ECOLOGY IS STILL IN THE NEWS

by Whit Gibbons

January 29, 2017

The custom of sitting on walls around a fountain in an upscale area of Philadelphia is now illegal because residents claimed it promoted smoking pot. Why would I know this rather unusual information, and what does it have to do with ecology?

Newspapers serve as gauges of how noteworthy various issues are to the American public. Tallying up how many articles reference a specific topic is one way to quantify the public’s level of interest. USA Today simplifies the job with a section called "State-by-State,” which has a catchy news tidbit for each state. Noting where the emphasis lies in such news reporting reveals the interests and concerns of people across the nation. I recently read USA Today over a three-day period to see how many of the news items involved ecology and the environment. The number was about 16 percent of the total.

Among the animals mentioned were maned wolves in Arkansas and black rhinos in Iowa, neither of which are native anywhere within several thousand miles of these states. Nonetheless, the Little Rock Zoo was proud to publicize that a maned wolf in captivity had given birth to triplets and that the pups were doing well.

Most maned wolves in the wild live in Brazil and are classified as “near threatened” by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. They are the largest members of the dog family native to South America and look a bit like a huge red fox but are not closely related to either wolves, foxes or coyotes. Their decline is attributed to the continuing deforestation of the region. An interesting trait of maned wolves is that their urine smells like marijuana, but none have been accused of sitting around a fountain in Philadelphia.

The baby black rhinoceros making the news was born in Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines. It became newsworthy to USA Today not because it was a newborn, since it has been following its mother around for more than three months, but because it had finally been given a name, Tumani. The Urban Dictionary says “Tumani” means “hope.” Interestingly “Tumaini” means the same thing in Swahili.

The zoo’s choice of spelling is suspect since the people who speak Swahili live in Zimbabwe in East Africa where the few remaining black rhinos in the wild reside. The IUCN lists the species as “critically endangered,” noting that the once wide-ranging species of 850,000 is now estimated to be fewer than 5,000. The steady decline in numbers is due in great part to poaching because of an absurd belief in some Asian cultures that rhinoceros horns have medicinal value and because the horns are considered by some to be status symbols. The species could potentially become extinct in the wild while little Tumani is still alive in a zoo.

Alabama made the list with a more common species, the white-tailed deer. According to the entry, numerous hunters in the state have been cited for illegally baiting deer, which means they put out corn to lure deer to a site during hunting season. “Hunting over bait,” as the practice is known, is legal in some states but not in Alabama. Those arrested had fallen victim to believing false reports that wildlife officials had lifted the ban on baiting deer. I wonder if they will be allowed to check their Facebook accounts while in jail?

Other state news items were about a proposal to protect killer whales off Washington’s coast from increasing threats of being killed or injured by boats, an increase of more than a half million visitors to Glacier National Park in Montana from 2015 to 2016, and attempts in Michigan to prevent environmentally destructive Asian carp from entering the Great Lakes. Issues involving ecology and the environment can no longer be discussed around that fountain in Philadelphia, but it is comforting to know that they are still viewed as significant topics for many people.

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