Goa. Photograph by Fionna Prins.

                      Goa. Photograph by Fionna Prins.

INDIA: Having returned to India again for a second conference with people concerned about animal welfare, animal rights and animal studies, it was lovely to see some of the same people again. One was Fionna Prins and I love this photograph of the front steps of her house in Goa.  She and her partner seek out dogs in need, and don’t believe in cages and rules. They house up to 30 dogs. See www.strayassist.blogspot.in.  I also love this photograph of the dogs on a daily walk.

Walking with the pack. Photograph Fionna Prins.

             Walking with the pack. Photograph Fionna Prins.

If it weren’t for the summer heat and the monsoon, and my family and cats, I’d move to India too! I have just loved spending the last few weeks there –from attending a very interesting Animal Studies Conference in Delhi, to seeing Asiatic lions in the Gir National Park, southern Gujarat, lolling in a lovely hotel in Mumbai watching the Australian Tennis Open and catching the Delhi Art Fair before flying home.

Ace and Yuan Chih at MAC3 New Delhi

                  Ace and Yuan Chih at MAC3 New Delhi

MAC3: Minding Animals Conference 3 in Delhi was co-organised by Minding Animals International and the Wildlife Trust of India and hosted by the Jawaharlal Nehru University. The campus itself stretches over 1,000 acres and hosts an astonishing array of wildlife, including rare and endangered plants and animals, many birds, and packs of dogs that reminded us of why we were there. People came from all over the world, most with academic backgrounds, and there was a strong Australian contingent. Very valuable information was exchanged, important links were made, and global networks expanded.

Over 8 days we had many choices of a wide variety of presentations, discussions and debates with Animal Studies now a large field. Topics ranged from discussions about concepts of sentience in animals (see sentiencemosaic.org and D.M. Broom’s Sentience and Animal Welfare), to the prominence animals in Indian life, religion and, mythology – also in Jainism,Confucianism and Buddhism. Softies like me were all at the presentation by Jessica Walker from New Zealand on Behavioural Responses of Dogs and Cats to the Loss of an Animal Companion.

Yuan Chih (above), a great fan of Christian, spoke about Beast Film – in 1930s Shanghai in Chinese cinema.  See her blog (in Chinese here).  Margot Decory spoke about the work of AAP Rescue Centre for Exotic Animals which is about to open a centre in Spain primarily for lions and tigers and other animals rescued from the exotic pet trade.  This a subject close to my heart!  TRAFFIC India report that keeping wild animals in India is rising steeply.  AAP endorse a Positive List of animal species that are suitable as pets. See here and here.

The Earthfire Institute in America is “nestled” on 40 acres in the Yellowstone-to-Yukon Wildlife corridor.  They rescue and save the lives of animals such as bears, wolves, cougars, bison, coyotes etc.that can never be released into the wild. See www.earthfireinstitute.org.  Possumwood Wildlife also run a self funded recovery centre and sanctuary outside of Canberra, Australia, for injured and traumatised Australian Native animals.

While I loved listening to these people that work directly with animals, I was also fascinated by the valuable and fascinating research so many academics are doing.  I especially love the way so many at the conference now speak not only about the exploitation, rights and welfare of animals, but are now seeing the animal’s point of view and asking – how can their lives be enriched?

There was a great deal of information about Asian elephants.  There are approximately 35,000-50,000 Asian elephants in the wild and range over 13 countries. 13,000 are in captivity.  Co-existence and human/animal conflict was a recurring theme of the conference.

Kim Stallwood spoke about the extremely tragic story of an elephant called Topsy who was publicly electrocuted in New York in 1903.

Topsy

                Topsy

I finally met Australian vet Andrew MacLean, renowned from his work with horses.  He spoke about his Humane Approach to Captive Elephant Training. Andrew now conducts workshops in India and has worked closely with Elephant Experts and their President, Helena Telkanranta.  Helena spoke about her experiences in Nepal in Facilitating changes in public policy in relation to training and management of captive elephants.  She illustrated how changes to behaviour can be introduced with tactful community consultation.  Helena said she loved Christian’s story when she was young, but it was Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man which inspired her to also work in the field of animal studies.

Christine Townend, Andrew Maclean and I also attended a talk by Peter Singleton on the use of whips in horse racing in NSW, Australia. If padded whips are not cruel, why is their use restricted? Andrew pointed out to us that most race horses extend their stride as they battle to the finishing line. The use of the whip actually makes horses tighten up, and their stride in fact shortens. Why not ban the whips and have a completely level playing field?

The ABC has just shown a program with undercover footage showing the use of “live baiting” to “blood” greyhounds.  This has led to a huge public outcry at this very cruel practice, and will now no doubt be part of the debate over the attempt by the government to introduce “ag-gag” laws.

