Friday, December 21, 2012

Rhino horns, real and false

A television series made in 1967 and 68 called Cowboy in Africa was shot in Kenya. It led to a Hollywood movie, starring Chuck Connors playing world champion cowboy Jim Sinclair. You can see a YouTube clip for the opening scenes here. (WARNING The scenes are not exactly animal welfare friendly). In my rating system the movie would not score many stars, if any. There used to be "B" movies that were shown before the main event. This one might not have even qualified for such a position.

Tony (blue shirt) and I prepare darts in Rwanda for an elephant translocsion
My friend Tony Parkinson, with whom I worked on several projects through the late 60s and early 70s was not only the animal advisor but also the film double for several scenes that involved animal capture.

Below left Tony appears in an old Candanian Club whisky advert shot in the days before drugs were used to capture rhino. I began workingwith him a few months after the scene was shot.

In almost all of the roping scenes in the movie it is Tony, not Connors, who is on the horse and twirling the lariat. He learned to use one from the real cowboys who also came on the set and worked in several scenes.

One of the animal stars was a rhino that Tony had captured earlier and held in a pen for the movie scenes. Unfortunately, before the filming was over, the rhino broke his horn off very near the base and so there was a bit of a crisis. He could no longer perform and be accepted by the audience. Solution? Well, Tony had a second skill. He was a boat builder and skilled craftsman. Building a fiberglass replacement horn, and gluing it on with a 5-minute epoxy resin (a version called Araldite was the only one available in Kenya at the time) was no problem.

Fast-forward 45 years and we have more dummy rhino horns being built, but for an entirely different reason. Nowadays museums are having to resort to subterfuge in an effort to deal with theft. In another case in South Africa a would-be thief was fooled by more fiberglass, in this case it was an entire synthetic head, which is now hornless. 
There have been recent convictions (and some jail sentences) for other would-be and successful museum thieves in England, Spain, and Germany but in these and no doubt other cases the horns were real.

The most impressive sentence was handed down in South Africa, when a Thai man named Chumlong Lemtongthai was convicted of rhino poaching linked to prostitution and sentenced to 40 years.

The material is so valuable (double the price of gold) that the temptation is obviously severe.

Next week I will take a close look at the new(ish) efforts at prevention, including reports from Swara the magazine arm of the East AfricanWildlife Society, which arrived in the post yesterday.  I need time to organize my thoughts on these issues and of course to prepare the goose for Tuesday’s lunch time bash with family.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

A woodwork project with scraps

Any woodworker will accumulate scraps.  It's unavoidable.
It is what happens next that I’m interested in here.

Smaller bits, pieces with blemishes like knots, cracks and old screw holes can go into the bin. From there they can become kindling or simply go to the dump. In my case I try to keep what remains in more-or-less organized piles, according to the wood type. 
What next? Well, one solution I have developed is the making of trays, cheese boards and similar pieces. One can even make them in sets, which saves a lot of re-setting of equipment. Here, step-by-step is the process for a set of trays, each unique in terms of wood types, laminating pattern and size.

Even the least promisiing pieces have potential. Both of these ended up as parts of a tray.

Laying out the lengths in a rough pattern is a good place to start. It can be fun to choose attractive colours and wood textures.

Once that has been done it is essential to makes sure that each piece is squared up, which is done on a jointer. Two sides are set first. The other two can be matched in a planer.

 Safety first is the cry here. No fingers, sleeves or other bits anywhere near these fast-spinning blades.

Now the gluing can begin. I like to use newspaper between the work, the clamps and the cauls. It makes things much easier later on.

The cauls are essential. Without them the laminated wood strips will buckle. For those who have not met this word before in the context of woodwork, you are like me, until about two years ago. Before that the only meaning for caul that I knew of was the membrane that sometimes lies over the head of newborn babies and is supposed to bring good luck. Of course I checked the dictionary and there is another meaning. My Concise OED has this: “ a woman’s close-fitting indoor head-dress.” How these two definitions have been adopted into the woodwork lexicon is beyond me. 

While the tray base is drying the handles are jointered, measured, cut and glued. The wood vise is an ideal place to glue them, but here it is really important to use newspaper. Without it the handles could become part of the vise. Tricky!

