India

December 4, 2010

Mount Kanchenjunga the third highest mountain in the world, as seen from Darjeeling

I have had a long love affair with India, and had many adventures there.  However, I had not been back to India since I organized a cultural exchange and exhibition of Aboriginal bark paintings for the Australian and Indian Governments at the Crafts Museum, New Delhi in 1999.  Michelle Obama visited the Museum recently and loved it, and I was also very pleased to see it remained one of the great cultural institutions in India.

I had been asked to India by Christine Townend (who founded Animal Liberation in Australia in 1976) to visit two animal shelters she and her husband Jeremy started in the foothills of the Himalayas at Kalimpong and Darjeeling, a “hill station” I had always wanted to visit.

Kalimpong with mobile phone tower- there are supposedly 710 million mobile phone users in India

KALIMPONG: Kalimpong Animal Shelter (KAS) was built on an acre of land on the outskirts of the town in 1995. It is an incredibly beautiful setting with lovely trees and views.  The various buildings sit discreetly throughout the site  – the clinic where people bring their animals, shelters for animals being treated, and a variety of  accommodation for the vet and volunteers.  After the heat of Calcutta/Kolkata, the temperature was very pleasant.

My quarters and washing!

I was adopted by 3-legged dog Lolly

Kalimpong Animal Shelter Clinic with staff and vet (right)

Patient, post operation

It can sometimes be exhausting just posting a letter in India, so how Christine and Jeremy Townend have purchased land, built all the facilities, secured funding, and set up and staffed two shelters, leaves me in absolute awe, and I want to help them in any way I can.  Most importantly, with their dog programs in Kalimpong where KAS operates, the incidence of human rabies has been almost, if not completely, eliminated.  However, in the remote villages rabies remains a serious problem. The ABC (animal birth control program), has resulted in fewer but much healthier dogs.

The 'camp' set up at a village out of Kalimpong

Local patients, and their owners

One day we visited one of the “camps” that KAS routinely sets up in outlying villages where people bring their animals for examinations, treatments, sterilizations and vaccinations.  They are advertised in advance, and the vet and staff work all day.  In the towns on an ongoing basis KAS catch roaming mangy dogs, treat, spay and vaccinate them, and drop them back where they found them.  We went on several lovely walks, and Christine was always on the look out for mangy or neglected and as yet untreated dogs.  Many people bring their animals into the clinic, and there is now a much better respect and care for animals.

In India, people outside of the big cities seem to maintain a strong sense of community in their villages which many of us have lost, and they also seem to be less alienated from nature and live in close proximity to their animals, many of which they utilize – goats, cows and farmyard animals and birds.  Of course it is easy to romanticize their lives – the splash of brightly coloured saris of the women in the field, but the reality is they work extremely hard for little return, many young people leave for the cities, and lives in the villages seem untouched by the extraordinary economic progress of the last decades.

The Teesta River on the road from Kalimpong to Darjeeling

Christine Townend and me (photograph by Jeremy Townend)

After a few days in Kalimpong we drove for several hours through spectacular mountain scenery and precipitous tea plantations to Darjeeling.  Both towns are perched on ridges and steep inclines, and roads, laneways and alleys are narrow and congested, and many of the people are Nepalese and Tibetan.  I read a fascinating book that explained much of the history of this still very contested Northern Frontier region – the biography by Patrick French of the British soldier Francis Younghusband, who amongst many extraordinary explorations and exploits enthusiastically led a not very successful British invasion of Tibet in 1904.  The book was a great history lesson on India and Tibet, and the imperial ambitions of Britain, China and Russia.

Darjeeling

Darjeeling Animal Shelter

DARJEELING: The Darjeeling Animal Shelter (DAS) which opened in 2007 is on the outskirts of town, smaller and in a more urban environment, but again, an attractive site with views of the mountains and valleys.  It was Diwali (Festival of Lights), and this particular day was Kukur Tihar – Honour a Dog Day  – and all the dogs (and cats, so they didn’t feel left out) -were garlanded with marigolds and pink tikas on their foreheads.  Isn’t that a beautiful idea and celebration?  It was just so gorgeous and I fell in love with several puppies and kittens, most of whom were trying to sit on Christine’s lap at the same time.  Again, all the staff were so friendly and the animals so lovingly and beautifully looked after.

HOW CAN WE HELP?: The resident vet is leaving after several years and going to the USA, and Christine and Jeremy Townend will soon need a vet urgently.  Does anyone know a vet who would like to volunteer?  I can assure them it would be the proverbial experience of a lifetime!  The Animal Shelters have the most loyal international supporters and donors.  Animaux Secours (Arthaz France) have provided core funding for Help In Suffering (HIS) and KAS since their inception, and One Voice (France) funded the building and running costs of DAS.  But any donations are most welcome, indeed necessary!  I’m going to make a donation to feed some of the dogs not adopted out that live at the shelters, like three-legged Lolly.  To view Christine’s Working for Animals Inc see: www.workingforanimals.org.au . 

