Huffington Post

Monterey Bay

Steve Backshall Big Blue Live

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 28/08/2015

The quicksilver ball quivered and seethed, mercury smoke flashing in the golden hour sunlight. I drew in breath and ducked below the surface, a few metres down hitting the icy layer of water driven up from the great depths. As I span onto my back I looked up to see the baitfish above me silhouetted against the sun, a living thing growing and receding before the dark torpedo shape of a predator. The large male California sealion darted amongst the fish trying to separate a loner, herding them like tiny silvery sheep. Out of the green a pod of clicking white-sided dolphins hove into view, bodies convulsing, vocalisations escalating in the excitement of the chase. I turn my camera skywards, battling the urge to breathe or surge for the surface hoping to capture this dazzling overwhelming spectacle, one you could spend a lifetime searching for. 

That magical place is one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, and it’s where I’ll be spending my summer making Big Blue Live for BBC1.

It's a truth widely accepted in ecology that top of the line apex predators don't matter. That we're wasting our time putting effort into cuddly iconic carnivores, when the most important factors are always less charismatic but more abundant stuff like bugs and grubs. There is one place however where that has been proven manifestly untrue. That magical place is one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories, and it’s where I’ll be spending my summer making Big Blue Live for BBC1.

It's a torrid tale with bleak beginnings, but a truly happy ending. California's Monterey Bay has been an epicentre for fisheries for 240 years, and as such has had every single one of its marine inhabitants brutally and fatally over-exploited. One of the first to be exterminated was the sea otters. As a marine mammal that is not insulated by blubber like whales and seals, sea otters possess the densest fur on the planet, 100,000 hairs per square centimeter.

It's an essential adaptation in waters that are blessed by cold upwellings of nutrient-rich waters; the very basis of the flourishing food chain. Their fur coats however proved to be their downfall, as waves of both legal and illicit hunters ravaged these shores in search of the priceless pelts. In the late 1700s they were seen as the royal fur in China, and in the 1800s a single pelt could raise $100. Not surprisingly the last sea otter disappeared from Monterey before the end of that century. They were not the last to perish before human avarice. In 1854 a whale was worth two pounds of pure gold, and hence they too fell, first to spears then to the explosive harpoons of the industrial whalers...
Big Blue Live continues on BBC One on Sunday 30 August at 7pm.

A Trip to the Zoo?

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post on 18/08/2015

For the last seven years, I've spent a portion of the school holidays doing live shows at some of the nation's best-known zoos. The shows attract thousands, mostly families with younger kids, and most leave with big smiles on their faces. I do however, every year receive a number of messages that go something like this: "You're a massive hypocrite. You claim to be a conservationist, to care about wild animals, and yet you endorse institutions that keep these noble beasts imprisoned behind bars." My stance on this criticism - for which I have a certain amount of sympathy - is rather too complex to get across in 140 characters or less, so I decided to offer a more considered response to the ethics of keeping wild animals in captivity.

The first thing I have to say is – deep breath – I DO support zoos.

The first thing I have to say is - deep breath - I do support zoos. Admittedly with reservations, and with dreams of how they could be better, but sixteen years working in wildlife media has convinced me that they have an essential role to play in the healthy future of our planet. Much of my conversion dates back to a night I had drinking Guinness in a distant Scottish pub with Terry Nutkins. 

Sadly no longer with us, Terry was the man best known for the stumpy fingers he had bitten off by otters, for breaking down on a major motorway with a sea lion in the back of his van, and was the driving force behind the Really Wild Show (a kid's wildlife series that ended up running for 20 years). Terry gave his whole life to the good of wildlife, and ended up living in the most remote part of Scotland in glorious wilderness... but grew up in the middle of London, to parents who knew and cared nothing for nature. He gained all of his inspiration from climbing over the wall into London Zoo and gazing at the elephants. Despite spending the next sixty years filming and living with animals in the wild, he still looked back on the zoo as the place that changed his life. And I see kids like Terry every hour when I'm doing my zoo talks; youngsters fired with a zeal that will become a life's passion. Young people particularly get enthused by what they can see, smell, touch and feel. A lion on the telly is OK, but a real lion is something else entirely...

Cecil the Lion's Legacy of Conservation

Steve Backshall Cecil the lion

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 30/07/2015

This week, the papers and social network sites have been buzzing with horrified outrage at the tale of Walter James Palmer. This rich American dentist paid £32,000 to lure Cecil, Zimbabwe's best-known lion, out of his protected reserve and shoot him with a crossbow, before decapitating and skinning him. And through that one egomaniacal wanton, destructive act, he has inadvertently done more for global awareness and disgust towards trophy hunting than conservationists have achieved in decades.

