Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Giraffe taxonomy

For years there has been a usually friendly debate among taxonomists and biological scientists who fall into one of two camps. These are the “lumpers” and the “splitters”. I have always been a fence-sitter on this, as I do not know enough about the pure science to make a meaningful contribution. A recent report that reached me through the newsletter of the International Giraffe Working Group (IGWG) may lay the debate to rest, at least as far as giraffes are concerned. This beautiful image, which appears here in the on-line journal BMC Biology is not a fanciful depiction of a multi-coloured palm leaf, but shows how six different groups of giraffes can be divided at the species level through the wonders of DNA technology. Many of the species separated as long as a million years ago. The ten-author study was led by David Brown, from the University of California, Los Angeles.

There are some obvious differences in appearance among the species, the most striking of which is the chocolate-coloured and clearly delineated coat pattern of the reticulated giraffe from Kenya’s north-east, which here in the first picture, taken at Borana. For those who wonder, the mountain at the back is Mt. Kenya. As for Borana, you can find out more about the idyllic lodge and setting here.

A closer view of these striking beasts show four of them in close association. Two are “necking” a competitive activity which ecologist Richard Estes describes in these terms (the) “Movement and counter movement appear rhythmical and synchronized, imparting the sinuous grace of a stylized dance”.

There are two other species of which I have my own photos. This one shows a group of Rothschild's giraffe, in Uganda’s Murchison Fall NP.

This photo of Rothschild giraffes taking the midday shade under a Fever Tree, was taken in Lake Nakuru NP, to which the founding herd had been translocated from western Kenya when the land they lived on had been developed for farming. Lake Nakuru is outside their traditional range, but the herd has been used as a source for subsequent translocations, notably back to Uganda, where numbers have been in decline ever since the ravages of Idi Amin and his armies.

And then there is the Masai giraffe, which is the first kind that I saw as I left Nairobi Airport (before it was named after Kenya's first president) in 1965, three days after graduating from veterinary school in Scotland and 16 years after leaving the country of my birth. I saw this group below the Ngong Hills, just outside Nairobi a few months later. Sadly there are not may there now, as poaching pressure with gun and snare has been relentless.

The speciation may not stop at six. Author David Brown and his colleagues in their paper in the BMC online journal state that
"The discovery of potential giraffe species may not be over. The Thornicroft's giraffes are a morphologically distinct population of giraffes endemic to the Luangwa Valley in Zambia, and a key link between the African continent’s north and south populations. The population is biologically isolated from other giraffe populations and as such is ecologically and potentially genetically unique."

In common with much else in the wildlife world, all over the globe, the numbers of giraffe are declining, in concert with expanding human populations. As Brown and his colleagues state
"There has been an estimated drop of 30% decade to less than 100,000 giraffes remaining on the continent."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in West Africa, where bushmeat hunting activity is rampant. Here is what Brown and his co-authors have on this part of the story.
"Within the peralta group of West-Central African there are only about 200 giraffes remaining in all of West Africa west of Cameroon where until the mid-20th century there were perhaps thousands"
There are several other fascinating articles in the IGWG newsletter that is edited by Dr. Julian Fennessy, so for those as captivated by these magnificent animals as am I, I suggest that you make contact with him. I cannot give you his email address here - that would be inappropriate, but he may choose to add it in the comments section to this posting.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Lion Conservation Successes

It is a nice change to be able to report the good rather than the depressing about wildlife issues anywhere. Here is more good news from Kenya and the Lion Guardians of the Kilimanjaro region. Their annual report, written by Leela Hazzah, Antony Kasanga and Amy Howard is mostly upbeat and gives one hope. Much of what I am about to report is lifted, with copy and paste, direct from their report.

"Since the rains, the lion population has tripled on Mbirikani; we estimate that there are currently between 13‐16 lions on the ranch. Many of these lions are moving here from Amboseli National Park, and the group ranch surrounding it, and from the southern border of the ranch from neighboring Kuku Group Ranch"

Of course no one should imagine that the lions have decided on a cattle amnesty. This photo, taken by Anthony Kasanga shows Lion Guardian Kapande with a cow killed by a lion on the ranch. It is simply that through the Predator Compensation Fund (PCF) herdsmen can be compensated for cattle that are proven to be lion victims. Since the launch of PCF there has been a dramatic decrease in lion killing, while lion killing has continued unabated outside the ranch boundaries.

For instance on neighbouring ranches, where no PCF, or even a guardians program, exists, there have been a minimum of seven lions killed in the past year. Leelah and her team-mates are in the process of starting up the Lion Guardians program in these areas, in the hope of reducing lion killing.

Program members spend at least three days a week monitoring predators, ranging from lions to some of the smallest of all, like the genet. Currently there are eight collared lions being monitored by the Guardians.
These photos, taken my Amy Howard, show some aspects of the program.

