29 Jan 2020

Protecting Elephants in Zambia

Protecting Elephants in Zambia
By Margriet Ruurs
photos by Margriet Ruurs

If you visit Africa, you need to go on safari!
So when I toured international schools across Africa, I knew I’d want to see wildlife in the place where it belongs: the vast wilderness of the African continent.

Driving across the Serengeti I spotted a lion crouched low in the grass – both painted orange by the rising sun.
Seeing a white rhino in the Ngorogoro Crater was iconic and drove home the need to preserve this natural legacy for generations to come.

But perhaps the highlight was a visit to Zambia’s National Parks. Wildlife in Zambia is abundant. Even on the ride from the tiny airport to the lodge in a National Park, we saw the "big five" and more. Africa's big five animals include lions, leopards, elephants,  African buffalo, and rhinoceros.

During a walking safari, we learned about reading tracks and other signs. “A cheetah walked here about two hours ago, carrying an impala,” our guide would ‘read’ with confidence. But he also told us about poachers and how elephant populations are dwindling. We met with a poacher to hear his side of the story. And ended up financing a system whereby poachers who have served a jail sentence wear ankle bracelets that allow for tracking them to make sure they don’t sneak off again during the night.

And then we met Aaron. A young man who grew up in a poaching community, he explained how his family went hungry as herds of elephants came through his village, trampling rice crops and eating the mangos. How poaching allowed for a bit of income in a place without jobs. And how he had never known that elephants would be endangered. He had been forced to drop out of school to help his family’s income. Elephants were the enemy.

At the elephant orphanage, elephants bond into new families.

But one day, Aaron was involved in the rescue of a baby elephant at the resort where he had a menial job. That’s when he met people working for Game Rangers International and the Lilyai Elephant Orphanage outside Lusaka, Zambia.

“I thought there was black magic involved,” Aaron said when he first saw people working with elephants. But, upon visiting the orphanage to check up on the rescued baby, he not only learned about their work but was offered a job. Now Aaron is a skilled elephant caretaker who helps to save the lives of young, orphaned elephants who will later be released into the wild again. He also speaks to Zambian youths in schools about the need for preservation. “Tourists bring more resources than poaching,” he now knows.

You can read many more details about this true story in:
The Elephant Keeper, Caring For Orphaned Elephants in Zambia
by Margriet Ruurs
Kids Can Press
ISBN  978-1771385619
The book encourages schools and individuals to ‘adopt’ an orphaned elephant.
Check this website for details: https://www.gamerangersinternational.org

17 Jan 2020

Eat like a bird? Better get started!

If you ate like a bird, you'd take in more than 16 kg (35 lbs) of food every day!
Saying someone "eats like a bird" is supposed to mean they eat very little, but that's based on a mistake: birds actually eat a huge amount. Up to half their body weight every single day! While you may see birds take one seed at a time from the bird feeder, they come back often, and keep eating all day. That adds up.
What would it look like if you ate half your body weight? Let's look at the choices for a typical 32 kg (70 lb) 10-year-old:
1.5 large bags of potatoes
13 boxes of Foot Loops
20 heads of lettuce
67 Big Macs
235 scoops of ice cream
So, if you're going to "eat like a bird", you'd better start eating!

Just be glad you're not a pygmy shrew. They have to eat 1.25 times their weight every single day!
Photo by Andrew via CC BY-2.0

Image of cardinal by GeorgeB2 from Pixabay

16 Jan 2020

The Bug Girl is now an author!

The Bug Girl by Sophia Spencer and Margaret McNamara

Did you hear the story of seven-year-old Sophia Spencer? Since she was a toddler, Sophia has loved bugs and learned about them. Her mother put out the call for... well, that would be telling.

Don't expect me to tell more about the Bug Girl. Click on this link to find out about her BRAND NEW BOOK now available from Random House.

(Kids these days! She's still in grade school but she's already friends with bug scientists and she's the author of a book from Random House. Oy!)

10 Jan 2020

Hot Stuff! Calibrate your oven.

One of the many things that can go wrong for novice bakers is that your oven can be inaccurate. Impress your family and friends by calibrating your oven using phase transitions

While you can't depend on your oven manufacturer, you can depend on the fact that sugar melts at 366°F  (186°C). And since we're impressing friends and family, tell them that sugar transitions from the solid (crystalline) phase to the liquid phase at 366°F.

Here's how you do it:

Set your oven temperature to 365°.
Put half a tablespoon of sugar in an ovenproof dish. 
When the oven reaches its target temperature, put the dish in the oven and leave it there for 15 minutes. 
Check to see whether the sugar has melted. Use oven gloves to handle the dish. It may look the same, but it will be really hot! Don't burn yourself!

Sugar is still crystalline

... or ...
Sugar is melting
If the sugar is still crystalline, increase the oven temperature by 5°, and leave the sugar in for another 15 minutes.  If it's melted, let the oven cool a little, set it to 5° lower, and put a fresh half tablespoon of sugar in for fifteen minutes. Repeat the process until you discover a temperature setting where sugar doesn't melt and a setting where it does melt.

Some ovens won't let you set a temperature that's not a multiple of 5. If your oven allows more precise settings, you can keep going to find the exact setting at which the sugar melts.

When I did this, I found that the sugar melted at a setting of 357°. So now I know to set my oven to 9° lower than the temperature I really want.

13 Dec 2019

Food on the Move

By Claire Eamer

A vital component of a turkey dinner.
Image by skeeze from Pixabay
I've been thinking a lot about food lately. One reason is that I have been auditing a university class on food and drink in the archaeological record. Somehow, ancient peoples seem much more real when you start to figure out what they snacked on during a workday and what they ate and drank at a feast.

