Monday, December 28, 2009

Orangutan intelligence


From time to time stories appear on the Web that cannot be ignored. They are intriguing not only for what they report, but also for what they may have missed. Such is the case with two recent reports about that most fascinating of the great apes, the orangutan, which is held by many who have worked with this group of primates to be the most intelligent of all (after humans). My own experience with them is limited, but many years ago, on a visit to the Singapore zoo we were introduced to an ancient female orang who was allowed out for walks with the staff. We were on a semi-official visit and as we walked along the ape held hands with my daughter and then, when we all (including the orang) sat on a bench she gently put her hand on my son’s knee as we contemplated the wonderful array of tropical plants around us.

Both of the web stories concern the use of tools. One is an account by Andrea Thompson, a senior writer with Live Science of how researchers in Borneo who have been studying wild orangs have noted that the apes developed the use of leaves to make a sound called a kiss squeak for communicating with other members of their species in the forests. You can find it here.
The other report is more whimsical and relates how zoo staff in Germany have given one particular female ape her own Facebook page. This after she learned to use a simple camera. Each time she does so she receives a raisin as a reward. The story can be found here
and shows how inventive zoo staff can increase public interest and hence zoo attendance with innovative ideas.

There are other stories about orangs that have not yet appeared in the popular literature, and deserve to do so, as they show even more clearly how smart these creatures really are. The most amazing also involves the use of tools and was told to me in 1988 late at night on a subway train in Toronto by my friend and colleague Dr. Lyndsay Phillips.

“I came into work one morning,” he said, “to find the place in an uproar. The adult male orang was sitting on the roof at topmost point of the primate house with the entire group from the enclosure. We took the calm approach and persuaded him to come down with an offering of food. He led the group back into the cage through the door used by the keepers, which was hanging open. Of course the director went ballistic and hauled the keeper staff over the coals for carelessness. Next morning it was the same, the orangs were on the roof.”

“I imagine the director was not impressed” I said.

“No, you’re right, but we took a measured approach. The keepers swore black and blue that they had double-checked everything. That night volunteers sat all night in the passage way near the door. Nothing happened. We assumed no more volunteers were needed and that it had just been a weird coincidence until the day after that, when the orangs were on the roof again. Now we had a serious situation on our hands.”

Now comes the amazing bit, as Lyndsay told it.

“We set up a video surveillance system and late at night a red hairy hand appeared between the bars and began to fiddle with the padlock. Several minutes later the hand gave a jerk to the lock and the door opened. The orangs headed out and up, to be found perched on high in the morning.”

Lyndsay switched to a brief side-bar.

“There’s a couple of things to know about orangutans. When you have them in captivity you need to keep an ice cream pail handy. You pick up nuts and bolts from the cage area until the pail is full. Then you lock the group into their night quarters and enter the cage to find all the places where the pieces you have found have been removed and replace them. Orangs are incredibly strong and have all day and night to inspect and fiddle. There is one female in our group who will pick up a broom when the keepers come to clean and help them sweeping. She knows exactly what she is doing.”

“So what happened?” I asked as the train slowed on the approach to the downtown station near our hotel.

“Well, long story short, I anesthetized the entire group and we did body searches. We found nothing. As a last resort I set up the portable X-ray. We did the big male first, and saw a metal object in his mouth, near his front teeth. There, between his lip and gum, he had a length of wire. He had become a lock-pick! Once we took the wire away there were no more escapes.”

In case you doubt this account, it is worth mentioning that a much drier version of it was published the following year in the proceedings of the annual convention of the American Association of Zoo Veterinarians. The meeting was held in Greensboro, North Carolina, and I was chairing a session on zoo safety. Lyndsay’s story was a perfect fit.

Monday, December 21, 2009

White Rhino Rescue


In the book Last Chance To See written by the late Douglas Adams (he of the five books in the trilogy The Hitchhikers Guide To The Galaxy) and co-authored by Mark Cawardine, Adams described his visit in 1980 to the last refuge of the Northern White Rhino in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. At that time there may have been two dozen of the creatures left after a century of relentless slaughter, aka poaching. So relentless in fact that early in the 20th century the French organized and armed gangs of poachers for the express purpose of collecting rhino horn for sale. Then came the terrible times of Idi Amin in Uganda, and the end of all rhinos in that country.

This picture was taken in Kenya in the 1971 and shows Southern White Rhinos with their guard, but if I had not told you that this was the Southern, as opposed to the Northern, there is no way that you would have known - any more than I would if I had not been told. They look the same.

Four years ago, when I was in Kenya on a visit to my old stamping grounds around the town of Nanyuki, nestled on the western slopes of Mount Kenya, there was serious discussion of the possibility of bringing the last remnants (now only three or four animals) of the DRC group of rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where this picture was taken. That effort foundered on the rocks of local politics in the DRC’s Garamba National Park where the rhino hung on under some measure of protection.

There was one glimmer, a faint one, in that seven individuals of this now critically endangered rhino had been taken to the Czech Republic and kept at the Dvür Krålové zoo. In ten years only one calf, a female, was born. There were three more in San Diego, but they were not breeding at all. In 2009 there are now only eight northern white rhino in existence.

Now comes the latest, and probably last attempt to save the remnants. As reported on the BBC web siteof 20th Nov under the banner headline
Czech zoo sends rare Northern White rhinos to Kenya

The translocation is not without is detractors, but Rob Brett, who is a member of the IUCN rhino specialist group is quoted as saying
"Moving them now is a last-bid effort to save them and their gene pool from total extinction."

More details emerge in another posting and it is here where one learns about the team of folks who have been involved in this exercise, and perhaps why some folks are concerned. These concerns stem mainly from the fact that the Northerns are likely to breed with the Southerns that are already at the conservancy (if they breed at all). Of course their gene pool would immediately be diluted, but the prevailing view seems to be that the genes would be lost completely if no efforts were made.

