After a 10km cycle ride in the blistering Laos heat, we finally arrived, dripping with sweat, at the vast expanse of the Mekong river. Stretching out to the horizon and scattered with small bushy islands as far as the eye can see, one can easily comprehend why this stretch of the river has been dubbed “The 4000 Islands.” Me and my two travelling companions are here to see the elusive Irradaway dolphin, one of the top attractions here in Don Kong. We all clamber into a slightly sketchy looking boat and are off on our way. It’s not long before we spot 3 dolphins, their curved, finned backs rising gracefully out of the water. Sadly, the encounter is extremely short lived.; they dive down and swim away from us, eventually resurfacing across the invisible boarder into Cambodian waters. “We no follow,” the driver informs us, shaking his head, “they in Cambodia now.” On our return to the mainland, our luck takes a turn for the worse. The noisy engine begins to splutter and fail, leaving us at the mercy of the river current, and for quite some time we drift hopelessly in the wrong direction. To make matters worse, distant forks of lighting spark downwards from the black sky, followed by mighty cracks of thunder. A storm is coming. Fat drops of rain begin pelting us from above as the wind picks up rapidly. The man driving the boat gives a little whimper (never a good sign) as he tries desperately to restart the engine. “We must stop here, too dangerous!” He tells us, as we collide onto one of the many islands. Stranded, shivering and slightly concerned, we wait for what seems like hours in the middle of the tropical storm.
Eventually we make it back to the mainland wondering if the trip was really worth it. But this is Laos; things rarely go exactly as planned, so I am grateful we got to see the dolphins at all. After all, there are only 5 Irradaway dolphins left in the country, meaning that we saw 60% of the entire Laos population. This fact is surprising, given the cultural and spiritual significance of the dolphins to Laos and Cambodian people. In fact, Irradaway Dolphins are pretty much the only animals exempt from ending up on a dinner plate here. According to local folklore, the creatures are sacred; human souls in dolphin skin. The story tells of a beautiful maiden with the body of a fish who was forced to marry a magical Python. Distraught and desperate to avoid her fate, she decided to cast herself into the Mekong river, but her attempt at suicide failed and she was transformed into a dolphin. The Dolphins’ significance to local communities goes far beyond the mythology, for they also provide an important source of income for communities involved in dolphin-watching ecotourism. Furthermore, their protection is crucial to the overall health of the Mekong river.
So the question begs, why are their numbers dwindling so drastically, and what can be done to save them? As with much aquatic life, the main threat to the dolphins are fishing nets. Bycatch and accidental capture in fishing gear is the primary cause of their endangered status. The World Wildlife Fund is working with locals to reduce Bycatch in a number of ways. They teach local communities the importance of conservation, develop community fishery management zones, and reduce fishing pressure by supporting alternative livelihood development. It is yet to be seen if these threat reduction strategies will be successful in preserving the local population, but the WWF remains optimistic, and their work continues to this day. (If you would like to support their efforts you can donate to the WWF:WWF.panda.org)
All this talk of wildlife loss and endangered species has gotten me thinking about the global implications. If we cannot save such an enigmatic creature as the Irradaway dolphin, what hope do we have for lesser known endangered creatures that are also crucial to ecosystems? What will become of the ugly Kakapo fish? What is the fate of the lesser known Leaping Lesbian Lizards? Some 110,000 species are now listed as critically endangered, but we only really hear about the most iconic and majestic creatures; the tigers, the pandas, the dolphins. Even I am guilty of this; I am yet to write a blog post about an obscure species in need of saving. I suppose charities select the most charismatic animals in the hope of leveraging their inherent cuteness to create broader conservation awareness. This seems like a logical strategy, rather than providing an eclectic sampling of species to show the vast diversity of animals at risk. However, there has been much debate over whether this is the best tactic to use in conservation efforts. Chris Packham caused much controversy over his statement claiming that pandas should be left to face extinction. Writing for the Guardian, he argues that “conservation, both nationally and globally, has a limited amount of resources, and I think we’re going to have to make some hard, pragmatic choices… of course, it’s easier to raise money for something fluffy… But we have to accept that some species are stronger than others.”
Many environmentalists argue that we must focus on the more iconic animals in order to get people’s attention and raise awareness. But I can’t help seeing where Packham is coming from. Limited resources must surely go to the animals with the highest chance of survival, and their worth should be measured by their importance to the ecosystem, rather than their capacity to pull at people’s heart strings. The Irrawaddy dolphin, however, manages to combine both qualities. They are a not only a symbol of the magnificent if the Mekong river, but are also crucial to the general health of the entire ecosystem. I feel honoured to have been able to see them in the wild and would encourage people to support efforts to conserve them.
