Friday, February 24, 2006

Film First: Snow Leopard hunts in Bin Laden's lair!


The holy grail of wildlife photography - a sequence of a snow leopard hunting a goat in the Himalayas - has been obtained by a BBC natural history unit about 50 miles from the Tora Bora caves, once a hideout of Osama bin Laden. (And I am frothing with envy and admittedly a considerable amount of admiration!)

With a high definition lens, cameraman Mark Smith captured the sudden high-speed attack after more than a year of searching for the unique animal.

His striking footage is part of BBC 1's 11-part Planet Earth series to be shown on Sunday nights, beginning next month. The BBC calls its spectacular follow-up to the award-winning Blue Planet the "ultimate portrait of our planet."

The pin-sharp images are described by the narrator Sir David Attenborough (The Man himself) as "simply without parallel".

Initially, the unit was prevented from filming in the area, on the border between Afghanistan and northern Pakistan, in the Karakoram mountains, because British and America troops were hunting for the al-Qa'eda leader.

Alastair Fothergill, the executive producer of Planet Earth, said yesterday that the area was considered "level one" for the corporation, where only news crews were allowed to film.

"We heard through the grapevine in Pakistan of the leopard, but it took us a whole year to get in. Eventually, the situation calmed down and the BBC said, 'OK, we think you can go', and we set up in this totally beautiful valley in the Karakoram.

"We got nothing for six weeks, and finally were given a tip-off about a place where a mother and her cub had been seen."

He said that the sequence, which lasts over six minutes, was "an absolute first" as all previous brief shots of the snow leopard were obtained by systems set off with infra red beams. "There had been no more than five minutes of film obtained in that way."

The snow leopard closes in on
the goat and finally catches it

Mr Smith, from Argyle, filmed goats being hunted, first by golden eagles, and then by "scavenging Himalayan wolves". The leopard was initially captured on film with her cub.

Mr Fothergill said: "Then, you see her chasing a goat, by running down a vertical slope of the valley. To cling on, it has very big claws and a big tail as a counterbalance. The leopard fails in her first attempt. She then captures a goat and pulls it back to her cub.

"Mark was 100 metres away, using a very long lens. The leopard ran at very high speed. With HD, you can play back the film instantly. It was all in superb focus. When Mark realised he had got the shot, he almost burst into tears. In our wildest dreams, we never imagined this sequence would be possible to record."

Wonderful, just wonderful....

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Loving the Lizard

As a precursor to another Field Journal entry - this time about my encounters with that giant among reptiles, the wonderfully adaptable monitor lizard, here's another piece of artwork I've been working on. Its a Clouded Monitor, Varanus bengalensis, in the undergrowth with a streak of sunlight catching it - undergrowth and streak yet to come...

Detail: 'Dawn Monitor' Charith Pelpola, 2006

Most of my encounters have been with the far more widespread Water Monitor, Varanus salvator, and its myriad subspecies spread throughout the region.

I was also privileged to spend some quality time with the grand-daddy of the clan, the infamous 'Dragon' out in Komodo. Field Journal coming soon!

Pointless Science #2: Why the Chicken crossed the road (and lost its teeth)

Rudyard Kipling may have told us how the leopard got its spots, but it has taken two University of Wisconsin researchers to tell us how the chicken lost its teeth.

And the tale told by John Fallon and Matthew Harris, seems almost as strange as Kipling's famous fictions. The strange part came when the scientists got a chicken to grow alligator teeth.

Confused? It's all explained in the journal Current Biology. Just look up the article titled "The Development of Archosaurian First-Generation Teeth in a Chicken Mutant." Alligator teeth in a chicken is not as bizarre as it might at first seem. And that of course is because alligators are among the closest living relatives to modern birds.

Fallon, a professor of anatomy, and Harris, one of his graduate students, took advantage of a surprising and accidental discovery to turn back the evolutionary clock, and show through the science of genetics that chickens retain the gene for the long-lost ability to make teeth resembling those of their ancient ancestors.

