This I believe: I believe in the Power of One

I wrote this essay many years ago with the hope of it being included with the 1000s of other essays on the This I Believe Website (http://thisibelieve.org/).  Darn, that never happened.  So I figured I could share my Belief in the Power of One here as a blog post.  It just seems like today is the right day.  With the far-reaching impacts that an individual (any individual) is able to wield across the globe—both good and bad—it seems the Power of One is more real now than even 10 years, or 5 years or 1 year ago.  At a time many people are feeling they cannot make a difference, it may be the exact moment in history when each of us has a greater power than ever before.  During this Age of Accelerations, as Thomas L. Friedman points out in his excellent book “Thank you for Being Late”, the triple whammy of "positive" accelerations in human technology and communications, and negative accelerations in our natural world, we each may have power like never before.  This power is of course both good and bad—your choice.  We can and do create change every day whether among our family and friends, or with people living in villages, or animals living in a forest, on the other side of the world.  Maybe if we each took more seriously how our one thought, word, or action can and does affect change, we would try a little harder to make each of these “ones” more gentle to other living beings on the planet.    

I Believe in the Power of One

I believe that one smile, or one hatred, can change a person’s destiny.  I have held this belief from a time before my memories began.  A time when both hatreds and smiles were present in my new life, surviving in a household soon to be crushed by an impending divorce.   But this is not a story about childhood or divorce or even my life, although each has a role in the telling.  This is a belief, the strongest belief I hold; a belief in the power of one.  

The power held by the number one is all pervasive and yet so under-rated.  We continually let that one person, one event, or one thing go; allowing time to wash it away, not realizing that there is no greater power than that one.  Now in the second half of my life, I often reflect and revisit my ones: that one word, one goodbye, one sunrise, one phone call, one mistake, one forgiveness, one resentment, one loss, one silence or that one kiss.  Each of these is ALL it took to exert a power that changed time.   

That one smile from the coolest kid in the neighborhood directed my way that hot and humid summer day when the bullies were relentlessly teasing me as my father moved out.  Forty some years later I still see that smile as if it were yesterday.  A smile that brings peace to me in a world that often appears to be going mad.   That one hatred projected from a fellow passenger to a young Muslin woman as we waited to board the plane home to New York City just after 9/11.  Today, I can sense and almost touch that hatred, helping to remind me of why the world may in fact spiral into complete madness. 

I am but one person as you are but one person, moving through our hours, days and years, experiencing little and big events, adding up to make one life.  Each of these events, from yelling at the person next to you in traffic or smiling at your son or finding THE solution to climate change, has a power driving the very fabric of existence.   I know without a doubt that my life, that one embrace or one I’m sorry, is the energy of the world, exerting a power beyond comprehension.  This is my ONE belief. 

References

http://thisibelieve.org/

Friedman, T.L. 2016.  Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Acceleration.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.  486 Pp.  

The Elephant in the Room

How much do ninety-six elephants weight?  Simple answer - it depends on what kind of elephant. Ninety-six Asian elephants weigh 1,152,000 lbs; 96 African savanna elephants weigh 1,248,000 lbs; and 96 African forest elephants weigh a mere 576,000 lbs.  And yes, there is a species of elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) that lives in the forest of Central Africa, and that was only “discovered” by science in 2005.   But, why 96 elephants?  Again, simple answer - that is the number of African elephants that are leaving planet Earth every 24 hours.  Ninety-six elephants!  There are 96 elephants a day that die due to poaching and habitat destruction and disease and all those other challenges that conservationists are all too familiar with since these same challenges threaten species across the planet.     

Elephants have been on my mind since the first Tarzan show I watched in the 1970s.  I love elephants!  Since those early episodes with Tarzan and Jane, I became increasingly aware of the plight of the elephant.  Then in 2000, I went to the Congo to work on an elephant conservation project.  That year I immobilized my first African forest elephant—a bull named Sue (after the Johnny Cash Song a Boy named Sue)—so the biologist on the team could place a GPS collar around his neck and we could begin to unravel the secrets of his hidden life under the dense Central African canopy.  Over the intervening 17 years, I have worked with orphaned baby elephants and elephants with snares and other human caused injuries in Africa and with Asian "working" elephants in Myanmar and Thailand. 

