Sunday, May 9, 2010

Northern White Rhino – a last ditch try.

Good news, or a desperate move? That is the question that we can surely ask about the move of four of the world’s rarest mammals to Kenya from the Czech Republic. The answer is both.

The January-March issue of Swara, the Nairobi-published magazine arm of the East African Wildlife Society that bills itself as “The Voice of Conservation in East Africa” has two stories about the Northern White Rhino. One of these is by Kes Hillman, who, with her husband spent 22 years in Garamba National Park in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo working on a variety of conservation issues, with a huge focus on the few remaining white rhino there, the last place on earth where they were known to exist.

I have no pictures of this race of rhino, but they look very much like the Southern race, with which I have had a fair amount of experience. Here is a picture taken in Kenya’s Nakuru National Park.

While the article implies that the poaching of rhino in the region was worst from the 1960s, rhino poaching in Africa has a much longer history than that. In the very early 20th century armed gangs were sent out by colonial Europeans to shoot as many rhino as possible, simply to harvest horns for the dagger handle market in Yemen or the oriental medicine trade. By the1960s there were thought to be about 1300 animals in Garamba. Then came civil wars in Congo and the Amin regime in neighbouring Uganda which wiped out all the rhino, both black and white, in that country. When Douglas Adams, he of the five volumes in the trilogy The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy visited Garamba the 1980s there were 22 northerns left. In 2008 when The Trouble With Lions was published, the number was down to three. In her article, titled “Could Ol Pejeta Be A New Start For the World’s Rarest? Kes Hillman tells of the inevitable end of that remnant.

The other article by Berry White is titled World’s Rarest Mammals Fly To Sanctuary In Kenya. In it she recounts how four white rhino were moved from a wintery, snow covered Dvur Kralove zoo to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy near my old home town under the shadow of Mount Kenya. In a well coordinated move that involved training of the rhino, specially designed crates, trucking, aircraft and a great deal of TLC, four animals, a female named Najin and her nine-year old calf Fatu, together with males Sudan and Suni made the journey. Naturally the Ol Pejeta’s Conservancy’s web site carries the story and gives more details.

This is really the last chance for this species of rhino. From the thousands that ranged across northern Africa in the days when the only records were in cave paintings, to the demise of all wild ones anywhere, we are left with eight captive ones, four of which are either too old or uninterested in breeding and live in two zoos. Will Najin or Fatu be the mothers of a new generation? Let’s hope we see a photo like this one (a Southern) in a forthcoming issue of Swara or on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy web site.

Friday, May 7, 2010

New Saskatchewan Literary Award

We have had an exciting development tin the literary world of Saskatchewan. On May 3 the Saskatchewan Writers Guild and Cheryl and Henry Kloppenburg announced the launching of the Cheryl and Henry Kloppenburg Award for Literary Excellence. This new literary award will recognize Saskatchewan writers who have written a substantial body of literary work. The award will be made annually and is for the sum of ten thousand dollars, which makes it the largest such award in any province in Canada.

Each ward recipient will also receive a signed limited edition copy of a watercolour by renowned Saskatchewan artist Dorothy Knowles. Dorothy has gifted the original to the Guild.

Henry & Cheryl Kloppenburg are Saskatchewan folks, through and through. They are generous supporters of the arts, both nationally and provincially, and have supported writing and the SWG for almost 20 years through their gifts to the SWG’s Grain Magazine. Here they are, flanked by the Guild’s past-president, Bob Calder and me, next to the painting.

The great Canadian man of letters, the late Roberson Davies, admonished a cure-all of “massive daily doses of art, music and literature. On Saturday evening at his book launch Yann Martel was the latest of many authors to state that without reading one cannot be a writer. Both make the point that reading is a vital part of our culture, so this award is for those who have given us the chance to read and enjoy good writing.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Yann Martel book launch

Saturday night was book night. I attended the “at home” (Saskatoon) launch of Yann Martel’s new novel Beatrice and Virgil. and of course purchased this copy that you see resting on my Mac. Beatrice and Virgil are the main characters in Dante’s Divine Comedy, and hell features throughout those famous works. No wonder Yann chose them in a story about the Holocaust. Even the “howl” in howler monkey fits the theme.

Martel studied philosophy at university and when one learns this one realizes why his work has so many layers and depths to it. Even the names of the animals in the story have significance. Not just the donkey and the howler monkey, that are the names in the title, but the dog and cat, which are respectively named Erasmus and Mendelssohn. Erasmus was the remarkable humanist and theologian who lived during the Reformation and was, as Yann put it, very practical. The Mendelssohn he used was neither of the great composers Felix or his sister Fanny, but their grandfather Moses who was a prominent German Jew during the 18th century’s “Age of Enlightenment” during which reason and common sense were held to be the primary source and legitimacy for authority.

