Condors found 'poisoned' in Chile
Authorities find 20 birds, two of them dead, after they crashed into rocks in the Andes and say they may have eaten poisoned meat
Associated Press in Santiago
theguardian.com, Tuesday 13 August 2013 08.29 BST
Chilean authorities are investigating the apparent poisoning of 20 condors in the Andes after two birds died, authorities revealed on Monday.
On Sunday, witnesses reported condors crashing into rocks high in the mountains near a hydroelectric power plant. Officials and volunteers rescued 17 birds that had crash-landed and were foaming from the beak and apparently too weak or dizzy to take off again. Another sick condor and two dead birds were found on Monday.
The birds are being treated at a veterinary clinic in the city of Los Andes, 40 miles (70km) east of the capital, Santiago.
"The hypothesis is that they suffered organophosphate poisoning after they were exposed to insecticides used for agriculture," said veterinarian Eric Savard, who has been treating them.
The 18 survivors are recovering after being treated with an antidote, antibiotics and saline solution, Savard said, and will remain under intensive care for 10 days.
Vergara said two dead foxes and a dead cow were also discovered in the same area and samples have been sent to a laboratory for testing. Officials say the birds could have eaten poisoned meat or drunk water contaminated with insecticides.
When they regain strength, the birds will be taken to Santiago's Metropolitan zoo for further care and released in the same place where they were found, Pablo Vergara, regional director of Chile's agriculture and livestock service, told local media.
The Andean condor is one of the largest flying birds in the world and biologists estimate only a few thousand are left in the wild. They have wingspans of up to 10ft (3m) and can glide on air currents for hours.
Footage of disabled cows stir questions about growth drugs
Tuesday, August 13, 2013 7:22 EDT
By P.J. Huffstutter and Lisa Baertlein
(Reuters) – At a beef industry conference in Denver last week, the animal health auditor for meat producer JBS USA presented a video showing short clips of cows struggling to walk and displaying other signs of distress. The animals appeared to step gingerly, as if on hot metal, and showed signs of lameness, according to four people who saw the video.
The people in attendance said the video was presented by Dr Lily Edwards-Callaway, the head of animal welfare at JBS USA, as part of a panel discussion on the pros and cons of using a class of drugs known as beta-agonists – the additives fed to cattle in the weeks before slaughter to add up to 30 pounds to bodyweight and reduce fat content in the meat.
Edwards-Callaway told the audience the cattle had been fed a beta-agonist, but did not identify which brand. She also said various factors – including heat, transportation, and animal health – may have contributed to the behavior seen on the video, according to JBS spokesman Cameron Bruett. He said the video showed cattle were “reluctant to move,” and told Reuters JBS wanted feedback from animal welfare experts, who were among those attending, on what JBS’s own staff had been seeing.
Reuters was unable to determine what feedback was received. Edwards-Callaway did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The video was shown on the same day the nation’s largest meat producer, Tyson Foods Inc, declared it would no longer accept cattle that had been fed the most popular brand of the feed additive, called Zilmax, a powerful and fast-selling product from pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. Tyson, in a letter to its cattle suppliers, said the decision resulted not from food-safety questions but its concerns over the behavior of animals that animal health experts said could be connected to the use of Zilmax.
The JBS presentation and Tyson’s decision to ban Zilmax-fed cattle underscores the increasingly complex tradeoffs facing the agricultural sector as it seeks to engineer greater volumes of food at low cost. Tensions have grown in the drive to meet that goal, including fears about animal welfare, mounting criticism by consumer advocates, and industry concern about the effect of biotechnology on product quality, such as whether beef still has the fatty marbling that some consumers like.
VIDEO FROM JBS PLANT
No one from Tyson Foods viewed the video or knew of its existence prior to the company’s decision to stop buying Zilmax-fed cattle, according to Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson.
Zilmax and the Optaflexx brand of Eli Lilly Co’s Elanco Animal Health unit dominate the beta-agonist market.
Merck told Reuters in a statement that its own probe into the Tyson matter has shown Zilmax is not the cause of the animal behaviors seen at Tyson’s facilities but declined to elaborate further. Merck spokeswoman Pamela Eisele said decades of product research have shown Zilmax is safe for animals, adding that Merck is working with Tyson to determine why Tyson has observed non-ambulatory or lame cattle at some of its beef plants.
Reuters has not seen the JBS video, which was described to reporters in interviews with people who saw it during an August 7 panel session at the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association conference.
The video was shot in recent months, Bruett said, with remote cameras used for auditing animal welfare at a single facility operated by JBS USA, which is a unit of JBS SA of Brazil. He declined to identify the facility’s location. The video was shown with the approval of officials of JBS USA, some of whom attended the presentation, Bruett said.
Guy Loneragan, a professor of food safety and public health at Texas Tech University, who spoke at the Denver conference, described the video as “compelling,” and said “it was clear that these cattle were lame.”
Loneragan, who serves as a food-safety adviser to JBS, told Reuters the cause of the animal distress in the video was not clear.
Temple Grandin, who has pioneered humane slaughterhouse practices as a consultant to several major beef processors, described the short video clips she saw during the presentation. One clip showed an animal that did not want to move, and hands pushing it. Others showed cattle that looked stiff and lethargic, Grandin said.
Grandin told Reuters the cattle should have been energetic and moving on their own. Instead, she said, the affected animals in the video “walk like they’re 90-year-old grandmothers.”
DRUG MAKERS REACT
The drug zilpaterol, the active ingredient in Zilmax, is stronger than other beta-agonists on the market, and debuted in 2007.
Merck’s chief rival in beta-agonists for cattle is Eli Lilly’s Elanco Animal Health unit, which makes ractopamine-based drugs for cattle, hogs and turkey. Elanco told Reuters it believes Tyson’s concerns are specific to Zilmax, since Tyson continues purchasing animals fed Elanco’s Optaflexx.
Elanco in a statement said 48 research studies, including over 29,000 cattle, showed “no difference in mortality, disease or other animal well-being related concerns” between animals fed Optaflexx and those that did not eat the Elanco drug.
Tyson, in response to questions from Reuters, said the company has seen problems in its own slaughterhouses similar to those described from the JBS video. The problems were infrequent yet common enough to warrant concern, Tyson’s Mickelson said.
Mickelson said the company does not know the cause of the problem. However, he said, independent veterinarians and animal welfare experts have told Tyson officials that Zilmax could be to blame. He declined to elaborate.
The debate over Zilmax follows a similar dispute over ractopamine. China and Russia have banned the import of meat from ractopamine-fed animals, and the U.S.-based pork giant Smithfield Foods in May announced it will stop feeding ractopamine to half its pig herd, a move seen as an effort to recapture the lucrative China market. Weeks later, China’s Shuanghui International announced plans to buy Smithfield.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has deemed beta-agonists safe both for farm animals and for human health. “No animal safety concerns were described in any of the studies performed” before the agency approved Zilmax in 2006, according to a statement from the agency.
An FDA spokeswoman told Reuters it was not aware of the video.
Tyson’s move to distance itself from Zilmax marked a startling turnabout for the Springdale, Arkansas-based company, which was the first large scale U.S. meat company to advocate the use of the feed additive.
Agribusiness giant Cargill Inc., which long resisted buying Zilmax-fed cattle over concerns that the drug degraded meat quality, began accepting such cattle in June of 2012. Spokesman Michael Martin told Reuters Cargill would continue to buy cattle fed with the drug. At its plants Cargill has not seen what Tyson and JBS have experienced, Martin said.
National Beef Packing Co, another leading beef producer, in a statement said it accepts Zilmax-fed cattle and will not change its procurement practices.
Originally developed as asthma drugs for humans, beta-agonists – in a decade of use – have helped bolster the ability to produce more beef with fewer cattle. Due to the introduction of Zilmax and other factors, including improved feed and animal genetics, the U.S. industry produced more than 26 billion pounds of beef from 91 million head of cattle last year. In 1952, it took 111 million head of cattle to produce 21 billion pounds of beef.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture allows beef produced with beta-agonists to be labeled hormone-free, antibiotic-free and “natural,” as the drugs do not fall into the same class as either growth hormones or antibiotics.
Use of such pharmacology has been a hot topic of debate for more than a year in the U.S. cattle industry, where ranchers, feed lots and meat producers generally support the use of biotechnology to increase weight gain in cattle.