Of course the hope is that the return of the two males and two females to a more natural habitat, and relative freedom of thousands of hectares of bush, will turn on their reproductive juices. It seems a faint hope until one remembers that the thousands of Southern White Rhinos scattered in parks and zoos around the world are all descendants of about ten animals left alive in South Africa in 1904.This animal was one of my patients in one of those refuges, Meru National Park in Kenya.

You can find more about this remarkable recovery, and about the long and ugly history of rhino slaughter and why people do it, inThe Trouble With Lions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Veterinarians Without Borders/ Vétérinaires Sans Frontiéres
If you are thinking of donating anything this Christmas season, why not go the web site of Veterinarians Without Borders/ Vétérinaires Sans Frontiéres and see what you can do. Of course tax receipts are issued as this is a registered charity. If you do not have money to spare you may have AirMiles points and they would be most welcome. The money will go straight to a project somewhere in the world. For instance there are projects needing help right here in Canada, and of course there are projects in many other regions. My efforts have mainly been focused in Africa, and for those who have not delved back very far on this page you can find a length report about our activities in Uganda in the blog of Monday, May 4, 2009 titled Uganda and WCVM primary schools report.. To save you time just click here and you will get straight to it.
It has a large number of pictures, many of them related to activities in two small primary schools.
But not all of them. As a teaser here is one that shows the sort of thing the children would have seen when we arranged for them to take a boat trip and see some wildlife.
My travel to Uganda was supported through the AirMiles program of Air Canada who support VWB/VSF. When Dr. David Waltner-Toews, the CEO of VWB-VSF read the report he wrote to me saying that it is interesting how many of our projects start out working with animals and end up with schoolchildren. Thats' where the need is, that's where the educational opportunties lie for the betterment of the lot of people and their animals.

I know some of you folks following this are veterinary students. Think about joining VWB/VSF. The rewards will far outstrip the costs (which are pretty low as there are special student rates).

Enjoy the holidays!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Murder by elk (moose)?


An unusual report has come out of Sweden and appeared on the BBC website (here) on 28th November and on a blog called JUSTICE", FROM THE CRAZY TO THE DEEPLY DISTURBING" (here). The BBC headline reads,
“Sweden woman's 'murder' committed by elk not husband”
I have been trying to find out more about it since the as the report has some intriguing holes in it. Of course the first thing to clear up is that the word elk means something different in Europe than it does in North America. It is a bit difficult to figure our why the elk of North America, known as Wapiti, ever became to be called en elk, which is what the moose is known as across the pond and right round the globe as far as the Bering Strait. Elch, Alg, and others are the names in languages other than English. Idle speculation on my part makes me wonder if one of the early settlers, maybe even someone on the Mayflower, was either short-sighted or had cataracts. If he or she saw a large brown deer-like beast it might have been dubbed an elk.

Anyhoo, that aside, the story is a sad one. A man named Ingemar Westlund says he was "dragged through a nightmare" after being arrested on suspicion of the murder of his wife. He found the body of his wife Agneta, aged 63 in September 2008 and was immediately arrested by police and held in custody for 10 days.

In the initial investigation, police did not take into account the possibility of a killer elk, assuming that the animal hairs on Mrs. Westlund’s coat were from her dog. It was only when the police realized that 68 year-old Mr. Westlund was not strong enough to have inflicted the damage to his wife that they went to forensics. Scientists at Umeå University sorted out the hair types and identifed the saliva. At that point it must have been assumed that she had been attacked when taking their dog for a walk in the forest. The charges were later dropped.

One of the weirder elements of this story appears as a quote on the BBC site
“Swedish Radio International says the animals can become aggressive after eating fermented fallen apples in gardens.”

There are more detail on the “Justice” blog where it states that:
“Drunken elks attacked an old people’s home four years ago, and had to be driven back by police and hunters… Typically weighing up to half a tonne, elk are best avoided when they are tipsy. They have entered department stores, got stuck in lifts, attacked skiers and barged into kitchens.”

If the “murderer” was a bull then there is a much stronger likelihood that apples had little to do with the event.

The deer scientist in me at once raises a red flag. The sad event occurred in September. September is the month when the rut starts in moose in the Northern Hemisphere and as the month goes along the rut gets more intense.

That intensity is driven by a huge spike in testosterone (T4) in the blood. I am not aware of any exact studies of T4 levels in moose, but in elk (the wapiti version) they are well known. As you can see from this graph, which I made almost 30 years ago during a research project of the rut in wapiti, T4 concentrations increase about 100 fold in the space of two weeks. The scale on the graph does not give a true picture as it had to be altered to fit on a page or screen.

Aggression is then the watch-word and humans are targets if they get too close to the sex-crazed creature. One of my colleagues, who will remain nameless, descried a particularly randy male student (who also flies incognito) as a life-support system for an erection. A rutting male deer really does fit that description.

I have talked to moose hunters who have been attacked. They were all terrified and were mighty thankful to have guns. Poor Mrs. Westlund would have had no chance.

Even if the moose was a female and Mrs. Westlund had got too close, she would have been completely outmatched. Moose cows, especially if defending a calf, are powerful and would attack a dog much as they do a wolf, using the front feet to strike and pound. Imagine 400 kg or more of enraged moose, bull or cow, up against a woman and a dog. No contest.