As most know the book is a novel about the Holocaust, and when he was questioned as to why he wrote a novel about those horrible events he replied that non-fiction needs to become stories in order to survive. There are all kinds of stories in film plays and book about the Second World War and the Vietnam War, but few, beyond the TV series M.A.S.H., about the Korean War, which is maybe why it has faded in the collective memory.

Yann also told us that the novel he is now working on is features three chimpanzees in Portugal. With the two published books and one in the works, he has covered a gamut of the animal kingdom, especially the great apes. Apart from its famous tiger Life of Pi has an orangutan, the new one chimps. Someone else is writing about bonobos. What next? Will a silverback feature in number four?

Images from Wikipedia and

Friday, April 30, 2010

Tortoise taboo


Walking in the rain forests of Cameroon was a new experience for me in several ways. It had either just rained, or was about to rain all the time, that is if it wasn’t actually raining. This was 1996 and I was working on a forest elephant project for the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Korup forest on the west side of the country. As I recounted in chapter 10 of my book The Trouble With Lions I learned from our tracker, James Ako, that the hunting and eating of a tortoise was taboo. He did not explain why, and I forgot to ask.

Now I know at least one explanation.

It comes in a 1967 collection of folk tales from Ghana titled Tales of an Ashanti Father that I have just added to my little libray. The author, or maybe she should be called collector, of these tales was Peggy Appiah. In a story called The Hunter and the Tortoise, which I have shortened here, she tells how a hunter went into the forest with his gun and was enchanted by a tortoise playing an accordion. He challenged the animal and gave it the chance of returning to his village with him or being shot. “How can I not agree seeing you have the gun?” replied the tortoise.

As he bent to pick him up the tortoise warned the hunter “I am a creature of the forest and not of the town. If you take me to your home you will have only yourself to blame.”

At home the hunter rushed to the chief to tell of his find, and the skeptical chief told him that if he was lying he would be executed, but if he was telling the truth he would be richly rewarded. As you can guess, the tortoise merely sat and looked stupid when the hunter tried to exhibit him.

As the hunter’s head rolled in the dust the tortoise sang out
"Trouble does not look for man,
It is man who looks for trouble."

The upshot was that the chief decreed that that the tortoise be taken back to the forest where it was happiest. He also stated "From now on the hunting or capturing of tortoises in the forest will be taboo to my people. Anyone who is found interfering with them will be executed."

Of course the happy (sort of) ending was that the hunter, who had spoken the truth, was given a grand funeral and the tortoise was returned to his forest clearing.

Like many written folk tales this one is now in suspended animation for those reading this account, and of course I have cut it by about 70%. The conversations, the efforts of the hunter to get the tortoise to perform and the scene setting are up to the reader to convert back to the oral, but for me, it is nice to get an explanation after fifteen years. It also gives me another tale to tell that is linked to animal work in far-off places.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Creative Non-Fiction award

Just back from the annual gathering of the Creative Non-Fiction Collective’s meeting at the Banff Centre in Alberta. It’s a fabulous venue for artists of every stripe and we had an invigorating get-together.

One of our events is the Saturday evening social when we select the winner of the CN-FC Reader’s Choice award. Nominators have about two minutes to read a selected passage and then a secret ballot decides the outcome.

The worthy winner was Susan Olding for her essays from Pathologies
(Freehand). The other nominees were

Wade Davis for The Wayfarers (Anansi)
Sharron Proulx-Turner for her essay from Double Lives: Writing and Motherhood
(McGill-Queen’s University Press)
Paul Nicklen for Polar Obsession (Focal Point)
Shawna Lemay for Calm Things (Palimpsest)
Kaitlin Fontana for “The Flight Album” (in The Walrus)
Eufemia Fantetti for “Alphabet Autobiografica" (in Event)

As this blog is mainly about wild things and conservation it will come as no surprise that Polar Obsession caught my ear and eye. Of course one must avoid clichés when possible – like the plague as it were - but this book is more about photographs than text. The text is only used to explain the photos, and these are certainly worth the standard thousand words. Indeed some are worth at least twice as much. It is difficult to choose one passage of four or five paragraphs to read in the space of about two minutes, and I struggled between the account of how Nicklen got the photos of the massed narwhals in Arctic waters and his encounter with the southern ocean’s top predator of penguins, the leopard seal.

I cannot quote at length, even from what I read, but this was what I started with. It came after a brief introduction about how Nicklen had entered the water and stood his ground when challenged by a huge alpha female seal weighing about 500 kg. The seal had offered him a live penguin to eat, but of course he had ignored her, and the bird had escaped.

“I am always reluctant to anthropomorphize an animal’s behaviour, but I could swear that she flashed me a look of disgust as she sped past me to snatch the escaping penguin. I believe that she was trying to feed me penguins because she realized that I was an absolutely useless predator in her ocean, and my ineptness at securing a meal agitated her.”

