Costa Rican Adventurer

The UK Summer was drawing to a close – 2017 certainly had not been the year of love, happiness and dream fulfilment. Instead it had been a year of unfathomable challenges. My ethereal fairy tale following my trip to Norway, had reached a fork in the road as I tumbled into the pothole of everyday life. I came to define myself by the ecstatic highs and soul destroying lows of professional life. The anticipation of fulfilling the promises I had made to myself in Norway, had morphed into anxiety and internal struggle. The London traffic bellowed, beeped and roared by, and people hurriedly brushed past me seeking shelter from the expanding rainclouds creeping in above. Change was happening all around me. Another summer of sweltering 30 degrees (Celsius) heat, sunglasses, flip flops and cotton dresses had been and gone. I stood by the cash desk of a stationery store, new notebook in hand, looking out at the iconic London red double decker buses beaming past against the cold, and confusing Autumnal backdrop of changing seasons. Little did I know that real change would be awaiting me somewhere across the Atlantic, within the heart of the Costa Rican rainforest.

Whilst I had invested the last few years delving into the global world of wildlife conservation; my knowledge of Costa Rica was minimal. What little I did know came from watching childhood classics such as ‘Jurassic Park’ (filmed in Manuel Antonio National Park) and, a recent natural history BBC Two documentary. My leap into the unknown also meant that I would be travelling around with a group of people I didn’t know or hadn’t met before; they were strangers soon to become friends, and my adventure would not be the same without them. From San Jose, our journey would take us to Manuel Antonio National Park, then up along the Pacific coast, and across to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca along the Caribbean Sea. Open eyes, open heart!

Pura Vida!

A common greeting or farewell phrase used amongst the locals – no interaction would begin, or end without it. I came to understand that this meant ‘Pure Life!’ And life certainly did feel pure in every way; it was a feeling of happiness and a way of life unparalleled to anything I had ever experienced or observed before. Each person would greet you with a smile, nothing was ever too much. Even the dogs ran around the streets optimistically in pairs and groups, wagging their tails frantically, and falling at your feet ready for cuddles. It was difficult to tell whether they were strays or pets; they all looked so happy, well fed and loved! Sightings of the police seemed few and far between. The Costa Rican government had disbanded their army in 1948, which meant more money could be spent of the country’s infrastructure, education, and its efforts to conserve its biological diversity.

Head in the Clouds

Ducking, bobbing, and weaving along the trails, these forests left an enchanting impression upon the senses. We crossed through primary forests, dry forests, transitional forests, and cloud forests; all home to variety of species from the rarely sighted Jaguars, Pumas and tapirs, to toucans, tarantulas, Scorpios, beetles and millipedes. On our way to the Santa Elena cloud forest, we were treated to a traditional “Costa Rican deep massage”. Travelling along this rocky ascent, my eyes were opened to a magnificent panorama. The canopy’s and treetops tangled a web around civilisation below. We were crossing a biological corridor stretching from the Pacific all the way to Monteverde, which was being restored thanks to a collaboration between environmental organisations, and private landowners to ensure these animals maintained a wild life in their natural environment.

Walking around the small town of Monteverde, I literally had my head in the clouds. Hiking through the luscious woodland, you could see the Arenal Volcano, seeping vapour in the distance. The Arenal Volcano hadn’t erupted since 1968, but it was still very much active. The leaves from the trees played games with your eyes as they morphed in and out of angular shapes like a kaleidoscope. At around 500 years old, this vast expanse of woodland was primary forest, meaning it had never been cut down or replanted. Some of the best views came from hurtling across the 2km long zip line through the clouds, at speeds of up to 70mph. Bucket list check! I had just fulfilled my ambition of taking on one of the longest zip lines in Central America and it felt like freedom!

From the misty altitudes of the cloud forest, we journeyed back down towards sea level, passing by wind turbines scattered around the Costa Rican countryside, eventually reaching the Arenal Lake crossing. The Volcano etched closer and closer. The atmosphere paradoxically mirroring the tranquillity of the lake against the majestic threat towering above the land in all its glory. As we reached the other side, I could see the fencing acting like a dam to monitor the water levels, and prevent them from spilling over into inhabited areas. However, had that Volcano erupted there and then, there was nothing to be done.

Waking up to life

Luckily we were back on the road, but I would soon be back. But, this time I would be cascading down the nearby waterfalls. It was early morning, 2 km outside La Fortuna. We all bundled into a mini bus and headed towards the Volcano again, trying not to awake the “Sleeping Indian” as she had become known as by the locals. There she was again, Volcano Arenal, her outline etched along the horizon, fast asleep like a “sleeping Indian”. We were treated to yet another “Costa Rican deep massage” as the 4x4s sped up to the top of the mountain.

