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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Pointless Science #1: Discovery of the Earwax Gene

Yes - have faith in the world’s scientists; for they are tirelessly making our world a better place.

(And by the way, make sure you’ve eaten your meals before you read this…)

An international team of researchers has discovered that the consistency of your earwax – i.e. if its either wet or dry – is determined by a mutation in a single gene.

By studying the genes of people from 33 populations around the world, they have also found that ethnicity affects which form of the gene people have, and therefore their earwax type. Apparently you out there who are afflicted by particularly bountiful harvests of earwax will be happy to know that there is a possibility that earwax type could be linked to attractiveness, due to a link with body odour glands.

Dry earwax is seen in up to 95% of East Asians, but no more than 3% of people of European and African origin.
In both Europeans and Africans, the wet type completely dominates.

The link with attractiveness was suggested because studies on animals such as chimpanzees, orang-utans, dogs and mice have shown secretory products like body odour, are produced by different glands from the same family as those which produce earwax.

And that’s not all folks - armpit odour has also been linked to wet-type earwax.

So now the world is a better place, thanks to this groundbreaking research. Sleep easy folks, the earwax gene is no longer a mystery to science.

Ah yes, the 'artist' thing...

Every now and then, in a mindless burst of creativity, I get hold of a canvas and paint something wierd. It helps to ease the rigours of work life and of course its also fun to make a mess...

I have been neglecting my artwork for many years - and after having held exhibitions and been shortlisted for a couple of international comps in the late '90s, this has all been put on the backburner - another victim of the crazed, all-consuming TV production lifestyle.

But in a valiant attempt to start the new year with a stronger sense of purpose, I've actually produced some new work.

Flamebird Rising is one of them. (This is not the best of photos - taken off my low-res mobile - the real thing is far more, erm... real)

Monday, January 30, 2006

Renewed Faith in Humans #2: Asian Elephant Action Plan

Well, it’s about time… nations throughout Asia whose forests are still home to wild populations of elephants have met as a group for the first time to discuss the species' future survival.

They’ve finally realized that there’s going to have to be more co-operation between them, so that herds crossing nation boundaries will still be afforded protection no matter whose country they’re in.

The wild population of Asian elephants is now estimated at only around 30,000 to 50,000. The three-day gathering in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia was facilitated by IUCN, in an attempt to try and figure out the best way to protect the remaining elephant populations.

There are only rough estimates of elephant numbers in different countries, ranging from fewer than 100 in Vietnam to more than 20,000 in India.

But this is still guesswork – what’s lacking is sufficient manpower and government backing to implement and endorse any action plan.

The 13-nation meeting is just a start – by no means will it come up with an effective solution to suit all participants. But to finally have them all sat round the table with one goal is a good beginning – no matter how long overdue.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Massive in the Area

Being one of those people who can only work efficiently with music pouring into their ears, I don't venture into the field without an i-pod close at hand and some worthwhile tunes. I've got a Shuffle, 'cos I would definitely either lose or destroy one of its bigger brothers in the jungle. Anyway, number one on my playlist is anything by Massive Attack.

Great atmos, great rhythmns, and suitably dark for all occassions. One of my favourite tracks from their last album is a thing called "Butterfly Caught". There are a few remixes of it wondering around, and I present to you one of the better ones:

BUTTERFLY CAUGHT (poly war remix)
(You'll need Real Player to listen in)
(Copy link location and open in player)

Click on pic to find out more about MA:

Science News: Discovery of World's Smallest Fish

BANGKOK, Thailand - Scientists have discovered the world's smallest fish on record in an acidic peat swamp in Indonesia - a member of the carp family, with a see-through body and a head that is unprotected by a complete skull.

Its been christened Paedocypris progenetica - referring to its abandonment of conventional adult characteristics - an adaptation to help them maintain their small and consequently elusive size.

Shame it lives in one of the fastest disappearing habitats in South East Asia.

Another case of found and lost...

Science News: Time Changes the Human Face

This is an interesting one: new evidence has shown that the shape of the human skull has been undergoing change over the past 650 years.

Through comparisons with 14th Century skulls and modern-day orthodontic records, researchers have discovered that our skull 'height' has increased by around 20% - making space for larger brains? The theory obviously is that we've cultivated a greater mental capacity than our ancestors - but makes you wonder exactly what we've achieved with this little bit of evolution. Intellectual progress of course - but possibly at the expense of an earlier instinctive capacity for common sense - just my theory. But you see and hear it on the streets almost every day.

I'd bet medieval humans had a head full of common sense - having to think with their wits rather than first referring to a 'How to' book, or looking it up on Google... hang on a minute, I do that every day...

Apparently we, as a species, have also far more generic facial features than our predecessors. So if we're heading in this direction now, is there eventually going to come a time when we are all carbon copies of each other, and can't find a suitably sized hat to fit our impressive melonheads?

This research conjures up images of those fantastic old sci-fi 'B' movies of invading Martians with stunted little arms and legs and huge egg-like heads... when you have superior intellect and are technologically advanced enough to render all physical tasks unnecessary - who needs to move any more? Maybe those pulp movie makers were unwitting prophets of our own not-too distance descendants - as alien to us as the Men from Mars...

