Fishing for Secrets: Glimpsing the World's Biggest Dolphin Hunt

The car glided swiftly out of Lima, skimming past brightly-lit barrios before plunging into the darkness of the desert road. We were heading for a midnight rendezvous with a shark fishing boat. The owner of the rough and ready vessel had agreed to show us how they catch sharks in Peru: by killing dolphins and using the bloody chunks as bait.

Rumors of an illegal dolphin harvest have swirled around Peru for years, a secret slaughter involving thousands of dolphins, dwarfing the high seas drama of the annual whale hunt in Antarctica.

Known as "sea pigs" by fishermen in Peru, dolphins are reportedly harpooned and diced up on deck, before being skewered onto hundreds of hooks strung out on long-lines at sea to attract sharks. It's a bloody business - but it can save fishermen hundreds if not thousands of dollars in costly fish bait every trip. Dolphin meat is particularly enticing to sharks, and while substitutes are available, to the hard-bitten men who brave these high seas, all that matters is that it is free.

Marine biologist Stefan Austermuhle and his NGO, Mundo Azul, have  campaigned tirelessly on the issue of dolphin hunting in Peru for over a decade. And it was he who offered to help us in Peru finding a boat to take us out fishing. While I sat with my family in Brighton, I received the call from Stefan that I had been both hoping for and dreading: he was able to get a boat to take us out on a hunting trip, in exchange for help with fuel costs, and on strict condition of anonymity.

A week after receiving the call I found myself standing nervously on a quayside in a deserted fishing port at midnight on the Peruvian coast next to my friend cameraman Alejandro Reynoso. We were heading for a week in the Pacific ocean with illegal dolphin hunters, embarking on a voyage that would eventually prove that the hunt is real -- but that very nearly cost us our lives.
Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit
Out of sight and out of mind, the Peruvian dolphin hunt carries on to this day. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit


A VOYAGE INTO THE UNKNOWN
 
Our vessel for the week was a tiny wooden 40 foot vessel, open-decked but for a little wheelhouse and a cramped hole in the bow with four tiny bunks for six people.

Far from the prying eyes of the police force or customs, the rickety boat crept out of port and into the heaving swell of the Pacific ocean. Despite the discomfort I slept immediately, adrenaline, jetlag and fear temporarily overcome by the lull and sway of the vessel as it began the 600km trek south to where the sharks lie.

By first light, all reference points of land and civilization had gone. I awoke disorientated in a grey fog of clouds, drizzle, waves and wonder; every hour that passed taking us south and into the storm swell that had closed the ports shortly after our departure. Overcome with seasickness, day and night slipped into each other. Somehow time passed: nauseous hours spent on deck, gazing at the blank horizon, or lying in my bunk, dreaming of better places.

When planning the expedition, I'd had naive visions of stringing up a hammock; reading books; or shooting clever images of the fishermen at work while we slugged our way out to sea. It was a hopeless fantasy against the cold, damp reality of life at sea on a Peruvian fishing boat: food twice a day in a dog bowl-shaped silver dish; nowhere to sit, nothing to do.

Peru's parched desert coastline cascades into the cold waters of the Pacific ocean; nutrient-laden currents providing sustenance to vast shoals of anchovy; which in turn attract whales, seabirds and sharks from across the Pacific to feed in these rich waters.

These waters produce 10% of the world's fish catch, predominantly in the form of Peruvian anchovy, a tiny oil fish and a cornerstone of the trophic pyramid that is sucked out of the oceans by the millions of tons every year for use in salmon, pig and poultry feeds around the world. Much of the meat and smoked salmon that we eat will have been fed on fish from the waters we are sailing upon. It is a controversial practice, a crucial ingredient to factory farming meat systems producing the world over, but one that is eroding the health of the ecosystem in Peru say conservationists.
 
Drawn to the cold upwelling of plankton, the vast shimmering shoals of anchovy create enormous buffets for other animals to thrive upon. Journeying through this great feeding trough of the Eastern Pacific, there were moments to lift the heart:  light pouring through the grey and illuminating one of nature's great feeding spectacles - thousands of seabirds dive-bombing anchovy shoals in the ocean while dolphin pods corralled and fed from around the sides; air and ocean-bound predators, utterly at home in the hostile grey waters. Fleeting companions in the isolation, they would merge back into the grey as quickly as they first arrived.

DOLPHIN HUNT

The crew kept busy, fixing ropes, scrubbing decks, storing food provisions, and preparing an enormous steel harpoon that lay on deck. We were settling into a routine, the days were ticking by. Then a cry came up that changed everything.

'Chenchos!'  screamed the captain from the wheelhouse, literally 'fat pigs'; the name that Peruvian fishermen give for dolphins and the plentiful meat that they can supply. It was our third day, and the boat was passing another shoal of anchovy under siege from diving seabirds and dolphins. Only this time a pod of dolphins had broken away from the feeding grounds, and was heading for our boat to bow-ride, half a dozen of them leaping in turns through the water racing to our boat. Within seconds the music in the wheelhouse had been turned down and the crew was poised. The captain stood on the bow clasping a steel harpoon tipped with a double-edged razor-sharp point, attached to rope held by another crew member on the side of the vessel. Ale and I leapt into position to film just behind the hunters. Waiting by the gunwale I could hear Ale on the bow behind the harpoon handler, cursing as he struggled to tried to tie himself to a rudimentary harness with one hand whilst holding the camera with the other as the vessel soared and sank in the lumpy swell.

The dolphins were under the bow, taking it in turns to surf the wake that the boat was creating. In other circumstances, a beautiful sight - but this time would be different. The crew member clutching the harpoon stood silently, arms outstretched and ready to strike, familiarizing himself with the rhythm of the dolphins as they surfaced for air. A momentary pause, then he threw it down - 30kg of razor sharp tubular steel plunging into the arch of a dolphin's back as it swam alongside the bow. A cry went up in excitement from the crew, and seconds later everyone was scrambling about, Ale and myself gazing on in horror as the line flew from the boat. A dolphin beak emerged 50 yards from the boat, tugging at the taught rope, trying to swim away, it's efforts diminishing as it became gradually enveloped in a thick cloud of its own blood. Two of the crew dragged the line in, the dolphin still desperately kicking its fins, but there could be no miracle escape from its bloody fate. As the boat drew closer, a shiny steel gaff hook was plunged into the soft skin of the dolphin's head, and it was hauled aboard, intestines pouring out of its twitching body. A crew member sharpened a knife and casually began to slice off the fins, tossing them into the sea before peeling the skin off the dolphin's back in long strips, amidst a thick puddle of bright red dolphin blood.

The engine revved up and the crew resumed their work. The salsa music came back on the speaker and a cry for lunch came up from the cook. Crouched next to the warm skinless carcass, a crew member handed me a bowl of soup. I vomited, struggling to contain my emotions amidst the intimate brutality of what I had just witnessed. Ale and I gazed at each other in silence, making eye contact from across the deck, but unable to communicate how we felt about the killing or portray any emotion. To do so could be dangerous, even lethal in the tiny tinderbox-like conditions of the fishing boat 100km from shore. Our vessel ploughed on, sailing ever further south into the dreadful grey swell, parallel to the desert coast en route to the thin sliver of temperature gradient on the chart that was the best fishing ground for sharks. The boat had its dolphin bait.

 

Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit
A Peruvian fisherman slicing up dolphin meat for use as sharkbait. Photo: Jim Wickens/Ecologist Film Unit.


THE PERFECT BAIT

As we neared the fishing grounds, the crew became more focused. The deck was hosed down, supplies repacked and ropes carefully coiled before the bait could be cut up. The dolphin lay flensed in the corner, a long section of the corpse sliced out of it and carefully chopped into long slivers ready for the bait box. While one team diced the dolphin, another pair cut up the fish they had brought with them, salted mackerel, bought at considerable expense, that would be halved before being tossed in with the dolphin in the bait box. Our captain explained the benefits of using the dolphin as he watched over the proceedings from the wheelhouse.

