High res Ace and Christian

Ace with Christian, 1972. Photograph courtesy GAWPT.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTIAN

Christian was born on the 12th August 1969 in an unprepossessing and long closed down zoo in Ilfracombe, Devon, UK. Who could have imagined after five generations of captivity in Europe, he would be returned to Africa, and be successfully rehabilitated by George Adamson of Born Free fame?

For those unfamiliar with Christian’s story, see his website alioncalledchristian.com.au.

I am most often asked what happened to Christian. No-one knows. Christian was last seen by George Adamson in early 1973 when he was nearly four years old and was growing into one of the largest lions George had ever seen. He had survived the most dangerous years, although life as an adult lion would also always be very challenging. George thought he was looking for a territory of his own, away from the aggressive local lions of Kora. We like to think Christian created a pride of his own and lived at least the average 10 -12 years of lions in the wild.

Christian remains very popular and I continue to get many emails from nearly everywhere – often in waves from another round on Facebook, or as other countries discover him – like India more recently.

It was the posting on YouTube in 2008 of our reunion with Christian in Kenya in 1971 which brought Christian’s story back to a new and wider audience (100 million+ views), and our clip was recently listed as No. 5 on the top 20 to 1 Viral Sensations (Channel 9).

Sony bought the rights to our story in 2008. Given Christian’s enduring popularity, and the many relevant issues his life exemplifies, I am disappointed that many years have now gone by and sadly we are no closer to going into production. My feelings are exacerbated by the fact that there is such a crisis in wildlife, indeed we are at a tipping point for many species, not only lions, elephants and rhinos. Christian’s story could possibly make a contribution to generating more urgent action on behalf of animals in the hope of saving and protecting lives.

I’m relieved I’m not presently writing or commentating about the precarious state of the world which has unravelled even more dangerously than when I last blogged. We all deal with uncertainty and anxiety in different ways. I find it very relaxing living near the water, beside a National Park on the edge of Sydney.  I like to walk, garden, read, spend time with friends and family, listen to Radio National, spoil the cat, and even do some interesting work! Despite the criticisms – and the costs to Brazil and the local population, I’m loving watching the Olympic Games and am, so far, finding it life-affirming.

Leo DiCaprio GAWPT photo

Rhinos from Leonardo DiCaprio’s Facebook page. Photograph courtesy GAWPT.

GAWPT:  Leonardo DiCaprio is such a great advocate for the environment and through his Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has recently donated US$15.6 million in grants – towards wildlife and habitat conservation, to aide indigenous rights, and to combat climate change and solve environmental issues. Visit his Facebook page here.

Included among the “grantees” in Africa are the George Adamson Wildlife Preservation Trust (GAWPT)/ Mkomazi Rhino Sanctuary, and the Elephant Crisis Fund (in partnership with Save the Elephant) – both very worthy recipients.

WFA: Working for Animals has a new website www.workingforanimals.org.au primarily about the WFA animal shelters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong in India. I am on the Committee of WFA and will contribute to News and Blog items from time to time. The founder, Christine Townend, is very well known internationally for her pioneering work in animal welfare and rights, and is well informed about the most pressing animal issues and debates world-wide.

We both hope to attend the upcoming Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations (FIAPO) conference in Mumbai 21-23 October 2016. We spoke at the last FIAPO conference in Jaipur in 2014 and look forward to hearing wonderful and dedicated people talk about the successes and advances made in animal welfare in India, despite the many challenges.

WFA will continue to post information about various campaigns – and I remain especially concerned about canned hunting in Africa, and the continuing captivity of Tony the Tiger at the truck stop in Louisiana.

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Tiger in Ranthambore National Park 2016. Photograph Ace Bourke.

TIGERS:  I remain very excited about seeing tigers at close quarters in the Ranthambore National Park in India earlier in the year. On my return I watched several fascinating David Attenborough tiger documentaries, but as they were made several years ago, I hope the poaching and sale of tiger body parts and skins, and the flawed assessment of tiger numbers in the wild etc, are now more closely scrutinised and policed. Many issues conflate including the pressures of balancing sustainable tourism, competition for resources, the danger of wildlife to local villagers, and the expansion of wildlife corridors etc.

Officially, there are 2266 tigers approximately in India at present and 70% of the world’s tigers are in India. The most recent WWF survey states that 3890 tigers remain in the wild. I think seeing tigers up close reminded me of just how privileged I have been to know – and love – a big cat, and to be reminded of their magnificence, their power, and how they need us to fight – harder – for their survival.

HAPPY BIRTHDAY CHRISTIAN!