Invasion of the Saucer Men...
Or our great, great, grandchildren?

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Animal Behaviour: Eagle gets mobbed

This is a montage made up from several stills of some fantastic behaviour we filmed recently in Sri Lanka's forests.

We were focussed on a big male white-Bellied Sea Eagle perched on top of a tree - he must have easily stood around 2ft tall while at rest.
And then all of a sudden a tiny Red Wattled Lapwing, a marshland bird, whose guts more than make up for its small size, launched itself from the riverbank below and taunted the huge eagle, until he had enough and flew away.

But that wasn’t enough, even in flight the Lapwing mobbed the eagle until it made certain that it was gone for good!
Now that's a brave little bird!

Size obviously does not always equate with the ability to intimidate in the world of birds…

Sunday, January 22, 2006

POSTSCRIPT: London Whale

During a heroic attempt to return it back to sea, the young Bottle-nosed Whale died - sadly an inevitable conclusion to this remarkable story.

If at anything at all - this rescue attempt succeeded on one level - in being a simple illustration of how a concerned community can come together for one brief exhilarating moment to save the life of another species.

Many may argue,
"Well its just one whale - what difference can that make, when thousands of whales will be slaughtered by Japanese Whalers this year?". When you consider just how many people from around the world have been tuning into the live news coverage from the BBC and CNN, and sending in their encouragement and support - you'll begin to notice that this one isolated event, was - for a couple of hours, a global event. And that may well be what makes a difference. however small or monumenal - in the long run.

Renewed Faith in Humans #1: Rescue of London Whale

Absolutely fascinating coverage on right now from the BBC, about the rescue of a Northern Bottle-nosed Whale that had wandered down the River Thames in London, UK and stranded itself.

As I watch the live coverage, the whale, estimated to be around 3-4 years old is being transported via barge back down the Thames and towards the estuary and ultimately it is hoped, to open sea.

What a difference, to see so many different groups and organizations collaborating to save this poor animal. The rescue operation to save the Whale is live on the BBC website right


From the BBC:
A whale that was stranded in the River Thames has been moved on to a barge and is being taken back to open water.

The 18ft (5m) northern bottle-nosed whale was placed in a special pontoon in shallow water near Battersea Bridge.

It was then tethered close to two boats and towed to a barge which is heading for the river estuary.

If tests show it is healthy, it is hoped it will be released at about 2100 GMT. But the rescuers are appealing for an ocean going vessel to help them.

However, if the whale is too weak experts may take the decision to put it down.

rescue in pictures...

Now granted of course, judging from previous whale stranding occurrences throughout the world - the outlook for this young whale is pretty bleak. For one thing the species is known to be highly sociable, and this fellow has managed to stray several hundred miles from its nearest habitat - which is somewhere off the coast of Northern Scotland. But the way in which this rescue attempt has captured the public eye is wonderful - can only hope for a good outcome...

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Friday is Cat-Blogging Day

I discovered this blog phenomenon by chance today. Seems I am the last to know as usual. This global ritual entails posting a pic of said cat. Here in Singapore I've already slipped into the wee hours of Saturday morning - but hey its my first time, so go easy.

Without further ado, I present Jelly, who is by far one of the most pondering, reflective felines I have ever known.

She thinks - a lot. A great thinker.

This is her majesty earlier today, with her young cohort, Twinkie, looking out for unfortunate geckos in the background.

Jelly is... erm... thinking.

And 12 hours later...

This is Jelly, about to take her great philosophies into dreamland, while she waits for me (her patience being put to the test) to post her bloody cat-blog!

Now everyone say, "Goodnight Jelly..."

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Don't Get Between an Elephant and its Meal!

Asian Elephants have long been legendary for their problem-solving capabilities. In fact over in Sri Lanka, huge plantations of sugar cane have been raided by wild elephants so often that the sugar corporations have erected electric fences around their crops to keep the elephants out. Well they obviously don’t know elephants very well.

In an interesting scene, testifying to their intelligence, a raiding elephant returns home at dawn, after a night of crop raiding, just after the electric fence is switched off in the morning. The fence is left intact with no trace of an elephant ever having gone through - and the elephant enjoys a peaceful gorge on sugarcane without disturbance!

More power to the elephant!

Friday, January 13, 2006

Man as Imbecile #1: Taiwan breeds green-glowing pigs

Is this scientific progress? Is it worth multi-million dollar research grants? Hmmm - first fluorescent coloured fish and now glow-in-the-dark pigs. I sure feel safe in the hands of scientists... I can almost predict a kid's cartoon coming out of this one - something like 'Teenage Mutant Glowing Piglets'. I wonder, if they've got jellyfish DNA in them, do they get the urge to take a swim every now and then? C.

Scientists in Taiwan say they have bred three pigs that "glow in the dark".