"Dolphin meat is effective for the blue shark. When you cut it, it bleeds a lot. And the blue shark likes fat, and the dolphin is pure fat. I understand that to hunt the dolphin is illegal. But for me, it's a necessity, I do it to keep my bills down. I can minimize my costs, because the bait for shark is very expensive. The majority of boats that fish shark carry the spear gun with the spear ready to use".

We had watched one being killed. But the captain was planning to kill at least two on this trip if he had the chance, one of a dozen voyages for sharks over the year that he planned to undertake. With over 1000 shark boats across Peru at the last count, the figures for this illicit dolphin hunt clock up to almost unthinkable numbers. It's hard to tie down a figure, but experts suggest at least 10,000 dolphins may be killed every year in Peru alone, making it by far the biggest cetacean hunt on earth, almost 10 times higher than the Japanese dolphin drive in Taiji for example, made infamous in 'The Cove.'

An upsurge in shark meat consumption over the last decade within Peru, the high price paid for shark fins from the Far East combined with the ever-rising cost of mackerel for use as fish bait - another species exploited for use as a feed ingredient in factory farms - all play a part in beginning to understand the prevalence of the widespread Peruvian dolphin hunt today.

SHARK HUNT

By dawn we had arrived. With a signal from the captain the first buoy was dropped into place and two crew members crouched in the stern, carefully skewering salted mackerel and bloody chunks of dolphin intermittently on the leaders attached to miles of longline, as the boat slowly chugged away from the first buoy. Two hours later and the hooks - almost a thousand of them - were spread out in the water.  Everyone slept, crammed into the bow as it lulled with the engine off, floating alongside the longline 100km from shore. In the light of the setting sun, the crew donned Waterproofs, welly boots and drank soup enriched with Maca, an energy-giving Peruvian root, to prepare themselves for the night ahead. Shakira soundtracks serenaded us from the wheelhouse speakers, and the crew took up positions ready for the haul.

Ale and I watched in the darkness, cameras ready, as the longline, leaders and empty hooks were picked up and coiled by the crew until the first shout came up. The engine slowed and spotlight shone down into the dark waters below. Our first shark. A svelte, silvery-blue shape gradually appeared in the waters; half-drowned the blue shark appeared drunk, lazily kicking away at the line which drew it ever-closer to the surface. Swimming underwater, the blue shark is astonishingly beautiful, an archetypal ocean wanderer, whose soft-fin features, blue tubular torso and wide eyes endow it with a gentle elegance rarely afforded to sharks.  Hauled over the gunwale, the four foot shark slammed on the deck surface, thrashing in the waterless environment for an instant before the team set upon it. Brandishing a knife, a crew member pinned it down with his knees before slicing off the snout just below the shark's eyes. Its entire jaw had been cut away beneath its soft wide eyes. A long thin rod was rapidly inserted inside the gaping hole all the way down its spinal column and the thrashing ended. Its belly was cut, the insides washed away and the shark was tossed to the leeward side of the deck, the first of a dozen sharks they would catch, kill and butcher during the night. Far from the romance afforded it in recent years from a spate of celebrity chef food programs, I saw in that instant that industrial fishing is little more than a seafood slaughter line, and a bloody brutal one at that.

An hour into the haul the engine slowed amidst excited shouts from the deck hands. All four of them dropped their work to help tug in the line. Excitement built until a vast black shape appeared from the depths. A full grown thresher shark, several hundred kilos in weight with an elongated tail fin 6 feet on it's own. A football sized crater shone deep red in it's head, a wound that I took to be another shark feeding on the line, but was in fact caused by humboldt squid, a large and aggressive species rising from the Pacific depths at night to feed close to the surface, an animal that the crew told us they quietly feared more than the shark.

By three in the morning, an hour when reality begins to slip, Ale and I found ourselves crouching by the mast, fighting sleep and the cold winter wind. Then the cry for squid came up. Struggling to pull the monofilament, the crew grappled and swore, heaving until a dark mass came into view. A humboldt squid in the flesh. Elusive hunters from the deep, this one had risen to feed and had ensnared itself on one of the hooks. As soon as it reached the surface the 6 foot squid began to hiss, it's flailing tentacles ready to pounce. The crew made us move back, carefully approaching the creature as it lay rolling on the deck, it's ghoulish beak opening and snapping ready to bite its attackers. Within minutes it was butchered, sliced and thrown to the back of the boat, a slab of calamari dispatched to the growing pile of carcasses at the lee of the boat. 

Another blue shark came up to the surface, smaller this time but very much alive and thrashing in the water; but in a cruel torturous twist, it had vomited up its swim bladder. Rapidly sliced and diced, I watched as the belly was opened up. Dozens of perfectly formed baby sharks slid out of their mother's entrails, writhing in the waterless expanses of the deck. It was too much for Alejandro and I, having sat back for days and passively observed proceedings on the boat. We both waved at the crew, pleading with them to put the live baby sharks in the sea. It became a comedy for the crew, a novelty as the baby sharks were rounded up and tossed over the side, a torchlight following their first clumsy movements in the ocean.
 
A NARROW ESCAPE

At dawn the captain agreed to take us back to shore before carrying on with their two week fishing trip. The mood lifted as we neared the coast, the crew chattering away in their bunks about the best chicken restaurant they planned to briefly dine at before returning to sea, and no doubt relieved at the prospect of being finally rid of the camera team who had filmed their every move for the last five days. As land neared, two humpback whales surfaced by the boat, we cheered and the light dropped.

About three km from land, I stood on the bow scanning the horizon while the crew lay in their bunks chattering away. What looked like two more whales appeared 100m in front of us, their silhouettes just visible amidst the dying light. My heart dropped. Not whales. They were rocks. I shouted and the captain turned the vessel sharply left and summoned the crew from their bunks.  We motored gently forward. Then a distant roar sounded. Sensing what was about to happen, the captain turned the boat hard to port as the outline of a towering wave appeared in the searchlights of the boat, building up ever higher over a submerged rock directly in front of the bow. The enormous wave rose high above the vessel and broke on top of us. We were all thrown off our feet. A moment of watery silence sliding around in disbelief, and then terror. The crew began to scream. The boat lay limply in the rocky waters, waterlogged amidst a shoal of rocks and pitched at a horrible angle.

Another wave built up and broke onto us, smashing through the wheelhouse windows and throwing the vessel onto rocks. My shoes and glasses has been ripped off by the force of the breaking waves, and in the panicky blur I rushed to Ale who was struggling to hold on to the torn remnants of the steel derrick. We interlocked arms ready to be thrown into the water with the next wave. I looked around in the darkness calculating as best I could. Cold dark waters, unpredictable currents and a host of predators that I had spent the last week documenting, lay within. I rushed to the stern of the boat and made a soggy phone call to Stefan on land. The crew were using poles to lever themselves off the rocks and then, mercifully, a smaller set of waves lifted us off the rocks - floating us away from the danger into the night calm as suddenly as we had being thrust upon them. We scanned for more rocks while the crew frantically dug through the stores, ice, salt, fish thrown overboard in a desperate bid to locate and patch up leaks in the hull. Cold, wet and bruised, unpredictable waves of shock ran through the people on the boat, fighting for our lives amid anger that the captain had brought the vessel so carelessly into rocks, silence from the horror of the giant waves and pain from the torn muscles ripped from holding on to the boat with each crashing wave.

