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.