Sunday, April 6, 2014

Fostering a bear cub

I have started on a new book with the working title of From Polar Bears to Porcupines. I'm far from certain of a finishing date, but here is one of the chapters that may end up there, no doubt altered by editors and writers group colleagues,  but it is at least a start. I'm calling it A Bear Cub and a Dog. 

  One could almost set one’s calendar to predict that every spring there would be a call from the provincial Department of Tourism and Renewable Resources (DTRR) about some orphan black bear cubs being found somewhere up north. The year 1980 was no exception but the timing was a lot earlier than usual and we got no call.

Black bears breed in mid-summer and usually deliver their cubs in late January or early February, when the cubs are quite tiny and almost unable to walk. They stay in the den for some time, nursing as needed and gradually growing stronger until they are ready to go exploring with mum. They stay with her until they are about a year and a half old.

This mother bear cannot have known what the terrible noise she could hear actually was.
No doubt the growling diesel engine would be a sound she knew, but probably did not associate with danger. What she cannot have known was that this particular diesel was a huge earth mover clearing an area around where she had denned up to prepare it for a mining camp.

Next thing she had been crushed to death by tonnes of a mix of earth, rock and trees.

The earth mover’s driver must have been right on the ball because he was quickly out of his cab to see what he had wrought. There were two tiny cubs nestled against her chest. Both were alive and would almost certainly have been mewling. I never met the man, but I can certainly imagine his horror at the scene. 

It was mid January 26 and bitterly cold, with daytime highs hovering around the minus 20 Celcius mark, while at night it dipped below minus 30. For an adult bear, spending much of her time in the den where she could develop a real cozy fug—that warm, smoky, stuffy atmosphere so favoured by the British— this would be no sort of challenge, and she could easily keep a cub warm and snuggled up as it lay between her front legs or on her chest where it could easily get some nourishing milk from one of her two teats, which like a human’s are level with the armpits.

These orphan cubs, which would have looked so tiny and helpless against their mother’s breasts probably weighed no more than a couple of pounds (as he would have gauged it in those pre-conversion days) with their eyes still closed and their umbilical cords hardly dry, would have no chance of living for a full day.

He must have acted right away, no doubt on the radio installed in his cab (no cell phones in 1980). With admirable speed someone on the crew bundled the cubs up in a warm blanket and headed to Saskatoon, some 400 km away.

I was out walking my morning rounds, thoroughly cloaked in winter boots, insulated trouser layer, parka and warm mitts all topped with a hood and toque when I heard the zoo truck behind me. Brent the foreman was driving and invited me to hop in. As I peeled off the headgear he explained that two tiny cubs had arrived and would I please come and look at them.

It was obvious that we had a challenge on our hands. The smallest cub was moribund, hardly responding and making no noise. It died within a couple of hours. The larger cub, a male, still had its eyes closed and a 10 cm length of dried umbilical cord was attached to it belly. It weighed just under a kilogram, so the driver had been right on, even without benefit of a scale. Perhaps he was from the north and an experienced fisherman, which would have been no surprise given that Saskatchewan has over 100,000 lakes, most full of fish.

If my reference books were correct this meant that the cub might have than doubled its birth weight and could have been as much as two weeks old, a very early arrival indeed.

We had had to bottle raise bear cubs several times in past years, but they had been further along on their development and weighed two or three kilograms by the time they reached us. Two years before this little guy arrived I had even helped out with the bottle raising and had taken two little cubs home.
In the basement with Karen, Charles and our new tenants.
In the late 1970s sideburns were “in”.

Charles lifts a heavy burden as his dad feeds one of the cubs.
A new playmate for Puss-in-Boots, or is that the other way round?

There our family, including our new kitten that we named Puss-in-Boots, got into the act right away, although we did restrict them to the basement, or rumpus room as it was called in those days. The term fitted well once the kitten and the cubs got going.

            My wife Jo had returned to her medical career after two years of being a stay-at-home mum to raise our children, Karen, eight, and Charles nearly three. Jo’s work hours as a junior member of staff were pretty crazy, on duty every other night, but she had to get back into the system.

Celia cuddles the cubs
           Celia had joined the family from England to help out with the children and she took to the task of feeding the cubs with enthusiasm. It is not every au pair girl from the English midlands who gets to feed bear cubs from a bottle every few hours! Of course the kids had joined in, Karen having no trouble, but Charles a tad too little to actually hold both bottle and bear.

            Even before I came to Canada the zoo staff had had experience raising bear cubs and so they got into the act right away. An evaporated milk product was diluted with some water and fed in small amounts every three hours. Every time, right after the feed, a damp cloth was used to help him eliminate and all seemed well. The new cub showed a real tenacity and was obviously going to survive if nothing went wrong. Celia had gone back to England and with the kids in school and kindergarten we could not take this little guy home.

