Thursday, May 29, 2008

Wildlife blogs, wildlife poisoning, wildlife pictures

Been thinking about blogs, wildlife poisons and attempts to forestall or even reverse some of the trends that seem to be going on.

A major blog collector lies at a site called Saving Endangered Animals. Within the main home page are a large number of blog images, each one a mini-portrait of someone or something of relevance to the subject.

There are Quick Links and blogs galore – too many for me to count. Some that are relevant to my own books The Trouble With Lions and Wrestling With Rhinos are of course about those species, but also about the bigger problem of wildlife poisoning.

Two lion specific ones that tell how things have changed in Kenyan Maasailand, and give a glimmer of hope for the bigger picture in Africa are from the Kilimanjaro Lion Conservation Project - and its close relative the Lion Guardians.

The Furadan issue -a subject to which I have referred in previous blogs (see May 5th) comes up in several places. Furadan is the trade name of a carbamate poison developed as a crop insecticide, but happens to kill mammals and birds with seeming impunity - is a given plenty of coverage in a blog called Stop Wildlife Poisoning.
The authors are seeking as much information and input about poisoning incidents as they can possibly get. If I have a quibble with their opening statement of May 15th it is that they seem to restrict their search to Kenya. From my own experience, related in the opening sentence of The Trouble With Lions and in other stories in the text, I know that the stuff has been used in Uganda, and it would not surprise me at all if reports of its use turn up elsewhere.

Another general blog, which also refers to an upcoming article on poisoning with Furadan, is the East African Wildlife Society’s blog; neatly named The Water Hole. For those who don’t know it, the EAWLS publishes an enjoyable magazine called Swara (Kiswahili for antelope). It carries a wide variety of articles on wildlife subjects and does not shy away from appropriate commentary on controversies or comment on the behaviour of politicians when they ignore or actively try to damage wildlife initiatives.

From the Wildlife Conservation Society comes their “State of the Wild 2008-2009” announcement, which you can find here. This is a notice about their latest book on the subject. It consists of a series of important essays by well-known scientists and, right at the start of the web site, a marvelous series of photos of rare and critically endangered animals. All you have to do is click on the first image, a Sumatran rhinoceros, and up they come. If you think African rhinos look primitive, wait until you see this one.

Another taste of what if in store for me, when my copy arrives, and for those who care to get the book for themselves, lies in the advance praise written by natural history writer Carl Safina. He states
"This book delivers much more than the 'state of the wild.' It identifies the trends, trajectories, and principles that must organize our thinking. Think of it as an information handbook for the coming rumble over life on Earth. It's much less about what is—and much more about what's coming at us".
I have ordered a second copy for the library at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine and will ask for it to be put on reserve so that students who are to join me in Uganda in February next year will have some reading material.

A final fascinating titbit that came up on the BBC website this morning was also about rhinos, but not in Africa. Take a look at this film clip captured on an automatic infrared camera that is aptly titled Rarest rhinoceros wrecks camera. Six "R" sounds in four words. The headline writer must have enjoyed the alliteration in that one – virtually a no-brainer!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Response to comments about kob numbers

Thanks for your comments on my posting of May 19th Jeff. You are right about the kob migrations in the Sudan. I did mention this amazing sighting on pages 417 and 418 of The Trouble With Lions when I was searching for more hopeful signs about some of the disastrous effects that humans have had on wildlife populations.

The report came in from the Wildlife Conservation Society through their web site and was also featured by The National Geographic in a Internet report filed by Nick Wadhams titled Massive Animal Herds Flourishing Despite Sudan War, Survey Reveals at this web site

Michael Fay, a WCS biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence is quoted as follows in the National Geographic piece "Seeing thousands upon thousands upon thousands of white-eared kob streaming under the aircraft, day after day, was like I had died and was having the most unbelievable dream you could ever have."

Apart from my natural interest in the story, simply because it brings some measure of hope, one the folks involved in the finding was of particular interest. This was Paul Elkan, with whom I worked in Cameroon in 1996 when I helped out an overstretched Dr. Billy Karesh with his veterinary work on forest elephants, a one-month program described in The Trouble With Lions. Billy is the director of the WCS field veterinary program, and has written an entertaining book called Appointments at the End of The World: Memoirs of a Wildlife Veterinarian. For those who don’t know it, and are interested in conservation and the role of vets, this is one to add to your bookshelf. It was Paul, who is the WCS program director in Southern Sudan, who took the photo shown the article.