Another sad element. Mr. Westlund was shunned by his neighbours. “When I and my children bade farewell to Agneta at her funeral in front of 300 mourners, I was suspected of murdering her — can you imagine what that means?” he said. He is now seeking compensation.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Three cups of tea
I have just finished an amazing book called Three Cups of Tea. It is written by Greg Mortensen and David Oliver Relin and tells the story of how Mortensen has led a fantastic program in Pakistan and later Afghanistan, to educate thousands of children, boys and girls equally, through his personal initiatives to build schools in remote regions. The story is compelling and one cannot fail to be moved by it.
Of course this blog is mainly about conservation, and at first the book would not seem to have much to do with the subject, but ultimately it is only though education that we can hope to achieve any kind of balance. Mortensen has, in my opinion, achieved more than all the wars that one can imagine. It seems appropriate to send this post on the very day of the announcement of an additional 30,000 troops are destined to be sent to a country that has never, in all its history since Alexander the Great, been conquered.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Wildlife in Kashmir


Once upon a time (this is not really a fairy story) Kashmir was one of the great places to visit. During the era of the British Raj it was a major tourist destination and for the avid fisherman the state offered some of the very best fishing in the world. It has been assort of pipe-dream for me to dip a line in those waters, but for twenty or more years it has been no more than a pipe-dream as Kashmir is also the core of the long-standing border dispute between India and Pakistan.

There is one possible benefit to the near-war status of the region where it is estimated that since the 1989 full-blown rebellion against Indian rule blew up over 47,000 people have been killed. Hunters and poachers have hardly dared to set foot in the region.

If two recent reports are anything to go by wildlife in general and Himalayan black bears in particular may have had some measure of protection.

In a Reuters report of Nov 17th by Sheikh Mushtaq that you can find here it seems as if several wildlife species have shown marked increases in population size. Mushtaq quotes Kashmir's wildlife warden, Rashid Naqash as stating that
“Rare birds like the black partridge and pheasant have increased in thousands while more Asiatic black bear, leopards, musk deer and hangul, a rare red deer, now roam the disputed Himalayan region's pine forests.”
Most spectacular is the claim that the population of black bears has jumped from 700-800 to something over 2,500 in twenty years. This would mean that the population has increased by 7% a year.
A more focused report available here comes from Yahoo news and also quotes Rashid Naqash. In this case he is reported to have said that only 300 of the bears inhabit the region. He also told the reporter that three bears have been fitted with GPS collars and that three more are to be collared soon.
"This is the first time in India that Himalayan black bears have been fitted with a GPS collar."

Naqash is also quoted as saying that the collars could also help prevent bear attacks in the region, which are certainly a serious threat to the local villagers. Wild bears have killed more than two dozen people in the past four years and left 150 injured. For those who love nature stories told with the utmost skill this account is very reminiscent of the wonderful stories of naturalist Jim Corbett. If you don’t know them, try & find one such as Maneaters of Kumaon ( and give it a read. I was hooked at once and have all his writings.

Naqash also made a claim that seems to be more hope than reality when he stated
"We can always monitor their movements and sound an alert once they start moving towards the human habitations."
While three, or even six bears may be monitored, what about the 294 others or, if
Mushtaq’s numbers are to be believed it would be another 2494!

Something seems to smack of the fairy story element, or maybe the editors have made a mess of what would seem to be an encouraging report.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Of Moose And Men


I am starting on a new book about work in Canada. The title is Of Moose and Men and here is a short extract from one of the chapters. The scene takes place in Alberta when I had been asked to examine a pet moose that had recently delivered a calf and was not well. The moose (Petruska) had complete trust in her owner but when I approached to about 50 metres in my attempt to examine her...

Petruska let out a loud snort as she set off at a full charge and then I could hear her breath as she crashed through the underbrush, her hooves pounding on the hard ground. It became a sort of Mexican stand-off. Petruska looked at me between the fortunately thick branches of the spruce and tried to get at me, first by stamping her feet, much as she would in killing a predator, and second by trying to move around the tree to get a clearer run. Of course there was nothing I could do about the stamping except be glad that it was occurring twenty-odd feet from me, but I could and did move around the tree to make sure that we remained at exactly opposite sides. Not that she came round all the way. That would have put me between her and her calf, which would been quite unnatural as she presumably viewed me as some sort of predator that was going to get the most precious thing in her world.

Ring-around-the-roses is now a children’s game derived from the grim days of the black death. Ring-around-the-spruce-tree played by me and an irate mother moose intent on reducing me to a thin layer of pulverized flesh on the ground is quite another. While she was determined to protect her new calf, I was keen to protect myself.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Giraffes in Niger


Wildlife in Niger has been in serious trouble form poachers and hungry people for many years. One species that has been extirpated from the region is the scimitar-horned oryx, seen here in Texas and most of the world’s remaining members of this species now reside in North America. Indeed several exist on private game ranches. In the late 1980s I visited one such ranch in Texas where a philanthropic oil man had give over a large chunk of his land to their propagation. One of our party asked him “Why don’t you send some back to Niger?"

His reply – “Why would I? Everyone and his brother has an AK47. The animals would not last a month.”

So, the recent story from the BBC webs site about the resurgence of the West African giraffe in Niger is all the more remarkable.

As the reporter Martin Plaut writes
“From a herd of 50 animals, careful conservation supported by Niger's government has seen their numbers rise to around 200.”

Mind you this is still only a fraction of what once was an enormous number of these remarkable animals that roamed right across the region all the way to the Atlantic coast.

As I wrote in my blog of December 31, 2008 there are now five recognized species of giraffe. You can see four of them in that blog, but I have never seen the West African species, the rarest of all. My only chance to do so would have been in northern Cameroon in 1996, but I was fully engaged in an elephant collaring project with New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society. If you would like to read how very difficult this project was you can do in chapters 10 & 11 of The Trouble With Lions.