What is most striking about elephants, beyond how amazingly awesome they are, is how their numbers are plummeting daily.  Roughly there now exists less than 600,000 African and 40,000 Asian elephants.  While many people want to direct the “elephant debate” on whether elephants belong under human care, most people do not want to face the real “elephant in the room”.  Elephant discussions would be much better directed to consider the dire status of these giants of the forests and fields of Asia and Africa.   

The data in a scientific paper just published by Poulsen et al. (2017) helps to conceptualize the plight of the elephant.  In this study, researchers used elephant dung counts to estimate elephant density in Minkébé National Park, Gabon, Africa.  Minkébé is a 3,000 square mile park (or a park about the size of 3 Rhode Islands).  You need to know just one thing about Minkébé before we look at their data.  In the early 2000s, Minkébé had the highest density of elephants in all of Central Africa.  In the Poulsen et al. study, they looked at the number of elephants from 2004 to 2014 and found that their numbers fell from 35,000 in 2004 to 7,000 in 2014.  That is 28,000 elephants that died in just one park, in just one decade, in just one country in Central Africa.   And, if you calculate the full loss of elephants across all of Africa during that same 10 yr period, you would get 350,400 elephants (10 X 96 X 365).  With a little math, you see that the 28,000 elephants that were killed in Minkébé during that period represents only 8% of all the elephants that died over those 10 years.  This is simply madness!    

Let’s meet a couple of African Forest Elephants 

Lessons from Little Kotto

One elephant I will never forget is Kotto.  Although, I have found that 99.9% of people love a baby elephant, most no one wants mother elephants to live in their backyards.  When I first met Kotto, he was living in an oil camp in the African rain forest after his mother had been killed while raiding crops in a nearby village.  I fell instantly in love.  Little Kotto was barely able to stand, but soon with veterinary care and a lot of TLC, he was up and rambunctious and acting like a baby elephant.  We spent weeks providing veterinary care and mothering for this one lonely baby elephant. Sadly before a month was up, he was among the 96 African elephants that died on that one day.  The lessons from working with and loving Kotto were many, but a major one was realizing that of the 96 elephants that are killed each day, they may be young or old.  

Lessons from Tobblerone

We in the USA often think that the plight of the elephant is a problem over there, on someone else’s land, and caused by someone else.  This could not be further from the truth.  During a week period in which I, and a team of other conservationists, walked around an oil field in Gabon, Africa—a site where oil is extracted and sent to countries across the globe, we tracked a big bull forest elephant.  This bull had a snare (one example of human-elephant interaction) encircling his leg, and I watched as he became progressively lame.  After days of tracking, I was finally able to get an anesthetic dart in at a time when he was not in the middle of the lake where he spent most of the days self-treating (hydrotherapy!) his wound.   Anesthetics  on board, we were then able to remove the snare, treat his wound, and save this one elephant. Affectionately named Tobblerone, after my 3 legged cat, I hear that years later he still roams the African forest and oil fields.  Although Tobblerone did not become one of the 96 dead elephants on our watch, this work showed how truly connected elephant conservation is to all corners of the globe.  I may have used oil from that oil field today as I sit in my house in the USA.        

A World Without Elephants

I don’t want to live in a world without elephants and I will most likely get this wish.  But what of my 13 yr old son or his son or his great, great, great granddaughter?  I fear they will not share a planet with these amazing family-oriented and intelligent creatures.  These mammoths that inspire us, often simply by their size, and that make us care for the world, are also out doing their part as ecosystem engineers.  Elephants disperse seeds and serve as bulldozers for the environment, modifying landscapes in countless ways and for countless other species. 

Let’s work together to ensure Tobblerone and his offspring and all the baby elephants that were born the same year as Kotto and who would have shared the forest with him, have a place to live in the coming years.  A place to live free of the constant fear that we humans so often bring to their lives.   

References:

http://www.96elephants.org/

Blake, S., and Deem, S.L.  2008.  Kotto’s Story.  Wildlife Conservation Society Magazine.  104: 14-15.

Blake, S., Deem, S.L., Strindberg, S., Maisels, M., Momont, L., Isia, I.-B., Douglas-Hamilton, I., Karesh, W.B., and Kock, M.D. 2008.  Roadless wilderness area determines forest elephant movements in the Congo Basin.  Plos One. http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0003546.

