Friday, October 16, 2009

God Bless You All

This may be my last broadcast, although I pray to God for his help and blessing in this, my hour of greatest need.

The squirrels are massing at the border, too numerous to count, and filled with a diabolical vigour. At night I can hear their tiny claws scrabbling at the fence. By day they sit in the treetops, counting my guns. Gun. Counting my gun. Even a squirrel can count to one.

I fear I brought this on myself. Enraged by the squirrels’ lust for the sweet roots of my begonias, I bought an air rifle and spent a few happy afternoons getting my eye in. On day three, I shot my first squirrel, from my sniper’s eyrie – the bathroom window.

Since that morning I have killed at least a dozen, and yet still they come. I will keep transmitting for as long as I can. Do not try to help us – save yourselves. May God bless you all.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

The Aye-Aye (Daubentonia madagascariensis)

Let’s face it, most of us have self-image problems, but nothing like those that must afflict the aye-aye. The hapless omnivore is in decline at least partly because it is quite likely to be killed because of the way it looks. A harsh fate, indeed, but there’s no doubt that the aye-aye is one of the strangest creatures on the planet.

Early naturalists had trouble making up their minds just what species it belonged to, and for a while believed it to be a rodent, because of its huge front teeth. In the end they gave up and awarded it a genus of its own, so it’s official - there’s nothing else like the aye-aye.

The aye-aye is scruffily be-furred, with huge, bat-like ears, a bushy tail and eyes like saucers. A piece of evolutionary whimsy has given it an unnaturally long and thin middle finger, up to three times as long as the others. The animal uses this elongated digit to tap the tree bark to locate grubs and insects and then hook them out, having first chewed a hole with those impressive front teeth.

As if the destruction of its habitat wasn’t enough to contend with, the aye-aye falls foul of the same fady which, at least in theory, afford the indri some protection. For the aye-aye, however, it’s all bad news.

To a degree the creature brings it on itself, because apart from anything else it can be a bloody nuisance. Like many other Madagascan animals it has too much self-confidence for its own good. It will stroll nonchalantly into a village and help itself to coconuts, mangoes, lychees or even eggs. No wonder the Malagasy view it with irritation.

But it’s much, much worse than that. In most rural areas on the island the aye-aye is thought to be a harbinger of evil which should be killed on sight. Reactions to the creature can be extreme. The Sakalava people, allegedly, believe that aye-ayes sneak into houses at night and murder the sleeping occupants by using that long, thin middle finger to stop their hearts.

Garbutt reports that in some areas, if an aye-aye enters a village the response is to kill the animal, burn down the village and move on. A harsh fate, one might think, for a creature whose only crime is to look like a large squirrel that’s been shot from a cannon.

For all its uniqueness, Madagascar’s wildlife is facing the many of the same problems as endangered species all over the world. Agricultural techniques which worked without too much damage to the environment when there were fewer people are proving disastrous now that the island’s population is approaching 20 million.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Madagascar (Part Three)

The Indri (Indri indri)

Early settlers were – perhaps understandably – uncomfortable with the prospect of sharing the island with primates the size of gorillas, and upheld new-settler tradition by systematically slaughtering them all. As a result of this attrition, the indri is now the largest lemur on Madagascar.

The creature’s name comes from one of those pleasing misunderstandings which show that naturalists can be just as reassuringly dim as the rest of us. In this case it was Frenchman Pierre Sonnerat who failed to spot that, in the native Malagasy language, ‘indri’ just means ‘there it is’. You’d have thought M. Sonnerat might have overheard the phrase before in other incidents involving shouting and pointing, but perhaps he had other things on his mind.

The correct local name for the indri is babakoto, which translates as ‘ancestor’. Indri have traditionally been protected by taboos, or fady, because of their perceived resemblance to the sacred forebears of the Malagasy.

It’s the indri’s human-like behaviour, including a predilection for early-morning sunbathing – eyes closed, legs crossed, plams of the hands offered to the sunshine – and a complex system of communication calls involving roars and wails with a range of up to two kilometres, that backs up this resemblance.

It may sound as if the indri has a pretty easy time of it compared with some of its compatriots, but of course it’s not as simple as that. There’s not much consistency across the island when it comes to belief systems, and the fady which supposedly protect the indri vary widely from one area to another. In one location it may be taboo to eat an indri, but not to catch one and sell it to someone whose beliefs allow them to put in the pot.