One collared male lion, Ndelie, has recently been fitted with an Iridium GPS collar. This enables us, and the general public, to monitor his activities via the internet

Another new development has been that the court system has begun to deal seriously with people who kill lions. There have been three arrests this year that led to substantial fines. A man who poisoned two lions was fined the equivalent of US$ 1000, and two murrans caught in possession of lions claws intended for sale on the coast were fined USD $1250. The claws would possible have fetched as much as US$ 3000, so, as always, some rich buyer(s) are just as guilty.

This is obviously a very brief synopsis of a detailed nine-page report. Anyone who wants more can either email me and I can send a pdf copy, or get in touch directly with the folks in Kenya through their web site.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Lion Rabies and Plastic Kills Elephants

Those who subscribe The Wildlife Disease News Digest Listserv ( will be aware of the very unusual occurrence of rabies that has been diagnosed in an entire pride of lions in the Khutse Game Reserve in Botswana. This isolated park lies right in the middle of the country, and I had never even heard of it until the posting appeared in my “in” box. No worries. With the help of the ever-useful Google I found not only a fascinating description of this remote and very basic reserve, but a map (at this URL ) showing all the reserves and National Parks. Khutse is not named, but I’m guessing that it is the large green area in the middle of the map.

Dr Clay Wilson, a private veterinarian, diagnosed the disease and commented, in the article you can find under today’s date posted here
“that the lions could have acquired the disease from jackals”
. The full article is available here This is probably the most common way in which this deadly disease is transmitted in Africa, so he is probably correct.As the jackal strain of the rabies virus can be identified with DNA techniques it will be interesting to follow this case.

A footnote to the article has wider implications and highlights yet again the dangers of plastic waste, the plague of so much of our world in every corner.
“Meanwhile three elephants in Chobe National Park died after eating trash from the Chobe landfill.”

A senior Wildlife Biologist, Mr Keagapetse Mosugelo said the elephants died as a result of plastics they ate in the landfill.
"The situation at the landfill is not good for animals,"
he said, adding that the electric fence that has been installed is not sufficient as birds will still flying in to eat waste.

Chobe, which is a fascinating park that lies right in the north of Botswana, is one of the areas on the continent where elephants have created their own min-deserts as they are so abundant that have almost eaten themselves out of house and home.
When we visited Chobe ten years ago there were tracts of nothing but sand and elephants had to trek many miles every day between food sources and the Chobe river (which flows into the Zambezi) where I took this picture.

For readers of mystery novels, I would recommend Anthony Bidulka’s Sundowner Ubuntu: A Russell Quant Mystery which is set in Africa, and in which Chobe plays a vital role. Tony, whose web site is here visited Botswana as part of his “research” for the novel (tough research eh!) and was obviously hard bitten, but luckily not by a jackal.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Living With Lions

The annual report of the Living With Lions program in Kenya has just arrived. This program, headed by Laurence Frank of the University of California Berkeley has been growing from strength to strength over the last three or four years and shines a bright light on conservation in Kenya that gives one some real hope for the future of Africa’s most charismatic species. Living With Lions has expanded in its two main areas of activity, which are in the Maasai country around Amboseli and in Laikipia district, west and north of Mount Kenya. Some work has also started up in the Masai Mara conservation area, where lions are under heavy threat.

A quote from the report is another from the ongoing litany of conservation messages makes a sad comment on modern life: ...lions, hyenas and other large predators are disappearing under the onslaught of spears, guns and poison. This grisly photo was taken by veterinarian Dr. Patrick Garcia in the Serengeti National park. He and the film crew with whom he was working witnessed the dying moments of a lion caught in a snare.

There are a couple of blogs that give one information about the activities of the group, and currently the most active one is about the Lion Guardians.

To quote the report
“On the Kenyan side, lions are under severe and increasing pressure, as people are spearing and poisoning lions at a rate which threatens population extinction within a few years.”
This photo, taken by Amy Howard, one of the report’s authors, shows two male lions that had been poisoned a couple of years back.

An interesting change has occurred in Kenyan Maasailand, and this quote from the report tells most of the story.
"Sadly two of our study animals, Amber and Sangale were poisoned in January 2008. Because the Lion Guardians had made these animals very familiar to the local people, the Maasai community was incensed at the loss of these well‐known individuals, and the man responsible for their poisoning was shamed by his neighbors. The Lion Guardians and various members of LWL participated in the lions’ post-mortem and follow up investigation. Our work contributed to the perpetrator being found guilty of illegally killing these lions. This is one of the first incidents where a Kenyan court has handed out a guilty verdict on a poisoning case. Use of poison is currently the single greatest threat to Kenya’s lions.

The buy-in by the Maasai is clear when one sees this photo, taken by another LWL team member, Leelah Hezzah, is of Lion Guardian Mokoi using an antenna to track a radio-collared lion.

It is conservation programs like this one, which has involved the local people at every step, that have a chance of working. Long may it continue and continue to grow.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Storytelling at Sacred Heart School in Estevan

Good fun with a storytelling gig for the Sacred Hearts School in Estevan, which is a but a few short miles from the US border in the southeastern part of Saskatchewan.
Librarian Laurie Sokel had organized the whole thing and some 55 kids in grade 5 & 6 were there with a few teachers in the Estevan Public Library and we posed afterwards for this picture, taken by teacher Hanna Keating.