After the glue has set the excess glue needs to be removed.
--> I sometimes do this with a paint scraper, sometimes with a sanding tool. The yellow random orbital sander will be in use again as the work progresses.

Now one can make things really smooth with a thickness planer.

After that the orbital goes to work, taking the board through 80, 120, 150 and eventually 220 grit smoothmess. 

After the base planing the sides, which had also been made earlier, are glued in place.  


When  all that is dry the shooter board comes up from its hiding place under the saw and is used to cut everything at right angles.
The handles provide some more opportunity for creativity. There is also one practical element. By laminating two different woods one prevents the handle from splitting.

I use the router table to make the holes in the handles and then to shape their edges and the base of the tray.


One also can make different shapes. I like to do this with a scroll saw. With the first end shaped, it is easy to make the other three and then sand them all to accurate matches.
Then comes sanding. The drum sander on the drill is a  new acquistion. I like it, but of course hand sanding gives the final touches.

Contoured edges give the handles a nice feel. This is done with the router and again smoothed off by hand.

With several trays nearly ready it is time for some gluing and scraping, more sanding and finally staining.

Gifts for friends, charity raffles, retail sales. There are lots of possibilities, and all from scraps.

walnut, birch, maple, mahogany, purple heart, paduque, fir, hickory.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Stories of Africa, and telling them

I was recently invited to do a guest blog by Karen Chace. In it I discussed the use of images during storytelling sessions and my hypothesis that they may have a very ancient origin that goes back as far as the artists who made petroglyphs and pictographs. Some of the art work is of stunning quality, and as good an example of that as any lies in the extraordinary Chauvet caves of southern France, a subject I have blogged about before .

Giraffe, eland and freinds at Twyfelfontein
Of course these are not the only examples of cave art. I have chosen this one, a photo taken at Twyfelfontein in Namibia because of what comes below.

You can easily link to that guest blog here.

I posted the link to several of my contact pages and it has generated a lively discussion on one of the LinkedIn ones. a members only group one can join StoryTellers - The Oral History Group.
A general conclusion is emerging that there are many ways to tell stories and we should open our minds to them.

I mentioned that I use both oral and visual telling techniques, sometimes in one presentation. For those who use PowerPoint (the latest evolutionary form of cave art) this is simply done in the middle of a talk by hitting the “B” key (I'm a Mac guy, don't know about PCs). The screen goes blank and one can then step up and let the audience focus solely on the teller. Hit the “B “ again and one is back to the picture.

Here is a brief example from a recent school tour. Using no pictures I opened with a bit about myself and how my first memory was of a giraffe’s legs heading away through the trees. Then I told the children about my return to Kenya after vet school in Glasgow and how the very first animals I saw were three giraffes peering at me from inside Nairobi National Park.

Next up was a description of how, three days after arriving as an intern at the Kenya vet school I had to treat a giraffe with footrot. This term is self-descriptive, and needs no gory technical explanation. However, some of my audiences have been in rural schools and many of the kids knew exactly what I was talking about. Of course this gave me the chance to link to their own experiences of watching a vet or parent medicate a cow with the condition.

This let me describe the problem of injecting a giraffe and let me use this phrase: “Of course there were as many giraffe in Glasgow (where I graduated from vet school) as there are in "Homeville" (name the community I'm in). I then climbed the imaginary walls of the chute where the giraffe was standing to inject him high above my head. (Actions: climb, stretch, grunt, inject)

With the three giraffe images now established I switched to the old folk tale about how the giraffe became so tall.  It involves a conversation with an owl, a long walk, a witch doctor, a magic potion and the failure of giraffe’s friend the none-too-intelligent rhino, to arrive on time at dawn to get his own helping of the potion.

Of course this set up later folk story about another stupid rhino, again told after the “B” has been touched.

After that fun account I ran the projector again and showed the kids an entirely silent movie clip that I made myself in the early 1970s of rhino capture. It runs about 4 minutes and as it has no script I made the odd remark, telling the tale of how and why we did the work. I can't add it here, but if you haven’t seen it, it lies embedded under the video tag on my website. The kids were enthralled.