Eventually a small boat appeared on the horizon, skillfully summoned by Stefan to guide us into the port and onto shore. One hour later we bade farewell to the crew. Dolphin hunters, deep sea butchers and now, strangely, friends as well, we hugged and bade the briefest of farewells; before being ushered into a waiting car and driven out of the eye of the port authorities into the silence of the desert.


The author would like to gratefully acknowledge Stefan Austermuhle and Mundo Azul for their enormous help whilst in Peru, and also The Foundation for Deep Ecology, Blue Voice, the Pulitzer Centre for Crisis Reporting and the Victoria Stack Family Trust whose financial backing and assistance helped make this project happen.

 

 

About Jim Wickens:

 

British journalist Jim Wickens helped set up Ecostorm, an environmental investigative unit in 2003 that has pioneered undercover and investigative reporting techniques around the world.

 
 

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Dispatch from the Fracking Front Lines: Transylvania Fights Back

[Reprinted with author's permission from The Ecologist]

 

As the headlights fade around the bend, the team begins their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes.

"Do you think they're about to have sex?" one of the group whispers. I'm in Transylvania, crouched in the bushes with a bunch of activists in balaclavas, taking turns to speculate why a car has crept to a halt close to where we are hiding out. "No, it must be the cops, you can see the light from the mobile phone," another one says. Time to move on.

It has been over an hour since the group started trashing equipment owned by the gas exploration company Prospectiuni, playing an edgy game of cat and mouse as we struggle to stay one step ahead of the security teams and police vehicles that are now sweeping the hilltops looking for us.

Another light tears round the bend on the road and the shout goes through the team to hide. I throw myself down, stretched out once again in the cool damp grass of a Transylvanian meadow. It's going to be a long night.

In recent weeks the sleepy Saxon communities and protected forests of Sibiu county in Transylvania, have become an unlikely front for a new battleground, pitting gas exploration companies, the Romanian government, and international investment firms against a small band of environmental activists from across Romania. The activists are working side by side with local farmers to resist gas and oil exploration that they claim is taking place illegally on their land.

Listed on the London Stock exchange just two weeks ago with brokering assistance from Goldman Sachs, the Romanian gas company Romgaz has long announced plans to explore the low-lying hills of Transylvania for conventional and also unconventional sources of gas and oil.

Nobody gave it another thought until the exploration began in earnest this month, when 34-ton earthquake-inducing seismic trucks growled into the muddy tracks of villages here, accompanied by cohorts of security guards and busloads of workers.

Communities told me that they awoke to ribbons being laid out across their lands even attached to their garden fences, signals for the companies to lay cables and plant the explosives for the seismic tests.

Today the villages and fields are peppered in strips of ribbon, stretching like spaghetti across this ancient landscape of beech forests, bee hives and the harvested stubs of organic corn fields intermingled with medieval villages and citadels.

Jim Wickens/EFU
The village gathers to protest fracking. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

All the seismic tests are taking place within Romania's largest Natura 2000 site. Several of the churches here are UNESCO heritage sites, visited both by Princes Charles and Edward in recent years.

Driving into the remote communities where the seismic tests are taking place feels like walking into an occupied territory. I watch as a team of workers prepare a hole with dynamite a few metres from the village football pitch. On the high street private security jeeps can be seen parked up at the crossroads, black uniformed men filming and following our every move.

At the end of the road an elderly orthodox priest ushers me inside nervously, asking not to be identified. "They told me not to talk with you", he says. "The bishops say it is not the role of a priest to get involved in community affairs." He pauses, a flash in his eyes, almost thinking aloud.

"We thought they had come to rebuild the playground - then the earthquake happened, shaking the houses here, causing cracks and breaking ornaments inside the houses. The people were scared. Nobody asked us permission, they didn't even tell us what they were doing."

He is interrupted by a shrill ringtone on his mobile. Fifteen minutes later he returns to the kitchen, told again by his superiors to be quiet. The interview is over. "They know you are here", he says, showing us the door.

We keep moving out of the village, following the ribbons and the intermittent booming sounds of controlled explosions echoing around the valleys. Away from the security guards, a lady speaks up. "They are thieves," she hisses. Her neighbor comes over begging for answers. "We've heard the land will be poisoned, is this true? We live from this land. We don't have salaries!"

At the top of a hill I find a giant geological lab on wheels, antennae dangling on top and men pouring over electrical equipment inside. A small portly man introduces himself. Gheorghe Daianu, a seismologist and director of operations for the exploration company Prospectiuni, which has been subcontracted for 40 million euros to carry out the tests in the region.

He condemns the protests against his work, calling opponents of gas exploration "neo fascists." Daianu is resolute that the company has permission to be on every parcel of land where the tests are taking place, a claim he says that can be backed up with paperwork, before he orders us to leave the area.

I head to the nearby village of Mosna, where farmer Willy Schuster and his wife Lavinia have invited me to stay at their home to cover a protest planned against the exploration activities.

Amidst clucking chickens, roaring fires, and cheese-making in the kitchen, a dozen activists began to arrive from across the country, updating Facebook accounts and charging their cameras for the following day. This would be the first protest against gas exploration in Transylvania, they explained, urging me to get an early night's sleep. But first I had another appointment.

Bundled into a rusty van under cover of darkness from a pre-arranged location, I found myself sat in the midst of a dozen men and women in balaclavas. The driver turns to greet me. "Don't worry about our get-away vehicle - it's super quick. Only 350,000km on the clock!" She laughs out loud as the rusty door slams shut, and the team trundles away into the frosty darkness.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fracking protester with seismic wires. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU.

Minutes later, I am bundled out onto the roadside with military precision, scurrying into the undergrowth with half a dozen adrenaline-fuelled activists, armed with pliers and wire cutters. As soon as the headlights fade round the bend, the team began their work, snipping the orange seismic wires and slicing through electrical converters and generator boxes they come across.

Every so often a shout goes up, and the team is sent diving for cover as the sweeping headlights of suspected security vehicles sweep across from the road close by. Part army, part anarchy, the evening is spent in a whirlwind of adrenalin-fuelled scrambling among remote hills under the light of a full moon, clawing through scratchy thorn bushes, woodland clearings and boggy streams. Beneath the balaclavas, members of the team gradually open up to me.

"Several months ago none of us knew each other, but now we are united. We are so angry about the way our country is being run. 2013 must be the year that Romania wakes up, that citizens begin to have a say in what is happening to our country. Things like fracking have to stop. We cannot accept the destruction of our own future."

At seven the next morning I sat drinking coffee with Willy in his farmhouse kitchen when a convoy of gas trucks rolls past his window en route to his fields. He runs out of the door chasing after them, apoplectic with rage.

I arrive on scene just in time to see workers from the exploration company filing out of their company coach and spreading out across his wintery fields. Willy screams them away, impounding a company pickup and refusing to let it go until the police come to file a criminal complaint.

As the morning unfolds, streams of security trucks are chased, kicked, and turned away from Willy's land. "I am terrified for my children", he says, waving a flimsy branch at the assembled security forces facing him down on the muddy track. "I am fighting for their future."

A man more accustomed to milking cows than fighting multinationals, he is nonetheless standing up to the gas companies. Many more are beginning to follow the example of this accidental hero who is rapidly becoming a thorn in the side of the country's energy ambitions.

Southern Transylvania's rolling hills are one of several new fronts opening up in Romania's search for home-grown deposits of natural gas and oil, a treasure-trove of energy opportunities according to energy-extraction advocates.

Victor Ponta, the Romanian prime minister, made a bold statement to journalists in June this year, laying the way for a swathe of expansion by fossil fuel companies across the hills of Europe's second poorest nation.

"Do we want to have gas? First of all to stop importing from Russia. Do we want to have it cheap and do we want to make the Romanian industry competitive and, of course, to have lower expenses for the people? Then we must have gas."

