All posts tagged: Wildlife

Shoestring expedition returns with wild photos of Sumatra

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A shoestring expedition to one of the remotest places in Sumatra has returned with stunning photos of tigers, tapirs, clouded leopards among other rare species, large and small. Will they find orangutans next?

Last year a motley crew of conservationists, adventurers and locals trekked into one of the last unexplored regions of Sumatra. They did so with a mission: check camera traps and see what they could find. The team organized by the small NGO, Habitat ID came back with biological gold: photos of Sumatran tigers, Malayan tapirs, and sun bears. They also got the first record of the Sunda clouded leopard in the area and found a specimen of a little-known legless reptile called Wegners glass lizard. But most tantalizingly of all is what they didnt find, but still suspect is there: a hidden population of orangutans that would belong to the newly described species, Tapanuli orangutan (Pongo tapanuliensis).

The trek into the interior was fraught with hordes of leaches, wasps, cliffs, river-crossings, and trackless jungle, and it pushed everyone on the team to their limits, Greg McCann, the head of Habitat ID and a team member, said, clearly relishing the adventure to an undisclosed area they call Hadabaun Hills.

The plateau, called Dolok Silang Liyang in the ethnic Batak language, means the mountain where the wind rustles the leaves of the trees, he continues. What we found there was a wet and misty world of mosses, lichens, and liverworts, of fallen trees and rotten logs and eerie silence. Sometimes we would fall up to our waists into bog-like earth of organic matter.

A Sumatran tiger caught on camera trap in Hadabuan Hills. There are only a few hundred Sumatran tigers left on Earth. Photograph: Habitat ID

The team found that this remote area is especially important for Sumatras wild predators. In addition to tigers and clouded leopards, they recorded golden cats and marble cats.

The single game trail that rings the 1,300-meter plateau seems to have been formed almost purely by the heavy footpads of tigers and also those of sun bears and golden cats, says McCann.

McCann who headed the expedition along with tiger expert and local conservationist, Haray Sam Munthe, said they believe there might be 20-25 tigers in the region.

The team climbs treacherous terrain. Photograph: Arky

The Sumatran tiger is listed as critically endangered and is believed to have a global population of less than 600. But that estimate is eight years old and recent years havent been good to Sumatran tiger as there are continual records of poaching and ongoing habitat destruction.

Considering the perilous state of the Sumatran tiger today, as well as that of many other wild cats, the photographic evidence obtained by these camera traps set up in an ecosystem that has no official status should constitute a major discovery, McCann said.

Few places have changed more radically in the last few decades than Sumatra. Half the island lowland forest has been lost, largely due to ever-expanding oil palm and pulp-and-paper plantations. Meanwhile, its species are declining to near-extinction levels. The Sumatran rhino only survives in a few tiny populations that, in total, numbers anywhere from 30 to 100 animals. In recent years, the Sumatran tiger, the Sumatran elephant and the Sumatran orangutan have all been uplisted to critically endangered.

The newly-uncovered Tapanuli orangutan is also desperately close to extinction. Experts estimate there are fewer than 800 left. Given this, a hidden population in Hadabaun would be very welcome news.

Julia Mrchen, an orangutan expert who accompanied the expedition, said the probability of orangutans in Hadabaun Hills was high. And she believes, if there, they probably belong to the newly described species though they may no longer be able to connect with the main population.

It is likely that during the increasing agricultural development and human encroachment of the past decades in North Sumatra, the fragmentation of forests have led to the isolation of a small portion of orangutans, she said.

Mrchen has spoken to two local individuals who have said theyve seen orangutans, heard their calls and spotted their nests.

Two Malayan tapirs in one photo one of them is possibly pregnant. The Malayan tapir is listed as endangered. Photograph: Habitat ID

Hadabaun Hills home to at least seven other primates, seventy bird species (so far recorded) and ample fruit-bearing trees is also prime habitat for orangutans, albeit at upper limits of their elevation preferences, according to Mrchen.

To find out if orangutans are really there, Mrchen says they need funding for an orangutan-specific expedition, which would include following local people to areas where the great apes have allegedly been encountered.

The more time we have, the higher the chances to encounter them. I suggest a minimum of fourteen days, better to spend a month in the area, she said.

