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Friday, March 31, 2006

In the company of leopards

On the topic of big cats - here are a couple of leopard pics from my last field shoot in Sri Lanka.

They are both stills from footage I'm using for a documentary to be released at the end of this year.

The first is a beautiful young male - being very cautious as he approaches a waterhole just before dusk. He is watching a herd of Spotted Deer on the far side of the open ground!

The next fellow is a HUGE adult male keeping watch on his hilltop lookout. He had just chased away a female and her two 1 year-old cubs - probably his own offspring. This guy is about 7.5ft from nose to tail tip, and his head is massive! One of the largest Sri Lankan Leopards I have ever seen (but perhaps that's not saying much because I've seen less than twenty in the wild in my entire lifetime... so every sighting is a thrill).

These big cats never cease to amaze me with their grace, stealth and uncanny ability to disappear just as the camera focusses in on them...

A film-maker's nightmare, but a joy to experience in the wild.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Panthera News: A good day indeed...

Not one, but two positive news reports about big cat conservation in Asia.

First, news about a subspecies I've had the great privilege to experience in life:

Asiatic Lions to get new Sanctuary at Jesar
Friday 24 March 2006

In a major step, the state government has decided to set up a new lion sanctuary at Jesar hills in the Bhavnagar-Amreli forests to ensure better conservation of the Asiatic lions of Gir.

The new location is on the eastern side of Gir sanctuary. A team of senior forest officials are in the process of demarcating 100 sq km area in the forest range of Bhavnagar and Amreli bordering Mitiala area.

A small wildlife sanctuary was created in Mitiala in 2004 following increasing congestion of wild animals in Gir. At present, more than 50 lions have made Mitiala and its surrounding areas their home. Once the new sanctuary comes up, it could provide a natural habitat to at least 100 lions.

The Gir sanctuary area has over 359 lions and 999 leopards at present. The state government decided on creating a new sanctuary after the alarming number of lion deaths - at least 100 in the last four years. Plus, continuous pressure from the Central government to shift the lion sanctuary to Madhya Pradesh for better conservation spurred the state authorities into action.

When contacted, state chief conservation of forest (wildlife) Pradeep Khanna admitted that the proposed new sanctuary would provide more space to the lions who have started coming out of the sanctuary area in search of new natural habitat. "We therefore decided to set up a new sanctuary for lions somewhere near Jesar," he said.

Well, obviously this has been a long time coming - they were talking about it over three years ago when I was filming in Gir. One wonders why it took the death of 100 lions to finally spur them into action. Losing just one or two individuals from this precious population should have been reason enough to set up the new sanctuary - inbreeding and a fragile gene pool being the main culprits for disease, cub mortality and weakened immune systems.

I recall they were also planning on demarcating a much larger sanctuary nearer the northern parts of Gujarat. Not sure about the progress of that - but Jesar is a start.

And now news about a species I've only dreamed of experiencing in the wild (sigh):

Villagers Encouraged To Protect Snow Leopards
Friday 24 March 2006

To impoverished residents of areas inhabited by snow leopards, protecting the animal may seem like an unaffordable luxury. But in Kyrgyzstan, some communities are deeply involved in a conservation program offering financial incentives to people who help snow leopards.

The habitat of snow leopards covers 12 countries - including Afghanistan, China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan.

Although the animal is legally protected throughout this area, only about 7,000 are thought to still survive in the wild. More than half of them are in China.

Snow leopards are killed for their fur and for their bones - which are used in traditional Asian medicine. They also are killed in retaliation for preying on livestock. Amankul Bikenov, from the Almaty Institute of Zoology in Kazakhstan, says that the animal also suffers because of the disappearance of its normal prey.

"In our territory there are only 250 to 300 snow leopards," Bikenov says. "What we do is try to locate and preserve them in special national parks. But despite these measures, their numbers are dwindling. It can be explained by the decrease of other species they use as food, such as Marco Polo sheep, wild goats, and others."

Almaz Musaev is the head of the hunting department at the Kyrgyz Environmental Protection and Forestry Agency. He says fewer than 300 snow leopards still survive in Kyrgyzstan. Musaev suggests a large-scale public awareness campaign is needed to help protect them.