Geared Up, within minutes I was already waist deep in water. Each fall became more vertically challenging than the other. “Lean back, look down and try and bounce off the rock faces” you were told, otherwise you would go crashing into the jagged rock faces. It wasn’t the icy cold mountain water splashing over every nerve ending in my body like a Tsunami that proved tricky. Instead, managing to stay upright as I navigated each step over the slippery pebbles, rocks and streams had me catching my breath as if I was walking a tightrope. To follow, would be a heart pounding, difficult to breathe, vertical, 15 minutes hike back up to the top of the mountain. In spite of the multi-coloured bruises that I would spend the next few days inspecting all over my body, this was the sudden jolt of energy I needed! Life was happening and I never felt more awake! I spent that evening, embracing the adrenalin fuelled water slides, and treating myself to a hydro therapy massage in the warmth of the local thermal hot springs, cocktails in hand.

Economic Growth Vs Human Wellbeing

Swapping a cocktail glass for a coffee cup, we made our way to ‘Mi Cafecito Coffee Cooperative’ in San Miguel de Sarapiqui, 600m above sea level. Whilst Coffee is a plant native to Ethiopia, it has become big business in Costa Rica since 1816 (when it was first introduced), ranking within the top 5 exports in the country. Big business may mean making a profit, but this plantation produced Fairtrade coffee by forming a co-operative with 140 local coffee farmers. It meant equal money was being invested back into the local people, land and lifestyle. I sampled some of the different blends, from light, medium and dark roast to liqueurs; with light roast holding the most caffeine (these beans spent the longest length of time in the oil). Coffee would no longer baffle me each time I walked into a coffee shop. Travelling around the country, we would breeze past banana plantations, fields filled with lemons, passion fruits and guava ready for export to the worldwide economy.

Nature – The Only Therapy

There were moments on this adventure that I expected a dinosaur to boldly appear from the depths of this faraway land, particularly, when we took a 2 hour tractor drive deep into the heart of the Sarapiqui Rainforest. Locals rode past on their bikes as our trailer bounced up and down along the undulating trail. Thirteen kilometres later, we arrived at a beautiful, rustic, wooden lodge set against the backdrop of a white water river. This was home. We hiked through the forest spotting birds, we jumped off the banks of the river, and I battled with the current as it attempted to carry me downstream. I even got my wellies stuck in the muddy tracks, but a nearby shuffle in the bushes soon alerted to move on quickly, was it a tapir? The footprints in the mud certainly suggested that, but being such shy creatures, we would never know.

Nature had never felt so therapeutic – the afternoons were spent swaying back and forth in a wooden rocking chair on the open air balcony, over-looking the passing river. After 5 days of humidity and glaring heat, the clouds finally opened and rain thundered down onto the tropical rainforest, not only giving it nourishment but giving it life! Greens became greener, the rivers faster, the frogs sang louder, the insects battled the sounds of nature for their voice, the flies circulated my head as if a plane getting ready to land at Heathrow Airport. The cool air quickly sent us all to sleep, only to be awoken again by the call of the free roaming hens. Waking up from my dream state, I walked back through the lodge still a little disorientated, when I was suddenly jerked awake by a bat flying closely past my head. Frantically ducking, I turned – I had never seen a bat in daylight. In stories they always seemed more at home in the mystery of the dark. It rested quietly against the walls of the balcony, in search of mosquitoes, their prey of choice. I guess, the living soul required everyone to step into the light at some point.

Land of The Turtles

The conflict of city life had become a distant memory. I was sad to leave the beating heart of Sarapiqui Rainforest – it not only gave life but created it. My journey was about to take a wild turn as we floated into the island village of Tortuguero. Up until now, Earth’s furry friends had remained well hidden. I had heard that the best way to view Costa Rica’s wildlife was by boat, so in I jumped. The boat engine bubbled through the shallow water of the canal. Thousands of trees lined the banks of the canal as it twisted and turned. The sunlight peaked through the entwined leaves and branches arching above my head. All you heard was the sound of singing birds, and leaves rustling as spider monkeys swung from tree to tree in search of fruit, howler monkeys did what they did best; howling to one another to either signal their location or tell each other “the humans have arrived!” – Nevertheless, all was still as if untouched by time. Birds stood proudly on their respective logs patiently waiting for prey, white faced capuchin monkeys scurried along the treetops, whilst Cayman crocodiles bathed in the morning sun, cleverly hidden underneath the facade of leaves in the shallows of the lagoon, with only their distinctive oval eyes staring across the surface of the water to give them away.

It was September 2017, and green turtle hatching season in Costa Rica was coming to an end. However, as you walked along the volcanic ash sand beaches, you could still see the trails and nests that the turtles had made over the course of the summer months. Translated, Tortuguero means ‘Land of the Turtles’. Every year 190,000 green turtles migrate to the area to lay their eggs, each laying between 500 to 600 eggs over the course of 5 or 6 visits to the beach each season. Unfortunately, as we passed by some of the nests, we could see that not all the babies made it back to the sea alive. With up to 35km of beach, at least 5km is protected by the ‘Sea Turtle Conservancy’ (founded by Archie Carr in 1953), and it’s rangers, to monitor and conserve this endangered species. The other 30km is left to nature to select who survives and who doesn’t. Rangers found that during turtle hatching season, Jaguar populations in the park rose. Research revealed that Jaguars were killing between 7 to 10 turtles every night. The water splashed against the shore gently as I walked along the beach that afternoon, unusual for this time of year. We came across a hollowed out large turtle shell. I could only assume she was on her way back to the shelter of the sea.

