Australian Bush:The Invasion of the Giant Cane Toads

It could be science fiction.It has already been featured on games videos. But in the Australian Bush there’s an extraordinary real problem which is entirely self inflicted.

In the 1930s some bright person thought they had found an ecological way of dealing with a pest – a beetle – that was destroying Australia’s sugar cane crop. They decided to import the world’s large toad that had been introduced to Hawaii from Central America. The toads grow up to six inches long.

What the people who imported the toad did not know is that this large toad could not jump. And the beetles lived at the top of the sugar cane some 15 feet above the ground. So the toads were less than useless in combating the pest.

But their legacy has been a disaster. The toads secrete a poisonous fluid when attacked as their main defence mechanism. Toads are the natural food for many native reptiles and birds. They have no natural predators in Australia.

Worse the reptiles and birds that ate them were poisoned threatening the diversity of wildlife and forcing snakes and iguanas to the point of extinction in some areas. They also multiplied from a few hundred to an amazing 200 million and expanding their area from a small part of Queensland into the vast Northern Territories.

One area we visited was Litchfield National Park south of Darwin. This bush park is famous for its waterfalls and its giant termite mounds. Here the arrival of the cane toad has seen the disappearance of iguanas and some species of snake who ate the toads.

The guide who took us on the trip was devastated by the impact of the toads on other wildlife. And he was concerned about the spread of the toads which extend their range by about 25 miles every year.

Obviously it has not destroyed all wildlife in the park. Some specialised species like the olive python which feeds on bats are largely unaffected. And there is some hope that Australian wildlife hit by the toads may be able to adapt.

One snake has evolved to have a smaller jaw so it cannot swallow a giant toad. A bird under threat has found that if you turn the toad belly up it is possible to eat parts of it without being poisoned.

And the park’s meat eating ants have found they are immune from the poison. Normally they invade the huge termite mounds and kill the termites. Now they have found toads as another part of their diet.

The Australian cane toad has also adapted. It has grown longer legs so it can cover greater distances in this huge continent. Meanwhile scientists have unraveled the toad’s DNA in the hope of finding a way to try and eliminate them. This is an extraordinary story of a self inflicted problem that could be solved by evolution.

Report from Waitangi:Where Maori Aotearoa became New Zealand 

It is one of the most serene parts of New Zealand we saw in our short visit.Situated on the mainland of the beautiful Bay of Islands the Waitangi Treaty grounds is where in 1840 the Maori tribal leaders ceded sovereignty to the British.

The agreement has been disputed ever since through mistranslation. The Maoris thought they had ceded sovereignty, the British thought they had agreed that they would govern them and be able to take over their lands.Since Maoris had no written language it was an easy and useful mistake by the British.

The signing led to the seizure and purchase of the vast majority of Maori lands and like many of the people who inhabited the land in Australia and North America before the arrival of European settlers they became marginalised.

Since the 1940’s there has been a huge migration of Maoris from rural to urban areas. In 1926 84 percent of Maoris lived in rural settlements by 2006 it was down to 15 per cent. This added to marginalisation as many lost touch with their roots and some drifted into crime.

However since the 1970s there has been revival of Maori culture and nowhere does this show more than in Waitangi.The treaty grounds are run by a trust which receives no government money. Even the purchase of the land in the 1930’s depression relied on a well off white family rather than state aid. But the enthusiasm of the people who run the trust reflects the revival.

It was best illustrated by our Maori guide at Waitangi called John. He had a Maori name but that was too difficult to pronounce or remember for a European like me. He loved his job and spoke eloquently about Maori culture, traditions,language and history.

What came over is Maori fascination with ancestry. He could trace his own back 15 Maori generations and discovered in the process he was part Scottish and one per cent Native American.

The role of tattoos in Maori culture is also fascinating.John had got married and instead of exchanging rings with his bride he had a tattoo on his chest to celebrate his marriage. Marriage must be forever for Maoris.

The treaty grounds include the house where the treaty was signed, a Maori meeting house and a replica of a 150 man war canoe, a museum and a woodcarving centre where the

ancient Maori craft has been revived.

Princess Diana stirred up controversy on a Royal visit to Waitangi when she became the only woman to sit in the canoe breaking the sacred Maori rule that only men can sit in war canoes. But she was never one to follow tradition.