For lovers of adventure stories about wild things and wild places, or would-be wildlife photographers, this is one to add to the collection.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Africa's ancient board game


The photo posting on the BBC website today flashed me back to Africa and the game of Kiothi that is played in the Meru region of Kenya north and east of Mt. Kenya. The BBC story is set in the Southern Sudan where the game is called aweet. Kiothi is the Meru name of the game known widely in East Africa, especially Zanzibar and Tanzania as Bao, but with plenty of local names and variations. A wider name is Mancala, which is described on a Wikipedia page. Good players can see moves way ahead, and the game proceeds at lightning speed. The clicking almost sounds like a rapidly played game of Mahjong.

The Most boards have four rows of eight or ten hollowed out depressions in which seeds, stones or whatever is available are placed before the start and then moved according to a strict set of rules. Here the eldest son and daughter of one of the rangers in Queen Elizabeth National Park in Uganda are playing. Others boards have two rows of ten, and I have seen sets in which there were two rows of seven. Some have single larger hollows at each end, others don’t.

I have the board and seeds of the Meru version and also the rules that were translated from the Kimeru language by the late Len Lemoine who was a schoolteacher in the area in the 1960s. Len even told me that he had seen the game being played in the West Indies. Given the history of that part of the world this is no big surprise.

It is not just on wooden boards that the game is played. I have watched men (exclusively men) playing near a watercourse at Laisamis, in Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. They simply fisted out depressions in the sand, picked up some pebbles and went at it.

There are older, no doubt much older and once permanent, places where tournaments may have been played on huge rocks that have had rows of hollows ground into their surfaces. The ones I have seen are located north and east of Mt. Kenya, two of them on the iconic flat-topped mountain called Ololokwe (seen here beyond and to the right of a nest-filled acacia) and one to the east of the town of Meru near what is now a small village surrounded by smallholder tea plots but was once in the middle of the forest that covered the Nyambeni hills. It was here that I took the photo of my wife Jo and Patrick Mugambi playing a mock game as a crowd of children looked on. Another ancient site must have been somewhere in the Ankole kingdom of Uganda. At the heart of that kingdom I found this old rock with Bao indents ground into it - eight by five by the look of it, with no end depressions. Who knows how old this one is or what the rules were, or maybe are?

The rules are too long to quote fully here, but here are one or two titbits. If any one has a hankering to make a board they can email me for the rules that I can send as a pdf. I suspect that the Meru Kiothi rules will only work properly for the board with two rows, as opposed to four. Those who want other rules can no doubt find some at one of the websites or even books devoted to the game

This picture, taken at home, shows our board that was made forty years ago by a craftsman in Meru. In the hollows are the marble-sized seeds of the Caesalpinia tree (Njothi in Kimeru) with which the game is played in that part of Kenya. Caesalpinia is a genus of prickly, scrambling shrubs with bi-pinnate leaves and vicious recurved spines. These seeds must be some of the hardiest around because they float well and can remain viable after spending two, or more, years afloat.
The board has ten hollows on each side, with larger indents, known as bomas into which captured stones are placed. The object is simple, to capture more stones (representing cattle) than one’s opponent. But not that simple. Some tribes rate a one-warrior victory as equivalent to two normal victories; some rate it as worth ten victories by any other margin.

The game can only be played by two people at a time. In Kiothi each player is given 30 warriors (seeds that look like acorns – or stones or what have you.) They are placed in the six right hand bomas on each side – five warriors to a boma.

The order of play (who goes first) can be determined by various means but the toss of a coin is as good a way to decide as any. The first player may move any of the warriors in any of his bomas, provided that he moves always to the right depositing one warrior in each of the cups beginning with the cup immediately to the right of the one from which he has taken the warriors and provided the last warrior does not land in a boma that is already occupied by one or more warriors

To begin the game, each player is permitted to take the five men form each of two of his bomas and place them in any of the cup – on either side of the board. For the rest of the rules, drop me a line. They may look simple, but only a simpleton woud take on an expereinced native player for money.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Zebra stripes and leopard spots


One of my favourite pastimes is storytelling. When we visit my granddaughters one of the first stories they ask for is How The Zebra Got His Stripes and here is a condensed (very condensed) version.

A long time ago, when zebra was pure white, a brave young zebra decide the challenge baboon for access to water, which the latter had claimed for his own. After a long and terrible fight baboon began to get the upper hand and pushed zebra into a fire. The pain was so severe that the zebra jumped up and lashed out, kicking the baboon clear across the river where he landed on some rocks. The upshot, the zebra was scarred for all time, but the baboon ended up with a bare backside after damaging itself upon landing.

It is no surprise that folklore about other animals, particularly leopards and serval cats, tell how they got their markings after ending up involved with fire. Here are a couple of pictures that you might enjoy. The smaller serval cat was a bottle-raised animal that lived in Kenya's Meru National Park around the home of chief Warden Peter Jenkins and his family in the late 1960s. I have stories about Peter in both of my books.

