Watching the world go to hell
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 1998:
BRAZIL, TIBET, NEW ZEALAND,
CALIFORNIA, FLORIDA––Wildlife officials
rescued eight orangutans including four
babies from the path of flames in early
February at Kutai National Park in East
Kalimantan, Indonesia, but found the
remains of two others in poachers’ traps.
A third orang was killed on March
12 when according to Indonesian media she
apparently mistook two farmers who had
been drafted into a firefighting force for
attackers, and rushed them to defend her
baby. She reportedly bit three fingers off one
of the men before the other man beat her to
death with a machete. Antara, the Indonesian
state press agency, hinted that the men
might actually have killed the mother in
attempting to steal and sell her baby.
Sweeping 7,500 acres inside the
450,000-hectare park, plus about 2,500 acres
at the nearby Bukit Soeharto Forest Reserve,
fire and smoke killed countless miniature
deer, birds, iguanas, snakes, and jungle
porcupines, as well as at least one more
orang and many other species, rangers said.
Altogether, as many as 543 separate
fires ravaged anywhere from 34,600
acres according to official estimates, which
recognized only 200 fires, or 247,000 acres
according to independent sources cited by
Geoff Spencer of Associated Press.
“The fires have been burning as
drought grips the eastern part of Borneo
island, which should be enjoying heavy rains
this time of year,” Spencer reported on
February 28. “Meteorologists blame the E l
N i n o weather phenomenon for the delay of
the wet season.”
The fires were set, explained
Samarinda city Environmental Impact
Management Agency secretary Antarikso
Soekaswanto, “by farmers, timber firms,
and oil palm plantation owners clearing their
land by burning”––the same culprits responsible
for similar fires that shrouded much of
Southeast Asia beneath a pall of smoke from
August through October in 1997.
But El Nino, a plume of unusually warm water
beneath an uncommonly static high-pressure atmospheric system
off Central America, compounded the damage by causing
global weather disturbance. Over the preceding six months,
Indonesia had received just 20% of normal precipitation,
Integrated Forest Fire Management team leader Ludwig
Schindler told Walter Fernandez of the Singapore-based Straits
Times. Further, Schindler calculated, normal rainfall had only
a 50% chance of resuming before July.
The East Kalimantan government tried to induce rain
Schindler’s IFFM team is jointly funded by Indonesia
and Germany. German firefighting expertise was brought in
partly to respond to a new threat, more familiar to eastern
Europe and parts of the Appalachians: forest fires have ignited
coal seams, which may burn underground for years.
An early IFFM finding: the major fires originated
from land owned by just 15 companies.
The Indonesian financial crisis inhibited government
firefighters, who lacked equipment and transportation.
Drought is also afflicting neighboring nations. At
least five major fires hit the Huay Kha Khaeng Wildlife
Sanctuary and nearby Mae Wong National Park in Thailand.
Major fires have not broken out in Malaysia this year––yet––
but dry watering holes and depleted forage are reportedly driving
wild pigs out of the jungle in large herds to raid crops and
drink from irrigated rice paddies. In the Parak Tengah district,
alongside the Parak river, the government Wildlife Department
has organized more than 40 village pig hunts in less than a year,
district chief Mohd Nawawi Abdul Rashid told Raslan
Baharom of the Petaling Jaya Star in mid-February.
The mostly Islamic villagers do not eat the pig meat.
Instead, the government hunters sell it, apparently to members
of the Chinese ethnic minority, who make up about a third of
the total population but reside mostly in urban areas.
A similar cycle has been underway in Brazil, where
logging and burning at a record pace during the dry mid-1990s
may have triggered El Nino by reducing the climate-cooling
and stablizing effects of the Amazonian rainforest. About 13%
of the Amazon has already been cleared during the past 20
years. Logging and brushfires from 1994 through 1997 razed
an area roughly equal to all the land within 100 miles of salt
water from Washington D.C. to Boston. The destruction
slowed from the equivalent of Massachusetts plus Rhode Island
in 1995 to the equivalent of just New Jersey in 1996 and just
Connecticut in 1997––but more due to wetter weather than ecological
Old environmental laws having proved unenforceable,
Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso on
February 12 signed into a law a measure stripping firms that do
illegal logging of tax breaks, suspending their right to bid on
government contracts for 10 years, and providing a three-year
prison sentence for either polluting, trafficking in endangered
species, or burning trees. Cardoso vetoed other provisions of
the bill as passed by the Brazilian Congress, which might have
imprisoned farmers who burned rainforest.
