Saturday, January 28, 2012

Sunbirds in East Africa

We were back in Kenya just before Christmas and spent time with many of our old friends. One of the delights was the chance to walk in their amazing gardens, where it is almost more difficult to stop plants from growing than it is to cultivate. We found this out many years ago when the sticks planted to support tomato plants grew at about the same rate as those delicious salad suppliers or, when fried, part of a complete breakfast.

Over the years I have had a passion for photographing birds and here I’m going to add a few of sunbirds, the crown jewels that flit about and dip a beak into any bright flower, or the myriad of feeders that some folks hang out. Although sunbirds are not related to the other crown jewels —the humming birds of the Americas—they do fill more or less the same niche.

This is a male bronze sunbird, aka "bronzy". They are usually found at fairly high altitudes. I have seen them most often at anything from 8500 to 7000 feet.

The female bronze sunbird has more defintion than the females of many species.

And this tiny fellow is a collared sunbird, photographed near Gilgil in an orchard. He is one of the smallest members of the family.

This is a male double-collared. He is drinking from the outside of the flower, where there must be some nectar, or else he has speared his beak through the petals. Does anyone know?

And this is the female of the species.

One major difference between hummingbirds and sunbirds is that the latter do not hover, but this one —the variable sunbird— nearly makes it.

This golden-winged sunbird was feeding on aloes near Naro Moru in Kenya. He was one of may that appeared early every morning, having flown down from altitudes of about 9000 feet up the slopes of Mt. Kenya. All I had to do was sit still in amlong the aloes and take my chances.

Double-collared sunbirds also live at fairly high altitudes. This one was in a garden near Timau, at about 8000 feet.

This red-chested sunbird was one of eight species of bird that were in what was almost a feeding frenzy in an Erythrina tree in Uganda's Queen Elizabeth National Park.

The aptly-named Scarlet-chested sunbird was another one that came to that tree.

My final one for today is a picture of a moment I was lucky enough to capture in the life of a a green-headed sunbird male in a garden near Gilgil. He looks as if he is practising for an audition to The Muppets. Gonzo maybe?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

More on Rhino Horn and Poaching

My blog of Nov 29 about rhino poaching was written before I went with my family to Kenya. While there, and since I got back, more disturbing news has been reported.

The use of rhino horn as part of Traditional Chinese Medicine is ancient, nobody knows how ancient, and as I have blogged before the situation continues to be a nightmare for conservationists. I used one example of many in The Trouble With Lions when I quoted Judy Mills who, in a TRAFFIC report found that 60 percent of South Korea’s doctors believe that rhino horn is an effective medicine and 79 percent believe it to be essential for a wide variety of ailments.

Yet another South-East Asian country seems to have joined the “hunt” for rhino in South Africa. For some reason the finger-nail-like substance has gained an entirely false reputation as a cure for cancer. Vietnamese hunters, have arrived in South Africa and in one report titled mules hunting rhino -check it out- are seen to be active, with a video report by Dan Rather even appearing on the website.

Recent African twists in the ugly saga come from three countries. First, two places in Kenya, where Mugie Ranch, on the Laikipia plains west of Mount Kenya have given up their attempts to keep black rhino because of the steady decline of their original number of about 30 head as poachers took them out one at a time. The Kenya Wildlife Service moved in a translocated them all (apart from the one they lost during the drugging). In some ways sadder was the poaching of a single hand-raised rhino at Sweetwaters Conservancy. I last saw him three years ago when I could scratch his neck as he contentedly chewed on a stick of sugar cane. Now some callous sod has taken him out.

Are these two still there? - I took the photo in South Africa about 15 years ago.

Then there is Namibia, where officials in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, and where has been apparently granted a Vietnamese man a hunting permit for the trophy hunt of a rhino on the Otjiwa Safari Lodge.

The same article in the Namibian Sun quoted the Deputy Minister of Environment and Tourism, Uahekua Herunga, as saying that the government should also look into “legalizing” a trade in rhino horn. Presumably he is suggesting some sort of “farming” for horn. What next?

