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Elephants: Wanted Dead…or Alive?

In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, one of the assassins says he’ll use flattery to lure the Roman dictator to the Capitol, comparing it to how elephants are “betrayed” with “holes,” i.e., trapped with hidden pitfalls. The comparison sounds archaic, but may soon sound a lot more so: without serious intervention, some warn that the African elephant, whose ancestors have roamed the earth for 50 million years, will fall into the final hole of extinction within 20 years.

That’s right, viewers of Julius Caesar may one day ask, “what’s an elephant?” During our own lifetimes, the majestic African elephant, a highly intelligent animal that appears to have a form of language, is becoming extinct.

African elephants: headed towards extinction in 20 years.

You may think it takes magic to make elephants suddenly disappear, but it doesn’t. It’s happening right before our eyes and we know why. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, there were as few as 472,000 African elephants in 2007, down from 1.3 million in 1979. That’s an average loss of over 25,000 elephants per year.

It’s no mystery how this is happening: massive numbers of elephants are being slaughtered for the illegal ivory trade.

In May, the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Senator John Kerry, held hearings on the “Global Implications of Poaching in Africa.” Representatives from Save the Elephants and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species described how an armed militia, backed by organized crime, recently massacred as many as 400 elephants in the Cameroon for their ivory.

“How shockingly destructive and historically shameful it would be if we did nothing while a great species was criminally slaughtered into extinction,” said Kerry.

The situation of the Asian elephant, the other species of the world’s largest land mammal, is equally dire. Today’s wild population of Asian elephants is dwindling fast and is now estimated at less than 33,000. Sadly, the plunging number may leave programs such as Elephant Trails at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. as one of the last chances for the species’ survival.

In contrast to their African cousins, the main challenge for Asian elephants is habitat loss: the forests where wild Asian elephants live are being cut down to grow cash crops, such as palm.

Asian elephants: less than 33,000 in the wild.

To his credit, Senator Kerry is taking the problem seriously. He’s introduced Senate Bill 2318  to expand the State Department’s “Rewards Program” to include transnational organized crime and reduce trafficking of all kinds. At the May hearing, he sounded open to the idea of expanding the Rewards Program to include compensating countries that destroy stockpiles of ivory, as Gabon recently has done.

What can you do? Please take a few minutes and send an email to Senator Kerry, expressing thanks for his concern about the elephants’ plight, and the hope that Senate Bill 2318 is expanded to include rewards for destroying ivory.

It’s a small contribution you can make to help keep this magnificent species alive.


The Arecibo Message, 37 Years Later: Think It’s Gonna Be a Long, Long Time…

The Arecibo Message was sent on November 16, 1974.

In case you missed it, last week marked the 37th anniversary of the Arecibo Message, the human species’ first really serious attempt to start a conversation with extraterrestrials, in this case the denizens of globular star cluster M13.

We transmitted our message (shown right) from the Arecibo radio telescope on November 16, 1974. Among other things, the message shows our solar system (the yellow squares) and provides detailed information about the composition of human DNA — just in case our friends might like to build their own set of Lego people. As you can see, there’s even an illustration of what the critters should look like if the instructions are properly followed.

Hopefully, no one will have one of those angry IKEA-like experiences during the assembly process.

At the bottom of the message is a purple graphic of  the Arecibo radio telescope, which is located in Puerto Rico. Compared to a photo of the telescope, it’s not a bad rendition.

As far as I can tell, the Arecibo Message did not include the exact location of the telescope – probably a good thing for the folks living in Puerto Rico.

“Hey, Zorzwitt, now that we’ve arrived, I see the critters here don’t match their picture. Should we fix that?”

“Sure Xaxsar, that sounds fun!”

Traveling at the speed of light, the Arecibo Message will arrive at the M13 star cluster 24,963 years from now. Any reply will take 25,000 years to get back to Earth.

Thank you, Mr. Spock.

Believe me, there’s more than one person I wish I could tell, “Sorry, but it’ll be at least 25,000 years before I can get back to you, okay?”

But seriously, if Earth did receive some reply to the Arecibo Message, would anyone still be here to get it?

Rather than the Arecibo Message, a better set of assumptions about interstellar communication might start with The Queen’s Messenger. Broadcast in New York in 1928, the first television show was a rather violent, blood and daggers story of a British diplomat’s tryst with a Russian spy.

The Queen’s Messenger has traveled 83 light-years so far, and already has reached many stars. In its first 50 years of travel alone, it would have gotten to well over 100 stars, some of which are likely to have Earth-like planets.

The first TV show is about to reach a new batch of G-type stars, which are yellow stars like our Sun, such as 23 Librae, that has two planets. If anyone there sees The Queen’s Messenger and decides to send back a reply, we might receive it sometime in 2096.

But then again, we may never hear a peep. Extraterrestrials may be smarter than most Earthlings, and perhaps don’t watch much television.  Instead, they prefer writing blog posts, or occupying themselves building complicated things with the Legos they just learned about.