Escape Of The Cocaine Hippos

When murderous cocaine drug lord Pablo Escobar was killed in 1993, Colombian authorities no doubt thought his days of affecting the country were over.  They didn’t count on the impact of his . . . hippopotamuses.

120824_ex_hippopod-crop-rectangle3-largeEscobar was a quirky narcoterrorist who kept a zoo on his sprawling estate.  After his death, most of the animals were removed, but his four hippos were left in a pond there. You’ve probably guessed what happened next.  The four hippos soon lumbered out of the pond and off Escobar’s property to the nearby Magdalena River, where they made their new home.  In the last 25 years they’ve been thriving.  Nobody knows exactly how many there are, but estimates are that between 40 and 60 hippos are there on the river, swimming about in that curiously dainty hippo way, breeding like crazy, and otherwise doing their hippo thing.  Colombians have dubbed them the “cocaine hippos.”

But here’s the problem — hippos aren’t a native species to South America.  In fact, they are an invasive species, and some Colombian conservationists and biologists are concerned that the hippos are wrecking the environment and harming the other occupants on the river, such as otters and manatees.  And, because hippos eat on dry land but deposit their waste in water, the hippo discharges are changing the nutrient composition of the river and nearby waterways.  Even the hippos’ swimming may be affecting the indigenous species, by affecting the muddiness of the rivers and thereby upsetting nature’s delicate balance.  As a result, some ecologists say the hippos need to be removed or their population otherwise curbed — which may be easier said than done, when you’re talking about territorial, thousand-pound creatures living in the wild who aren’t exactly eager to interact with humans.

But others say, “not so fast.”  They think the escape of the hippos was an inadvertent example of “rewilding” — the concept of putting non-native flora and fauna into an area to fill a vacant ecological niche.  It’s like the decision to release timber wolves back into areas of the country that they had vacated decades ago, except in this case some are arguing that hippos are in effect replacing large herbivorous creatures that went extinct in the South American ecosystem in the last 20,000 years — creatures like the toxodont (which incidentally sounds like the name for a dental care product).  Still others argue that having a surplus population of hippos in South America is a great thing, just in case the African hippos might be subject to extinction due to changes in their environment.

While the debate rages, the hippos continue to enjoy life on the Magdalena River.  Their escape and success reaffirms once again what the Jeff Goldblum character said in Jurassic Park:  life somehow finds a way.

Advertisements

Reduce, Reuse . . . Compost

Austin, Texas has come up with an interesting new approach to addressing its landfill and waste issues.  Starting Monday, every restaurant and food business in Austin can no longer throw away any food.

The initiative stems from a 2015 study of the materials that ended up in Austin’s landfills.  The study found that 37 percent of the landfill deposits from businesses was organic material that could have been composted or put to some other use.  Accordingly, when the city enacted its Universal Recycling Ordinance, which has the goal of reaching the point of zero waste by 2040, one of the first targets was to reduce, and ultimately stop, the flow of organic material into landfill space.

compost-488988734The ban on throwing away food by local businesses is a first step in the process.  According to the article linked above, Austin city officials hope that the restaurants and food businesses either donate the food to the needy, or give it to local farmers, or compost it.  The affected businesses have to submit an “Organic Diversion Plan” each year.

The Austin initiative raises a lot of questions.  Aren’t there health risks in giving leftover food to shelters and food banks, and how will they be dealt with?  What are local farms and food banks supposed to do with leftover organics they can’t use?  How much composting is really feasible, and what kind of environmental and health and atmospheric (i.e., odor) impact will lots of new composting piles and devices have?  How is the city going to police compliance with the ordinance, and how many additional city workers will need to be hired to accomplish that?  How much will prices charged at Austin restaurants have to increase to pay for the new activities that restaurants and food businesses will have to undertake?  And, ultimately, when will individual residents in Austin have to establish their own compost piles to meet the zero waste goal?