"Our previous activities to protect the snow leopards have been insufficient," Musaev says. "Because there is a need to make every Kyrgyz citizen aware of the situation, we need to hold the leopards in high respect as the Indians deify the cow there. Without such actions, the work of our few staffers will fail."

Musaev also concedes that the issue cannot be resolved without the help of the international community.

At Akshiyrak and Engilchek, two villages In Kyrgyzstan's Issykkul region, a U.S.-based organization called the Snow Leopard Trust is trying to help people increase their household income in a way that also helps protect snow leopards and their habitat.

Together with local partners, the Snow Leopard Trust provides herders with training and equipment to produce handicrafts using wool from their livestock. These products are marketed at stores in the United States and through the Snow Leopard Trust's website.

In return, participating communities agree not to kill snow leopards or the wild animals that they eat. If even one person violates the contract, the entire community loses a cash bonus made available at the end of each year.

The Snow Leopard Trust's Tom McCarthy says that handicraft sales allow some families to nearly double their annual income - and that is without taking into account the bonuses.

"Their average annual income just from the handicraft sales is about $145," McCarthy says. "And they might only lose one or two livestock a year to snow leopards. They're very happy, then, not to kill those animals in exchange for keeping this handicraft project going."

McCarthy says the project model has been successful so far. He says his organization expects to expand the program to include other Kyrgyz villages later this year.

But he says it is sometimes difficult to measure the program's impact on the snow leopards' population.

In order to establish the current status of snow leopards and to determine where they live, the Snow Leopard Trust has helped fund a study in both Kyrgyzstan and China's Xinjiang region.

Scientists last year placed cameras with infrared detectors in the remote Tien Shan Mountains along the Kyrgyz-Chinese border. During several weeks, the cameras took 13 pictures of snow leopards on the Kyrgyz side of the mountains and 40 on the Chinese side. Samples of snow leopard faeces also were collected.

But Ma Ming of China's Xinjiang Institute of Ecology in the regional capital, Urumqi, says that its too early to determine the exact number of snow leopards there.

"In China we put the cameras in very good places and took many pictures," Ma said. "But this doesn't mean the Chinese population of snow leopards is big. It is too early. We must do research, we must continue the hard work."

The photographs are now being studied to see how many different leopards can be identified. Meanwhile, the faeces samples have been sent to genetic laboratories for analysis. Scientists hope the data will provide a better idea of how many snow leopards are still alive - and where they are living.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Wildlife Gallery: 'One Mind' (and engineering absences)

My apologies for the week-long absence. I find myself having been dragged into the bottomless depths of the delectable soup also known as "Scriptwriting 101 for engineering documentaries".

Over these past few days my mind has drifted back to the dreaded surroundings of my schoolboy physics classes, where I was perpetually at a loss to understand what on earth was going on. All those fulcrums and spectrometers never gave me the comfort I sought in the biology lab or the Drosophila breeding room.

I am discovering (thanks to Discovery), that every documentary writer - like a Galapagos Giant Tortoise - has a niche, for which they are uniquely built. Mine is not Engineering.

Although this project, due to hit screens near you some time later this year, has given me the opportunity to broaden my technical writing skills and vocabulary - and of course, my CV - it still fails to ignite the spark that explodes every time I take up the challenge of another wildlife subject.

And since every engineering story these days is based around the premise of 'Man taming Nature', the project obviously doesn't sit very comfortably with my usual sensibilities. But nevertheless as someone very wise keeps telling me, it pays in the long run not to pigeon-hole oneself. Therefore like a good monitor lizard, I will adapt myself to the current environment and embrace these 'tensile strengths' and 'ergonomic designs' and 'relative quotients' as if they were my own flesh and blood.

I hope to be Lost in the Jungle once more by the end of this weekend after my juggernaut of a script has been delivered.

By way of compensation, I leave you with another favourite from my wildlife gallery: 'One Mind'

Charith Pelpola
Elephas maximus maximus
Udawalawe National Park
Sri Lanka
(c) Studio Times Ltd.

Aaahhh... now isn't that better...

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Science News: Tsunamis Added Height to Maldives

The low-lying Maldives island chain was right in the bulls-eye of the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunamis, but the islands themselves suffered surprisingly little damage and some even grew taller as a result of the deadly waves, reports a New Zealand geologist.

Despite the disastrous effects of the tsunamis on humans and man-made structures in the Maldives, less than five percent of the land area was significantly changed by the tsunamis, estimated Paul Kench of the University of Auckland.