Three years ago, Harris was studying connections between feathers and scales. In one of the birds he was using, the beak had fallen off. Looking closely at the part of the bird's mouth that had been hidden by the beak, Harris saw small bumps.

Curious about the story behind the bumps - they looked vaguely tooth-like and were conical in shape - Fallon and Harris embarked on a three-year quest to answer the toothy riddle posed by the chicken without a beak.

The chickens used by Fallon and Harris are mutant birds, a research strain known as talpid2 that never hatch; biologists study the embryos. Through their genetic sleuthing, Fallon and Harris found the growth of teeth in both alligators and chickens to be regulated by the same gene.

And by signaling the gene to do its job, the chicken embryos grew early-stage teeth similar to the same conical-shaped teeth present in alligator embryos.

"It makes sense. They're cousins to one another," said Fallon of chickens and alligators. So why don't chickens and other birds still grow teeth?

Tooth formation in alligators and chickens, Fallon said, is the result of signaling between two tissues in the mandible, the epithelium and the mesenchyme. The hypothesis put forth by the researchers is that in distant time the two tissues separated so the birds don't grow teeth. In the mutant chickens, the tissues had grown together again, thus the budding teeth noticed by Harris. Still, modern-day birds retained the genetic mechanism necessary to make teeth.

Sean Carroll, a UW-Madison developmental biologist not involved with the work, said it's common for a species to lose traits - such as the chicken's teeth - over time.

"Loss happens a lot," Carroll said. "Hey, we lost our tails!"

further up the evolutionary ladder...

Monday, February 20, 2006

Science News: Genes record Orangutans' collapse

Great ape populations are undergoing a dramatic decline, which is predicted to result in their extinction in the wild from entire regions in the near future. Recent findings have particularly focused on African apes, and have implicated multiple factors contributing to this decline, such as deforestation, hunting, and disease.

Less well-publicised, but equally dramatic, has been the decline in orangutans, whose distribution is limited to parts of Sumatra and Borneo.

Using the largest-ever genetic sample from wild orangutan populations, an international team from France, Malaysia, the US and UK, have shown strong evidence for a recent demographic collapse in North Eastern Borneo.

This is the first time its been demonstrated that genetic data can detect and quantify the effect of recent, human-induced deforestation and habitat fragmentation on an endangered species.

The orangutan populations studied inhabit the Lower Kinabatangan floodplain in Eastern Sabah, a region that has experienced large-scale commercial timber exploitation and agriculture since the mid-1950s. Faecal and hair samples were collected from wild orangutans; over 200 different animals were genetically identified using 14 microsatellites.

The genetic diversity of the population showed a very strong signal of a massive population decline - suggesting that a population crash occurred during the past 200 years, coinciding with deforestation in the same area.

In recent years, conservationists have linked the orangutans' decline to forest clearance for palm oil plantations, which produce the raw materials used for products like lipstick and soap.

Orangutan numbers are now down to just around 50,000. Considering the fact that Kinabatangan is just one orangutan habitat afflicted with these problems, the larger picture of population decline across their entire range is a very serious cause for concern.

The researcher findings emphasise the need to re-establish corridors between fragmented forest patches. And it may be even necessary to move orangutans around to prevent inbreeding.

If current trends are to continue unabated, the outlook is certainly grim for the species. In a recent estimate, WWF predicts that Orangutans may become extinct by 2025.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Different Lion: Same Prospects

It may still be "King of the Beasts," and have a far higher profile than its enigmatic Asian cousin, but it seems that even the ubiquitous African lion is losing hold over its kingdom. According to a new report released by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), these emblematic big cats have disappeared from 82 percent of their historic distribution over the past several decades. The 200-page report looked at the conservation status of the 20 largest species of African carnivores and examined priorities to help ensure that they persist on the continent.

WCS scientists ranked all 20 species using a variety of external factors, from the state of current knowledge on the species, to the threats facing each of them. They also looked at which areas in Africa have retained their full complement of large carnivore species and which areas need more conservation action.