Yet, even as we study Sumatras great mammals, we know next to nothing about many of the islands smaller animals, such as Wegners glass lizard. Currently, Wegners glass lizard is listed as data deficient by the IUCN Red List, which means scientists dont have enough information to even determine if the species is at risk of extinction. But given that its only found in Sumatra and rarely encountered, its likely imperiled. This makes the discovery of this species on Hadabaun Hills all the more important.

A two hour boat journey up river. McCann said it felt like something out of Apocalypse Now. Photograph: Arky

The team also photographed the Sumatran laughingthrush on the forest floor a rare behavior for this endangered species.

However remote, there are few if any areas left in Sumatra untrodden by poachers. During their expedition the team came on a poachers camp. They also photographed hunting dogs on their camera traps.

Unlike many conservation groups, Habitat ID is largely self-funded and operates on next-to-nothing. But McCann, a professor who lives in Taiwan, has long had a passion for unexplored places in Asia. Hes conducted similar camera trap surveys in Virachey National Park Cambodia, where he found elephants, Sunda pangolins and dholes all in a protected area abandoned by bigger conservation groups.

I rely greatly on the generosity of people who I have never met and who have never been to the places where I work but who have a curiosity about these places and this planet, says McCann, who depends partially on crowdfunding to keep the camera trapping and expeditions going.

McCann is returning to Hadabaun Hills at the end of the month to check the cameras and set new ones. He hopes for photos of a tiger with cubs or a tapir with babies something that could rally the government to turn this place into a protected area. Habitat ID is also working the with the People Resources and Conservation Foundation to reach out to local people in the area, remove snares and stop further encroachment by the palm oil industry.

There are few places like this remaining in Southeast Asia, says McCann, places where the rarest of rare species still lurk and prowl in secret retreats that only the craziest of explorers would try to reach.

Mumbai’s leopards have killed humans but could they also be saving lives?

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Leopards roaming the Sanjay Gandhi National Park could be helping to control the citys dangerous stray dog population, study suggests

A fleeting glimpse of the black spots and gold fur of a leopard is not an uncommon sight at Sanjay Gandhi National Park in the Indian city of Mumbai.

Leopards are often thought of as a threat to humans, but rather than being a problem in Mumbai, they may actually be helping their human neighbours even saving their lives as we argue in our paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

Recent studies suggest there may be as many as 41 leopards roaming the 40 square mile park. Thats about two to three times the leopard density youd find in some of the most productive savannahs in Africa or Sri Lanka.

Mumbais leopards live alongside people, mostly in informal settlements, and they hunt and kill dogs in and around their villages. On average, dogs make up about 40% of a Mumbai leopards diet.

There are an estimated 95,000 stray dogs in Mumbai. Nearly 75,000 dog bites are recorded annually. Photograph: Steve Winter/National Geographic/Getty Images

So what, you might ask. Leopards are one of the worlds most adaptable big cats, feeding on more than 100 prey items worldwide, so arent they just doing what an opportunist would do?

A city of dogs

If youve ever visited Mumbai, youll probably remember a few incredible sights: the Gateway of India, Mumbais bustling city, teeming traffic and its dogs.

Hundreds and thousands of dogs. On every street corner, in every alley. Recent surveys have shown that about 95,000 dogs roam Mumbai.

We wanted to delve deeper into the uncanny relationship Mumbais leopards have with the dogs. And what about bites, we asked. Do dogs bite people, and what about rabies risk?

After sifting through about 40 newspaper articles and online reports, we found that nearly 75,000 bites are recorded annually in the city (although many more are likely unreported). More than 420 people in Mumbai have died from rabies as a result of stray dog bites over a 20-year period.

It was at that point we wondered whether leopards help to protect people from dog bites by keeping the dog population down especially around the park where their diet is dominated by dogs.

Researchers suggest leopards who feed on dogs help keep the population down.
Photograph: Steve Winter/Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

Surveys performed by population biologist Lex Hiby and Nikit Surve of the Wildlife Institute of India around the park suggest that the answer is yes. Dog densities there are lower and, according to our analyses, citizens might experience only 11% of the bites compared with people who live further from the park.

Moreover, by consuming between 800 and 2,000 dogs per year, we calculate that the leopard population saves the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai about US$18,000 (13,000) in sterilisation costs (or 8% of the municipalitys annual sterilisation budget).

If you remove the leopards

The final piece of the puzzle was to model what a park with no leopards would look like a sad prediction if increased urbanisation, deforestation and conflict occur over future decades.