Another fun component of storytelling is trying to find ways of linking these ancient and entertaining interpretations of the things that people saw around them to modern scientific explanations of how things work and for me it has always been a challenge to do that with these “burn” stories.

Like the mythical American cavalry of the old Hollywood Westerns, or the more modern arrival of the marines (satirized so brilliantly by Tom Lehrer) science has come to the rescue.

In a posting of April 7th headlined Study Reveals How Creatures Get Spots vs. Stripes
LiveScience managing editor Jeanna Bryner takes us into recent information about fruit flies and their markings, and links us back to her own older post about leopards and their spots.

“Biologists have long wondered how leopards and other mammals acquired their distinct and uniform coat patterns. In 1952, British mathematician Alan Turing developed an equation to explain how simple chemical reactions produce the spots, stripes, and swirls that decorate a variety of mammals.”

By a strange coincidence I have a weak link with Turing, as he was at the same school as me (although of an earlier generation). He has been dubbed by many in the field "the father of modern computing" and is known to have had a huge influence upon the ENIGMA machine that let the Allies break to German codes of WWII. Here is a photo of Turing that I found on line. I could have chosen any one of hundreds, as a Google search for them got me to 49 pages. A second family link to Turing ties in with the fact that my daughter is heavily involved with computing, artificial intelligence and the world of robots. For the folks in her world Turing is an icon.

Anyway, back to leopards, zebras and the spot/stripe question.

Turing's mathematical model could not account for the evolution of markings as the leopard matures from spotted cub to rosette-dappled adult.

As a Bryner relates a team of scientists from Taiwan’s National Chung-Hsing University in Taichung and England’s Oxford University “modified Turing's model and ran it through computers, concluding that substances called “morphogens”, chemicals secreted by pigment cells in the coat, diffused through the coat and led to the development of the distinctive patterns seen in adults.”

A really positive clue came from more recent work with a species of fruit fly, which are much easier, cheaper and safer to study than big cats. In this case the wing spots, which are the natural pattern, were converted into stripes by means of gene manipulation and understanding of the location of the morphogen-linked gene. "We can make custom flies," said Sean Carroll, a molecular biologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the senior author of the report published this week in Nature and referred to by Bryner.

Of course none of this explains the weird story of the quagga, an almost mythical beast that actually existed in the most southern regions of South Africa and was exterminated in the late 1800s. The quagga was a form of zebra that only had stripes on the front half of its body, the rear half being self-coloured. The last known one died in an Amsterdam zoo in 1883.

When I was in South Africa in the early 90s there were several groups exploring the possibility of doing a sort of Jurassic Park experiment to try and re-create the quagga from DNA in old hides. I later heard that they had abandoned the effort when they discovered that it was just a type of zebra.

In another LiveScience posting titled How A Zebra Lost Its Stripes an analysis by a team of German and US scientists show that the quagga diverged from plains zebra in Africa during the last Ice Age. It then developed the colour markings that made it look as if it might have come from a Dr. Doolittle story.

Or maybe it was another white zebra that got into a fight with a baboon but only got burnt on the front half of its body. It's just a question of what you choose to believe.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Bushmeat in the USA


Talk about serendipity!

Tonight I have a gig with the Saskatoon Nature Society and my topic is The Trouble WIth Lions: A symbol for Africa's wildlife. As I indicated I am using the lion only as a symbol and I have added an extra subtitle in my opening slide which is (and other continents).
I took this picture in Cameroon in 1997. In it you can see several species for sale as bushmeat. The three at bottom left are smoked monkeys of some kind, but the treatment has rendered them beyond identification, or at least field i.d.
This morning, when I opened up my email I found a letter from my main listServ source on wildlife issues which is theWildlife Disease News Digest, put together by Dr. Cris Marsh of the USDA. One of the links in that document reads Bushmeat Diseases Entering New York and so of course I opened it, as I have been following the bushmeat situation for many years now and my last post about it, of nine, was on Jan 11th. This concerned the trail of the Liberian woman who was convicted last year of trying to smuggle 720 pounds of baboon and warthog meat. She had used the innovative defense that the meat was for religious purposes and claimed the right to freedom of religious expression.

In the online Discovery News of yesterday it was reporter Jennifer Viegas who summarized the newer events and the finding by colleagues in the Wildlife Conservation Society of a virus called simian foamy virus in three primate species: two mangabey monkeys and a chimpanzee. This photo of a sooty mangabey was taken by Nick Gordon and was available n the Arkive image web site. For those familiar with the AIDS story, it was from these very same species that the disease has crossed into humans on at least seven occasions in the last hundred years.

Viegas goes on to report that Inspection and health officials have seized hundreds of samples of wildlife and wildlife products coming through luggage and mail parcels through main entry points for both people and goods into New York City and the United States. Samples have been taken from at least 14 species, including great apes, monkeys, rodents, and bats.