Populations of the lion, listed in the report as "most vulnerable" have dropped steadily in recent decades, primarily due to conflicts with humans, destruction of habitat, and the loss of prey, according to the report.

Also making the most-vulnerable list are cheetahs and African wild dogs, which have vanished from 75 and 89 percent of their historical habitat respectively, and Ethiopian wolves which have vanished from an astonishing 98 percent of their range, (I'll feature the struggle to save this beautiful canid in a future post).

Other species of concern included the leopard, spotted hyena, and golden cat, all of which suffer from the combined key threats of habitat loss and conflict with people over predation on domestic animals.

By contrast, a handful of species seem to thrive among humans, including the African civet and several species of jackals. While these species also prey on livestock and poultry, their adaptability to a variety of habitats makes them less vulnerable to long-term population declines. Little was known about the conservation status of other species such as the aardwolf and honey badger and the report calls for greater research effort on these little-known carnivores.

The authors of the report say that while such well-known species as lions enjoy a relative wealth of conservation and research-based initiatives, there still remains a range-wide lack of knowledge of many carnivores. In addition, many research programs are geographically biased toward East and Southern Africa, sometimes at odds with the urgent need for increased conservation action in other parts of Africa.

The report lays out a framework for conservationists to better understand both the threats facing these animals, and the conservation action needed to ensure their survival.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Field Journals: Asiatic Lions

One of the world's most endangered big cats - the beautiful Asiatic Lion - was once widespread from the Mediterranean to India. Today they number just around 300.
With such a small number of animals - representing the world's entire population - there are so many problems that have arisen for conservationists trying to rescue the species - not least of which is the tiny gene pool. Inbreeding has taken place at such a rate, that 80% of cubs die within the first year because of deformity and poor health.
I experienced this firsthand when I filmed out in the Gir Forest in Gujarat, West India a couple of years ago, for a documentary about the Lions and their relationship with the local tribal communities. Even though the Gir Forest itself is huge, covering an area of 1,400 square kiometres, its just a core zone of 260 square kilometres in which the lions are found. I found that out to my cost - when, after 3 days of tracking the length and breadth of this area, which is thick with dry forest and grassland - we still hadn't sighted a single lion.

Of course we had heard them roaring in the distance and come across a couple of old pugmarks - but not the animal itself. I was getting desperate, because we had run out of time and I even thought about changing the subject of the film to a story about the beautiful jackals (another favourite animal of mine!) that are found in the park.

It was literally on the last afternoon of the last day of filming that they suddenly appeared - a mother, her sister, and three 1-year old cubs - one male and two females. They had emerged from the tall grass to begin the night's hunt, and we found the cubs in a playful mood, rough-housing each other and their mother. But their aunt would have none of it and smacked the male several times with a warning snarl.

We were told by the trackers that the cubs' father was the dominant male of this area, but a younger male had challenged him recently and tried to separate the adult females from him. The oldtimer had been killed - directly as a result of the cramped territories that the males have to constantly fight over in the park. If the new male were to come across the cubs, he would kill them, so as to stimulate their mother to come into breeding condition again.

For their own safety, the cubs are monitored round-the-clock by a patrol of forest rangers, who try to keep the new male away. Healthy cubs are so rare these days, that they just can't afford to let 'nature take its course' anymore. They also told me that this particular mother had given birth to premature cubs before, so these three youngsters were very special.

When I photographed the two cubs below, resting after playtime, they were literally about ten feet away from our jeep (despite centuries of persecution, a strange thing about Asiatic Lions is that they are fearless around humans, and even curious about us).
The male is on the left; one of his sisters beside him. Its now been almost three years since I had this magical encounter - I can only hope that they made it to adulthood...

