Kids

A creature swims in the upper Gulf of California, Mexico that occurs nowhere else on the planet. Less than five feet long, with subtle hues of gray and white, this animal is almost never seen, and was only discovered in the 1950’s. Most people have never heard of it, yet it is the world’s most endangered marine mammal, with fewer than 85 individuals remaining. What is this mystery creature?

The vaquita, Phocoena sinus, is a tiny porpoise (porpoises are similar to dolphins, but smaller and without a prominent beak) that only lives in a 1,400 square mile area in the northernmost tip of the Gulf of California. The gulf is also known as the Sea of Cortez, and is a strip of sea between mainland Mexico and the Baja California peninsula; an aqua oasis juxtaposed between lifeless deserts. The locals in this region rely on one career over any other: fishing. The Sea of Cortez abounds with fish and shrimp, and the area’s residents capitalize on this resource. There is a problem, however. The cheapest and easiest way to catch fish and shrimp is with drift gillnets, nearly invisible fishing nets that are extremely efficient at catching everything that swims their way. Everything, including the vaquita. The vaquita has been declining for as long as the species has been known to science, and the primary reason for this decline is accidental entanglement in gillnets, known as bycatch. The vaquita is not the target catch for the fishermen, it is simply collateral damage in the race to catch as much seafood as possible. Originally, most vaquita bycatch occurred when people were fishing for the totoaba, an enormous fish in the drum family. The totoaba is endangered in its own right, so this fishing was soon outlawed. However, in the past few years, the illegal demand for totoaba has skyrocketed again, causing a sharp decline in both species. In China, the swim bladder organ of the totoaba is regarded as a symbol of wealth, and is also believed to have medicinal properties. A single totoaba swim bladder can fetch thousands of U.S. dollars on the black market, which is too good to resist for the Mexican fishermen.

So, what is the solution to this problem? Get the gillnets out of the vaquita’s range. The upper Sea of Cortez is a remarkably rich, healthy, and diverse marine ecosystem, with no other serious threats to the vaquita. If this one danger can be removed, the recovery of the vaquita is virtually guaranteed. On the other hand, if the gillnets persist for even a few more years, the vaquita will be gone forever. Due to remarkable efforts by conservationists and worried citizens alike, the Mexican government has announced a two-year ban on gillnets in the vaquita’s entire range beginning in April 2015. This gives scientists time to figure out how many vaquitas are left, as well as to perfect and distribute trawl nets that do not kill the timid vaquitas. The nets are vaquita-safe because the loud noise of the mechanism scares the shy porpoises away, and if one does get caught, there is a hatch on top that will allow the vaquita to escape. It has been determined that it will take a ban of at least 20-30 years for the vaquita’s numbers to reach sustainable levels, so while this ban is a good first step, it will not be enough to save the vaquita if the gillnets are back in the water in two years. In addition, the ban will be useless if it is not efficiently enforced by boats and drones. Illegal fishing is rampant in Mexico, and will not go away just because of the ban. Pressure must be kept on Mexico’s officials to ensure they follow through with their admirable promises, and that they extend the ban so that the vaquita has enough time to make a full recovery. The survival of the vaquita would be one of the most amazing conservation success stories in history, and it would demonstrate that all hope is not lost for our endangered wildlife.

You can help save this species by signing our petition to the Mexican government: http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/save-thelittle-vaquita?source=c.fwd&r_by=12069499

About the Author: Aidan Bodeo-Lomicky is ‘a boy on a mission’ to secure a future for a small and rare marine treasure—the Vaquita. At 15 years-of-age this impassioned conservationist has published a book about the species and maintains a website filled with inspiration and information on the Vaquita. You can follow this novice naturalist on his quest to save the Vaquita at: http://vlogvaquita.com Aidan is also a member of the International A-Team For Wildlife, an environmental education non-profit offering all youth facilitation and support with their concerns for wildlife, the home of an award-winning council of prodigies in conservation. www.A-TeamForWildlife.org

Aidan represents a new breed of naturalist—our youth, curious yet informed to such a degree as to bely their years. As part of our ethos, Bare Essentials embraces passion and wisdom, encouraging ambition and the value of novice naturalists.

Saving the Vaquita

A voice emerges from the curious mind, a soul of wisdom before it’s time… the next generation has a story to tell.

It was once the domain of experienced, well travelled boffins to write emotive and detailed essays on the happening of nature—not so, since the advent of the internet. In fact, an emerging trend in media is the voice of youth. We see blogs and videos from tech-savvy teens and even younger, populating the digital world, and prestigious publications like BBC Wildlife which features a column dedicated to the words of budding young naturalists. As a publisher and editor covering science, culture and conservation; I too embrace the talent and genuine passion of young journalists, photographers, ambassadors giving nature a voice and discovering their purpose.

“Working with members of the A-Team is a rewarding experience, the youthful outlook and energy they express is a catalyst for motivating continued engagement in issues of the environment.”

There is a place for experience and experiment, each offers a unique perspective that appeals to different generations. I consider this new breed of reporters to be valued contributors to Bare Essentials Magazine, a resource for educators and an inspiration for other students sharing their wild aspirations!

Educators and Students will find a wonderful hub of resources and support at: www.a-teamforwildlife.org

Wild Aspirations

Capturing Young Hearts

As a volunteer at a koala habitat program, author Jesse Blackadder is passionate about their survival. After witnessing firsthand the impact of ex-tropical Cyclone Oswald on local koalas, Jesse decided to write a book that highlights the importance of our native animals survival, and shows kids what caring for wildlife, such as koalas, really involves.