 It was soon obvious that, in terms of being able to function, especially sleep, was a major challenge for the keepers, most especially for Sharon who had more or less adopted the cub but began to look distinctly jaded over the next few days. On top was the little matter of overtime, the care of many other creatures that needed her attention, work hours and so on.

Then I had a light bulb moment: I knew from something that Jo had told me when we were first married that white elephant calves were greatly revered, even worshipped, in some oriental and Indian cultures. Such a calf would be raised by a team of human wet nurses. My imagination and knowledge of the milk intake required by a 150 kg elephant calf, as opposed to a 3 or 4 kilo human baby could only create a line-up round the room with a gorgeous rainbow-coloured array of sari-clad mothers, like butterflies in a tropical garden doing a tag-team act.

One of the most remarkable examples of this particular form of cross fostering used to occur in Siam (now Thailand). In his 1931 book Siamese State Ceremonies: Their History and Function: With Supplementary Notes HoraceGeoffrey Quaritch Wales documented the god-like position held by the king and described in great detail the reverence afforded to any white elephant and the rewards given to any person who found one and brought it to his majesty. 

… I may add that it was formerly the custom to provide young White Elephants with a large number of human wet-nurses. I have in my possession a photograph, taken about a dozen years ago, of a Siamese woman suckling a young elephant, probably a white one.

There are other similar accounts from Burma. Shelby Tucker in the book Among Insurgents:Walking Through Burma records the reverence afforded white elephants and stated that the Burmese ladies competed for the privilege of being a wet nurse. Other human / animal wet nurse stories come to mind. There are plenty of records of such a practice. For instance, as reported by Samuel Radbill in 1976, travelers in Guyana observed native women breastfeeding a variety of animals, including monkeys, opossums, pacas, agoutis, peccaries and deer. I have seen pictures of women nursing monkey and pig youngsters.

When it comes to bears, I was told during my first visit to Pond Inlet on the northern tip of Baffin Island to work on a polar bear project that women sometimes wet-nurse abandoned polar bear cubs. I have written about this to the folks at the Nunavut Arctic College in they have left no stone unturned in contacting a host of other helpful people from many northern communities. A flood of emails arrived, but no one has any record of such an activity, although almost all knew of polar bear cubs that had been bottle raised.   Either I misunderstood my informant or it may have been a leg-pull. On the other hand it might be true but forgotten due to the action of the sands of time, as bear cubs have been nursed by women of the Ainu people of far northern Japan and by the Itelmens of Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula.

There are other unusual wet nurse and cross-fostering stories. These days it is simple to mine the archives of Google, which will open up all kinds of accounts of such activity. The story of the founding of Rome by the brothers Romulus and Remus, nursed by a she-wolf, is a classic. Dogs seem to be commonly used, and there are accounts of them nursing piglets, and both tiger and bear cubs (not at the same time). Many species, including human babies, have been nursed by goats, which seem to be a sort of “universal donor” at least for animals with hooves.

For the little bear cub at the zoo it was just a case of trying to find a suitable lactating female (not a human) to be the milk donor.

In those pre-laptop, pre-Google days of 1981, but having some knowledge of this practice, I said to Brent “Let me call Dr. Olfert at the animal resource centre at the university and see if we can get some help.”

We were in luck.  Dr. Olfert told me that a Terrier-cross bitch had just whelped and that we could borrow her for the unusual task of raising a bear cub.

The zoo van was quickly on its way to the campus, and an hour later the little family was safely settled in the barn, with plenty of straw bedding. I was unsure if the bitch would accept the newcomer to her cute litter of four mainly white pups, with the only black on them being around their heads and ears.
The milk bar is open

Although I have later learned that dogs will often accept such newcomers without the aid of drugs I decided to sedate her and try to fool her into thinking that nothing unusual had happened when she woke. I gave her an injection that knocked her out and then took a cue tip and smeared some of her faeces over the little cub to try and fool her into thinking that he was one of hers that needed a clean-up. When I put the cub at her belly he at once latched on and began to suck as if there was no tomorrow.

When she awoke the bitch at once began to check on her litter, and it was obvious that she considered the cub to be just one of the gang. He took no notice of the attention, but of course he had quickly fallen asleep after his feed. He soon perked up and within a week was mixing with the pups, rolling, play-growling and so on, although in a slightly different language and generally having a good time.

All went well for about four weeks, but on my daily check-ups I began to notice that her udder looked sore and on closer examination I thought that the needle-sharp claws of her foster child might be causing the problem. She seemed to be uncomfortable as soon as he began to feed and I needed to do something before she rejected him outright. 