(Auditing classes, I've discovered, is a blast! All the fun of learning with none of the stress of exams.)

The other reason for thinking of food, of course, is that we're approaching the season of winter feasting. Turkey dinner. Mashed potatoes. Corn on the cob. Roasted squash. Cranberry sauce. Maybe a little hot sauce on the side for those who like dash of fire with their food.

But if you'd mentioned any of those foods to someone from Europe, Africa, or any part of Asia 600 years ago, they would have been baffled. All those foods came from the Americas, and no one outside the Americas had eaten them until the European invasion of the Americas began just over 500 years ago.

(Okay -- Europe has a kind of wild cranberry, but it's not the sort you'll find in the cranberry sauce served with your Christmas turkey.)

I learned just how many foods originated in the Americas a few years ago when I was researching The World in Your Lunch Box: The Wacky History and Weird Science of Everyday Foods. I was amazed -- not just at the variety of foods, but at how skilled the farmers of the Americas were and how quickly their foods spread to the rest of the world.

Teosinte is on the left, and modern corn is on the
right. Between them is a hybrid of teosinte and corn.
Image by John Doebley.
Consider, for example, corn. At least 8000 years ago, the people who lived in what is now Mexico and Central America began a long process of crop breeding that turned a common grass called teosinte into maize -- the plant served up as everything from tortillas to corn on the cob. Today, maize is still an extremely important food in Central and South America, but it's also the most important food crop in much of sub-Saharan Africa.

Or look at potatoes. They come from the Andes in South America, and you'll still find the biggest variety of potatoes there. But 500 years ago, the Spanish took a few kinds of potatoes back to Europe, and they spread. They spread so far and so fast that China is now the world's biggest producer and consumer of potatoes.

And that delicious-smelling turkey? The Ancient Puebloans who lived in the famous cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde 800 years ago kept turkeys penned in the alcoves behind their houses. In other parts of North America, such as the forests of what is now the eastern United States, turkeys were so plentiful that people didn't bother to keep them penned up. Why feed a bird when it can feed itself and still be available to hunt when you need it?

Those are just a few of the foods that came from the Americas. They, along with chili peppers, tomatoes, squash, chocolate, and a cornucopia of other delights, changed the nature and flavour of food around the world.

Now I'm hungry!

6 Dec 2019

Teenage Water Science Technician

posted by Paula Johanson
What was your first job, fresh out of school? Something in retail, perhaps.
Or if you're still in school, are you currently delivering newspapers or mowing lawns?
Guess what job teenager Quentin Rae of North Spirit Lake First Nation has, right after finishing high school... has anyone guessed Water Plant Operator? Good golly, there's science technician work in northern Ontario!

Ninteen-year-old Quentin Rae has been hired by his community to operate their new water treatment plant. He is monitoring and maintaining water quality with the assistance and support of Northern Chiefs Council (Keewatinook Okimakanak). The council is getting Quentin specialized training which will enable his community to have clean drinking water, after fourteen years of a Boil Water Advisory.

You can read about it all in the CBC news article at this link: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/thunder-bay/teen-first-nation-drinking-water-1.3563110?fbclid=IwAR261xzPfTv1MQp6hAaYnHM6I7khFUeS1qAAaCmTSJvwuKPut0W_-qjv0Zs

29 Nov 2019

"The Capelin are Rolling"

"The capelin are rolling". That's what the lady in the fluorescent vest answered when we asked her what all the excitement was about. She was preventing cars from entering the already-full parking lot at the cove. Like a hundred others, I had parked along the highway and walked back to the cove.

I had an idea of what capelin were: little silvery fish. Ten days earlier on our trip to Newfoundland, the skipper of our tour boat to Witless Bay had said "You folks are lucky. We're going to see whales. There were no whales here until a few days ago when the capelin showed up and the whales follow and feed on the capelin". But I had no idea what "rolling" meant.

It turns out that "rolling" means that millions of capelin come in to shore to spawn on the beaches. This happens only once a year for a few days. And the locals come in to scoop up the capelin in nets or any handy container. It's a happening scene. You only have to wade into the ocean up to your ankles to scoop up buckets of fish. People of all ages were happily gathering dinner and walking off with shopping bags full of fish. It's quite a defining moment for local culture.

The capelin are rolling at Middle Cove, just north of St. John's

Dead capelin littering the beach
Anyone can scoop up capelin with a net

Buckets and shopping bags full of capelin

But the capelin are significant for more than a fascinating local cultural event. Capelin feed on plankton.  Other animals, including whales, puffins and cod, feed on capelin. So capelin are a critical link in the food chain. And capelin stocks have been declining. In 2018 the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) announced a 70% decline in capelin population. The population is only 25% of what it was in 2014, and that was much smaller than before a population crash in the 1990's!  My first thought at seeing people scooping up the fish was that this must be a threat to the capelin stocks.

But no: most of the fish die anyway right after spawning, so harvesting them then does little to the population. And, anyway, people aren't walking off with more than a few tonnes of fish in their buckets and shopping bags. Somewhat more significant is the commercial catch. Surprisingly, the DFO increased the commercial fishing quota from 17,500 tonnes in 2018 to 18,600 in 2019.

Hard to believe from this picture, but commercial fishing is a minor predator
Why? The scientists at DFO believe that the decline is due more to environmental factors than to fishing, and consider the fishing to be a very minor factor in influencing the population size. They estimate that fin fish alone eat a million tonnes of capelin (and whales and seabirds are also significant predators).

The World Wildlife Fund disagrees with DFO and calls the increase in fishing quotas "short-sighted". Who's correct? It's not clear - there are so many factors involved that accurate forecasts of population are impossible. But maybe you should plan a trip to Newfoundland soon if you want to see the capelin rolling.