Zadie the pangolin

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCsCfAIwPLk&feature=youtu.be

See this short documentary of tracking an African pangolin. It was created on Mundulea Nature Reserve under the supervision of Pangolin Research Mundulea. Much of the footage of the pangolin, named Zadie, is unprecedented and rare. Enjoy!

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Mixing Frankenstein

Ligers. Zonkeys. Zebroid. Beefaloes. Leopons. Camas. Grolar bear.

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Above: The enormous liger, a product of a lion and a tigress is a true beast. But look at those stubby legs!

Ever heard of any of these mythical creatures? Perhaps in somechildren’s picture book, where the villain is an evil mixture of two most feared creatures in the world?

Probably not there – but you have heard of them. Because they exist in reality.

Humans have been mixing and matching wild animals ever centuries. The most common hybrid is the infertile mule – a mix between a horse and donkey. Also various breeds of cattle from different continents have been bred together to create hardier and more adaptable cows, or indeed for whatever purpose the buyer wants them to be. German settlers on the arid plains of modern day Namibia were at as to how to keep their purebred horses alive in the harsh environment, so they tried breeding them with hardier zebras. The result was an animal that could live longer and happily eat the local vegetation, but had none of the pulling power or endurance the Germans expected from their horses.

More interesting mixes have occurred. Perhaps the most famous example is the lion and tiger hybrid – the liger. This is an enormous beast in a true sense of the word. It is an unbelievably big cat. But it looks all wrong – the coat is shaggy, the legs are short and I just wonder how long that poor back and feet can hold up that immense head body. Probably not long is what I reckon.

Another scary combo is grolar bear – the result of grizzly bear and a polar bear. As if either species was enough to strike fear into anyone armed with less than a high calibre rifle who saw the animal, this mix has the size of polar bear and the long claws and teeth of grizzly. And worse still this hybrid, unlike most others has been found occur naturally in the far northern reaches of Canada.

Then there is the leopard lion, or leopon mix. Now this is something worth looking at – two of Africa’s most iconic predators under the same set of spots. It even looks quite good with its half-mane and spots!

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Above: The zorse. A beautiful mix of a horse and a zebra. Despite the golden stripes and unusualness of the animal, the zorse cannot reproduce and will thus remain a freak of nature.

Wolf dogs we’ve all heard of before. Even those husky dogs look more like wolves than dogs. So what about wolphins? Yes. Not kidding. A bottlenosed dolphin mixed with a false killer whale. Maybe it’s cheating a bit because they are both actually dolphins and live in the ocean unlike lions and tigers, which would never have come into contact with each other without the intervention of man.

While it’s true that some of the above mentioned hybrids, and these by no encompass all of them, occur in the natural world, is right fine for people to create artificial freaks of the natural world. It seems a bit like playing at Frankenstein – at the end of the day, when we have gotten over they intrigue over what our technology can do to great beasts of nature, what are we hoping to achieve? The hybrid animals are helpless – they cannot procreate, they look ridiculous and they are misfits.

What’s the next project for hybrid animals? Perhaps an elephant bred with a giraffe or a dog bred with a cat? Should we continue mixing and matching animals for our pleasure? Because at the moment we are leaving the animals with little choice but play a role in our circus.

Owning the Wild – Part Two

So we’ve seen how humans have a taste for keeping even the most exotic wild animals as pets. The Julius Ceasar administration of Ancient Rome kept lions, hyenas, cheetahs and wolves to entertain the crowds of the Coliseum by fighting gladiators for entertainment. Arab sheiks kept cheetahs as pets because the represented a high status for the owner. Nowadays, Mike Tyson is well known for possessing tigers. Twilight’s Kirsten Stewart, somewhat unsurprisingly, owns a wolf hybrid named Jack. Even Justin Bieber is in on the wild ownership – he has a pet monkey called Mally.

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Kirsten Stewart owns a wolf dog.

But what makes people believe that an unusual animal would act as a cool sidekick for their image?

The most obvious reason seems to be  the animal draws attention to its owner. In fact Mike Tyson’s public image, controversial as it may be, is significantly complemented by his association with tigers. The “Baddest Man on Earth” takes delight in relating himself to the fierceness, toughness, agility and regal nature of these big cats. In his cameo in the first Hangover movie he owns a pet tiger and in real life he has a tiger-like mural tattooed onto his face.

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Mike Tyson with his white tiger cub.

On a game farm I grew up on, an orphaned cheetah was adopted and allowed to roam around the gardens inside the lodge compound. Which was all fine and well until it unexpectedly attacked a 3-year-old toddler . Sadly, but almost inevitably, the cheetah was shot to prevent any further such mishaps. While the logic of the lodges actions can hardly be called into question, I was left wondering why the lodge even kept the animal.

“It was unusual, the guests enjoyed it, they thought it was authentic Africa,” I was told.

Another prevalent theme is that wild animals are religious or status symbols. In India and other East Asian nations, elephants are enshrined in religious scriptures, such as the Hindu god Ganesh, and are highly regarded as working animals. In China, rare birds are kept by the rich and admired for their beauty. On every American government seal and dollar, the Bald Eagle can be found.

Perhaps wild animals are seen as things that people aspire to emulate – or at least emulate certain characteristics. In a romantic sense, most humans would like their bravery to be compared to that of a lion; their stealth to that of leopard; the strength to that of a bull. Almost every nation has a national animal and often their national sports teams honour wild animals: South Africa’s Springboks, the Three Lions of England or the Australian Wallabies.