It also has a flagstaff with three flags,one created after the crew of trading boat were jailed in Australia for trading without a flag,the Union Jack, and the modern New Zealand flag.

The Treaty House is no grand building for such a momentous event. It is just a small homestead which later had an extension added. The room where the treaty was signed is simply furnished with bare boards and a wooden table.

For anyone visiting New Zealand this is well worth the trip.Allow a full three hours to include a display of Maori dancing.

Cabo San Lucas: Mexico’s pristine environment on the front line of an American invasion

President Trump is more than keen to build a wall to keep out immigrant criminals, drug dealers and bad people from entering the United States from Mexico.

Yet some 1000 miles away from the proposed wall Americans are very happy to move into a country seen by some as a dangerous hotbed of crime and violence threatening the foundations of the US.

The front line for this “invasion” is Cabo San Lucas a fast growing resort in Baja California some 300 miles south of San Diego and once one of the remotest parts of the world.

Some 50 years ago it was a small fishing village set among spectacular scenery at the ” Lands End” of Baja California a long slither of land separated from the mainland of Mexico by an inland sea and then an extremely isolated home for amazing wildlife.

Every year grey whales from Alaska come and breed in Pacific Ocean off the coast and there are colonies of sea lions and pelicans plus a huge variety of other birds and fish. The local scenery is spectacular with huge rocks and pinnacles rising out of the ocean and a much photographed natural arch. Cabo San Lucas is also on the edge of a giant underwater canyon which makes for fine scuba diving. Outside the resort the desolate desert scenery is full of forests of slow growing cacti.

According to the guides the turning point in Cabo’s history came when the Mexican government altered land tenure law and allowed its original inhabitants to own their land in the village. Instead of sharing the windfall the people lucky enough to own property sold it to multinational corporations at what looked to them a vast profit. Most were American real estate companies who saw the opportunity to create a resort to exploit the stunning scenery and wildlife.

Now there are no original village homes left, local fishing has ceased,and an ever expanding ribbon of hotels,condominiums, apartments ,shopping malls and time shares have been built into the surrounding hills making it the most expensive city in Mexico. Villas with commanding views of the sea sell for seven million dollars. Millionaire yachts dock in the harbour alongside tourist boats.

The resort is and looks American with Walmart, Dominos Pizzas and McDonalds along the main streets. Most shops advertise their wares in English with pharmicists offering sleeping pills and body building drugs without prescriptions.Development has brought advantages for local people with most of the population in tourism or employed by real estate companies. Mexico unlike the US encourages immigration anyone who can earn the equivalent of 2000 US dollars,according to the guides, is welcome.
As a result Cabo has attracted people from other Central and South America to work there.


There are downsides. The pristine scenery and abundant wildlife is under threat by this mass invasion. Also the Koreans and Japanese are overfishing the abundant waters off Mexico though the under sourced Mexican government is trying to limit their activity.
The real dangers are that the overdevelopment of the area could eventually destroy its main attractions. There is also a national park where development is restricted which offers hope. But the town is both an example of pristine nature being exploited by corporate greed.

Report from Aruba: The boom tourist island off crisis hit Venezuela 

Just 18 miles off the coast of Venezuela lies the former Dutch colony of Aruba.The state of Aruba could not be more different from Venezuela.

While Venezuela is facing its worst economic crisis with hyper inflation and three million people have fled the country mainly to Colombia and Brazil, Aruba is in the middle of a tourist boom.

The distance from Aruba to Venezuela is less than that between Dover and Calais so it is not surprising, though it is unreported, that Venezuelans have also sought refuge here. Officially they are deported back to Venezuela if found but unofficially with the current labour shortages many may not be. And unlike the phobia by some in the UK of immigrants flooding the country this small island of 118000 people seems to welcome them.

Aruba is a curious mixture of American high rise resort hotels,holiday apartments and casinos and Dutch social welfarism shown by affordable state housing schemes and a national contributory health service.

Most Arubians are trilingual – they learn Dutch,English and Spanish in school – though Dutch is the official language. They are mainly Roman Catholic rather than Protestant due to the legacy of the original Spanish conquerors of Aruba and their local currency still is the guilder long abolished in favour of the Euro in Holland. Nearly all the supermarkets are owned by the Chinese.