In almost every case Madagascar’s endangered species are victims of agricultural policy. The slash-and-burn techniques, which give temporary viability to poor soil, reduce natural habitat by destroying forests and expose the soil to erosion, damaging hillsides and silting up lakes.

With its natural habitat in decline, Madagascar’s wildlife is increasingly forced into unwelcome contact with humans. As in most other parts of the world, this is almost entirely disastrous for the animals.

Imagine the scene. A Malagasy peasant – possibly the same one who shot the jumping rat earlier, possibly not – is trudging home after a long day, tired, hungry and starting to become a little unnerved by the forest’s lengthening shadows. There might be evil spirits in these parts, or so his granddad used to say.

And then he sees it, clinging to a tree in front of him, picked out by the beam of his torch. It’s a creature so weird and unnatural that he lets out a scream of terror. Then he feels silly. He looks again. The animal is regarding him with malice and a hint of mischief from enormous eves. Then, as he stands transfixed, the creature raises a long middle finger and flips him the bird.

Coming next - the Aye-Aye

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Madagascar (Part Two)

Thanks to gentle nudging from a man in Iowa, here's the fossa...

The Fossa
(Cryptoprocta ferox)

Despite looking like a cross between a dog and a puma, fossa are actually members of the viverrid family – a group which includes the mongoose. They’re efficient predators, and aren’t at all fussy about their diet. Fossa will happily dine on insects, reptiles and rodents, and are agile enough to take to the trees to go after lemurs.

Near villages, fossa will also prey on chickens and other domestic animals, and as a result are hunted as vermin. In Malagasy folklore it is often claimed that fossa will attack cattle or even humans, but this seems unlikely. They do, however, have a reputation for unpredictability – there are stories of fossa wandering fearlessly into field camps, ransacking unoccupied tents, chewing boots and eating the soap.

It seems likely, however, that the real reason the animals are unpopular with the Malagasy is that fossa have great sex and people are just jealous. Firstly, the unrepentantly shameless females will sometimes mate with up to eight males a day, and both males and females are pretty enthusiastic.

Naturalist Nick Garbutt writes: “Copulation is noisy, with both sexes purring, snorting and shrieking, and, if uninterrupted by other males, can last several hours.” More often than not they do it in the branches of a tree, which is really just showing off. Fossa cubs stay with their mothers for around twelve months, meaning that females mate only every other year, which explains their joyous promiscuity when they finally get the chance.

Madagascar has a long history of interference from the outside world – the Arabs established trading posts as far back as the 7th century, the first European contact came in the 1500s in the shape of the Portuguese, and the island didn’t gain full independence from France until 1960.

Despite this, Madagascar’s indigenous culture has proved fairly robust and over half the Malagasy still practice traditional religious customs – the rest of the population are mainly Christian, with Moslems making up around ten per cent of the total.

Traditional religion in Madagascar emphasises links between the living and the dead. During the ceremony of ‘turning the dead’ - famadihana in the local language – the bodies of deceased relatives are taken out of their tombs, dressed up in nice new shrouds and carried around over the heads of the crowd for a while with much singing and dancing before they’re put back. Of the Christian clergy, the dour and repressed Protestants condemn the practice, while the Catholics, being fond of a good party, will often join in.

The Malagasy believe that their ancestors are deeply concerned with the activities of their decendants. They also, apparently, believe that their ancestors were covered in thick black fur with round, tufted prominent ears, yellow-green eyes and a bemused expression.

Next - the Indri

Monday, January 26, 2009

Madagascar (Part One)

I'd pretty much forgotten about this - I wrote it a while back as a college assignment. (My tutor didn't think much of my sense of humour and gave me a C. Miserable bitch.) It runs to a little over 2500 words, so I'll post bits over the next week or so. I have yet to sell it in anywhere...

The island of Madagascar lies in the Indian Ocean off the coast of East Africa. On a map it looks, in the words of writer and naturalist Gerald Durrell, “like a badly presented omelette.” About the size of France, it’s the fourth largest island in the world – Greenland, New Guinea and Borneo are the top three – and is home to over 200,000 species, 80 per cent of them unique to Madagascar, and many of them in danger of extinction.

Whether we like to admit it or not, there are some species whose endangered status comes as no surprise. These are the creatures which somehow managed to find a quiet, secluded spot to hide while natural selection went blundering past. Through a combination of a fortunate location and a lack of competition from animals which are just, well, better at being animals, they have managed to survive, and in some cases even to prosper until fairly recently in evolutionary terms.