The good news in this BBC story is that the giraffes have been seen within 60 km of the country’s capital city Niamey and the government has banned all hunting in the hope that the animals will help with the tourist trade.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Furadan in the USA


A recent story out of the state of Missouri caught my eye because it involved the prosecution and sentencing of a man from Raymondville for using Furadan (Carbofuran) to kill wildlife. The story appeared on Nov 3rd & 4th in the on-line newspaper the Springfield News-Leader, which you can find here.

I have posted in Furadan a few times before, all to do with African wildlife, and in doing so was under the mistaken belief that the stuff was banned in North America. In Africa it has been used to deliberately kill lions and to capture huge numbers of birds. You can read about that in the blogs of March 15 & 30, May 29 and June 13 & 18.

This case is interesting because the culprit, one Eric Bryant, carried out the offense in January this year. He had treated some deer meat with the poison in an effort to control coyotes. In six weeks had killed at least three domestic dogs, several coyotes, a gray fox, a skunk, a red-tailed hawk and three American crows. These creatures were found by federal agents, and there is of course no way of knowing how many other animals perished.

My own yellow lab, Caesar, would be just as susceptible as any other dog, maybe even more so given his breed's tendency to eat anything he finds.

This just goes to show that the poison can kill a wide range of species. It acts by disrupting nerve conduction. The stuff is highly toxic to humans, and as little as a quarter tea-spoon can be fatal.

Because it is such an effective pesticide, and kills insects on contact, it is much favoured by crop producers. Farmers who apply it must do so in closed systems and one wonders how much risk the drivers of modern tractors, with their efficient air conditioners, are running. Can Furadan in a mist be brought back into the cab and create a hazard for the driver?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Hunting and meat from stores


A couple of weeks ago the writers group of which I am a member met and reviewed some of our work. Most of the group write in the world of science fiction & fantasy, but two of us write outside that genre. One is a mystery writer, and then there's me, writing in creative non-fiction.

I have related in my published work that I am a hunter, and have been for many years. For the last 30 years my wife & I have not purchased meat, except bacon (a little difficult to hunt). We get ultra low-fat meat, and what fat there is has only 3-omega fatty acids. Some members of the group could not understand that I have spent a career trying to work on wild animals in many corners of the globe and then go hunting.

To me it is simple. I get good food, I know where it comes from and I can control how it is processed. Cost is not an issue. By the time I have purchased licenses, filled my truck with gas and paid for ammunition I probably spend more than I would at the butchers shop or supermarket. I also get great enjoyment being outside in the countryside or sitting in a canoe casting a line.

It is obvious that there is a huge disconnect between my approach and that of some urban dwellers. We know that many inner-city folks have no idea that milk comes from cows, but then one of my group sent me this.
Where did this writer come from? Does she or he eat chickens, steaks of sausages? Or is this a case of an elaborate spoof. Sadly, I doubt it

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gorilla street party


Conservation in action is exemplified in the video made by the group from the Democratic Republic of Congo's Gorilla Conservation group.

They are obviously having fun and doing great conservation work at the same time as they promote the use of briquettes to reduce the enormous pressure on the forests and the heavy use of charcoal. Take a look and make sure you sound is turned on. The music alone if worth listening to!

You can learn lots more about this kind of work at the Wildlife Direct Blog site here. Have fun and watch this! Then follow some of the links to see what is going on.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bad news for books and publshers


Bad news on the book front. In British Columbia the provincial government has suddenly withdrawn all its annual support, terminating a 22-year partnership with the non-profit society that sponsors B.C. BookWorld. The withdrawal was announced by phone, giving little notice, and the B.C. book publishers’ association and the B.C. magazine publishers’ association got the same message on the same day. Callous, calculated or what?

At the Federal level our government has made similarly draconian moves, in one of the worst cases, entirely removing a program that supported artists (of all stripes) in their overseas travels. Most artists, apart from the high profile stars, have incomes well below the so-called “poverty line” as it is defined in Canada. Being invited to travel to galleries and shows may be a two-edged sword if the organizers are unable to offer full coverage. Going to an event and taking our Canadian culture along may be impossible

Another program that has been savaged is the support for magazines through postal subsidies. If circulation is below 5000 there is no subsidy. This hits particularly hard in small population areas (like Saskatchewan) but may not affect magazines with larger catchment areas like Quebec and Ontario.

It seems to me that the politicians are forgetting that culture is at the very foundation of what we are about as humans. They all went to school. Maybe some of them hated their English teachers.

Writing is the bedrock. With writing comes reading. There you have two of the Three “R”s. Without them, we are mere cavemen, daubing ochre and charcoal on rock faces, banging, scratching and blowing on primitive instruments.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Friday, October 9, 2009

Black-footed ferret reintroduction


Next week I’ll be heading south to the Frenchman River Valley, one of my favourite places in the province. The scenery is quite different than most of the rest of this part of the world, and the wildlife is also somewhat different.

A few years ago bison were brought back to the Grasslands National Park to repopulate a region where they must have existed in their thousands at one time. One piece of the evidence for this is a deep buffalo jump site where the bones of many animals can still be found.

Another important re-introduction has been the smallest of all the canid species in Canada, the swift fox, no larger than many a house cat, that was extirpated in Canada and only reintroduced after many years of tireless work that was started by Miles and Beryl Smeeton of Cochrane, Alberta.

The latest arrivals, or re-arrivals, are a group of thirty-four black-footed ferrets. Several news services have picked up on this story and sent out releases such as WWF Helps Masked Bandit Return to Prairies and
Calgary Zoo helps return black-footed ferrets to Canada after 75 years!

These attractive black-masked relatives of the weasel, the otter and the mink were extirpated in Canada many years ago, having last been seen in Saskatchewan in 1937. No one knows for sure how this population died out, but in other areas the numbers of their main prey, the black-tailed prairie dog (a relative of the ubiquitous gopher, or Richardson’s ground squirrel) crashed mainly because of farming practices. On top of that disease, especially the plague (yes, the same bacterium that caused the black death) probably took a heavy toll.

