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Sunday, September 19, 2010


The Siafu ( Pronounced ; See - ahh - foo )

It is dusk in the West African forests of Gabon near the Congo border. The forest that has resonated throughout the night with the chirps, and buzzes, and calls of insects and frogs and birds is now still. Birds still call as do a few distant primates. But the insects and amphibians are still. It is a strange and uneasy stillness. The locals know what is happening. In the understory of the dense jungle, small life forms are on the move. Some flee North and South. Others flee East and West. But many others do not realize the danger or know to vacate the area.

Tension is growing as something moves silently along the leaf litter. Tiny forms scour out across the region. Medium sized ants that seem in a race. They are swift moving and all heading in the same general direction. A few song birds fly down to feed upon these first few ants. Tasty snacks for those with such an appetite. But soon the leaves stir and rustle as more ants swarm in a strange living blanket. The birds that are experienced fly off. They understand that the meal is no longer safe to eat. One or two birds however hop around in the leaf litter. Determined to gorge on this tasty treat. They do not notice the swarm on their legs. By the time that they feel the first few stings and fly off to a nearby branch it is too late! The birds try desperately to pluck the swarm out of their feathers. But they have been tagged with a chemical signal and the stinging ants venom burns and disorients the songbirds. Suddenly an eye is pierced and the bird in a panic attempts to rub it's face on the branch upon which it stands. But the branch is now a highway for more ants and the bites weaken and shock the bird. It's heart races and it suddenly falls to the floor of the jungle. Fluttering helplessly as it is overcome and dies. The second songbird has also suffered the same fate.

Insects and arachnids are hunted down and overcome in the leaf litter or on the tree bark. A young black mamba thrashes violently, even biting itself in an effort to bite it's aggressors. It dies in a combination of ant bites and its own venom. Another casualty of the relentless invasion. A large rat soon suffers the same fate as a frog and spider. The forest floor is black and red with ant bodies. The swarm moves like a great giant alien organism. It is eighteen feet wide and will take three and a half days to cross the area.

As the swarm continues, it overwhelms any animal unable to swiftly get out of its path. Nothing is immune. Great trumpeting pain and crashing of trees fills the air for miles as a massive bull elephant is attacked. The great bull did not feel the ants on his thick skin. Was not much aware of them until he was covered and the first bites filled him with pain and venom. The ants swarmed into his trunk, mouth, eyes, and ears. Their bites swelling his trunk shut and his mouth and throat until breathing was virtually impossible. His eardrums are penetrated and ruptured by powerful mandibles and his inner ear is attacked. The beast looses equilibrium as he thrashes and runs into trees in a painful blind rage. He is off balance and knocked senseless in his diminished breathing and panic. He falls to the floor where more ants await the giant and attack. He thrashes in agony, but his system is going into shock and his heart slows. He will not get back up. He is food for the colony. This is not some army ant colony of South America eight hundred thousand strong. No, this is the African Driver ant. The swarm is over forty million animals.

It hunts as a single organism rather than forty million individuals. It is a sisterhood of blind ants. They do not see the prey. but they can feel and sense and taste the food. They work in concert to bring down anything in their path. The Siafu are the most deadly predator in all of Africa. You yield to them, or you die. Those are the only options.

They are also my favorite analogy for those folks who come to me with doubts. I have often had people approach me after a lecture or book discussion on conservation issues and marine concerns who related to me that they really loved what I have written about and explained. They tell me how wonderful the work is that I am doing. But they then go on to share with me that they really want to get involved. But they have 2 issues that are holding them back. The first is that they don't believe that anything that they could do will amount to much help in the grand scheme of things. They feel tiny and helpless to affect changes.

The second issue is that they are working and trying to raise a family in a troubled economy and that they do not have the money or where-with-all to help out. And I smile as I then relate a more basic version of the story that I have just shared with you about the Siafu.

