Archive for December, 2011

Conflict Elephants…

The nine-year civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo only ended in 2006. In eastern DRC, the forest elephants Loxodonta africana cyclotis roamed the Okapi Faunal Reserve. The elephants were once one the largest forest elephant populations in the region. But this was at the beginning of the civil war.

War is not often thought of as having an effect on indigenous animals in a region. But conflict inflicts substantial damage to the environment, protected areas and wildlife. The civil war in the DRC resulted in a significant loss of wildlife. The elephants that were once protected fell into neglect due to due to institutional collapse, lawlessness and unbridled exploitation of natural resources such as minerals, wood, ivory and bushmeat.

Poaching is always the number one problem. This state of unbridled exploitation went unchecked for most of the 70s and 80s, until a ban on ivory trade in 1989. Breakout of war in 1996 brought a return to old practices. As  military and rebel factions moved into the area, they looted park headquarters, disarmed park guards, brought in hunters, and opened markets around the reserve for bushmeat and ivory.  Ivory helped fund the acquisition of arms at the start of the civil war.

By 2000 widespread killing of elephants were reported. Elephants in the region were killed not just for ivory but also to feed armed forces. Between 2002 and 2004 the killings got worse. 6.5 tons in 2002 and 14.3 tons in 2004 were discovered to have left the reserve and surrounding areas one way or another.

All in all, the elephant population was devastated — up to 50% of the population (estimated as many as 3300 animals have been lost) equating to an estimated 23 tons of ivory. Researchers also found that elephant density patterns across the reserve changed substantially after the conflict.

The impacts of conflict persist long after war ends. 2011 was the worst year for ivory trafficking, with  a record number of large ivory seizures globally, mainly originating in Kenya and Tanzania, and destined for Asian markets. The recovery of the elephants that roam the DRC is still under threat. As the growing human population, immigration, and continuing demand for bushmeat and ivory are all proving to be continual warning signs.

Beyers, R., Hart, J., Sinclair, A., Grossmann, F., Klinkenberg, B., & Dino, S. (2011). Resource Wars and Conflict Ivory: The Impact of Civil Conflict on Elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo – The Case of the Okapi Reserve PLoS ONE, 6 (11) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0027129


‘Tis the season to catch norovirus…

Published in the Guardian Thursday, December 1, 2011…

Winter is probably the only time people will forgive you for talking in hyperbole. Such quips as “struck down by flu”, “a fate worse than death” and “lying on their deathbed” are only really tolerated with sympathy at this time of year. Some of you may even be reading this from your very own sickbed: as the news about oysters reminds us, ’tis the season to be sick. More specifically, to catch norovirus – and you don’t have to eat seafood to fall ill. The commonly known “winter vomiting bug” is the leading cause of food-borne disease outbreaks and non-bacterial gastroenteritis worldwide. It accounts for 3m cases and 130,000 GP consultations annually.

Read the original article here.

Of rabbit’s feet and god particles…

The excitement is palpable!

“We are homing in on the Higgs. We have had hints today of what its mass might be and the excitement of scientists is palpable. Whether this is ultimately confirmed or we finally rule out a low mass Higgs boson, we are on the verge of a major change in our understanding of the fundamental nature of matter.”

Those were words today, at the top of the special seminar called at Cern, the European particle physics lab near Geneva.

To summarise, scientists are on the verge of probably finding something out which is close to proof of the existence of the famed “God particle” — the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson is a subatomic particle that was predicted to exist nearly 50 years ago and that has been searched for ever since. In fact, the Higgs boson is a remnant of the Higgs field — the thing that gives mass to nearly everything in the universe. Finding the Higgs boson would prove the existence of the invisible Higgs energy field that fills the vacuum throughout the observable universe. The field itself has little to no chance of being observed, which is why scientists look instead for the Higgs boson particle — a ripple in the field.

The media and their ilk are very good at naming things. Science communicators and writers take credit for popularising science and giving the man on the street an easy way into science; by easy to digest concepts and platitudes — The Big Bang and The God Particle are just two such examples.

But is this a good thing? Are they doing you a disservice? Yes, and no. It risks simplification, oversimplification and skewing the real science that goes on. And at times approaches science fiction instead of science fact. Take a look at all the stories about the hunt for the god particle. Talk of black holes ending the world makes great water-cooler talk for monday morning with colleagues. On the up side at least it offers you a way in, to get down to the more nittier and grittier side of the science.

Talk over the past week and the coming days will all be about the Higgs boson, but let’s not forget the other scientific projects that are going on at Cern.

As poetic as “the God particle” is, its purpose serves one similar to a MacGuffin, reminding me of that Mission Impossible film where Simon Pegg’s character explains what the Rabbit’s Foot is. In the film we never find out what the Rabbit’s Foot is… its purpose is only to lead us into the story and this world.

UNESCO and Palestine…

On Tuesday 13th December the Palestinian flag shall be raised over the UNESCO headquarters in Paris. The symbolic jesture marks Palestine’s admission to the organization.

Controversial only to those that deal in politics instead of science. As a consequence of the decision in October to admit Palestine as a member of the organisation the US threatened to pull funding.

“They’ve made a decision and they will pay the consequences for their decision, and that is that U.S. tax dollars are not going to be spent, if I have anything to do with it, on organizations that take the measures they’ve taken.” — Sen. John McCain referring to UNESCO.

As a consequence UNESCO is now suffering from a funding shortfall to the tune of $65million, and has sought to bridge the gap by taking donations.

We’ve talked before of a scientific code of conduct — but what about the basis of a scientific human right. Namely, the right of scientists throughout the world to participate in scientific activity without any discrimination on the grounds of ethnic origin, religion, citizenship, language, political stance, gender, sex or age. And surely Palestine’s inclusion to UNESCO is within that same spirit.

Let there be light…

Watch this video and resist being astounded:

Bottled Light


What you just witnessed is a cheap and effective way to transform plastic bottle waste into light bulbs. Designed and developed by students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Solar Bottle Bulb is looking to be rolled out in developing communities. Sometimes the simplest method is the most effective.

What had I twaught…

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