Since Brazilian law enforcement and judicial proceedings
are notoriously inefficient and often corrupt, many
observers have little hope that the law will be effective.
While fire ravages southern parts of the globe, northwestern
Tibet, site of the 100,000-square-mile Qian Tang
nature reserve set aside by China in 1990, “is a secret dying
zone,” due to “the cruellest winter in Tibetan memory,”
Scripps Howard reporter Maggie O’Kane told readers from
Amdo, Tibet, on February 22. “Black carcasses cover the
snow for miles, while above, giant crows float, waiting their
turn. Dead buffalo are everywhere: on the main road, outside
the nomads’ tents,” as survivors “forage in the stomachs of
their dead to stay alive. Ten million buffalo and sheep are dead
or starving, according to official Chinese figures,” O’Kane
continued. “Almost the entire nomad population,” some
300,000 people, “are trapped, relying on Chinese army trucks
to bring them food, clothes, and firewood.” But the Chinese
don’t have the resources to save the people, apparently, let
alone the animals.
Struggling to subjugate Tibet for 50 years, the
Chinese government may not have the motivation, either, conspicuously
not seeking outside help and keeping all but controlled
media well away.
A nomad named Tashi told O’Kane that the snow
began falling in early September, when his family “saw the
Tremon, the snow bear who sleeps under the snow during the
winter and comes in the summer to feed on buffalo. When the
Tremon should have been sleeping, she appeared across the
snow in front of Tashi’s wife and the two youngest of his 10
children. ‘As broad as two men in the shoulder,’” Tashi said
of the cousin to the North American grizzly. “‘My wife and
children ran inside and told me that the Tremon had come. I
knew it was a very bad omen.’ By October the snow had
reached the knees of his bigger children, but everyone said it
would stop soon. The weaker yak began to lose their hooves to
frostbite and their legs became infected. Only the sheep with
their sharp teeth could reach the grass. In November, the
yak––whose dung they use to build their huts and burn on their
fires so they can eat––also began to die.”
Spring isn’t expected in Tibet before the end of April.
But the climatic disruption producing the record-breaking
snowfall will probably continue. Mongolia has experienced a
similar cycle since 1995. Known for the Gobi desert, much as
Arizona is known for the Sonoran desert, Mongolia also like
Arizona is actually surprisingly heavily covered with pine forest,
especially in upland regions. First drought turned the
forests tindery; then they burned in early 1996. Loss of forest
cover brought heavy summer flooding and soil erosion. Then
something, possibly traces of smoke from the fires, still lingering
in the upper atmosphere, produced snows like Mongolians
never saw before––and sent freezing rain to the northeast, in
Siberia, where snow is normal but winter rains are not.
Wildlife was devastated, not only by weather, as at
least 36,000 ice-bound reindeer starved, but also by desperate
people who turned to poaching for their livelihood, pushing the
Siberian tiger closer than ever toward extinction outside captivity.
As of November 1997, the Russian field unit of the Idahobased
Hornocker Wildlife Institute estimated there were 350
adult Siberian tigers left in the wild, with 100 cubs, half in the
Russian Far East, the rest in adjacent regions.
Pinnipeds were hard hit by climatic effects through
the winter right around the Pacific Rim. Summarized British
marine ecologist Peter Haddow on March 6, “Hundreds of
southern sea lion pups have been reported dead or stranded
along the Chilean coast since January due to El Nino-c a u s e d
warm coastal waters forcing their mothers to abandon them in
search of fish in colder waters farther offshore. One rehabilitation
center in San Antonio, Chile, has rescued almost 100
pups. Further north, in Puru, thousands of southern sea lions,
mostly pups and females, are also reported to have died in the
past few months. Sea lion colonies on the islands of San
Gallan, Palomino, and San Lorenzo have decreased by 50%.
In January the Instituto del Mar de Peru reported a nationwide
sea lion count of 11,000, down from 25,000 a year ago.”
The Galapagos sea lion and seal populations were
reportedly foraging in unusual areas.
At the northern end of the Pacific, Haddow said, “At
Ugamak Island, in the eastern Aleutians, biologists late last
year reported a 16.6% decline in Stellar sea lion pup counts,
and also noted that surviving pups were smaller than normal.”
At least 1,145 Hooker’s sea lion pups, about half of
those born during the winter, and 10% of the total population
of the species, starved or died of infection in January and
February along the shores of the sub-Antarctic Auckland
Islands, south of New Zealand. Toxic algal blooms apparently
killed both sea lion prey including crayfish, shellfish and octopuses,
and adult sea lions, who left orphans behind.
