About Me

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Native Californian, biologist, wildlife conservation consultant, retired Smithsonian scientist, father of two daughters, grandfather of 4 small primates. INTJ. Believes nature is infinitely more interesting than shopping malls. Born 100 years too late.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Are your garbage cans bear proof?

Do you live in bear country? Will the wild bear get in your garbage can and scatter trash all over the place?

You bet she will. And she'll make it a habit if you reward her by doing the same dumb thing over again. She'll teach her cubs that garbage cans are bountiful providers.

Yes, we can call Cal Fish & Game, and they'll remove the offending bear. They'll 'off' repeat offenders. For bears, it's only two strikes and you're out. If I may paraphrase Pogo "the enemy are us".

We live close to a large wilderness area, and God willing, the bears will be here for a long time. They quickly adapted to our presence. We need to use our heads and adapt to theirs. I know that bears are smart, and I know they are strong, but most people are smarter.

Some of my readers here on the ridge have bear problems. We did too. We kept our garbage in the garage until garbage collection day. That didn't solve the problem, because the garbage man comes early in the morning. Old people don't like to start the day wrestling garbage cans. We prefer to eat mush and sip coffee peacefully in the morning. That's why we put the garbage out the night before morning collection.

So I wrote a letter to Waste Management, introduced myself as a wildlife biologist, blew a little smoke about their reputation as environmentally sensitive recyclers, and suggested they address the bear problem by scheduling garbage pickup later in the day. It was a terribly logical and compelling letter. Bears don't bother garage cans very often in the heart of the burbs. Out here on the frontier they do. Why not just reschedule the pickup in light of that undeniable fact.

Waste Management thanked me for my concern, and told me they couldn't reschedule. Had I thought of buying a bear proof garbage can?

Picking up bear-scattered garbage however is a wonderful motivator, and "need is the mother of invention". So my neighbor Richard and I tried an experiment. We wired our garbage cans with alarms. When you lift the lid the alarm goes off.

Earlier this year a new contractor took over garbage collection and we had to re-arm the new garbage containers. I took pictures of the operation, and you can read how it is done here.

As an added measure I attached a couple pieces of velcro to the container. A little ammonia spray doesn't smell like food to bears.

I know the bears are still here, and I am not saying the alarms are 100% effective. But we haven't had any bears in our garbage for a long time now.

If the bear ups the ante, we'll go back to the drawing board.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A visit from the game warden

The game warden paid me a visit yesterday. Some local readers contacted him to express concern that my occasional use of baits may be contributing to their problems with local wildlife.

I apologized for using syrup recently and explained that for the past several months I have done very little camera trapping locally and other than the syrup, haven't used baits -- usually dead mice and gophers, for some time now.

We discussed my particular dilemma, California's game laws, and human behavior that contributes to local human-wildlife conflicts.

There are some curious ironies. Pet owners do not intend to attract wildlife when they feed their pets outdoors. Though ill-advised, it is NOT illegal to leave dog food on the porch or in the back yard. But it often has undesirable consequences when you live in the country.

We had a neighbor who fed the family dogs outside, and the neighborhood bear made good use of the food service. Then a bear broke into another neighbor's garage while they were on vacation. Guess what the bear found in the garage? Correct: a large bag of dry dog food.

It's not the animal's fault that it becomes a nuisance, but repeat offenders pay the ultimate price. The warden explained that killing nuisance wildlife is the most unpleasant part of his job.

It IS illegal in California to attract game animals with bait. The difference between this and feeding your dog outdoors is "intent". The pet owner doesn't intend to attract wildlife. A camera trapper does.

So from here on out the codger will be camera trapping WITHOUT the use of bait.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Circumventing Yosemite's ground squirrels

Spent a few days in Yosemite hiking with good company, and defending food and belongings from ground squirrels. The redhead and I were unscathed, but our friends took some hits. So here are some groundsquirrel protection hints.

1) "Oh my God, there's a squirrel in the casserole!"
The hours of squirrel-free dining are before 7:15AM and just before dark. If this is too early and too late for meals, guard your food, and don't leave it unattended. Even if you take early and late meals, you may have to handle food during high squirrel hours. Be prepared for their onslaught, and use a brief preemptive chase as soon as they show up.

2) "The little #@$% was in my car!"
Don't leave your car door or trunk open when unpacking. If you don't heed this warning squirrels will enter, search, and destroy food containers. When you arrive at your campsite, transfer your food to the food locker first. Don't leave the food locker open, even if you are just going to your tent. Be aware that in Yosemite's housekeeping area, the squirrels have their burrows under food lockers.

3) "Damnit, that %$#@ squirrel ate a hole in my new pack!"
Don't leave knapsacks containing food on tables, on your bunk bed, or in your tent. Put the food in the pack just before your outing. If you don't do that, then hang the pack from a suspended line near your tent.

4) Don't leave snacks in your sleeping bag or pockets in clothing.

5) "That filthy little (choose an alliterative noun) chewed holes in our tablecloth".
If tablecloths are your thing, use an old one or a disposable one. Squirrels will chew the cotton lining on the underside of new table cloths for nest material. If the table cloth lacks a lining, they just chew up the plastic. They seem to always be on the alert for nesting material, including newsprint used to start campfires.