Cities and counties are often viewed as laboratories of our democracy because they are willing to experiment, on a small scale, with different and creative potential solutions to societal problems.  Local governments have long understood that we can’t simply keep burying trash and other discarded materials in landfills and have been looking for workable alternatives — so far, without a lot of success.  I expect that many local governments will be paying careful attention to how Austin’s experiment with its Universal Recycling Ordinance works.  Depending on how some of the questions noted above ultimately are answered, we may all see more composting in our future.

Cleaning The Air We Breathe

In the mood for some good news — perhaps, good news that hasn’t gotten much attention?  How about this: the most recent United States Environmental Protection Agency report on the quality of our air shows that the America has made remarkable progress in reducing air pollution.

downtownThe EPA report is called “Our Nation’s Air 2018,” and it’s an eye-opener.  It shows large — in some cases, huge — decreases in the concentrations of air pollutants just since 1990.  Since then, carbon monoxide is down 77 percent, sulfur dioxide is down 88 percent, lead is down 80 percent, and various types of particulate matter are down between 34 percent and 41 percent.  Ozone emissions are down 22 percent, and nitrogen dioxide is down 50 percent.   The report notes that since 1970 — when the federal Clean Air Act took effect –“the combined emissions of the six common pollutants (PM2.5 and PM10, SO2, NOx, VOCs, CO and Pb) dropped by 73 percent.”  The total number of “unhealthy air quality” days as measured by the EPA also has fallen dramatically.

And what’s really amazing is that these significant overall declines in air pollutants have occurred at the same time that both America’s population, and its economy, have grown substantially.  It’s a classic example of how real environmental progress can be made in a way that doesn’t cause total economic disruption.

To be sure, there is still work to be done, and I’ve been to places in America — like southern California — where from time to time you can sometimes still see smog and visible air pollution.  But that shouldn’t detract from the success the country has achieved in getting to cleaner air.

Remember that the next time you take a deep breath of sweet, clean air.

The Birdhouse Solution

Our tiny backyard features a flowering vine that has been growing like crazy. It completely covered the wooden trellis that is its intended home, then started to grow over the top of the small tree our landscaper had positioned next door — which obviously wasn’t good for the tree. To deal with the problem, we had to redirect the vine away from the tree. But how?

Our solution was to move our birdhouse stand to the other side of the vine, gently extricate the vine from the top of the tree, and loop the vine around the birdhouse and its stand. It worked like a charm. Now the vine has plenty of room to grow, the little tree is flourishing again, and the birdhouse and its bright colors look beautiful against the vine’s green leaves and deep purple flowers.

Now, if we could just get a family of birds to move into the birdhouse . . . .

The Benefits Of “Forest Bathing”

The Japanese call it shinrin-yoku, which translates into English as “forest bathing.” It has nothing to do with bathing in the normal sense of the word, however.  Instead, the concept might better be described as “forest immersion.”

IMG_1396For some time now, Japanese people looking to reduce the stress of everyday living have been heading to the forest.  Their approach to shinrin-yoku is simple:  go out into the woods, shut off your cell phone, and take in the forest atmosphere to the maximum extent you can, without a specific goal or destination in mind.  Use your senses as you wander.  Breathe in the cool fresh air that leaves your nostrils tingling.  Touch the rough tree bark and the soft moss.  Listen to the wind rustle the leaves, and hear the birdsong.  Sit down on the ground or a fallen tree and smell the humid mix of growing plants, decaying wood, and moist earth.  Feel the tree shade on your skin.

The proponents of shinrin-yoku say that it produces all kinds of health benefits, in addition to stress reduction:  improved functioning of the immune system, reduced blood pressure, improved mood and energy, heightened mental acuity, and better sleep.  In short, regular leisurely, relaxed strolls through the woods can provide the kind of mental and physical health benefits that stressed-out Americans typically try to obtain through prescription drugs or some other artificial means.  Should this come as a surprise?