She also states that officials of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service say that more than one billion individual animals were imported into the United States from 2000 to 2004, along with over 11 million pounds of bushmeat and other animal products. That’s one billion animals – 1000,000,000!

Is this the forerunner of a coming plague?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Chinese in Africa

In my last blog about rhino poaching and the Chinese in Africa I forgot one thing. I had not recalled the situation with dogs in Isiolo, the market town that is seen as the gateway to Kenya's Northern Frontier District. I only rememberd it when I went to an Ethiopian restaurant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to pick up a delcious take-out meal that of course included njeera, the soft bread that is unique to that culture.

We quickly found out that the family business was run by folks who had spent quite some time in Kenya and we had a laugh about the fatc that they met a white guy who spoke fluent swahili in South Dakota, of all places!

Then we switched to the presence of the Chinese in Africa, and specifically in Ethiopia. To quote the owner "The Chinese are everywhere in our country." I told him about the wildlife along the new highway that the Chinese are building from Isiolo to Addis and he said that there are no stray dogs any more in Ethiopia. This reminded me that dogs now fetch a price in Isiolo, and strays are simply not seen.

It's just a question of taste

Friday, April 2, 2010

Rhino poaching

The rhino poaching story that I posted a few days back came from personal sources in South Africa.

This headline in the Los Angeles Times of March 20th tells the same story, but from a more international point of view.


Robyn Dixon reported that
“Organized gangs decimate Zimbabwe herds and may wipe out South Africa's endangered black rhinos within a decade. Ranchers trying to save the animals find heartbreak amid carcasses shorn of horns.”

Dixon has used the very personal account of game rangers to show how this has affected them personally and then proceeds to examine the wider issues. She writes
“A report last year by the World Wildlife Fund, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and wildlife-trade monitoring network TRAFFIC said poaching had reached a 15-year high, pushing the animals close to extinction. About 1,500 rhino horns were traded illegally in the last three years, despite a long-standing ban on international trade.”

If the past is anything to go by the efforts of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) and the other wildlife monitoring agencies will have no effect whatever. Even the recent vote from the meeting of CITES will be a toothless gesture.
The CITES folks approved of a move by Kenya and agreed to focus on increasing law enforcement, training of guards, better border surveillance, enhanced rhino monitoring and awareness campaigns in consumer countries.
Commenting afterwards, Forestry and Wildlife Minister Dr Noah Wekesa who is leading the Kenyan delegation said, “This is a milestone in global rhino conservation. It renews commitment and collaboration by all governments to end this illegal trade in rhino parts."

Of course these are entirely laudable goals, but if the past signals the future it will achieve nothing.

Dixon also brings out the probable role of China in all of this. She writes:
"China's recent thrust into Africa in a rush for resources is a major factor in the illegal rhino horn and ivory trade, analysts believe, because China remains the largest market. Rhino horn, made of keratin, the same substance that forms fingernails, hooves, feathers and hair, has long been used in Chinese medicinal tonics."

I saw another example of this sort of thing last year in Kenya. The Chinese are building a major new highway into and through Kenya’s Northern Frontier District. It will link the frontier town of Isiolo with Addis Ababa in Ethiopia across hundreds of kilometers of inhospitable semi-arid desert populated by nomadic tribes people and scattered wildlife. Isiolo, which was once a shanty-town with a few corrugated tin roofed stores, a government station and a mission hospital has become a bustling market town where an AK47 can be had for a hundred dollars or so. From reliable witnesses I learned that wildlife sightings, including elephants, once common along the highway, have become a thing of history and myth. All concerned link the presence of Chinese road builders with the decline in wildlife.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Lioness kills cub thief


As readers of this blog know well I am interested in the human x wildlife conflict, in all its forms, but particularly in Africa, my birth continent. In The Trouble With Lions I had chapters headed Lions In Trouble and Lions As Trouble. There is a third category that I had not thought of until today, when I received an email from the folks who run the Official Web site of the Virunga National Park, DR Congo, which most often posts material about the gorillas of that troubled region.

A soldier in Congo's Virunga National Park has been killed a lioness, after reportedly trying to steal 2 of her cubs. Another soldier was injured in the incident.

Surely a tragedy for the men’s families, but WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?

It occurs to me that there is a fair chance that these men came under the influence of an organized crime group. We know, from several reports, that organized crime in the wildlife field is on the upsurge world-wide. What price would some oriental billionaire with more money than he knows what to do with, and no semblance of a conscience, pay for a couple of ultimate status symbols? Of course the soldiers would have been offered a reward for their "work". A pittance for the crime boss, maybe a decent sum for the soldiers.

Does anyone have a suggestion for a chapter title that would cover this incident?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Uganda's Kasubi Tombs

The widely reported story about the destruction by fire of one of Uganda’s UNESCO Heritage sites in Kampala lacked one thing. This was any photos of the remarkable structures at the Kasubi tombs before the fire. One such report came on the BBC web site here and showed the fire itself and a crowd scene. For those who know the place, the fiery skeleton of the main building seen in the BBC report is easy to discern. Here are a few pictures taken during one of many visits that my veterinary students and I made in the years that we went to Africa to study the wildlife x human x livestock interface and took time out for some cultural enlightenment.