Christine was Managing Trustee (and later Chair of Trustees) of the HIS Animal Shelter in Jaipur, and she and Jeremy Townend lived and worked there for 17 years.  They are now involved in the founding of the HIS Camel Rescue Centre on the outskirts of Jaipur, and I hope to visit next year. 

Two Puppies Thinking by Christine Townend

ASSAM: From Bagdogra I flew to Guwahati in Assam to visit the Kaziranga National Park.  The well known Wild Grass Resort sent a car to meet me, but I don’t recommend the mad 5 hour drive on a congested National Highway in darkness.  The owner of the hotel is interested in many aspects of plant and wildlife conservation, the preservation of local customs and traditions (local villagers dance each night for the visitors), and he is even a poet!  His son is writing a PhD at Oxford University on elephant and human conflict.  A warning – they don’t take credit cards, and you are a long way from any ATMs!

Wild Grass Resort

KAZIRANGA NATIONAL PARK: Covering 1002 square kilometres, the park consists of beautiful grasslands, wetlands and woodlands.  For several days I was driven to the different sections of the park and saw the Indian one horned rhinoceros of which there are several thousand and the park has successfully conserved.  I also saw Asian elephants, wild buffalo, swamp deer and rhesus monkeys.  There are nearly 500 different birds and the park is a favourite with twitchers.  It was extremely pleasant there, but it is hard to compete with the more exotic animals of Africa.  However, as part of an Indian experience, it is definitely worthwhile.  I have recently been sent a gruesome video of rhinos with their horns hacked off, and poaching in the Park is a great problem.  Two poachers were shot dead just after I left.

Rhinoceros Unicornis

TIGERS: There are also approximately 30 tigers in the Park, and they are rarely seen.  A tiger footprint in the mud was as close as I got to one.  It was gratifying to read lately that Leonardo DiCaprio has pledged $1 million to save tigers.  There are 39 tiger sanctuaries in India, and 8 more reserves wil be set up over the next 6 months.  This comes at a price however. Leopards are usually displaced by tigers, and the Soliga tribal people, for example, who have always lived in the forests sustainably and harmoniously and are not frightened of tigers, are currently resisting offers of compensation to be relocated elsewhere.

Unfortunately, these elephants are tethered and used for riding

CHRISTIAN: Christian’s story is not well known in India, and I only mentioned it once.  My young guide was very knowledgeable about animals, and when I said I had been lucky enough to meet George Adamson in Kenya and spend time with him and his lions, he had never heard of George, and was completely uninterested. When I left I gave him my favourite book – Christian the Lion’s scrapbook, and shyly pointed me out, explaining it was 40 years ago.  He flipped through it in a desultory way in a few seconds and then, without commenting, rolled it like a newspaper, and that was it!  So I still don’t know how Indians would react to Christian’s story – although as many worship Ganesh the Elephant (amongst many other gods), Christian’s story could capture their imagination.

READING: While I was there I reluctantly began reading Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book.  My father had always loved him and I wondered what influence, if any, it had had on me and my sister as children.  It was riveting – what a storyteller!  I was very moved by Mowgli and his adoption then rejection by the wolves, then villagers, and absolutely terrified reading about Rikki-tikki-tavi the mongoose and his battle with the cobras Nag and Nagaina.  I am now very curious about Kipling.  I know he spent his early childhood in India, but where did his extraordinary empathy for animals come from?

CLIMATE CHANGE: At first I saw no reference to climate change, now customary in our newspapers.  However, over the nearly three weeks I was there, I read references to the need to curb pollution, and for energy and emission efficiency.  There were reports about “unscientific” mining and related water contamination, and the bleaching of coral reefs.  The recent India International Trade Fair in New Delhi had as it’s theme “energy efficient technologies and green products”.

In Mumbai there was concern and promised government action over the ecological imbalance caused by the destruction of mangroves.  There are many animal welfare organisations, and in addition to great concerns about tiger numbers, there is the serious problem of elephant/human conflict, and the number of deaths due to shrinking habitats and the encroachment or blocking of traditional elephant corridors.  An elephant was killed and another seriously injured on a railway track where 7 elephants died a few months ago.  On a lighter note, Pamela Anderson arrived to appear in Bigg Boss, a controversial reality show.  The crowd at the airport “snowballed into a mob” which understandably terrified her.  I didn’t realise we were fellow animal activists – she is a vegetarian, is an advocate for PETA and clean water (she brought water filters), and had written to the Prime Minister about examples of cruelty to animals in India.

How India juggles so many such seemingly impossible obstacles so marvellously astounds me – more next blog!

The sun setting on Mount Kanchenjunga

 
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Happy Birthday Christian

August 12, 2010

Last visit to Christian 1972

Christian was born 12th August 1969. This is my favourite photograph of me with Christian, and I don’t think it has ever been seen before. I was not aware of it until a friend gave it to me in London last year. I cried. As it is 1972 it was probably taken by Tony Fitzjohn, now the Field Director for the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust.  It turned out to be my last visit and we never saw him again.