Blake, S., Deem, S.L., Mossimbo, E., Maisels, F., and Walsh, P.  2009.  Forest Elephants: Tree Planters of the Congo.  Biotropica.  41: 459-468.

Deem, S.L, and Blake, S. 2004. Tracking an elephantine mystery. Zoogoer. 33: 20-28.

Deem, S.L. 2008. Tracking a snared elephant.  In: Spelman, L.H., and Mashima, T.Y. (eds.), The Rhino with Glue-on Shoes.  Bantam Dell Publishers.  pp. 138-147. 

Poulsen, J.R., Koerner, S.E., Moore, S., Medjibe, V.P., Blake, S., Clark, C.J., Akou, M.E., Fay, M., Meier, A., Okouy, J., Rosin, C., and White, L.J.T. 2017.  Poaching empties critical Central African wilderness of forest elephants.  Current Biology.  27: R1-R3.

Roca, A.L., Georgiadis, N., O’Brien, S.J.  2005.  Cytonuclear genomic dissociation in African elephant species.  Nature Genetics.  37: 96-100

We All Live on an Island

If you are anything like me, when someone starts talking about an island, you are whisked away visually to a tropical paradise with sand and surf.  Possibly you are holding a fancy drink with a little umbrella.  But, over the years when I hear anyone talk about islands, I now see much more than this.   

The world from the eyes of an island boy

The first time I truly appreciated that “we all live on an island” is when my 4 ½ year old son, Charlie and I were heading east on highway 64 and into Saint Louis, Missouri.  In front of us was the famous Saint Louis Arch—the Gateway to the West.  Charlie was riding in the back, safely in his car seat.   As I drove we were having one of those priceless mother – son bonding discussions, easily switching between topics as I was invited in to see the world from the eyes of a child.  Then Charlie asked, “Mom, can you see the whole island from the top of the arch?” 

To better understand where this question may have originated, you must know where we had just been.  The day before Charlie asked this question, we had landed in the States after 6 months of living on a small island in the Galapagos, Ecuador.  In Charlie’s mind it only made sense that the whole island could be seen from the top of such a high structure.     

Lessons from Geographical Islands

Since that car ride, I have increasingly come to appreciate that we do all live on an island.  In the intervening years I have lived and worked in the Galapagos Islands, traveled often to work on the island nation of Madagascar, and have provided veterinary care to wildlife populations on “islands of remaining habitats” across the globe.  These life and work experiences have opened my eyes to appreciating how islands—both geographical and human created—share a growing number of conservation and health challenges. 

My years living in Galapagos probably brought this understanding most to light.  The Galapagos Islands—known as the world’s laboratory for the study of the theory of evolution by natural selection, may increasingly be a place of unnatural selection.  As tourists flock to the islands to see the endemic life forms, including marine iguanas, Darwin finches and Galapagos tortoises, change too has arrived on the islands.  Once protected from humans by the geographical isolation provided by the Pacific Ocean these species evolved naturally.  However, in this new age of the Anthropocene, we know that where people travel, human induced changes are inevitable.  These changes include land development, fragmentation and degradation, pollution, invasive species, and emerging infectious diseases.  For the creatures of Galapagos these changes have led to a new form of evolution by “unnatural selection” (https://www.stlzoo.org/files/4513/5058/8698/ICM_unnaturalselection2010.pdf).  This in the land of Charles Darwin!     

We all Live on an Island

Whether islands are geographical islands surrounded by an ocean or island habitats created by human modified landscapes, we all live on an island. One only needs to look at the fate of the inhabitants of Easter Island as a foreshadow of what occurs when natural resources, and space, are limited.  Threats for island species are related to population isolation, genetic bottlenecks, and smaller population sizes being at risk of random events, such as extreme weather patterns (think climate weirding!) or the introduction of novel disease causing pathogens.  Unfortunately, these threats are not limited to oceanic islands.

So how did I answer my son?  I stated with all the authority of a mom, “No honey you can’t see the whole island from the top of the arch.  The United States is a little too big for that”.  But, even then I knew that the question was not so outrageous.  Almost 10 years later I have sat down to write these thoughts while on another well-known island, Great Britain.  During the intervening years since my island boy asked me the question, I have had the privilege to work with wildlife populations on islands surrounded by watery oceans and island habitats surrounded by oceans of human modified land.  These experiences have made me increasingly aware that we do in fact all live on an island. Maybe the ultimate island is Earth: the only planet we know that harbors life as it moves through the solar system, surrounded by an ocean of space.  More importantly it has become evident that the lessons of island living should serve as a warning to how we may continue to live on this one island home that supports us all.