But Ponta's government is facing an unexpectedly uphill battle in meeting their resource ambitions. In recent weeks the controversial Canadian-owned gold mine in Rosia Montana has been put on hold, forced into submission by waves of protests in city streets numbering tens of thousands.

And in the latest public showdown, a fracking rig operated by Chevron further south, has been chased away from a test site by communities deeply fearful of the damage that they believe fracking may bring.

With almost four million peasant farmers in Romania reliant on clean air, water, and soil for their livelihood, support for natural resource protection campaigns are finding fertile ground in the most unlikeliest of places, among the conservative communities in the country's rural heartland.

I meet Hettie, a 26-year-old activist from the nearby city of Brasov, as she blocks the road to Willy's land. "If villagers see us doing it, they will do it too," she says. "We have to give people the courage to do this at any time."

Faced with an increasingly galvanized opposition, the government is preparing to fight back. A "Law of Expropriation", currently being drafted in the Romanian Parliament, will potentially allow multinational companies to take over privately-owned land if it is felt the developments are "in the national interest." At present, the law is focused primarily around mining. But observers say it is widely expected to be extended to energy development projects in the near future.

Jim Wickens/EFU
Fighting with the police. Photo: Jim Wickens/EFU

 

The stand-off in Willy's field is rapidly escalating into a community affair. Half a dozen security cars remain blocked, prevented from moving forward by a growing throng of local residents, joined by Roma kids on bicycles and a young woman riding a horse. A farmer appears in an orchard on the other side of the valley where minutes earlier gas workers had been busy rolling up electrical wiring.

Gheorghe Daianu, the Prospectiuni seismologist, spits angrily, wiping his wrinkled forehead in frustration and sucking heavily on a cigarette. "Of course they have no permission to be here, but what can I do?"

Community activists claim that half a dozen laws are being breached by Prospectiuni in their gas exploration, from lacking the appropriate permits, testing too close to homes, through to committing trespass. "The real problem here is that village people simply don't know their rights," says community activist Hans Hedrich.

Prospectiuni and Romgaz both turned down an opportunity to comment on claims of illegality, but in a statement on their website the CEO of Prospectiuni states: "Occasionally we still make mistakes, but they are not ill-intentioned, however we try to have active environmental permits and town planning certificates."

By late afternoon, under the lee of another 600-year-old medieval church, volunteers are dishing out potato soup, Transylvanian cakes and hot tea - with surprising efficiency. Elderly ladies in headscarves and traditional dress are rubbing shoulders with pierced activists and men in balaclavas.

It's an intriguing mix. The impassioned crowd marches out to rip out more seismic wires in full view of the policemen who stand watching from the side of the road. Residents too scared to talk the day before now stand outside their houses, cheering and applauding the protestors in delight.

"Honestly, I feel sorry for them," one of the police officers tells me, as they stand aside and allow the protestors to rip out a mile of bright orange cabling, dragging it through the dust on their way back to the village. "What the company is doing here ... well ... it's just wrong." Then he moves his head closer to mine. "Actually it's illegal," he whispers.

Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist. He works for the Ecologist Film Unit and is a regular correspondent for The Ecologist.

 
 

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Palm Oil's Forgotten Victims: Sumatran Elephants Suffer in Rush for Liquid Ivory
Palm oil productsWestern consumers are inadvertently driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction by eating, washing, and wearing - in cosmetics - the derivatives of a fruit that is destroying the animal's last remaining forest habitat. Jim Wickens reports. 
 
Every day we read about the tragic death of another African elephant slaughter, the world watching in horror at the sight of desiccated carcasses, dried pools of blood and crudely-hewn stumps where tusks once were; snapshots from distant crime scenes feeding a ghoulish market for ivory in the Far East. The African 'elephant wars' make comfortable viewing for Western audiences who assume a moral superiority over the slaughter - a narrative where the rest of the world outside of Africa and China plays little role in the wildlife tragedy unfolding there on a daily basis.
 
There are around half a million African elephants currently left in the wild, but, by contrast, just 2500 Sumatran elephants remain today. It is - by far - the most endangered elephant in the world, but it is an animal whose fate is largely unreported to the outside world. Coincidence perhaps, or an uncomfortable truth? On my journey into the forested lands of Aceh in Sumatra, I've found that it is not poaching that is driving the Sumatran elephant to extinction, but palm oil expansion, and we are eating it, washing with it, and smearing it on our faces every single day.

 

Palm frontline

 
Logged landCrouching low in the vines, I can smell the diesel fumes wafting up from the chainsaw that whines away just metres away from us. The sound stops, a brief pause followed by a towering crash as an ancient hardwood plummets through the canopy. This is the frontline in the struggle against palm oil, a shifting frontier that is eating away at the most bio-diverse forest on the planet, and it's a dangerous place to be. 
 
Whispering so as not to be heard, our guides urgently beckon us away. To be spotted could be lethal - loggers here are frequently armed, a melting pot mafia of community members, freedom fighters and army personnel whose rule is the law in these remote stretches of Aceh, the Northern most province of Sumatra. This rarely-visited corner of Indonesia is home to the last great forest habitats of the Sumatran elephant in the world. And it is being destroyed for palm oil.
 
For years, the land here has remained relatively untouched, with oil palm expansion and road-building spurned amidst a bitter civil war that reaped a bloody toll until a ceasefire gradually came into place after the tsunami in 2001. Because of this isolation, Aceh is the last real stronghold for healthy herds of critically endangered Sumatran elephants, who live alongside rhinos, tigers and orang-utans in significant numbers; a far cry from the isolated, genetically-starved herds further south, whose inter-connected territories have been cut off by palm oil companies and paper concessions into tiny, token national parks. But all this is beginning to change. With peace has come opportunity, and palm oil companies are rapidly moving into the Aceh lowlands, squeezing elephants out of ever-diminishing forests and into conflict with local people.
 
Communities returning home after the Aceh ceasefire have found themselves facing a new threat to their livelihoods; crop damage caused by roaming herds of elephants, opportunistically-eating their way through croplands and antagonising families already brought to their knees by decades of civil war. And the death toll on both sides of the species divide is rising every month. 

 

Ransomed in frustration

 
Baby elephant
Nicknamed Raja by the people who fed him, the baby elephant cuts a pitiful sight, straining for food at the end of a rusty padlock and chain. Caught in a plantation in Aceh Utara last month, the villagers said they were keeping him here by force. Government vets have tried to remove him, but they refused, demanding compensation for the damage that elephants do to their land first. Farmer Sabaruddin, showed us chewed up banana leaves, missing coco pods and a hut verging on collapse, all surrounded by tell-tale feet marks of thieving elephants, that he says are drastically impacting on the livelihoods of the community here. 
 
'The people are angry when the elephants destroy the fields, because it is not just one or two years waiting to harvest, but sometimes for many years. When we are about to harvest the elephants had already come and destroyed the field. We plant again and then just when it's about time to harvest, it's destroyed again', he said. Deprived of full time veterinarian care, Raja died two weeks later at the end of his chain. He is not alone.
 
In Geumpang further North, a village chief took us up a winding lane to the sight of fresh mound of earth. It is all that remains of a young male elephant that was electrocuted by a low hanging cable over crops two nights earlier. It's not the elephant's death that worries him however, but the fate of his people.
 
'There was a conflict here in which one of our people was killed because the elephant stepped on him when he tried to chase them away•Imagine, he has three children, now they don't have any more education.' 'If we talk about the future of elephants, we have also to prioritise the importance on the future of the people. If the future of the people is good, then, the future of the elephants may also be better' he warned.