By the late 1970s it was thought that the ferret had become extinct, but in 1981 wildlife officials in Wyoming found a small group. Captive breeding programs were started in a number of zoos, including Toronto and Calgary in Canada. Many partners cooperated in the captive breeding program and you can find a black-footed ferret microsite at Calgary Zoo’s web site. It contains educational vignettes and will be updated regularly.

Despite some early bumps, which included the near loss of many animals from canine distemper (that I wrote about in my last blog of October 2nd) the program has been a success, and there are now 17 sites in the USA where reintroductions have taken place, as well as one in Mexico and now near the small town of Val Marie, where the Grasslands NP headquarters is located. There are plans to bring more ferrets in future years, as this release is just a start, and the numbers are not sufficient to ensure long-term success. No one has asked the prairie dogs what they think about all this, but for thousands of years the ferrets were part of their every day lives, and even made their homes in the burrows of their prey.

If you want to see black-footed ferrets head to the park. You might find them near prairie dog colonies and you will likely see other wildlife that is not found in many other spots of Canada, let alone Saskatchewan. Even if you don’t the sunsets over the hills are well worth the visit.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Canine Distemper in a new species


Once again the Wildlife Disease Listserv and blog has provided an entry into a convoluted story of disease among wildlife, domestic animals and even people.

A recent report published in the journal Microbiology has further broadened the range of species that can contract and die from a nasty virus disease once thought to occur, as its name implies, in dogs. It is canine distemper. The title of the article, written by Zhaozeng Sun, Aixue Li and their colleagues, is Natural Infection with Canine Distemper Virus in Hand-feeding Rhesus Monkeys in China.

It has been known for many years that some other species can contract the virus, or its very close relatives, and it seems obvious that the virus itself is able to undergo slight changes that allow it to infect new hosts. In the last thirty years it has been seen in seals (hence phocine distemper), dolphins, and other species. In Africa it had devastating effects on the African Wild Dog populations and was reported in jackals and hyaenas. It would be no surprise to learn that it also killed other canids like bat-eared foxes, but they tend to fly a bit under the radar and do not have the charismatic appeal of the larger species – they only weigh about 3 kg. Then in 1994 an epidemic occurred in lions in the Serengeti, killing an estimated 30% of the population, something like 1000 animals, in two years!

As I wrote in The Trouble With Lions
“There is a dramatic, but grim, movie clip shown on the Glasgow Veterinary College web site, taken by modeler Professor Ray Holborn, of a lion in the Serengeti in the throes of a grand mal seizure, which is one of the classic signs of distemper”.
I have just spent a fruitless 30 minutes trying to find the video, but it seems to have been taken down.

In dogs some of the classic signs of distemper are fever, loss of appetite, respiratory symptoms and thickening of the footpad. Another name for the condition used to be “Hardpad” and at one time this was even thought to be a different disease. Distemper was once a major killer of inner-city dogs in Glasgow and we students used to go into slum areas and take part in free vaccination clinics. This is much the same as the clinics that now take place around national parks like the Serengeti and Masai Mara in Kenya and Tanzania. You can read more about this on the Wildlife Direct blog here.

Many dogs developed central nervous system signs and seizures were common before they went on to die. There is no mention of CNS signs in any species other than the lions, but deaths certainly occurred. That is exactly what took place in the Chinese Rhesus monkeys where twelve of twenty that were sick went on to die.

So, will distemper jump to humans? Maybe it has done so already, aeons ago, in the form of measles. We may be lucky, because the distemper and measles viruses are closely related. So much so that for many years measles vaccine was used to protect puppies. Another point. When measles vaccines programs fail, or folks take decision not to vaccinate children, the consequences can be terrible. Measles was once a major factor in many areas of the world where European invaders arrived and brought the disease to fully susceptible people.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Wildlife smuggling


In The Trouble With Lions I wrote:
There seems to be some debate about which illegal trade generates the most income, but the top four are drugs, arms, people (mainly women as sex workers) and animals. All are worth billions of dollars a year and the animal trade involves the death of a vast proportion of its victims even while in transit.

It now seems as if wildlife smuggling has leapt into second place behind drugs in South Africa and overtaken arms.

The latest report of a bizarre case comes from the Wildlife Disease News Digest listserv of Sept 21st to which I subscribe. They provided a link to a story from Britain’s Telegraph online news outlet. The headline reads

South African caught at airport with crocodiles in luggage

It was not only crocodiles that he had tried to smuggle in his luggage, but a real mix that included snakes, a turtle, spiders, scorpions and frogs. In all some seventy animals were involved.

The man had flown in from Thailand and many, if not all (the article in not clear about this) of the animals were non-native and came from the Far East. There were at least three endangered species.

There are several issues to think about. First, and obvious, is the drain on species in the countries from which the animals came. Then comes the other big question. What happens when the smuggled animals arrive at destination; will they bring foreign diseases; what impact will they have on native wildlife?

The most recent and well-publicised example of a bad news answer to this question comes from Florida in the USA. Two species of non-native python have been found in the state. They are the Burmese Python and the African Rock Python. No doubt so-called “pet” owners released them when they got too big to handle. What is alarming about the rock python story came in a Sept 14th report by Christine Dell'Amore of National Geographic News who wrote:
“Six African rock pythons have been found in Florida since 2002. More troubling, a pregnant female and two hatchlings have been found, which means the aggressive reptiles have set up house.”

