Sunday, June 22, 2008

Tuberculosis in Lions hits the Saskatoon stage

Wildlife issues - a true lion story in this case - crop up in the most unlikely of places. I have just spent an enthralled and enthralling three days at a conference in Saskatoon, or more accurately, two intertwined conferences. The academic one titled "The Oral, the Written, and Other Verbal Media: Interfaces and Audiences" was closely linked with performance spoken word of several kinds in the cleverly titled “The eVOCative Festival and Conference”. There was Slam Poetry, Sound Poetry, Punning Poetry and beautiful poetry in several forms ranging from Hip Hop to Erotic and beyond as well as formal storytelling, although all of it could really be called storytelling.

The main organizer, Susan Gingell of the University of Saskatchewan, and her amazing team built the two events to complement each other and bring artists and academics from as far away as New Zealand and Australia, Trinidad, and Scotland as well as all over North America together. A core element was the involvement of aboriginal artists and their stories. She succeeded with gold stars.

Imagine my surprise when one of the presenters – Catherine Kidd (known by weird coincidence in this case as Cat) proceeded to tell the story, in a mesmerizing word and movement act full of clever rhymes and vivid images, of her witnessing the dying of a lioness in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. She and her host saw the animal, its skin stretched tight over unnaturally prominent ribs and hip bones, as it lay almost moribund beside the road. Her words soon confirmed my suspicions that the animal had been dying of tuberculosis and was a victim of its diet, as it surely must have eaten some part of an infected cape buffalo.

Cat’s prose poem and sinuous body movements (she later confirmed to me that she is a devoted yoga practitioner) moved on from the lion to a meeting with two refugees from Mozambique who were running the sixty kilometre gauntlet of a national park where lions and other large predators roam free in order to find jobs in South Africa. It is an all-too-chilling version of a certain TV show where good-looking guys and scantily clad women have to survive a weird collection of “hazards” dreamed up by script-writers. Nobody knows how many desperate men and women make it to safety, or fail horribly, in the real-life version.

This was drama enough, but I know that I was the only wildlife vet (albeit retired) in the audience and also the only one who knew and had written about these very same things. I was able to show Cat the photo that the Kruger’s chief vet, Dr. Markus Hofmyer had sent me of a lion that had died of TB lying on the postmortem room floor at Skukuza, site of the park headquarters. Of course TB has been known in the Kruger for the best part of thirty years, ever since it entered the park with infected cattle from the south. Buffalo are the main victims, but other species, including several antelopes and other predators such as leopards, cheetahs and hyaenas have also suffered. Markus has told me that about 25 lions a year die from the infection. And those are the ones they find!

Cat took some video footage of the lion’s last minutes, but has not yet edited it for release or published the written version, but she assures me that she soon will. When she does, I will get the news and permission and be one of the first to alert you and show you the text. Meanwhile you can find more about her published work and see some videos, almost all of it about animal life and her quirky view of it, on her web site.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Rhino Conservation and the probable disappearance of one race

It looks as if the planet’s last four wild Northern White Rhinos, which lived in the Garamba National park in the DRC have gone. As reported by Reuters in an article of June 16th Martin Brooks, head of the African Rhino Specialist Group, has stated that recent fieldwork has failed to find the animals. A new, and intensive, survey is planned under the direction of the African Parks Foundation, but it would seem to me that they have little chance of finding anything.

Northern White Rhinos do not look any different than their cousins of the Southern race, and it is now these that have been translocated to Uganda, to the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary, where I have taken students,and in 1966 were taken to Meru National Park, in Kenya, where I later had to do some medical interventions.

which I have documented in Wrestling With Rhinos and in The Trouble With Lions.

If the colours and picture quality of the animal with the big sore on its side look a bit dodgy, you may be interested to know that the photo comes from an old Super8 movie taken in the early 1970s. Super8 is incredibly small (8mm) and only technical wizardry has allowed us to use this picture.

As those who follow rhino issues closely know only too well, the pressure on them is unrelenting. If their horns are not being sold into Yemen to make dagger handles, they go to the Far East for use in traditional medicine.

It hardly matters who did the killing. In a country where war has been the norm for years and years it could be remnant armed militias like the ones who killed hundreds of hippo and have now started to take out elephants, (the war is supposed to be over) or even heavily-armed guerrillas from northern Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony , he of the bestial child abduction and slavery group who operate in the region. Either type of group would be hungry for the money that they could raise through the sales of rhino horn.

When I was in Kenya in 2006 there was a strong feeling that those four rhinos might find a home at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where they would have been relatively safe, as the place is heavily guarded. As there are no white rhino of the southern race inside the fence there would have been no risk of cross-breeding. The scheme seemed to be well ahead, and some of the logistics were being worked out. Then it all came to a halt. I am not sure why, but one reason given us was that locals in the DRC had objected. A sad end.