I doubt that an almost five-week-old bear cub has ever had his toenails clipped before, but that is what we did. While Sharon held the little guy I used a set of human clippers to do the job. He struggled a bit, but the process went smoothly, unlike some dog clipping wrestling matches I engaged in during my general practice days in Kenya.  We then wrapped the ends of his feet in sticky tape to try and further protect the udder and put him back with his buddies.

This worked for only two more days and then she simply turned off the taps. One day the pups and the cub were nursing: the next she would have nothing to do with them. I suspect that the cub’s tiny needle-sharp teeth may also have led to this dismissal.

We had weighed the cub every three days and he had made great progress, now stretching the spring to over two kilograms. I considered that he need more milk for a while and so we went back to the same evaporated milk as before, but at a lesser dilution, and only three times a day.

He did lose weight for three days, but then the scale began to stretch every day. Within a month he was up to five kilos. The pretty little bitch went home with all but one of her charges. We hung on to him for about another month as he and the cub had formed a bond and seemed to spend their days roughhousing, eating or sleeping curled up together.

Play time for the odd couple
Within a coupe of weeks he was losing interest in the milk as he had found a much more enticing diet in the bowl full of milk, fruit and ground meat on offer.  The buddies stayed indoors for another six weeks, the cub leaving the pup in the dust both literally when they played and weight–wise. On April 15, two and half months after he arrived, he weighed fifteen kilos, almost as much as the bitch had weighed when she adopted him.

By now the weather had warmed up and we had two more cubs in the outside run (with a good shelter attached). They had arrived from a logging camp where their unfortunate mother had taken to terrorizing the staff as she raided the kitchen area in early March, a much more “normal” time and so the now not-so-little guy joined them. It took him only five days to become “top dog’. First to the food-bowl, and as he weighed a few kilos more than his pen mates, generally bossing them around. 

There is a true but sad ending to this and other bear events at the Forestry Farm zoo during the time I served as the veterinarian there. Each year, as soon as the children went back to school in early September, the now half-gown cubs were disposed of. Many went to a hunt ranch in the USA, but when that operation no longer wanted them they were simply shot. My protestations fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps I was being unrealistic. First of all, the pen was quite unsuitable for anything larger than a six-month old bear. Second they had been brought in on compassionate grounds, and to excite the children. Now there were no small visitors.

Even today, in early 2014, zoos struggle with the successes of their breeding programs. A world-wide Facebook campaign about the culling of a giraffe at the Copenhagen zoo that garnered 30,000 signatures within a few days highlighted the problem of surplus animals. What is one going to do with creatures that cannot be kept, either for economic reasons, or because they are no longer able to contribute to the genetic pool that so many responsible zoo managers work with? Keeping a giraffe in captivity is an expensive business. Many dollars a day are required on food supplies alone. On top are keeper’s wages, barn heating, veterinary work, and so on and so on.

In a online article of Feb10 2014, titled Marius The Giraffe Is Not The OnlyAnimal Zoos Have Culled Recently Lisa Abend opens with this statement: The killings of animals including zebras and pygmy hippos are necessary for conservation, zookeepers say, leading to mandatory euthanization in an effort to ensure there's room for other species, especially ones that need special protection.”

The article is accompanied by the remarkable picture of a big male lion tearing at the carcass of a reticulated giraffe. Abend adds more species to her list and these come from European zoos. They include “Zebra, antelopes, bison, pygmy hippos, and tiny Red River hog piglets.” Leopard cubs and other pig species are also listed.

At the Forestry Farm, in these much more enlightened times, the only bears in the collection are a pair of orphaned and fully human-habituated grizzlies, and they live in a brand new enclosure that provides as much space as is feasible. They are fed a balanced diet and would probably have no clue how to survive in the wild. They would also be a real hazard if released as they would terrify and possibly attack any person who might have the misfortune to encounter them.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Teenage Youth: Elephant and Human Parallels

Teenagers rebel against parental controls, right?

Well, most in human societies they do, to some extent at least. It is all a matter of degree.  At the mildest end of the scale they may stay out a tad later than an imposed curfew time or chitchat, text or tweet about parents.  I grew a beard. It did not last long because it was truly an eyesore, tricoloured (red, white and brown) and straggly.

At the other end of the scale things can get pretty ugly. Gang warfare, extreme violence, even murder.

A report in the Los Angeles Times of Dec 16 last year, passed on to me by my daughter, who has a teenager of her own, made me dive into my memory banks as she reminded me of its parallel to things I had witnessed in elephant society.