The smuggling continues and will no doubt do so as long as bad people want to make money. Maybe scanners like the one I wrote about in the blog on bushmeat need to be used in all airports.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Bushmeat smuggling from Africa


In The Trouble With Lions I wrote about an unusual case of bushmeat smuggling in the USA. An immigrant woman from Liberia had been prosecuted for smuggling monkey parts. At her pretrial deposition in the Brooklyn federal court in Brooklyn she stated that she ate the bushmeat for religious purposes and
‘because monkey from the wildlife is a very smart animal’.
The case has moved along and a report by Frank Donnelly in the Staten Island Advance of Sept 9th states that the woman, named Mamie Manneh (or Jefferson) has pleaded guilty to smuggling illegal monkey parts. This happened after her church minister debunked her claim of bushmeat's religious significance. She will be sentenced on Nov 13th in Brooklyn Federal court.

One of the issues raised by the prosecution was the potential of disease spread from bushmeat. The prosecution veterinary expert mentioned Ebola, measles, tuberculosis, monkeypox and retroviruses similar to HIV but added that she was ‘she was unaware of any documented cases of such diseases being spread through consumer bushmeat.” It maybe that she was referring to such diseases occurring in the USA, but it is important to recognize that several of these diseases are known to have crossed into humans from bushmeat in other countries. The classic is the spread of HIV to humans from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys on at least seven occasions in the last 100 years. Then there is the more recent finding of a gorilla derived form of HIV occurring in a human, which I recounted in this blog on August 4th under the title Gorillas and AIDS.

In a somewhat related case a Ugandan man was caught red-handed with bushmeat and fruit when his luggage was screened at Newark Liberty International Airport. Reporter Christopher N. Dela Cruz, writing in New Jersey Real-Time News, which is associated with the Star Ledger related that parts of antelope and cane rat were found along with fruit and other illegal commodities.

Lest anyone think that bushmeat smuggling is unusual, local authorities in Newark relate that this was the sixth seizure of bushmeat since October last year, totaling over 41 pounds. Last year, similar seizures weighed in at 88 pounds. Once again, and entirely appropriately, disease transmission to people from bushmeat was raised by federal authorities.

One of the slightly odd things about this report was that a picture accompanying the report showed a uniquely North American species, the pronghorn antelope. It seems possible that the newspaper lacked a picture of the most common antelope species in Uganda, the Uganda kob, (pictured here) which is often a target for poachers in Queen Elizabeth National Park and elsewhere.

In this case the man, whose name was not given, was fined $300 and released.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Gorilla hunting in Congo


A recent headline on the BBC web site goes like this: “Scale of gorilla poaching exposed”. The story, by Earth News reporter Jody Bourton tells how
“An undercover investigation has found that up to two gorillas are killed and sold as bushmeat each week in Kouilou, a region of the Republic of Congo.”

Quoting Mr Pierre Fidenci, president of Endangered Species International (ESI) Bourton wrote:
"Gorilla meat is sold pre-cut and smoked for about $6 per 'hand-sized' piece. Actual gorilla hands are also available."

What Bourton did not mention is that there has been a culture of gorilla hunting and consumption in the Congo basin for a long time. In his autobiography On Safari: The Story of My Life (Collins 1963) Armand Denis published several remarkable photographs of gorillas that had been hunted by large gangs of Ituri hunters deep in the forests of the Congo basin when he accompanied pygmies on a well-orchestrated hunt in the forest. These hunters used home-made guns that fired anything that could be turned into a lethal projectile and were dangerous to use, as they might explode in the user’s face.

More recent photos of butchered gorillas and indeed the whole bushmeat saga have been published by Karl Amman, who allowed me to use some of his images in The Trouble WIth Lions. You can see some of them on his web site.

It is very likely that the current hunting is more systemic and highly organized than the events that Denis witnessed and it is also likely that it is unsustainable. The investigators found that half the population is killed each year. No population of slow-breeding animal can sustain itself under such pressure. The situation is compounded because the main targets are adult gorillas that carry the most meat.

Fidenci’s team estimates that there are perhaps 200 gorillas left in the area. That number won’t last long.

A worthy, but in my opinion unattainable, goal, is to stop the hunting by providing alternative income, increasing conservation awareness and creating a gorilla reserve.

Bourton ends by quoting Fidenci.
"Enforcement does not exist. Even though there are existing laws which protect endangered wildlife against such activities."

With war, inaccessible forests and many other problems to deal with it is difficult to see how antipoaching can be a high priority.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Elephant anthrax

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Anthrax is an ongoing problem all over the world and frequently appears on Promed listserv newsletters. Most often the story concerns a group of people who have eaten a carcass of a dead animal. The consequences are deadly. A story from India’s state of Kerala has a different twist. It concerns the burial of an elephant that was thought to have died of this nasty disease. The elephant’s name was Unnikrishnan, and it belonged to a saw mill owner in Perumbavoor.

Simple burial is simply the wrong way to deal with any animal that has died of anthrax because the bacterium that causes the disease is one of the hardiest life forms known and can persist in the soil for enormous (but unknown) lengths of time as a spore.

There is a safe way to bury anthrax carcasses, and that involves using lime and digging down so that the body is at least six feet deep. For an elephant that would no doubt mean that the bottom of the hole has to be ten or twelve feet deep.

In this case the story gets even uglier because the elephant was buried, near the Muvattupuzha river and could therefore pose a threat a source of potable water in the district.