In her new book, Dexter: The Courageous Koala (Harper Collins $14.99), Jesse tells the story of a girl and her aunt who rescue a baby koala and his mother after a storm hits. According to Byron Coast Koala Habitat Study there are only around 240 koalas in the coastal strip between Billinudgel and Broken Head and they are threatened by habitat loss and fragmentation, fire, dog attack, disease and road mortalities. There is a real risk that the population is not sustainable, and will die out.

“Understanding the plight of the koalas also prompted me to write this book and join Tweed Byron Koala Connections program, which is planting thousands of habitat and food trees for koalas across the two shires,” said Jesse. “Thanks to the program we now have a small forest of 400 trees – and many of the properties around us have joined it too.”

I asked Jesse to share her journey as an artist and her thoughts on the power of story to engage children in conservation.

My love of animals started young. One of my earliest memories was finding a fallen bird egg on the low brick wall outside our house. I must have been four, and I entreated Mum to help me put it somewhere that the parent birds could find it. Discovering the empty shell the next morning, I was full of joy. I knew the bird and hatched and flown away to freedom, and nothing Mum said to try and gently explain would budge me from that idea.

I didn’t know much about conservation when I was 10 years old, but I knew I couldn’t bear to see animals suffer. Documentaries about creatures burnt in forest fires left me in tears. National Geographic features showing brumby culls prompted me to throw heavy items and slam doors. And injured creatures – no matter how humble – produced an irresistible urge to rescue and heal. I’m sure my parents rolled their eyes many times when I turned up at home with the latest bedraggled pigeon from Circular Quay, or baby bird from the pavement, or puppy from school. Into my twenties I was still rescuing dumped kittens from the back lanes behind my student households.

I wasn’t discerning though. One animal or bird was the same as another to me. Growing up reading pony books, the James Herriot vet series, and the Famous Five didn’t teach me much about Australian native animals, or the challenges they faced.

What I did know was this – that stories were a powerful way of learning about the things I loved. To this day I remember ailments suffered by the farm animals in early twentieth century Yorkshire, and even some of the remedies, thanks to Mr Herriot. Those delicious stories called out to me over the decades and lodged themselves in my heart and mind.

I’d already been a writer for many years when a trip to Antarctica prompted me to consider writing for children. When I sat down to create my first junior novel – inspired by a fibreglass seeing eye collection dog that has lived in Antarctica since 1991 – I went straight back to being ten years old. It’s sometimes called ‘The Golden Age of Reading’ – that time when books shape who you are and how you see the world.

My aim was to write tales of Australian animals (not always native) that introduced young readers – usually between eight and twelve years old – to complex issues and contemporary environmental dilemmas in human/animal interactions.
Surprise, surprise, I wasn’t the first author wanting to do so. There is a great literary tradition of animal stories that introduce young readers to broader ideas about life. Horse books such as “Black Beauty” (which uses a horse’s point of view to show how horses experience human cruelty and love), “My Friend Flicka” (which follows a boy’s journey to maturity through falling in love with a wild filly), and the Silver Brumby Series (which explores animal freedom and wildness in an Australian context), have encouraged generations of readers to understand the worlds of horses – wild and domestic – and act with kindness and respect towards them.

I set out hoping to do the same. The first novel was narrated by “Stay”, that fibreglass collection dog – a seemingly inanimate character with a rich inner life, who gave kids a different perspective on Antarctic life. The second novel was about a horse-mad girl and a wild brumby. My most recent novel, “Dexter The Courageous Koala”, is about a young girl who wants a puppy. What she ends up with instead is a scary adventure, and the chance to love a wild creature and let him go back to the wild.

I wrote all three novels by blending fact, fiction, and animal points of view. I aimed to show readers what life might be like inside the head of a wild brumby, or a frightened koala, or indeed a fibreglass dog caught in an ice crevasse – while having young human characters who drive the action and provide a point of familiarity for the reader.

The result – I hope – is that kids who read the books are swept up in the story. That’s the whole point of reading a book, after all. Learning and influence come second, and hopefully they’re so subtle as to be invisible. I want young readers to remember Dexter and Ashley and their special relationship rather than statistics on threatened koala populations. I want them to mull over Rachel’s mixed feelings about depriving a wild brumby of his freedom, knowing that his kind is damaging a fragile environment. With any luck the story will have touched them enough that they have absorbed the background without even realising it.

The books we read in the ‘Golden Age’ will stay with us for the rest of our lives. Writing them is a chance to touch young readers deeply, with stories that matter, and help them understand the beautiful and complicated natural world and its creatures. Writing them is an absolute delight.

You can learn more about Jesse and her best-selling children’s series at: www.jesseblackadder.com

From Oscar, Sita, Scout, and the countless wild creatures we share this planet with, thank you! Your partnership with Disneynature is making a difference. We hope you’ll drop in to see Disneynature’s Monkey Kingdom opening week (4/17 – 4/23) to benefit Conservation International!

11-year-old Brooke Raboutou is a rock climbing phenom who regularly breaks world records on elite bouldering and sport climbs once thought impossible for someone her age. With two former world champion climbers for parents and coaches, Brooke’s pedigree is unmatched. Now she has set her sights on pushing both herself and the climbing world to even greater heights.