Having spoken at length with the game warden at Gir and representatives of the local tribal communities, namely the Maldhari and the Rabari herdsmen - I was given some interesting perspectives on the problem.
As far as the tribal communities are concerned, they've obviously had resentment against the lions in the past - the Maldhari were once nomadic herders, driving their livestock from one end of the forest to the other, following good grazing grounds during the changing seasons.

When the reserve was sanctioned, they were effectively prohibited from moving through the forests anymore. Many left Gir but a lot remained and were forced to settle down and become farmers.

Its these people whom I spoke with, and I got the impression that they were quite proud of the lions. They showed me the protective barricade of vicious-looking thornbushes build around their homes for protection. One farmer told me that one or two of his buffaloes are taken from time to time, but the lions were here long before him, so they have every right to do so. Of course he had a camera in front of him, and I always have to try and figure out if people are saying what they think I want to hear ('for the cameras'), or if they are saying what they really mean. But they seemed genuine enough. Maybe times have changed for some of these people.
Another Maldhari farmer recounted about the lions' fearless curiosity. As a child he recalled how two adult lions strolled into his village and just sat down, staying for an hour or so just watching the people going about their business - and then wandering back into the bush! Lion-hearted indeed!
There were plans to move some of the cats from Gir to the Kuno Wildlife Sanctuary, 500 miles away.

This would give the species a much needed chance of diluting their gene pool, especially with future plans of reintroducing captive bred animals from Europe into the wild population.

When you consider that all 300 lions are descended from as few as a dozen individuals, its no surprise to learn that one lion is so genetically identical to another, that they could be identical twins.

As I write this, I also hear that a controversial new reintroduction and resettlement plan for the lions is being hammered into shape - shall post when I find out more.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Updates: Iranian Cheetah Society

Well that didn't take long!
In January, ICS camera traps recorded the remarkable scene of a Grey Wolf with its kill in Khojir National Park, eastern Tehran.

The animal had passed in front of the motion-detector infrared camera and then returned with its kill which was later identified as a small carnivore, probably a jackal.

The wolf was photographed as part of continuing field research under the Khojir Carnivore Research program, launched in early 2005.

Led by Morteza Eslami, the only member of the IUCN/SSC Hyena Specialist Group in Iran, the project aims to study populations and interactions of three large-sized carnivores - striped hyena, wolf and leopard - within a human-pressured habitat.

Conservation Frontliners: Iranian Cheetah Society

There are the WWFs and the IUCNs of this world - the necessary international conservation organizations that have built themselves into global mouthpieces for environmental welfare and preservation. And all credit to them.

But when such groups evolve to such a scale and complexity, they have no choice but to address policies and mandates, by and large, on an equally global perspective.

But what fascinates me is how it all begins. How do people of likeminded dedication and concern for a particular habitat or species come together for a common cause and get those first wheels of active conservation in motion. It takes a particular kind of organization to rally itself and its members and continue to aim for its goals, inspite of poor funding, little media coverage and piecemeal governmental support. Fortunately there are many of these determined groups distributed throughout the region, some that I've admired merely by following their progress through the years, and others that I have personally spent time in the field with. These short reports will be an attempt to give them some much needed exposure:

The Iranian Cheetah Society (ICS)
ICS is an organization working pretty much against the odds - but they are an organization after my heart: a local (Iranian), independent, non-profit NGO established over 4 years ago, to study and conserve the last remaining individuals that make up the total wild population of Asiatic Cheetahs, Acinonyx jubatus venaticus.

What's more, ICS was founded by three young students, all having worked personally on cheetah field studies. Although on shoestring budgets their work is centred not only on the movements of Cheetahs in two of Iran's potential cheetah hotspots, Miandasht Wildlife Refuge and Abbas Abad Reserve, but also on the other fauna associated with the habitats - most of which are highly endangered themselves.

Employing a virtual net of infrared camera traps and a core team made up of their small staff and residents from local communities, ICS has made some amazing new observations in the field, not least of which was the first ever sighting (through camera-trap photo) of a Persian Leopard, Panthera pardus saxicolor, in North-eastern Iran, last December.