While Tyson’s decision to stop processing cattle fed Zilmax caught some cattle suppliers off-guard, the nation’s largest meat producer said it had seen signs of trouble emerging as temperatures soared early this summer.
Some of the cattle delivered to Tyson’s slaughter plants had trouble moving after being delivered, according to company and cattle industry sources familiar with the matter.
At first, Tyson officials blamed the heat. In a letter sent to feedlots earlier this summer, Tyson called for extra care with cattle because some animals were showing “signs of being lame,” according to a source who read the letter to Reuters.
As weeks passed, the problems continued in a small percentage of cattle, said Tyson’s Mickelson. After consulting with veterinarians and other animal health experts, Tyson on August 7 sent a second letter to its feedlot suppliers, alerting them it would stop buying cattle fed with Zilmax.
“We do not know the specific cause of these problems, but some animal health experts have suggested that the use of the feed supplement Zilmax, also known as zilpaterol, is one possible cause,” according to the letter.
Either way, the issue “is significant enough that we believe our decision is warranted,” Mickelson told Reuters.
(Additional Reporting By Tom Polansek and Theopolis Waters in Chicago and Toni Clarke in Washington, D.C.; Editing by David Greising. Martin Howell)
[Image: Beef cattle feed on the Wulf farm in this June 27, 2008 file photo. By Diane Bartz for Reuters.]
08/13/2013 02:51 PM
Tomb Raider: Badger Digs Up Medieval Treasure in Germany
By David Crossland
A badger helped discover the tombs of two medieval lords in Germany in what archaeologists are hailing as a significant find. The 12th century burial site contains a sword, bronze bowls, an ornate belt buckle and skeletal remains that tell stories of a violent life.
A badger in Germany deserves a reward for making a significant archaeological discovery: the medieval tombs of two Slavic lords buried with an array of intriguing artefacts.
The striped animal, perfectly equipped for digging with its short legs, had made its underground home on a farm in the town of Stolpe in Brandenburg, some 75 kilometers northeast of Berlin.
Two sculptors who happened to be hobby archaeologists, Lars Wilhelm and Hendrikje Ring, live on the farm and had planned to exhibit some of their work near the badger's sett.
"We spotted a pelvic bone that had been dug up, it was clearly human," Ring told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "It wasn't exactly surprising to us because a whole field of ancient graves had been found on the other side of the road in the 1960s. So we pushed a camera into the badger's sett and took photos by remote control. We found pieces of jewellery, retrieved them and contacted the authorities."
That was last autumn. There was no sign of the badger, who had probably already left, said Ring. "This doesn't make him an archaeologist but he's the one who discovered it." The finds were only made public this week.
Archaeologists proceeded to unearth a total of eight graves from the first half of the 12th century at the site, including two containing Slavic chieftains.
Sword Marks on Skull
"We hadn't found graves like that in Brandenburg before so it's an important discovery," Thomas Kersting, an archaeologist at the Brandenburg Department for Monument Protection, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
The skeletons in the two lords' graves had bronze bowls at their feet. "That identified them as belonging to the social elite, they had the bowls to wash their hands before dining because they knew that was the refined thing to do," said Kersting.
The objects found included an arrow head and a belt with a bronze, omega-shaped buckle with snake's heads at each end.
One of the two skeletons was particularly well preserved and had evidently been a warrior. His body showed multiple sword and lance wounds and a healed fracture suggested he had fallen off his horse at some point, said Kersting.
He was estimated to have been about 40 when he died, but it wasn't clear what killed him.
"There were healed marks from sword strikes on his skull, it's really impressive, especially as he was relatively small. He was a tough guy," said Kersting.
A double-edged sword almost a meter long was found by his side.
Grave Robbery Testifies to a Time of Upheaval
At the time of the burial, Slavic tribal dominance in the Brandenburg region was already on the wane as the Franks were pushing in from the west and the Poles from the east. The burial site is also significant because it was heathen, while much of the surrounding area had already converted to Christianity, said archaeologists.
One of the two lords is believed to have had his sword removed. Such grave robbery may be a sign of the upheaval at the time, said Kersting. "It's interesting because it could mean this happened at a time when social structures were collapsing," said Kersting.
"If someone went to this grave and opened it in full view of the local castle and took out the sword -- that's a sign that something's not working anymore. It highlights the time of upheaval when the rule of the Slavic tribes was coming to an end."
The skeleton of a woman, probably his wife, lay next to him. "She had a coin in her mouth in accordance with the ancient rite to pay the ferryman for the passage over the Styx into the realm of the dead."
The artefacts will go on display in September at the Archaeological State Museum in the town of Brandenburg an der Havel.
Last month the sculptor Lars Wilhelm, who found the pelvic bone on his farm, received an award for services to archaeology in Brandenburg. But what about the badger? "He's is one of our honorary members too," said Kersting.
The war on African poaching: is militarization doomed to fail?
By The Guardian
Tuesday, August 13, 2013 20:40 EDT
Every two weeks or so, the South African Department of Environmental Affairs publishes a rhino poaching update, a running tally of rhinoceroses illegally killed for lucrative Asian black markets, along with a summary of arrests of poachers and rhino horn couriers. The latest, dated August 7, lists 553 rhinos poached so far this year and 147 arrests. South Africa is on track to lose 900 to 1,000 rhinos to poachers in 2013, smashing last year’s macabre record of 668. The epidemic of rhino poaching that broke out in 2008 shows no sign of dying down.
Africa’s elephants are also being shot in extraordinary and rising numbers for their ivory, now a hot-selling status and investment commodity in China. Experts estimate that a mind-boggling 25,000 to 40,000 elephants are being killed annually across the continent, which could be close to 10 percent of the total number remaining, and significantly more than are born each year.
A Kenyan anti-poaching squad in training at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.Rhino and elephant protectors have sprung into action in an increasingly militarized effort to stamp out this carnage. Governments have given game rangers better weapons, engaged intelligence analysts, and put spotter planes, helicopters, and unmanned drones into the air. Some have deployed their national defense forces into national parks. Private wildlife custodians have spent millions on their own armed anti-poaching guards, sniffer dogs, mini-drones, and informants.
But as the response to rhino and elephant poaching has become progressively more militarized, a stubborn reality remains: The continental-scale slaughter of rhinos and elephants continues to intensify, despite rising arrests and killings of poachers and increasing interdiction of illegal shipments of rhino horn and ivory. And although the toll would no doubt be worse without the anti-poaching efforts, experts say that other aspects of the battle to save Africa’s wildlife — including improving justice systems and launching efforts to reduce consumer demand for wildlife products — have been given short shrift.
“You’re not going to just enforce your way out of this,” says Peter Knights, executive director of WildAid, a California-based conservation group that focuses on the consumer side of the illegal wildlife trade. “You’re never going to stop [poaching] by just putting new boots on guys in Africa because it’s a [game of] whack-a-mole.”
Knights believes that illicit wildlife products “always find their way out” to consumers who are willing to pay for them. That view is echoed by some drug policy experts, who liken the uphill battle against African poaching to the war on drugs, where the militarized enforcement-and-interdiction approach has been an extraordinarily expensive, bloody failure. “Where there is persistent demand for an illegal substance, there will be supply,” Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based group that advocates for drug policy reform, told me.
The effort to stem the tide of rhino and elephant poaching has become a global concern. Saying that wildlife crime undermines security — a thinly disguised reference to terrorism — U.S. President Barack Obama last month announced a new Presidential Task Force on Wildlife Trafficking.
No place better illustrates the challenges of protecting pachyderms than South Africa’s Kruger National Park, which has lost far more rhinos than any other African park in recent years. It has come under siege by poachers working for criminal networks that smuggle the horns — used in traditional Chinese medicine — through neighboring Mozambique to illegal markets in Asia.
South African National Parks’ (SANParks) first response to the outbreak of poaching in 2008 was to ramp up conventional ranger patrols in Kruger, home to thousands of rhinos. Poachers, mainly from Mozambique, responded by coming in larger groups, a “triggerman” with a heavy-caliber hunting rifle and “guards” carrying AK-47s. They weren’t shy about shooting at rangers, and many firefights ensued, some with fatal results. SANParks began retraining and better arming its rangers, who arrested and shot more poachers, but it wasn’t enough — the poachers kept coming in even greater numbers.