In some elephant camps in India and elsewhere there is a routine preventive program that involves regular vaccination. Witness this picture of Dr. Carlyle Jaganathan holding a syringe and waiting for a working elephant to lie down so that he could vaccinate it. I witnessed this event twenty years ago in Mudumalai NP that lies between Kerala and Kamataka states. What I was could not document was the animal’s objection to the needle. I am sure she knew what was coming and even as Dr. Jaganathan inserted the needle into the fold of skin under her tail she started to try and get up. Her mahout prevented that and the injection was administered without further ado.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Grandson's first fish


Nothing much to do with conservation, but I can't resist posting a pic of my grandson and his first fish. It is a pickerel (walleye to some) and was caught in Prince Albert National Park on a yellow jig. The lad cast his own line from the canoe, hooked and played the fish on his own (with his dad's advice on keeping the rod tip up) and brought it to the boat. His dad then lifted into the canoe, at which point the six-year old said "So that's what this is all about.". As they returned to shore his dad asked "Don't you want to put your line out again and try for another one?".
To this came the memorable reply
"No dad, my nerves are having a party and I can't handle it."
That line has to go into a book at some point.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Bushmeat in Madagascar and Asia


Two seemingly unrelated stories, one from the BBC and the other from the Wildlife Disease News Digest that came to me via their listserv once more showcase the subject of the bushmeat trade. The bottom line? Hunting is an old, old tradition and hungry people need to eat and will hunt the wild animals around them.

The first story comes from Madagascar and is headlined Lemurs butchered in Madagascar. Reporter Jody Bourton relates how the recent unrest and loss of law and order and “suspension of conservation aid” has led to wide-spread hunting and consumption of these already threatened or endangered animals. She sates
“The dead lemurs are sold to restaurant owners seeking to serve new delicacies.”
This may not be so much a story of hunger as of novelty.This picture shown in Jody’s report, taken by local non-government organisation Fanamby and released by Conservation International shows a basket of smoked lemurs available for sale.

Bourton concludes that
"The problem of illegal killing of lemurs in Madagascar will only be solved when authorities act and are empowered. Also, the big donor agencies, the United States and Europe need to reinstate funding for conservation activities there immediately, or the advances of the past 25 years will forever be lost."

The other story comes from Asia and concerns a different type of bushmeat. In this case it is the world’s largest bat, the so-called large flying fox that is being hunted. The story by John Platt is headlined World's largest bat being hunted into extinction

The study that Platt refers to was headed up by Dr. Jonathan H. Epstein of the Wildlife Trust in New York City. It was published in the August 25 online edition of the Journal of Applied Ecology.
In his report Epstein stated that in Malaysia alone, 22,000 bats are legally hunted every year, and an unknown number are also illegally killed.
He went further to say that
“this level of hunting is unsustainable
for the number of bats in the country and will decimate this ecologically important species."

The only real way to gauge the size of these animals is to look at the pictures (© 2009 Wildlife Trust) that appear on Dr. Epstein’s report. Keen observers will note that the man handling the bat is wearing protective clothing as well as a mask. I am sure that the garments are worn to protect not only the bat from human diseases, but vice versa. We do know that some really nasty viruses can be transmitted to people by Egyptian Fruit Bats in Africa. Check out Ebola and Marburg as a starter. I have not seen any similar reports about disease transmission from bats to humans in Asia, but who knows?

In this case the disappearance of the bats will have much wider implications than just one species. Epstein stated that the bats
"eat fruit and nectar and in doing so they drop seeds around and pollinate trees. So they are critical to the propagation of rainforest plants."

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

New Species in Himalayas


The most interesting thing to arrive in my email this morning was a posting from the Wildlife Disease News Digest about the discoveries of new species. The pick-up came from the Scientific American and you can see a slide show of seven of those species here.

Datelined Aug 28th and headlined A Decade of New Species Discoveries in the Himalayas it is well worth a look. The first sentence goes like this.
"The remote eastern Himalayas--home to tiny deer and big vipers--have offered enterprising researchers a wealth of new species to document and describe."

Of course for most of us there is no chance of ever seeing any of these creatures, but just knowing they are there is somehow heartening.


Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Walking with Moose


Just back from an interesting weekend in Alberta, all of it related in some way to moose.

It started with a wedding. I’m not going to show wedding pics – I’ll leave that to the happy couple, but the bride is the daughter of a former student and long-time friend. He is Dr. Jack Williams, who graduated from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine in 1978 and one of the highlights (so he tells me) of that final year was a trip to Rochester, north of Edmonton, where I took him to help with a moose research project. In this very short video clip, edited out from a longer one that you can find here on Youtube, you can see Jack (he turns to smile at the camera) as we walk a moose out of heavy bush so that we can weigh him and have more room to change his collar.

One of the stories told at the wedding of Jack’s daughter Ashley was of how he had almost tried to commit suicide by walking backwards along the body of the helicopter towards the tail rotors. He says that had I not rugby tackled him he would have been chopped up. The wedding would certainly never have taken place, because at that time there was no Ashley.

Naturally this story will appear in my new book Of Moose and Men

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Moose wrestling


If you have returned to this blog you will now have an inkling of what my new website will look like. I hope it will be up within a week or ten days, certainly by the end of the month.

Yesterday I posted a 3 minute video to Youtube. It tells, without the benefit of a continuity staff member, how we used to capture moose for research purposes in the 1970s and 1980s. Nowadays almost all moose excpet the huge Alaskan moose, appropriately called Alces alces gigas are captured using net guns. I'll let you have a look at it at the end of this post, but here are a couple of is a teaser photos.

I developed this walking with moose technique after learning something about wildlife capture and darting in Africa and applied it to moose when we needed to weigh them and would often be working in fairly heavy bush where we could not get the helicopter near them.

Here I have put a small piece of the video because the blog cannot handle too much band width. The whole thing is on Youtube.

Of course the method will also get a description in the new book I am working on. It looks as if my title will be Of Moose And Men.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Marburg Virus and Fruit Bats


Just over a year ago, on July 11th 2008, there was a report on the important ListServ Promed Ahead and some other news outlets that told the terrifying story of a Dutch tourist who had died in Holland after being in contact with fruit bats in Uganda. She had visited the Maragambo Forest in Queen Elizabeth National Park, like thousands of others before her. These thousands included me, my wife and at least fifty of my students. We had gone there because there is a cave there that is home to thousands,
if not tens of thousands of Egyptian Fruit bats (Rousettus aegyptiacus) and it is mesmerizing to watch them flit in and out of the roost, never mind to see them clinging to the rock in their serried ranks.