Arubians who want to study medicine or engineering go to Dutch universities and Arubians are proud they have freedom of movement as EU as well Dutch citizens. From March 29 they will have more freedom of movement than the British.

The biggest deal for Arubians is tourism. An estimated 1.8 million people visit the island every year from cruise ships and direct flights from the US and South America.As a result most people are employed by the tourism industry.There is a also a flourishing aloe vera industry as it has a dry desert like climate – it doesn’t rain for 8 months a year.

Intriguingly the country used to refine Venezuela oil but the big refinery was closed. It still imports a lot of its fruit and vegetables from Venezuela – which given the shortages in Venezuela is remarkable.

The main tourist attraction are the beaches – the hinterland when not developed is mainly desert scrub and grazed by goats- goat is staple diet. Wild creatures include iguanas, rattlesnakes which are protected and boa constrictors which were irresponsibly released into the wild.

When the local pest control are called out it is often to remove a boa that has got into someone’s yard.

But what is the most extraordinary is the parallel universe between Aruba and Venezuela – so close together but so far apart.

Bermuda: How shipwrecks can save our dwindling coral reefs 

While global warming and pollution are threatening our coral reefs Bermuda is a rather unusual success story.

Unlike more famous coral reefs like the Australian Barrier Reef which are in decline the coral reef around Bermuda is healthy and expanding.

One reason is that Bermuda is hundreds of miles from the US and other Caribbean islands and has no industry to speak of to pollute the seas.This tiny island has a coral reef far larger than the island itself. The Atlantic Ocean north of the island is in some areas just between three and twelve feet deep.

As a result the area is dotted with shipwrecks. So many ships have ran aground there and many have not been discovered. But here is the interesting point. These shipwrecks are incredibly beneficial to coral reefs. Sunken boats create a structure for corals to grow and are magnets with for fish with plenty of hides holes. And it appears rather surprisingly that the rusting iron of the hulks acts as a fertiliser to help coral establish itself. One of the few cases of human made debris being beneficial.

According to the tour guides who took us there is now growing interest in sinking redundant ships on the edge of coral reefs once they have been decontaminated. They are colonised by the coral which expands the reef.

One example is HMS Vixen a former Royal Navy ship which ran aground a century ago whose hull as the picture shows still sticks out of the shallow water. Here it is a magnet for grey snapper, Chubb and various tropical fish.

Bermuda’s coral reefs are also refuges for turtles which are protected from predators and conservationists have brought back turtle eggs to hatch on the island’s beache to re-establish and expand the population.

Not all Bermuda’s Eco experiments have worked. Just off the coral reef there is an abandoned Eco village. The houses are built on stilts on the coast with canvas rooves and no air conditioning and sound proofing.As a result they are unlettable in the summer when there is high humidity and people’s conversations can be heard from house to house.At the moment the government is desperately trying to flog them off to anybody who might want to use them as a spare summerhouse.

Some facts on tax haven Bermuda which free market Tories might like and Socialists hate. Income tax minimal at just six per cent or nothing for 65000 inhabitants.As a result there is a 17.5 per cent tax on everything that is sold there which is already expensive because it has to be imported. Average house prices are $800000. Cheapest one bed flat $300000. Some affordable houses for $300000 – these are ex Royal Navy homes. Lucky to get a beer for £7 and to eat out for two could cost over £100.

Not much chance of Liam Fox negotiating an independent trade deal – unless he wants to expand its tax haven status with the City. Bermuda doesn’t make anything except rum cakes. So apart from flying them in on direct services between Gatwick and Hamilton don’t expect anything special.

Bermuda until 1960’s had a naval presence. Plans by Gavin Williamson the defence secretary to bring back Royal Navy bases in the Caribbean should make it the ideal centre. A few slight problems.The Royal Navy commissioner ‘s house is a museum, the deep water berths are now cruise ship terminals and the port buildings a shopping mall. Apart from that it should be plain sailing.

Novichoc: From Russia with Love

A rather sick  Christmas joke Pic credit: TVRAIN Russian TV

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

I don’t readily comment on actions by other media but the decision by the Russian state broadcaster Russia Today to send out to other Russian state broadcasters chocolate models of Salisbury cathedral as a Christmas gift is one of the sickest messages I have seen at a time of festive cheer.

