Friday, 18 October 2013

Can farming rhinos for their horn really be called conservation?

The lasting image from last night's Earthwatch debate at the Royal Geographical Society on conservation was of "farmed" rhinos with their horns chopped off. There's a similar picture of farmed rhino here

They looked more than a bit pathetic. But the proposal of the debate was that rhinos should be farmed for their horn creating a legal trade because the war on illegal poaching has been lost.

Over its' lifetime a rhino could have its horn cut off seven or eight times we were told.

Basically it means breeding wild animals - rhinos, tigers and elephants - for their horns, tusks, skins and other parts to feed a market.

Supporters of the motion, Dr Duan Biggs, lead author of a Science journal paper on the legalisation of rhino horn trade, Kirsten Conrad, formerly of PETA and a conservation policy analyst and Michael 't Sas-Rolfes, an independent conservation economist, argued that the price of animal parts would come down, trade established and the poachers put out of business.

If we do not act now numbers will dwindle to the point where we will lose some of the most iconic and majestic species on our planet. And it will happen on our watch.

It's a counter-intuitive idea but one that is gaining traction and the vote at the end of the intelligent and civilised debate, chaired by Martha Kearney, was closer than might have been expected with a substantial minority supporting the idea.

I left the debate with more of a feeling that the supporters of legal trade had not set out the details of their market clearly enough.

Those opposing the motion were Dr Glyn Davies ,WWF-UK head of global programmes, Dr Katarzyna Nowak, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Durham University,  and Mary Rice, Executive Director of the Environment Investigation Agency.

They challenged how a market would operate. How would it be policed? Would not pushing rhino horn onto the market stimulate demand rather than reduce it?

Gangs with stockpiles already have a vested interest in driving species to extinction and poachers would still have an incentive to obtain body parts illegally but cost-free and sell them on as legal.

Of course at the moment creating a legal trade is only an idea - something to be tried - but time is running out. Do we have the time to go through the international negotiations and set up the regulatory bodies to make it work?  If we can't make international action against black market trading work why should legal trade agreements be any better?

Then there are the unknowns. As was pointed out by Mary Rice of the EIA tiger farming in China has not stopped the illegal trade. "Wild tiger" skins offer an increased rarity value.

Unscrupulous market fixers could just claim farmed rhino horn was not as effective in medicine - whilst all rhino horn has been proved to have no health curing properties at all.

I realise that "farming" is being used here in its widest sense but even so once you bring commercial farming to bear pretty soon farmers will want to increase their profits. That could mean breeding programmes, developing rhinos with faster growing or larger horns. Is an animal on a farm, like an animal in a zoo, really wild any more or just a convenience for us to carve an ornament from or pretend it has cured our hangover?

I had a nightmare vision during the debate of rhinos in sheds being force-fed hormone boosted feed to grow their horns twice as fast.

And this is the crux for me.  What are we conserving here? Wild animals with all their brute force and unpredictable power in a hierarchy of dominance and daily fight for survival as recorded in so many Nature films.

Or our own misguided rituals? Our own practice of abusing animals for trinkets and potions which bring false hope?

Pro-traders will say idealism has failed and a legal market is the only way to preserve what we have left.

But, for me, that seems like an ending in itself, an ignoble and unsatisfactory conclusion. Surrender terms in a defeat.

Are the only choices left for wildlife farming and disfigurement or extinction?

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Does aircraft noise raise the risk of heart disease?

Scientists have found a possible link between the noise from living directly under an airport flight path and increased risk of strokes and heart disease.

A study published in the British Medical Journal has found a 10 to 20% higher risk among those most exposed to the highest levels of noise around Heathrow airport

The study by researchers at Imperial College and King's College, London, found the biggest increased risk in those exposed to noise levels above 50 decibels  both at day and night - about the volume of a normal conversation in a quiet room.

The researchers at the UK Small Area Health Statistics Unit looked at 12 London boroughs covering 3.6 million people living in 12,000 neighbourhoods and compared noise exposure with deaths and hospital admissions.

The highest risk was among the 2% or 7,000 people exposed to daytime aircraft noise up to 63 decibels.

The researchers stress that they haven't found enough evidence to say that aircraft noise actually causes stroke, heart disease or cardio-vascular disease.

And while 20% may sound high it is dwarfed by the two to three times increased risk from such things as smoking, obesity, bad diet, diabetes and lack of exercise.

The stats on noise come from 2001 and better plane design and routing has cut noise since then - although many living in west London might not notice much difference.

That said, it is one of the first studies to show a possible link between the noise of planes landing and taking off, and increased risk of heart problems and strokes.

Dr Anna Hansell, lead author of the study,, said: "These findings suggest a possible link between high levels of aircraft noise and risk of heart disease and stroke.

“We have increasing level of increasing risk with increasing levels of aircraft noise.”

It is known that heart rates and blood pressure can increase when people are exposed to sudden loud noise. Noise can raise anxiety and night-time flights disturb sleep.

Factors such as the ethnic background of those living closest to the runways, air pollution and road traffic noise were taken into account but at the moment any link between plane noise and heart health is only a suggestion.

One problem is that they only looked at areas, not individuals. And they could not measure the individual exposure to noise in each area.

Nevertheless the findings are interesting - not least to the debate on where to expand London airports - if they need to be expanded at all.

"Our study raises the possibility that aircraft noise could be a contributing factor to stroke, heart disease and cardio vascular disease. But the precise role that noise, including aircraft noise, might play in that isn’t fully understood, Dr Hansell added.

A study in America looked at 89 airports and also found a link between noise and health.

Other scientists praised the studies but warned on their limitations.

Professor Ken McConway, professor of Applied Statistics, at the Open University, said: "Because of the kind of data the researchers used, the studies can't do more than suggest very strongly that we find out much more about aircraft noise and circulatory disease, using different kinds of study that could come much closer to sorting out what causes what. The researchers make these limitations clear in their reports."