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First sighting of tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Now I am back in Sydney I can’t quite believe I saw this tigress in Ranthambore National Park, Rajasthan a week or so ago!  She has been nick-named Arrow head and is 2 years old.  Apparently she recently fought with her mother and is the age when they go off and live on their own.  Our attention was drawn to the several jeeps with tourists that had parked quite near her as she rested in rushes beside a lake.  All of us were thrilled – to be fortunate enough to sight a tiger (we had been unsuccessful on our first safari in the morning), and to just stare at the beauty of her markings and her magnificence.

I am feeling very blessed by the animal world after this recent visit to India where I was fortunate enough to see several Bengal tigers – in the wild – at very close range, and two leopards. India’s wildlife is as exciting as Africa’s – it is just sometimes more secretive, mysterious or requiring more patience.  This can lead to disappointments …or bliss.  A few years ago I only saw a tiger paw mark in Kaziranga National Park, Assam, but the compensation was seeing many elephants and rhinos on beautiful plains.

First sighting of tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Tigress in Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

There was great excitement as the tigress got up and moved closer towards us and settled in the rushes again, perfectly camouflaged.  All their markings are distinctive – and we can see why she has been nick-named “Arrow head”.  It was mid-afternoon and still quite hot.

I spoke at the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations conference in 2014 in Jaipur, and at the Minding Animals Conference at Jawaharlal Nehru University last January – so I have an idea of how much work is being done on behalf of animals in India – from the front line work of animal shelters, to all the wildlife conservancy work and related issues such as habitat destruction, wildlife tourism, protecting wildlife corridors, animal-human co-existence etc. In India and elsewhere, the academic field of Animal Studies is generating essential, diverse and often fascinating research work.

I am on the Committee of Working for Animals  which administers animal shelters in Darjeeling and Kalimpong.  Founded by Christine and Jeremy Townend, I am full of admiration for what the shelters achieve – for animals, and for the local populations.

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‘Domestic’ chained elephant, Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

I was fortunate to have lunch with Vivek Menon, Founder and Executive Director of the Wildlife Trust of India, who was about to fly to London as he was nominated for The Economist’s Inspiring Innovator of the Year.  He is the first wildlife conservator to be nominated – specifically for his work in securing, restoring and expanding corridors for elephants to prevent their accidental deaths and human-animal conflict.  These corridors are traditional migration routes.  Vivek also told me that as a result of the Minding Animals Conference last year that the WTI co-hosted, JNU is now offering an Animal Studies course.

Second tiger sighting, Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Second tiger sighting, Ranthambore. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

After the first tiger sighting recently in Ranthambore National Park, we then drove to a lake where there were many animals and birds.  This second tiger appeared unexpectedly.  With the imminent danger of a tiger, animals and birds quietly disappeared, except for a few wild boars.  This male tiger is also about 2 years old although he was bigger and heavier than the tigress we had seen earlier.  He passed quite close to us and was striking looking.  I felt quite vulnerable in our open jeep, although the tiger could not have been less interested in us. He was hunting.  We watched him for half an hour, as he quietly moved closer and closer to an oblivious solitary wild boar knee-deep in the lake.  As dusk was falling we had to leave the park and I’m glad I didn’t witness a grisly end to a magical afternoon.

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Getting closer. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

I travelled with friend and wildlife photographer Avi Gupta who took these photographs on my new Sony A6000 and familiarised me with the camera.  As these encounters with tigers are relatively rare – and often fleeting, I didn’t want to miss “the moment” of actually seeing a wild tiger – or mess up the photographs. I did take some photographs with my trusty Lumix and I’ll share these next blog.

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Wild boar and tiger. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Last year I visited the Asiatic lions in Gir, Gugarat and was lucky to see several handsome young ones.  We also saw a stunningly beautiful leopard that suddenly crossed right in front of us.  The lions have now spread out of their sanctuaries, and according to a May 2015 census, an estimated 1/3 are now living outside, establishing new territories. This obviously creates problems for villagers and their cattle.  I saw one tribal village at Gir that had been relocated to a safer position within the sanctuary – with a solar panel for a light above a well.  Fortunately, the numbers of lions continue to increase, and currently stand at 523 in the region.

Leopard in Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

Leopard in Bandhavgarh. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

We next visited Bandhavgarh National Park in Madhya Pradesh in central India where we were lucky enough to have another tiger spotting…this time more fleeting.  The number of tigers in India is estimated to be 2266 – and I have seen 3 of them!  Jeeps materialised from nowhere and the tigress aged about 4 years old strode quickly across the track.  Later, in another location, this male leopard (above) also crossed the dirt track.  Next day we saw a very similar leopard, or it may have been him again.