In 2011 the South African National Defense Force deployed two companies of troops, 265 men, in and around the park to help with the fight. Park enforcers got more air support, including more helicopters. A new spotter plane was donated by a South African arms exporter in late 2012, and various unmanned aircraft — including sophisticated military drones made by South African arms manufacturer Denel — have recently been deployed over the park on a trial basis. “Many arrests are now made with air support,” a spokesperson for SANParks told me.
A black rhinoceros at South Africa’s Phinda Private Game Reserve.SANParks has an annual anti-poaching budget of about $7.5 million, much of that spent in Kruger, and support worth millions more is provided by other government departments and private donors. More poachers are being arrested than ever before, and at least 23 have been shot dead by rangers since 2008. Nevertheless, the rhino slaughter is intensifying: So far this year, 345 rhino have been poached in the park, more than double the number killed in the first seven months of 2012.
Scores of rhino charities now collect millions of dollars annually around the world for public and private anti-poaching efforts across Africa. South Africa’s large private game farming and wildlife safari industries also now collectively spend millions of dollars annually on new armed guards. Most anti-poaching companies offer military-style training, and some are operated by South African soldiers of fortune who have worked for U.S. security contractors in Afghanistan and Iraq.
One company, Diceros, is marketing an integrated system made up of U.S. and South African military and security industry technology that includes high-definition radar, in-earth microphones, communications interception, long-range cameras, and drones. The company says that its gear currently monitors cattle rustlers and other smugglers on and around Lake Victoria in central Africa’s Rift Valley, with great success.
WWF is researching integrated high-tech, drone-centered surveillance systems in the arid north of Namibia. Funded by a $5 million grant from Google, WWF’s aim is to find reliable ways of integrating imagery from unarmed drones with real-time information about the location of poachers, armed ranger patrols, and electronically tagged rhinos so that rangers can be optimally deployed to protect the animals. Crawford Allan, a senior WWF/TRAFFIC wildlife crime expert, said that the project had been approached by dozens of drone manufacturers because “their military contracts are depleting and they’re looking for civilian applications” for their aircraft.
Kenya, which has lost a steadily increasing number of elephants and rhinos in recent years, has also entered the arms race with poachers, increasing its government budget for armed ranger patrols and just last week announcing a new, elite anti-poaching unit.
Many other African countries, including Botswana, Gabon and Cameroon, have deployed military units to conservation areas in recent years in response to increased poaching, including high-profile mass killings of elephants in central Africa by poachers with links to Janjaweed militias in Sudan.
Still, the epidemic rages on, prompting many experts to argue that a wider effort is needed. A key failing, conservationists say, lies in the continent’s justice systems, where evidence collection is often botched, prosecutions poorly handled, and judges often don’t take wildlife crime seriously, which sends the message that poaching is no big deal. Although some low-ranking “triggermen” have been caught and jailed in South Africa, cases against higher-level kingpins have dragged out for years.
In Kenya, conservationists were outraged when two guards implicated in a recent, brazen theft of ivory from an allegedly secure government stockpile were fired but not prosecuted. On July 1, a former U.S. defense attache, David McNevin, was caught at Nairobi airport with illegal ivory in his luggage. Despite the case’s high profile, his only punishment was a fine of about $350.
Incidents like these have amplified calls for poaching to be treated as seriously as drug smuggling and terrorism, with which, criminologists point out, it is often linked logistically and financially. President Obama’s new task force on wildlife trafficking is heavily populated by representatives from the departments involved in anti-drug and anti-terror efforts.
But, like the war on drugs, there are early signs that the war on poaching is plagued by the so-called “balloon effect.”
“When you suppress drug production in one area, it pops up in another” because consumer demand persists, said Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance. The South African rhino crisis, for example, was preceded by a little-publicized wave of poaching in neighboring Zimbabwe, said Jo Shaw, WWF-South Africa’s rhino policy expert. Conservationists responded by relocating the country’s remaining animals into relatively small “intensive protection” zones, after which poaching took off in South Africa.
Wildlife traffickers are already shifting illicit transport routes in response to interdiction efforts through countries with weak controls, such as Togo. Some of the largest illegal ivory consignments recently interdicted in Asia, involving thousands of tusks, have originated at Togo’s port, Lome. Since Togo probably has a population of fewer than 65 elephants, the ivory clearly comes from elsewhere. In southern Africa, smugglers now avoid going through Johannesburg’s international airport, preferring the nearby, more poorly policed airport in Maputo, Mozambique.
If enforcement and interdiction is not sufficient, what else night work? Nadelmann cites a case from the drug world involving the club drug Ecstacy, popular in the 1990s. Its popularity declined rapidly after dealers began adulterating its main ingredient with other substances, thus destroying its reputation among users. Nadelmann suggested that “creative interventions in the market” designed to create distrust among Asian buyers about the quality or value of rhino horn and ivory might lower demand.
Some South African rhino owners are already attempting to degrade the value of rhino horn by injecting a combination of toxic insecticides and indelible dye into live animals’ horns. The toxic dye concoction will likely sicken (but not kill) consumers and will also make the horns more visible on x-ray machines. It’s too early to say if this has reduced demand, but owners are confident that it at least inspires poachers to avoid shooting animals with tainted horns.
Some media-savvy conservation groups say that well-crafted public relations and social awareness campaigns in Asia could significantly reduce demand for rhino horn and ivory, pointing to recent successes by a campaign to cut shark fin use. WildAid, which has produced slick video spots featuring celebrities to persuade Asians not to consume shark fin soup, said that shark fin imports into Hong Kong, a major hub for the trade, dropped by more than 70 percent from 2011 to 2012 as the campaign took effect.
WildAid’s Peter Knights said that the group has recently produced spots against rhino horn and ivory consumption, but had struggled for over a decade to fund them. It’s extremely difficult to raise money for campaigns to reduce demand, said Crawford Allan of WWF/TRAFFIC, because “donors like to see boots on the ground and technology.” Other conservationists say that donors, politicians, and the media find images of armed anti-poaching patrols, drones, and military equipment “sexy,” lamenting that the multi-faceted nature of the struggle to save rhinos and elephants is often glossed over.
Knights told me that policymakers have recently shown greater interest in targeting demand in Asia. Meanwhile, the stakes for rhinos and elephants get higher by the day, as ever-stronger groups of poachers continue to reap their harvests across Africa.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2013
Carnivore 'teddy bear' emerges from the mists of Ecuador
Olinguito is first new carnivore identified in western hemisphere for 35 years, bringing 100 years of mistaken identity to an end
Ian Sample, science correspondent
The Guardian, Thursday 15 August 2013 15.46 BST
A small, wide-eyed beast with luxuriant orange fur has been identified as a new species more than 100 years after it first went on display in the world's museums.
The discovery brings to an end one of the longest zoological cases of mistaken identity and establishes the "olinguito" (which rhymes with mojito) as the first new carnivore recorded in the western hemisphere for 35 years.
The animal – which has been described as a cross between a teddy bear and a house cat – had been displayed in museums around the globe and exhibited at numerous US zoos for decades without scientists grasping that it had been mislabelled.
One adult female, named Ringerl, was kept at Louisville zoo in the 1960s, but was moved to Tucson zoo, to the Smithsonian's National zoo, and to the Bronx zoo after keepers repeatedly failed in their attempts to breed the animal. The reason for that failure is now clear: it was a different species to the mates on offer.
The true identity of the overlooked beast only emerged after Kristofer Helgen, curator of mammals at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, launched a 10-year investigation into an obscure group of raccoon-like mammals called olingos. What began with a drawer-full of remains ended with a nighttime trek through the cloud forests of Ecuador, where scientists photographed the creature living in the trees.
"If you look up olingos in a book today, pretty much everyone says we don't know quite how many species there are, what their ranges are, and which are endangered. I set out to resolve all that, I wanted to put olingos on the map," Helgen told the Guardian.
"But in the process of trying to do that, and because we were the first group in generations to look closely at his part of the carnivore family tree, we revealed this incredible and beautiful animal that everyone had overlooked," he said.
The moment of realisation came when Helgen was going through skins and skulls of mammals at the Field Museum in Chicago. "I pulled out a drawer and there were these brilliant, beautiful orange-red pelts with long flowing fur. It was nothing like olingo fur. I then looked at the skulls and the shape was very different. I wondered, 'is this a mammal that's been missed by every other zoologist?' It turns out that it was," he said.