6) "Something chewed the armpits out of my windbreaker."
Don't leave sweaty clothing around. A hiker friend found his jacket had holes in the armpits.

After you've taken these precautions, enjoy the scenery.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Ethics and coexistence with elephants

The Johns Hopkins University Press is on the verge of giving birth to a hefty and thought provoking volume of essays about Elephant Ethics.

You do not want to miss it. In fact, you will want to buy a copy.

It was a creative coeditorial endeavour of yours truly and environmental historian Kate Christen, So check it out here, and order your copies.

In case you are wondering how a camera trap codger ever got into something like this, it was "Elephant Bill" who sparked my interest in elephants, and domestic elephants in particular.

When Colonel J. H. William's career as a "teak wallah" for the Bombay Burma Trading Corporation ended, he wrote five books about life in the Burmese jungles. They weren't masterpieces of colonial literature, but they were factual and created vivid images of the scenery, people, and life in and around the Burmese elephant camp. They captured my imagination.

Elephant camp life became a reality when I was sent to Nepal as scientific adviser to the Smithsonian-Nepal Tiger Ecology Project in the late 1970s. I made up to two trips a year.

The project was situated in the Chitwan National Park, a former hunting reserve of Nepal's rulers in the lowland deciduous jungle known as terai. The project employed four elephants and twenty-four villagers as mahouts, cooks, drivers, and shikaris, who were professional animal trackers. The government's elephant camp or hathisar was a stone's throw from our field station.

Elephants were indispensable -- not only as the most economical mode of jungle transport, but also as a means of capturing tigers. The "bieth method" of big game hunting is a Nepalese cultural tradition. Tigers and many other large mammals won’t breach a bieth cloth, which is nothing more than a very long and flimsy piece of muslin standing 4 feet high.

Witnessing tiger and rhino drives from elephant back was a drama that kindled a lasting interest in elephants, elephant culture, and elephant conservation . . .

Before sunrise the preparations begin with hushed tones of Nepalese banter. Two dew-soaked shikaris have returned with the news -- last night a tiger killed the buffalo that was tethered in the jungle.

With the sounds of hacking and spirited throat-clearing the camp comes alive. The smell of fresh cow dung wafts up to the porch. The mahouts and shikaris are moving about, but all you see are the red ashes of their beedies -- the vile-smelling little brown cigarettes of south Asia -- floating here and there in the darkness.

As you sip a tumbler of hot tea the dawn breaks. The men have done their work. Over a dozen elephants or hathis are loaded with bundles of bieth cloth, and the shikaris pile on, eight per elephant.

It's your turn to mount the kneeling pachyderm. The ropes creak against the machan. Your hathi stands unexpectedly, and you lurch forward and clutch for security. Your mahout smells of mustard oil and a rotten tooth, but there is also the leathery scent of live elephant.

In the morning chill your hathi trundles off though the thickets and down the sandy banks of the River Rapti, one of the Ganga's myriad but mighty tributaries.

Into the water the hathis plunge, and just as suddenly all progress stops.

What's the delay?

Plunk . . . plunk . . . plunkety-plunk . . . Why, it's the pause that refreshes. The animals drink deeply of the silty water, while steaming dung balls begin their voyage to the sacred Ganga.

One by one, the hathis resume the march through the tall grass of the flood plain, and within an hour the motley gang of mahouts and shikaris stand in a glade near the tiger's kill. They know their jobs well, and deliver you to a tree with the gunner. You take his weathered Capchur gun as he climbs out on a limb beside you.

Now the shikaris dismount and disappear into the tall grass, draping the muslin on sticks and grass canes. When the bieth has been laid, two cloth fences diverge several hundred yards through the rank growth like a work of Cristo's art.

A brainfever bird calls in the distance. You don’t know what will happen, but you feel safe. Yet, it seems an ungodly place, a coarse crude kind of jungle, not the verdant forest of Rousseau's canvas.

The clamor of a distant riot shatters your reverie: the tiger drive begins. In a few minutes you discern the hathis cruising like ships in a sea of tall grass, and the mahouts are clearly in a lather. One hathi has a bloody head. Its mahout, a wiry little Tharu has been using his bilhook. The sight bothers you.

The tiger appears from nowhere, and looks over its shoulder. You hear the crack of the gun, and it races into the forest behind you. The clamor ends.

The mahouts light up their beedies, and everyone waits.

Twenty minutes later the shikaris make off on the koonkies -- the confident "commander elephants" -- to locate the darted cat.

Later you stand in the shadows of the elephants as the tiger is being collared. Suddenly there is a jabbering commotion . . .

"What the hell?! Waaaah!!" -- you are stumbling backwards to get out of the way.

An old wrinkled cow elephant, Chanchal Kali by name, has bolted. It's as if someone has popped her clutch, she rushes forward with an ear-piercing stentorian blast and stops short of the now twitching cat, while her cursing mahout pounds her scaly dome with the back of his kukri.

Later you learn that in the 1950s the Rana family had Chanchal Kali trained as an executioner. If any downed predator showed signs of life, her job was to deliver the coups de grace. A crushing forefoot on the cat's chest was all it took, and she hadn't forgotten.

Indeed this is another world . . . and that's how it started.

If the survival and welfare of elephants concern you, be aware that there are many perspectives. Elephants and Ethics examines the philosophical and historical roots of conflicting views, and seeks common ground for viable solutions.