As tigers and leopards are solitary and elusive, the safari guides rely on hearing the warnings of danger from other animals to each other.  Spotted deer screech in a birdlike way, Sambar deer stomp their hooves, and langur monkeys cry out clamorously.

We saw many other animals including blue bulls, crocodiles, a sloth bear, and many birds, especially peacocks.

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Tree Pi bird. Copyright Avi Gupta, 2016.

As we stopped to photograph some vultures, I asked Avi why he loved birds especially?  He said “because they are everywhere”.  The Tree Pi bird actually acts as a tooth pick for tigers – a dangerous job!  Over 300 species of birds have been identified in Ranthambore National Park alone.

A small temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. Photograph Ace Bourke

A small temple at Khajuraho, Madhya Pradesh. Photograph Ace Bourke.

We also visited Panna National Park and stayed at the beautiful Ken River Lodge – overlooking the mighty river.  A proposed dam would flood this tiger reserve where 32 tigers have been introduced.  As it was raining I didn’t go on safari at 5.30am!  On the way back to Delhi we visited the famous and magnificent Hindu temples at Khajuraho some dating from AD 900.  The often erotic carvings have miraculously mostly survived intact.  Near Agra I glimpsed the shimmering Taj Mahal which I have visited several times before.

Tony the tiger

Tony the tiger

TONY THE TIGER: Tony the tiger was never far from my mind in India and I have a renewed commitment to Tony the tiger in 2016. The Animal League Defence Fund say “our advocacy for Tony remains positive and strong” but time is running out.  Please spread the word and have friends and family sign the petition to save Tony.  There are many more tigers in private hands in the USA than there are in the wild in India, and this in no way ensures – or benefits, the long term survival of these truly magnificent animals.

The tiger replaced the lion as the National Animal of India in 1973 as part of a national tiger protection programme.

David Bowie

David Bowie

VALE: David Bowie (1947-2016).  His emergence in the early 1970s had a huge influence on many of us and we are shocked by his death.  I saw him as Ziggy Stardust (above) in 1972.  We arrived in London from Australia in 1969 and this was at the tail-end of the “Carnaby Street” and “Kings Road” eras.  Bowie’s genius, originality and imagination helped change and set the tone for the next decade and beyond.  See this tribute in the NY Times here, and I liked his Confessions of a Vinyl Junkie here.

I enjoyed The Australian Tennis Open (although shocked by the match fixing allegations – even in tennis!), mid-flight I finally saw Blue Jasmine with the riveting Kate Blanchett who I had seen in A Streetcar named Desire, and I read Island Home by Tim Winton where he beautifully describes his relationship and growing awareness of our unique environment in Australia, and how it has influenced his ideas, writing and life.  We too grew up surrounded by bush and I was horrified to recently hear “children playing outside” referred to as “unregulated nature time”!  Tim Winton concludes “Aboriginal wisdom is the most under-utilized intellectual and emotional resource this country has”.

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In Ranthambore National Park, 10th Century Fort in background. Photograph Ace Bourke 2016.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Wildlife Photographer of the Year - BBC Publishing

On my return from LA, I rushed to see this exhibition on show at the Australian Museum in Sydney as it closes on the 26th April.  The exhibition, now in its 45th year,  is “owned” by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, and is designed to promote a wider awareness of wildlife conservation, and to “encourage interpretations of the natural world through art”. There is huge international participation and interest, with many categories and various age groups.

Eyes in the Oasis - Lee Slabber

Eyes in the Oasis - Photographer Lee Slabber

As the exhibition consists of the winning, runner-up and specially commended photographs, the standard is extremely high. I had read in the media that the Overall Winner was disqualified and withdrawn, (although the image is in the accompanying handsome publications) as the wolf jumping over the farmer’s fence was possibly a trained animal rather than a wild one.

The exhibition space was very dark, and with all photographs back lit, they really stood out. I felt the world was still a pristine and beautiful place, and although many images were about survival or full of drama, it was life-affirming. From close-ups of ants and locusts, to a wide variety of animals and birds, plants and landscapes. I felt inspired, refreshed, and calmed – all at once. While not the best photograph, there was a cat frightening off a much bigger fox, and of course big cats featured prominently, including a well known tiger Machali in India’s Ranthambore National Park, that has supposedly contributed $10 million to the local economy, which I hope secures her safety.

Flight of the Locust - Photographer Chris Van Rooyen

Flight of the Locust - Photographer Chris Van Rooyen

Look out for the exhibition (or Google the images) as it travels to over 60 cities around the world,  or if you are a nature photographer, enter yourself  next  year!