A before-and-after study of 13 small islands suggests that the low-lying coral atolls are tougher than they look.

The Maldives after the Tsunami

Kench and his team had already surveyed 13 small islands in 2002 and 2003, and so they were in a perfect position to assess the effects of the tsunamis.

The first thing Kench and his team discovered was that the tsunamis were not nearly as high at the Maldives as along other coasts. That's because there is no continental shelf along which the tsunamis could build up and break.

Instead, the highest in the series of tsunamis from the Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake were only about ten feet, which washed over the 5 to 6.5-foot-high islands and then kept racing toward Africa.

The tsunamis scoured only the eastern sides of the islands, where they struck and carried the coral beach sand over the islands. As much as one foot of sand was deposited atop one island, with the others gaining two to four inches.

Therefore, at least geologically speaking, the tsunamis were anything but a destructive event for the Maldives. Kench published his discoveries in the March issue of the journal Geology.

But it's not clear whether it offers any clues to how the Maldives or other atolls will withstand rapid rises in sea level due to the melting of glaciers by global warming.

And there's also the fact that many atolls are now suffering from coral bleaching, which stops growth altogether.

This NOAA animation, captured by Earth-orbiting radars, reflects the bulge in sea surface height from space, showing the path of the tsunami. You can see the Maldives being struck southwest of southern India and Sri Lanka:

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Conservation Frontliners: Philippine Eagle Foundation

As a prelude to my next Field Journal entry, a portrait of possibly the most regal animal I have ever stood in the presence of...

Standing over two and a half feet tall, adorned by a seven foot wingspan, and crowned by a royal headcrest fit for a king, the Philippine Eagle is a proud bird indeed.

But inspite of his impressive display of dignity and power, Junior here and the rest of his clan represent the last stand in a battle to save the Philippine Eagle from extinction, a species whose entire population is now represented by less than 200 surviving individuals.

In the next field journal from Mindanao in the Philippines I'll reflect on the extraordinary work of the staff of the Philippine Eagle Foundation - a dedicated group of people who've persevered in their fight to save the species, even in the face of terrorism, poaching, deforestation and non-existent government support.

Conservationists on the frontlines indeed...

Monday, March 13, 2006

Science News: Closer to Man than Ape

They already use basic tools, have rudimentary language and star in TV commercials, but now scientists have proof that chimpanzees are more closely related to humans than other great apes.

Genetic tests comparing DNA from humans, chimps, gorillas and orang-utans reveal striking similarities in the way chimps and humans evolve that set them apart from the others.
The finding adds weight to a controversial proposal to scrap the long-used chimp genus "Pan" and reclassify the animals as members of the human family.

The move would give chimps a new place in creation's pecking order alongside humans, the only survivor of the genus Homo.

The biologist Soojin Yi's team at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta compared 63 million base pairs of DNA from different species, where each base is a letter in the animal's genetic code. They then analysed the DNA to look at what evolutionary biologists call the molecular clock, the rate at which an animal's genetic code evolves. The speed of the clock shows how the span of a generation has changed over the millennia.

The tests showed that even though humans and chimps split from a common ancestor between 5 million and 7 million years ago, the rate at which their genetic codes were evolving was extremely similar, differing by only 3%, and much slower than gorillas and orang-utans.
A slow molecular clock suggests that the time between generations is long, something that has historically set humans apart from the great apes. The team found that the chimpanzee's generation time is a lot closer to that of humans than it is to other apes.

According to the scientists, whose study appears in the US journal 'Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences', the finding suggests some human traits only emerged 1 million years ago, a fleeting moment on evolutionary scales.

Doubts over the chimp's position in the evolutionary tree have been around from the start. In 1775, when scientists first got around to naming the chimpanzee, they noted the similarity with people and placed them next to humans under the genus Homo. But by 1816 chimps had been pushed out into their own genus, Pan, which has survived to this day.