In life, Cecil was the most important lion in his area. In death, he has suddenly become the most important lion in the world.

Cecil was already a pretty important cat. Dynamics within a lion pride are unusual; only around one in eight males make maturity, and far fewer than that will get to command a large pride like he did. With six lionesses and twelve cubs, he would have been the largest, strongest, most handsome mature male in his area. When you remove that top cat, all hell breaks loose. Either a more junior male will take command, in which case you can expect protracted bloody battles, or an outlying male will try to take over. The new male will systematically kill all the existing cubs in the pride; the lionesses will not become receptive to his advances until this infanticide is complete. When he shot Cecil, he may as well have trained his bow on every one of his twelve cuddly progeny.

Taking trophy individuals often has similar knock-on effects, regardless of the species. Hunters claim to only be taking animals that are past their prime, to be enforcing the 'survival of the fittest' by taking out animals beyond breeding age; yet somehow the trophy animals displayed dead on the front of hunting magazines are always prime specimens like Cecil, and hunters don't take along biologists to advise what impact a specific kill will have on population dynamics. 

They claim to be bringing in revenue that gives value to the animals, and may help protect the environment they live in, yet independent studies show native landowners in the area receive only $1-$3 a year in exchange for hunting rights, while the big bucks stay with the big game hunting firms, run by wealthy (often foreign) businessmen. Hunters are moving to using bows and crossbows to increase the 'sport', to make it more challenging. They describe being engaged in a noble battle of wits against their target, which requires Shamanistic knowledge of the environment, enhanced senses and stalking skills. Well, I've tracked wild animals on every continent, and they don't get any easier than lions. They're big, they leave bucketloads of sign, and they spend the whole day lying under a tree yawning. Of course, Cecil was even easier, as he had a radio collar on that told the hunters exactly where he was (though they tried to destroy that after beheading him). Oh, and they lured him out of his protected reserve with bait. The only way it could have been easier would be if it was a 'canned' hunt, where the animal would actually be in captivity, and drugged so the hunter simply cannot miss.

In life, Cecil was the most important lion in his area. In death, he has suddenly become the most important lion in the world. Every celebrity from Ricky Martin and Sharon Osborne to Lennox Lewis have taken to Twitter to shout foul play. Millions the world over are horrified, galvanized by his slaughter. Professor David Macdonald, from the Wildlife Conservation Research Unit at Oxford University who were tracking Cecil said; "he hoped there would be a silver-lining to Cecil's death with an increase in support for his research". 

This current storm could make a difference. It could lead to restrictions or bans on the importing of animal trophies into the US, and even the richest hunters are less likely to shell out tens of thousands if they can't take the trophy home. If they know that all they'll have is that glory photograph of them stooped grinning over the dead-eyed corpse of their treasure... which is now likely to earn them widespread disdain.

So was Cecil genuinely more important than the hundreds of other lions who are trophy hunted every year? Well yes. He was Zimbabwe's best-known lion, a proud black-maned father killed by a coward, dying after 40 hours of agony with an arrow in his side. He had a name, a story, a character, a tale we can tell, understand and empathise with, and that is a powerful thing. We need people to find respect for animals, and to become their champions. 

In the last 50 years, we've lost nearly 95% of lions, from near half a million, to only around 25,000... yet lions are one of the wild cats that are doing best. Compare that to tigers, which are down to 3,000, and could easily go extinct in my lifetime. Cataclysmic problems that the world largely ignores, but a single animal with a whiff of fame, and everyone sits up and takes notice. I believe all of this is testament to the way that we the public consume media. Big numbers and problems baffle us. We want our news served to us like a soap opera. A single murder case can dominate the front pages for years, while a tragedy that kills thousands will have slipped from the papers within days. What is the passing of one majestic lion amongst the rapid disappearance of thousands of species... it is inconsequential. But if Cecil can be a poster child for greater regulation around trophy hunting, or encourage people to think it's not noble to kill animals for fun then he could be vitally important. Conservation organisations need to watch the unfolding drama with interest, and learn. 

We need to shed our naiveté and learn how to tell our stories so people will listen. Many environmentalists take the scientific approach that we should be focusing on ecosystems first, that single species are of no value; particularly not sparse large mammals. This is clearly not the case. 

I guarantee you won't get a celebrity-endorsed Twitter-storm about the destruction of seagrass and mangroves, but you might get it from the tale of Marvin the homeless manatee... We need to learn from this how to weave stories, to engage the public in the plight of wildlife. 

Conservation needs powerful friends, mass action and money, and icons and figureheads can be vitally important. If this tragic drama accomplishes any small part of this, then Cecil didn't die in vain.