During the visits we walked up a long path, which gave one a great view of the huge thatched building, about 40 metres wide.

Under the awning, with its intricate woven thatch, one sat in front of the pictures of the last four kings, with spears and other memorabilia on show, and listened to the guides tell us about the history of the people and the site.
The tombs, built in the 19th century, are where the last four kings of Buganda were buried. Buganda, founded in about 1500 AD is the largest of the four kingdoms of what is now Uganda and once controlled a big swatch of land from Lake Victoria to the Kagera River that begins its journey to the lake in Rwanda. Kampala lies right in the middle of the Buganda region. Indeed, the tomb site and the king’s palace are in the heart of the city.

The kingdoms were abolished in 1966 and it was only when President Museveni allowed their reinstatement as cultural institutions with no political power in 1993 that they came to the fore again. King Ronald Mutebi is the current king. His role is largely ceremonial but it would seem as if he, or his advisers, have been flexing their muscles and there have been some confrontations with Museveni’s government. Last year there were riots after the government blocked Ronald from visiting part of his kingdom.

The latest riots occurred after protesters prevented Museveni, who is an Ankole from Western Uganda, from visiting the tombs where the fire was destroying the above-ground structures, which were made entirely from vegetable materials and would have made a natural fuel for a rapid burn. Sad.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Rhino poaching

It seems as if rhino poaching is on the upswing again, and has taken a new twist. Two separate reports from colleagues in South Africa relate how poachers, thought to be Asians, are using helicopters to poach rhino in both national and private game parks. Two white rhino were recently shot from the air in Madikwe, where I worked in 1997 and a black rhino was recently found, minus its horns, in Pilansberg. In this case .303 bullet casings were found at the scene and a helicopter was spotted by an alert ranger. When it was searched upon landing at a local airport nothing was found. It is not too hard to imagine that dumping of horns and munitions could have been readily done on the way to the landing site for later retrieval. GPS has it uses.

As I wrote in The Trouble WIth Lions rhino poaching for horn has been going on a long time, and at one time, a hundred years or so ago, armed gangs were sent out to collect them in droves.

It is difficult to imagine how this trade will cease mainly because of the insatiable desire for rhino horn in Yemen and the Orient. Here is what I wrote about the traditional medicine beliefs and trade in the latter:

Two detailed reports from the early 1990s that were prepared for the Trade Records Analysis of Flora and Fauna in Commerce (more easily known as TRAFFIC) show how rhino horn is both used and sold in Korea and Taiwan. In 1993 author Judy Mills found that 60% of South Korea’s doctors believe that horn is an effective medicine and 79% believe it to be essential for a wide variety of ailments. In Taiwan Kristin Nowell and her colleagues, both of whom were locals who could conduct interviews as “patients” or “consumers” and thus obtain information unbiased by the doctors' or dealers'concerns about detection of potentially illegal activities reported that the medical community recognizes differences between rhino horn from Asia, and that from Africa. The former is about ten times as expensive, averaging over $60,000 per kilogram. They estimated that at least 10,000 kg of rhino horn were held in the thousands of licensed and unlicensed pharmacies during their study. Almost all of this was from African rhinos, and the total retail value, in 1992 was in excess of US$70 million. The most expensive items, far in excess of unprocessed Asian horn, were the antique carvings, becoming ever more valuable as pressure is brought to bear against the use or ownership of rhino horn for any purpose at all.

If rhino horn was that valuable in the 1990s, I cannot even guess what is is now worth if poachers are using helicopters. Depending on the machine helicopter time comes in at around $1000 per hour, and then there is the little matter of purchase price and the need for highly trained pilots.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Golden Temple at Vellore

One of the most extraordinary places we visited on our trip to India was the Golden temple at Vellore. This is located within a few kilometers of the Vellore Christian Medical College and a group of classmates from the 1958/59 admissions year, who had gathered for a class reunion, decided to check it out. I was along as a “significant other.”

The first thing we discovered was that there is a very strict embargo on cameras and cell phones. Everything has to be checked it, along with shoes, which is normal in Hindu temples. The photos that accompany this piece are scanned from the brochure that we picked up at the start of our visit and suffer accordingly. Nonetheless they give a tiny taste of what we saw, a mere dry biscuit before the eye feast. You can see more images, and much more detail, on the temple web site, to which this story is linked.

The aerial view shows a six-sided star-shaped covered walk-way, and one has to go right round it, up a single arm at centre right and round the circle to get to the temple proper, which stands in the middle. The grainy picture gives no real idea of scale, but one can get a rough idea. Each leg of the star is about 100 metres long, so one has to walk 900 metres around the area just to reach the temple entrance.