I explain to them that we are in the conservation movement like the Siafu. We are a blind collective. An individual driver ant is a medium sized ant with a painful sting. But not too severe or deadly. Easily squashed or killed by many things. But the Siafu, like the growing colony of conservation minded people is not just a single ant. It is many individuals acting in concert. And like the Siafu we need not see what all the other ants in the group are doing. We only need to put forth our own effort and together we can fell the largest opposition that there is! Just as the Siafu kill insects to elephants, so too can and will we overcome all that is in our path.

So all that anyone has to do is to participate on some level. It does not necessarily mean that you have to donate money. You can help in many other ways. Spread the word about sharks and the oceans. Educate the children and the public. You would be amazed at how powerful an aid that this is. Many people do not understand the law of 2 degrees of separation. This is the law that states that you are only ever two layers of friends away from someone who knows a celebrity or person of influence. So you never know which one of the people you share the message with might then share it with a relative or friend of a law maker or celebrity or person of influence who can be quite an impact in making a powerful change.

You can also do other basic things. Sign petitions online. It takes usually 2-3 minutes to sign a petition. It is generally 2 pages. A basic info page so that they know you are not the same person who signed a moment ago, and a second confirmation page. That is it. Simple. There is a third page in case you wish to share with friends, but even there, you do not have to if you feel uncomfortable doing so. But at least sign it yourself. It is easy and quick. I sign 30-150 petitions a month. Some of them have only a mild affect. Others have HUGE impacts. I am proud to know that I was one of the thousands of conservation Siafu who got shark products entirely banned in the state of Hawaii! A landmark in shark conservation measures. I am proud to know that I was one of 5560 Siafu who caused the Florida Fish and Game Commission to vote for Unanimous protection for Lemon sharks in Florida. So sign them and share them. Your voice matters.

You can educate your kids. Teach them conservation measures and get them involved in school and social events that support conservation and wildlife education. After all it is their world next. They should have a strong say and desire in protecting our world and theirs.

Pick up trash. Take a bag with you when you go out hiking, or walking. I often do beach clean ups. I like to hunt for shells and chunks of coral on the beaches in my area. But I always have 2 bags. One for shells and one for trash. I get the trash first, and on my way back up the now clean beach, I shell at my leisure. And it feels good too! Pick up the trash around the area. You will be saving fish and sea turtles and birds and us too. We are all interconnected. Start a group in your area and make it a fun social event. Conservation efforts do not have to be work or boring.

Support conservation organizations. Small cash donations help out as much as big ones. Skip a coffee or extra expense and take that $5 and donate it to an organization of your choice. Use Charity navigator or the advice of trusted conservationists to determine where or who to support. Do not waste money on corrupt pseudo conservation groups like Green Peace or World Wildlife Fund. Instead support groups that use the money soundly and actively. Support the Environmental Investigation Agency or Oceana or Shark Savers or Sea Shepherd Conservation Society or Wild Aid. Be selective and even small donations matter. It all adds up.

And so too do all of our efforts. So what are you? Some tiny ant wandering alone, insignificant, and easily squashed? Or are you one of us? Are you the scout or soldier of an unstoppable colony of Conservation Siafu? If your heart and desire are there, it only takes action to join the group. And know that even if you cannot see what all of your other colony members are doing, it is a small matter. For together, we WILL fell the greatest of problems and entities that stand in our path! The choice for your opposition ( and ours ) is a simple one,.. Yield or be overcome!

I hope that you will join the Siafu all around you!

- Erik

Sunday, September 5, 2010


When JAWS came out in the 70’s peoples lives in the oceans changed forever. The movie grabbed the attention of audiences everywhere and cast a horrific feeling of danger in waters and beaches that people had never considered imposing before.

Suddenly there were sharks lurking in everyone’s mind as Jaws sold us on the idea that nature’s apex marine predators were out there, looking for careless swimmers who seemed deliciously oblivious to the great hunters of the deep! People were terrified of the water and sharks were on everyone’s mind for many years to come.