Under one set of assumptions, we found dog bites could increase by between 140 to more than 5,000 per year as dog populations would grow in and around the park area. The medical costs for these bites could total as much as $200,000 per year.

Our research puts a new twist on a large predator that has been persecuted for millennia, and which has generally been viewed as a nuisance to stock farmers globally and those living on the edge of Sanjay Gandhi National Park.

Leopards are believed to have disappeared from about 63-75% of their global range. We have to think of large predators in a broader sense they can at times be helpful to farmers, ecosystems and even insurance companies.

Over the last 20 years, more than 420 people in Mumbai have died from rabies as the result of a dog bite. Photograph: Steve Winter/Getty Images/National Geographic Creative

The big challenge in Sanjay Gandhi National Park is not only leopard attacks on the odd pig or cattle calf leopards here sometimes kill people. Leopard attacks on people peaked at 25 cases in 2002. Most of these were attributed to leopards who moved from other forest patches into Sanjay Gandhi, a kind of catch-and-dump scheme by local governments for problem animals.

Its thought this had a chaotic effect on leopard home ranges and social structures as leopards are territorial. But leopard attacks came to an almost complete halt for four years until 2017 when residents were angered by a spate of new attacks.

The big challenge is to evaluate the benefits of these leopards and similar large carnivores; its equally important to assess the costs of these species to local communities. The real issue is navigating the costs with the benefits, and identifying those cases of net benefit.

Christopher OBryan is a PhD candidate in the school of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Queensland. Alexander Richard Braczkowski is a PhD candidate and wildlife cameraman at the University of Queensland.

This article was originally published on The Conversation, where you can read the original article.

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Jaguars killed for fangs to supply growing Chinese medicine trade

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Demand from Chinese workers raises demand for skin and body parts of endangered species

Conservationists who have uncovered a growing illegal trade in jaguar fangs in South America are linking it to Chinese construction projects that could be threatening wildlife globally.

Experts say major Chinese power plant, road and rail works in developing nations are key stimulants of illicit trade in the skins, bones and horns of endangered animals.

Local people find out that Chinese construction workers have an interest in buying animal bones, horns and body parts for their supposed medical properties and an illicit trade is established. Essentially, these projects act like giant vacuum cleaners of wildlife that suck everything back to China, a conservation researcher, Vincent Nijman, of Oxford Brookes University, said last week. It is a realworry.

The problem in South America is of particular concern. More than 100 jaguars a species whose numbers are dwindling may have been killed in less than a year to supply a trade in their body parts with China. As tiger parts which are prized by practitioners of Chinese traditional medicine are becoming scarcer, so a market is opening up for organs from other big cats, including the jaguar.

Two examples of jaguar deaths are given in the current issue of Nature. It reports that on Boxing Day last year, the body of a jaguar was found floating in a drainage canal in Belize in central America.

Its body was mostly intact, but the head was missing its fangs, says the report. Then, on 10 January, a second cat this time an ocelot that may have been mistaken for a young jaguar turned up headless in the same channel.

The extent of the trade was also highlighted by Thas Morcatty, a wildlife researcher based at Oxford Brookes University who has worked in South America. Last year, there were more than 50 seizures of packages that contained jaguar parts in Brazil. Most of them appear to have been destined for Asia and China in particular. It is also worth noting there are major Chinese communities in Brazil, she added.

Jaguars once roamed across much of the southern US, central America and South America. Today their numbers have been drastically reduced because of deforestation and by farmers shooting animals that attack their livestock. The prospect of them being used to supplement Chinese traditional medicine now threatens to reduce their numbers even further.

However, it is the global threat posed by this sort of trade that worries conservationists. For years, Chinese companies have been setting up vast construction project deals with more than 60 countries to construct ports, power stations, rail lines, roads, tunnels and bridges in the developing world. Examples include a $5.8bn power planet in Nigeria, an 835-mile-long railway in Angola and a six-lane, 680-metre-long bridge in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

These projects are manned by Chinese workers and they go back and forth with local people and also send things back to their families in China, said Nijman. Among the things they send back are illicit bones, horns and skin valued by traditional medicine. There is not much sign of them using restraint. At the end of the day, almost anything that can be killed and traded will be.

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Lacoste Replaces The Iconic Crocodile Logo To Raise Awareness About The Endangered Species

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Lacoste, a world-famous French clothing brand, replaced its iconic crocodile logo with endangered animal images to spread awareness about these species and dangers that they are in.