The animal had been mistaken for an olingo because of some broad similarities, but these turned out to be superficial. Helgen's animal was different on almost every measure: it was smaller, much furrier, had a shorter tail, different teeth, and smaller ears. "We are not talking about splitting hairs. If you saw the two animals side by side you would wonder how they could ever be confused," Helgen said.
Convinced they had a new species on their hands, Helgen's team arranged an expedition to the cloud forests of the Andes, where similar creatures had come from. Trekking at night through the dense vegetation, and accompanied by a chorus of frogs and crickets, they spotted other nocturnal beasts in the beams of their headtorches: kinkajous and porcupines.
"Eventually, there it was, an olinguito. We got it in the beam, running around, jumping from tree to tree, but getting close enough so that when it turned and looked into the beam we knew exactly what it was," he said.
The olinguito is a carnivore, but the term has two meanings in biology. The most familiar is an animal that eats meat, but the other is any animal that belongs to the order Carnivora, which includes cats, dogs, tigers, bears and others. They are not all meat eaters, and the olinguito mostly eats fruit.
Working with local museums, the team later extracted DNA from animals on display and confirmed that some were olinguitos, a previously unknown relative of the olingo. They have since confirmed there are at least four sub-species of the animals.
The DNA evidence took the scientists back to the Smithsonian Institution. There they found that scientific databases already contained olinguito DNA that had been wrongly labelled as olingo. It also led them to tissues from a Colombian olinguito held in storage at the museum. They belonged to Ringerl, the unfortunate female that toured US zoos.
"We tracked down Ringerl's keeper and asked why she moved her around so much. She said 'we couldn't get her to breed with any of the olingos.' This animal wasn't fussy, it just wasn't the same species. It would have been impossible. It was a glorious case of mistaken identity," said Helgen.
The name olinguito means small or adorable olingo, but writing in the journal ZooKeys, the team give the animal a formal scientific name too, Bassaricyon neblina. The species name, neblina, means "fog" or "mist" in Spanish, a nod to the cloud forests where the animal lives. But it also means obscured. "That's exactly what the olinguito has been," Helgen said. "Lost in the fog."
Click to watch: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f3OJQokU_Xw
Costa Rica state zoo closures may face legal battle
Decision to close last two zoos is welcomed by animal rights campaigners but challeged by Simón Bolívar zoo in San José
Jonathan Watts in Rio de Janeiro
theguardian.com, Thursday 15 August 2013 13.25 BST
Costa Rica's decision to close its last two state zoos has been hailed as a breakthrough for animal rights, but in the short term it could mean a legal battle as well as a major readjustment for the sloths, tapirs, jaguars and other creatures that have found refuge there.
Furthering its reputation as a conservation pioneer, Costa Rica announced last month that it will no longer use public funds to keep animals in cages. This means the Simón Bolívar zoo in San José and the Santa Ana conservation centre will close when existing operating contracts run out next year.
The animal residents – 300 individuals from 60 species in the case of the Simón Bolívar zoo – will be released into the wild or found new homes in private shelters. The land will be used as a botanical garden.
The environment minister, René Castro, said the end of state-financed captivity would be a turning point: "With this move, we are sending a message that the state wishes to show biodiversity in its natural state, under a modern and holistic integration of space, society and natural resources."
In an interview with La Nación newspaper, Castro said the "no-cage rule" was influenced by the escape of his grandmother's pet parrot: "It made a big impression on me because I thought we had taken good care of her. We fed her with food and affection – all the things that we as humans thought she liked. Yet when she had the chance, she left."
Officials say they have "declared peace with nature" through a series of biodiversity initiatives that have won international awards, including extensive preservation and reforestation programmes funded by fuel taxes, car stamp duties and energy fees.
But while its latest step is widely hailed as progressive in principle, the details are likely to prove contentious. The small Simón Bolívar inner-city zoo attracts more than 130,000 visitors a year, runs education programmes and has its own policy of releasing animals back into the wild whenever possible.
Fundazoo, the foundation that runs the zoos, is challenging the closure order at an administrative tribunal. The organisation, which employs 35 people, says its contract is valid until 2024.
It has also raised doubts about the wellbeing of the animals if they are returned to the wild or transferred to a private centre that may not be able to provide the same level of veterinary care and zoological expertise for its parrots, crocodiles, ocelots, snakes and spider monkeys.
"We do not understand why the government is trying to close us," said spokesman Eduardo Bolaños. "We are more a rescue centre than a zoo. We have never bought or collected animals."
He said almost all the animals were illegally kept pets, injured or found in the possession of poachers. The only exception is a lion from Cuba for which a home could not be found elsewhere: "These animals don't have the capacity to survive in the wild."
The government says it will find a solution and rejects suspicions that the closure is simply a budget-cutting measure.
"The main reason for this is humanitarian. We don't want any more animals in captivity," said a spokesman from the environment ministry. "We are now contacting and inspecting private refuges to ensure they meet the technical criteria to care for these animals."
The operators of the 97-year-old Simón Bolívar zoo are consulting lawyers and appear determined not to give up without a fight. "We have been planning for our 100th anniversary, and still hope that we can celebrate that," said Bolanos.
Romanian princess alleged to be part of illegal US cockfighting ring
Irina Walker and her husband arrested with four others over claims they hosted illegal gambling at their Oregon ranch
Associated Press in Grants Pass, Oregon
theguardian.com, Friday 16 August 2013 12.19 BST
A Romanian princess and her husband, a former sheriff's deputy, are believed to be among several people who have been arrested in Oregon in connection with an alleged cockfighting ring.
Irina Walker, 60, and her husband, John Wesley Walker, 67, are accused of hosting cockfighting derbies and illegal gambling at their ranch outside Irrigon, Morrow County.
Federal prosecutors are seeking to seize the ranch, which is listed in state records as Stokes Landing Sport Horses. There was no answer to phone calls to the Walker home or the business on Friday.
The Oregonian newspaper identified Irina Walker, also known as Irina Kreuger, as a daughter of the last king of Romania. Records show John Wesley Walker was a sheriff's deputy from 1998 to 2003.
The Walkers and four other people from Irrigon and Hermiston were charged with operating an illegal gambling business. No lawyer for the Walkers or the other defendants have yet been listed in the Portland federal court records.
Twelve others from Oregon and Washington state face lesser charges of conspiracy to violate animal welfare legislation through animal fighting. They are to appear in court in Portland and Yakima, Washington.
"Cockfighting is illegal under federal law and under the laws of all 50 states," said Amanda Marshall, US attorney for Oregon. "Besides being a barbaric practice, cockfighting jeopardises public health and safety and facilitates the commission of other criminal acts."
The indictment said 10 different cockfighting derbies were held at the Walkers' ranch between April 2012 and April 2013, bringing in as much as $2,000 (£1,280) a day. Blades were attached to the birds' legs, spectators were charged admission, and food and drink was sold, the indictment said.
The exiled King Michael and Queen Anne of Romania attended the baptism of Princess Irina's daughter in Portland in 1987. At the time, she and her first husband, John Kreuger, raised horses near the southern Oregon coast.
August 14, 2013
The Hard Life of Celebrity Elephants
By ROLLO ROMIG
One hot morning in Kerala, a tropical sliver of a state along the southwestern coast of India, I took a ride to Maradu, a town of nearly 45,000, to meet an elephant named Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan. He’s a leading-man type: darkly handsome, a bit of a rogue, the star of two feature films. During Kerala’s festival season, which nowadays stretches from December to May, he never gets a day off, parading in more than 200 festivals a year. As the tallest elephant among seven at Maradu’s annual function, he would be granted the honor of carrying a golden idol that evening.
Like any star, Ayyappan has groupies; his entry on the fan Web site Star Elephants commends his “clear honey colored eyes” and “majestic look.” But the fan sites don’t mention that in 1999, after a festival in Puthunagaram, he killed two assistant handlers, known as mahouts. It wasn’t an accident: he crept up on them as they slept on the roadside, picked them up with his trunk and trampled them to death. “Any other animal that had killed a person, they would have punished him by shooting him on sight,” says Sreekumar Arookutty, the director and writer of the popular Kerala TV series “E4 Elephant.” “But elephants get a special privilege in this society. An elephant has the right to kill one mahout, or two or three.” But why did Ayyappan do it? And why did he kill only the apprentices? “Only the elephant knows,” Arookutty says. “Maybe it’s because he wants to stop a new generation of mahouts from growing up.”
