Monday, March 12, 2012

God and Rhinos

It was not without a great deal of deliberation that I decided to write this and make it public. Personal struggles with faith, consciousness, and current affairs are always a bit of a risk when one dares to dislose them. The potential pending extinction of the Earth’s remaining rhinoceros species has finally given me the sense of urgency and will to confront the conflict I have between religion and Creation.

Let me say first that I have faith in God. I would also like to believe that I respect the beliefs of others, be they Baptists, Hindus, or Muslims. I personally know individuals of many faiths, and relate well to them. We learn from each other and sometimes challenge each other’s tenets. What I often have a problem with is the church in the institutional sense. The church holds great power, and does great things for humanity at a community level. National campaigns in the political arena are often effective, and missions to impoverished foreign lands bring relief to untold thousands. Where the power of the church is conspicuously absent is in advocacy for protecting the remainder of Creation.

Rhinos are facing the kind of violent assault usually reserved for wars of human genocide. Indeed, that is what species extinction amounts to: zoological genocide. The carnage even threatens those individual animals at zoos. What do people have against rhinos? They covet the rhino’s horn.

In the Middle East country of Yemen, rhino horn was polished and fashioned into ceremonial dagger handles. These curved knives, called “jambiya,” are presented to pre-teen boys as symbols of impending manhood and devotion to the Muslim religion. The use of rhino horn in daggers has been outlawed since the 1980s, and the black market there has largely dried up. It is the long-held belief of Asian cultures that rhino horn has medicinal properties that is at the root of the current spike in rhino poaching.

Rhino horn allegedly relieves everything from pain, fever, acne, laryngitis, and anxiety to rectal bleeding, rheumatism, gout, food poisoning, headaches, and boils. It is also thought to cure “devil possession,” smallpox, typhoid, and snakebite. Recently, rumors that a Vietnamese government official used rhino horn to cure his cancer sent demand, and prices, for horn through the roof. A horn can now fetch $33 to $133 per gram. This is close to double the price of gold, and sometimes exceeds the value of cocaine.

This utilitarian view of wildlife is nothing new of course. The problem is that with endangered species it is an unsustainable enterprise. The only sustainable value of wild animals is probably ecotourism. Without rhinos in Africa, ecotourism takes a hit and things slip back into valuing all wildlife as a dead product.

Scientists and game reserve managers are doing their best to defend their own rhino populations from poaching pressures, but it is not enough. Zookeepers engage in an annual event called “Bowling for Rhinos,” in an effort to raise much-needed funds for continued conservation. The Christian church….

Ah, yes, where is the church? Busy saving human souls, no doubt. Maybe they are ministering to incarcerated poachers. What we don’t see are prayer circles for rhinos. We don’t see ecological sustainability as a leading goal in missionary work. Why not?

I know plenty of individuals, including my own fiancée, who are religious and ardent supporters of wildlife conservation. It is the institution of the church that is not. I suspect that much more effort goes into trying to defeat the teaching of evolution in schools. Perhaps that is the real problem. No good Christian institution could possibly work in concert with a scientific community that believes in evolution.

Personally, I don’t care which philosophy one subscribes to: Genesis or Darwin. What both sides can say with certainty is that we are losing pieces of the Creation rapidly, due to humanity’s continued negative impact in this Garden of Eden. We can no longer afford the luxury of continuing to argue about how every species came to exist.

According to the Bible, we are supposed to be stewards of this Earth while we are here, not hell-bent on attaining immortality once we make our final exit. We will get our just reward if we are just in our care of the Creation. Scientists and theologians can complement each other instead of excoriating one another.

What about you? What can you do? Yes, you can support conservation efforts with your monetary contributions, but times are tough for folks financially. How about this: When you count your blessings, count rhinos, tigers, elephants, whales, and all other wild creatures among those gifts. Looking for something to pray for? Bless the beasts and the children, for don’t we want our sons and daughters to be equally blessed with wild animals?

”Rhino Horn Use: Fact vs. Fiction”
Gwin, Peter. 2012. “Rhino Wars,” National Geographic Magazine, March, 2012.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Red Rock Canyon Open Space

Almost everyone has heard of Garden of the Gods, a city park in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Just a few blocks to the south is its poor, neglected stepsister, Red Rock Canyon Open Space. I had the pleasure of hiking in this 787-acre park last Monday, March 5.