Anyway, back to the kob. There are three subspecies. The type species, the Western Kob is from northern savannah zones of West Africa are Kobus kob kob. The ones we have been working with in Uganda are K. k. thomasi. The lower picture shows two Canadian students together with Dr. Innocent Rwego of Uganda and Dr. Jacques Iyanya of the DRC working on an immobilized kob during our research studies. The kob in the Sudan are the white-eared kob, K. k. leucotis. It is numbers of the two former ones that have declined so sharply, but it is worth noting that Jonathan Kingdon remarks that population numbers of the species can fluctuate considerably. In his Field Guide to African Mammals, which contains a small spattering of his fantastic art work from the massive 7 volume major work to which I referred in my original blog Kingdon gives some more hopeful insights. His map on page 405 does show both the former and current ranges and he states “Despite having been eliminated from many areas (notably from all the shores of L. Victoria), kobs readily recover from near extermination.”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wildlife Declines - not just lions

Sadly, yesterday’s announcements from the World Wildlife Fund and The London Zoo which can be found here about species disappearances and declines come as no surprise. It has been documented many times, in many ways. It forms part of The Trouble With Lions and within that text, excerpts of which are at here I have given very specific numbers and citations for the declines of many of Africa’s megafauna. In 1989 Ian Parker and Alasdair Graham- took the time to collate the information on thirty species that is scattered throughout Jonathan Kingdon’s seven-volume masterpiece East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa. Among those species is the Uganda kob (Kobus kob). In this case Kingdon documented a drastic decrease in the range of a species that was once seen all the way from West Africa to Uganda. He calculated that by 1990 their range had decreased by 89%. Kingdon’s map on page 368 of his 7th volume (IIIB) tells the tale as it has occurred in Uganda. The former distribution covered more than half the country.

In 1975 the range was limited to small pockets in three national parks, including Queen Elizabeth NP where we have been working for several years with Canadian and Ugandan students. The total area is probably no more than 1% of the country. Even inside the parks, the range has further declined under the constant pressure of poaching. We have seen very direct evidence of this near Lake George, where the stone sign shown here acts as a kob monument, rather than in its intended capacity as an information-cum-warning of the presence of large numbers of kob on their mating grounds. We have stopped at the sign and never seen a kob.

Kob are but one example. Rhino, elephant, lions, wild dogs, and a considerable variety of bushmeat species are all mentioned in the book. The latest “method-of-choice” for getting rid of unwanted species is the application of minute amounts of the insecticide carbofuran, sold in East Africa as Furadan. If the recent reports (see the blog posting of May 5th) of poisoned lions in the Maasai Mara are anything to go by poachers had better be very cautious how they use the stuff, which is cheap and readily available. In the lion case the animals succumbed after they ate the carcass of a hippo that had been poisoned. A poacher or his customers might suffer the same fate if he used Furadan to kill his prey and then ate or sold the meat.

reference:- Parker, I.S.C. and A.D, Graham. 1989. Elephant declines: downward trends in African elephant distribution and numbers (part II) Intern. J. Environmental Studies. 35.

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.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Poisoned lions

The opening sentence of The Trouble With Lions reads “In 2005, Canadian veterinary students traveling with me in Uganda were horrified to learn that villagers in Queen Elizabeth National Park had poisoned two lions”. There are several references to the poisoning of lions, and other animals, throughout the text, and no one should be under any illusions that this sort of activity is going to stop any time soon. Recent reports from Kenya’s Maasai Mara are of grave concern to both the herders (the landowners) whose livestock use the area, and to conservationists, tour operators and of course tourists. Since the self-destructive events of the elections in late 2007, and the mayhem that followed for months, tourists have stayed away in droves. This has led to a virtual collapse of the tourist sector, and naturally to a massive decline in revenues. The lack of income has in turn created an impossible situation for those funding agencies that were trying to help by paying cash sums to herders whose cattle and goats or sheep were killed by lions and leopards. Without tourist dollars they have no source of funds.

It is not just the large predators that have suffered. I found this story in a blog managed by Wildlife Disease Digest which I check regularly here. This one was dated 30th April. and tells briefly how two lions died in Kenya's famed Masai Mara. The full story appeared in Britain’s Daily Telegraph and tells how a hippo that had died after consuming the insecticide carbofuran was in turn eaten by lions. Even with the poison diluted to that extent four lions developed marked signs of intoxication, which with this compound involve nervous signs. Two of the lions died. A telling photo taken in the Mara shows a lion whose legs are not working properly, and more details of the story can be found on the Telegraph site of 29th April here.

It is not just lions that are taking a hit. Birds are highly susceptible to even the tiniest doses of carbofuran, sold as Furadan in East Africa, and there have been a number of incidents of secondary poisoning of vultures. The largest known incident occurred in April 2004 near the town of Athi River, just 30 kilometres outside Nairobi, when 187 vultures, mostly white-backed vultures, died. Many hyaenas also died.

Vultures and hyaenas have also died in the same way in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National park, and these included an entire clan of twelve animals near the village of Kasenyi, on the shores of Lake George.This was in sharp contrast to the scene in 2007 when we watched over 100 of the birds, as well as several eagles, and a magnificent saddle-billed stork, foraging over ground where they had found a large number of grasshoppers.

The Wildlife Disease Digest blog has many other stories about wildlife and their diseases from around the world. It is one to keep any eye on.