A Piece of Pie

This past week the family and I drove to Washington DC for our yearly Thanksgiving pilgrimage.  Of course this year it was difficult to turn the radio on without finding any news not covering some horrible thing going on around the globe.  Listening, we pondered the suffering of the people in Aleppo to pipelines being laid in the USA to various political shenanigans: all seemly moving the dial further away from a healthy and happy planet.  But during all these stories, my thoughts largely focused on food.  I suppose that wasn’t so different from most people in America this time of year as we consider how to prepare, serve, and store food; as well as how not to eat too much of it.  But my thoughts on food may have been slightly different.  I kept coming back to the link that food has to the many conservation and public health challenges of today. 

Conservation and public health

As our species, Homo sapiens, approaches 7.6 billion with approximately 150,000 additional humans added each day, it is worth considering how to feed all of us.  (To more closely consider these numbers and if you really want a scare, check out the website http://www.worldometers.info/world-population/.)  Even though most of us realize we haven’t figured out how to feed all 7.6 billion of us well, with many of us not getting enough calories and an increasing number getting too many calories; both presenting significant public health challenges, we need to ask what the costs are to the planet as we attempt to feed our species.

With 38% of the arable land on Earth used to produce food for one species—humans—we see there is little real estate left for the other animals that share our world.  And this 38% is just the land dedicated to agriculture and does not factor in the amount of animal protein we harvest from the oceans.  It is now thought that 70% of the world fisheries are fully exploited, over exploited, or significantly depleted.  Further, to add insult to injury, we also know that the illegal and legal trade in wildlife has become a worldwide enterprise with numbers hard to quantify, and frankly harder to comprehend.  For example, it is estimated that animals taken from the forests of the Congo Basin of Africa (just this one area) and used to feed Homo sapiens equates to 5 million tons of bushmeat!  This number is a conservation and public health double whammy crisis.  These 5 million tons represent both declining wildlife populations and a disease threat for all life since the animals may act as “pathogen packages” as they, and all the microbes they harbor, are sliced and diced and shipped around the globe. 

So who shares the planet?

If one considers the changing composition of the vertebrate biomass (the total mass of organisms that have backbones) during recent history, we can start to understand why food, conservation, and public health fit together in one blog.  Let’s begin 10,000 years ago when humans were just starting to be successful in both domesticating animals and in getting pretty darn serious about going forth to multiple.  For the first time we convinced that wolf to sit down next to the village campfire or that wild bovine to become more sedentary and hang out in our fields.   If we think of it as a pie, what does it look like?  The pie of 10,000 years ago had a 2% slice which held all the humans a live at that time (< 10 million) and the few animals we had just domesticated.  The other 98% of the pie would be all those other vertebrate species we think of as wild creatures: the lions and tigers and bears…  Now if we look at that same pie today, the slices flip flop with 2% representing all the “other animals” that are categorized as neither humans nor domestic animals.  The humans and domestic animals now take up the other 98% of the pie.  Wow!   That 98% has the 7.6 billion humans along with all the dogs and cats and other companion animals we invite into our homes.  It also contains the 19 billion chickens; 2 billion pigs; 1 billion sheep; 990 million cattle; 450 million goats; and15 million camels alive on Earth today and waiting to become human food.  Of course these numbers do not reflect the same individuals for many days as the animals come and go quickly to help feed our increasingly hungry human population.  

What about that other 2% of the pie in 2016?  In Saint Louis, Missouri where I currently live, we have the Busch Stadium: home of the St Louis Cardinal Baseball team.   This one stadium in this one small-ish town, seats roughly 44,000 people and the baseball team itself has about 44 players.  These are the same numbers of all the Asian elephants—44,000—and all the Amur leopards—44—that remain on Earth today.  And elephants and leopards are just two examples of the thousands and thousands of animal species threatened with extinction.      

What can you do? 

I had a great Thanksgiving week with family and friends and a great deal of food and drink.  I enjoyed myself immensely and must admit I did not hold back too much.  But, I also was thankful while thinking of both the people in Aleppo and the elephants in Asia and what they did, or did not have to eat this past week.  It got me thinking about the resources necessary to keep our very successful species well-fed and healthy, without eating ourselves sick or our planet-mates into extinction.   

