How Average Indians Revived a Beachside Dump Into a Turtle Hatchery

In spring of 2018, something amazing happened in one of the most polluted beaches in the world: For the first time in decades, an extremely vulnerable turtle species has been spotted on the shores of Mumbai, India.

As The Guardian reported:

At least 80 Olive Ridley turtles have made their way into the Arabian Sea from nests on the southern end of Versova beach in the past week, protected from wild dogs and birds of prey by volunteers who slept overnight in the sand to watch over them.

Versova has undergone what the United Nations has called the “world’s largest beach cleanup project” over the past two years, transformed from a shin-deep dump yard for plastics and rubbish to a virtually pristine piece of coastline.

The man who leads the ongoing cleanup operation, the lawyer Afroz Shah, said he started anticipating the turtle hatchings two months ago when farmers on the southern end of the two-mile (3km) beach reported seeing turtles in the sand.

“The moment we got that news I knew something big was going to happen,” he told the Guardian. Last Thursday, some of his volunteers called to say they had spotted dozens of baby Olive Ridley turtles emerging from their nests.

He called the forest department and then went down to the beach with about 25 others, guarding the area while the tiny creatures hobbled across the sand, “making sure not one hatchling suffered a death”, he said.

In just two years, average Indians were able to reverse ecological devastation and watch a dying species begin to rejuvenate. Imagine volunteering day and night to make sure these little creatures had a fighting chance.

For more than two years, Shah has been leading volunteers in manually picking up rubbish from Versova beach and teaching sustainable waste practices to villagers and people living in slums along the coastline and the creeks leading into it.

About 55,000 people live along the beach and the waterways that feed it in the crowded megacity. Shah said he taught them by example, offering to clean communal toilets and pick up rubbish himself before he ever sought their help.

“For the first six to eight weeks, nobody joined,” he said. “Then two men approached me and said, very politely, ‘Please sir, can we wear your gloves?’ Both of them just came and joined me. That’s when I knew it was going to be a success.”

Meanwhile, on the other side of the country, in the eastern state of Odisha, a record-breaking 428,083 Olive Ridley turtles had nested a month before. This is hardly an isolated incident.

Think about these little-known success stories whenever we hear rhetoric about the developing world not pulling its weight in the fight against climate change or ecological devastation.

And let’s keep these efforts in mind when we begin to lose hope that we are losing this fight. In the grand scheme of things, cleaning up one polluted beach for one single species doesn’t seem like a lot, but it reveals our amazing potential to fix things if we have actually invested the time and will power.

Source: The Guardian

Keep orcas in the wild, not in aquaria

I wholeheartedly agree.

Why Evolution Is True

Blackfish is a 2013 documentary movie about captive orcas (killer whales) at SeaWorld in Orlando, Florida. It centers on Tilikum, the infamous orca who killed three people (including two trainers) and is still at SeaWorld.  The documentary, directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite, premiered at Sundance in Utah, and has received a lot of critical acclaim. It gets a 97% from the critics on the Rotten Tomatoes site, and Wikipedia says this:

Critical reception for the documentary has been mostly positive, with the Deseret News calling it “a gripping example of documentary filmmaking at its finest”. Twitch Film and The Hollywood Reporter both praised Blackfish, with both review sites arguing that the film gave “a persuasive case against keeping the species – and by extension any wild animal – in captivity for the purposes of human entertainment”. Film School Rejects gave the documentary a rating of B-, writing that…

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Some We Eat, Some We Love…

…and some we eat and love. Like most children, past and present, I had an immense love for animals. Just like today, they had figured prominently in storybooks, cartoons, movies, and games. Even folk songs, lullabies, and schoolwork referenced them. The most common animals we grew up with, aside from pets, were domesticated: cows, pigs, chickens, and the like – the same animals we nonetheless simultaneously consumed.

I still love animals of course. But now I’m old enough to recognize the strange contradiction with which we treat them. Even in our youngest years, when we anthropomorphize and adore animals the most, we were able to eat them with regularity and casual indifference. We knew what we were eating, and we could connect each animal with the meat they provided. Yet that didn’t stop us from caring about them anyway. We were still able to reconcile their slaughter with our love.