Mum waits in case the little guy needs help. He didn't
To wind up this post I have added a few pictures that I showed the children. These ones were of the Aaaah, or Ooooh variety and needed few words. They are examples of things that the kids may not have seen or can enjoy for the images' own sake.

The shy little girl with her Teddy Bear, knitted by ladies of a group who call themselves "Teddies for Tragedies" is probably receiving her first ever gift. She is one of 147 kids in an AIDS orphanage school we linked with and supported.

I showed the baby rhino being bottle fed after the capture movie. A winner!

This is a humorous one, again needing no script.  As one teacher said to me after the talk, "Anything with bums or poop stories will be a winner."

If it itches, scratch it.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Chinese Ivory Industry

Reporter Bryan Christy recently attended a meeting convened by US  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The subject was the illegal wildlife trade entitled Wildlife Trafficking and Conservation: A Call to Action.

Here are some of the statements that Christy made in his blog about that meeting. You can see the rest of this material and links to other reports he has made by dipping into the site.

The Chinese government, through its company China National Arts and Crafts Group Corporation (CNACG), aka Goalmark, is the world’s largest ivory purchaser, carver, and retailer. It purchased two-thirds (40 tonnes) of the roughly 62 tonnes of ivory sold at auction to China in 2008, and it controlled the import price on the remaining 20 tonnes sold to the three other Chinese bidders.

The Chinese government is expanding its ivory consuming capacity. In 2009, it built China’s largest ivory carving factory.

Chinese ivory carving is big business involving a small number of individuals—perhaps a few hundred, based on my observations—only about a dozen of whom are recognized national master carvers.

As long as the Chinese government is in the business of expanding the ivory trade, ivory-related crime will flourish.

On the other side of the story, Chinese basketball star Yao Ming has recently been trying to raise the profile of this issue. A couple of UK newspapers, the Guardian and the Times ran stories about his visit to Kenya. He is reputed to be much loved and respected in his home country. Will his efforts make any difference? I do hope so, but I’m not overly optimistic. He is fighting a “City Hall” but one with serious muscle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Polar Bear Studies

I’ve started on a new manuscript, hoping to get it done in a year or so. My working title is From Polar Bears to Porcupines. No subtitle yet, but obviously something to do with wildlife vets.  Met with my writers group yesterday for a first run through with one of the chapters about bears that will likely be somewhere in the middle.

Here is the first draft of the last 580 or so words. The events took place in the early 1980s and were part of a large study of bear ecology and population structure in the days before the polar bear became the poster child for global warming.

We have finished working with a sow and her two tiny cubs south and east of Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. They have been weighed and measured. All the samples have been collected and there is one last task to carry out before we let her go back to a normal life. I’m working with wildlife technician John Lee and helicopter pilot Tex Walker.
Out on the sea ice near Pond Inlet. John weighs a cub during our work on the bears

Now came the last mucky task. Once more into the bag. This time John emerged with his tube of Lady Clairol hair dye and a brush. Before long a huge black X, each arm about sixty centimetres long, followed by the number 5 covered the bear’s back from side to side. I had deduced, on the first bear we had worked on, that this unconventional use of a famous product was to prevent us from capturing this bear again this same year.

“How long will it last?” I had asked. “Quite a while,” John had replied. “Long after we are done with our capture program this year. It’ll be gone by next year.” 

There was no need to paint the cubs, as they would be with their mother for the rest of the season. I wonder if the folks at the Clairol company had ever imagined the scene we now saw.

I did the rounds with the stethoscope again and John read off his checklist to make sure that we had not forgotten some vital element. I took care to avoid getting the dye on myself, as John had inevitably had after dippng his brush into the black goo, and smearing it over the bear.

Now we had to hunker down and wait for the cubs to recover.  For the mother bear I had an antidote to the carfentanil that we had used to immobilize her. Not so for the ketamine/Rompun mixture that was keeping the cubs quiet. Of course I could not wake the mother up until we knew that the little guys were alert, but that did not take long. In fact they had already started to show signs of recovery, moving their tongues and heads as we finished up collecting our various samples. From that point their recovery was rapid and they soon snuggled up to their mother.