I did not even need a car to get there. Mountain Metropolitan Transit has regular bus service (Route 3) that gets you within easy walking distance. Ok, so you do have to cross a busy highway….but it is worth the exercise, fuel savings, and hassle of driving yourself. There is ample parking for those who do take personal vehicles, though.

I was a bit unnerved when I immediately encountered this

right outside the Port-o-Let. Coyotes, bears, bobcats, and the odd mountain lion are not unheard of in these parts, but no large carnivores, sasquatch, or mountain men were found inside said bathroom facility, so I breathed a little easier after that.

This is a popular park for walking your dog (it has an off-leash area), jogging, mountain biking (it features fenced-off “freeride/skills park” with challenging jumps, ladder-drops, and a teeter-totter), rock climbing, and hiking. You are going to run into many other recreational users any day you visit Red Rock Canyon, so don’t expect to have the place to yourself. Keep in mind the sandstone ridges also amplify, echo, and broadcast your voice. Even a fairly quiet conversation can be heard halfway across the park.

I did manage to avoid many other hikers by heading down the most northerly trail that eventually takes you into a narrow arroyo. At one point sheer slabs of red sandstone erupt from the streambed.

The canyon is deep enough that some if it remains in constant shadow at this time of year. Snow was only beginning to melt in some stretches. The trickle of water was enough to attract butterflies on this warm (68°Fahrenheit) day. Mourning Cloak (Nymphalis antiopa) and Hoary Comma (Polygonia gracilis, below) overwinter as adult insects, and they frolic on days like this.

There is plenty of bird life to be seen here as well. I observed the usual Black-capped Chickadee, Northern Flicker, Downy Woodpecker, American Robin, White-breasted Nuthatch, Black-billed Magpie, Western Scrub-jay, American Crow, and Dark-eyed Junco, but also a Townsend’s Solitaire and Spotted Towhee. The real treat was seeing a Great Horned Owl in flight, being pursued by every jay in approximately a two hundred mile radius.

The history of the park dates to between 70 million and 300 million years if you consider the geologic and fossil timetables. Depending on which of the formations you explore, you could conceivably find anything from fossil leaf prints to dinosaur tracks to prehistoric shark teeth (Milito, 2009).

Human occupation is evident from about 7,000 BC. The proximity of the area to Fountain Creek meant there was good hunting. Utes were the Native Americans who found the rock formations (called “hogbacks”) made a natural fortress. Fast forward to the late 1800s, and the area was exploited for raw material used in the construction of Old Colorado City. The Kenmuir Quarry was perhaps the largest operator, cutting huge blocks of Lyons sandstone for a nearly nationwide demand (Ellis, Don). The scars still remain, of course, and Manitou Springs and Denver are among the nearby recipients of the quarried stone.

There were also gypsum mines here; and two mills that processed gold ore mined in Cripple Creek from 1886 into the early 1900s. John George Bock began purchasing the property in pieces during the 1920s and 1930s, willing it to his sons upon his death. The family had intended to develop a convention center, golf course, and high-rise buildings, but ultimately managed a couple dozen trailer parks, two gravel quarries, and a 53-acre landfill.

Only very recently did this heavily industrialized site become a recreational resource for the Springs, having been purchased by the city in 2003. The landfill remains off limits to the public. Not so the steep cliffs, where one is allowed to climb with permits. At least two parties were actively ascending bolted sort climbs during my visit.

There is good signage throughout the park, but one still has to be careful of veering off on “social trails.” These impromptu trails are unofficial and can get one lost if they are not paying attention. Interpretive signs at the parking lots and major features give one a glimpse of the human and natural history of the area. Overall, the park is well-maintained and remarkably free of litter. Even most of the scat I encountered was from native mammals, not domestic canines.

Oh, you’d still rather see Garden of the Gods? No problem. There are spectacular views of those hogbacks from Red Rock Canyon.

I look forward to returning to this park repeatedly. There is permanent water in the old gravel pits, which is a scarce commodity for wildlife. I saw a couple Mallards dabbling in one of the ponds on Monday, and suspect there will be frogs, dragonflies, and other aquatic life come spring.