The captivity of elephants in south India goes back thousands of years. At first their use was mostly practical — tanks in wartime, timber forklifts in peacetime. In Kerala, elephants have been status symbols since the feudal era, and today most of its captive elephants are owned by private individuals. And it’s the only state in India where elephants are widely used for temple festivals. When or why this tradition started is unknown — no scripture commands it — but you can imagine how it may have happened: elephants were housed at temples between battles and were gradually integrated into religious festivities. Eventually, as soldiers and loggers replaced their elephants with machines, festivals became the best way owners could turn a profit on such high-maintenance animals.
Twenty years ago, Kerala elephants would appear only at whatever festivals were within walking distance, and few elephants were famous. Now they’re trucked all over the state to the highest bidder, the price driven up every year by the enthusiasms of the superfans who form associations to honor their favorite animals, urge festival organizers to feature them and trash-talk the competition. “You call that an elephant?” they write on their rivals’ Facebook pages. “Go tie him up in the cow barn.” The fans are especially concerned with what’s called lakshanam — a term that elephantspotlight.com defines as “the sexy features of the elephants.” A fan named Sujith told me: “The ivory should be clean white. The tail should be like a brush, and the trunk should reach the ground.” (Sujith’s own favorite elephant, he said, was out of commission this season: he was hit in the hind legs by an S.U.V.)
Although most elephant festivals in India are Hindu, Kerala is unusual in that its population is a quarter Muslim and a fifth Christian, and those faiths have jumped on the elephant bandwagon, too. At a Muslim festival I went to, rowdy young men rode up and down the road throwing confetti from the 60-odd elephants they rented — some of the same elephants that carried idols at Hindu temples the day before.
The demand for elephants is skyrocketing just as the supply is plummeting. In 1982, India banned the capture of wild elephants except to protect the animal or its human neighbors, and it has been illegal to import captive elephants from other states since 2007. Despite their history in domestic situations, there’s no such thing as a domesticated elephant. Nearly every captive elephant in India was captured from the wild, and in Kerala, captive breeding is almost unheard-of, mostly because Keralites overwhelmingly prefer their elephants to be male (since they have tusks), which considerably shrinks their mating pool. When the Forest Department finished microchipping Kerala’s captive elephants in 2008, it said there were more than 700. Now the department estimates that there are fewer than 600, pressed into service at an ever-growing number of festivals.
Although Kerala’s captive elephants are controlled using force, their primary hardship isn’t the beatings. It’s how little their lives resemble what they were before they were captured. The typical wild elephant is a social, nomadic creature that bathes in rivers and spends much of its time eating as it walks. In Kerala, the typical captive elephant is a celibate male chained to one spot (sometimes for 24 hours at a time), bathed with a hose and isolated from other elephants except when working — a marginally better life than in a circus but harder than in many zoos, where the global trend is toward more-natural habitats. The animal that haunts me most is one I saw in the elephant yard at Kerala’s Guruvayur temple, one of the largest collections of captive elephants in the world. He was missing a tusk, and the remaining one had a deep groove worn into it, about a foot from the tip. Day after day he’d been using it to try to file away at his chains.
Back in Maradu, I found Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan tethered to a coconut palm in the yard of a small temple that was serving as the elephants’ greenroom. Sasi, the animal’s current first mahout, was resting under a peepal tree with a half-dozen of his colleagues. I asked him why Ayyappan killed the apprentices that night in Puthunagaram. “He definitely had some youthful mischief,” Sasi said. “This elephant does not like to be ordered about by others than its first mahout.” The current assistant mahout was there, too — a skinny 22-year-old named Hari Krishnan. Did the elephant’s history with apprentices make him nervous? “This elephant likes me a lot,” he said with a smile. Ayyappan flapped his ears nearby, restrained by two chains around his legs and one around his midriff, munching his way through a pile of caryota palm branches.
A temple official came over and said it was showtime, and the elephants and mahouts all walked down the road to the temple where the festival was happening, a two-and-a-half-acre complex complete with a field for fireworks and a long orange wedding hall. Before an audience of several dozen elephant fans, the mahouts dressed their elephants with gold-plated nettipattam on their foreheads, strings of bells around their necks and ankles and garlands of marigolds. A festival organizer told me that they rented Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan for a day rate of 65,000 rupees, more than $1,000. (Twenty years ago, that amount would have been enough to buy him outright.) The crowd grew steadily as four young men in bright white sarongs climbed each elephant and started making semaphore patterns with yak-fur brushes and peacock-feather fans. The riders’ confederates on the ground passed them a series of ever-more-colorful parasols, while 84 drummers and trumpeters raised a ruckus that sent some spectators into a kind of arm-waving trance. At some point after dark, while Mangalamkunnu Ayyappan walked the golden idol around the temple’s sanctum sanctorum, I made my own circuit around the perimeter, past rows of trinket-sellers and snack vendors who’d set up carts to cater to the festival crowd, and found that I was surrounded by tens of thousands of people.
The next day, in the nearby city of Thrissur, an anonymous informant who had been at the Maradu festival stopped by the home of V. K. Venkitachalam, an elephant-welfare advocate, to tell him what he’d seen. Venkitachalam gets a lot of impromptu visits like this: Keralites who care about elephants know him as the only person in the state who won’t stop talking about elephant torture. After confirming what the festivalgoer had told him with the Maradu Police, Venkitachalam filed a complaint with the state’s Forest Department claiming the illegal overwork of elephants and the explosion of dangerous fireworks in their vicinity. The animal-welfare laws on which his activism relies are some of the strictest in Asia. His challenge is persuading the government to enforce them.
I’d been trying to contact Venkitachalam for months, but I never got through to him until I arrived in India. “I got your e-mails,” he assured me when I showed up at his house. “I did not reply.” He is a wary man. “Many of these people say that they will kill me,” he said, referring to the organizers of elephant festivals. In 2008, he was walking across a temple parade ground when he was jumped by six thugs; he escaped, he said, only because a bus happened to stop nearby and he used the distraction to drop to the ground and roll away. To protect his secret network of informants, he never enters any contacts into his cellphone.
Venkitachalam is a handsome, deeply religious, 48-year-old bachelor with a neat salt-and-pepper beard, which he digs his fingers into as he talks. He invited me to sit on one of several old school desks in his front room, which normally hold the college students and professionals he tutors in math and accountancy 11 hours a day, 6 days a week. To the right of his bedroom, which he shares with his mother, was his prayer room. “As a Brahmin, I have to conduct three rituals a day,” he said. To the left was his library, a small room stacked to the ceiling with more than 10,000 newspapers dating to 1997. Some stacks had tabs sticking out of them reading “Fireworks Mishaps,” but most were labeled “Anaidayal”: elephant attacks.
Until 1996, Venkitachalam hadn’t given much thought to the treatment of elephants. Then a student invited him to a 45-elephant temple festival, and he was shocked to see how badly an elephant was beaten for disobeying his mahout. The following year, an elephant ran amok near his house, and he watched a crowd make a chaotic attempt to restrain him. “This elephant had scores of wounds all over its body,” Venkitachalam said. After he submitted a complaint to the district collector about the elephant’s treatment, he said, the animal disappeared. On a tip from one of his students, Venkitachalam found him tethered to a cashew tree several miles away, his condition even worse. When he returned the next day, the elephant was dead.
A friend who worked as a human rights lawyer gave Venkitachalam a piece of advice: if no one speaks up, nothing will change. Soon his free time was consumed with filing complaints about elephant abuse. During festival season, he sends on average more than a dozen a day, to the anticorruption office of the Forest Department, to the Kerala High Court or directly to V. Gopinathan, the state’s chief wildlife warden. “His network is very good,” Gopinathan told me. “And his information is almost always correct.”
Venkitachalam told me that his organization has seven members, but he refused to let me talk to any of the others. “Their names are very secret,” he said. Some are deeply involved in temple activities, and they act as his spies on the ground, eavesdropping on the conversations of temple presidents, taking notes and photographs whenever an elephant is harmed or gets out of control. His sources include mahouts, temple priests who ride in elephant processions, local commuters and his own students. On big festival days, he stands under a banana plant in his garden while neighbors and strangers stop by to tell him what they’ve seen.
