Monday, May 12, 2008

Uganda 2009, elephant kills

Preparations for next year’s trip to Uganda with students from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine are going ahead more or less as usual. The students have taken on the responsibility for much of the detailed organization, and in particular have already purchased their tickets. They will leave Saskatoon on the morning of Saturday the 31st of January and arrive, no doubt exhausted, but probably also exhiliarated, in Entebbe late on the Sunday evening. They have begun the process of getting al the vaccinations they will need, and are no doubt making sure that the clothing and supplies list that they have been given is more or less ready. However, they do have a full summer of work to complete al lover the country, so I do not expect to hear much from them over the next 4 months. When they get back to Saskatoon in September it will be time to really get going.

Meanwhile there is another group of students from the WCVM already in Africa. This year seven students who have just finished their second year courses have made Uganda and Tanzania their destination. The run under the “flag” of Global Vets which is an entirely student-run organization that has seen small groups go to a wide variety of places, including Peru, India and now Africa. You can follow their progress through their blog, accessible here, but just like the blogs that we develop in Uganda in February, they are likely to be intermittent. This is because Internet access is variable, and very much subject to the vagaries of electrical supply. The demand f or power all over the continent far outstrips the ability of the local suppliers to meet it. This leads to one of two scenarios. Either one is subject to sudden power cuts, which can be sudden and unexpected, or more or less predictable, when so-called “load-sharing” takes place. The other possibility, which is in some ways more annoying, is the phenomenon known as a brown-out. In this situation the power is reduced, and the bulbs just burn, but without much conviction. While this may not seem to be much of a problem, it is in fact the worst possible insult to one’s laptop or other electronic device. It is best to run any such equipment through a charge protector.

Recent reports from the Wildlife Disease News Digest, which is provided by the Wildlife Disease Information Node (WDIN), accessible here, have covered the slaughter of elephants in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The reports have suggested that the slaughters were largely related to the acquisition of ivory, and linked to the recent reports of the return of sanctioned elephant culls in South Africa. The elephant culls are highly controversial, with distinctly polarized opinions on both sides. The slaughter in the DRC is likely to have another element that has gone somewhat unnoticed. This is the bushmeat issue. Freshly dead elephants provide a mountain of meat. In 1975 in Rwanda, when I was involved in the capture of young elephants and their translocation to the Akagera National Park we were faced with an impossible problem. The elephants had taken to killing people and destroying crops. Fields of maize or beans would vanish in a single night. These are not crops as Westerners would think of them, but small fields that held a family’s entire food supply for a year. At the time the techniques develop by Clem Coetzee and others in Zimbabwe and South Africa had not been developed, and family groups were not captured and moved. The captured juveniles were the remnant of groups that had been shot. Within a day or two of the shootings entire carcasses were stripped of everything edible by local villagers. They had no readily available sources of protein. Their beans (if they had not been trampled), and sometimes fish from the lakes, were it. Meat was a luxury. For a fuller account of these events you can go to one of two sources. There is the dry scientific article that I wrote with my co-workers (Haigh, J.C., Parker, I.S.C., Parkinson, D.D. and Archer, A.L., 1979. An Elephant Extermination. Environmental Conservation, 6(4), 305 310) or the more personal material that appears in chapters 29 and 30 of my book Wrestling With Rhinos: The Adventures of a Glasgow Vet in Kenya. Here are a couple of pictures to give some idea of the scale of the project.

There is an extra layer. Take a look at the lower picture and note that there is one adult cow whose trunk is virtually severed. She had been caught in a snare, and her trunk has become a useless lump of grey sausage. When we fist saw her it was hanging down to the ground. As she ran with the herd to get away from the helicopter she was in real danger of stepping on it as it dragged along between her legs. The snares had been set by hungry villagers to try and catch whatever they could – they were engaged in bushmeat hunting. The elephants had had the misfortune to find the snares and, full of curiosity, pick them up and play with them. Over a quarter of the elephants we dealt with had damaged trunks.

Of course snares are indiscriminate, and do not always kill, but their use is widespread, and as ancient as hunting itself. In my latest book The Trouble With Lions: A Glasgow Vet in Africa I have discussed this fact in several places. The most dramatic example was witnessed by Dr. Patrick Garcia, who had been with me in Uganda in 2005. A few months later, on a working trip to Tanzania, he witnessed the dying moments of a lion that had a snare around its belly. This is one of his photos from the book.

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