In a collaboration with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Lacoste presented ten new designs of their iconic polo-shirts. Each of the ten featured animals are on the brink of extinction. The number of polos produced for each series corresponds to the remaining population sizes in the wild.

By purchasing the shirts, people are participating in helping IUCN and Lacoste in the fight for wildlife conservation worldwide.

The Burmese Roofed Turtle

The future of this spectacularly-colored freshwater turtle native to Burma looks rather dark. Rampant egg collection for local and distant consumption, easily predictable nesting sites and reproduction periods make it an endangered species with man as its first predator.

The Javan Rhino

Javan Rhinos are very rare, quiet and solitary animals. They are now only found in Indonesia, under the protection of the Rhino Protection Unit, both in plains and rainforest. They are endangered because of their low reproduction rate as well as intensive poaching for their horns.

The Northern Sportive Lemur

This primate measures just over 50 centimeters from head to tail and weighs around 800 grams. It can be found in the dry forests of Northern Madagascar. Intensive poaching and the destruction of its habitat for agriculture and deforestation make it a critically-endangered species.

The California Condor

With a wingspan that can reach 3 meters, the California condor is the largest flying bird in America. Its bald head is red orange while its large body is covered in black feathers. Its survival is threatened by lead poisoning and human-induced garbage that pollutes its natural habitat.

The Kakapo

This flightless, nocturnal parrot with yellowish moss green and brown plumage is native to New Zealand and can measure up to 60 centimeters. The male kakapo produces a strange and powerful ‘boom’ call to attract females. It is an endangered species mostly because of its very low reproductive rate.

The Vaquita

The Vaquita, or Gulf of California porpoise, is a solitary sea mammal that enjoys swimming at a leisurely pace in shallow waters. It weighs around 48 kilos on average and measures 1.5 meter in length. It is a critically endangered species due to shrimp gillnets in which it can get entangled.

The Anegada Ground Iguana

This iguana, native to the British Virgin Island of Anegada, is an herbivore that can weigh up to 6 kilos and measure over 60 centimetres and live in the tropical dry forest. Unfortunately, cattle breeding and agriculture make their habitat shrink and feral cats and dogs find them quite tasty.

The Cao-vit Gibbon

This ape is one of the rarest in the world. Despite weighing between 5 and 10 kilos, the Cao-vit Gibbon can swing from branch to branch with great agility. This gibbon can be found in a forest located at the border of China and Vietnam, where deforestation reduces its habitat.

The Saola

These shy and solitary herbivores lead a quiet life in the forests and mountains of Vietnam and Laos. But their survival is threatened due to intensive poaching in the area, making the saola one of the only large mammals in critical danger of extinction.

The Sumatran Tiger

This carnivore, which can weigh up to 100 kilos and measure up to 2 meters in length, lives in Indonesia. It is genetically distinct from other territorial tigers and constitutes a subspecies in itself. Nowadays, the main threats it faces are poaching and deforestation.


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People think the deer are lovely. Then they learn more about it: the deer cull dilemma

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The long read: The Scottish Highlands have a deer problem. Is shooting tens of thousands of them the only solution?

When we arrive at the cottage, they are already there, watching us from high on the crags overlooking the water. The five of us are still tasting the chill, stale air of the empty building and staking claims on stained mattresses when Julien spots a silhouette through the warped pane of the back window. Theyre up there now, he says. Lets go.

A minute later we are scrambling up the hillface, gaining height fast. The wind is moving in great currents over the ridge. It comes in waves, smashing against us and then withdrawing, dragging the air from our lungs. Julien and Storm are out in front, goat-footed over the tussocks. I try to copy the way they creep through the heather on their elbows, pressing their abdomens into the mud, all the time scanning the hillside for movement.

After a while they slow to a stop and we bunch together. Storm catches my eye and points hammily beyond the boulder he is using as a windbreak. I nod, coming to rest at his feet, sinking my hands into long dead grass as if it were hair. I wait a beat, then lift my head, bringing my eyes above the stone parapet.

We are close enough to see the deers face in detail: her domed, almost Roman, profile. Dark eyes flashing in every direction: suspicious. I drop my head slowly back down behind the rock. Up ahead, Julien cranes forward again from his foxhole then stands up, shaking his head. Gone.