It was titled Michigan study: Fewer men around? Expect more youth violence. Of course I had a look at the links and was struck by the fact that the author’s name was Daniel Kruger. He was quoted by the Times as follows:

A new study that zeroed in on a single city in Michigan found that where men are scarce, youth were more likely to commit assaults.

“Male scarcity is actually a driver of conditions,"... "It’s the most powerful predictor.”

Dr. Kruger is a research assistant professor at the University of Michigan and one of the authors of the study, originally published in the Journal of Community Psychology. Other media outlets picked up the story and there are similar studies reported elsewhere.

None of these studies picked up on the great similarity they have to events in elephant society that I first learned about in South Africa in 1997. I was with my wife on a study leave from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine  and by sheer chance, or maybe an alignment of the planets we were visiting a former student and friend, Bob Keffen. Bob had been determined to work as a wildlife vet in Africa even before he graduated. He had had to settle for a job as a park ranger and was employed in Pilansberg NP. He managed to wangle an invitation for me to sit in on a meeting about a major elephant problem.

The problem was all to do with teenage elephants and the lack of big bulls in the population (sounds like Dr. Kruger's study in Michigan).

In the 1970s and 80s elephant numbers had grown out of proportion to the capacity of the Kruger NP, South Africa’s largest, to feed them and the park’s vegetation was taking a hammering. 

A cull, this one in Rwanda in 1975. The young went to the Akagera NP
It was thought that a humane way of dealing with problem in park was to cull adults, capture juveniles and transfer them to other locations. 

 Pilansberg had been one such destination and several young elephants, all under the age of ten, had been shipped there. At first all seemed well and of course the new animals drew plenty of tourists. It was not only the elephants that were new. Plenty of rhino, mostly white rhino, had been taken there as well.

The elephants grew up, but of course had no parental guidance and a complete loss of social and family history.

Such history is vital to elephant society and it comes as no surprise, after the work of Joyce Poole and others like Cynthia Moss, that events in Pilansberg did not follow the normal path.

Male elephants reach sexual maturity at about age 17 but get little chance to breed until they are much older. Their most aggressive activities take place during musth, when testosterone levels go sky high and various externally visible changes rake place. Secretions from the pre-orbital gland drip down the side of their faces and a green secretion drips from the penile sheath. Before she had worked out what was happening Dr. Poole had even called it “Green Penis Syndrome.”  

In a moving speech at the 22nd AnnualElephant Managers Workshop Dr. Poole said Young males coming into musth for the first time… are unsure of their new selves, apparent slaves to their raging hormones.

In “normal” elephant society mature bulls, that can detect the smell of a female in heat from up to 10 km away, will quickly suppress any musth tendencies in these teenagers. Dr. Poole saw this happen as quickly as twenty minutes after an encounter.  

In Pilansberg there were no big bulls to control the youngsters, and the females had no chance of doing so, not even if they formed coalition groups and talked to one another in their subsonic language.  By their late teens the bulls were larger and heavier than any female, even the few rescued from circuses that had arrived as adults.

In the early 90s some strange things began to happen. White rhinos were found dead, and without doubt elephants had attacked many of them.   

A rhino that survived attack, but has a serious hole in his shoulder
Trampling around the kill site, footprints and most compelling of all, large holes in the sides of the rhinos that can only have been created by tusks.

Then the evidence chain became absolutely certain when rangers in helicopters saw single male elephants chasing rhinos. There is even photographic evidence of one such encounter. An unnamed tour bus operator watched as an elephant encountered a rhino and attacked it. 

Into the river
First encounter
In this series of photos to you can see the attack and its outcome, which had a happier ending than many as the rhino escaped. 
Unwilling partner. Escape maybe?
Made it! Not all were so lucky
The photos were shared with me by one of Bob Keffen’s ranger colleagues, Gus Van Dyk. The quality is not great, but they were taken with a small camera and then I got copies of what were probably already copies.

In all, during the period 1992-96 some 49 rhino deaths could be attributed to elephant aggression. When known culprits were identified they were shot, and periods of lull in rhino deaths followed.

Of course this does not answer the question of why? Why rhinos? One can only speculate, but one possible explanation is that the young males, like young males of many species, were going through puberty, or had just gone through it, and were looking for some sex. The only thing they recognized as being about the right size and that were standing around were the rhino. On top of that the Joyce Poole phrase about them being apparent slaves to their raging hormones during musth may have played a role.

In human terms there was one terrible ending when a musth elephant attacked a parked vehicle and the family’s father was killed. Two male elephants were culled after that incident. You can read many more details here in an article published in 2001 in the South African wildlife journal Koedoe.