To most Americans, the living and dying symbols of
El Nino and global warming are California sea lion pups, suffering
through late winter on the rocky shores of the Channel
Islands, along with lesser numbers of northern fur seals and
elephant seals. Warmer waters cut phytoplankton production
by 70% to 90%, scientists told Jane Kay of The San Francisco
Examiner. The loss of phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic
food web, pushed the fish that mother sea lions and seals
depend upon farther north. The mothers, starving, were
unable to adequately nurse their young. As many as 15,000
California sea lion pups, 1,500 northern fur seal pups, and several
hundred elephant seal pups died in consequence.
Farther north, a mid-February storm killed about 260
of the 300 pups at the Point Reyes National Seashore elephant
seal colony. Most of the 400 adult elephant seals survived, but
waves battered the young on the rocks until they drowned.
The California storm was one of a series of February
disasters attributed to the waning phase of the 1997 El Nino,
that kept United Animal Nations and local humane society rescue
teams jumping on either coast––and from midcontinent, as
volunteers flew wherever they were needed.
Ten UAN rescuers set up a rescue camp on February
5 at the Lenore County Fairgrounds in Kinston, North
Carolina. The leading animal-related aspect of that diaster,
however, was reportedly an avalanche of hog manure that
washed into the already many times fouled Neuse River from
saturated storage lagoons. UAN got a tougher test on February
22, when tornadoes tore through Osceola County, Florida.
Forty-one people were killed, and 1,500 displaced, but a 300-
member statewide animal disaster relief network formed in the
aftermath of Hurricane Andrew (1992) reportedly coped efficiently
with several hundred displaced dogs and cats. The
largest number, about 50, were housed by the Animal Shelter
of Orange County, who anticipated eventually having to find
new homes for many of them.
“Many of their people were renters, and finding a
place that will take a large dog is very hard,” shelter director
Lorris Nassofer told Associated Press.
Livestock were hurt worst. As many as 1,500 cattle
and newborn calves were mired in north-central Florida,
reports from Ron Word of Associated Press indicated, without
providing a casualty count.
Only two days after going into North Carolina, the
Caifornia-based UAN was called upon much closer to home,
as torrential rains hit between the head office in Sacramento
and disaster coordinator Terri Crisp’s office in Santa Clara.
Volunteers including Deborah Horn, who flew in from
Missouri, helped look after about 80 animals whom UAN and
Yolo County Animal Control evacuated from the Davis area to
the Yolo County Fairgrounds for temporary care. Most were
ewes in mid-lambing season. But UAN volunteers told Cynthia
Hubert of the Sacramento Bee that they found the job relatively
easy after handling 900 animals at the Placer County
Fairgrounds a year earlier.
The San Francisco Animal Care and Control
Department set up a temporary shelter for displaced people and
pets at the Kezar Pavillion on February 7, after offering to
house the pets of persons who were forced into Red Cross shel
ters but finding that the people and pets didn’t
want to be apart.
Mudslides were the major threat,
with livestock again the major casualties.
About 6,500 dairy cattle died in deep muck on
inundated farms near Chino––a light toll considering
that about 300,000 cows are kept in
the region. Milk production, however, fell
5% statewide, as the stressed cows of the
Chino area gave 20% less.
Sixteen Contra Costa County firefighters
made headlines across the U.S. via
videotape and a syndicated photo of their spectacular
February 9 rescue of a horse who slid
down a collapsing 60-foot embankment and
was pinned beneath a fallen tree in Little Pine
Orange County firefighters tried to
top them on February 25, as the rain moved
south, by bulldozing a trail to lead a horse to
safety from an island in Santiago Creek. The
rescue wasn’t the hard part: the hard part was
doing it all under the eyes of a hungry puma,
who didn’t pose for pictures.
Now breaking up, El Nino h a s
played hell with weather and wildlife for most
of a year. The catch is, it will almost certainly
be back again soon. The first strong El Nino
was recorded in 1877, the second in 1940,
and perhaps the two strongest ever in 1982 and
1997, with weaker El Nino effects coming
often in between. The more frequent the
effects, the slower the recovery of ecosystems
and the greater the chance that change will
The 1997 El Nino coincided with the
influence of another recurring weather pattern,
the Pacific decadal oscillation, described by
Diedtra Henderson of the Seattle Times as “climate
shifts that march in decades-long time
frames, driving the intensity or weakness of
Aleutian low-pressure systems.” University of
Washington researchers Steven Hare, Nathan
Mantua, and Robert Francis believe the PDO,
as they call it, governs whether Alaskan or
Pacific Northwest salmon will fare best at sea.