In 1991, the Pulitzer prize-winning ecologist Jared Diamond called humans "the third chimpanzee", setting us alongside the common chimp (Pan troglodytes) and its less aggressive but astoundingly promiscuous cousin, the bonobo (Pan paniscus). By 1999 confusion over the biological status of chimpanzees prompted scientists in New Zealand to join forces with lawyers to petition the country's government to pass a bill conferring "rights" on chimpanzees and other primates. The move drew derision. Roger Scruton, the moral philosopher, asked: "Do we really think that the jails of New Zealand should henceforth be filled with malicious chimpanzees? If not, by what right are they to be exempted from punishment?" New Zealand granted great apes legal protection from animal experimentation. British Home Office guidelines also forbid experiments on chimps, gorillas and orang-utans.

In 2003, researchers at Wayne State University in Detroit again ignited the debate when they found that 99.4% of the most critical DNA sites are identical in human and chimp genes, prompting the lead researcher, Morris Goodman, to declare that chimps and humans should be brought together under the same umbrella genus, Homo.

In terms of life on Earth, chimps and humans are really not that different to each other. Putting all ethical arguments aside, the simple fact remains that reclassification would also raise the chimp's profile and potentially improve their conservation.

Active Conservation Awareness Program

I came across this extremely powerful image from WildAid's Active Conservation Awareness Program (ACAP) webpage.

As more and more incidents and examples of the illegal wildlife trade continue to infiltrate headlines in the popular tabloids, the time is ripe to grab hold of the opportunity and recent swing in public opinion - and start becoming active, in whatever way possible to raise awareness about the importance and urgency of wildlife conservation. WildAid have got big players backing them up - from celebrities to politicians. But even a local neighbourhood effort is as worthy as a worldwide campaign.

For example, there's a terrific bunch of people right here in Singapore who are making just that kind of effort (check out Ria's and Siva's links on the right to find out more) - through volunteer programs, field awareness trips and educational talks. And all of this powered and disseminated via blogs, newsgroups, e-newsletters, online forums... Never underestimate the positive potential of the Net!

So if residents of a small island nation can get motivated and proactive, stands to reason that the rest of the world can too! Reading through ACAP's site provides some powerful inspiration of just what can be achieved...

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Field Journals: Walking with Dragons Pt 2

After the ever so slightly disappointing encounter with the 'kitchen dragons' of Komodo Island - (of course that doesn't take away from the fact that there are dragons further inland that are known to have taken human victims in the past, notably the infamous case of the Swedish photographer whose only remains were his cameras) - dropping anchor at Rinca was a relief in more ways than one.

The first thing to tantalize the senses is the incredible scenery, gloriously free of any sign of human presence. The park headquarters are hidden discreetly at the foot of a hill, and that's it.

The rest of the island is pure wilderness through and through - a landscape clothed in dry grasslands and tall stands of Lontar Palm. The patches of scrubland forest also host an array of brightly hued epiphytic orchids. With a location like this, I was looking forward to finding dragons of a 'wilder' temperament...

Walking alone, with just the company of a forest ranger, its easy to feel the isolation and remoteness of this 20,000 hectare island. The landscape is awesome - a seamless montage of sky, savannah and sea. But to find actual wildlife you've got tear your gaze away from the grand vistas and search closer to the ground.

Its not long before the sounds of frantic scurrying and scrabbling among the rocks and boulders reveal the presence of juvenile dragons, rushing for cover. Dragons have famously earned themselves a reputation as a cannibalistic species - and rightly so, although most victims end up being the youngsters who accidently get in the way of an adult during its feeding frenzy.

Juvenile dragons have come up with a novel 'cannibal anti-deterrent'. They smear themselves in the faecal matter of fallen prey. Even catholic eaters like Komodo Dragons, with their wide-ranging menu, still draw the line when it comes to faecal matter...

But younger dragons don't even risk life on the ground. From the moment they hatch, they ascend into the trees and remain there for the first year of their lives.

In contrast with the dreary grey hides of the adults, young dragons are actually quite colourful creatures. Their initial stripes - a disruptive pattern that helps to break up the shape of their bodies in the surrounding habitat - gradually give way to a coloration of rusty reds and dull greens in adolescence.

Dragons' lair: the burrows from which
hatchling dragons emerge into the world

As soon as I got used to the telltale signs of their presence, it was evident that these dragons-in-the-making were quite well distributed throughout the island's forests and rocky hillsides. We even spotted one chasing down and making quick work of a skink - young dragons are far more active in pursuit of their meals, in complete contrast to their bigger siblings...

Crossing an open valley, occupied by a small herd of wild (or rather feral) horses in the distance, and a larger group of huge water buffalo, we came across the first sign of a Komodo Dragon attack.

Lounging in a pool at a distance from the main herd and shaking its head frantically to keep away a cloud of flies, was an old buffalo. One of its forelimbs had been fractured and bore a severe bite mark - a sure sign of a dragon ambush. The buffalo was obviously easing its discomfort by keeping the wound submerged in the water. The ranger reckoned that the animal had less than 24 hours to live.

And that about sums up the hunting technique of adult dragons. Their saliva harbours a potent cocktail of virulent bacteria, the production of which dragons actively promote by feeding on carrion. New studies have revealed that the reptiles actually pierce their own gums when tearing into flesh with their serrated teeth, thereby providing a further breeding ground for bacteria. So anything that is unfortunate enough to be bitten by a dragon is doomed, through septicaemia. It takes anything from a few hours to a couple of days for the blood poisoning to do its work - while the dragon lingers close-by, waiting for its dinner.

I actually witnessed this technique in action while filming a group of Long-tailed Macaques feeding in the fronds of a tall Lontar Palm (Borassus flabellifer). The ranger and I were parked out on a dry river bed, and while I was trying to find the monkeys through my camera lens, something rushed past me. We both swung around to see a Rusa Deer bounding over the steep river embankment.
We realised a dragon was on its tail - and just as the deer was about to clear the embankment, the dragon lunged for its hindleg and took a bite.

The deer broke free; dragon at its heels but slowing noticeably. But the damage had been done. My ranger told me that all the dragon had to do now was follow the blood trail left behind by the deer, and then sit back and wait. How's that for the ultimate energy-efficient hunt!

With a hungry dragon around, we moved away and cut through the forest to get to another clearing. And I was met with a scene of total devastation...

A couple of sub-adult dragons were crawling over the decaying remains of a buffalo. The lion's share had already been taken by adults, and now that they had retreated to sleep off their meal (they are capable of consuming around 80% of their own body weight in one sitting), the younger ones had come in to finish off whatever remained. The buffalo had literally been stripped clean - but to watch the two reptiles dig in excitedly, there was obviously more to be had here.

During the course of half an hour, they systematically took the carcass apart, hauling entire legs away as if they weighed absolutely nothing.

The dragons were so preoccupied that I was able to sit on the ground just about a hundred metres away, and film to my heart's content.

The ranger assured me that we were in no danger - dragons preferred their meat 'over-ripe'...

We returned to this clearing two days later, when I was due to depart from Rinca and join the rest of the crew back at Komodo Island (they had been filming coral reefs that fringed the island - and a dragon out at sea - but that's another story).

All that was left of this scene was a darkened stain on the ground, where the buffalo had fallen, just three days earlier...

Finally I had witnessed the true nature of the Komodo Dragon; exhibiting all the hallmarks of its grand, hundred million year legacy.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Secrets of Nature still enthral us

Reception staff at the Natural History Museum in London were in no doubt about the message they wanted to be passed to future visitors. 'Please, please tell your readers they cannot come to see the squid unless they book,' pleaded one.

Over the past four days thousands have arrived to see Archie, the giant squid, after news of his unveiling - in a tank of pickling fluid in the basement of the museum's Darwin Centre - had been revealed in newspapers and on television.

Only a few who had booked to go on the small guided tours of the Darwin Centre, the museum's research annexe, got to see the 30ft behemoth in his new home. The rest had to do without - and judging from the looks of museum staff, this news often went down badly.

The intensity of the public's response to Archie's arrival has been extraordinary, and reveals how deeply ingrained is our sense of wonder at the natural world, and the reverence we feel for our fellow creatures. It might be expected - given the plethora of natural history programmes on Discovery and National Geographic channels - that people would be bored by news of yet another zoological discovery.

But that is certainly not the case, judging by the response to the news that the most complete giant squid ever found (off the Falkland Islands) had been put on display at the Natural History Museum, and the public's recent reaction to a host of other zoological events. Examples range from the plight of the whale trapped in the Thames in January, to the millions that will be tuning in to BBC1's latest David Attenborough extravaganza, Planet Earth. We are becoming ever more besotted with animals, it appears.

And it is not simply a matter of aesthetics. Some animals are cute, but Archie - named after his formal label Architeuthis dux - is decidedly ugly, a very long, thin, pinkish creature with collapsed eye sockets the size of dinner plates. Only a restaurateur could love Archie, you would have thought - 'You could get about 600 portions of calamari out of him,' admitted one particularly pragmatic member of museum staff. Nevertheless, he is gazed upon in silent awe by visitors.

'We have always been intrigued with wildlife, of course, but it is true that the public's appetite only seems to be growing,' said Richard Lane, the museum's director of science. 'The real irony is that, just as we are discovering more and more new species, about 15,000 a year, we are killing off other species at an equivalent rate because of habitat destruction and climate change.'

There are 1.7 million species so far discovered by scientists, most of whom believe there could be up to 10 million in total on Earth.

Among discoveries made in the last few weeks are a new species of rodent called Kha-Nyou (the name given to it by local people in central Laos); a marine worm called Osedax mucofloris which translates, rather beautifully, as the 'bone-eating snot-flower'; a golden-mantled tree kangaroo, found in Indonesia's Papua province; Berlepsch's six-wired bird of paradise, known to the Victorians but a mystery to modern ornithologists; and the world's smallest vertebrate, a species of fish called Paedocypris progenetica. This last wonder, a mere 8mm long, is smaller than a fly and was discovered on Sumatra by an international team that included museum researcher Ralf Britz.

'It's great when you discover something,' he said. 'Especially when it is a creature as tiny and bizarre as this one. But for every day you spend in the field looking for new animals, you have to spend 20 studying what you bring back and work out its relationships with other creatures.'

The Natural History Museum provides a home to 70 million different specimens. In terms of biodiversity, there is nothing else like it. In the Darwin Centre, and in the museum's vaults, millions of insects lie pinned to pieces of cardboard, while there is rack after rack of bottles of formaldehyde filled with snakes, dolphins, frogs, dogs, cats, apes and countless other creatures. These specimens are the gold standards of the animal world and provide the basic data that have allowed scientists to unravel the history of natural selection on Earth.

At present, however, Archie is the star of the show. There in a long, thin, perspex tank lies the animal known in legend as the 'kraken', which has featured in a host of adventure stories including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Doctor No. But how long he will retain his number one billing, it is hard to say.

Just to one side of his tank, a cylinder contains a 4ft fish: a coelacanth, once thought to have become extinct millions of years ago but discovered - to great media attention - in the Indian Ocean in 1938. Today it gathers dust, while Architeuthis dux hogs the limelight...

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Mammal-Extinction Zones Mapped Out

A map reveals where mammal species have the highest risk for future extinction, according to a new study...

Among the most prominent of the 20 hotspots of possible extinction are the forests and tundra of northern Canada and Alaska, and the chain of islands stretching from Indonesia to the South Pacific.

This map is talking in terms of 'decades to come' - but if we already have a good idea that this could potentially happen in the near future..... what's to stop us doing something to prevent it HERE and NOW?

Well I hope this study raises more than just a few eyebrows...

Click the map to find out more about the study:

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Science News: Deep Sea Lacks Sharks

Ocean depths beyond 2,000 metres (6,500 feet) are almost devoid of sharks, a finding that is grim news for these threatened fish, according to a recent study.

An international team of researchers used deep-sea trawls, baited hooks and baited cameras to see where sharks live, testing depths in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian oceans and Mediterranean Sea from 471 to 5,900 metres (1,530 to 19,175 feet).

Sharks were generally seen or caught at up to 2,000 metres (7,500 feet), but beyond this depth, the numbers were negligible. The deepest specimen was a species called a leafscale gulper shark, caught at 3,280 metres (10,660 feet).

Leafscale Gulper Shark

This means that there are no reserves of sharks living in the abysses - rarely explored depths that are beyond 3,000 metres (9,750 feet) and comprise 70 percent of the oceans' volume.

As a result, almost all sharks are within reach of modern deep-sea trawlers, which can net fish to a depth of up to 2,300 metres (7,475 feet)...

LINK: FULL STORY @ Discovery

Monday, March 06, 2006

Wildlife Gallery: 'Embrace'

Most people wake up in the morning with a yearning for... peanut butter sandwiches? Or maybe, a game of pool? Well something like that anyway...

Well I woke up today with a yearning for an elephant encounter - yes it happens now and again. Its been 6 months since my last meeting with wild elephants, and the sentimentality that surfaces at not being in their company is something akin to homesickness (sad but true). There's just something about looking into the eye of a wild elephant... hard to describe really, although I've definitely tried in the past, and you're sure to be subjected to one or two of these attempts in some future field journal...

Anyway here's a favourite shot from the archives. A young male and his older sister - embracing, head to head and trunk to trunk, as only elephants do...

By the way, in case you're interested, I should mention that many of my older photos like the one above are part of the library of, and were taken while working for, a wonderful photographic company called Studio Times.

It was a chance encounter that led to my rediscovery of the island of Sri Lanka, and meeting a remarkable man who was to become, in effect, my mentor. He taught me the craft of wildlife photography, and on a deeper level, the importance of going beyond just the camera lens to tell a story that needed to be told. (More about the man and his work coming soon).

If you'd like to check out more from Studio Times' awe-inspiring library and maybe order a print or two, browse their online galleries and drop them an email. Tell 'em Charith sent you!

Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Lions that took to Water...

In the Okavango Delta, lions are doing something unexpected — they have taken to water and become supreme swimmers.

Animal Planet's Swimming Lions introduces people to the team of scientists — led by Christiaan and Hanlie Winterbach — who are engaged in an ongoing quest to understand this quirky leonine behavior.

Swimming Lions shows the problems that lions in the region face and what makes them stay in such a challenging environment where they must struggle to survive.

During the program, people also meet Sadu, a lioness who has successfully adapted to her unusual environment and passes her skill on to eager cubs.

Some striking screenshots of the documentary:

Friday, March 03, 2006

Sumatra Cracks Down on Indonesian Wildlife Crime

Last week in Sumatra nationwide efforts to eradicate poaching and illegal trade of tiger, rhino, elephant and orangutan, made progress with the initiation of an intensive “boot-camp” training course focused exclusively on enhancing wildlife protection.

Designed to increase the role of local villagers and communities, the course is unique in that trainees are supported by, not only Government and non-governmental conservation organisations, but also by private industry.
Organised by the Sumatran Tiger Conservation Program (STCP) and hosted by the Department of Forestry (Bukit Tigapuluh National Park), the course brings together a diverse group of 29 dedicated individuals from across Indonesia, united by a common mission to conserve some of the world’s most endangered wildlife.

International and Indonesian conservation groups sending trainees include Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund, Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program, and the Sungei Wain Protected Forest Management Unit (Kalimantan).

Department of Forestry Ranger Police in attendance have travelled from West Sumatra, North Sumatra, Aceh, Jambi, Riau (Sumatra) and Central Kalimantan provinces.

In addition to Indonesian and foreign instructors from Bukit Tigapuluh National Park and the STCP, training staff have been assembled from provincial Police, the local health department, the Indonesian Rhino Conservation Program and the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Program.

The training board also includes 8 members of Indonesia’s new and elite Forest Police Rapid Reaction Force (SPORC: Satuan Polisi Hutan Reaksi Cepat) – only recently formalised by the Minister of Forestry in January 2006.

Class-based training, starting on the 2nd February, runs for 15 days. This is followed by 10 days of practical field exercises. A final 5 day “live” exercise places 8 widely dispersed protection units deep in the mountains of Bukit Tigapuluh with the task of, through radio coordination between teams, designing and executing the strategic interception and safe arrest of an “evading” 9th team.

The wildlife protection system being promoted is one which relies on recruitment and intensive training of personnel from local communities surrounding the protected area, each unit lead by an armed ranger from the Department of Forestry. The participation of villagers in this has, in practice, seen a significant increase in the local acceptability of park and wildlife law enforcement efforts.

It has also increased the perception of community ownership of nearby forests and greatly facilitated the delivering of conservation messages to the heart of surrounding villages.

In return both rangers and park management enjoy the support and empowerment generated by these close community links.

The wildlife protection “boot-camp” this year represents the second such training in Bukit Tigapuluh. In late 2004 the first camp recruited, trained and deployed 5 anti-poaching and habitat protection teams across the park. These Tiger and Orangutan Protection Units (TOPU) have been operational since then, providing a front-line defence against wildlife poaching and illegal logging.

Tiger and Orangutan Protection Units (TOPU)
in Bukit Tigapuluh National Park, Sumatra
(all photos copyright of STCP)

Together with the national park, the TOPUs have had unprecedented success in arresting and prosecuting a major wildlife poaching and trade syndicate stretching across several provinces. They have also been effective in eradicating large-scale illegal logging from the park’s buffer zone and provided ongoing monitoring of conditions in the remotest parts of the 1,400 square kilometre park.

A goal of this year’s training is to break-down barriers and develop closer cooperation between NGOs working throughout Indonesia, and the building of bridges between Government, non-government and industrial partners with a concern for wildlife conservation.

LINK: Wild Tiger, the STCP Blog

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Field Journals: Walking with Dragons

Travelling to Komodo is literally like travelling back in time.

As soon as you're set adrift from the port of Labuan Bajo, you're not just leaving dry land; you're also turning your back on all preconceived notions of civilization.
Travelling in the company of The Nature Conservancy Indonesia, we journeyed over miles and miles of sea.

I counted the hours by counting the many island chains that passed by.
I've never experienced this feeling before or since - but it actually came to the point where I started to crave dry land, and the sight of a few reassuring stands of forest.

Apart from the occasional palm-fringed beach that marked out tiny fishing communities on the coasts of some of these islands, there were hardly any trees to speak of. The vegetation that clothed these outcrops of land were low-lying scrub and exposed hillside savannahs of grass.
The only signs of life during this voyage were the occasional passing fishermen in their sturdy antique boats, and a few Crested Terns overhead. But we also had a surprise appearance by a pair of Finless Porpoise.

They kept company alongside us for a few minutes, before finally disappearing back into the fathomless blue waters of the Lesser Sundas.

Finally arriving in the cove of Komodo Island itself, I recall the incredible anticipation of actually setting foot on a land I've been reading about since I was old enough to read. This was going to be as close as I was ever going to get to my own personal Jurassic Park experience, and my expectations were obviously high...
Surrounded by a ring of mountains, first impressions of the island are tantalizing, giving a suggestion of something hidden, waiting to be discovered behind those imposing walls of volcanic rock.

I had anticipated a long trek, hauling equipment through the hills before even catching a glimpse of the infamous Dragons. But before we could even unpack our gear at the ranger station, there was a monster waiting to greet us.

Strolling along the beach was the biggest, most impressive looking thing I have ever seen. Ambling along with almost regal nonchalance was a full-grown Komodo Dragon, Varanus komodoensis.

This adult didn't even look our way as we stood in awe a hundred metres or so away. More concerned with soaking up the afternoon Sun, and the off chance of finding something to eat along the tide line, it ambled along as if it had all the time in the world.

Now obviously we weren't the first crew to film dragons, and we're certainly not the last. And here is where the problem (at least for me) lay. Having grown accustomed to the comings and goings of film crews and nurturing a lucrative little tourist trade, the rangers had either knowingly or unintentionally habituated a group of dragons to their living quarters, kitchens and the nearby hostels rented for visitors.

So what did we meet while being introduced to the head warden, but a veritable herd of dragons, dozing beneath the shade of overhanging palms. This was far from what I expected. Rather than fabled killer reptiles with ancient blood running through their veins, we were presented instead with modern-day 'reptilian couch potatoes', looking overweight, overfed and under-excercised - even allowing a small herd of wild pig to tiptoe past them, the shame of it!

(I later found out that one of the largest specimens of V. komodoensis ever recorded, measuring in at over 10ft, was one of these dozing dragons. Well with a diet supplemented with kitchen scraps and who-knows-what, thats hardly a surprise anymore...)

Now I began to realize how film crews before ours had managed to capture such awesome closeups of the dragons. It could well have been just a case of, "Ok, let's just park the boat over here, set up camera on the beach over there, throw some chunks of meat around the place, have a cup of tea and a few sandwiches while the dragons plod over, shoot a few rolls, pack up and head back home."

Kind of demystifies the whole illusion of dangerous wildlife film-making doesn't it?

"I said 'smile' for the camera, not 'eat' the bloody thing"
Well, not to be let down by this somewhat deflating encounter, it was up to me to find some real, wild dragons. And that's how I ended up on the neighbouring island of Rinca, and how my perceptions of this ancient predator were changed completely.

Will the real 'Jurassic Park' please stand up...
Rinca: its a 'dragon eat dragon' world out there

To be continued