The day after a festival, Venkitachalam calls his sources to confirm any tips that seem to point to a violation. Then he writes up his complaint in longhand and passes it to one of his secret partners, who types it in an e-mail to the relevant authority. He avoids using computers himself, and he says he has never watched television, though he’s been on TV hundreds of times to denounce the abuse of elephants. Such devices, he says, might sap his creativity — and besides, 10 minutes spent watching television are 10 minutes he could be using writing complaints.
Among men who deal in the selling and trading of elephants, the mere mention of Venkitachalam’s name never fails to set off a rant. They say that he’s unreasonable and prone to exaggeration or that he must be taking money from some outside sources. His devotion protects him from the most obvious charge that would be leveled against any Muslim or Christian who took on the elephant business: that it’s an attack on religion. Instead, his critics write him off because of his lack of status. “There is always a tendency for people to suppress him,” P. S. Easa, a local elephant expert, told me. “If you look at him, with his dhoti. . . .” He waved dismissively at his shirt and pants and laughed. “He’s a simple man.”
For much of the last decade, the face of elephant ownership in Kerala has been K. B. Ganesh Kumar, a popular local movie actor, politician and president of a group called the Kerala Elephant Owners Federation. As an actor, Kumar made his name playing villains and rowdies. As a politician, he has represented his home district in Kerala’s Legislative Assembly for more than a decade. And as an elephant owner, he led the opposition to an appraisal of Indian elephants put out in 2010 by the central government, known as the Gajah report. Among its recommendations: All captive elephants should become government property; their use at public functions should be discontinued and their commercial employment phased out. To Venkitachalam, the document was like an elephant Magna Carta. From then on, his organization’s primary demand has been its implementation. For the elephant owners of Kerala, it was an outrage. Under Kumar’s leadership, they organized protests against the Gajah report and lobbied government officials to shelve it.
Then in 2011, less than a year after the report came out, Kumar received a remarkable appointment: he became the state’s forest minister, thereby making him the official most responsible for the enforcement of elephant-welfare law in Kerala, even as he continued to lead the Elephant Owners Federation. Venkitachalam, naturally, complained about this apparent conflict of interest. Kumar kept his elephant but was forced to resign from the federation. A bitter rivalry was born.
A week after I met Venkitachalam, I took a train to Kerala’s capital to meet Kumar in his ministerial office. His assistant had told me that I might have to wait: the minister’s schedule was hard to foretell. His aides waited with me, none of them busy, it seemed, with anything but drinking coffee. Four hours later, the minister finally swept into the room, and the aides leapt to their feet. Kumar has dark, curly hair, a macho mustache and a weakness for loud shirts; he was wearing a shiny purple number covered with paisleys. I was surprised at how soft-spoken he was. A half-dozen of his staff members sat opposite us, laughing whenever their boss cracked a joke.
When I asked him why there’s such a fondness for elephants in Kerala, a dreamy look fell over his eyes: it’s because they’re like the sea, he said, always moving and endlessly alluring. But when I mentioned Venkitachalam, his soft speech turned sharp. “This Venkitachalam, he never gave a banana to an elephant,” he said. “If you love an elephant, you can send a complaint, but first you should feed the elephant. This fellow hasn’t even fed one banana.” (In response, Venkitachalam told me that bananas aren’t a suitable food for an elephant — they might cause constipation.)
They’ve never met, these two men battling over the fate of Kerala’s elephants, and they couldn’t be more different: Venkitachalam in his faded dhotis and worn-out button-up shirts; Kumar with his entourage and flashy get-ups. Venkitachalam has seen only one movie in his life, and then only because they made him watch it at school; Kumar has acted in three movies in the past year alone, including a Malayalam-language remake of the Sandra Bullock film “The Proposal.” Their main difference, though, arises over a decade-old set of rules concerning the treatment of elephants. Late last year, Kumar rewrote it, removing, among other things, a 26-item list of acts of cruelty against elephants, like forcing a sick or injured elephant to march long distances or making elephants play games like tug of war or football.
When I asked Kumar about the revision, he said there were no drastic changes — he got rid of only “silly, silly things; small, small things, that’s all.” Raja Raja Varma, the head of the state’s Forest Force, agreed. “When there are too many rules, you can’t do justice to them all,” he said. And fewer rules could mean fewer opportunities for corruption. O. K. A. Thampi, the treasurer of a temple in Kuzhupilly, told me that he had just paid 50,000 rupees in bribes to make his temple’s festival happen. He wouldn’t say to whom: “I want to have a festival next year too.”
These costs are often passed on to the villagers. A man in Manimala told me that members of the local temple go door to door demanding donations for their elephant festival. “If you don’t have any cash on you, they say, ‘Oh, you have coconuts on your tree, we’ll take those,’ ” he said. In Thrissur, Venkitachalam said, the donations committees will stop public buses on the road and hit up all the passengers for cash.
None of this is to suggest that Kumar is personally corrupt. He’s been steadfast in standing up to the leader of his own party, a powerful political boss named R. Balakrishna Pillai, who spent a few months of 2011 in prison on corruption charges. Almost since the day Kumar took office as minister, Pillai has called for Kumar’s resignation for not following party orders. In a twist out of a Malayalam movie, Pillai also happens to be Kumar’s father.
The minister was sanguine when I asked about the family feud. Even if he were forced out of office, he said, he’d always have a home in movies. “If I resign from the ministry, I will be known as an ex-minister,” he said. “But there is no ex-artist. An artist is always.”
One evening in January, Vijaya Kumary brought her family to a festival in Rayamangalam featuring Thechikottukavu Ramachandran, the most celebrated elephant in Kerala and perhaps the tallest in all of India. Just before sunset, the colossal animal turned on the crowd. He broke Kumary’s arm, threw her daughter against a wall, stepped on her other daughter’s leg and trampled her mother to death, along with two other women in their 60s. Kumary was calm as she described to me the carnage of that night. It wasn’t until I asked why it had happened that she began to cry. “The people responsible are the temple authorities,” she said. “I’ve never seen so many elephants in the temple. It’s because of their greed.” At the end of the path that leads to her house stood a huge poster that no one had bothered to take away advertising the festival where her mother was killed, illustrated with a life-size photograph of Ramachandran. A speech bubble pointed from his mouth: “I’m coming.”
A few months after that night in Rayamangalam, I found Ramachandran chained on a concrete platform behind the temple that owns him. I watched him for an hour, and he never stopped swaying violently from side to side, lashing out with his trunk whenever someone lingered nearby. Rajan, his latest mahout, said that it was only a matter of time before he’d be hired out for festivals again. For now Rajan was keeping his distance — he’d been on the job for only 15 days. But soon he would teach Ramachandran to obey him. He’d probably start with a beating. “Otherwise he won’t listen,” Rajan said. “That is how you train an elephant, with beatings.” A previous mahout’s beating left Ramachandran blind in one eye.
To Venkitachalam, the solution to the harm inflicted on and by elephants is self-evident: their captivity should be banned — or at the very least, elephants should no longer be used in festivals. Tradition or not, they’re wild animals that belong in the forest. But Raman Sukumar, the founder of the Asian Nature Conservation Foundation and perhaps the world’s leading expert on Asian elephants, says it isn’t that simple. Asian elephants have been on the endangered-species list since 1986, yet contrary to trends nearly everywhere else in the world, the wild-elephant population in southern India has actually been increasing over the past several decades, with elephants now living in places where they hadn’t been spotted for hundreds of years. The trouble with this is that deforestation and booming human populations have shrunk and fragmented their habitats, which means elephants are increasingly coming into conflict with humans — raiding crops, running amok in forest villages. Thirty years ago, Sukumar told me, wild elephants killed around 150 people a year across India. Today it’s closer to 500. When wild elephants exceed the capacity of their habitats, the only alternative to capturing them is culling them, which is to say, shooting them dead.
What about continuing to allow elephant ownership but banning their use in festivals? “They’d probably be in a worse situation than they are now,” Sukumar said. Without festivals, their income disappears, and their owners might not be able to afford their care. And the festivals may have another benefit. “It’s important that people think that elephants are sacred,” he said. If people associate an elephant with Lord Ganesha, they’re much less likely to kill it if it ravages their crops or to poach it for ivory. The only two countries in the world where wild-elephant populations are rebounding, he noted, are India and Sri Lanka, both places where the elephant has a religious role.