 

Problem elephants

 
Decoy to scare off problem elephantsFor years the government response to crop-raiding elephants has been to capture and contain animals deemed as 'problematic'. We visited Saree elephant camp, a government-run containment centre in Aceh, to observe conditions. Despite the best efforts of staff labouring under sparse resources, these holding centres are effectively prisons: barren sites where elephants deemed to be problematic are forcibly taken from the wild and subjected to a life of chained captivity, with no hope of release and little chance of enrichment to break the monotony. Dozens of elephants are living out a life of containment in these camps across Sumatra. 
 
I watched in the dying heat of the day as mahouts barked instructions and scrubbed elephants kneeling to their every word, fearful perhaps of the sharp-pronged bull hooks tucked into the trousers of their masters. One elephant seemed psychologically scarred, repeatedly swinging its head back and forth as it gazed out over rusty barbed wire at life on the outside of the camp.
 
Elephant containment camps are cruel, say welfare campaigners, but the real tragedy for the elephants may not be so much that individual elephants are contained, but rather that these critically endangered animals have to be removed from the wild, and a rapidly-shrinking gene pool, in the first place.

 

Eaten alive

 
The question, ask conservationists, is not how to keep wandering elephants away from communities croplands, but why these critically endangered herds are venturing out of their forest homes in the first place.
 
Mike Griffith's is a leading conservationist in Sumatra and until early 2013, was the deputy director of the Aceh government department that was charged with forest protection. 
 
'We have a major problem and the only way to save the elephants, I believe, is to separate the elephants from the actions of man, that means oil palm, gardens and the impacts of roads and so on, that is why you have national parks, the is why you have reserves, that is why you have the Leuser ecosystem.' 
 
Natural elephant habitatA jagged line of towering peaks that run across much of Aceh, the Leuser ecosystem is the most bio-diverse forest in S.E Asia, 2.2 million hectares of forested hills that stretch across Aceh and the only place on earth where orangutans, elephants, tigers and rhinos are found together in the wild. It is a cornucopia of biological richness and a sanctuary for hundreds of elephants who live amidst it's hills and hidden valleys that are protected from development under Indonesian law. But it's being eaten alive.
 
Working closely with local rangers from Aceh, we drove close to the Leuser frontier, keen to get a sense of this wildlife sanctuary famed around the world. Hours of driving through endless palm plantations brought us not to forests but to mud-stained hillsides clogged with debris and freshly torn tree roots.
 
Bulldozers had taken on where chainsaws had done their work, relentlessly bashing through logs and stumps to drive terraces into the hillsides. Navigating our way through the quagmire, we passed two motorbikes, wildlife traders waving cheerfully on their way to check bird traps that they had laid the night before on the newly-penetrated forest edge. Two howler monkeys clung to a tree stump, silent and motionless, overlooking a thousand hectares of devastation. The only green to be seen were tiny seedlings, their leaves fluttering quietly along the newly-cleared terraces. Oil palm. 
 
It was a sight that left the team, the rangers even who deal with destruction on a weekly basis, speechless. A week earlier these rolling hills had been rainforest, home to many of the rarest large animals on the planet. 'When you replace these forests with oil palm plantations, you create green deserts... Nothing lives there except cockroaches, mosquitoes and rats.' says Mike Griffiths.
 
In the silence we took in the destruction, a line of brown dotted by bulldozers, a silence broken only by the ceaseless whine of chainsaws eating their way deeper and deeper into the Leuser forest refuge. This expansion is a relentless onslaught taking place every day in Aceh and across Sumatra.
The sticky palm oil trail back to Britain
 
We eat it as vegetable oil, wash our clothes with it as detergent, we use it in cosmetics, we wash with it as shampoo and soap; soon we will even be burning it in our cars. There are over 30 names for palm oil derivatives, many used daily in the home. According to Leonie Nimmo from Ethical Consumer, companies use palm oil because it's cheap and incredibly versatile. It is an industrial wonder ingredient which has rapidly been incorporated as an invisible fat and filler into dozens of products that permeate our everyday lives.
 
Under pressure from campaigners, food companies have begun to refer to a plethora of terms which suggest the palm-derived ingredients within are 'sustainably' sourced, endorsed by the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), an industry-dominated - and heavily criticised - certification body working on palm oil issues.
 
But this investigation has found that much of the palm oil sold under the guise of sustainability is actually sourced from palm plantations which may not even have passed the weak certification criteria. Two of the four certification methods operating under the RSPO remit allow food companies to use oil from uncertified plantations in food products that are allowed to be mixed or 'offset' from plantations that tick the right boxes elsewhere.
 
Confused? You are not alone. The RSPO is a mess, say campaigners, misleading consumers and allowing multinational brands and industry-backed NGOs who work within the RSPO process to paint little more than a green tinge over an inherently destructive industry.
 
'It is criminal that consumer industries are able to hide behind this gross illusion of "sustainable" palm oil when its production is persistently fuelling the wholesale destruction of the world's most vital forests,' says Jo Cary-Elwes from the conservation organisation Elephant Family. Lowland habitats in Sumatra - the only areas where critically endangered elephants can survive in the wild, are the same sought-after areas exploited and planted over in palm oil.
 
Unless palm oil expansion is halted and reversed, conservationists say, it will be game over for the Sumatran elephant, which, alongside the rhino and tiger, teeters close to the brink of extinction. But you wouldn't know that from palm oil labelling. When you buy organic tomatoes, you get organic tomatoes. When you buy free range eggs, you get free range eggs. But when you buy palm oil labelled as sustainable in some way there is a good chance that what you actually get is oil which has been produced from a plantation built over the habitat of some of the most endangered animals in the planet.

 

A resistance movement is born

 
DroneGraham Usher is a man on a mission. We meet on the side of a muddy track high up in the midst of another freshly-planted palm concession that lies within the protected confines of the Leuser ecosystem. Crouching under a tent in the blistering midday heat alongside local rangers, he is busy putting the finishing touches to an unmanned aerial vehicle, a drone, which he is using to map out fresh incursions into the forest. With a shout and the briefest of run-ups, the self-made drone is in the air and recording high-resolution footage that shows the scale of fresh cuts in the lush trees. 
 
'It's a never ending job,' he says. 'It takes them half an hour to chop down a 400yr old tree, but if you want to guard it, it's 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks of the year... the use of a drone is a game changer,' he says. 'This sort of work, this collection of evidence, provides us with a much stronger case when you go to decision makers and say, look, this is what is going on, these are your laws, why isn't action being taken?'
 
Faced with dysfunctional governance and a spineless certification system, local communities in Aceh, fearful of floods caused by land clearance upstream, are fighting back. In 2012 over a thousand hectares of illegally grown palm oil was confiscated and chain-sawed down, the terraces bulldozed back into their natural shape. Within two months elephants had returned; within 2 years, orangutans, says Taesar, one of the rangers leading the regeneration project, 'and we have over 5000 hectares more that we are trying to win back at the moment.' 
 
It's heartening to hear that the tide of forest clearance can be slowed, and even turned around, albeit it not by the multi-million dollar 'responsible' palm industry or conservation groups based in Europe and the USA who work so closely with the industry, but instead by grass-roots activism and local communities, many of whom are volunteers. 
 
Despite these efforts however, at the moment they are fighting a losing battle. The Governor of Aceh recently issued a controversial 'spatial' plan for Aceh, a dryly-worded policy document concerned with reclassifying land use across Aceh. But the details within, say conservationists, are terrifying. The plan effectively green-lights environmental roll-back and decades of forest protection. It's a carve-up of much of the remaining low-lying forest in Aceh, opening the way for mining and hundreds of thousands of hectares of further palm plantains".
 
'When you look at the needs of the Sumatran elephant, they need lowland forest to live in every time you disturb them, every time you put in plantations, you put in farming, you get conflict. Who is the loser out of that? It is always the elephant, they will disappear if we do not have large areas of lowland rainforest protected for them...' says Graham. 'If we don't take urgent action a few year down the road we will be looking at the Leuser ecosystems and saying my god, why didn't we do more when we had the chance?'
 