At each point there are sales stalls and all along on both sides there are posters in four languages telling one about the place. I could not help wondering about the opulence that we could see everywhere, with the central temple a mass of gold that must have cost millions, in any currency.

This opulence contrasts sharply with the widespread poverty throughout the countryside. The brochure gives one the real picture. An active fund-raising campaign has supported all the building and maintenance of well-equipped hospital, health clinics in the surrounding area, water distribution, a school, the development of micro industries, a reforestation program and other good works.

By the time we had joined the many hundreds of worshippers and tourist (99% of whom were Indians) at the actual worship site we understood. One of the signs summed it up – “A temple is a place of community, bringing people together.” The brochure explains it more clearly.

By sheer good fortune we had arrived as the sun was setting. A large water body – called a tank in India, surrounds the temple itself. The lights had come on and the reflection of the building was breathtaking. Everything is sight was covered in gold leaf. The pillars (16 of them), the ceiling, the walls, everything. There are said to be seven or eight tons of gilt. One of our colleagues, who had been to Amritsar, told us that the temple is three or four times the size of that famous Sikh shrine. Just as we thought we had reached the exit we were held up by the start of a prayer service, or Puja, and for 45 minutes we sat quietly as the priest went through his rituals to the accompaniment of chanting and the continuous ringing of a bell above our heads. Those of use who had paid the "expensive" (about $5.00) Rs 250 were on the inner ring of the circle and so we were allowed near the holy sanctum after the service and received a blessing as we left.

The set-up was not entirely ancient and spiritual. On the way out we had to pass through a series of stall where all sorts of religious items and knick-knacks were on sale to deal with the secular. The modern management of the tourist line-up – some attribute it to the Disney Corporation – has not escaped the attention of the Indians. Of course it's a great way to raise funds.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Galle Literary Festival, Sri Lanka

One real advantage of going away on a relaxed holiday is that one gets to do plenty of reading. Furthermore if one is doing the tourist thing and moving from one location to another one gets to pick up all sorts of stuff along the way. Many hotels have shelves in odd corners that allow a “leave one, take one” option. While in India & Sri Lanka on my most recent trip I read about ten books. More or less. I started and abandoned one after about four paragraphs. After a few pages I discovered that I had read a couple before, but several were brand new. An absolute gem was Sebastian Barry’s The Secret Scripture. It was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and was listed by the British Sunday Telegraph as a Book of the Year. Critic James Naughtie of the Sunday Telegraph wrote that it was “One of the most moving stories I’d stumbled across for many a year.” I fully agree.

In most hotels we found that crime or police novels of various types were the most common currency. PD James, Patricia Cornwell, even a couple of very worn Agatha Christies in their old Penguin editions. These reliable holiday reads appeared in several languages other than English, most commonly German and Dutch, the latter more so in Sri Lanka, where there is a strong link back to the Netherlands. A “new to me” delight was Terry Pratchett’s Mort. It was the fourth of his Disk World novels. For those who know his work, I am sure I’m preaching to the choir. A comment on the Google site uses the phrase “profoundly irreverent novels” about his work. His imagination is simply stunning. Who else could have thought up the idea of the shrouded and scythe-armed figure of DEATH taking on an apprentice named Mortimer (Mort for short)?

There were also a few Ian Rankin novels. A new one, to me at least, was Doors Open, the story of an art heist set in the Edinburgh that Rankin paints so vividly. Naturally there were some Inspector Rebus stories.

Ian Rankin turned up in quite a different way. In Galle (pronounced without the ‘e’ like the bladder), which lies almost at the southernmost tip of Sri Lanka I browsed the shelves in an attractive art and curio shop in this ancient fortress city. My eye was at once caught by several copies of the very smartly prepared program of the 2010 Galle Literary Festival. The event, which we had just missed, ran from Jan 28th to Feb 2nd, and had many similarities to Saskatchewan’s own Moose Jaw Festival of Words.

One of the sessions was called Life Sentences. The intriguing blurb under this heading stated “Ian Rankin tells us how his most famous detective, John Rebus, came to be, and finally to retire.”

The Festival, in its fourth year, was the brain-child of one man, Geoffrey Dobbs, but as he states in his welcome it would not happen without generous sponsors and a big team of volunteers. -Apart from managing a really nice hotel called The Sun House, Geoffrey wears a very different hat. He is chairman of the Ceylon Elephant Polo Association. There’s an entertaining report about the 2007 tournament played at the Galle fort that you can find as a pdf here or in HTML format here

There were lots of other well-known and not-so-well known authors. There were sessions for children in several age groups and useful guides on accommodation, restaurants, whale watching and so on.

We took up the whale-watching option a few days after the conference. Until you have been sixty metres from a blue whale it is hard to recognize how enormous they are, and we only saw the so-called pigmy blue whale, a mere 25 metres long! Researchers think that they spend their entire lives off the coast of the island, making this one of the very best places to see the world's largest ever creature.