Sukumar meant none of this as endorsement of the status quo. The current approach, he stressed, is unacceptable. There needs to be a large-scale educational campaign and a total overhaul of how captive elephants are captured, trained and cared for, he said.
Venkitachalam felt sure that such a program could never happen as long as Kumar was forest minister. And then, on April 1, Kumar wasn’t forest minister. In the end, he stepped down not because of Venkitachalam’s complaints or his father’s demands, but after his wife filed domestic-abuse charges against him (which he disputed).
Two weeks after Kumar resigned, the Forest Department put into effect a new set of festival rules, banning the parading of elephants throughout the hottest hours of the day and allowing no more than three elephants at a time within a temple’s walls. The next time I saw Venkitachalam, he smiled as if the revolution had come. There were still several weeks of festivals left, including Thrissur Pooram, the biggest elephant event of the year, and he was sure that these rules would make a big difference.
Four days after the rules became official, I went to a festival in Kadungalloor to watch as a veterinarian named Abraham Tharakan checked the elephants before they were paraded. There were 10 in all — 9 for the parade, plus 1 spare — and Tharakan gave them a perfunctory exam; he was mostly checking for signs of musth, a hormonal condition that sexually mature males go through for two or three months a year. Even the gentlest elephants are liable to become volatile and unpredictable during musth; if they’re in it, they’re forbidden to work. Tharakan told me that all these elephants checked out fine.
A few minutes later, we were in the temple’s office as he reviewed the elephants’ documents with a temple official. They must have forgotten that my translator was there, because Tharakan told the official that one of the elephants, named Pampady Rajan, was “not all that O.K.” — there was swelling around his temporal glands, he told them, which is one of the telltale symptoms of the onset of musth. But when I asked Tharakan again if he’d seen any problem, he insisted he hadn’t and denied that he’d said otherwise. Even as we spoke, Pampady Rajan was parading, despite the fact that there was a replacement elephant on hand. (He’s very tall, so they were probably reluctant to lose him.) And all nine elephants were lined up inside the temple walls, despite the new rule that allowed only three, and were crammed so close together that they were leaning into each other, despite another rule that requires that they be separated by at least five yards. An official from the Kerala Festival Coordination Committee was there, and I asked him why they hadn’t followed the new law. He seemed taken aback. “It’s a general recommendation,” he said. “Not a hard-and-fast rule.”
The next day was the day before Thrissur Pooram, and I stood on the vast parade grounds that make up the center of the city, where 300,000 people would gather to watch the biggest elephant pageant of the year. I was talking to an insurance agent and a former elephant owner named C. A. Menon about the elephant craze. “If you have a good car, a Cadillac, nobody cares,” he said. “But when an elephant goes to festivals, people say, ‘Who is the owner?’ ” Menon is both a proud festival promoter and a close ally of Venkitachalam. It’s an odd combination but really just reflects how many people in Kerala feel about the elephants: conflicted.
I asked Menon if the new rules would affect the Pooram. It was supposedly forbidden now to parade elephants between 11 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., when the tropical sun is most punishing, and Thrissur Pooram always uses elephants during those hours. He said that the government had stepped in to make a last-minute exception. “Next year also there will be complaints,” he said. “But then, too, they will say, ‘Only this year.’ And on like that.”
“So they’ll make an exception every year,” I said.
Menon let out a tremendous laugh. “Every year — like that,” he agreed. “How can you stop this spectacle?”
Rollo Romig is a freelance writer in India. This is his first article for the magazine.
Editor: Samantha Henig
Argentina to boost beef production with IUD that prevents pregnant cows from reaching the slaughterhouse
By Agence France-Presse
Sunday, August 18, 2013 10:48 EDT
An Argentinian veterinarian has designed a cheap and simple device that could revolutionize cattle husbandry on the pampas by preventing pregnant cows from reaching the slaughterhouse.
Enrique Turin, a professor at the National University of Northwestern Buenos Aires, designed and is producing what he says is the world’s first bovine intra-uterine device.
He has patented his invention locally and in the European Union.
The IUD is designed for cows that have already given birth to five to seven calves, and are being fattened for slaughter.
Turin, 47, began experimenting with home-made bovine IUDs 20 years ago. Today he has a small factory built next to his home in Pergamino — 245 kilometers (152 miles) north of Buenos Aires in Argentina’s livestock and agricultural heartland — to produce the $3.00 devices.
The cheap and simple items have been a success: some 2.5 million bovine IUDs have been exported to places like Brazil — a world beef-producing giant — and Spain.
Spanish officials have even approved one of Turin’s models for use in sows, especially since the castration of boars was recently banned due to animal welfare concerns.
Cows need to reach the slaughterhouse with an empty uterus, but “that’s not the case in Argentina,” said Turin. “There’s a high percentage of females that have finished their reproduction cycle and arrive at the slaughterhouse already pregnant.”
These pregnancies affect five percent of slaughtered cows, which in Argentina — one of the world’s top beef producing countries — means about a one million animals a year.
The problem is more than ethical, because 10 kilos (22 pounds) of meat per animal can be lost because the nutrients fed to fatten the cow are instead consumed by the fetus.
With the IUD “we estimate that five percent more of beef will be produced per animal,” and considering the number of animals involved “it’s a significant figure,” said Turin.
The Argentine government has taken special interest in the invention, and this year agreed to finance the distribution of 440,000 bovine IUDs over two years to ranchers with small and mid-sized herds, said deputy Livestock Minister Alejandro Lotti.
Some 20,000 ranchers with up to 200 head of cattle will benefit from the program, Lotti told AFP.
There are currently 58 million head of cattle in Argentina, according to government figures. If widely used this IUD would revolutionize cattle husbandry on the pampas, where bulls and cows freely co-mingle.
Red meat is a staple of Argentine diet, but consumption has dropped 50 percent from 1958 to 2011.
Today average beef consumption per person is 53.4 kilos a year, down from 98.4 kilos, according to the Argentine Beef Promotion Institute, a public non-governmental institution.
Beef production has also dropped. Many ranchers sold off their herds in 2008 and 2009 in the midst of a drought and widespread complaints about government policy.
Some of those ranchers switched instead to products like soybeans, today Argentina’s largest export.
Marcos Franco, an expert on animal obstetrics and behavior at the Universidad del Salvador, is impressed by what he has seen.
“I see this as something truly revolutionary,” Franco told AFP. He views the device as a humane anti-pregnancy device that is “practically inoffensive”.
Poachers can’t get this one: Black rhino baby born in Atlanta zoo
Sunday, August 18, 2013 20:00 EDT
By Noreen O’Donnell
(Reuters) – An eastern black rhinoceros has been born at Atlanta’s zoo for the first time in the facility’s history, spurring hopes of renewed interest in the fate of the critically endangered animal.
The calf, which was born on Saturday night, appears to be healthy and bonding with its mother, Zoo Atlanta officials said on Sunday. It has not been named and its gender has not been determined.
“Not only is this a first for Zoo Atlanta, going all the way back to our founding in 1889, but this is a critically endangered species that absolutely deserves the spotlight right now,” Raymond King, the zoo’s president, said in a statement. “We hope that as we watch the calf grow up, we can spark new connections with wildlife that desperately need our support.”
The calf, which does not yet sport its species’ signature horn, was born to Andazi, a 7-year-old female, and her 9-year-old mate, Utenzi.
It was the first offspring for both after the pair were recommended for breeding by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Rhino Species Survival Plan, which seeks to maintain a genetically diverse, self-sustaining rhino population in North American zoos.
Andazi’s pregnancy was confirmed in December and viewed through an ultrasound earlier this year.
Rhinos have gestation periods ranging from 14 to 18 months. Calves are usually weaned within two years of being born, though they might remain with their mothers for up to four years.
The eastern black rhino was hunted almost to extinction, and in recent decades it has suffered near-catastrophic population declines, largely due to poaching. Its horns, skin and other body parts are believed by some to have medicinal value.
Conservation programs and patrolling of the rhino’s habitats have helped populations to increase to about 4,800 in the wild. The western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.
Black rhinos were once the most numerous of the species, according to the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, where a calf was born a year ago. Black rhinos numbered 65,000 in 1970, but the global population had dropped to 15,000 by 1980.
(Reporting by Noreen O’Donnell in New York; Editing by Karen Brooks and Paul Simao)
FDA inquires about weight-gainer Zilmax in cattle feed after industry blowback
Sunday, August 18, 2013 18:00 EDT
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said on Friday it was working with drugmaker Merck & Co and the U.S. Department of Agriculture to gather information on the cattle feed additive Zilmax and determine if it is unsafe.