There was an added bonus of attraction at the cave. A pair of African Fish Eagles had taken up residence just outside the entrance – grub to go as it were. Furthermore there was a resident python. In fact the last group of students had seen two pythons. So it is probable that a little biology 101 had been taking place. No exercise need for their packed lunches!

As you can imagine, the park authorities have closed the cave to tourists. The last thing they need is another catastrophe.

The Dutch doctors who cared for the dying patient and identified the cause of her death could not be absolutely certain where the virus came from, but the evidence has now mounted and seems conclusive.

The first suggestion of the link between fruit bats and Marburg, which is closely related to the better known Ebola virus, seems to have been made in 2007, as this BBC report shows.

Then came the recent (Aug 2nd 2009) report in ScienceDaily titled
'Ebola Cousin' Marburg Virus Isolated From African Fruit Bats. To quote:- “A paper published in the open-access science journal PLoS Pathogens provides new insight into the identity of the natural host of this deadly disease.”

As the authors of the PLoS article state, this brings the identification of the natural host of Ebola one step closer, as fruit bats are also strongly suspected in this disease. The first indication of this may have been in a 2005 paper in the prestigious journal Nature that can be found here.

There is one more important part of this chain. Fruit bats are a major source of bushmeat in the forests of central Africa. They are also pretty easy to catch when they return to their roosts during the day.
How many human forest dwellers have died of one of these deadly diseases and not even been noticed?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Gorillas and AIDS


News that a newly discovered version of the virus that causes AIDS has cropped up in a woman from Cameroon has hit several new outlets. This is no surprise. They include Wildlife Disease News Digest, Promed Ahead and the BBC web site.

The original article was published in the prestigious journal Nature Medicine. Lead author Jean-Christophe Plantier and his eight colleagues describe the finding of SIV [simian immunodeficiency virus] in a gorilla. They state that the virus
"is closely related to gorilla simian immunodeficiency virus (SIVgor) and shows no evidence of recombination with other HIV-1 lineages. This new virus seems to be the prototype of a new HIV-1 lineage that is distinct from HIV-1 groups M, N and O. We propose to designate it HIV-1 group P."

It has already been established that the two most important versions of the virus (so far) are HIV1, which crossed into humans from chimpanzees some time in the last 100 years somewhere in the Congo basin and HIV2 which came from a small nondescript monkey called the sooty mangabey, a small, almost uniformly grey monkey whose range is restricted to Upper Guinea in West Africa. In humans these two viruses are genetically less closely related to one another than they are to their original primate sources. The SIV counterparts of these two forms of HIV have been introduced into humans on at least seven different occasions.

That gorilla SIV should have crossed into a human should not surprise anyone who has followed the history of the bushmeat trade. In his 1963 autobiography On Safari Armand Denis published several remarkable photographs of gorillas that had been hunted by large gangs of Ituri hunters deep in the forests of the Congo basin. He had accompanied pygmies on a well-orchestrated hunt in the forest.

However, the Cameronian woman was living in Paris and had never been in contact with bushmeat. The article’s authors suggest that she must have acquired the infection from someone else who was carrying it. While this is the first finding of its kind, it seems likely that others will now be made. The patient was not ill, but that does not mean she will not develop AIDS.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tame Moose


A story in today’s Wildlife Disease News Digestcould not have come at a stranger time. It is about a tame moose controversy in the state of Vermont and concerns a “rescue” of an injured moose by a man named David Lawrence. There are pictures to go with it. The big coincidence is that I have just spent two days writing first drafts of chapters about tame moose for a new work that I am calling Of Moose and Men. I hope to submit it to a publisher by late fall or early in the New Year.

The current story comes from a news source called, which bills itself as “Vermont’s Trusted News Source for 55 years.”

You can read the full Moose Triggers Controversy 28th July story here
It boils down to an account of how Mr. Lawrence has bonded with a moose that he has called Peter after he nursed it back to health following an attack by dogs when it was newborn. Mr. Lawrence is quoted a saying "I just feel this is my calling-- Pete and I love each other."

The problem is that owning a moose is illegal in Vermont and the rest of the story is a discussion of what happens next.

What is not discussed is that Mr. Lawrence may not know how lucky he will be if the moose is transferred to a zoo. This animal is a bull, and every year stories appear in news outlets about people being killed or injured by members of the deer family coming into rut and attacking people. The rut is not far off for moose – a month or two at most.

Tame moose are nothing new. Over two hundred years ago Canadian explorer Samuel Hearne noted that moose were
“the easiest to tame and domesticate of any of the deer kind...”
There are plenty of archival photos of moose around. One in the Winnipeg Free Press of 1908 showed a buggy being pulled by two young bulls. I am lucky to have been able to photograph the paper before it fell apart from old age. Others pre-date that and show settlers using moose harnessed to a travois for hauling household goods. At one time the ownership of a moose was made illegal in Finland because bandits of mooseback could easily escape police on horses.

The stories I am working on concern moose named Petruska, Castor and Pollux that were cared for on a ranch just outside Cochrane, Alberta. I was called there by owners Miles and Beryl Smeeton many years ago to help out with problems. Here, Miles is grooming Petruska. I’m not going to spoil the story now, but there were some amusing moments. One of these, amusing to look back on, but hair-raising at the time, occurred when Petruska and I played ring-around-the spruce-tree as she wanted to attack me for approaching her new-born calf too closely.