Now based in Australia, Clive Phillips from the University of Queensland gave a very definitive paper on the The Animal Trade, a topic very relevant to Australians with our controversial live cattle exports.

There was a fact filled – and alarming – paper by Chaitanya Koduri of PETA (India) titled Fighting Climate Change With Vegan Foods in Our National Climate Change Policy. Koduri writes “Animal-based products (meat,milk,eggs and leather) are highly resource-intensive, inefficient and polluting.  Their production requires massive amounts of water, land, and energy.  Land is being cleared for farmed animals and the crops to feed them”. Meat is the new coal!

An estimated 51% of worldwide gas emissions are attributed to agriculture.  Many people see going vegan as now essential, and a vegan diet “can reduce the amount of green house gases your diet contributes to climate change by 60%”.

My transition to vegetarianism has been relatively easy (and enjoyable), and the all-vegan food at the conference was delicious!

Asiatic Black Bear aka 'Moon Bear'. Photograph courtesy Animals Asia.

Asiatic Black Bear aka ‘Moon Bear’. Photograph courtesy Animals Asia.

BEARS: It was great to finally meet Jill Robinson of Animals Asia Foundation who has rescued over 400 bears so far from the torture of bear bile farming in China and Vietnam. She has worked and campaigned very effectively against all animal cruelty and is creating sanctuaries with the help of 300 enthusiastic staff. She attracts a high level of celebrity (and other) support, and advocacy and activism were another theme of the conference.

Although I often doubt that photographs of animals in distress or bloody operations are conducive to soliciting support, I think I make an exception with photographs of the bears caged for bile extraction. I think these images can only galvanise necessary action. Incidentally, I was interested to know that the bile (unlike rhino horn used as a supposed aphrodisiac) is actually beneficial for some ailments. The bile can be replicated by equally effective alternatives such as herbs.

In her talk Jill remarked that “all wild animals are unpredictable”. I’m not sure George Adamson would entirely agree.  Of course all humans are unpredictable so why should animals be any different? But George loved lions for their capacity for love and trust – rather steadfast qualities. He created a neutral space around him where lions and humans could co-exist peacefully. I can only remember him saying (or writing) that lions can be “unpredictable” (and most dangerous), during the frustrations of adolescence. This was apparently true of Christian in Africa, although when younger we found him very predictable. He had a very even-nature and was not easily spooked. We tried to anticipate any potential trouble, disguise limitations, and minimise any frustrations. Elephant Experts’ Helena Telkanranta told me “elephants are not unpredictable if you know them”.

Christian the Lion. 1972.

                                 Christian the Lion. 1972.

I showed the 2009 documentary made by Blink Films A Lion Called Christian. You can watch a clip of it here. I’m always a bit shy in the company of very bright academics and wildlife experts, but Christian’s story usually dissolves my reservations. I was also part of the After-Dinner concluding night entertainment – tasked to leave the conference on a high note! This was quite a responsibility out on a cold windy concourse on a wintry Delhi night. I spoke after a singer of Bollywood songs. I was introduced by Christine Townend who is so highly respected for her work for animals over a long period of time in India (Help in Suffering in Jaipur and now Working For Animals who run shelters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong). I showed some photographs of Christian and told a version of his life with a different emphasis to the documentary many people had seen days before. There was a power break-down – and, shock horror, I had to improvise.  However, I had complete faith in Indian ingenuity and within minutes we were back on track. I was followed by traditional Indian dancers and I was enjoying them until they drew me into their dance. I’m sure I was all over Indian Facebook looking ridiculous.

Diu: harbour shot

                               Diu, southern Gujarat

To visit the Gir National Park to hopefully see some Asiatic lions, I avoided a long train trip and flew via Mumbai into Diu (Jet Airways).  Although smaller and poorer than Goa, Diu shares  a Portuguese history and is also attractive. It was a major port from Africa in the 14-16th centuries, and a little inland, there is still an entirely African community.

Diu – laneways shot

Diu

The beaches in Diu were quite beautiful but the water looked brownish.  Australians are spoiled for beaches and I don’t lie in the sun!  I stayed in the old town on the harbour with moored fishing boats flying colourful flags, marvellous Portuguese-influenced colonial buildings and houses, crumbling mansions, garish new ones, and mysterious small laneways. I asked a driver why there wasn’t one interesting shop (ie antiques, jewellery, textiles etc), and he said people only come to Diu from “dry” Gujarat to drink! There are acres of land covered in stagnant sea water which does not augur well for the future.

