Tag Archives: spain

The Selfish Environmentalist: religion in Morocco and caring for the land

In the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, abandonment of religious beliefs is transforming the wild.

High Atlas Mountains, Morocco (Photo/Jerzy Strzelecki)

For Morocco’s Amazig people, who long looked to their saints for guidance on how to manage their land, a loss of religion spells big changes for nature. Locals are shifting from a communal outlook to a more self-serving one, a switch that bears consequences for people and ecosystems alike, according to a new study in the journal Human Ecology. The study indicates that when people manage the land for themselves rather than the good of all, what’s here today could be gone, or at least different, tomorrow.

Historically, beliefs in local Islamic Saints encouraged a communal mindset when it came to managing resources in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. For instance, in spring, the Amazig would often set some pastures off-limits, saving them for harder times, a practice known as Agdal.

But as the Amazig abandon tradition, a new environment begins to take shape. Pablo Dominguez from the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in Spain and his colleagues observed and interviewed families from 80 households in Warzazt, Morocco, from 2003 to 2008. They found a close relationship between the loss of traditional religious beliefs and expansion of farmland and introduction of new sheep species.

The impacts of these practices are not yet fully understood, but one thing’s for certain, this study takes a fresh tack on natural resource management, emphasizing the ways religion plays a pivotal role in how cultures use and change their environment.


Dosed: Livestock scavenging vultures consume cocktail of veterinary drugs

A griffon vulture soars through canyons of the Douro River in Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

Griffon, their name conjures images of legend and mythology, but in the skies above Spain and Portugal, thousands of real life griffon vultures survey the earth looking for their next meal. And to a griffon, nothing says “yummy” quite like a fresh pile of pork carcasses – well, maybe sheep.

Don’t knock it. They are one of nature’s best cleaner-uppers. But it turns out that griffon vultures and at least two other vulture species are ingesting something not on their carrion menu, drugs and lots of them.

Vulture numbers have soared in Europe since the 1980s, thanks in part to the common practice of carcass dumping of dead livestock, also called muladares, which provide vultures with a ready and reliable supply of chow. But in cattle, drugs abound. And lunch at a muladar promises a chemical cocktail of veterinary medicine as well as protein.

A griffon vulture soars in the skies above the Douro River in northeastern Portugal. (Photo/Morgan E. Heim)

A new study by Guillermo Blanco with Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales in Madrid showed that the proportion of vulture nestlings testing positive for antibiotics rose from 0 percent in 2001 to 70 percent in 2006, and now scientists are seeing a triple threat. Blanco found griffon, Egyptian and cinereous vultures, contained combinations of antibiotics, anti-parasitics and non-steroid anti-inflammatory drugs, such as aspirin, in their system, a never before seen combination in a wild animal, according to the researchers.

Scientists are still studying what this chemical cocktail could spell for the vulture, and the three species did show variance in the amounts and types of drugs found in their systems, possibly due to the differences in how they feed. But Blanco and his colleagues do mention possible reasons for why and how the drugs are building up in the birds’ bodies.

Vultures typically split mealtimes between muladares and “vulture restaurants,” scavenging from the carcasses of free-ranging livestock. Drugs abound in both food sources, but reside in much greater concentrations and types in the bodies of farm-raised cattle – farm-raised livestock require more drugs due to their compact living quarters. Recent European Union regulations aimed at curbing the spread of mad cow disease made it illegal to abandon carcasses of free-roaming cattle in the countryside. As an unintended consequence of the rule, this practice eliminated one key source of food for the vulture, concentrating food in the veterinary drug-laden muladares. The regulation has also been reputed to be a probable contributor to the vulture’s decline since 2003.

Side-effects could include increased disease, due to exposure to immuno-suppressants, changing delicate bacterial communities in the vulture’s system and a rise of infection or transmission at feeding sites.

One remedy would be to allow for carcass abandonment to resume according to the study. “There is no evidence of BSE [mad cow] transmission risk due to the abandonment of unstabled livestock carcasses in the countryside,” wrote the study authors. “Therefore, this traditional practice in the Mediterranean regions should be legally permitted in order to increase availability, dispersion and quality of food for scavengers.”

You can read more about Blanco and his colleagues’ findings in the December 2009 issue of the journal Animal Conservation.


Take two pills and buzz me in the morning

Good news for honeybee apiaries. Colony Collapse Disorder, the multi-billion dollar plague of honeybee farms and a threat to ecological well-being may be a thing of the past thanks to new discoveries by researchers out of Spain. It seems a bug has been bugging the bees in the form of a microsporidia parasite called Nosema ceranae.

Dr. Mariano Higes and his team ruled out popular suspicions of pesticides and the Israeli Acute Paralysis Virus as possible causes of the disorder,instead determining bees from the two apiaries were dying solely from infections by the pesky parasite. Subsequently, all colonies treated with the antibiotic, flumagillin, completely recovered. This marks a pretty significant breakthrough in an ecological mystery that has spanned the globe and threatened the agricultural industry.

“Now that we know one strain of parasite that could be responsible, we can look for signs of infection and treat any infected colonies before the infection spreads” said Dr Higes, principle researcher, in a press release.

The complete study can be reviewed in the journal Environmental Microbiology Reports, a new publication from the Society for Applied Microbiology.

Click the following links for a few interesting articles about Colony Collapse Disorder (Silence of the Bees, hcn.org) as well as some past research on the Nosema ceranae parasite.


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