My participation in the meeting with Dr. Poole, Bob and other park staff was minimal, although one ranger did ask about the possibility of elephant castration. On this subject I was able to tell them that the process took a long time and was quite complicated because an elephant’s testes lie inside the abdomen, close to the kidneys and are difficult to reach because of the animal’s sheer size. As far as I know the first such surgery was performed by my friend and colleague Dr. Murray Fowler  and took about three hours. Everyone at the table realized at once that this was not an option in Pilansberg.

It was very soon obvious that Joyce Poole had the solution. She urged the park authorities to bring in a few mature bulls, that she called “super bulls” to suppress the juveniles quickly and create a more normal breeding environment for the entire elephant and rhino societies. The obvious place to source them was the Kruger NP.

Elephant boma with lots of power
It was also obvious that she had made this suggestion quite some time ahead of the meeting because after lunch we were taken out to see the newly built pen into which these super bulls would be placed. It was tiny, perhaps only 40 metres on a side, but fully rigged with several high voltage lines, each on a different circuit. As Gus explained, “we have to teach them to respect fences, which they have never had to do in the Kruger.”

"Super bulls" solved the problem, but created some new ones.
Bob later told me that the results were a resounding success, with one interesting wrinkle. The big bulls soon changed the vegetation in the park as they knocked down and ripped up trees.

I wonder how many readers of this post have spotted the odd coincidence of the name of the park in Africa where the elephants were sourced and the name of the lead author of the report about the human youth problems in Michigan. Both are Kruger.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Inca buildings and Machu Picchu

 A shrine to enduring love- a world's wonder
Our trip to Peru had many highlights. Of course the reason we went was to fulfill one of my wife’s lifelong ambitions, to see the ancient site at Machu Picchu. She was born and raised in India and we had visited the Taj Mahal together in 1985. One can read about Shah Jahan’s shrine to his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal and look at many pictures, but actually being there takes the experience to a new level. The pictures simply do not do its ethereal beauty any kind of justice.

I had of course heard of Machu Picchu and knew that it had been built by the Incas and not discovered and destroyed by the Spaniards. I had also seen pictures of the site, mainly the famous one shown on tourist material that gives a view from a high point, with a sharply peaked mountain in the background.

It was time to do some reading and as usual before a big trip we took out a Lonely Planet book from our local Saskatoon Public Library. Their picture shows how complex and amazing the site really is.

Before we headed to what is probably Peru’s most famous spot we had the good fortune to spend a few days in the city of Cuzco. The main reason I had been pleased that our itinerary with the excellent Intrepid Company made this stop was the matter of altitude. The elevation at Machu Picchu’s high point is 2430 m (almost 8,000ft). That was going to be hard enough for prairie dwellers. For the last five years of our Kenya days we had lived in a small cottage on the weirdly named Lunatic Lane in Nanyuki at 1905m (6250 ft.). While there my doctor wife had seen a number of cases of altitude sickness some of them fatal, mainly in young, very fit military men who had ascended Mt. Kenya all too quickly and been overcome. I had seen a couple of cases of the same thing in cattle living around the 2500m mark. Cuzco is quite a bit higher at 3400m (11,200ft). If we could acclimatize to that, even a little bit, then Jo’s main goal should / would be no problem.

We were in for a surprise. Our guidebook mentioned that Cuzco is the ancient capital of the Inca kingdom and indeed we saw many fascinating things, both in and around the city. What struck me, more than anything else, was the stonework. It was explained to us by our charming and excellent guide Patricia who took five years of university to become a registered guide.

Detail of stone joints
Sacsaywaman, aka "SexyWoman"
While the huge rocks at sites like Sacsaywaman are amazing both for their sheer size and the fact that they must have been fitted after months or maybe years of shaping (you could not hope to slide a credit card between them, and there is no mortar), it was the intricate moulding and shaping in the Qorikancha church, which lies in the city centre, that really caught my eye. Maybe that is because I am a sometime woodworker and have some idea of the challenges, say in making a chess table. I have lots of fancy tools to make things fit. Seven hundred years ago the artisans who built these things did not have quite as much :) 

Qorikancha has several types of stone lock
One type of lock
 As you can see from the photos they used several different patterns to make the stones both fit and lock. Again no mortar. If the archaeologists and historians are correct, the stonemasons used hematite  to grind the granite-like rocks. Wow! Is probably the least one can say. 

A partly opened wall showing diffefrent locked stones
Of course the church is sadly more famous for what is missing than for what remains. The Spaniards removed many tonnes of solid gold sheets and sculptures, melted them down and shipped them back across the Atlantic via what is today Panama.

Patricia explained the likely reason for this intricate work. It was to earthquake-proof the buildings. There have been many (at least 40) such seismic events since the first recorded one in 1586. Patricia mentioned the 7.0 Richter scale one in 1950 that occurred right in the Cuzco region. 