In many ways more chilling than either of the things going in these two countries is the news from South Africa. I have mentioned before that one of my former students told me about two vets who have been implicated in poaching. Now I’ve learned more about them. In an article published on line they are named as Karel Toet and Manie du Plessis (and their wives) They are suspected of involvement with a rhino horn syndicate headed by Out of Africa Adventurous Safari’s Dawie Groenewald. The veterinarians (and other “Groenewald gang” members) will face charges of assault, fraud, corruption, malicious damage to property, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition, and contravention of the National Environmental Biodiversity Act when they return to court in April 2012.

If you think that is bad news and a slap in the face for wildlife vets, there is more. One of South Africa’s most prominent wildlife vets is Dr. Douw Grobler. He is a former head of the game capture unit in the Kruger National Park and was arraigned in Pretoria North Magistrates Court. No charges were laid but he is suspected of supplying veterinary drugs to a controversial game farmer and hunter named Hugo Ras, who has several previous convitions related to nature conservation transgressions and was arrested last August.

The case was postponed to February 28th and Grobler was released on R5,000 (USD $618) bail. You can read the full story here.

Of course Grobler may have been falsely accused, but the picture is not pretty and certainly puts all wildlife vets in Africa under a spotlight.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Chauvet Cave movie - Cave of Forgotten Dreams

On Saturday we went to the movies. We had chosen to go and see the story of France’s Chauvet caves, discovered in 1994 by three men. There are several web pages about these extraordinary findings, and one can find the fantastic drawings on some of them. The movie, directed by Werner Herzog, is called Cave of Forgotten Dreams and for those who don’t know about them these caves are absolutely extraordinary. The art work has been dated to be in the region of twenty-five to thirty-two thousand years old. This is at least twice as old as any other ever found, the other famous ones being the Lascaux caves, also in France. Of the many images, two in particular have caught my imagination.

There are two rhinos fighting, their horns crossed like a couple of fencers squaring up.
My own work with rhinos has shown me direct evidence of these behemoths fighting, especially when in the grip of sexual foreplay. The whole process can last up to an hour before any kind of mounting. Both of my cases were in white rhino, animals that had been brought up form South Africa in the late 1960s. Of course at that time we had to state that they came from Lesotho because Kenya and South Africa were not diplomatically linked, Apartheid being the political climate in the latter. The first case was a cow that had been picked up a bull, on the end of his horn, and slammed into a big pepper tree. I was district veterinary officer in the town of Meru, east of Mount Kenya and when Peter Jenkins, the chief park warden in Meru National Park called me I headed out as soon as I could.

I really had no idea what was wrong and decided on a shotgun treatment, a big dose of antibiotic and multivitamins. The challenge was how to get them into her. In the end I simply drove a long needle into the muscles on the backside and was astonished when she stood there eating the hay that her minders had given her.

Rhino are not the brightest start on the planet and it was only about half way through the treatment that she noticed my attentions. She began to walk away, and so my injections ended up being given “on the run” My efforts did no good and when she died two days later Peter told me that she had a broken rib and a ruptured liver. It is amazing that she lived as long as she did., but the astonishing thing to look back upon is the power in the bull’s neck. The cow must have weighed close to 1500 kg!

A year later I had to treat another cow that had also been attacked during foreplay. In this case the damage was limted to her hind end, but was so severe that she had not been able to pass stool or urine for 3 days. After evacuating her rectum I administered a 4-gallon enema - and have evidence of the event in the photo that my wife took. This time the treatment, which also included antibiotics, was a success.
The other image is the multi-legged bison. The artist drew eight legs, some of them paler than the others, and in forward positions with bent joints. Everyone, including me, thinks that the images are made to look as if the bison is running.

I have taken this an extra step in my imagination. If you, as a child of about six or eight, are in the cave with your dad and suddenly hear the sound of running bison in the background, followed almost at once by the sight of a flare being waved in front of the animal on cave wall, the legs will come in and out of focus, just as if the animal is running. Are you holding on tight to your dad’s knee?