This is important confirmation of the leopard's presence in the area as it hasn't been extensively studied previously - and also because the cheetah and the leopard coexist inside 4 habitats of 7 verified cheetah reserves in Iran. So a renewed survey of the big cat's ecology and population densities will also contribute in implementing a similar management plan for the cheetahs themselves.

The data being gathered by ICS as I write this is remarkable - and they're also taking their message to the schools - I feel, one of the cornerstones of instilling environmental protection into the minds of the public at large.

ICS is definitely a group to look out for.

Journeys in the Animal Mind #1: Snowflakes

I'm sorry - I couldn't resist sharing this. I keep coming across these so often, should really start a regular series.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Field Journals: Sri Lankan Jackals

Jackals in South Asia are extremely shy creatures, absolute introverts when compared to their cousins in Africa.

Although to all intents and purposes, the Asian jackal
is identical to Africa's Golden Jackal, both of which are classed as Canis aureus - there are significant differences in appearance and temperament.
In the decade I've spent filming wildlife around Asia, I've only seen wild Jackals six times - twice in India and the rest in Sri Lanka. And I've only managed to capture them on film on three of those occasions, (of course there have been many 2 or 3 second shots of Jackals racing across the frame and disappearing into the bush, but these obviously don't count). But we managed to film some excellent footage of Jackals late last year whilst working in the forests of Sri Lanka. The three jackals in the photo were part of a pack of seven who had just burst out of the bush, and stopped briefly on the dirt track to inspect our jeep. They then disappeared back into the undergrowth, only to re-appear moments later in an area of tall grassland.

All seven proceeded to leap in huge jumps across the open savannah, and we figured they were all tracking prey that was hidden in the safety of the grasses. By bounding across the grassland like overgrown rabbits, they were not only covering distance quickly, but were also managing to get a better view of their prey while they were airbound - now that's clever.
Anyway we captured some great footage of this activity. The encounter lasted all of about 8 minutes or so - the longest I've ever spent in the company of wild Jackals!

Friday, February 10, 2006

The Sweet Smell of Evolution

A quick lesson concerning the origins of our species:
Further proof that Chimpanzees are one of our closest living relatives...

Who's your ancestor?

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Science News: "Lost World" of Indonesia

Its always exciting when such a monumental discovery is made. Not just a new species, but an entire forest of new species, discovered by an international science team in the Indonesian jungles.

The team recorded new butterflies, frogs, and a series of remarkable plants that included five new palms and a giant rhododendron flower. The survey also found a honeyeater bird that was previously unknown to science.

There's no evidence of human impact or presence in the forest (although of course thats going to change now that the discovery has been made). The research group - from the US, Indonesia and Australia - trekked through an area in the mist-shrouded Foja Mountains, located just north of the vast Mamberamo Basin of north-western (Indonesian) New Guinea.

Apparently even the Kwerba and Papasena people, customary landowners of the forest who accompanied the scientists, were astonished at the area's isolation.

Birds were among the highlights of the discovery - among them a type of smoky honeyeater and the rediscovery of the Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise. But for me, being a bit of a mammal person, the highlight was another rediscovery, of a Golden Mantled Tree Kangaroo, Dendrolagus pulcherrimus, which was previously thought to have been hunted to near-extinction.

I remember reading about this animal years ago, and the description of it in a New Guinean tribal story:

"There was once a tree-kangaroo at Sweipini that had a face just like you white men. We called it Weimanke. My father caught one when I was a little boy, but it is long gone now. The earthquake [of 1934] killed them all ...

- Kaspar Seiko of Wilbeitei Village,
Torricelli Mountains, Papua New Guinea, 1990.

Well now the species has been positively identified again in this newly discovered region, so hopefully further research can establish and demarcate a new breeding population, setting it aside as a conservation area.

Dendrolagus pulcherrimus in real life

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Calm yourselves: More about the Radish!