Long before that the Inca builders had worked out that the interlocking stones and trapezoid doors and windows protected their buildings against the hearth’s shakings. Indeed, where the conquering Spanish had destroyed all but the bases of the old temples their newly built churches sometimes collapsed, leaving the older walls intact.

So, with excitement and anticipation we headed off by bus and train to Jo’s dream site. There we saw more amazing stonework. 

Temple of the sun – east and south-facing windows
The detail at the most important religious spot, the temple of the sun, is just as intricate at that at Qorikancha, as is the work at the House of the High Priest. At most other spots it is less crafted but just as robust.

The terraces for agriculture and their retaining walls all lie facing towards the rising sun. All those workers, for all those years, needed food. A real example of home-grown! Patricia told us that recent work has shown that most of the structure, some 60%, lies underground in the foundations. 

Descending tanks, all feedng one another
Intihuatana - see the hitch at right
An important part of the structures is the Hitching Post of the Sun (Intihuatana) which was used by astronomers to predict solstices. Water too was a vital part of the complex - the tanks at right all feed one another.

Anno domini, dodgy knees and rain-soaked stones forced us to adopt the discretion is the better part of valour approach to the last steep climb up to the hut of the caretaker of the funerary rock at the very top of the ancient site where those iconic photos are taken. Luckily group member Arran Smith, a newly minted vet (qualified almost 49 years after me!) shared his own pictures. He caught this one just before the clouds descended and obscured the wonderful view.

Arran’s view - thanks Arran!
Just like the Taj, none of the pictures does any sort of justice to the experience of being there.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Moray – an Agricultural Research Centre From the Ages.

My wife Jo and I have just returned from a memorable trip to Ecuador and Peru.
We organized our trip with the Intrepid company and they looked after us very well. Of course our main objectives were to visit the Galapagos Islands and Machu Picchu. They were indeed stunning, fascinating and thoroughly worthwhile. There was more that we had not expected.

On an outing near Cuzco, in Peru our charming and very well informed guide, Patricia, gave us the option of taking a side-trip to an extraordinary site that dates back at least 2,000 years. It is called Moray.

Once you leave the excellent tarred road the track to the site is a bit dodgy, but there were crews working on the mud and potholes with heavy machinery and we got through.
The extraordoinary 2000 year old site at Moray
There are three amphitheatre-like depressions in the natural contours of the hills, and each has been developed into what looks, at first sight, like an enormous set of bleachers. If the archaeologists have it right they had nothing to do with sport or performance art, but everything to do with agriculture and ag research.

The best preserved of them, the main one shown to tourists, has over twenty terraced levels. The most remarkable feature is that the temperature range between the top and bottom of the structure is 15°C (about 59°F for the unconverted). 

Steps for right and left foot climbers
That is not all. At every level the ancient builders made sure that workers with bad knees, like me, could get up an down to till the land using steps set in the walls. They also thought about irrigation. 

My arrow shows the top water channel
A line of water courses, set one above the other, descends throughout the structure. If you take a close look at this picture on the left you can see a rectangular ruin at the bottom. This is not an old and mis-shapen tennis court, but the foundation of what was almost certainly a storage house. Patricia had never had a guest suggest the tennis idea, but it was fun to see her double take.

Checking me out - but I don't know his name.
As I sat and admired the view this little character, about the size of a house sparrow or a chickadee, came and sat on the adjacent agave plant no more than a couple of metres away. I could not resist! I have scanned through the first ten Google sites on the query “Birds of Peru”, but maybe this fellow is simply too “normal” to get mention or take up disc space. Any expert birders out there?

Our June 2013 Lonely Planets  guidebook has a brief description of the Moray site and tells us that the entry fee is $10. By February it had risen to $15. Still a bargain at the price.

What an amazing place. Thank goodness we took that side trip.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Bushmeat and the African Trade to Europe

Last week I was in Peru and met an experienced airline steward who has flown with major airlines for many years into, and more to the point, out of several West African capitals. We got chatting about the bushmeat situation, something I have written about in books and on blogs for several years.
One of Amman's many pictures of the bushmeat trade

Of course writers with bigger followings, like the remarkable Karl Amman have written and photographed bushmeat and poaching stories to a wide audience. He also graciously allowed me to use some of his images in my book The Trouble With Lions .

The late Anna Mertz, who worked as an engineer in West Africa for many years reported on the horror show of truck loads of dead and badly injured antelopes appearing almost in food markets in Ghana long before the bushmeat trade issue reached a wider global audience.

My steward acquaintance told me that loads of bushmeat continue to come out of Africa bound for the UK with every flight. It is packed in passenger luggage, and the security officers who check bags before departure have no interest in, and probably no jurisdiction over it.  They are concerned with weapons.