Ten minutes later, and after yet another check of the vital signs, I drew up the antidote into a syringe and injected it into the vein on the underside of her tongue. John and I had already packed up a our bags and closed the lids, as neither of us wanted to be fiddling with that sort of detail when the bear awoke, as she would do within a couple of minutes, if our experience was anything to go by.

John had already signaled Tex to start up his engines by whirling an arm above his head. Tex needed time to get his machine warmed up and airborne. Again, should my patient decide to turn and come for us we wanted to be up and away before she reached us, and a bear can cover a lot of ground very quickly if it decides to.

We walked as briskly as the snow would allow, rather than run and risk falling, back to the chopper and climbed in.  Tex upped the revs as we put on our headsets. When the bear rose, stumbled once and moved away Tex lifted us off.

         With the work on this bear finished we climbed above the site and I looked down. I could see our tracks and the trampled snow where the helicopter had been and realized that the evidence of our approach and work pattern closely resembled the symbolic shape of a Valentine’s Day heart. The chopper had been at the pointed bottom. Our own footprints and the deeper scars left where we had crawled made the arches and the trampled snow where we had worked on the bears was the point in the middle where those arches meet. 

I looked over to where she was walking with her cubs.  The hair dye stood out clearly and we could avoid harassing her again. It was time to move on.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Litfest 2012 in Edmonton

Last weekend I was lucky enough to be involved in Canada’s only purely non-fiction literary event. Litfest takes place each year in Edmonton and runs over ten days. Dozens of authors are involved and talks of varying length and styles were given in several venues.

David Cheoros and Jerry (l) sorting out some admin details. (ph Kim Fong)
David Cheoros and his wonderful team organized everything to a “t”. My flights were booked and when I arrived in my hotel I was astonished to find an empty beer carton with a carefully labeled sticker attached. The sticker stated “beer in fridge.” Many volunteers ran me to and fro  - thanks to Pamela, Kathy and John.

Dr. Ole Nielsen at Litfest
My presentations started in the Strathcona County Council chambers in the community of Sherwood Park.  It was here that friend and former dean of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Dr. Ole Nielsen, introduced me. I was given 40 minutes, which is a long spot at a literary event, and so that rather than reading from my “Of Moose and Men” book I told some stories in the style of the ancient Cantastoria tellers who used picture boards and drawings to engage the audience. Of course the most modern form of this art is electronic and I used a PowerPoint presentation to share some of my experiences with this most remarkable animal. To pay homage to Ole I also started with the opening paragraph of the book, which is a telegram sent to him from Rwanda after he had offered me the job that launched me on my university career. It reads:


In one segment of the presentation I told about how moose have been domesticated through the ages. There does not seem to be an old history of domestication in Eurasia, but we do now that the Aboriginal peoples of North America were using them in this way from at least the 1600s.

School bus, or fun outing in Russia.
They have been ridden, used to pull sleighs and buggies and kept as pets. The grainy B&W pic showing a sleigh full of small children being pulled by a cow moose caused much amusement. Was it a “school bus” or an outing for fun? I have no idea.

Tatiana Minaeva at milking time
In Russia there are at least two moose farms, and it was from Dr. Alexander Minaev that I learned about a farm at Kostroma where moose are routinely milked every day. He has a fascinating web site that shows many aspects of the operation and here are some pictures from that site. The milk goes to a local sanatorium for medical use, particularly for patients with stomach problems.

One account of a moose farm in Sweden has it that this is the source of the world’s most expensive cheese. I know that one audience member tweeted this little gem and before that day was over she received notice that it has been RT’d four times. I wonder if this was because the price, at last report, was a mere eleven hundred dollars per kilo. That is $1100! Any orders out there?

My next event was at a dinner in the Santa Maria Goretti Centre as one of four authors. This centre uses the same parking lot as Commonwealth Stadium, so it was a good thing that the CFL's Edmonton Eskimos were not playing at home that night. After a chicken meal served “family style” and some excellent wines sponsored by Naramata Bench Wines we all read or told sections from our books.

