have rounded up over 5000 migratory park bison since 2008 and shipped them to slaughterhouses (those nightmarish death camps where so many forcibly domesticated bovines meet their ends).

In a ruthless act of rabid backstabbing, 1600 bison—who had never known confinement or any reason to fear people—were slain to appease Montana ranchers during the winter of ‘08. More than half of Yellowstone’s bison were killed in what was the highest body count since the nineteenth century.

Instead of making amends for the historic mistreatment of these sociable, benevolent souls, twenty-first-century Montanans are still laying waste to them. Spurred on by industry-driven greed for grazing land (veiled under the guise of concern about brucellosis, a disease with a negligible risk of transmission that has never actually been passed from wild bison to cattle), the state of Montana sued to seize control of bison ranging outside Yellowstone. Now their department of livestock has implemented a lethal policy and the US National Park Service is facilitating it. Since the dawn of the new millennium, over 5000 Yellowstone bison have been put to death.

The following action alert from the Buffalo Field Campaign includes contact info…

Before wild bison have even begun their annual migration to their winter habitat in Montana, State, federal, and tribal governments — including Yellowstone National Park –are aiming to kill hundreds of wild buffalo this winter through hunting, slaughter, or both. The agencies state that they want to “even the sex ratio” and have placed a heavy target on female buffalo, wanting to kill at least 400 female buffalo that migrate north of the Park into the Gardiner Basin. The herds that migrate north include buffalo from both the Northern and Central herds, which also means that the Central herds (which also migrate west) will be doubly impacted by hunting and slaughter.

Yellowstone National Park states that a “skewed sex ratio” has resulted from years of capture and slaughter operations, which have removed more bulls than cows from the population. In other words the government is saying they will slaughter more buffalo to mitigate the impact of slaughtering so many buffalo. Talk about playing God in Yellowstone.

With these plans aimed to placate Montana’s livestock interests, Yellowstone National Park threatens the buffalo’s immediate survival and evolutionary potential.  Yellowstone’s plans to capture and slaughter wild bison are absolutely contrary to their mission to preserve and protect plant and animal species unimpaired for present and future generations.  The wild bison of the Yellowstone ecosystem make up America’s last continuously wild population. Wild bison are ecologically extinct throughout their native, historic range, and currently number fewer than 4,300 individuals.  Wild bison once teemed across the North American continent in the tens of millions, but today the last remnant herds only exist in and around Yellowstone and are in dire need of protection.

TAKE ACTION!  Tell Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk that you absolutely oppose any capture or slaughter of wild buffalo.  Yellowstone is mandated by law to protect wild bison, not cater to Montana’s cattle politics.  Tell Superintendent Wenk to stop being a puppet for Montana livestock interests, pull out of the draconian Interagency Bison Management Plan, and to stand up for the wildlife that the American people have placed in his care.  Wild bison are a natural, national treasure, the prehistoric and rightful roamers of North America, and we will not stand by and allow Yellowstone or Montana’s cattle industry to jeopardize their future for any reason.

Daniel Wenk, Superintendent

Yellowstone National Park

P.O. Box 168

Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168

(307) 344-2002 phone

(307) 344-2014 fax




Commercial Whalers, Slave Traders…and Wolf Hunters

Now that I broke the ice, tested the waters and hopefully cleared the air by answering a reader’s question on a touchy subject in my last post, It’s Hard to Be Ethically Consistent While You’re Tap-Dancing on Eggshells, It’s my turn to ask a question:

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Text and Wildlife Photos Copyright Jim Robertson

Why is it that when members of the Wedge wolf pack were being killed in Washington State, people throughout the environmental community were up in arms, but now that the Colville Tribe has announced plans to initiate the first hunting season on wolves in the state on their northeastern Washington Reservation, folks are staying mostly silent about it?

People are fond of saying that the Native Americans believed this…, or did that…, as though all tribes were of one mind and every individual felt the same way as each other about everything, regardless of which tribe they were with or what part of the continent they lived in. For example, I’ll never forget this line that made me scoff out loud during a lecture: “Native Americans never ate anything that died in fear.” What? How does an animal pursued and shot with arrows not experience fear?