Monday, February 22, 2010

India and Sri Lanka


Sitting at the computer in Heathrow Airport, waiting for the flight home. We've had an interesting trip. Lots of photos to share, but no way of posting them from here. Among them, an amazing golden temple in India, said to be 3 or 4 times the size of the famous one at Amritsar, several of Indian elephants, both domesticated and wild, blue whales close up, and some bird encounters. The last of these was in Yalle National park in Sri Lanka where we watched a medley of birds fishing vigorously in a small pool that had been cut off as flood waters receded. Painted storks, two species of egret and a solitary gey heron were pulling up fish at a furious rate. And the winner was.. a greater egret that caught a fish about as long as its bill and had a hard time swallowing it.

We drove through thousands of acres of tea estates and it struck me that they, just like golf courses, are really an environmental wasteland. Not quite a monoculture, but awfully close to it, they stand in stark contrast to the remnant tropical forests that border them. At least they employ a lot of people.

Friday, February 5, 2010

India & Sri Lanka trip


I've been trying to get a posting on to this blog for almost 2 weeks, but from
grungy Internet cafes in India it seems to be impossible. The worst one was
not only grungy, but had no lights and a keyboard that was so worn most of the
keys were illegible!

We are now a friend's house in Mysore & he has broadband, so here's trying

I wrote this a week ago.
We have left the cold north for a trip to India. The main reason was to visit
my wife's old medical school - Vellore Christian Medical College - for a class
reunion. I won't mention the number of years since she graduated, but it is
more than a few. For some reason all her classmates have grey hair, but of
course we have not changed a bit. The fact is, the goal posts have shifted.
After a week in UK, where we had to do battle with the fact that the Brits know
almost nothing about snow, we arrived in Bangalore and went straight away to
the city of Tirupathi. The 300 km taxi ride cost about $60!!
The best thing about the city was the food in our hotel. All vegetarian, but
wonderfully delicious, with various forms of Dosa being the star attractions.
We are now in the alumni hostel at the medical school and I can finally get out
my camera and see what interesting birds there may be among the wonderful array
of trees in the compound.

Since then we have seen the most amazing golden temple at Vellore. It is said
to be about 4 times as large as the more famous one at Amritsar, and to have
between 7 and 8 tonnes of gold on the roof, pillars, ceiling & walls! There's
no way I can attach a picture but I will endeavour to do so once we get home.

From there we headed to the Kerala coast and had avery interesting time
relaxing, swimming and eating delicious food. My hair cut cost 35 rupees,
about 70 cents.

Tuesday early we head to Sri Lanka and more exploring.

Let's hope this blog effort reaches its destination

Monday, January 11, 2010

Bushmeat smuggling and the illegal Wildlife Trade


I have been following the case of Mamie Manneh (aka Mamie Jefferson) in New York who smuggled bushmeat into the USA from Liberia. I first wrote about this extraordinary story in The Trouble With Lions and described how she had used a defense of the right to religious freedom as one of her reason for the smuggling. I again mentioned it in my blog of Sept 22nd.

In a report of Dec 12th from the New York Village News Blog the case seems to have finally come to an end, and the probationary sentence seems utterly trivial for a crime that involved the importation of 720 pounds of baboon and warthog meat. As the judge said, the deliberate circumventing of the law to hide the importation was the problem. It seems he was not swayed by Jane Goodall's written testimony about the severity of the situation, or indeed by the clear evidence of the potential diseases risks involved with such importation.

When I got my copy of the National Geographic magazine of January 2010 the whole thing came into perspective. A story by Bryan Christy, with disturbing photos by Mark Leong, tells about the Kingpin of Asia’s wildlife trade. His name is Wong Keng Liang, known to wildlife traffickers and officials around the world as Anson. His work (if this is the right word) makes Mamie’s crime seem utterly trivial. Christy’s figures are mind-boggling, almost impossible to comprehend, and the fact that Anson gets cooperation from some government officials in Asia just makes it worse. When he as arrested in 1998 Anson managed to plea bargain his way out of a sentence that might have involved 250 years in prison and a $12.5 million fine. He ended up with 71 months, with credit for 34 months already served. By all accounts the smuggling and trading continued throughout his time in gaol and continue to this day, the latest venture being a big interest in tiger farming.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Stones Into Schools

In my blog of December 2nd I wrote briefly about Three Cups Of Tea, the remarkable story of Greg Mortensen and his work in Pakistan and Afghanistan building schools in remote areas and concentrating on the education of girls. It is a heart-lifting story. My wife and I told our daughter about it, and lo and behold! A parcel arrived for Christmas with a new book by Mortensen.
This one is called Stones Into Schools and concentrates on the continuation of the efforts of he and his team in Afghanistan. Read it, share it, tell your friends about it. It would even bring real tears to the eyes of a crocodile.