First up was Marcello Di Cintio who read a section about the Mexico / US fence from, his book Walls. As he said, the entire book, by its very nature, is pretty dark. For instance one of the walls he visited during his research was the one that divides Gaza from Israel. His fence piece told the story of a musician who ”played” the wall.

Telling about large antlers after dinner (ph Kim Fong)
Then I came on. I read a short piece about the confusion caused by the Scottish use of moose as opposed to mouse and Robbie Burns’s famous poem. I followed this with a reprise of my Montreal Story Slam about the role of antlers in during the rut of moose. I have posted this one on YouTube and if you haven’t seen it you might enjoy it.

After the dessert Carmen Aguirre read from her book Something Fierce: Memoirs of a Revolutionary Daughter. The story she tells is a harrowing one and as she read an account of her struggles against the Pinochet regime in Chile I was much moved.    

AndrewNikiforuk wound up the session with a piece from his book Empire of the Beetle. He chose an account of the role of bark beetles in forest ecology. Of course, as far as Canadians are concerned the pine beetle that has wreaked such havoc in British Columbia was the main theme. As he pointed out, the beetle has been the principal regenerator of forests from time immemorial, long before humans began to try and manage the resource.

Pamela, Candace, me and Andrew at the panel session. (ph Kim Fong)
The final event of the entire festival found me at a panel session in the Milner library in downtown Edmonton alongside Andrew Nikiforuk again and also Saskatoon’s and East End's own Candace SavageOur topic was Fauna. We each read short pieces from our work, Candace from her book A Geography of Blood. Then we had to try and field questions from our moderator, Pamela Anthony, and from the floor. We tried to answer some of the questions, but as Candace carefully dodged one impossible one I realize that we would need weeks, if not years, to make any kind of meaningful reply.

We all, panel and audience alike, realized that humans are the main driver of changes in both Canadian and global fauna. I did make a point from my African experiences. Why would a family living on a dollar a day be concerned about preserving the lions that kill their cattle or the elephants that devastate an entire year’s supply of staple foods such as maize or millet in a single night’s feeding? Thoughts of conservation are all very well for us in Canada, but these folks may have a different view, and who would blame them?

In the spirit of the whole event. Jerry and Pamela (ph Kim Fong)
All-in-all the festival was an amazing experience. Thanks to David and his team for all their hard work.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Ivory As Art and Icon Through the Ages

When I wrote about elephant poaching in my blog of Oct 2nd my timing was either terrible or fantastic. Less than two weeks later our copy of the iconic National Geographic Magazine arrived and there, splashed across the front cover is the headline Blood Ivory: 25,000 ELEPHANTS WERE KILLED LAST YEAR. I cannot show the cover, but I did find a version of it on line

The article, by Bryan Christy, with photos by Brent Stirton, takes a really up-to-date and deeply probing look at the end users, with lots of information that was new to me. Christy’s account is of events in recent times, but the back history is just as fascinating and it is this side of the story that I am trying to highlight here. I’ll also offer a brief précis of the National Geographic piece, for those who have not seen it, but the story runs to 30 pages and I will not even try in 30 paragraphs. There are several new URL pages about this story, which has garnered quite a lot of reaction. You can find somne of that at Christy's blog.

            It would be naïve to suggest that the human desire to acquire beautiful things is something new, or that it never took place on a large scale. Witness the recent discovery of ancient trading records from the Egyptian city of Alexandria. One ship alone in the Third Century BC carried 100 tonnes of elephant tusks in a single voyage. Acquiring so much stuff must have been a massive undertaking. We will never know how much of the ivory was “found” from carcasses. In this context found carcasses are those of animals that have died a “natural” death.

The first text I read that really looked at this part of the trade was Ian Parker’s and Mohamed Amin’s Ivory Crisis (Chatto and Windus 1983).

In terms of the consumption end of the equation, Parker suggested that a reverence for ivory crosses all human cultures and times. In his chapter titled A Long White Trail he quoted from a wide variety of sources from many corners of the world. The oldest record that Parker found was the use of small figurines, possibly fertility goddesses, that date back about 40,000 years.

