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.