The FDA, in an email response to a Reuters query, said it had received “a very small number of reports of lameness or lying down” in cattle whose feed contained zilpaterol, also known as Zilmax.
The agency said it would review any new information about the additive and would notify Merck and the public if it determined the product posed safety concerns.
The USDA had no comment and referred questions to the FDA, which does not typically reveal its investigations.
Merck said on Friday it was temporarily suspending sales of Zilmax in the United States and Canada, following concerns about the drug, which is given to cattle to increase their weight before slaughter.
Last week, Tyson Foods Inc said it would stop accepting beef from Zilmax-fed cattle after it observed animals arriving at its slaughter facilities with signs that they had difficulty walking or moving.
Merck on Tuesday revealed a new program to retrain and certify beef producers in administering Zilmax, which had sales of $159 million last year.
On Friday, K.J. Varma, the head of research at Merck’s animal health unit, told Reuters the company had not seen any safety or effectiveness issues with Zilmax beyond those observed in clinical trials before it was introduced in 2007.
The FDA, which is responsible for ensuring that drugs on the market are safe and effective, requires drugmakers to report any adverse events. “We are always interested in new information about the safety and effectiveness of approved animal drugs,” the regulator said on Friday.
Tyson Foods, the nation’s largest meat processor, said its rejection of Zilmax-fed cattle was based on animal welfare, not food safety. It said it did not know what was causing the animals’ behavior, but animal health experts have suggested the use of the weight-adding drug may be a possible cause.
Zilmax, approved by the FDA in 2006, is one drug in the class of beta-agonists, which is approved and deemed safe by the FDA and long used by the livestock industry to add muscle weight to cattle, pigs and turkey in the weeks before slaughter.
Beta-agonists have come under scrutiny in recent months over industry concerns that animals showed signs of distress and had difficulty walking after being fed the additives.
(Additional reporting by Charles Abbott in Washington and Ransdell Pierson in New York; editing by Karey Van Hall, John Wallace and Matthew Lewis)
Moscow investigates 'pigeon apocalypse'
Officials raise alert as 'zombie' birds fall to earth amid fears city may be in grip of avian ailment Newcastle disease
Alec Luhn in Moscow
theguardian.com, Monday 19 August 2013 19.27 BST
Amid reports of pigeons dying, falling from the sky and acting like "zombies," the Moscow environmental prosecutor's office has begun an investigation into what some media outlets and bloggers have called a pigeon apocalypse.
The environmental prosecutor has ordered the department of environment protection and several municipal agencies to investigate the mass deaths of pigeons and other birds in Moscow, according to the newspaper Izvestiya, which quotes Timur Brudastov, a senior judicial adviser at the prosecutor's office.
Brudastov notes that, according to the federal service for veterinary and phytosanitary surveillance, Moscow has become a "hotbed" of Newcastle disease, a bird disease that can be transmitted to humans.
"We're getting different information. Someone will write that seven birds have died in the city, while others tell us about them dying en masse," Brudastov said.
Although not all pigeons are affected, some have reportedly been acting as if drugged, stumbling and reacting slowly to humans, or else flying into the faces of passersby and falling to the ground.
"Before death, they start to resemble zombies: they lose their orientation and fly without a sense of direction, then fall, already lacking the strength to get up," wrote Konstantin Ranks, a science columnist at the website Slon.ru.
Some cases of salmonella infection had also been found in dead birds, Aleksei Alekseyenko, an aide at the Federal Service for Veterinary and Phytosanitary Surveillance, told Izvestiya. He said the combination of hot weather and the presence of an infected bird had probably led to the outbreak of disease, but added that the epidemic was already coming to an end.
Moreover, the more dangerous diseases of bird flu and parrot fever had not been found, Alekseyenko added.
One veterinarian, Natalya Anisimova, told the Russian TV channel Rain last week that her clinic had received many calls about dead birds, but such deaths happened every summer. Anisimova agreed, however, that the problem could be growing more acute because the pigeon population was growing.
Moscow has had incidences of mass bird deaths in the past, including one in 2010, which experts blamed on smog.
Some bloggers have said the pigeon fatalities mark the coming of "the end times", pointing to the tsarist-era mystic Grigory Rasputin's alleged prediction of the apocalypse on 23 August 2013, according to the newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda.
Dog’s blood used to save poisoned cat in rare inter-species transfusion
By Agence France-Presse
Wednesday, August 21, 2013 6:00 EDT
Traditional animal rivalries were set aside in New Zealand when a dog’s blood was used to save the life of a poisoned cat in a rare inter-species transfusion, reports said Wednesday.
Cat owner Kim Edwards was frantic last Friday when her ginger tom Rory went limp after eating rat poison, rushing to her local veterinary clinic at Tauranga in the North Island for help.
Vet Kate Heller said the feeble feline was fading fast and needed an immediate transfusion to survive, but there was not enough time to send a sample to the laboratory for testing to determine the cat’s blood type.
Instead, she decided to take a gamble and use dog blood to try to save the animal, knowing it would die instantly if she gave it the wrong type.
Edwards called up her friend Michelle Whitmore, who volunteered her black Labrador Macy as a doggie blood donor in a last-ditch attempt to save Rory, a procedure Heller said she had never performed before and was very rare.
“People are going to think it sounds pretty dodgy — and it is — but hey, we’ve been successful and it’s saved it’s life,” Heller told the New Zealand Herald.
Edwards said the cat appeared to have come through its ordeal unscathed, seemingly without any canine side effects.
“The vets just went above and beyond… it’s incredible that it worked,” she said.
“Rory is back to normal and we don’t have a cat that barks or fetches the paper.”
Italy and Switzerland in row over 'badly behaved' bears
Statement from Swiss canton Graubünden urges culling of 'problem' bears and starts row over what constitutes misbehaviour
Tom Kington, Rome
theguardian.com, Wednesday 21 August 2013 17.06 BST
A row between Italy and Switzerland over Italian bears that roam across Alpine borders is focusing on how the two nations define "badly behaved".
The bust up over bear etiquette started with a curt statement issued this month by the Swiss canton of Graubünden about bears wandering in from the Italian region of Trentino – where a bear repopulation scheme is under way – to forage for food, eat livestock and generally be a nuisance.
"These bears constitute an obstacle to the acceptance of this large predator by the local population," said the Swiss statement. "The culling of problem bears needs to happen when they are young, in their own territory."
Over in Italy, experts pointed out that weeding out "problem" bears in their youth would be difficult as would be agreeing with the Swiss on what constitutes misbehaviour.
"What horror!" said Rosa Marino, an official with the Italian League for the Abolition of Hunting. "Is this what is wrong with the world? A bear who wakes up hungry from hibernating, who tries to avoid meeting humans who have built on every centimetre of his territory and who eats what he can find for breakfast?"
The Swiss, who often look down their noses at what they consider the less than well-organised behaviour of Italian humans, have shown even less tolerance of unruly Italian bears, killing one specimen, known as M13, this year after it wandered into the town of Poschiavo.
One Italian expert said it was time to seek a cross-border compromise on bear behaviour before more blood was spilt.
"To confront the issue of border crossings, it is indispensible that an accord is reached under which we can establish when a bear can be considered problematic," Luigi Boitani, a professor of zoology at the Sapienza in Rome, told La Repubblica.
August 21, 2013
England: Queen’s Swan Is Barbecued and Eaten
By STEVEN ERLANGER
The charred carcass of one of Queen Elizabeth’s own swans was found on a riverbank near Windsor Castle after having been barbecued and eaten, according to the police and a charity called Swan Lifeline. The swan was one of about 200 that live on Baths Island and belong to the queen. Until 1998, under a law dating to the 12th century, killing or injuring a swan was classified as treason, and the crown retains ownership of all unmarked mute swans in areas along the River Thames. Wild swans are also protected under a 1981 act, and to injure or kill a swan — let alone eat one — is against the law. Wendy Hermon of Swan Lifeline said that “the whole breast had been removed, and it looked like it had been eaten for lunch.” There was “just a swan skeleton left,” she said. “It’s absolutely disgusting, I can’t imagine the kind of people that would do this.” She said the carcass, with its feathers still attached, was taken by her group to be cremated.