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Great rivals at rugby as well as in the savannah – equally adored by fans: The South African Springboks and the Three Lions of England

In all cases it seems that humans have taken ownership of the wild animal. If not in a physical sense then maybe psychologically. Then it seems almost logical  the jump from owning the animal in name is hardly a hop at all. Hopefully peoples’ eagerness to take on the names of animals they treasure will translate into a greater willingness to preserve and protect the physical beings themselves – not just by remembering them on a shirt of a national sports team. Just ask Didier Drogba, captain of Les Elephants of the Cote d’Ivoire!

Owning the Wild – Part One

For some people, the average cat dog or hamster doesn’t really cut it as a sufficiently interesting pet. Thus is born the “exotic pet” owner. This doesn’t mean owning a horse, a bird (large or not) or even a cow. An exotic pet owner is the master or mistress of previously wild animals never normally domesticated – and it seems the more teeth or other weapons the animal possesses to kill the owner, the better.

While stories of alligators and turtles patrolling the underground sewerage systems of American cities may be urban legends, exotic animals are privately owned and hardly with clean records. Private individuals, for the purpose of entertainment or non-conservation specific reasons, have held tigers, primates, lions, bears, elephants and even sea dwelling animals such as killer whales in captivity. Even more bizarrely, people in continents usually different to the wild animals’ natural origin own the animals. Records of lions in North America, wolves in Africa and savannah antelopes zebra and kudu in the USA exist.

The dangers of owning wild animals are clear enough: one, your pet lion at some point might mistake you for an easy meal and kill you or your toddler; two, your harmless macaque might carry exotic diseases; three, the super-venomous snake you keep to wow your dinner guests may have found the couch to be an appropriately warm place to bed down for the night… I’ll leave what follows up to your imagination.

This doesn’t even consider the trauma and hardships the animals face. Most reptiles die in captivity, mammals starve due to malnutrition and certain birds sometimes die due to a lack of social interaction with members of their own species. Clearly, owning exotic animals is unnatural and in nearly all cases is detrimental to either guardian or animal. Additionally, according to PETA, animal wildlife trafficking is the third most lucrative criminal trade after arms dealing and drug smuggling.

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Panjo the tiger at home. A big house cat – but with more tigers in captivity in the wild than in the wild, is this the possible future of these exotic cats?

A famous example of exotic animal ownership gone wrong occurred in South Africa during 2010, when a tiger named Panjo escaped from his owner’s bakkie in the Mpumalanga province, setting off a two-day, region-wide search for the missing big cat. The public was gripped by the fear that the next stray shadow they saw crossing the road at the dead of night might indeed be a hungry, 140 kilogramme Bengal tiger. Upon his recapture, owner Goosey Fernandes said Panjo was harmless and should be treated “like a dog”. Why then did Fernandes not keep a dog, if his Bengal tiger, which is a critically endangered species, was effectively reduced from a lethal hunter to a compliant canine?

Keeping an animal alive is better than killing them in most circumstances. Yet what is the point of wild animals being forced to live as pets? There are more captive or pet tigers than wild tigers left in the world. What has become of the evil Shere Khan, the baddie in the Rudyard Kipling’s, The Jungle Book, who struck the fear of God into our childhoods?

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These images of Shere Khan from The Jungle Book gave me goosebumps. But the image of these majestic cats seems to have changed from frightening beasts to valuable trophies to fascinating exotic pets.

Ivory Trade: Has CITES inadvertently doomed Africa’s elephants?

Cites agreeing to allow Southern African nations Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe to sell off their ivory in once-off auctions to Japan in 1999, and again to Japan and China in 2008, may have been the catalyst in the recent spike in ivory poaching and seizures of illegal ivory.

This auction broke the zero tolerance trade embargo on ivory that Cites had put in place in 1990, leaving ivory traders and buyers “unaware” of the legality surrounding the trade. Unscrupulous traders, with the help of corrupt officials, can blur the lines of legal and illegal ivory. National Geographic’s article in 2012 claims that at least 25000 elephants were illegally killed last year. This id based on the reported number of elephants killed that have been found by officials, as well as being calculated on the amount of ivory that has been confiscated. The figure thus does not take into account the un-confiscated ivory or elephant corpses that were never recovered. In effect the number of dead elephants could be much higher. Also worrying is the manner in which the elephants have been killed.

Last year, Chadian and Sudanese poachers slaughtered around 650 elephants in a matter of weeks in Cameroon’s Bouba Ndjida National Park. This year another 89 were killed in Garamba National Park in Chad. These single large-scale killings made headlines because of their enormous size. Particularly victims of this recent jump are the forest elephants in central Africa, because ivory carvers in the Far East prefer their harder tusks for creating sculptures. The sculptures are stunningly intricate and are sold as works of art. In China, where the popular conception is that tusks, which translate into Chinese as “teeth”, grow back. In effect, harvesting the teeth of live elephants is not actually cruel, and an IFAW study has claimed that many Chinese and Buddhists, where ivory is a recognisable symbol of religious following, do not know that the acquisition of ivory entails the killing of the animal.

Because of ivory’s high value, it must be asked what African states’ policy is with regard to losing the ivory. Essentially the ivory trade can be compared to the trade in blood diamonds. Like diamonds, the ivory resources are forming integral parts of non-African economies. The ivory, like diamonds is often gained illegally. It is difficult to trace ivory and diamonds once it has been successfully smuggled and cut.

But at the end of the day Africa is losing wealth. The wealth it loses takes the form of poached ivory that flows out of the continent. Additionally, every set of tusks involves another dead elephant – which constitutes a loss in tourism money, biodiversity and jobs. The key to African states protecting the elephants or ivory wealth lies in its recognition that it is not just losing many expendable animals, but is seeing potential millions of dollars flowing off the continent. If this loss could be measured, perhaps Namibia, South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe would think twice about opening the door for extermination of the African elephants.