My love-hate relationship with sensationalism

In my job as a wildlife educator I like to use myths and stories to highlight previous beliefs about the animals I am presenting. Stories like why the bear lack a long tail, or how the Egyptians actually used crocodiles in their temples. To be able to do my job properly I have to read and investigate these old stories and myths.
In my latest endeavour I have been trying to read up on myths, stories and historical descriptions about crocodiles, and while I was doing that I came across a book that set me ablaze.
So now I need to vent my frustration about my love-hate relationship with sensationalism.

I have scoured a few books and papers now to look for anecdotes, stories and myths about crocodiles, and there are quite a few good ones out there. Right now I am reading a paper by Dr. Simon Pooley which is called “The entangled relations between humans and Nile crocodiles c.1840-1992“. The paper is a short introduction to the relationship between humans and crocs in Africa, and the stories that follow that relationship. It is un-biased and not very exciting. Unless you have read the jaw dropping horror stories that surrounds crocs before you read Dr. Pooley’s paper. Now a question may appear, who is right? Are one side lying? Is someone hiding something, or trying to gain something? WHO should you believe?

Reading a frustrating book

The last thing I read before I read Dr.Pooleys paper was a book, actually this book;

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A book that takes aim to EXPOSE the human-wildlife conflict (HWC) in Africa. As if HWC is somehow hidden from the public eye. Okay, so I am not a fan of the title, the book may still be good.
Well, James Clarke is an english writer born in London. He has been living in Africa for more than fifty years and he has written both books and articles on african wildlife since the 1950’s. This man should be a heavyweight in this field. Nonetheless I cannot find myself to trust his writings. Throughout his book he references well-known journals, reports and scientists, but from time to time he makes bold claims without referencing to actual science other that what he believes to be true.
One example is “Lindi is a coastal town where slaves were taken in the 17th, 18th and 19th century, which suggests a genetic predisposition for man-eating that goes back to the slave trade.“. This is a paragraph that immediately follows an account from Lindi of 24 people being killed – and some eaten – by lions between 1999 and 2000. This is a claim he makes without any reference to any science on the topic. A quick search online shows that genetic studies of known man-eaters, such as the Tsavo lions, show little to none genetic difference that could explain this behaviour when compared to other lions (Panthera leo) in africa. Claiming that these lions kill humans because it is embedded in their genes is pure sensationalism and a strong contributor to further demonizing the large predators.
The author himself is not trained in natural science, but when he sometimes does feel the need to back up his claims he refers to his daughter who is a trained biologist. This makes me doubt the legality of his claims even more.

Done trashing

Now, I am not writing this to trash James Clarke. His book is actually a good read if you know that you cannot read it as if you were reading a scientific compilement of actual proven data. You have to take it for what it is. A gathering of gory events with a pinch of imagination. Read it like a novel, for fun, and you most likely find yourself enjoying the book (like I did after I figured out how to read it).
I have to admit that I am just as big of a fan of sensationalism, and I click on every link that starts with”World largest…” or “You won’t believe…”. I love the thrill of a sensational story, but I try to reflect on the contents of what I just read as well so that I do not accept lies as the truth. Good stories are an amazing way to pass time and let your imagination run wild, that is why I also love reading a good fictional book. Hence my love-hate relationship with sensationalism.
I am also not trying to say that you need to have studied natural sciences to write decent books on the subject. But as soon as you venture away from proper facts and start referring to things you believe as factual, then we have a problem.

The horrors of sensationalism

Sensationalizing an animal – especially in the case of exaggerating attacks by predators – may rob the animal of its actual identity. What do I mean by that? Well, if you constantly refer to crocodiles – as an example – as brutes and killers, the mind of the public may be swayed in the direction of believing this for a fact. If an animal is only seen for its killing power and not for its particular place in an ecosystem, we might be faced with challenges when we raise the issue of conserving the species.
A great example is Discovery Channels “Shark week” which aims to spread knowledge about this great pelagic predator, according to the network. Myrick and Evans showed in their 2014 paper “Do PSAs Take a Bite Out of Shark Week? The Effects of Juxtaposing Environmental Messages With Violent Images of Shark Attacks” that the public became more fearful of sharks after watching clips of sharks attacking prey during the shark week programming. The audience also overestimated the chance of being attacked after watching shark attacks caught on film.
The problem of creating fear is that few – if any – want to conserve what they fear. If you have a fear of spiders you will most likely not be first in line to donate money to save a species of redback spider. It is hard to see the value of a species you despise.