Until around 160 million years ago, Madagascar was attached to the African mainland – part of the super-continent Gondwanaland, which also contained Africa, South America, Australia, Antarctica and India. As the continent broke up, Madagascar began to move away from Africa. The first lemur-like primates surfaced on the mainland about 60 million years ago and crossed to Madagascar soon after.

By the time monkeys appeared as the bright, confident, competitive new kids on the block, a mere 17–23 million years ago, the island was far enough east to be isolated and its wildlife safe from their attentions.

Madagascar’s diverse and teeming fauna flourished until the arrival of man, thought to be as recently as 2,000 years ago. Early settlers followed the same pattern as everywhere else on the planet by killing everything slow or stupid enough to be caught, big enough to look dangerous, or small enough to fit in a cooking pot. Viewing wildlife as lumps of protein rather than creatures worth preserving is an attitude still prevalent in some parts of the island today.

Although the island has an enlightened approach to animal conservation in theory – it has, for example, been illegal to kill lemurs or keep them as pets since 1964, and there are a number of protected national parks – the authorities continue to struggle with the difficulties of policing such a huge area.

Another problem is that Madagascar is one of the world’s poorest countries. Not long ago the island’s economy was fragile enough to have been sent into a tailspin by Coca Cola changing to a recipe containing less vanilla - a major Madagascan export - only for the economy to recover on the introduction of vanilla-rich Coke Classic.

The average Malagasy has an income of less than $300 per annum, and only 30 per cent of the island’s population of around 19 million lives in cities. The rest are dependent on agriculture, often at subsistence level, and are competing for resources with some of the planet’s most endangered species.

It’s all too easy, then, to imagine a scenario where a Malagasy farmer might be peacefully making his way home through the forest at dusk, his mind elsewhere, when a huge rat erupts from the vegetation of the forest floor like one of the more sophisticated types of landmine and hangs in the air in front of him, defying gravity just long enough for him to raise his shotgun and give it both barrels.

The Malagasy Giant Jumping Rat (Hypogeomys antimena)
The size of a domestic rabbit, the giant jumping rat has developed the ability to leap a metre into the air. While entertaining, this is unconvincing as a survival measure, as all even a dim-witted predator has to do is to stand still and wait for the rat to come down again. The ability to leap into the air and then immediately hurtle a kilometre sideways, or twenty minutes into the future, would obviously be better, although no doubt both those techniques would have their drawbacks.

Perhaps the rat relies on the predator feeling so embarrassed at missing its prey that it just keeps going, blushing and hoping none of its friends have seen it. Or, just maybe, the rat has heard that its major nemesis, the puma-like fossa, is also endangered, and thinks that it may be able to stay in the air long enough for the fossa to become extinct. It’s a bit unlikely, but who knows what a rat thinks?

Although the rats’ spring-loaded hindquarters are an interesting development, a better evolutionary tack would have been the ability to produce more offspring. Jumping rats are commendably but fatally restrained in their sexual practices – they are monogamous – and a litter usually consists of only one or two young, many of whom are lost to predators, both the indigenous fossa and introduced species like cats and dogs.

In fact the rat is at risk not from being used as target practice by nervous Malagasy peasants, but, inevitably, from the loss of its habitat to farming – the slash and burn approach to agriculture is still rife in Madagascar and impacts almost all the fauna on the island, herbivore and carnivore alike.

Coming next - the fossa.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Sounds like...

Even though I left Belfast in 1973, I still have quite a strong Northern Irish accent. I didn’t realise how strong until a few months back. I was in a pizza restaurant in London with a bunch of Soo’s pals and their partners. (In a rare attack of culture we’d been to The Globe Theatre to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, which was reasonably funny by Shakespearian standards. Which is not that funny, actually.)

Anyway, as all of us are middle-aged or worse, it didn’t take long for the conversation to come around to health, good and bad. Someone asked me about the medication I take to control my blood pressure. “Atenolol,” I said, “and amlodipine.”

“Oh, that’s terrible,” they said, “Do you take anything for it?”

“Yes,” I said, “Atenolol and amlodipine.”

“But do you take anything for it?”

“For what?”

“For the pain.”

“What pain?”

“You said you were in a lot of pain.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

“No I didn’t.”

“Yes you did.”

And so on. For about five minutes. Eventually one of us (I can’t remember which one) realised what the rest of you probably figured out a while back – in a noisy pizza place my accent makes the word “amlodipine” sound as if I’m complaining about searing agony.

How we laughed. And how empty our lives must be, to find hilarity in such meagre things.