As a report in the Independent shows it has rightly raised hackles in Salisbury a city disrupted by the botched assassination attempt of a former Soviet spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter using the lethal poison Novichok. This later tragically led to the manslaughter of Dawn Sturgess, another Salisbury resident. Her partner Charlie Rowley is still ill.

The idea that there is anything remotely funny about sending gifts of a chocolate Salisbury cathedral as a Christmas present from Russia to well wishers and supporters suggests those involved have a really disturbed mindset.

Everybody knows that the cover story of the two agents posing as tourists about visiting Salisbury Cathedral broadcast on Russia Today was an absurd explanation.

The only sad thing is that it is also a reminder every time Theresa May talks about leaving the EU to ” take back control of our borders” also looks pretty sick. This is particularly so when a couple from a non EU country can get into the UK intending to commit murder with impunity under the noses of our own security forces.

So I hope anyone who received such a gift from the Russians in the UK put it in the bin where it belongs.

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Theresa May’s mental health act reform: Warm words but scant action

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

You may well have missed it under the Brexit deluge but Theresa May announced a major reform of the Mental Health Act this month – the first for 30 years.

Sir Simon Wessely, a tame report on reviewing the mental health act

She had commissioned Sir Simon Wessely, Regius Professor of Psychiatry at King’s College London and president of the Royal Society of Medicine to examine the legal state of Britain’s mental health system.

His report came out earlier this month. Frankly it is full of warm words but proposes scant action and dumps the problem of better treatment for mental health patients on the NHS.

The good part of his report is that it does give better rights for patients held under community treatment orders. and some useful changes when mental patients die in police custody including restoring non means tested legal aid to challenge the authorities.

The bad part of his report is that it fails to offer a solution to what is one of the most glaring problems in the mental health service – the vast number of Afro-Caribbeans who are sectioned compared to the majority white population.

It acknowledges it exists and in his introduction Sir Simon Wessely quotes the view of one ethnic minority person who told him “for a black person, a psychiatric hospital is seen as the place where they drug you up, and at worst even kill you”.

He goes on to confirm that nothing much has changed in 30 years.

“it is sad to record that little has changed. There does appear to be more consensus that this increase is real, and not an artefact, and also that it is related to experiences of discrimination, exclusion and racism. There is also consensus that even taking this into account, the use of coercion is far greater in this population, finding its most painful expression in the statistic that those of black African or Caribbean heritage are over eight times more likely to be subjected to Community Treatment Orders than those of white heritage. In other words, too often and in too many areas the experiences of those of black African and Caribbean heritage is one of either being excluded or detained.”

He then admits institutional racism exists even if it is unconscious but the main body of the 307 page report does not address the issue of why psychiatrists accept that Afro-Caribbeans are eight times more likely to be schizophrenic or suffer from psychosis than anyone else. Nor does it propose any remedies for this particular problem. You can read the report via this link.

institutional racism

As Suman Fernando,a psychiatrist and author of a major work on institutional racism , put it:

Suman Fernando. Pic credit: http://www.sumanfernando.com

” The first question to be asked is whether this report would have had the same approach to ‘race’ if the victims of institutional racism had not been ‘black and minority ethnic’ people but a white minority / majority group?   The issue here is about white privilege and power. And the question arises as to how this systemic failure of an official report has come about.  Second, who carries responsibility for the failure of this report to have race on its agenda for change? “

He concludes:” This Review has raised false hopes in the minds and hearts of many black people “

Consultations on this report will begin in the New Year with legislation to follow. But it will get nowhere without a big commitment to resources and a change of culture and attitudes by psychiatrists treating patients.

As Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat health spokesman put it: “In the Government’s response to the Review, there must be a commitment to invest more money to support those at crisis point and help people before they reach crisis point. The Conservatives to date have failed to adequately invest in Mental Health. Without strong goals and commitments from the Government, rising detention rates will not be adequately challenged.”

tame conclusions

My conclusion is that both Theresa May and Simon Wessely are speaking from the same song book. They are prepared to speak warm words about the problem but are not prepared to take radical action to solve it. No wonder he can calmly state that no political influence was brought to bear on the report. It wasn’t necessary given its tame conclusions.