Even today, the stigma of a man eating mindless killing machine lurking in wait for unsuspecting swimmers is ingrained into our consciousness when we consider the oceans. People fear sharks. People hate sharks. People kill sharks and fish for them with a certain taste for adventure and vengeance that is unprecedented with most marine species.

The truth is that most people have never seen a wild shark. Most never will regardless of how often they swim in the oceans. Most people know nothing or close to nothing about sharks in general. But the picture that they do have, is so far from accurate that it is sad and amazing to those people who spend time with and studying these animals.

The thing that I always wanted to do was learn more about the animals and how they really were? Were sharks really mindless killing machines that ran on instinct like some deadly auto-piloted nightmare? Or was there perhaps something a little intrinsically deeper about these creatures? How smart are they? What are they like?

The best way to answer any question in life is to first ask, and then to seek out the best sources of information or the best experts in the subject in order to answer the question. I have done just that. My greatest allies were curiosity, intention, and a burning drive to learn everything that I could. I started to read and study on an academic level first. But this soon grew to a mass media study. Then in time I sought out the experts.

But the next powerful tool was to discover for myself. I began to swim and wade and dive with sharks. I needed to learn more and to figure out the truth. And it was not long before I began to discover just how little I really knew about them. I thought to myself, if I can have this many misconceptions and gaps in my mind about sharks, and I enjoy and seek them out as a subject of interest, then what must the common person who is oblivious think about them? The average person is still going by Jaws often enough, rather than the reality, which will paint a far different picture.

The average person does not know just how frightened of us most sharks are. They do not associate words like “shy” “scared” “mellow” or “nervous” with sharks. Nor do they associate sharks with concepts such as “intelligence” “versatility” “playfulness” or “aware”. But again, this falls hand in hand with their experience level and degree of study. The sensationalized stories are far more interesting and fuel our hungry negative stereotypes than the truth about mistaken concepts and maligned animals.

In my studies and work with sharks I have uncovered an animal that is not easily approached. A shy and elusive predator that is so incredibly sensitive and scared of us that it takes a very concerted effort to be able to approach them. I have found a creature that rewards association and patience with a kind of curious interaction that astonished and amazes anyone lucky enough to share such moments.

I know sharks that are so distinct in their behavior that they are easily picked out of a group because no matter how similar the group may appear physically, the actions speak louder than words. Some will approach and swim close, looking at you to see who and what you are. They will test you, not as a meal, but as a fellow ocean denizen to see how you react to them. It is interesting to see them and know that there is enough thought going on that they have the faculties to experiment in their interactions with you.

I know sharks that are quite social and seem to enjoy the company of divers or swimmers with whom they are familiar, while they will shy away from all others. They have their favorites and you can always tell who that person is. These sharks will willingly spend time very close to such a person. They always seem to sense the people who enjoy them the most. There is a sort of cross species friendship and enjoyment that is very rewarding and magical when it happens.

I have seen sharks take their personal relationships or interactions with a favorite diver, one step beyond. Large sharks who have actively threatened and chased off other medium to large sharks who approached too close to their human companion. I smile, as I know that this is most certainly not the image that most people have of these animals. But experience opens a world that no amount of big screen bullshit and myth can override. The Jaws idea is simply not in my thinking.

I wish that I could share a new truth about these creatures with the world. I want to tell everyone just how wrong they are about sharks and the danger levels that they represent. While one must always respect the fact that they are large predators and well capable of being aggressive or dangerous if they see a need, most are simply not inclined to treat with us on that level unless triggered or provoked.

Around the world the annual shark bite (I refuse to use the word attack because it is not appropriate for the action) rate is around 70 shark bite incidents a year. Out of these 1-5 wind up as fatalities on average. Most of these occur in water less than 3 feet deep by sharks under 6 feet in length. It is almost always in cloudy or murky water in which the shark’s vision is obscured. The bite is generally to the lower leg, foot, ankle, or hand. Most of the time the shark swiftly realizes its mistake and either releases or attempts to release and swim away. It is not always easy with a panicked swimmer jerking in one direction while a mouth full of back recurved teeth designed to catch and hold fish, is embedded in flesh and preventing an easy release. Amazingly enough, the majority of shark bites 98.9% are superficial and do not even require stitches. There is seldom ever any removal of flesh, though it will make all of the news media when such incidents happen.