By Chris Hogg

BBC News, Hong Kong

They claim that while other researchers have bred partly fluorescent pigs, theirs are the only pigs in the world which are green through and through.
The pigs are transgenic, created by adding genetic material from jellyfish into a normal pig embryo. The researchers hope the pigs will boost the island's stem cell research, as well as helping with the study of human disease. The scientists, from National Taiwan University's Department of Animal Science and Technology, say that although the pigs glow, they are otherwise no different from any others. Taiwan is not claiming a world first. Others have bred partially fluorescent pigs before; but the researchers insist the three pigs they have produced are better. They are the only ones that are green from the inside out. Even their heart and internal organs are green, the researchers say.

To create them, DNA from jellyfish was added to about 265 pig embryos which were implanted in eight different sows.

Four of the female pigs became pregnant and three male piglets were born three months ago.

Green generation

In daylight, the researchers say the pigs' eyes, teeth and trotters look green. Their skin has a greenish tinge.

In the dark, shine a blue light on them and they glow torch-light bright.

The scientists will use the transgenic pigs to study human disease. Because the pig's genetic material is green, it is easy to spot.

So if, for instance, some of its stem cells are injected into another animal, scientists can track how they develop without the need for a biopsy or invasive test.

But creating them has not been easy. Many of the altered embryos failed to develop.

The researchers say they hope the new, green pigs will mate with ordinary female pigs to create a new generation - much greater numbers of transgenic pigs for use in research.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Asia's Wildlife Trader Kingpin Jailed!

Sansar Chand, one of Asia's most notorious illegal wildlife traders, directly responsible for the killings of thousands of wild animals, including tigers and leopards - is in jail.

After almost two years of trials and going underground, he has finally been brought to justice. If it were up to me, I would throw away the key to this devil's cell.

Ajmer, 3 January, 2006: For the first time Sansar Chand, the infamous wildlife trader has begun serving a sentence of five years rigorous imprisonment as a convict in Ajmer Central Jail on the pending sentence, which was ordered way back in April 2004 by Ravi Sharma, Addl. Chief Judicial Magistrate, Ajmer.

While hearing the case, the appeal court on October 28, 2005 held that he should start serving his previous sentence in Ajmer Central Jail, which was still pending. The court noted that his judicial remands in various jails as under trial were now collectively over six months and that to be adjusted in the total period of the sentence. It also directed the officials not to transfer the convict to other places wanted for crimes without prior permission of the court.

Subsequent to the court’s order Sansar Chand in May 2004 had appealed the Special Court SC/ST, Addl. Secession Judge in Ajmer to set aside the trial court order. The court then accepted his appeal and had ordered him to deposit Rs. 60,000/- as a penalty, and kept his sentence on hold until a final decision was arrived.

However, on this pretext he went underground and never appeared in any of the court summons. Finally, the court issued a non-bailable arrest warrant. A year later in July last year he was arrested from a secret hideout in Delhi and sent to judicial custody in Tihar jail. The Ajmer police who then sought his custody in this case brought him to Ajmer.

Eight others were also convicted in the case when one of the accomplices enroute to Delhi was arrested with two leopard skins in his procession. The case was registered in the Bhilwara police station in Rajasthan.

Despite several cases registered in various states, he had not served a full sentence before. The lone case when he was sentenced to jail was in the mid nineties but the court had to award a half sentence after he was able to plead before the Supreme Court of India that he was juvenile at the time of committing the offence in late eighties.

Dr. M. S. Kachhawa, Legal Counsel of the Wildlife Trust of India (WTI) who has been assisting the prosecution said, “The court took cognizance of his prolonged absence from the appeal court and ordered in favor of the sentence passed by the previous court.”

Informed sources revealed that he was involved in several wildlife crimes after his disappearance from the scene and operated from discreet locations in India. His five-year term in Ajmer central jail would help the officials to persue other cases pending against him.

(Wildlife Trust of India)

This man has so much blood on his hands, and has been in operation for decades. He may well have led to the extermination of entire big cat populations around Asia if left to his own devices for much longer. It is an event to celebrate - now I hope the authorities act on this victory and start moving faster to ensure another kingpin doesn't take his place

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Lost in the Jungle

Greetings! I've tried to maintain blogs in the past and have failed hopelessly due to work commitments and lack of time and a host of other weak excuses. The main reason though is the time commitment needed by my job. I'm a television producer /documentary maker - with a complete bias towards Asian natural history, wildlife conservation and environmental issues. I've been working in the industry for the past 10 years and am now based in Singapore, after having spent most of my life in the UK, with occasional stints in South Asia.

Last year I embarked on the next stage of my directorial evolution; being commissioned by Discovery Channel to produce a one hour documentary about wildlife in the island of Sri Lanka. More about this as the project progresses.

To be able to sit in one place and concentrate on writing and recovering from years of getting lost in jungles and generally not looking after myself - I have started off the new year with a nice long stretch of leave - basically to rest and recuperate and catch up with things I've left on the backburner for too long. Hence the renewed effort of maintaining a blog - should be much easier now (in theory).

Anyway during much of my career,
I've been to some pretty interesting wild places around the world, particularly around Asia. I've met some pretty bizarre people, witnessed unbelievable animal behaviour, and had some really strange encounters in some God-forsaken locations. But with tight production schedules and unrealistic delivery deadlines, I've never had the chance to talk in more detail about this other side of the documentary-making experience.

Well I guess now's a good time as any to do that...