Fighting a losing battle

My main goal as an educator is to patch up the holes missing in peoples knowledge about predators. It is only when you understand the creature you are faced with that you can react with awe and curiosity instead of scepticism or fear.
But I am constantly walking up hill, fighting a losing battle with authors, TV-networks and social media who are constantly carpet bombing the public with sensational stories and videos of people being mauled by predators. I have seldom seen a headline where the story is how cows kill hundreds of people every year, but insert a large carnivore and people start demanding cullings.
I hope that I one day may come in a position to tell a larger crowd about the role and the history of our apex predators. Until that day I WILL be fighting my battle against the negative sensationalism of predators. And if I am able to change one persons opinion about the ecological necessity of predators a day, then I have at least won one round.

To finish this off I will add a little smile to this post:

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Looking at that beautiful smile, how can anyone not love these magnificent beings (Crocodylus niloticus)

Cheers

 

Joe

Poison ivys’ evil cousin – Dendrocnide moroides

“While walking through the jungle of this newly discovered land we were constantly on the lookout.  We had heard rumors of dangerous wildlife and inhospitable natives, but I did not even see or hear anything when it struck me. A searing pain that felt like someone were pouring boiling hot acid on my skin. Turning around, I cannot see anything but my comrades and the bush, but still the pain is real and it is excruciating.
   Half a year later the pain is still  present and I carry the scars left behind from this invisible enemy.”


The scenario introducing this post could very well have been an outtake from a travelers description during the “discovery” of Australia. And if you ever decide stroll through the rainforests of the wet tropics in Northern Queensland you may come across signs warning you about this nearly invisible pain-provider, the famous Gympie Gympie, the stinging tree.
One of the first to ever report the effects of the plant was road surveyor A.C. MacMillan whose’ horse were struck in 1866 and allegedly died just a few hours after, turning mad with pain and dying of shock.

What you talkin’ bout’ Joe?
A plant ofcourse, with the scientific name, Dendrocnide moroides, that loosely translates to “tree with stingers that stay behind”, reflecting the long-lasting pain caused by it. The plant is a part of a genus of plants that is collectively known as stinging trees, Dendrocnide ssp.. The genus ranges from small shrubs to large trees, but luckily only a few, including D. moroides, is potentially dangerous to humans.

The –cnide part of the genus name relates to the cnidarians, the jellyfishes, who carry the nematocyst poison-delivery system. Thousands of fine spikes with toxin glands that by themselves are harmless, but collectively deliver some of the deadliest venom attacks in the animal kingdom. Pretty similar to the stinging trees line of defence.

I came across these plants while studying in Australia. Luckily for me, I never touched the heart-shaped leaves as I had already been warned about the potency of this plants. Luckily? Yes! There have been reports of every kind of painful resulting from interactions with this discrete torturist. Ranging from a day of burning sensation, to six months of feeling like boiling acid has been poured on you, and even reports of people committing suicide to escape the pain.

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Pffft….. Dangerous plant…
So how can a plant get such a fearsome reputation? The entire plant is covered with small, delicate looking hairs which gives it a rather furry look. Even though the small pink, rasberry-looking fruits it carries may look yummy, they may also be covered in the little furry hairs.

What’s up with the hair Joe? It just make it sound like a cute little plant, right? Well, each of these little hairs are made of silica, they are hollow, and they are the secret to the plants powerful punch. These are, regardless of their small size, hard and stiff enough to penetrate the skin and embed them selves close to nerve cells. Once embedded in the skin, the hollow silica tubes transfer a toxin that they carry from the leaves. The toxin called moroidin has been isolated from the plant and is responsible for the long-lasting effects of the sting.
Whenever the body is affected by changes in temperature, hot or cold, the hollow silica tubes from the plant leads the air from the surroundings down to the nerve cells which in turn are irritated and lead to more irritation or down right agony. The pain caused by the stinging tree will keep returning until all the hairs embedded in the victims skin has been removed.
Another scary thing… You don’t even have to touch it to be affected. If the plant is disturbed it may release the hairs which can end up in your nasal passages or even your lunges when you pass by, leading to severe sneezing, nose bleeds, coughing and pain.

Ray Mears has a look at the giant stinging tree, and has an expert explain briefly in this video.

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So what to do if this devil plant spreads its’ demon spawn to you?
You wait in agony for years in complete darkness and constant temperature until you can move your muscles again….!
….Nah, Just kidding. Recommended treatments are to get rid of the hairs by using hair removal wax strips, shaving the area and using wax based cremes that block  the silica tubes to prevent air entering the nerve cells.

All together, the best tip is to read the warning signs and try to stay clear of any idiot who might want to mess with this pain heavyweight. If you DO want to test your luck, be warned, because you WILL lose.