British Sharks in Troubled Waters

Originally appeared on The Huffington Post – 29/07/2015

From the dawn gloom deep-blue, an alien form glinted and glimmered. I hung motionless above the seabed, barely even daring to breathe in case my expelled bubbles spooked the ethereal shape just beyond my gaze. Then, languidly, lazily, the metallic torpedo-shape turned towards me, and started to focus into view.

Steve Backshall British sharks

The shark was perhaps four metres long, half of that was made up by a scimitar-shaped tail that trailed behind it like a silver banner in the breeze. The large, light-gathering eyes were billiard ball black, the whole form of the fish seemed cloaked in aluminium foil. As its mirror flanks sinuously twisted side to side, it caught the early morning light, and suddenly the thresher shark was revealed in all its bizarre, brilliant glory. It was one of the most overwhelming wildlife encounters I've ever had, with a shark we have right here in British waters. 

We could lose sharks from our seas within my lifetime, and that simply must not happen. Lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, and our planet’s oceans would be infinitely poorer places.

Many may be surprised to know that we have perhaps 50 species of sharks in British seas. The nearest thing we have to a Great White is the Porbeagle shark. They look like a smaller version of the Great white, feeding on squid, and other fish and sharks, and share some of the vulnerabilities of their more iconic cousin. But no need to panic, they're shy of humans, and rarely seen except by fishermen. They're long-lived, but also take a long time to mature, may be pregnant for a year or more, and produce few young.

It's a common strategy amongst sharks and other apex marine predators that has worked fabulously for them over the last 400million years. Until suddenly they were faced with the most efficient hunter this planet has ever seen; us. Porbeagles have been fished to the brink of extinction, mostly for their meat, their fishoil, for their fins, which are used in Chinese sharkfin soup, and as accidental bycatch by fishermen searching for more commercially viable species; indeed often sold as 'swordfish', which the meat resembles. Now critically endangered in the North Atlantic, we face decades of panic management to make sure paltry populations of this wonderful shark stand any chance of surviving. And they are not alone, angelshark and common skate are functionally extinct in our waters, overfishing of tope and spiny dogfish (once our most abundant sharks) has meant there is simply no point commercial fishermen trying to catch them anymore. 

It's a conservation nightmare that has been repeated a thousand times through recent human history; not recognizing that animals are close to extinction until way past zero hour. Tigers for example numbered in the hundreds of thousands at the turn of the last century. Profligate persecution means we may now have only 3,000 left, and it costs an estimated $80million a year to prevent their extinction. As only $50million is being donated, their future still looks bleak. We waited till there were only 22 Californian condors left in the wild before taking action, removing the entire population into captivity until they could recover, at well over a million dollars per bird. And these are dramatic iconic species that the general public fall for, and thus will support. Woe betide the frog or fish that suffers the same fate. Too often we in conservation cheer when an animal is listed on CITES as being endangered, as CITES is a global recognition that the animal is 'that' endangered, because this empowers the trade bans and awareness needed to start protecting them. Surely it would make much more sense to recognize which species are vulnerable early, and take steps to limit their exploitation in order to avoid expensive and often doomed 'panic conservation' in the future? 

I've chosen to focus on sharks because they have precious few friends, and are fundamentally misunderstood animals in need of an image makeover. Also because they are the animals that have brought me the most joy and fascination through my life, through jaw-dropping, unforgettable encounters - I owe them! And shark biology, and our fishing practices make them peculiarly vulnerable. These are species that are vital to the wider ecosystem health. 

So what is the answer? Well we have all the science and research at our fingertips to know what we can and can't catch. There just needs to be regulation put in place to make sure we keep our catches sustainable. History shows us that unrestricted exploitation leads to populations crashing, potentially never to recover. Sharks are caught in staggering numbers; in 2012 alone over 280,000tonnes of sharks were reported landed globally; probably 100million sharks gone every single year. 

We need to act to stop uncontrolled shark fishing now; adopting effective management before crisis recovery plans are needed. The high seas can no longer be an out of sight out of mind wild frontier where anything goes. Fisheries have seen a threefold increase in Blue Sharks landings since 2000, which simply cannot continue. Organisations like the WWF, and UK-based Shark Trust are calling on high seas management authorities, and those governments whose fleets fish these waters. Campaigns such as 'Bite Back', are aiming to bring to an end the selling of shark fin soup at UK restaurants. We need to get as aware as possible about what we eat and where it comes from. Direct pressure onto supermarkets can change what they choose to stock. Science-based catch limits would be sustainability in action - both for the species and for the communities that rely on them.

We could lose sharks from our seas within my lifetime, and that simply must not happen. Lose the sharks, the mighty, mysterious lords of the deep, and our planet's oceans would be infinitely poorer places.