The other group of shark bite encounters happens to surfers who are often mistaken for a seal or sea turtle in the surf. These are bit by the big three; the bull shark, great white, and tiger shark. In most cases the sharks soon realize that the surfer is not a fat juicy seal and they let go and swim off. The surfer returns with scare, big injuries, and again the jaws image is reinforced in the public mind. Because the public never thought to view it from the animals perspective. The public seldom asks of the surfer, “What were you thinking, surfing so close to a seal colony? Don’t you know that you look a lot like a surfing seal or sea-lion to a large predator?” It’s easier to blame the shark.

Mistaken identity is almost always the cause of most negative shark encounters. At least on the side of sharks. But the converse is quite different. More people are killed by vending machines falling on them each year ( 9 on average ) than are killed by sharks. The same holds true for car crashes, lightning strikes, dog bites, etc. But in the case of humans toward sharks the statistics are quite different. Sharks have far more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.

Right now in the worlds oceans there is a war going on. Humans verse everything else. And the biggest casualty of this war is the world’s shark population. 2/3rds of all species are down by 90-95% of what they were just 30 years ago. Sharks are vanishing at an alarming rate. They are the most hunted animal group in all of human history. 104 Million sharks are fished and killed each year. Of these 78 million are killed only for their fins, to supply the growing shark-fin soup trade in Hong Kong, China, Singapore, Japan, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Every fisherman in the world knows that there is a bounty on shark’s fins. Whether or not they fish for sharks directly or catch them as “bycatch” (the unintended species taken by a fishing industry targeting a certain type of marine life) they are quick to take the fins. It is an act often inflicted on the live animal. The fins cut away from the body and the shark is tossed overboard to die. Sinking into the depths, in pain and bleeding. Unable to swim. It will either bleed to death slowly or be torn apart by other predators and scavengers in the water.

Shark fins are the third highest earning illegal trade commodity on the planet next to drugs and weapons. The fins can fetch prices between $300 - $700 a kilo on the Asian market. The soup is considered a status symbol with great health and virility benefits for the consumer.

Once an extravagance that was too expensive for the common man, now with a booming economy, more and more Chinese and other Asians have disposable income, which they are willing to spend on luxuries such as this soup. It is a soup killing our oceans and in an ironic and sick twist of fate it is also killing its supporters.

This is due to the fact that as apex marine predators who are large and long lived, sharks and other similar predators, are loaded with massive amounts of toxins and pollution that have moved up the food chain. Years of ocean dumping of our chemical wastes have not caused these chemicals to vanish or dissipate. Instead the food chain concentrates these elements in its top predators. Sharks are loaded with Methyl-mercury, lead, cadmium, POPs (Persistent Organic Pollution) such as DDT and PCBs, and many other toxins.

In turn shark-fin soup is also loaded with these same chemicals. We are a twisted creature in our own right it seems. So do sharks kill humans? Yes, on occasion they do. But now in their rapid demise nature is fighting back on a much more insidious level. Dead sharks are starting to kill people. Methyl mercury is the sharks avenging ghost in a sad war in which there are no winners.

And what of the remaining sharks? Is there hope in stopping the chaos and slaughter? Is there any hope in turning the tide and bringing back balance to these animals and our oceans? The answer is yes. There is still hope for a change. Still time to correct things before the balance is irrevocably altered forever. It starts with awareness and education. It starts with a simple shift of mindset and an awareness of the reality behind the myths. Healthy oceans need sharks, and we need healthy oceans. In other words, we need sharks in order to survive as a species as well.

- Erik.