In response to our request for a statement on the Spatial Plan, a spokesperson for the Indonesian government said the plan is a mess, stating that it is largely driven from political interests in Aceh itself. But he stressed that the authorities in Jakarta are trying to balance the needs of the environment with the livelihood needs of 250 million Indonesians.

 

Death by chocolate

 
Problem elephant in captivityOn our last day in Aceh, the news came through that two more elephants have been found dead further south. Our cameraman flies through the night and arrives to record the grizzly scene. The images show two carcasses that seem to writhe amidst the shadows on the forest floor, an army of maggots feasting upon the flesh of the dead elephants that lie there. Elephants disappear quickly in the jungle. A convenience not lost on the oil palm plantation workers who are accused of frequently lacing chocolate bars with rat poison or phosphates, dropping them temptingly on elephant paths that meander close to valuable oil palm plantations. 
 
The young male and female animals we filmed were one of three elephants poisoned in Sumatra last month, the latest casualties in the ever-growing elephant conflict.
 
Eclipsed in the media by the slaughter of African elephants for Asian ivory consumption, the fragile fate of the Sumatran elephant remains out of sight, hidden amidst the dark recesses of the rapidly disappearing forests that they call home.
 
It's not poaching but palm oil that remains the principle threat to the survival of the Sumatran elephant in the wild. Industrially-produced palm oil from Sumatra is a 'liquid ivory', and everybody reading this article inadvertently consumes it every day. Eating, bathing and washing ourselves in a fruit that has displaced forests in the last place on earth where the Sumatran elephant can survive. 
 
Walking away from the chainsaw gangs in Leuser, our ranger turns and confronts me. 'The world must see this destruction, the world must know what is happening now... see the destruction everywhere, we have to rise up and prevent all of these things from happening before it is too late. What people need to do, people from every part of the world need to think smart, think creatively and never to use any product that contains processed palm products. Palm oil destroys the forests', he said. Time perhaps to heed his words.
 
Jim Wickens is an investigative journalist and producer with the Ecologist Film Unit. Watch the related Earth Focus report, "Liquid Ivory", online now:

 
 

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Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves
Reviled by ranchers and fawned over by conservationists, the gray wolf has cut a controversial wake in the American landscape ever since it was reintroduced from Canada in 1995. UK investigative journalist Jim Wickens journeys into the heart of the American wolf debate today. Read his full-length report here, which accopmanies the exclusive Earth Focus report of the same name, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves, now online!
 
Photo by Jim Wickens
The elk carcass glints in the overhead sun, its ribs picked clean, poking out of a tangled mess that lies buried beneath the blood-stained snow. It is a wolf kill, a bloody spectacle that is playing out with growing regularity across the Rockies, and dividing Americans in its wake. 
 
We are on a Yellowstone park patrol crunching over fresh packed snow with Dr. Dan Stahler, a leading wildlife biologist and renowned wolf expert employed by the National Park Service, who has been following their introduction since 41 wolves were introduced into Yellowstone in 1995-6.
 
Wolf kill sites in Yellowstone are regularly analyzed, providing the park with data that is helping to decipher the ecosystem impacts caused by the reintroduction of a predator into the Rocky Mountain landscape. Clutching the jawbone of the fallen elk, Dan explains the role that wolves are having on the park ecosystem.
 
"To me wolves mean wildness and wild nature... I think that what we see here in Yellowstone with the presence of wolves now, is a leaner, meaner elk population... The elk out here in the landscape, there's fewer of them and there's less competition between the elk for resources such as good forage. And so I think we have a a healthier elk population now..."
 
Many in Montana, however, disagree. From an initial recovery plan of 300 individuals and ten breeding pairs across each state of the Rocky Mountain range, today over 1500 wolves call it their home, thanks to prohibitions on hunting and an ample supply of game and ranch animals to devour. 
 
The wolf reintroduction program is a conservationist success story, but one that has alienated many.  
 
Photo by Jim Wickens
Hunting under threat
 
Mike Mullinix is a prize-winning taxidermist based in Montana, and like many he is dependent on a healthy hunting industry for his income. We meet in the quiet of his workshop, a cornucopia of half-painted moose heads, trophy elk antlers, and a snarling bear that hangs off the wall.
 
"Hunting is a big part of our economy out here and it's gradually gotten bad. Well the intake I'm doing locally around here on my animals has probably dropped over fifty percent. Everyone has noticed the big drop. I think it's down almost seventy-five percent from what it was back in the eighties... and it doesn't take common sense to figure out what's happening here with the animals," he says.
 
Mike talks while he delicately paints the finishing touches to the side of a moose jaw.
 
"I am competing with them and they need to be regulated just like every other animal. It's gotten way out of control. Our wolf season should have started ten years ago... Everybody across the country's complaining about our wolf seasons out here, but we've got to live with what's happening, they don't."
 
In the archery range outside of the state capital Helena, I track down Joelle Silk, president of the Montana Bowhunters Association to put these questions to her.
 
A sharp intake of breath. The bow tightens. A momentary silence and then a whip-like crack as she lets slip a silicon-tipped arrow, hammering into a tree trunk 30 meters distant with a determined thud. Joelle eases her bow.
 
"Montana falls at the bottom of the median-income scale in the nation. So hunting is a very important way in which to put food on the table for many families. A good-sized elk can feed a family of four throughout the year, so it's very important... a very economical and simple way to feed the family," she says." Wolves have had an interesting impact to the prey and predator relationship in Montana. I hear ordinary people saying, "we used to have tons of elk on our doorstep to go and hunt. Now there are fewer. It's almost like there's a localized impact but statewide there may not have been much overall reduction in population."
 
Photo by Jim WickensIn 2011 wolves were finally delisted from the Endangered Species Act, quietly pushed through the halls of power in Washington by a democratic senator facing re-election in a marginal Montanan seat. "Wolves were definitely thrown under the bus for political reasons," says Mike Leahy from Defenders of Wildlife, a powerful conservation advocacy group that strongly opposes the delisting of wolves." I think the Obama administration responded to the politics of the situation. Never before had a Secretary of the Interior taken a step to undermine the Endangered Species Act like this... the democratic leadership in the Obama administration all went along with that. We were really disappointed in how the politics played out there."
 
Delisted and now fair game, 220 wolves in Montana alone can now be shot, trapped, or bow-hunted each year. 
 
For Joelle and many hunters like her in Montana however, the delisting of wolves is viewed positively. "People felt outside the management picture as long as they remained listed, and so that did create tension within Montana certainly... Since the hunts have started up, we've regained that sense of empowerment, self-sufficiency, involvement in the process... that's really important for us as a state that has the hunting traditions that we have," says Joelle.
 
Yellowstone wolves in the firing line
 
In recent months the wolf hunt has been dramatically thrust once again into the limelight, this time with the high-profile killing of a particular wolf that spent much of her life within the protected confines of Yellowstone Park. Known as 832F, the Lamar Valley pack alpha female was known to tourists the world over. "She was extraordinary... she was one of the best hunters we've ever seen... the American public and the whole world was drawn to her," says Dan Stahler, the biologist who painstakingly followed her radio-tracked movements for six years, before she was shot dead 15 miles outside of the park this winter.
 
Photo by Jim WickensThe loss of 832F was felt around the world, but also, surprisingly, in the midst of Montana itself. Nathan Varley and his wife, Linda, are a couple whose economic survival is intricately intertwined with that of the wolves. But unlike those in the elk hunting industry, Nathan and Linda need wolves alive. Growing up within the park community Nathan knows Yellowstone better than most, working first as a wolf biologist and then seven years ago setting up a wolf watching eco-tourism company, one of several to have sprouted up in the wake of growing national and international interest after wolves were reintroduced. Today Nathan and Linda take small groups of tourists on foot into the park, relying on expert knowledge and careful reading of conditions to guide paying members of the public to witness the spectacle of wolves in the wild. 
 