The airplane staff can do little about it either. They do try to curtail the excess baggage situation, but even that is a hopeless task, as the routine response from Nigerian passengers is that a white-skinned staff member is picking on a black person. Inevitably some of the bags leak their contents and many planes end up with bloodstains and bad smells.

In Kenya Ann Olivecrona told me how she chanced to witness a bushmeat import at London’s Heathrow airport. As I wrote in 2008:

“in May 2004 she witnessed an amazing interchange involving bushmeat at London’s Heathrow airport. Her plane happened to arrive at more or less the same time as a flight from Lagos. During the time that she watched the procession, customs officials stopped every one of the Nigerian passengers and asked for the huge suitcases to be opened. Almost all were packed with smoked bushmeat.”

The bushmeat trade poses serious risks at both ends.

In Africa it is leading the rapid depletion of wildlife populations. Many species are involved. While primates are the most evocative for most people, the most popular species is the cane rat of the genus Thryonomys, known locally as cutting grass. They can weigh as much as 10 kg in the wild and in most West Africa countries efforts have been made to rear them for the meat market.  

Credit: Aurélia Zizo/Wikipedia

Here is a picture from the Wiki of one such rat, a male Greater Cane Rat (Thryonomys swinderianus) in a breeding station in Owendo, Gabon

Many tribes in the region have long held certain species taboo. Not any more. Anything goes.  One example is the African buffalo, long deemed off limits to one clan in Ghana. In October 2001 Ghanaian journalist Vivian Baah wrote a series of articles under the title “Guess What’s Cooking for Dinner?” in the Evening News of Accra. She related how in parts of Ghana:

“among the Ekona clan of the Ashanti's, it is a taboo to kill the Ekuo (buffalo). But these days, the members of this clan themselves are the worst offenders. Having turned their backs on the taboo, they now butcher the Ekuo with cheeky ease.”
Cape buffalo - aka Ekuo in Ghana

Of course this process will inevitably lead to the law of diminishing returns. Species will simply disappear or become rare.

In Europe there are serious disease risks. Much of the continent has an endemic foot-and-mouth disease status. If the disease gets into UK, for instance, it will cause billions of dollars worth of economic damage. All it needs is for some improperly preserved meat to carry the virus to destination. A little bad luck or carelessness and the explosion would take place. If this seems unlikely one only has to look at my home province of Saskatchewan, where, in 1952, illegally imported smoked meat from Poland led to the last outbreak of FMD.

Fruit bats roositng in Uganda


It is not just livestock diseases. Ebola and the closely related and equally deadly Marburg virus can infect humans who handle primate and fruit bat carcasses (fruit bats are a popular bushmeat item).

 HIV/Aids came to humans via chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys. No doubt there are other examples.

In a TTWL chapter titled Bushmeat and Bureaucrats I tried to make the point that thousands of words on paper would achieve nothing much. One example of such verbiage came from the European parliament. A tome from that body that took four years to reach “Provisional Edition” status came out in 2004.

Bureaucrats the world over are famous for producing complex, usually lengthy documents about almost any subject one can think of. The more pen pushers involved the more complex the end product. Only this human sub-species could have come up with the title EuropeanParliament resolution on Petition 461/2000 concerning the protection andconservation of Great Apes and other species endangered by the illegal trade inbushmeat (2003/2078(INI).” 

The material has ten Having regards to” clauses, fifteen appearances of “Whereas,” and twenty-one “Urges” and the like, a few with sub-clauses. There are no teeth to the document, just urges.

It is obvious, from my airline steward’s account, that the teeth are either absent or false.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Elephants, Ivory, Africa and China #2

This posting may have better news on the ivory crisis. Hope so.

Let’s start with this from the online group One Green Planet. It opens with
Many never thought they’d see the day come, but it finally has – China, one of the world’s largest importers of ivory, has announced, that it, along with 29 other nations, will help protect the world’s elephants by criminalizing poaching.

Now, that’s something to celebrate.

A Space For Giants newsletter of December rejoices in the growing tide of goodwill and scale of responses to the elephant/ivory story.

Three days ago I posted on a small part of the ugly mess of the current ivory crisis (not the first) as this 1983 book title indicates. 
For good reviews of this very long-standing issue get hold of either this book by Ian Parker and the late Mohamend Amin  or Ian Parker’s more recent What I Tell You Three Times is True. The latter is a really in-depth examination of the subject.
There has been a considerable amount of social media traffic on many aspects of it. I have picked up some thirty postings in the last month alone. Like the two I opened with about half of them take a slightly different and hopefully more optimistic view of the situation, many of them reporting seizures of ivory, either as raw tusks or worked items. Others deal with criminal trials.