European Americans have gone from thinking of the Native Americans as barbaric savages to egalitarian angels. Neither impression is based on a scientific understanding of human nature. And neither is the revisionist notion that all tribes were like-minded on every issue (case in point are the different attitudes on wolves expressed by the Colvilles, who plan to hunt the few wolves who have returned to their reservation, and the Ojibwe of the Great Lakes region who respect wolves.   .

On a related issue, the following is an article I wrote while the Makah tribe were shoring up plans to kill whales off the Washington coast…

Commercial Whalers and Slave Traders

In a May, 1995 letter to the U.S. Commerce Department, Dave Sones, the Makah nation’s “fisheries” manager revealed the tribe’s intent “to harvest whales not only for ceremonials and subsistence, but also for commercial purposes.” This sentiment was recently echoed by Canada’s Nuu-Chah-Nulth tribe, who also hope to get into the commercial sale of whale products.

Despite continued public support for whales, our IWC delegates struck a five year deal with the Russians to get the Makah a back-door quota of whales. In 1997, defying an international treaty on trade in endangered species, they traded 20 of the Alaskan Inuit’s bowhead whales (down to only 13 percent of their original population) for 20 gray whales from the Russian Chukotkas.

The Chukotkas were happy to trade up for the more palatable bowhead. Very few of them will even eat gray whales, which are said to have the texture of gum erasers and are known in their language as “the one that makes you poop fast.” (The real source of the gray whale’s nickname “Devilfish”?)

Seeing as how the Clinton administration is assisting the Makah in their effort to return to whaling, wouldn’t it be a nice, symbolic gesture for the President to join them in their ceremonial whaling preparations? These included prayer and self-flagellation, as well as fasting and sexual abstinence.

Other rites that were part of their whaling ceremonies are kept secret from “outsiders;” they are “nobody’s business.” Are there skeletons in the closet they don’t want exhumed? The media have depicts a Disneyized version of the historic Makah: a simple, sharing people, unique in their reverence for the Earth’s creatures. Summon the image of the Plains Indians, substitute whale for bison. But the coastal Makah were different, killing more prey then they could ever eat themselves.

Whales were rendered into oil to be traded along the Pacific. They were a source of great wealth for the tribal elite, who thought themselves superior to other Indians, including buffalo hunters. Although the primitive Makah’s ability to conquer massive sea mammals without motor boats or heavy artillery was impressive, it was also excessively cruel. And, according to European witnesses, so were some of the related rituals: “Since it was the first whale of the season, special ceremonies we involved…When it was brought ashore, a slave was sacrificed, and the corpse was laid beside the whale’s head, which was adorned with eagle feathers…” observed Haswell and Boit, eighteenth century writers. Boit understood that cannibalism was also occasionally practiced.

Slave trading was an integral part of the Makah socioeconomic structure. Slaves were considered chattel, a thing of less than human status, one step below “worthless people” in their caste system. Possession of slaves was prestigious; to sacrifice a slave on a formal occasion demonstrated an arrogant disregard of wealth. Unfortunately for their lower castes, this was before the United Nations Decade of Education in Human Rights.

In order to capture new slaves and acquire new territories, the Makah frequently undertook military expeditions to distant villages. Relying on the element of surprise, they would attack and kill all of the adult males in the unsuspecting tribe. Women and children were taken as slaves; infants and elderly were left for dead. Slain members of the conquered tribe were decapitated, their heads brought back to be displayed as trophies. Clearly, the killing of whales is not the only bygone tradition that modern society would condemn or reject if given a voice. The Makah continued to capture and trade slaves well after the 1855 treaty prohibited it.

Meanwhile, Japan, in their ongoing effort to promote the backslide into commercial whaling, discovered a crisis situation in 1995. They learned the number of their young people who had never tasted whale was on the rise! In answer to that shocking trend, their “fisheries” agency began a slick marketing campaign that included a home delivery service for whale meat. A quarter-pounder there now goes for $55.00 U.S. That’s without cheese. Or a bun. But a word of warning to those planning to stop by the Moby Dick’s franchise (coming soon to your neighborhood) for a juicy double-devilfish burger: Don’t forget the Kaopectate!