Indian Mammals A Field Guide by Vivek Menon (Hachette India)

Indian Mammals A Field Guide by Vivek Menon (Hachette India)

ASIATIC LIONS: Vivek Menon, the charismatic head of the Wildlife Trust of India and renowned wildlife expert and author was alarmed when I said I hadn’t booked a permit online for a safari at the Gir National Park in southern Gujarat. The usually infallible Lonely Planet Guide implied you could just as easily get a permit once there, after an under two hour drive from Diu. This is not the case. After an anxious first day at my unhelpful hotel at Gir (luckily the Australian Open Tennis was on), I finally did secure a permit for a 3pm safari the next day after queuing for 3 hours from 12 midday for one of the only 15 permits allotted in person.

Asiatic Lions

                                          Asiatic Lions

Most visitors are there to see the Asiatic lions that once roamed from Syria to eastern India. By the late 1890s only approximately 50 lions remained. Now there are over 400 in Gir, an overpopulation for animals that range over wide territories.  This is just one of many complexities. Kausik Banerjee gave a paper at the conference on the Recovery and Future of the Asiatic Lion in India.  There are debates about relocating some of the lion population elsewhere.  However, many issues facing the local communities are being resolved – such as cattle loss compensation, the relocation of at risk tribal villages, and creating and expanding wildlife corridors.

I saw 2 lions!  I pretended to be blasé about any sightings – but it was exciting. They were about 20 metres away under a tree and one was stirring in the late afternoon after sleeping through the hottest hours of the day. They were about 3 years old and looked handsome and healthy. They have less mane than African lions. One had a look of intent on his face and stealthily moved out of sight. I hoped he wasn’t going to kill one of those pretty spotted deers.

Then I was extremely lucky when a leopard crossed the path of our vehicle about 10 metres away and wandered quite confidently down towards the river. The leopard was extremely beautiful and her “spots” included very distinctive circular markings.   Apparently she was about 2-3 years old and the guide said had not seen a leopard in his last 30 safaris. Other animals included monkeys, many deer, large horse-like blue bulls, a rare owl, coyotes and the quite fluffy mongoose with crimped looking finely spotted fur.

Bengal tiger

                                           Bengal tiger

TIGERS: It was very heartening to read that the numbers of Bengal tigers are increasing after approaching a very concerning low population estimated at under 1500 in 2006. A subsequent reintroduction program in Panna Tiger Reserve, for example, has seen a 30% increase in numbers to 2226 tigers.

Most of the usual factors are at play here: habitat destruction and competition for resources, human/animal conflict, and poaching, with 20-25 tigers lost each year. Villagers are becoming more actively involved in the conservation process.

TONY THE TIGER: Read the latest update here.  We are asked to “keep roaring” and to keep Tony in the public eye – especially by social media.

WORLD: ISIS still casts a long shadow on the world, and I thought Thomas Friedman’s article on Islam and Islamophobia in The New York Times (read here) was interesting. It seems so little has been done in European countries like France to integrate or provide opportunities for so many potentially disenfranchised  immigrant youths.

I watched Stephen Spielberg’s extremely sobering documentary on the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Jews from Auschwitz.

I can understand why Jews are so determined to secure themselves in Israel, but after their own tragic history, I just can’t understand why they privilege themselves above Palestinians?

It was such a relief to not hear one word about our Australian government and PM Abbott while I was away. I was back in time to witness his leadership unravelling, even within his own party.  It is mostly his own fault.  Abbott is disastrously unpopular with the electorate after breaking so many election promises and trying to implement a manifestly unfair budget. I’d enjoy the Schadenfreude if our country wasn’t being so badly governed.

Bourke Parakeet

       Bourke Parakeet

BIRDS: When I booked into my hotel in Mumbai (where I watched most of the last week of the Australian Tennis Open), the staff asked how to pronounce my name. The concierge spoke up confidently “BERK”. I asked him how he knew and he said he bred Bourke’s Parakeets…”same name”.  I replied “it is actually MY name – the birds are named after my great great great grandfather”. (Richard Bourke was Governor of NSW 1831-1837). He showed me photographs of his Bourke Parakeets – now “mutants” come in bright yellow and fluoro pink!

Mumbai staged their 11th Bird Spotting Race.  Like many similar events now staged around the world, teams are sent out to help in the mapping of avian species, and invaluable data on a scale unimaginable just a few years ago is collated for research.

Marine Drive, Mumbai, from my hotel

               Marine Drive, Mumbai, from my hotel

GLOBAL MARCH FOR LIONS: Let’s support lions on March 14th.  In Sydney we are asked to meet at 11am Saturday outside Parliament House, Macquarie Street, to walk to the Sydney Town Hall.  In Melbourne, there is an event  in Federation Square on Friday 13th at 6pm that promises “a historic moment” and “night of celebration”!  See the details below.

Check your local details…let’s join others all over the world and do something to stop farmed lions and canned hunting.

global march for lions

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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