Told stories of personal experiences with rhino, mixed in with a rhino folk tale that you can find on my web site here but of course as a told story it has many more embellishments than when written for reading. After that I switched to stories about Uganda and used the account of the importance of hippos as the major food source for herbivorous fish in lakes, and the disastrous effects of poaching on the entire chain. Finished up with a few brief accounts of the two schools at Kasenyi and Equator Highway and the privations and successes that the children there deal with on a day-to-day basis. I have never had a reception quite like this one, as the kids cheered and clapped afterwards, which made the 5-hour trip worth every minute.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Uganda trip and Gorilla babies

Preparations for our trip to Uganda in February next year are going ahead. The student group have finished their big veterinary licensing exams and can now concentrate on the trip. They have to prepare their talks, and also start the fund-raising for the support of the two schools that we have linked with over the last few years. One concern has been the terrible news coming out of the eastern DRC, and whether that conflict would spill over into Uganda. I have been in touch with the consulate in Kampala, and they assure me that things are quiet (I almost wrote All Quiet on the Western Front but that phrase has already been used by Erich Maria Remarque in his important book.)

Meanwhile this interesting and encouraging report about the birth of gorilla twins in Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable Forest appeared today on the Wildlife Disease News Digest
The picture on the blog is credited to Getty Images.

Lillian Nsubuga, a spokeswoman for the Uganda Wildlife Authority (UWA) was plainly delighted with the news as you can see if you go to the blogShe obviously hopes that the news will further boost the tourism industry in Uganda, because gorillas are the poster children for that entire sector.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Anthrax from drums

There’s a horrible story from Scotland about a drummer who died of anthrax in 2006. The inquest determined that he got the disease after inhaling spores. It seems as if he was exposed at a drumming class in at Smailholm village hall near Kelso in the Scottish borders.

The report reached me through the important source of Promed-ahead the very detailed Listserv that covers the entire gamut of infectious diseases of all living things, from plants to humans. You can visit ProMED-mail's web site here to learn more about this superb service, which is available to anyone and everyone, and is only supported through private funds, with no government involvement. This ensures that it remains truly independent.

Anthrax seems to be reported at least once a month, sometimes once a week, from somewhere in the world and it was a serious problem three years ago in Queen Elizabeth National park, Uganda, when a large number of hippo died. The year before the outbreak it was common to see leopard on the channel track near Mweya Lodge, but they all disappeared and the next year we saw none. It is a reasonable assumption that they fed on carcasses and died of this disease. We saw this hippo in the park’s Lake Edward the year before the anthrax outbreak, and one of our MSc students, Dr. Eddie Kambale of the DRC went out to take a swab form an open wound on its neck. It was anthrax negative, and we saw other wounds. The likelihood is that it died in a fight.

There does not seem to be any information on the source of the drums and whether they originated in the UK, or came in from overseas. With the frequent reports of this nasty disease from so many corners of the world I just hope that the drums these kids are playing with at the Kasenyi Primary School in QEP were not from anthrax carcasses. It would seem not, as the drums have been at the school for 4 years and are frequently played.

Source: The story ran in ( ProMED-AHEAD Digest of Friday, November 28 2008 (Volume 2008 : Number 304)

Monday, December 1, 2008

Saskatchewan Book Awards, The Trouble With Lions

The Saskatchewan Book Awards gala (check their web site) was held in Regina over the weekend. Over 450 folks attended, and the organizers really laid on a big bash, with books short-listed in thirteen categories from 261 published this year in a province with a population of just about 1 million. If one computes that on the basis of an author producing work once in four years it comes to about 1000 published authors, which is a pretty amazing stat.

The Trouble With Lions was short-listed in two categories, and I have added a scan that shows each of those, with the names of the other authors and the brief notes made by the jurors about each one. Just looking at the comments on my own work I was astonished to see how the book had affected the two groups of jurors. Here is the Saskatoon book list If one reads the comments one might think that they had read two completely different books! And here is the nonfiction list

The winners in my categories were Donna Caruso, for her Journey Without A Map, Growing Up Italian: A Memoir, (Thistledown Press) (Non-Fiction) and Louise Bernice Halfe, The Crooked Good, (Coteau Books) (Saskatoon Book).

Both are super books, and it was great to be in the company of so many gifted folks. One of the highlights of the evening for me was the fact that the keynote speaker, Maria Campbell, is both an author and a storyteller. I think that sometimes we forget how closely these two disciplines are linked, but one of our most iconic authors, Robertson Davies, did not forget. In The Merry Heart he wrote
“The author today is the descendant of the storyteller who went into the market-place, sat himself down upon his mat, and beat upon his collection bowl, crying, “Give me a copper coin and I will tell you a golden tale!”