Meanwhile, there are enough trails to give one weeks of enjoyment, depending on how far you wish to wander, with scenic views galore and a variety of habitats to explore. Do come visit, just don’t forget your sunscreen like I did.

Sources: Milito, Sharon. 2009. “A Survey of Fossils and Geology of Red Rock Canyon Open Space, Colorado Springs, Colorado,” The Mountain Geologist vol. 47 no. 1: 1-14.
”Red Rock Canyon Open Space,” City of Colorado Springs, 2009.
Ellis, Don. ”The Red Rock Quarries,” Friends of Red Rock Canyon, p. 25

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Leap Day 2012

February twenty-ninth comes around only once every four years, so we should probably make the most of the “extra” day. As luck would have it, the weather was just gorgeous here in Colorado Springs. The high for the day was 58° F, with occasional light breezes. I decided to explore one of the urban trails and was glad I did.

Murray Boulevard runs north and south in front of my apartment complex, and I can walk south for about a mile when it intersects the Homestead Trail paralleling the west fork of Sand Creek. Sand Creek is dry most of the year, and much of it is channelized, but wildlife seems to like it anyway. One of the first birds I saw when I set foot on the trail was a new one for me: a Townsend’s Solitaire. I thought it was some kind of flycatcher, but Jeffrey Gordon, President of the American Birding Association, was kind enough to correct me from the image (below) I e-mailed to him.

The Homestead Trail is short, and soon intersects the Rock Island Trail at Constitution Avenue. Here is the view you get looking west down the Rock Island Trail. Pretty nice, eh? Yes, that is Pike’s Peak in the background.

Most of the trails in the city are paved, in order to better accommodate bicycles, runners, and the handicapped. Many people also use the broad paths to walk their dogs. Where trails intersect streets, there are usually underpasses for pedestrians so that one does not have to cross traffic. The traffic signals also tend to be unusually long, so the underpasses help you maintain your pace and momentum.

The warm weather made for some surprising entomological encounters. I stopped to photograph a plant, and heard the unmistakable sound of a grasshopper making a crepitation flight. Certain adult grasshoppers can generate in-flight noise at will. The sound has a crackling quality and is easily audible, sometimes downright loud. It took me awhile, but I finally tracked down one of these insects. It turned out to be the Speckle-winged Rangeland Grasshopper, Arphia conspersa. Here are a pair of males:

Back in November I had seen nymphs of this species. I wasn’t expecting to see adults until April or so. Maybe this mild winter has accelerated their metamorphosis. I also was shocked to see adult Podalonia wasps out looking for cutworm caterpillars already. One was digging a burrow, which means she had already secured her prey and stashed it somewhere.

Spiders were also on the prowl. I spied a ground crab spider (Xysticus sp., family Thomisidae), and a running crab spider (Thanatus sp., family Philodromidae) scouring the surface of the soil for potential prey.

Beetles, too, were out and about. A Eusattus darkling beetle was scrounging for detritus, while nearby a tiny ground beetle (Carabidae family) was struggling to negotiate the shifting, sandy soil to get out of my footprint.

Going west, the Rock Island Trail eventually dead-ends at the Shooks Run Trail. As one approaches that point, the Rock Island Trail enters a heavily industrialized brownfield area frequented by the homeless (and a melanic squirrel, see below).

The Shooks Run Trail travels south, and meanders through the “Old North End” of Colorado Springs. This is an eclectic mix of old homes, new homes, and periodic commercial enterprises. Imagine my surprise at coming upon an antiquarian bookstore, right off the trail! I was delighted to find Doug Clausen, the proprietor of Clausen Books, to be friendly, informative, and, most importantly, negotiable. I left with a collection of small entomology books for a pittance. I’ll be back.

Farther down the trail I happened upon Dog Tooth Coffee. How sweet is that? A bookstore and a coffee house? Heaven. I left Dog Tooth with a mocha “Snow Dog,” one of those blended ice drinks with lots of calories.

Just behind the coffee house was a cohousing community called Casa Verde Commons. This unique, tiny neighborhood features a wonderful community garden, among other sustainable attributes. I am pleased to see that Colorado Springs has such innovative social enterprises.

Next week the weather is supposed to be even warmer, so I will have to find other trails to follow; or go back down these. Here’s to you finding your own paths of discovery in the coming weeks and months.