"We do look at the livelihood debate a little differently because we do feel like there is such a big economy based around the wolf. So it is not just the livestock producer's livelihood or the elk hunting outfitter's livelihood that we are talking about in this Western wolf debate. There are a lot of tourism livelihoods at stake here too."
 
Nathan quotes Montana University economist data which suggests that visitors who come to see wolves, are spending somewhere on the order of $35 million every year in the communities around Yellowstone.
 
"The main things people want to see are wolves... A lot of the big fans of Yellowstone wolves are following the lives of the actual individuals. They are the attraction. These become the stars of the show... and to have them hunted is even harder for our guests to understand... If that individual is important enough and so many people care about it, then it does have an influence on whether they want to come back to Yellowstone and it could influence their decision to visit the park in the future." he says. 
 
The iconic value of individual wolves versus the indiscriminate nature of the Rocky Mountain wolf hunt quota is a conundrum that Montanan authorities are yet to settle on. Fearful of a PR backlash at home and abroad, it has put outgoing Montana Governor Schweitzer in an awkward position.
 
"How do we run a hunt in Montana and Idaho and Wyoming and say to people 'well you have a license to shoot a wolf in order to control the population at a sustainable level... Then say to that same hunter, unless you see that pretty girl that often times lives in Lamar Valley and so many tourists love seeing her around, and she even has a name.' How's the hunter going to deal with that? It is called wildlife. These are not pets. Just because somebody recognizes one of these wolves does not make it a pet," he laments.
 
"I get thousands of emails per year castigating me as a terrible human being, because we allow hunting of wolves in Montana. Many of these emails are from Europe or Latin America or Asia. People who have never come to Montana and who will probably never come to Montana and what they need to understand it that there are only a few places on the planet that have made accommodations for wolves, and we are one of them. We are actually getting the job done," he says.
 
Trial by media
 
Carter Niemeyer is a veteran wildlife service trapper, wolf expert and best selling author, who played a central role in the early struggles around wolf reintroduction. We meet on a windy mountainside on the edges of the state capital Helena, to hear his expert views on how the wolf issue has become so divisive in recent years. 
 
"The media is definitely guilty of keeping it polarized, because killing wolves whether we are hunting them, trapping them, or removing a problem wolf periodically, it really shouldn't be news anymore. We don't announce every time someone shoots a coyote or someone kills a mountain lion or a bear. Wolves are not weapons of mass destruction."
 
As the government-sanctioned necropsy expert in the Rocky Mountains, for many years Carter's job was to inspect suspected wolf kills on livestock, so that ranchers could pocket compensation that they were entitled to if their animals had been lost to wolves. Using forensic tools and methods unused in the past, Carter made a startling discovery that has earned him few friends from the ranching community he knows so well. "In the early years maybe five out of every hundred livestock that I looked at were actually killed by wolves.
 
"Once the media started putting out the information that wolves were in the landscape, nearly all the reports coming in were assumed to be wolf damage and so the assumption was that wolves were causing a lot of problems... But there are many things that killed them besides wolves; you have disease and birthing problems and a multitude of things that kill livestock. I would say death loss by wolves on sheep and cattle, it is well under 1%, I think you are talking a quarter of 1% at the current kill rates that we are looking at... there has been a dislike in the whole concept of putting wolves back on the Rocky Mountain landscape, so part of the problem I think to having wolves back were that people anticipated and almost wanted them to be a problem."
 
To an outsider driving through the vast snowy uplands of Montana, the scale of this sparsely populated landscape drowns the senses. A state the size of France with just two million residents, Montana's enormity is in itself an obstacle to discussion, a barrier that restricts face-to-face communication around the wolf; further heightening the acute power of the mass media in determining the narrative around wolves.
 
Watched from afar through news columns and evening news bulletins, the complexity of the Rocky Mountain wolf debate seems to have been reduced to bite-sized chunks of polarized hysteria. Wolf haters vs Wolf lovers, 'crazies' the lot of them. But it is a position that frustrates many in Montana who belong to neither camp; individuals who are quietly seeking to build bridges within the entrenched battleground over the rightful place and number of Rocky Mountain wolves. 
 
Steve Primm is a biologist and predator consultant who works with ranchers who are keen to mitigate potential wolf problems with livestock. "Why aren't the middle ground voices heard? I think that's a good question... I think there's a lot of drama associated with the conflict... The stories we have to tell about trying to live with wolves is far more complicated than one about do not kill any wolves or kill all of the wolves. I think it comes down to us not having tidy sound bytes."
 
Rancher Becky Weed agrees. "It's incredibly frustrating because there really isn't any very good data on what the grass roots individual ranchers feel. All we read about in the newspapers is what the mouth pieces say to the media and I think it's a gross oversimplification of what's really happening out on the landscape," she says in her ranch outside Bozeman, talking as she busily spins out a roll of hay for her sheep from the back of a tractor.
 
An enormous dog sits close to Becky's feet; 'Max' a cross of several European breeds that she uses to protect her flock from predation. He is part of a new method of ranching that enables her to sell 'predator friendly' certified wool to markets at home and abroad. 
 
"He's unbelievable, he's our main tool... We also use pasture management strategies, we don't just let the sheep wander all love the place... so it's really a matter of vigilance and adaptability. If there's anything consistent in this whole carnivore game, it's that it changes from year to year... Wolves to me are really one part of a much larger package and I tend to feel somewhat allergic to this oohing and aahing over a single species... Wolf predation is not the biggest problem that ranching in Montana is facing right now."
 
The Blackfoot challenge
 
It's 4am and a siren on the coal train screams as it races by, a thundering percussion of endless carriages brimming with Montanan coal on a passage west to Pacific ports and then on to the power stations of China. Our home for the night is Drummond, 'population 338'. Across the road from the motel a ghostly specter of a giant longhorn skull lights up in passing headlamps; it is a used cow lot, last port of call for ranch animals sold for a steal, that await the butcher's knife. 
 
Ranching is everything here, modest family farms form a patchwork of fencing amidst the forests and mountain peaks that surround the town. And today 50 wolves have made their home around this 800,000 valley known as the Blackfoot, a mixture of Canadian, Idaho and Yellowstone-descended wolves thriving in these elk and livestock rich lands. But where the wolves go, so do the problems. The chuckling fondness with which a resident regales how a wolf was shot dead and strategically hanged under a stop sign on the highway here, speaks volumes about the recent history of wolf relations in these parts.
 
Photo by Jim WickensBut what makes this places special is the way in which ranchers have grouped together to learn to live with wolves. This is the Blackfoot challenge, a community-centered initiative using science, sound management and a healthy dose of common sense, to help ranchers co-exist as best they can with grizzles, and in recent years, with the wolf.  
 
Tracey Manly points wearily to the ditches on the edge of his ranch. "Most of the time they come right down these draws... they won't just come charging right in... they're going to wait until one kind of chooses itself by being behind the rest of the herd and that's the one they'll get. One will grab the top of the back and the other one will grab the throat... once they have it down, it's done pretty much," he says, describing the premature fate that has befallen many of his cattle over the last decade.
 
"You were helpless. Your hands were tied and there was a lot of shoot, shovel, and shut up type deals because you are talking about your livelihood," he says, describing the frustration felt by many ranchers at not being able to shoot problem wolves for so many years. 
 