We start picking our way east, towards the narrow gorge, to trace its path back to the house. But then, there they are. Two females and a juvenile on the opposite bank. Like phantoms. They havent seen us. Julien twists around and gestures to Adrian: come. They go, crawling across wet earth, and disappear beneath a precipice.

A minute passes, then another. I lie back against the heather, thinking no particular thoughts. A shot rings out, impossibly loud. A moment of confusion. Then Adrian and Julien appear on the ledge below, waving us down. They got her: a crack shot, right through the spine. Dropped straight from the rock face into the water. Shes dead.

It is 13 February, and Julien and Storm have been doing this all winter long. This hind (an older specimen, unusually large, very lean) is their 21st kill of the season. But its not enough. Julien has a target he must hit: 30 animals or beasts, as he calls them, a strange word from his French mouth and very little time left in which to meet it. In Scotland, the hind-shooting season closes at dusk on the 15th.

Until then, here we are four men and one woman, me spending our days stalking deer and our nights in an empty house, with a fireplace at each end and little else. No electricity, no running water. We eat stew from a scorched iron pot over the fire, drink water from the peaty burn that runs by the gable end. Hanging from two nails by the door is a shovel that comprises the toilet.

Deer grazing in Glen Etive, Scotland. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

A doorless lean-to slouches heavily against the back wall. It is here we take the dead deer for hanging. Julien throws a length of rope over a rafter and lowers it down, scattering bird droppings and cobwebs upon us as he does. Threading the cord through two slits cut in her hocks, he clips rope to rope and hoists her like a flag.

What was animal is now object. I observe my reactions as if from above, lifting and weighing each thought as it comes to me, alert for squeamishness. There is some. But not as much, perhaps, as I expected.

Julien bends over her rent chest, headlamp illuminating the torso from within, and sets to work again with his knife and a surgeons manner. It is easy to trace the path of the bullet: its entry and exit, the single shattered vertebra between. A tragedy in one act. When hes done, we slide her down the length of the rafter, drawing her like a curtain, to make room for the rest.

No one owns Britains red deer. But if you own the land they live on or graze from, shelter in, pass through then you assume responsibility for their management. In Scotland, where their numbers have doubled in the past 50 years, such stewardship has come to mean one thing: the annual cull.

And it is in the Highlands where the countrys deer problem can be seen clearly: they gorge themselves upon gardens and crops and vegetable patches, they run blindly into the road as speeding cars approach. The true scale of the problem is hard to gauge, but our best guess is that there might now be as many as 1.5m deer in the UK, at least half of them in Scotland; more than at any time since the last ice age. They roam bare hills in vast herds in the Cairngorms they have been seen in herds a thousand animals strong, steam rising from their massed ranks. They swarm over the fells like a plague, covering the land like a cloak, picking it clean, moving off as fast as they arrived.

And with the deer comes plague of another sort: cases of Lyme disease, spread by ticks that use the deer as hosts, have rocketed in some areas reaching epidemic proportions. But perhaps the most pressing concerns are environmental ones. The red deer eat and eat, overwhelming a delicate moorland ecosystem, trampling the ground, shearing the hillside of vegetation and stripping the bark from the trees.

In Glen Affric, not far from Inverness, volunteers from the charity Trees for Life spent many weeks planting native trees in the stark western reaches of the glen. The charity aims to build a forest corridor from east to west coasts, joining up the remaining fragments of the ancient Caledonian Forest. But when the organisations founder, Alan Featherstone, returned to the site in 2015, he found their sturdy deer fences flattened by winter snowdrifts, and the saplings inside (birches, willows, rowans) bitten hard back. More than a decades growth had been undone in a matter of weeks. Now, until the fences are rebuilt, the shorn stems will struggle to grow: new shoots and leaves nipped off as fast as they appear, their progress arrested indefinitely.

The ascendance of the deer is attributed in part to the disappearance of one of their main predators from Britain: wolves. According to folklore, the last wild wolf in Scotland was killed in 1680, and since then cervids have roamed the country unthreatened by predators. If undisturbed, a herd of 300 has the potential to grow to 3,000 in the space of 13 years. So the role of the predator the role of the wolf is what the estate owners of Scotland now cast themselves in.

Glen Affric, Scotland. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Around 100,000 deer are killed in Scotland every year, the vast majority of them red deer. Some are killed on traditional sporting estates, where for generations southerners and City types have come, keen to shoot a monarch of the glen. But fewer dream of shooting the hinds the most effective way of arresting population growth and so the responsibility falls to the owners.