There are several references to the erotic nature of ivory in the Old Testament’s Song of Solomon For instance

"Your neck is as beautiful as an ivory tower."

Throughout time several thrones (including Solomon’s) have been made of ivory, or ivory and gold inlay. 

Author and ivory trader Ernst More wrote Ivory: Scourge of Africa in 1931. In a lengthy piece about thrones he wrote: …"we should include the ivory chair, inlaid with gold, or Suleiman the Magnificent, in which he sat while, on the feast of Bairam, all the harem women came to kiss the unspeakable Turkish foot."

John Petherick, the 19th century explorer who preceded Burton and Speke in the Sudan and on the Nile met tribesmen who used who used ivory bracelets and necklaces and many other African tribes enjoyed its special lustre in similar ways. The Baganda, in what is now Uganda, even used small ivory disks as currency.

The apogee of all this consumption, at least until modern times of which Brian Christy reports, must surely be during Roman times. The seats in the senate were made of ivory, and if that was not enough Emperor Caligula built a whole stable from the stuff for his horse. Another account has it that the stable was made of marble, but had an ivory manger. I wonder if this was Caligula’s favourite, named Incitatus, which, according to some historians, was attended by servants and fed oats mixed with gold flake. It seems quite possible as he was emperor for only four years before being assassinated.

It does seem that the massive killing of the elephants of North Africa, the kind that Hannibal took across the Alps, may have been the principal cause of their extermination.

There are many other examples that Parker gave, but these give a taste.
By the early 20th century extra sets of uses had appeared in Western culture. Billiard balls and piano keys were made of ivory. Not any more, but you can find websites that advertise antique billiard balls. Caveat emptor, plastic can be made to look very like the real thing.   

Much ivory is worked into exquisite pieces of unimaginable complexity. One that has intrigued me is the ivory ball shown here. In the top segment there are twelve balls carved inside one another. There are no splits of creases in the work. Each ball is carved in turn, from the outside, and each one rotates independently. If the outer one that one can clearly see is delicate and amazing, having taken hours, probably days, to carve, how difficult was it for the incredibly skilled craftsman to work the innermost, and what sort of highly specialized instrument was used? The bottom ball had only six layers.

I found this image from the National Museum of Taiwan. The close-up of the ball shows some of the 21 layers that a real artisan had created.

Carver at work. Douala, 1997
When I did some volunteer work for the Wildlife Conservation Society in Cameroon in the 1990s I visited the ivory trading centre in Doula, the commercial capital of the country. There were several carvers toiling way, but the standard of workmanship did not even approach those balls on their tower.

Ivory pieces and wood carvings in the Douala market

 The biggest surprise, for me, is the widespread used of and reverence for ivory among Roman Catholics in the Philippines. Christy quotes one collector who stated that “I don’t see the elephant, I see the Lord.” One of Stirton’s photos shows a man sitting among an extraordinary collection of ivory statues and elaborate carvings that must be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.   

One of the most amazing pieces is a carving of Christ on the cross, which hangs in a museum in Manila. His body, carved from a single tusk, is 30 inches long. You can see a small reproduction of this photo in this article.

Some of the vigorous reactions to this story appear here in Church reaction to art or in "Philippines officials react & may go after“blood ivory” holders." 

Another of Stirton’s photos shows a worker in China’s largest ivory-carving factory working on single tusk that has been turned into a cornucopia of leaves, berries and goodness knows what else. How long it took to create is impossible for me to even guess, but there is not doubt that the craftsmanship is extraordinary. It is a pity that I cannot show it here, but maybe you will have to find the story somewhere.

During his two year investigation Christy met a wealthy 42-year-old man named Gary Zeng in China. When the author asked why young entrepreneurs like him are buying ivory the conservation went:
“Value,” he replies. “And art.”
‘Do you think about the elephant?” I ask.
“Not at all,” he says.

I could go on, but I hope that this is enough to give you a small taste of the situation. If the Roman greed for ivory really did lead to the disappearance of elephants from North Africa, are we heading to a wider extirpation driven by Chinese, Philippine and other consumers who know the beauty of ivory but would rather see it in a statue than growing on the original owner?