“The next decade looks bleak for
West Coast salmon, already at risk of extinction,”
Henderson suggests of the UW findings.
“That’s independent of El Nino a n d
despite millions invested in hatcheries to
increase salmon smolt numbers.”
According to Hare, Mantua, and
Francis, “the present phase should be expected
to reverse within a decade.” However,
that’s assuming nothing else permanently disrupts
the oscillating effect.
Pacific Coast fish stories in particular
took strange twists last year––usually
because tropical species were thousands of
miles farther north than normal. A bass-like
tripletail caught off Dana Point in August
1997, 1,000 miles from the usual habitat, was
only the second ever recorded in California
waters. The other was caught off San Pedro
during the 1992 El Nino. Shark researcher
Sean Pomeran a month later tagged a mako
shark in Monterrey Bay. Mahi mahi, normally
found in equatorial waters, reached the
Farallon Islands, near the mouth of San
Francisco Bay. Recreational fishers hooked
albacore and even a blue marlin as far north as
Gray’s Harbor, Washington. Some tuna and a
central Pacific fish called a pelagic armorhead
were caught off Kodiac, Alaska.
Bottom-dwelling species of rockfish,
already close to fished out in some areas off
California, lost their habitat when warmer
water killed kelp forests. That hurt sea otters,
Ellen Faurot-Daniels of Friends of the Sea
Otter explained to San Francisco Chronicle
writer Glen Martin.
“El Nino-generated storms can kill
the otters directly,” Faurot-Daniels said,
because the otters normally wrap themselves
in kelp to avoid being dashed against rocks by
strong waves. No kelp means no safety belt.
“Storms also rip up the kelp beds,” she continued.
“When the kelp goes, so do favorite otter
prey species such as turban snails and kelp
crabs. Our local otters prefer invertebrates to
fish,” but a loss of intertebrates force them to
hunt fish, a much more strenuous task. That,
Faurot-Daniels added, “is significant, since
they have to eat the equivalent of one fourth to
one third of their weight per day to survive.”
Weakened sea otters become more
vulnerable to disease and predators––and, like
seals and sea lions, can have difficulty rearing
On the east coast, the Delaware
River shad run came two weeks early this year.
The shad swim upstream when the temperature
of fresh water entering Delaware Bay suggests
to them that their eggs can survive.
“El Nino has an enormous impact on
widlife, globally, not just in the traditional
regions,” Barnaby Briggs of BirdLife
International explained, as a United Nations
climate conference got underway at Kyoto,
Japan, last December.
Joseph Ng’ang’a, chair of the
department of meteorology at the University of
Nairobi, Kenya, blamed El Nino for flooding
in Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan,
Ethiopia, and Djibouti. The floods killed
more than 2,500 people, displaced 1.5 million,
drowned tens of thousands of cattle and goats,
and––in an effect of considerable economic
weight to a nation with little foreign
credit––ruined 20% of the Ethiopian coffee
crop. Apart from direct harm done to wildlife,
the flooding may intensify human conflict with
animals who eat or trample crops.
Speaking for the Royal Society for
the Protection of Birds, former British environment
secretary John Gummer told the
Kyoto conference that 20 British bird species
now nest an average of nine days earlier than
they did 20 years ago; a 17-year study of
frogs, toads, and newts found that they, too,
are now spawning earlier; and the one-degreeCelsius
average global temperature rise most
conservatively predicted will by itself probably
be enough to push ptarmigan, snow bunting,
and dotterel, among other birds, to extinction.
Puffins, murres, terns, and other shore birds
will decline as seas rising an anticipated 18 to
24 inches drown their salt marsh
habitat––along with much or all of low-lying
nations such as Bangladesh, the Maldives,
and the Marshall Islands. Murres and sooty
shearwaters have already declined by as much
as 90% along parts of the U.S. Pacific Coast
since 1987, RSPB reported in Kyoto.
But not every expert agrees, even
now, that the declines already observed are
“Saying that the global change in climate
has already shown up in changes in
birds’ and other animals’ behavior is a bit
sweeping for my taste,” Swedish climatologist
Bert Bolin told Associated Press writer Joseph
Coleman. Coleman identified Bolin as leader
of a 1995 U.N. panel “that concluded in 1995
that human activities were causing global
Bolin might be skeptical, but the
coincidence of prediction about global warming
and the actuality of worldwide climatic
disturbance is increasingly difficult to explain