Saturday, 30 December 2017

Endangered Species: Examining the Numbers

How many animals in New Zealand are actually endangered, and how much can poisoning our environment save them? A Facebook friend posted a comment on one of my Facebook posts today citing the sometimes-touted "fact" that 11% of the world's endangered species are endemic to New Zealand. I am skeptical--the world is a big place, and NZ is a small one--so I went looking for some numbers. Here's what I found:

Archie's Frog, an ancient species. Photo from DOC.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists 2464 endangered animals worldwide. Of the world's top 100 most endangered species, including plants, on the IUCN red list posted on Wikipedia, only Archie's Frog is endemic to New Zealand. (That would be 1%). But Archie's frog is an odd pick for the Top 100. After an 80% decline in the Archie's Frog population last century, possibly due to disease/fungus, Archie’s frog has now stabilized in three locations and they are also being successfully captive-bred—so is it really one of the world’s top 100 most endangered species? 

NZ's national heritage site lists 2788 endangered species in New Zealand including plants, insects, and fish. The top 10 most endangered animal species in NZ, according to a 2012 Herald article, are Maui's dolphin, the NZ fairy tern, the kakapo, the white heron (noted in the article as "common" in Australia), the black stilt, greater short-tailed bat, Bryde's whale, southern elephant seal, and the NZ sea lion (there are also populations in Australia).

Maui's dolphin, photo from Wikipedia
New Zealand's Endangered Species Foundation (ESF), in conjunction with the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC), compiled their own list of the 10 most threatened New Zealand species. These are the Maui’s dolphin, Canterbury knobbled weevil, Mokohinau stag beetle, quillwort (an aquatic fern), fairy tern, limestone cress, Chesterfield skink, coastal peppercress, eyelash seaweed, and the dune swale Daphne. The ESF claim there are 4000 New Zealand species “in danger of being lost”. Their website gives cost estimates for saving each of the top-10 species, and it's not trivial money; they’re a non-profit organisation raising money for “targeted intervention”.

When you really start looking at the actual lists of endangered species, they’re all over the place. A lot of animals and plants are cited as "possibly extinct", so the "most endangered" list becomes somewhat meaningless as these are rarely included on those lists. These are animals like the Haditha cave fish (only in Iraq--nobody's monitoring at the moment), and Bachman's warbler (US/Cuba).

Public profile matters a lot too. In New Zealand we hear a lot about kiwi being at risk (estimated count around 100,000) and wood pigeons (not threatened, no number available), but not so much about fairy terns (40 individuals) or the Chatham Islands oystercatcher (est. 300 birds) or grey ducks (“nationally critical” but no estimated headcount available and they're legal to hunt). Could the skew be due to a desire to emphasize forest birds over shore/sea birds promotionally because poisoning the forests--ostensibly to kill the feral mammals and “save the birds”--is a big industry in New Zealand? Could it be that easily-recognized, appealing species perceived as at risk are more likely to generate cash donations and government conservation money than weevils and quillwort?

Incidentally, and just as an ironic side note, the IUCN lists the southern bluefin tuna as "critically endangered" (on their "red list"). The NZ commercial annual catch quota of southern bluefin tuna is set at 1000 tonnes; Australia's quota is 5665 tonnes, similar to Japan’s. I guess a "critically endangered" label doesn't seem to count for much if there's money to be made. (Rhino poachers and conservationists in Africa would agree.)

Clearly, these lists and numbers are somewhat arbitrary. For most species, there is no clear idea how many individuals are remaining in the wild. Mostly lists don’t include probable extinctions, and some include plants and animals that are being successfully bred in captivity. Some endangered species, like the tuna and the grey duck, are actively hunted/harvested. Some New Zealand lists of endangered animals include species that are also endemic—and not so endangered--elsewhere, like the white heron and the New Zealand sea lion.

So…does New Zealand really have 11% of the world’s endangered species? I didn't find  11% mentioned anywhere, and I don’t believe that figure for a minute. Can we “save” our most vulnerable species by dropping 1080 or brodificoum poison in our forests? Given most of our endangered species are not forest dwellers, that seems unlikely, even supposing poisoning an animal's or plant's environment is helpful--and that's a pretty big supposition.