Every day we have the power to make the right food choices.  The foods we eat, both quantity and quality, do have real-world impacts on the planet.  Cows, and not cars, may now be one of the biggest contributors to our climate worries!  For each pound of beef we consume, it takes 2,500 gallons of water, 12 pounds of grain, and 35 pounds of topsoil to produce it.  We also know that on average each cow on the planet will produce 150 – 265 pounds of methane (a top green-house gas).  If we simply cut back on animal protein consumption and ate lower on the food chain, it would help.  Or maybe we should minimize the distance food travels to get to our plates.  The CO2 cost from the transport of food from points A to B to C exerts a high price on planetary health.  Why not eat foods produced closer to home?  And with the obesity epidemic now one of the biggest public health challenges of today, just slowing down on how many groceries “go in” would do a world of good for your health and the health of the planet.  We can all still enjoy a piece of pie now and again, but maybe we should be thinking just a little bit more about the food on our plates and the ripple effects it has on our health and the health of the planet.   

 

The Handshake that Wasn’t

In less than 60 hours we will know who we, the people, have chosen as the next President of the United States.  There is of course a good possibility that one person will not accept the choice and may even fight the democratic process.  However, this blog is not about that kind of nonsense.   

What’s in a Handshake?

During the last presidential debate, millions of people watched as Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump deliberately did not shake one another’s hand.  That’s right, they purposely did not do the thing we in the civilized world have deemed appropriate upon greeting one another and that we use at the start of sporting events, debates, and other major competitions.  The handshake is thought to have originated as a gesture of peace by demonstrating that the hand holds no weapon.  That seems a nice thing to do before two people start a major debate, especially when one of the two will soon be the most powerful person on Earth.  This one omission speaks volumes of the current political atmosphere and how we treat one another.  When I spoke about how sad I found the missing handshake, someone said “Well, you wouldn’t consider shaking Stalin or Hitler’s hand, would you?”  OMG, did I hear that right?  Have we reached a point in which we actually feel that one of the presidential candidates conjures up Stalin or Hitler: two of the most nefarious men in modern history?  Are we really there?

Not Just a Missing Handshake

It wasn’t just the lack of a handshake that has rocked me this political season.  Also missing in these debates have been any discourse on topics of real world significance. During the debates, we heard virtually nothing on climate change, the dwindling finite resources that support life such as fresh water and food and clean air; conservation of wildlife and wild lands; or the current rate of species’ extinctions which has now reached the speed not witnessed on the planet since the time when the dinosaurs checked out.     

We Did Talk about Women

For the first time in history a woman was in the presidential debates as a candidate.  Rather ironic since it was also the first time that most of the energy was spent discussing women, not as leaders but as objects. Discussions on women missed the mark and frankly divided us at a time the world could use all people, regardless of gender, to help with environmental, economic, public health, and global stability issues.  Instead of using women as victims of sexual assault, or discussing whether women deserve the right to make decisions about how to manage their own bodies, or even discussions on whether women really should make the same amount of money as a man who does the same work (quite the concept!), shouldn’t we in 2016 be beyond all this?    

Politics re-defined

Recently I heard a definition of politics as a means for conflict resolution.  How great!  If only politics today lived to this ideal.  We need to cut through the divisiveness and work toward conflict resolutions.  Unfortunately, this is an uphill battle since conflict resolution and compromise have little room on the political landscape today.   As the country becomes more divided on virtually everything, we become less able to reach across aisles in ways that will help our planet and the 7.6 billion people that call it home. 

Soon we will each have our chance to vote.  Voting gives us a power, small though it may seem, to show our beliefs.  Regardless of who becomes the next President, we all will have an even greater responsibility, and dare I say power, starting on November 9th to work together on the real world issues of today.  #IMWITHHER

World Famous Science Leaders Lecture at Westminster College for Hancock Symposium

World Famous Science Leaders Lecture at Westminster College for Hancock Symposium

The physician portrayed by Will Smith in the movie Concussion, the man behind the Hubble telescope, and a world leader in cancer research are just three of the guest lecturers coming to Westminster College in Fulton, MO for the annual Hancock Symposium.