In South Africa, where rhino poaching is a major concern, they are preparing for the elephant war with publicity. This video is well worth the watching. Indeed if you have time for nothing else do spend the ten minutes with it.

Namibia is also being pro-active and investing in technology 
that includes drones, infra-red cameras, tagging with GPS, and the latest software.

There have been recent reports from other African countries such as Gabon, Kenya, Republic of Congo (2 reports) and Mozambique

Tanzania has a real battle on its hands, as indicated by the actions that have recently been taken. They include ivory seizures in Zanzibar and Dar esSalaam The dismissal of many allegedly corrupt wildlife department staff  and several other columns in the on-line allAfrica news that include a call to deal with the  so-called Poaching Barons as well as a call for tougher poaching laws.

Kenya also seems to be taking things more seriously, not only with the new laws I mentioned in the blog of Jan 7 but in catching offenders (again two reports.)

In that Jan 7 post I mentioned that a new law, if signed by President Uhuru Kenyatta, will make it possible to punish poachers with life sentences. A remarkable public admission was made on Jan 3 by a former employee of the Lewa Conservancy. Keleshi Parkusaa, 39, said he has been a poacher even when he was employed there for three years. He obviously admitted his crimes before the law comes into effect in order to avoid that sentence.

Other countries that have taken action are France where 3 tonnes of ivory are to be burned. This picture by Reuters/Keith Bedford shows some of the items. Also Vietnam, where a court has sentenced a company director and his deputy to 3 years in jail each for smuggling 158 pieces of ivory tusks weighing more than 2.4 tons.

And the USA where a  New York City antiques dealer who pleaded guilty to conspiracy for smuggling artifacts made from rhinoceros horns from the U.S. to China and Hong Kong has been sentenced to three years in prison, plus three years’ supervised release.

The key, as everyone realizes, is China.

Basket ball star Yao Ming has been actively campaigning about conservation issues for quite some time and his efforts to publicize the shark’s fin soup issue has yielded encouraging results. He has been similarly active on the ivory front and his and other peoples efforts may be changing the way that folks in China think about these issues.

This anti-elephant poaching story filed from Kenya and Mozambique by Yuan Duanduan titled The Blood Ivory: Behind the Largest Ivory Smuggling Cases in China has gone viral.

In it he wrote
China has become the largest illegal ivory consumer market in the world, but 2 /3 of the Chinese people do not know ivory is obtained through killing the elephant.
The ivory trade has become a source of capital for African terrorist groups, forming a tight secretive network of poachers, small and big middlemen.
In recent news on November 5, 2013, Xiamen Customs announced the largest ivory smuggling cases uncovered in recent years, two cases of which ivory added up to 11.88 tons, worth 603 million yuan. If it hadn’t been seized, the ivory from Africa would have infiltrated China ‘s secretive “black market”, to be eventually sold into private collections.

As of Dec 20 the story had over 10 million Tweets and Retweets on Weibo (China’s Twitter/Facebook hybrid) 

"The article was reposted on 24 online discussion forums or Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) including Mop and Tianya, two of the most popular in China. Thousands of comments were generated on the Tianya BBS forum alone. Overall over 5,000 comments on the article were posted on Weibo, BBS fora, and other websites."

A very clever ploy was to merge the image of China’s iconic panda with the shape of an elephant.  This poster, courtesy of WildAid reads: Protect the pandas of Africa - elephants. When the buying stops the killing can too.

Then came the Jan 6 report of the crushing of 6 tonnes of ivory in Guangzhou and on the same day a senior government administrator's answers to questions from reporters Liu Yang Yang, Wang Xi, Han Qiao about that destruction 

I fear that only very cautious optimism should be felt. One of the several concerned groups Elephant Advocacy had these thoughts about the ivory crush.
While it's encouraging to see China, the world's key consumer of ivory, taking such a step, there would be even more grounds for celebration if it didn't attempt to isolate 'illegal' ivory as the problem while actively promoting a deeply flawed parallel trade in 'legal' ivory which serves to confuse consumers, boost demand and provide a laundering mechanism for illegal ivory. It's difficult, too, to see beyond today's event as a PR exercise when considering that the 6.2 tonnes of ivory crushed represents a small fraction of what we know has been seized in China.

The future?

One of the problems is that nobody really knows the real number s of elephants in Africa. CITES reports probably give the most reliable figures, but even they are inevitably fraught with estimates and inaccuracies. The news that Paul Allen, the Microsoft billionaire has announced that he will fund a pan-African survey is a huge step in the right direction. The will aim to calculate how many actually remain, where they are found, what threats they face and whether their total population numbers are in fact increasing or decreasing.