The conservation lobby are the most vociferous proponents of the culls. Those concerned with woodland and wild flowers argue for an all-out war, pointing to research from the University of East Anglia that mooted a mass cull of 5060% of all deer in the UK. Wildlife foundations find themselves calling for the deaths of tens of thousands of wild animals.

The prospect of mass deer shooting is one that arouses great passion, although the arguments for and against come from unexpected quarters. If the environmentalists are mounting a war, then the shooting estates those professional deer-killers are calling for peace, for the gentle approach. They fear the culls will go too far; that something special will be lost.

Twice yearly, landowners in each region and representatives of the government body Scottish Natural Heritage convene in deer management groups to share their targets for the year. The collective approach is necessary, as the deer drift back and forth across the heather moor in tides aligned with the seasons. They cross boundaries between estates on open hillsides, unmarked by fences or walls. In this way, each landowners actions impact directly upon his neighbours: if one shirks his duty in the annual cull, numbers across the whole region rebound. It is in their interests to cooperate, then, but with so many clashing views and beliefs, these so-called management groups often grow unmanageable.

Julien, my friend with the rifle, has been in charge of deer management on the East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, a port on the north-west coast, for the last three years. Having come there as a backpacker, looking to work in exchange for accommodation and experience, he fell in love with the middle daughter of the owners, Iona, and together the young couple took over the running of the remote estate.

At first, a neighbour held the rights to stalk deer and with it the responsibility for carrying out the culling on their land, but when the lease for those rights came up in 2014, it seemed natural that East Rhidorroch should reclaim them. For Julien, who studied ecology as an undergraduate, it was an interesting way of applying what he had learned in class. Indeed, it was all around him here in the west Highlands, with herds of hinds and stags roaming the hills, and deer-stalkers in bloodstained tweeds riding by on their quad bikes. This was part of the culture of his adopted home and wasnt it one of the reasons he had found this place so enchanting?

Inevitably, the reality turned out to be rather complicated. The responsibility of the cull proved onerous for an inexperienced Frenchman who had never before owned a gun. Highland ghillies are often born of stalking families, and have spent their whole lives in the hills. They know how the weather affects the deers behaviour, and where they are to be found come sunrise, come noon, come sunset.

But as hard as all of this was to learn, negotiating the politics of deer was harder. Twice a year, the couple are now expected to attend the meetings of their local deer management group hours-long meetings, held in dreary hotel conference rooms, that never seem to come to a consensus. Last time, Iona tells me, there was more than an hour of fractious back-and-forth before they even got on to the subject of deer.

The sheer expense of it all has been another nasty revelation. Thousands just for the basic equipment: a 600 rifle, a 1,500 scope. A moderator to muffle the gunshot. The camouflaged hunting outfit in heathery tones: smock, trousers, heavy duty boots, balaclava. Training courses. A manner of transporting the dead deer home: by quad bike (5,000), perhaps, or Highland pony. A game larder, where the meat might be hung and processed. And the days and days that might otherwise be spent farming sheep, instead now passed belly-down in the mud on the mountain.

To begin with, Julien couldnt get it right, ruining his chances for a kill a different way every time. Walking upwind of the deer. Revealing himself on the skyline. His fingers quivering for too long on the trigger. Often he returned at dusk, empty-handed and so exhausted that at 4pm he would topple into bed and stay there until the rise of the low winter sun over the valleys sides at 10am the next day, when he would head out all over again.

Red deer at the Highland Wildlife Park, Kingussie, Scotland. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod for the Guardian

Then, on one of the coldest days of the year, towards the end of his first winter as a deer stalker, his efforts were rewarded. Heading out alone, camouflaged in a snow-white bodysuit, he finally attained invisibility. In a land of whiteness and silence, he became white, he became silent.

A group of 70 deer moved across the hillside, their eyes sliding past his motionless body in the snow, and came to surround him. They were everywhere, he recalls. Playing and fighting. They had no idea I was there. He lay like a rock in their midst, sizing them up. He spotted an elderly, underweight hind, a prime target, and steeled himself for action. Seconds passed. If I shoot, he remembers thinking, this beautiful moment will be over for ever. Then he pulled the trigger.