Furadan again

Each week the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation puts out several excellent shows that fit into the “Investigative Journalism” box. Recently (May 26th) the host of one of those shows, Rick MacInnes-Rae, did an in-depth report on environmental issues from Cambodia and Russia’s Lake Baikal. I have added below the email letter I sent to the comment box on the show’s email address. Not long afterwards Rick contacted me to find out how to pronounce my name so that he could read the piece on air. Of course he edited it a bit, as all good hosts are likely to do. I have asked if I can make a copy of the email as an audio clip, but have not yet heard back from Rick or the copyright folks at CBC. If they do give the go-ahead I will add it to this blog. (By the way, the name is pronounced like the famous Dimple Haig scotch)

Meanwhile if anyone wants to hear the show they can get at it though the CBC web site. The full 50 odd minutes of each show lie under Dispatches, June 16, 2008 -- Mumbai, India, Montreal, Iraq, Managua, Nicaragua, Woodland Hills, California 
or Dispatches, May 19, 2008, Cambodia, Siberia, Oxford, Beirut, and Washington.

I missed the May 26th show that has a cryptic précis that goes “Pygmy elephants versus palm oil.” I’ll pick that one up as it would seem to fit the theme.

So here is my letter in response the Cambodia & Baikal reports of May 19.

It was good to hear this evening that Dispatches continues to tell people about wildlife and conservation issues all over the world. The stories from Cambodia and Lake Baikal are part of that genre, and it is important that you folks continue that line.

Another story that might interest you and your listeners is the use of the agricultural pesticide carbofuran, sold in East Africa as Furadan, which as been wreaking havoc on wildlife populations. The chemical is not only effective as an insecticide, and no doubt proves useful in crops ranging from cotton to maize, but it is also a deadly poison, in minute amounts, for large mammals and birds. I have been taking Canadian veterinary students to Uganda for several years, where we link up with students and faculty from the Makerere University’s Department of Wildlife and Animal Resource Management and study the complicated matrix of the human x livestock x wildlife interface. We have witnessed first-hand how lions in Queen Elizabeth National Park have been poisoned in revenge killings. It is not only lions. An entire clan of hyaenas was wiped out late last year, and vultures have virtually disappeared from the park. Where we saw hundreds in 2007, we saw only one in February this year. The cattle herders in the park have become adept at hiding their use of the poison and are alleged to now be using it preemptively. If a small calf is killed by being given a dose of Furadan orally, and then left to die in the open, any predator feeding on the carcass will also succumb. A recent example of this occurred in Kenya’s famous Maasai Mara when a poisoned hippo (a crop raider?) was partially consumed by lions. Four of them developed signs of poisoning, and two of them died.

There are lots more factors around this subject, but I hope that this note will stimulate you sufficiently to pick up on a possible story and highlight an increasing threat to conservation in Africa.

Another great investigative journalism show, well worth a listen whenever you get the chance, is the CBC's As it Happens. Go for it.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

Treating the Individual lion

In his thought-provoking blog (which can be found here) ecologist Seamus Maclellan, who works in Kenya as part of the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project team has raised the issue of dealing with individual animals, as opposed to being concerned about entire systems. Sometimes the answers are easy, sometimes very complicated. Here is an example of the former.

In 2003 veterinary students traveling with me in Uganda had the opportunity to treat an injured lion in Queen Elizabeth National Park. She had been badly beaten up in some sort of fight, and Dr. Ludwig Siefert took the students out late in the afternoon to see if they could find her. As the evening closed in the found her pride only a couple of kilometers from the village of Kasenyi, on the shores or Lake George. After some deliberation Ludwig decided to dart her, as there might not be a chance of finding her quickly the next day. There were some risks involved as she might not go down in an accessible spot before the rapid onset of dark that is typical of the tropics, especially so near the equator. The calculated risk paid off, she went down in the open, and examination revealed that she had deep puncture wounds and extensive skin tears on the insides of both hind legs. These photos of the incident appear on pages 277 & 278 of The Trouble With Lions.

With the moon not scheduled to rise for three hours dark soon overtook the crew, so they worked by the lights of the 4-WD while the game ranger kept a look-out for the rest of the pride, which never moved more than about 200 metres away. A ‘t’ shirt with a Canada flag logo was used to cover the patient’s eyes. Extensive debridement of the wounds and both short and long-acting antibiotics were administered and as the lion woke up the crew were finally able to leave her and get back to Mweya for a very late supper.

In this case the intervention by a veterinary team on an individual animal had positive results, and no negative impact upon the pride or the wider community (unless you argue that the now healthy lion would join in the pride’s hunting and eat her share of kob or buffalo). The ripple effect of the intervention had even wider results when the lioness, nick-named Canada because of the team, and for her temporary eye covering, delivered a litter of healthy cubs not long afterwards.