There are lots of other stunning images and the movie producers have done a good job of telling the story. The last set of pictures are not inside the caves, but are a spooky postscript about a nearby nuclear plant. I won’t tell you any more. Go and see the movie.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Of Moose and Men - final edits

Of Moose and Men- final edits.
It's the second day of the New Year and a spectacular sunrise to greet us. Also the day that I have completed my final edit of the new book Of Moose and Men. The subtitle has been chosen and appears as A Wildlife Vet’s Pursuit of the World’s Largest Deer. I’ve been working off an “advanced reading copy” which lacks the colour plates and an index, but they will come, along with appropriate quotes and so on. I can share a couple of things. The first is my opening quote, that comes from a speech made by Sit James Barrie at the St. Andrews University convocation in 1922. He said:
“It is not real work unless you would rather be doing something else.”
The second is some of the material about the taming, not quite domestication, of moose through the ages. This comes near the end of the book after I have discussed many of my own experiences with them, and a bunch of other stuff about their lives, their antlers (and the role of these in moose sex) and the carnage they cause on the roads. The first written records of tamed moose in North America come from the early 1600s when French priests reported that there were moose in captivity in New France, but it seems highly likely that Aboriginal people had tamed them long before that because those same priests and later European explorers commented on how easy moose were to train, and many authors and raconteurs mention how remarkably tame a moose can become.
This photo, by Ernest Brown, will be in the book courtesy of the Provincial Archives of Alberta. It is simply titled “Moose in harness.” Unfortunately the photographer provided only a brief caption to the image: “Moose Yoked.” No other information about the location or history of this photo has been found. In 1770 Samuel Hearne, who was the first European to reach the Arctic Ocean by a mainland route across North America, noted that moose “are also the easiest to tame and domesticate of any of the deer kind.” He went further in describing the details. “I have repeatedly seen them at Churchill as tame as sheep, and even more so; for they would follow their keeper any distance from home, and at his call return with him, without the least trouble, or even offering to deviate from the path.” The deviation, or lack of it, is not constant. In 1910 a man named D.E. Lantz, who worked for the U.S. Biological Survey, gave a pithy account of this when he wrote the following about a pair of moose that had been trained to pull a buggy, “which they did with great steadiness and swiftness, subject, however, to the inconvenience that, when they once took it into their heads to cool themselves in a neighbouring river or lake, no effort could prevent them.” Also in 1910, author, explorer, and naturalist Ernest Thompson Seton wrote that that moose were “much more tractable and valuable than reindeer . . . they are docile, easily trained, exceedingly swift, and, being natural trotters, are well suited for light travel.” There are several even earlier accounts of tamed moose, especially ones that were shipped to Europe, to men like England’s King George III and to dukes who could no doubt afford the considerable costs involved. Many of these animals, however, died soon after arrival or even while on board ship. The year 1770 crops up again in this context because the first bull moose to make it alive to England was sent that year by Guy Carleton, Governor General of Canada, to the Second Duke of Richmond, who later imported two more. The duke must have acted quickly after the animal arrived in order to engage an artist, because that first one is the subject of a work, also dated 1770, by one of the great animal painters of all time: George Stubbs, best known for his wonderful pictures of horses.
The photo of this famous painting, which will appear in the colour section of the book, was kindly shared by the folks at the The Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow, my alma mater. The animal had only his first set of antlers, and those at bottom left were included to show what a mature set would look like. © The Hunterian, University of Glasgow 2011 There are fewer records or claims of moose being used as saddle animals and some of these may be more fancy than fact. Among others these accounts include descriptions of attempts to use moose for postal delivery and as cavalry mounts in Sweden. An urban myth has it that either King Karl XI of Sweden, or his successor Karl XII, even went so far as to invade Russia with moose-mounted hussars in the late 17th or very early 18th century. This story seemed to be too good to be true and the dangers of the Internet soon showed themselves as some entries appeared to confirm it, while others made no mention. I did some digging and received this email from my colleague and friend Dr. Bengt Roken.
There is no documentation to be found in the historic literature about moose used by the ancient military. Not even their use for postal deliveries is true. During the 19th century a number of moose calves were reared and got tame and some of them could pull a sledge or carry a rider. One farmer, Darelli, published his experiences with a pair of hand-reared moose and speculated about the possible use of trained moose as superior to horses in the cavalry. From his speculations most of the tales about moose cavalries have evolved.
Hope these tidbits tickle your fancy.