There is little doubt that the steadfast refusal of both the Federal Government and great swathes of the conservation movement, to accept delisting for so many years -- the wolf reintroduction program reaches it's official target figure of 300 wolves over a decade earlier in 2002 - has pitched ranchers even more strongly against wolves and Washington; a prickly libertarian-flavored backlash that strikes a fertile chord in this heartland state.
 
Since the Blackfoot began to quietly offer innovative solutions to reduce livestock-wolf conflicts however, attitudes have dramatically changed for Tracey and his neighboring ranchers.
 
"It's definitely thawed," says Tracey. "Even if your just damn the wolf, and they make you mad or whatever... that doesn't get anything accomplished. Your still losing livestock, so why not try to build a corral or build an electric fence around your lots and see what works... just banging your head against the wall saying 'kill them all' isn't going to happen", he says, a markedly different tone to the situation several years ago.
 
Photo by Jim WickensJim Stoner, rancher and Blackfoot Challenge Founder, crouches down on the hill side, furiously hammering away at the frozen earth to anchor in another pole with which to suspend the fladdry he has just unrolled from the back of his RV; handkerchief-sized pieces of red fabric flapping off a single electronically charged wire. "If a neighboring ranch has a problem with wolves we can load this machine up and go down and we can deploy a mile or two of this product in short of an hour... you know it's a new product and people kind of look at it and go wow that's kind of crazy... but we've seen it work ourselves. We've seen wolves on one side of it and our cows on the other," he says grinning.
 
Fladdry systems are part of a wider package of measures that the Blackfoot ranchers have taken in close co-operation with government agencies, including range riders who track wolves to keep ranchers up to date and carcass removal schemes that remove the welcome mat for wolves from ranches before they even get there. 
 
Seth Wilson is a conservation biologist who helps to co-ordinate the Blackfoot Project. "By employing these non-lethal measures we have been able to keep livestock losses fairly minimized. From 2006-12 we have documented 14 confirmed losses. When we got to other valleys we have has as many as 20 livestock killed over a two year period by comparison, and many, many wolves removed; these are the sort of collisions between livestock production and wildlife that we want to avoid," he says. He cautions against quick-fix solutions however. "This stuff takes time, and community-based conservation, building trust, earning the respect of the livestock producing community in Montana, that takes time... we act as the forum for bringing people together who normally would not potentially even talk to one another... that is the key to our success, communication in these ways that are respectful."
 
Jim Stoner reflects upon his handiwork with the Fladdry, dozens of pieces of red fabric tied to the wire in an impromptu fence line and blowing in the breeze. "Really when it comes down to it, it's about people, about bringing communities together. Wolves," he ponders, "mean opportunity."
 
After a week on the road in Montana, meeting, listening and probing discussions around wolves with people from all walks of life, it's clear that the polarized hyperbole published so often in the media either for or against wolves, is a gross distortion of reality for those who live and labor on the ground in Montana. Whilst court cases continue to rage in Washington around the fate of the Gray wolf, it is perhaps the quiet and courageous voices from communities in Montana who need to be heard the most. If the black and white can finally be replaced by a shade of gray, Rocky Mountain people may just find a way to live in balance alongside wolves for generations to come.
 
Watch the Earth Focus report Shades of Gray: Living with Wolves:
 
 
 

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Stalking Stereotypes

Wolves were once federally protected but now can be hunted again, making the fate and future of the wolf more controversial than ever. UK journalist Jim Wickens reports from Wyoming and Montana to provide his unique insight into the wolf wars of the West. His blog accompanies the exclusive Earth Focus report, Shades of Gray: Living with Wolvesnow online!

 

A sharp intake of breath. The bow tightens. A momentary silence, and then a whip-like crack as a silicon-tipped arrow flies, hammering into a tree trunk 30 meters away with a determined thud. We are with the president of Helena Bow hunters, a proud organization of local people who hunt down elk, deer, mountain lions, and even bears with just a bow and arrow. Reviled by animal rights advocates, bow hunters are a fairly cautious lot. But after a lot of effort we managed to track down the president to ask about wolves.

 

As anyone who has ever lived abroad will attest to, the international media love to frame US hunters as a uniform bunch of tea-party, gun-toting, trophy-chasing elderly white men from Texas. Forgive the painfully simplistic stereotype, but I'm sure you get the point.

 

Photo by Jim WickensPredictably perhaps, I was in for a shock. In our naivety, we hadn't been expecting a woman, let alone a nurse in a beat-up old car, to be meeting us at the archery range on the outskirts of Helena. With a wide smile and a contagious fire in her eyes, Joelle Silk then spent the next two hours shooting down the stereotypes that cling to attitudes regarding hunting in the US. A deep knowledge of Montanan forest ecology, a passion for the outdoors and a distinct humbleness marked out Joelle from anything I was expecting to find. For the last 20 years she has immersed herself in traditional bow hunting, a past-time that requires the hunter to get within 30 yards of their quarry, requiring immense skill, patience and dedication. Joelle had got involved with hunting two decades ago when she worked for the national park service, seeing it as a way to feed herself with a limited income. And she was quick to explain that for many people in Montana who live on below average national income, the bagging of an elk or deer can keep a family fed for months. There are people out hunting for trophies, but for Joelle and indeed almost every interviewee we had met in Montana, the annual 'elk tag' fee that people buy over the counter enables people to eat a meat that is natural, hormone-free and a world-away from the factory-farm hell where the majority of meat and dairy on sale in American supermarkets comes from.

 

The problem is that wolves like elk too. A lot. Since wolves were introduced to Yellowstone the elk herd has dramatically reduced. It is, according to wolf advocates, a 'leaner but meaner elk herd' that we see today in Montana. But there is no doubt that the huge herd sizes have gone and that elk have dispersed around the state. Ordinary blue-collar folk in Montana are finding it harder to locate the elk, and so it is not surprising that they feel threatened by wolves, a species that is now competing with them for the cheapest, healthiest and arguably the most ethical source of meat in the state. Earlier on in the day I had spent time chatting with a middle-aged Montanan couple sat in the booth next to us in a diner. The lady said that when her kids were growing up, she wouldn't have known how they would have got by were it not for the free meat that wild-elk in the freezer provided.

 

However understandable these fears might be, fish and game authority figures do suggest otherwise: the elk herd in Montana is currently at or even above the desired size of 150,000 animals, and that is with a wolf pack in excess of 600 animals. But there does seem to be little doubt that wolves are dispersing elk, breaking them into smaller groups and dispersing them out of traditional grounds, basically making the chase just a little bit harder for would-be hunters and home providers.

 

Joelle doesn't seem too worried about this, but adds that her members are simply relieved that finally Montanans can begin to manage wolf numbers through a legalized wolf hunt, as they do any other species from ungulates through to bob cats or mountain lions.

 

As I have come to learn over this last week, for outsiders looking into this debate, the empowerment aspect of the Rocky mountain wolf hunts should not be underestimated. Numbers aside, and irrespective of the ethics of hunting carnivores such as wolves with traps, guns, or bows; paradoxically it seems to me that wolves may just stand a better chance of acceptance within Montana precisely because they can be legally hunted and killed.

 

Although she won't admit it on camera, I suspect that Joelle might be one of many secretly hoping that wolves remain in Montana for a long time to come.

 

Read the previous installment of Jim's wolf blog, "An Unexpected Lurch to the Left."

 

Journalist Jim Wickens

Jim Wickens is one of Britain's leading investigative journalists and the co-founder of both the Ecologist Film Unit and also Ecostorm, the environmental media agency. Jim has spend the last decade documenting unreported issues around the world, including exposing illicit whale-meat smuggling networks in Japan, filming the brutal Namibian seal hunt, documenting soya-related murders and poisoning in Argentina, breaking the story of fracking problems in the US, and filming illegal trawlers far out to sea on the Burmese border.

 
 

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