As a teenager growing up in genteel St Andrews, Mike Daniels dreamed of saving the world. He was hippyish, he says. Vegetarian. Keen to make his mark. When he was 16, he organised a period of work experience for himself at Creag Meagaidh, a nature reserve in the Cairngorms where woolly willow and saxifrage grow on a gilded mountain plateau; an enclave of dotterel and snow bunting and mountain hare.

On his first day, nervous and excited, he was picked up from the station and driven to where he would be staying, and as they got out of the car, they spotted a deer wandering in the woods nearby. Things moved quickly. The man who was driving leaped out and grabbing his rifle from the back. He shot the deer, gutted it on the side of the road, then lifted it on to the roof. Blood was dripping down the windscreen, Mike says. That was my introduction.

Though shocking for an idealistic teen, it was a fitting start for a career that has come to be defined by the difficult relationship between the demands of conservation and of the wild deer themselves. Mike sees a similar emotional journey in many of those who have since come to work with him in the field. They think the deer are lovely, that Scotland is beautiful and then they learn more about it. Deer culls, he now believes having seen the devastation they can wreak first-hand are a necessary evil. A way of re-establishing the natural order.

In 2004, Mike was working for what was then called the Deer Commission when he and his colleagues were called in to conduct an emergency cull at Glenfeshie, an estate owned by a Danish billionaire in the Cairngorms National Park, where deer numbers had been allowed to grow to remarkable levels: an estimated 95 per sq km. Sharpshooters were flown in by helicopter to the estates remotest corners, and dozens of contract stalkers were bussed in for an intensive effort. Mike was in the larder, processing the bodies.

Altogether, more than 500 deer were slaughtered. The cull the first state intervention on a private estate created an enormous controversy. Animal rights campaigners accused the commission of acting illegally. Local gamekeepers staged a mass protest against the carnage, which, they said, went against our way of life, our morals, our beliefs and above all our respect for the deer. Neighbouring landowners and local residents took to the airwaves to voice their disapproval.

Now, as the head of land management of the John Muir Trust, a charity dedicated to the preservation of Scotlands wild places, Mike sees those same arguments playing out time and again. As the owner of several sizeable landholdings across the country, the conservation group has been using its power to manage the land in a way that prioritises the environment, specifically by preserving and regenerating fragments of the once-great Caledonian Forest.

To do so, they say, they must significantly increase the number of deer culled on their properties. The alternative fencing off the vulnerable woodlands is not an option. Mike sighs when I bring it up: the F word. He and the trust both see fencing as treating the symptoms not the cause, and it keeps the deer from seeking shelter in the harsh weather of the Scottish winter. They would rather reduce numbers so significantly as to render fences unnecessary.

However sound their reasoning, it does nothing to endear them to the owners of neighbouring sporting estates. Such an estates value is partly based on the number of stags available to shoot there each year a good rule of thumb being around one in every 16 stags on the hill. And those who pay for the pleasure of shooting a stag (or far more, for the pleasure of owning a private deer forest) dont wish to spend too long fruitlessly roaming the glens without a sighting. But though some estates do make significant income from slaughter tourism, they are in the minority. Its a bit like owning a football club. A small few the Chelseas, the Man Uniteds are big money-spinners. Generally, though, they run at a loss.

A Highland truism: you dont get rich from owning a deer forest; you own a deer forest because you are rich. Either way, the John Muir Trusts no-holds-barred tactics have made them plenty of enemies. Sporadically, a new skirmish breaks out: in Knoydart, a wild western peninsula accessed only by boat, an argument flared up in 2015 when the trusts stalkers shot dozens of stags more than their agreed target. Some, shot down in the most far-flung places, were left to rot where they fell, or to be picked over by the eagles.

A red deer stag feeding on young birch trees. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

The language employed by protesters in these cases is emotive: those who conduct the cull are accused of senseless slaughter, of creating a bloodbath, or a massacre. To Mike, these slurs are hurtful and hypocritical: the numbers shot by the John Muir Trust are a fraction of the total culled each year across the country. And many of those levelling the charges are shooting deer themselves.

But the controversy speaks of a deep unease about mass killing among many of those who earn their living on the hill. The gamekeepers protesting at Glenfeshie were not parading their respect for their quarry for effect. A specialised strand of folk ethics has grown up among stalkers: the rules are based on perceived sportsmanship, on fairness, on tradition. To them, flying in by helicopter simply feels wrong, like cheating. So does leaving carcasses to rot. So does taking too many in one go.