One of the weirder things about modern America is how resistant some people are to actually experiencing nature.  Every morning, as I’m on my morning walk, I travel past a small health club where people are jogging and walking on treadmills, watching TV —   when they could be jogging around the same park I’m heading to only a few blocks away, where they could breathe some fresh air rather than stale sweat smells, experience the morning quiet, and chuckle at the quacking ducks waddling by.  Why make that choice?  Why do people hop in their cars rather than walking, even for short distances?

I don’t think you need to plan a trip to a primeval forest to experience the benefits of shinrin-yoku.  I think any effort to get out into the natural world, in quiet way, walking at your own pace and listening and looking and feeling, is going to be a good thing on more levels than we can count.

Putting Our Destructive Appetites To Productive Use

The State of Maryland really doesn’t like the frightful northern snakehead.  Its name, while grimly evocative, doesn’t quite do the creature justice.  It’s an ugly, slimy fish that can reach weights of 15 pounds or more, it looks like a torpedo with a mouthful of sharp, needle-like teeth, and it can even survive out of water for several days and wriggle along on land.  And, it’s an invasive species to boot.

snakehead-fishThe northern snakehead is native to Asia and simply doesn’t belong in Maryland, but when one thoughtless pet owner dumped some of the fish into Maryland waters, the state took action.  (Anybody who would want these horrors for pets probably shouldn’t be permitted to own them, when you think about it.)  When the state found the fish in a pond, it poisoned the pond, and when it found the fish in a lake, it drained the lake.  But the northern snakehead apparently is as wily and hardy as it is repulsive, because the fish kept turning up — and then it was finally found in the Potomac River, where the poisoning and draining approaches obviously wouldn’t work.  In the meantime, people started catching the northern snakehead, or seeing it in the river, and were close to freaking out for fear that it might eat their pets or be some kind of poisonous mutant.

So Maryland decided to take another tack — now, it is encouraging people to hunt for the northern snakehead and eat it.  Maryland sponsors snakehead fishing tournaments and offers licenses to hunt the fish with bow and arrow, and Maryland restaurants have started serving the fish to customers, too.  The fish apparently has a firm, white, mild flesh, but to get to it you have to first scrape off a thick layer of slime — which doesn’t exactly make the fish seem appetizing, does it?  Still, its meat apparently stands up well to seasoning, and it is perfectly edible for most people . . . if they don’t know about the monstrosity from which the meat came.  Some people, on the other hand, actually like the idea of striking back and eating the flesh of the scary invasive species that shouldn’t be in the Potomac River in the first place.

Maryland has gone from no commercial fishing of the northern snakehead to harvesting thousands of the pounds of the fish for restaurants.  It’s still got a long way to go before it can eat its way out of the northern snakehead infestation, but it’s made a good start.  We all know about how the destructive activities and appetites of human beings have put some creatures onto the endangered species list, and worse.  Maybe this time we can finally put those destructive tendencies to good use.  Who knows:  if we can eat our way to the demise of the northern snakehead, perhaps we can take the same creative and filling approach to the dreaded Asian carp, zebra mussels, and sea lampreys that are invasive species in the Great Lakes?

The Perils Of Plastic

We’re staying at a terrific little beachside resort on Ambergris Caye in Belize.  It offers snug, thatch-roofed cottages, excellent food, a beautiful beach, and an infinity pool, among many other amenities.  Every day, resort workers rake the sand, cart away excess sea grass that has washed ashore, and leave the beach in the pristine, white sand state that resort-goers demand.

Just down the Caye, however, is an unattended section of beach, and here we get a glimpse of the impact of our plastic, disposable, consumer culture.  Belize lies at the western end on the Caribbean, where the prevailing winds blow.  On this section of beach every imaginable bit of disposable debris — a huge range of differently sized bottles, jugs, tubs, bits of strofoam, storage containers, and even soccer balls — have collected on the sand, mingled with the sea grass.  It’s disgusting, and unsightly, but mostly it’s sad.  Whether through thoughtlessness or inadvertence, the human plastic culture has left its ugly mark on an otherwise pretty beach on a fine, sunny morning.  If one small section of beach is bears this gross collection of crap, we can’t really begin to imagine the impact of the junk on the sea as a whole.