Saturday, 16 December 2017

When There's Something in the Water

The drinking water on the Kapiti Coast is fluoridated and chlorinated. This time of year (summer) it smells like a swimming pool. Numerous health studies question the benefits of these chemicals for human health, and many suggest these chemicals are actively harmful. Studies show drinking chlorinated drinking water, for example, significantly increases your cancer risk, and I’ve blogged about the problems with fluoride before, see here.

When I lived in the Hutt Valley, I brought home drinking water from the artesian aquifer taps in Petone and at the Dowse, even though the tap water in the Hutt valley tastes pretty good. Hutt Valley water is fluoridated, but you can’t taste that. Now that I’ve moved to the Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley community taps are too far away for routine pick-ups. I’ve resorted to buying bottled water for drinking.

There are, of course various problems with bottled water. Not only are you paying for it, but the amount of plastic generated from numerous bottles of water used over a week is seriously disconcerting. And studies suggest plastic isn't a healthy container choice for your food or water. There has to be a better way.

One option would be a home water filter system, not so much to catch the bad bacteria that can lurk in our municipal water, but to filter out the chemical additives that make it “safe”. I had heard about stainless steel Burkey water filters, made in Texas, that sit on your kitchen bench and filter a couple of gallons of water every couple of hours. I know several health gurus absolutely love them (see Chris Wark’s video here, as an example). So I spent some time researching the Berkey site, and reading the data and filter results, and customer comments. Burkey claims their filters screen out not only bad bugs, but over 95% of chlorine and, if you add a fluoride filter, over 95% of fluoride. Berkeys are gravity-fed so don’t depend on electricity to run. Two filters are good for cleaning about 6000 gallons of water. What’s not to like?

Never one to rest on company data and promotion, I flicked over to Amazon and several other sites to read user reviews. I learned that filters need to be primed well, leaks sometimes occur if washers and nuts don’t make a tight seal (you assemble it yourself), and one reader was unhappy that her product from Amazon arrived with a dent in it. There apparently has been a problem in the past with the glue used on the filters failing, which Berkey says they have rectified. Some users conducted their own tests of water purification, and all seemed pretty happy with results. Overall, lots of 5-star happy purchasers.

I love the idea, and would appreciate the convenience of just using my tap water and getting a safer (in my mind) product with fewer chemical contaminates, and no plastic bottles. So what’s the catch? I started by looking for a NZ supplier. A google search (“Berkey water filters NZ”) kicked up TruWater who want NZ$469 for a Big Berkey with 2 black filters plus 2 fluoride filters. Serious moolah here!

Having never heard of TruWater, I wondered where they are located. The website showed an Auckland phone number but no address. I google again, and discovered their office is in New South Wales. On product review for Tru Water, I found 118 people rated them as “terrible” and 12 people rated them as “excellent”—only 4 sort-of in-be-tweeners rated the company as “bad”. Do they have 12 company shills? Um. Uh, nah. Not going there.

Maybe—I thought—I could just get a Big Berkey from the US through Amazon. Price check: US$416 including shipping and import fees. With the current currency exchange, that’s NZ$595. That’s even more serious moolah. Gah!

It seems to me that there must be a massive market for units like this. So many people like me want clean, fresh water without chemical additives, and without adding more plastic bottles to the recyclers, or having to have easy access to an artesian well. The units could also be used for purifying rain water from the roof, or well or creek water. If some enterprising Kiwi—and aren’t we known for our #8 wire mentality?—went into the business of creating home water filter units based on the Berkey concept, I’m sure they could undercut Amazon and have a very ready market. 

Meanwhile, I’m still buying supermarket water in plastic bottles (sigh!), and when I have an excuse to go to the Hutt Valley, I fill up my big glass bottles. I will start looking at jugs next...Seychelle maybe? But they're not easily sourced in New Zealand either, and the filters (expensive) have a really short life (150 gallons) compared to Burkey filters. Sigh again. Bit of a mine field, really.