Sometimes I could read Christian’s eyes and mind and I could feel extremely connected to him, and sometimes I found him totally impenetrable, and I was completely irrelevant. This photograph for me sums up the bridge or link between humans and animals that Christian has now come to represent to many people. It also illustrates other factors that many of you have written to me about – “love” and “trust”, both in relation to Christian, and your own animals.  I’m very grateful for you expressing your emotions so beautifully and sharing them with me.

I’M READING: Christine’s Ark by John Little about an extraordinary Australian woman Christine Townend, a founder of Animal Liberation in Australia (with Peter Singer), and who then ran with her husband an Animal Shelter in Jaipur, India, for over 17 years. I have been lucky enough to meet her lately and I am going to visit their two animal shelters near Darjeeling in India in early November. I will blog much more about their marvellous work, and help if I can. Check them out – www.workingforanimals.org.au.  I think Christine Townend is an example of what the world needs badly – individuals that do not just accept the status quo and do something  personally about it, and make an extraordinary difference.

I have been fascinated by another Australian, Julian Assange, who also decided to act – against government dishonesty and the misrepresentation in the media of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He created WikiLeaks – and recently uploaded many thousands of confidential US Government reports to show the real situation and the number of civilian deaths. Perhaps people, so badly failed by our leaders, are taking action themselves – and much of it through the opportunities the internet provides. In this case I fear his disclosures will have people killed in retaliation, and that he will be killed himself.

A mother Australian Sea Lion sniffs her pup. Photo Benjamin Pitcher SMH

I’M WATCHING: everything on our nerve- wracking if nearly farcical election, and David Attenborough’s new documentary series Life – a welcome antidote. My cat particularly liked the snakes, unlike me. Her brother prefers the computer and the mouse to television.

ETS

In the election we have the choice between an Opposition leader who is on record as saying “climate change is crap” with a pretend policy, and a dithering Government who did try and get the ETS legislation through parliament (blocked by the Opposition and the Greens can you believe), and now want to create “community consensus” through a Citizens Assembly! This was greeted with the derision it deserves. In fact 62% of the community WANT action and ex PM Rudd’s credibility crumbled on his shelving of this legislation.

Delay just means everything will be much harder and more expensive to turn around in the future. Other countries like Germany and China are seizing the new economic opportunities that are presenting themselves and a price on carbon is essential to stop uncertainty and to encourage investment in alternate and renewable energies.

I did secretly wonder, given the precarious global financial and economic situation, was it a good or bad time to introduce an ETS? A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald (4/8/10) did quote the Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz as saying while he was pessimistic about the prospects for the global economy, strong policies to curb carbon emissions and a high carbon price could also help restore growth, and provide certainty for investment.

Bushfires in Russian, floods in Pakistan… and the recent State of the Climate 2009 Report illustrates how we have just had our hottest year in 2009 here in my State, and Australia’s second warmest year since 2005. It was good to see the exoneration of the scientists crucified by the climate skeptics who successfully stalled the global momentum for action over a few careless inaccuracies in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

GOOD NEWS: the BP oil well seems capped in the Gulf of Mexico, although the damage will remain for decades, and remember the threat to the Ozone layer and the hole above Antarctica? With the banning of CFCs, there is now optimism about slow long term recovery.

DON’T MISS:  We have been very fortunate to have  a unique exhibition of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz  from the Lake George years at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Described as “America’s greatest photographer” these beautiful photographs from the 1910s-1930s rarely travel, and include of course photographs of Georgia O’Keeffe, New York, and fascinating photographs of exhibitions at Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery including the first exhibitions in America of Picasso, Braque and Brancusi. The exhibition closes 5th September.

ANIMAL RIGHTS

The visit to Australia by American lawyer Joyce Tischler has focused attention on the huge growth and interest in Animal Rights. There seems to be a growing concern especially about the conditions pigs and chickens endure in relation to food production, and a determination to end some very cruel practices.

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/this-little-piggy-went-to-market-20100806-11oi8.html

STATISTICS: 3000 pygmy hippos are left in the wild (and a new baby at Taronga Zoo), and the most exhaustive stocktake of life in the world’s oceans so far, the Census of Marine Life, found more than 230,000 species lived in 25 marine regions around the world, and Australia contains more than 33,000 known species of which 58 are threatened.

GARMA

One year I must attend the Garma Festival in northern Australia, where this year there is a stated commitment to education for indigenous people. The festival is a good reminder of just how strong traditional Aboriginal culture remains in central and northern Australia, and the difficulties inherent in biculturalism and living in two often competing worlds. How do you fully participate in mainstream Australia as entitled when you live in very remote small communities with a strong traditional culture and few economic opportunities? Fortunately, many Australian Aborigines are  extremely good artists and this has provided livelihoods, and their best ones, like the late Emily Kngwarreye and Rover Thomas, have been fascinating the global art world for several decades.

Aboriginal dancers at the Garma Festival last year