This is the Dokonjo Daikon today: rank, slimy, and shrivelled - little more than a vegetable. But Japanese science is proposing a radical solution.

Biologists at Sumitomo Techno Service, an affiliate of Sumitomo Chemical dedicated to developing techniques for prolonging life, will take a one millimetre slice and attempt to incubate from it a fully formed daikon.

In normal circumstances, the technique would enjoy at least a 70% success rate. For this patient, success is far less certain...

(Kind of) Science News: For the Love of a Radish

Erm.... okay... Not sure how quite to react to this fascinating news bite. In a way its kind of cute - but in another way its completely loony...

A giant radish is making the Japanese evening news headlines after it was rushed into intensive care in an agricultural research centre.

The daikon radish, a staple ingredient in Japan, became an unlikely object of public admiration when it started growing through a pavement last year.
The resilient radish was then attacked last year by a mysterious assailant.

The local town council has since been trying to re-grow the radish from its severed top.
It now hopes to extract its seeds or DNA. The wilting leaves and shrivelled top of the radish were carefully packed in a cool box and accompanied by a throng of reporters and cameramen, driven to an agricultural research centre. There, evening news programmes showed white-coated scientists pronouncing gravely on the radish's prognosis.

Roots of the drama
This unlikely drama started last summer in the town of Aoi, when residents noticed the radish pushing its way through the asphalt of a pavement.
Impressed by its perseverance, they named it Dokonjo Daikon, or the radish with fighting spirit.

Look at the size of her.. radish (Unfortunately this is not
Dokonjo Daikon - but one of its stunt doubles).

Imagine their dismay then when one morning, they found the radish had been decapitated. The news of its demise prompted an outpouring of sympathy across Japan, and the unknown assailant returned its severed head, from which the town council has been trying in vain to revive it.

Dokonjo daikon now even has its own dedicated website.
The Japanese public has frequently been touched by the plight of stricken animals. But commentators are at a loss to explain this wave of affection for a mere vegetable.

Inspired by the radish's fight for life, the town council now wants to extract seeds or even DNA from its remains in the hope of producing offspring of similar fortitude.

Sometimes you have to wonder if those nice newshound people at BBC News are just too good at their jobs.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Birds of a Feather flock to... Singapore?

Singapore never ceases to amaze me in one particular aspect. Wandering down a typical city street you'd be forgiven for thinking that animal life had been thoroughly wiped from the face of the earth.

Of course that's not true... I've spent the last couple of years documenting just a fraction of the secret wilderness that still exist in this island nation. But these things don't just sit under a nearby tree and wait for you to spot them. All these species are survivors in their own right, and they endure because they have learned to live alongside our ceasless urban sprawl - no mean feat...

But while these areas of wilderness and their elusive residents remain safely hidden in very secret corners of Singapore, there are other opportunists that have actually invaded the heart of our urban jungle, and they're not just surviving - they're literally flying high!

Yesterday was a perfect example. From the morning chorus of a neighbourhood Black-naped Oriole, to the overhead acrobatics of a patrolling Brahminy Kite, the city of Singapore is alive with birds.

Having observed and filmed some of these species in other countries across the region, in characteristically wild settings, it continues to amaze me to see White-bellied Sea Eagles, normally coastal specialists, soaring over inner city canal-ways, and setting up shop in city parks. Even orioles are normally associated with forest and grassland, and yet here they are singing along to the sound of traffic on roadside trees.

It seems to me that the old stereotype of Singapore as a lifeless concrete jungle is very much a thing of the past. It may have lost a lot of its former forest cover and indeed being such a small nation, has to contend with a delicate balancing act of development vs. conservation - but the fact that inspite of this, there are signs of wild life all over the place - well thats a very encouraging sign.

There are some fantastically proactive individuals over here who are doing their darnest to make sure that the natural environment of Singapore stays intact for the foreseeable future.

This website list represents just a few of the many conservationists who've worked wonders to keep the island's wilderness alive. Surf and become enlightened: