Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #3: The Old Girl

When I finally got round to fine-tuning the narrative for our documentary, it was vital that we had a semblance of a "cast" - characters on whose lives we could eavesdrop if only for a fleeting moment in time, and tell their stories, from their point of view.

Well that was the plan anyway. And after our first season of filming and hardly any bears on the ground, I was beginning to wonder if this plan was as straightforward as it had seemed initially.
But then the wilderness intervened as She usually does, and this year, out of the undergrowth stepped the Old Girl.

She is called "One Eye" in the documentary, for obvious reasons, and she was as wizened and beaten-up and bedraggled as an old sloth bear could get. Calloused and besieged by skin ailments, many would call her ugly and not give her even a second glance. But we fell in love with her, and she repaid our attentions by remaining in "our patch" of the forest for an entire week.

So for seven days we were given a glimpse into the life of a bear in her twilight years. Film-makers are often warned against the temptation to portray an animal's life or behaviour using a palette of human emotions - but how could we not be affected by the discomfort she displayed while walking on a badly injured paw, or the almost hopeless look of desperation that swept across her eyes when faced with the prospect of having to climb a tree despite her aching arthritic joints.

You could read that bear like a book. The fear of wandering into a younger bear's territory, or being ambushed by another. The seemingly hopeless search for food, and the fatigue that she obviously felt after hours spent stumbling under a sweltering sky.

So with the visuals we came back with, her story slowly unfolded - I didn't have to tell the Old Girl's story - she told it herself. And when at last she disappeared into the bush for the final time, we felt like we were saying goodbye (and good luck) to a friend, whom we knew we would never see again.

Friday, November 24, 2006

A message from above

I thought today would be a bad day, considering the way it started: our much loved Suckermouth Catfish, Hypostomus plecostomus, imaginatively christened "Spotty" by my wife, had passed away during the night. I bought him as a 2 inch baby when we first came to Singapore in 2000, and 6 years later, he had grown into a handsome 2 and half feet giant.

Farewell Spotty. We had good times...

I spent a sad morning burying the former King of the Castle in the garden. He (although 'plecos' are difficult to sex, so I was never sure about this) was a charismatic resident of the aquarium, regularly rearranging the scenery to suit his needs, and polishing off entire cucumbers by moonlight. The tank is much emptier following his demise...

Some might wonder how one could get so attached to a fish - but I'm afraid both of us are suckers for any animal - and especially those that enter our home, for they inevitably enter our hearts.

But on the upside, my "Buddies" are growing nicely, and my local aquarium shop-owner - don't know his name, so I shall call him Uncle Fish - presented me with a pair of Super Red Melon Discus, as he knew how upset I had been at my old pair's passing. Hopefully they will acclimatize and settle down.

They look something like this...

Anyway I sought consolation in the last remaining pages of David Attenborough's "Life on Air" - yes it seems ridiculous but its taken me all this time to finally sit down and read it. As I finished his concluding chapter, I closed the book with a sigh of satisfaction. I reflected on his exploits and collected memories as I walked down the road this evening back home, and I thought to myself,
Yes, to be touched by nature and the wilderness - that's all I could really ask for.

As I thought this quite profound thought, I passed under a towering Sea Almond Tree, and one of its great big green nuts fell on my head.

It hurt.

Not quite what I had in mind by being "touched by nature", but appropriate nonetheless.

Yes, quite fitting actually...

Saturday, November 18, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #2: Faces in the Crowd

There comes a moment in the jungles, after the first few days of frenzied surveillance and field research, when you settle down, figure out your likely locations, and just wait for things to happen. And that's the moment when the wilderness gradually starts to accept you as part of the landscape...

It was no different this time in Sri Lanka, while waiting for the stars of our show to make their grand entrance. And boy did we have to wait - but that was not necessarily a bad thing, because we had time to acquaint ourselves with other residents of the reserve - who spent as much time watching us, as we did them...

One of the most familiar faces in the foliage are Toque Macaques, a species endemic to Sri Lanka, but similar to the Bonnet Macaques of India. Each is characteristically distinguished by the curious "hairdo" (toque) that they possess.

The individual hairstyles are as unique as fingerprints, and are used to identify each macaque in field studies. Anyway it didn't take long before they allowed even the youngest members of their clan to come take a look at the strange bipedal monkeys...

Hello... who are these strange looking animals then?

Not another herd of wildlife film-makers...

Oh well, better assume the "cute baby" pose then...

Cocoa and the Dragon

Cocoa is a curious sort. For those that don't know her, she's a typical "Singapore special" - mysterious parentage, but some recognizable breeds incorporated somewhere within her ancestry.

She's extremely inquisitive and when she's feeling up to it, inclined to bouts of cleverness.

Cocoa is very familiar with all the animal life that frequents our neighbourhood here in the west coast of the island. She has strong maternal instincts and is forever trying to make friends with any species that she comes across, and so far this has failed with the Mynah Birds, the Pigeons, the Orioles, the Plaintain Squirrels, and the Changeable Lizards. But these minor setbacks have never stopped the old girl, and today she found a new and highly unexpected potential-friend:

Yes, its a Gliding Lizard or a Flying Dragon; Draco volans I think. I don't know what she was doing on the lawn, (very small throat flap so I'm guessing it was a female), but we almost missed her when she was on the pavement, blending in with the pebble-dash.

When Cocoa approached a little too close for comfort, the little dragon spread her wing membrane and dashed across the grass for cover.

I presumed that Draco was strictly arboreal, so perhaps the female had come down to the ground to lay and bury her eggs? Anyway, in keeping with tradition, she was not keen to strike up a friendship with Cocoa, and quickly disappeared into the bush.

Cheer up Cocoa, you should be used to that kind of reaction by now...

Friday, November 17, 2006

Wildlife News: World's Rarest Big Cat Captured

from National Geographic News

In the remote forests of southeastern Russia, scientists have captured what's believed to be the rarest big cat on Earth: a Far Eastern leopard.

The animal is so scarce that only 30 are thought to survive in the wild.

The team, led by biologists from the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, caught the 100-pound (45-kilogram) male in a snare last week while studying Siberian tigers in the Russian Far East, 20 miles (32 kilometers) from the Chinese border.

The chance capture gave biologists a priceless opportunity to study the elusive feline, and Melody Roelke (below), a specialist in big-cat genetics with the U.S. National Institutes of Health, wasn't shy about getting a closer look.

She and other team members conducted a thorough series of tests on the leopard, from studying its teeth to collecting sperm samples, before releasing the animal back into the wild.

Among the scientists' main concerns is whether Far Eastern leopards, also known as Amur leopards, can continue to sustain their tiny, isolated population, or whether disease and inbreeding may eventually wipe out the cats.

"This capture represents a milestone in our cooperative efforts to save the Far Eastern leopard and Siberian tiger from extinction," said Dale Miquelle, director of the Wildlife Conservation Society's Russia Program, in a statement.

"With the information gained from these animals, and others to come, we will be in a much better position to determine appropriate conservation actions."

—Blake de Pastino

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Making of Spirit Bear #1: Neighbours

Well, if blockbuster Hollywood movies can have them, then why can't I?

Thought it might be fun to show you some of the behind-the-scenes goings-on of "Season of the Spirit Bear", as a lead up to its premiere on Animal Planet in a couple of weeks.

And just to make sure that I give absolutely nothing away - none of this stuff actually appears in the documentary... so you'll still have to tune in anyway to understand what's going on...

But in order to go behind-the-scenes, I first have to introduce the show's most important character; the man who takes the pictures - Simon Nicholls. Now being modest, humble and an all-round good guy, Simon doesn't talk about himself, so I will have to.

One of the pre-requisites of a wildlife cameraman is to be able to sit very still for hours on end until you lose all feeling in your limbs and the constant hum of mosquitoes becomes music to your ears, and the urge to use the loo is but a distant memory. Simon can do this. Simon can switch into 'statue-mode' whenever the need arises. And yet, remain alert to the slightest movement in the bush...

Erm, Simon, the bear is in front of you...

Simon's stony concentration is what gets him his classic wildlife portraits. His unwavering patience and attention to detail are legendary, even to the point of getting himself into "situations".

Case in point:

Simon is interested in filming a tree...

He is
very interested in this tree...

But he's not the only one...

So is the next door neighbour...

Perhaps you should move Simon... quickly

To be continued...

Thai Zoo to Teach Panda to Mate with 'Videos'

A Thai zoo, which has hosted a couple of pandas for four years, will play ahem, "adult" videos for the male next month to encourage them to breed in captivity.

The pair - living chastely together at the zoo in the northern city of Chiang Mai since arriving from China in 2003 - would be separated in December, but stay close enough for occasional glimpses of each other, said panda project chief Prasertsak Buntrakoonpoontawee. "They don't know how to mate so we need to show the male how, through videos," Prasertsak told Reuters.

Too much TV for this tired little panda

He said Chuang Chuang, the six-year-old male, would be shown the videos on a large screen when he might be feeling amorous. "We'll play the video at the most comfortable and intimate time for him, perhaps after dinner," Prasertsak said, hoping Chuang Chuang would then use the techniques on Lin Hui, a five-year-old female.

I wonder if the videos in question feature human or panda "actors"...

Monday, November 13, 2006

Wildlife News: Indian Wildlife researchers face too many bureaucratic hurdles

Throughout the Asian region, outdated laws and blinding oversights still exist that make the work of the wildlife researcher difficult to say the least.

Check out this improbable example from India - or, "How to study a nocturnal animal, without permission to do any research at night."

[text from Science Nov. 10, 2006 - DOI: 10.1126/science.314.5801.907a]

Little is known about the Malabar civet (Viverra civettina), an endangered mammal the size of a small dog that lives in the wet forests of southern India. To get a better understanding of this vanishing beast, N. V. K. Ashraf, a veterinarian with the Wildlife Trust of India in New Delhi, sought a research permit last January from the Kerala Forest Department, which manages the civet's last-known habitat.

Permission was granted - but to work only between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. The Malabar civet, however, is a nocturnal animal. Not surprisingly, Ashraf has found no trace of the civet during his daylight-hours research. Ashraf 's frustrations are far from unique - and now India's wildlife researchers have had enough.

Writing in the 25 October issue of the journal Current Science, 14 of the country's leading experts bemoan "a disturbing trend across India where scientists are increasingly denied access to wildlife reserves for scientific research or are seriously impeded, without scope for redress." They blame the antiquated Wildlife Protection Act of 1972, which puts research and hunting permits in the same general category. They also claim that unnamed officials "arbitrarily" deny access to reserves and "demand co-authorship on publications as a precondition" for a research permit.

Download Science in the wilderness: the predicament of scientific research in India’s wildlife reserves [PDF]. Current Science Vol. 91 No. 8

Saturday, November 11, 2006

something fishy, 'buddy'

Everyone should have a hobby - and as I don't drink or smoke, the next best thing was fish-keeping. And since going on about David Attenborough can't strictly be classified as a hobby, raising tropical fish seemed a more socially acceptable pastime.

I must admit that my efforts at piscine husbandry kind of faded away after my dear old pair of Blue Discus died of, well, being terminally old. Although an assorted population of South American catfish are thriving in the former Discus abode, its just not the same without the Old Blues not being around any more.

The Old Blues - we had such fun together

But having said all that, I have recently resurrected a small two foot tank - stocked it to the brim with plants and fed them with CO2. The desired "submerged jungle" effect is well on its way and I have populated the tank with a species of fish that has long intrigued me...

While browsing a local fish shop (better known as 'LFS' by aquarium aficionados like myself), I came across a shoal of inch-long fish which the shopkeeper had creatively christened "Buddy's buddies".

Well I thought to myself, this all sounds and looks very familiar - and my suspicions were later confirmed after surfing the 'net. This was Badis badis, a charismatic little fish from India.

According to the experts, "
Badis badis is also known as the chameleon fish due to it's ability to quickly change it's bright colors. Taxonomically it is a bit of a chameleon as well. It shows a relationship to Anabantids - Gouramis and Leaf Fish. At the present time the genus is monotypic and Badis badis is the only species. However, with the discovery of the un-described Scarlet Badis, all of the subspecies are being looked at and may be broken up. Specimens of this fish can be found in India, Pakistan, Burma and Thailand, resulting in the subspecies."

They actually behave a lot like cichlids, and when the diminutive little males establish their territories and jostle for breeding rights, they actual colour up quite nicely. So I will follow my little band of five "buddies" closely, and eagerly anticipate a bit of rumbling in the jungle.

Right now they look a bit like this:

But when its 'time', the males should look like this:

After my lot have settled in, I will take some of my own photos...
This experiment has just begun, and keeping in mind that my subjects are currently smaller than my fingernail, I will diligently continue my observations inspite of the repetitive eye strain.

Thank you for taking the time to read this and indulging in my hobby. It keeps me out of trouble and is certainly cheaper than a bottle of Red Label (unless I decide to invest in Discus again, in which case - it won't be)

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Field Journals: Elephant Songs

Above all perceptions in the natural world, is the tuning of the senses to a language far more resounding than words. Yet so subtle, that it remains inaudible to our own human acoustics.

As you or I might walk through the forests, and delight in the songs of the oriole, or the warning drill of a flamboyant peacock, we remain entirely unsuspecting of the deeper meanings of this hidden forest language.

In the undergrowth, a transmission of thoughts, a communication of triumphs and fears are exchanged continuously, between these other forms of awareness.

We are able to hear the excitable splash of a rock upon the surface of a stream. But we could never fathom its numerous, submerged meetings with other drowned pebbles, before it finally lays to rest beneath the currents.

There is a clear division between perception at the surface, and an insight of what lies beneath it all.

But there is a language that crosses this boundary. And once in a while, you may hear its voices, in the open, scrub-land forests of Sri Lanka - as you listen to the songs of
the songs of the elephant.

Before we even see them, before we can hear the drumming approach of their footsteps, their voices reach us first. Penetrating our inner thoughts and awakening instinctive, buried memories of our lost communion with the wild.

On the plains of Udawalawe National Park, the resident herds and migrating nomads converge and unite, as the rains begin to fall. This is a time for reawakening family ties. Their strong. tactile bonds are intimately revealed by the delicate embrace of trunk within trunk, and head upon head. So simple to rationalise and interpret in terms of human affection, but there is more to this. Listen, and you will hear them speak. Not with words, with music.

Elephants most often communicate in deep, rumbling notes. These songs seem to have a calming effect on their fellows. A matriarch will often comfort her distressed herd with a continued series of gentle rumblings. In fact elephants have been known to rest their trunks on the hoods of safari jeeps, and fall asleep to the sounds and vibrations of the engine. They will also raise their pitch when alarmed, and sound their characteristic ‘trumpet’. At times like these, their intentions need no explanation. But there is a whole range of inflections between and beyond these two voices.

Although we may never hear them, it seems that they rarely stop talking. An elephant mother will stay in constant vocal contact with her calf. Rival elephant clans can avoid unnecessary conflicts by voicing their opinions and grievances from afar. All of these exchanges are transmitted through an infrasonic frequency, conveyed by the very currents of the enveloping air.

One of the most necessary reasons for elephants to stay in touch , is to ensure the continuation of their kind.

A female in oestrus will resonate a mating call that can be heard by prospective partners over five miles away. This is essential, when one considers the facts that a female elephant might be sexually receptive only four days in every four years, and that the mature bulls often live many territories away from the family groups.

While we may be unaware of these calls, and events that influenced them, the elephants, with their superb low-frequency hearing - the best of any mammal yet tested - heard them all, and understood perfectly, their intentions.

Infrasound, on which the elephants send their songs, is carried by the strong temperature inversions form at the surface before sunset and decay with sunrise, often accompanied by calm wind conditions during the early evening. The results suggest that the range over which elephants communicate more than doubles at night. At these times, ranges of over 10 km are likely, with the greatest amplification occurring at the lowest frequency tested.

This strong diurnal cycle in communication range may be reflected in longer-lasting changes in weather and may exert an influence on elephant behaviour on time scales from days to many years.

Scientific recordings of these calls impart very little of what transpires between them. It is almost impossible to determine who is speaking, as elephants give few visible signs of actually calling. With highly sociable animals, the identity of the caller is often just as important as what is being said.

For example, your response to hearing your name would probably be very different depending on whether the speaker was a family member or a complete stranger. It is important to know both who is speaking, as well as what is spoken, if a communication system is ever to be deciphered. For the moment, it remains an ancient secret of the elephants.

We remain oblivious to these reactions. Yet chance encounters will sometimes bring us unexpectedly close to them. There are many responses that come to mind when a herd surrounds you. Despite the protecting armour of a vehicle, when the matriarch summons her siblings, and they converge upon your jeep, it is not their incredible collective bulk that is shocking. It is their voice. As she manoeuvres the herd to shield her precious young from your intrusion, it is not her anger that chills you. It is that alien wisdom that colours her raging eyes.

Environmentalists have often describe life, in it’s simplest terms, as a cycle. An unending sequence of events. Growth and decay, following growth and decay. If one component is removed, the others will destroy themselves in symbiotic accord. Without the elephant, there is no land. And without the land, there are no people.

But Sri Lanka changes, ever so slowly. The country is waking to the songs of her elephants. As the herds gather in Udawalawe, and countless other protected pockets of forest; researchers and laymen are pooling together their accumulated knowledge and expertise. Voicing their plans for recovery and their fears of inevitability. This may be the last, great attempt made to save the Sri Lankan Elephant. If the rate of their population decline is to be taken seriously, then we may lose them within the dawn of this new millennium.

If you should venture into the forest, look for the elephants. If you can’t find them, then listen for their songs. In the undergrowth; over the silent water-hole; against every gnarled and twisted tree. The songs of the elephant will always be here. Until the elephants are no more.

photo © Nihal Fernando
All b+w photos
© Charith

Monday, November 06, 2006

Meeting the Man

Permit me for five minutes to act my shoe size and not my age...

As some of you may know, Sir David Attenborough and his work have been a lifelong inspiration for me.

Those closer to me know that I don't stop going on about him...

During my childhood I was enchanted by his personable accounts of the rich natural histories that surround us. I am still enchanted. My career is as a result of his work, and I follow in his footsteps, albeit at a considerable distance.

It has been my wish, for the longest time, to thank him. So it was with much trepidation and a belly full of rare and exotic butterflies that I finally had the opportunity to meet Sir David in person...

On Sunday morning Siva, the Otterman, called me and asked if I was free for half an hour. The BBC Natural History Unit had been in Singapore filming sequences (for their upcoming Life in Cold Blood series), and Siva in his capacity as mangrove expert, had been helping out.

Siva: "David Attenborough is in town - maybe you'd like go meet him this evening before he flies out?"
Charith: "Wow"
S: "He's pretty tired but there should be enough time to say 'hi' before he leaves"
C: "Wow"
(my shoe size is 10 by the way)
S: "Ok, so see you later then"
C: "Wow"

So about four hours later, after regaining my composure, I grabbed my copy of "The Life of Birds", and made it through a weekend traffic jam just in time to meet Sir David before he left for Australia.

It must have been a five minute conversation - we discussed Sloth Bears, Macaques and his next shoot in Sri Lanka. I must have also blurted out my admiration for him at least three times during that space of time. But that's okay, 'cos I'm a ten year old kid at this point. Inspite of my blubbering he was most gracious and signed my book too.

"See you later, Sir David" (thanks Siva for the photo)

So there you have it - an opportunity of a lifetime. I told Siva in all honesty, that he had made my decade... I have certainly been rejuvenated by the experience.

Hopefully I won't have to wait another thirty years to meet David Attenborough again...

wildlife news: Macedonia Lynx fights for survival

It's considered a national symbol, displayed on the back of Macedonia's 5-denar coin.

But the Balkan lynx, the largest of European wildcats, is a very rare sight in the southern Balkans these days.

Conservationists say only about 100 remain scattered across the region, making it Europe's most endangered wildcat, and they're mounting an urgent effort to save it. The cat roams the rugged hills of western Macedonia and is also found in parts of Montenegro, Albania, Serbia and Greece.

Macedonia is home to the largest number, about 30 - not nearly enough to stave off extinction, experts fear.

Read more

Sunday, November 05, 2006

artwork: cheetah

What does a wildlife-lover do when he is on medical leave and can't go out into the wilderness or have fun getting lost in the jungle?

Well, MC is no fun for someone like me. So I decided to deal with the boredom by going back to one of my first loves and starting my artwork again, which I've been neglecting for some time.

So here goes, after a week or so of meditative artwork, here's my latest piece. The cheetah is a practice run, combining watercolour and pastel - I will be turning my attention to asiatic species next...