Reading a literary classic like Charlotte’s Weba family favorite about a pig being saved from slaughter, didn’t impact the widespread consumption of a culinary classic, bacon. Visiting petting zoos, another common childhood pastime, rarely ever lead to serious doubts about eating meat. People of all ages adored the animals all the same, even though the overwhelming majority of them were probably meat eaters. Adults saw no conflict surrounding us with images and stories of personified animals, even as they taught us that eating meat was normal and okay.

Obviously, nothing has changed. Kids are still going through these experiences, and meat eating is still ever-present. The explanations are plenty: children don’t know the extent to which these animals suffer when they are slaughtered, or they only superficially acknowledge the fact that they’re eating them – they know, but not in a truly deep way. Then there is the most potent influence, in the form of social and parental pressure. Meat is unavoidable and ubiquitous, compromising nearly every major dish (at least in the West). We’re taught that it’s abnormal and unhealthy not to eat it.

Cognitive dissonance is perhaps the biggest factor to explain this paradox, as it explains why even conscious adults – including those who are self-professed animal lovers – continue to eat meat in spite of their sincere compassion. Our complex minds are capable of holding conflicting beliefs at the same time. We can compartmentalize very different things in such a way that we can believe or disbelieve them periodically, depending on the context. It’s a difficult concept to wrap one’s head around (no pun intended), but that’s the way the mind works.  

I’m currently making an effort to become a vegetarian, which isn’t easy, given the ubiquity of meat in our society (and the expectation that eating meat is the “normal” thing to do). For a long time, I shared the same incongruous approach towards animals that most people do (vegetarians remain a small, if somewhat larger, minority). I can’t recall when exactly I changed my stance, or what triggered it. Perhaps I just thought long and hard about it, enough to finally break through my mind’s internal barriers. Whatever the case, I’m doing my best to synchronize my ethical concerns with my actions, however difficult that is in practice, given the lingering temptation of meat (I’ve gotten over all but chicken, and I’m still technically a “pescetarian” aka seafood eater).

To be clear, I’m not saying those of you who are omnivorous are immoral or unethical. The compunction to eat meat is very strong, and most people only avoid it for medical or religious reasons. I’m just analyzing a very curious relationship that we have with animals, and expressing my desire to at least try to address it in my own way.

The First Tool Using Fish?

Life can be a pretty amazing thing when we take the time to study it’s many wonders. Among them is the often surprising level of intelligence of animals, which we often overlook or underestimate. While there is still much debate on the matter – not least because of epistemological concerns about what constitutes intelligence and how it can be measured – there seems to be mounting evidence suggesting that numerous animal species are far more intelligent than previously believed, particularly though not exclusively those falling under mammals and birds.

But while more “developed” animals such as apes, dolphins, and some birds (such as corvids) may be of little surprise with respect to skills of intelligence – tool using, problem solving, self-awareness, etc – it’s quite remarkable to consider the humble fish as capable of a similar level of comprehension. Like insects and most reptiles, fish aren’t generally regarded as displaying much in the way of intelligence (though other sea creatures like Octopuses are a different story). This is precisely why I was shocked and delighted to have read that there may be evidence for the first display of “intelligence” among a fish species. 

The data is brief, and there certainly is much room for further research and observation before anyone jumps to conclusions. I just find it absolutely fascinating to consider the humble fish, regarded as either food or  a living ornament, to be capable of something that was once exclusively the purview of “higher” levels of life such as ourselves and our primate cousins. Of course, this opens up a range of discussion concerning, as I noted before, what constitutes intelligence and in this particular case, what is defined by tool use. Is manipulating a rock to crack a shell the use of a tool? Or is it something more sophisticated, involving more creative manipulation or perhaps some level of design.

An interesting debate on these subjects has unfolded in one of my favorite blogs, “Why Evolution is True” by Jerry Coyne, who also took note of this recent discovery (indeed, I first learned about it there).  The comments below make for some interesting reading, and are really good to reflect upon while we consider just how much worth we accord to animals, whether this should be determined by their level of intelligence, and in turn how this intelligence is to be measured. A very intriguing and difficult consideration indeed. Given it’s complexity and interesting nature, I’ll certainly get back to it at a later date.