At what point does a cull turn into a massacre? Big questions, these, to ponder as you stare down the barrel of a rifle.

In a grassy hollow behind the white-sand beach at Achmelvich a tiny, remote village on the west coast Ray Mackay, a crofter, lives in a wooden house overlooking a small green lochan dappled with waterlilies. I am sitting at his table, admiring the view, when he appears bearing tea and an A4 folder of grievances. He, and the Assynt Crofters Trust, of which he is vice chair, have been fighting an increasingly high-stakes battle with the government over the fate of the red deer on their land.

Their land: thats the operative term. Back in the early 1990s, the Assynt crofters fought a different battle a long one and a hard one when they undertook the first community buyout of a private estate, raising hundreds of thousands of pounds to buy the land they lived on and worked from an absentee landlord with whom they had been wrestling for years.

The case of the Assynt crofters came to symbolise the many inequities of land ownership in Scotland, where just 500 individuals own more than half of the land, and where the pain of mass dispossession in the 18th and 19th centuries still echoes loudly in the culture.

The problem, says Ray, revolves around a remnant of old-growth woodland situated partly on their land. A governmental body, Scottish Natural Heritage, believes it to be at risk from overgrazing, and has advised them to undertake an emergency cull; the Crofters Trust disagrees, questioning the population estimates and pointing to abnormalities in the surveys. It is not just the principle of the matter, says Ray. They shoot deer for management reasons every year. For them, the issue is a matter of scale. If they accept the mass cull, they believe they could send the deer on their estate into a precipitous decline.

A herd of red deer in the Cairngorms National Park, Scotland. Photograph: Alamy

The crofters have worked hard to escape their debts and to make the community sustainable. We survived, Ray says. That was not a given. Assynt is not a wealthy area. Small crofting townships of modest, whitewashed cottages and modern bungalows cling to the rugged coastline, linked by winding, single-track roads. The peninsulas interior is an undulating blanket of peat bog: sodden, stony and ill-suited to agriculture. There are more deer here than people. He shows me the latest accounts: income from stalking and venison sales amounts to nearly a sixth of total profits. Here the deer are an asset rather than a hobby this is no football team vanity project and they do not intend to risk the depletion of this natural resource.

Last year the dispute with Scottish National Heritage came to a head. Having declined a voluntary cull, the crofters were threatened with a section 8 order a forced cull. The crofters would be fined 40,000 for failing to manage deer numbers responsibly, and would have to pay the costs of the operation a sum that would likely far eclipse the fine.

For the government, such a move would be embarrassing: that these legal powers should be used for the first time against a community group that was once a cause clbre and darling of the devolved parliament. The dispute gathered column inches; the crofters chairman swore that they would go to jail rather than comply. In the end, Scottish Natural Heritage backed down. A compromise agreement that would be acceptable to both crofters and conservationists is still being hammered out. Of all the outcomes, it is perhaps the best one. But it has been an exhausting, frustrating process for all those involved.

There is a certain class of conservationist, says Ray, who are very keen, and their hearts are in the right place but at a basic, unarguable level, they are usually incomers. When they drive in, making demands, it immediately sets up a tension. The undercurrent is that they seem to be saying that we are not managing our environment as well as we could. But this is the place where you find the wild cats. The black-throated divers.

He tells me about a map recently drawn up by the government, which identified the trusts North Assynt Estate as one of the countrys most extensive areas of wilderness. I nod unthinkingly in approval, picturing the grand, curving aspect of the Assynt landscape. It is a stark, treeless place where golden eagles flash over a wind-scoured moonscape of moor and blanket bog.

But these are our common grazings! cries Ray. One day they decide it to be wild land, but for us its where we work.

His words recall the writing of the environmental historian William Cronon, who wrote in 1995 that far from being the one place on Earth that stands apart from humanity, wilderness is quite profoundly a human creation. To the untrained eye, the wide-open spaces of Assynt appear an untamed, untameable land. To its occupants, they are laced with human history.

Seen through this prism, the question of what is natural and what is unnatural is a tangled one. Is the proliferation of deer the result of human meddling? In all likelihood, yes. Do we then take responsibility for removing the excess, for returning the land to an equilibrium more in line with what went before? What is the better course of action? What is more moral? What is more natural?

This is an extract from Winterkill by Cal Flyn, published in Granta 142: Animalia. Go to for a special Guardian subscription offer with a 25% discount

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