The EU referendum is happening on the 23rd of June 2016. As the date is coming closer, the debate is heating up and there are arguments for staying in as well as leaving on both the right and the left side of the political spectrum. The EU has been criticised for being intransparent and undemocratic, for example lately in regards to the negotiations of the possible trade agreement between EU and USA TTIP. Besides, some economists suggest that the UK could do better economically without the restrictions coming from Brussels that concern standards in environment, health and safety, creating a freer market and more opportunities for businesses. The argument to leave is also supported by the worries of some people in the UK, which claim that the British welfare system is drained by unrestricted immigration within the EU, for example by workers from Eastern Europe.
Our local MPs seem to disagree with these positions. Here is what they think about whether or not to stay in the EU:
Caroline Lucas (Green Party, MP for Brighton Pavilion):
Caroline Lucas has voiced a strong preference for staying in the EU. Even though she understands much of the criticism, especially criticism coming from the left, such as the EU being undemocratic and intransparent, she thinks that the UK will only be worse off in isolation.
“Of course the EU isn’t perfect—and clearly needs reforms. The austerity inflicted on Greece—and the harm it’s caused—reflects the current political trend among European governments at the top table in Brussels. The same is true for TTIP. It is right-wing governments, like the U.K.’s own, which are pushing it through—and if Britain were to go it alone we can be sure that the Conservative Party would look to sign ever more bilateral trade deals with exactly the same toxic terms.”
Therefore, Lucas strongly urges UK citizens to vote to remain, as she thinks that the UK can tackle the big crises like climate change, the refugee crisis and the failure of the financial system only in coalition with other EU countries. However, her call to stay in comes accompanied by a wish to radically reform the EU.
Peter Kyle (Labour, MP for Hove and Portslade):
Peter Kyle, too, strongly favours remaining in the EU. In a joint article of all three Brighton MPs (Kyle, Lucas and Kirby), they pointed out that it is crucial for the small businesses, which Brighton thrives from, to stay in. There are about 12.000 of these local businesses in Brighton and Hove that benefit from the economic stability and the access to a single market with 500 million consumers to export to which the EU offers. Leaving the EU would unsettle this economic stability and create huge uncertainty for businesses in Brighton, the MPs stress. Besides, it would harm the international flair that makes Brighton such a great and open-minded place:
“[...] we’re lucky to have so many talented people from other EU countries coming to our city to work in our cutting edge industries – a right that Brightonians also enjoy when they travel to other EU countries to work.”
Simon Kirby (Conservative, Kemptown):
Lastly, Simon Kirby also takes the position of remaining in the EU. This decision comes mainly from his role as party whip. He explains on his own website, that he believes there are strong arguments on both sides, but that he follows and supports the decision made by the Prime Minister. While he believes that Britain will be stronger in Europe, he states, that taking this position was a decision that was difficult to make.
So, all three Brighton and Hove MPs seem to agree on the issue:
“As MPs from three different parties we have many differences, but one thing we agree on is that our city is better off because of Britain’s membership of the European Union.”
If you’re still not convinced, here are some more great things that the EU does for the UK:
Jobs: And a whole load of them. 3.1 million British jobs are, according to a report by the Centre for Economics and Business Research published in October 2015, dependent on the EU. Plus, there is also the aforementioned single market of 500 million consumers which the EU provides, that comes handy for exporting products more easily. Additionally, the EU gives subsidies to British farmers, helping to create job stability in the agricultural sector.
Freedom of Movement: Because of the EU, UK citizens can travel, work and retire wherever they want in the EU. That makes holidays easier and safer but it also means better job perspectives for many EU citizens including those from the UK. And it is also a point that the roughly 750.000 Brits living in Spain would, presumably, agree with.
Consumer protection: There are equal consumer rights in all EU countries, which means UK citizens can shop anywhere in Europe with the same ensured transparency on the side of the seller and the same quality and safety of products. One example for this is the two-year guarantee on all products which EU residents enjoy.
Environmental protection: through common standards set by the EU, environmental issues have been brought up in the political agenda of national parliaments, like the UK’s. According to an analysis by Friends of the Earth, leaving the EU would have terrible consequences for the health of British nature and related to that the health of British people. It is because of policies which the EU has implemented, that we enjoy cleaner drinking water, cleaner beaches and cleaner air.
So, there are some reasons why staying in the EU isn’t so bad after all.
But, whatever you decide, make sure you vote! Voting takes place on the 23rd of June. If you are not already registered, you can register to vote here. If you are away on that date, for example at Glastonbury Festival, there is always the option of a postal vote. To vote by post, you need to apply by completing a postal application form and sending it to your local electoral registration office. The deadline to do so is on the 8th of June by 5pm.