Later that evening, under the pitch black of night, with only the romance of the stars as a guiding light, we walked quietly in single file back to the beach. A thunderstorm loomed in the distance, creating sparks of lightening along the horizon. Shadows of the palm trees swaying in the night breeze bounced off the sand. Up in the headlights of the night sky, the milky way stamped it’s presence on Earth’s nightlight. I could feel all Earth’s elements whispering to one another, uniting to tell the story below. Stepping out onto the coast line, one of our party tumbled into a turtle’s nest, which thankfully wasn’t occupied. However, one of the park rangers was watching over a nearby newly formed nest, and it was giving life. Facing away from us, she lay her eggs. We maintained a safe distance under the watchful eye of a park ranger to ensure she was comfortable and not disturbed. Surreal!! I had never seen anything so beautiful. Once buried she began to use her flippers to flick back the dirt to cover her eggs and shield them from any predators. She etched forward with each movement to create a whole new nest. I could feel her determination and fight for survival as the dirt catapulted out of the hole and all the way back onto my clothes. Two hours had passed, and it was time for her to return to the ocean where she would wait and keep a watchful eye, before returning to check on her eggs in 2 weeks. We watched as she gracefully carried her shell back towards the moonlit waters of the Caribbean Sea.

Jungle Babies

The clouds wept as we sailed away in our water taxi – my final stop, the beach town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. It was Independence weekend in Costa Rica, and the streets were filled with parades of school children proudly marching with their homemade lanterns alongside other locals rejoicing in their culture and history to the rhythms of reggae beats. It’s long, black, sandy beaches stretched for miles and are considered some of the most beautiful in the Caribbean.

Puerto Viejo de Talamanca is also home to the Jaguar Rescue Foundation, although I liked to call it ‘The Non Jaguar Foundation’ since it didn’t actually house any rescue Jaguars, but it once did when it first opened. Specialising in rescuing injured, abused as pets, and orphaned baby animals, this is a non-profit organisation, run by volunteers and funded by donations. The recovering jungle babies varied; sloths, spider monkeys, howler monkeys, white faced capuchin monkeys, toucans, pigs, Cayman crocodiles, parrots, horses and venomous snakes. The majority of animals are returned to the wild; some stay days whilst the more fragile such as sloths sometimes stay for years because of the trauma they have suffered. It is a haven for animal lovers, with a side order of cuteness overload! Nevertheless, to ensure these creatures retain their natural and wild instincts to survive, we were warned not to make any contact with the animals so they didn’t get used to humans. Many of the volunteers agreed that maintaining emotional distance from the animals is hard, but seeing them heal and back to full health, and then returning home to the wild, is the most rewarding part of the role.

It was time to say goodbye to this dreamer’s paradise. I’d found everything I loved about life in Costa Rica. Upon landing back in the UK, the cool air gushed past me as I zipped up my fleece. Words such as “office”, “deadline”, and “meeting” buzzed in my ears. I’d left feeling the whirlwind of change around me. I’d returned “home” feeling change within me. Costa Rica was my natural wonder; rich in stunning wildlife, and a drive to conserve the beauty of Earth and all its life forms. Life continued happily and peacefully without an army. With all the tragedy of the bombs going off in various public spaces around the world, and hurricanes tearing up people’s homes and lives just north of their borders, the threat of war and devastation may have been present, but it certainly didn’t show. Their secret – Pura Vida! I wanted to get back on a plane and fly back, or off towards my next adventure; salsa dancing in Cuba, embracing the southern charms of New Orleans, exploring Canada’s wilderness in search of wolves and bears or, uncovering the secrets of Ancient Rome in Italy and Greece. Instead, it was time to jump back on the career bandwagon. Nevertheless, with the spirit of Pura Vida running through my veins, a new story in my life awaited me just around the corner…..

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A Winter’s Tale

2017 –Another year older, another year wiser! This was going to be THE year – the year that I FULFILLED dreams instead of chasing them, a HAPPY new year in every sense of the word, the year that I LIVED my dreams and ambition, and the year that I LOVED every day that life made possible. My trip to the northern coast of Norway began once upon a time, as we glided below the clouds and across the snow-capped mountains, and crystal lakes of a winter wonderland. I zipped up my coat and braced myself for the minus temperatures of this frosty wilderness.

It was the sort of excitement I remember feeling as a young child going to Disneyworld, or the scene out of Edward Scissorhands where Winona Ryder spins in the snow as the snowflakes softly fall around her. I could hear the tinkle of the piano as I looked at this vast blanket of land before me. In the days ahead, I would meet Alaskan husky dogs, reindeer, some of the oldest tribes native to Norway, and spot whales in the wild – my frozen fairy tale was within my reach!

Day 1 – Husky Dog sledding

They were certainly eager! We disembarked the bus to the deafening howls of these excited dogs. The site housed over 500 dogs, with only a 100 of them at a time taking visitors out on the 1.5 hours sledding experience. The husky dogs in Norway, are not the wolf like, eye piercing breed of husky we’ve come to see in films, paintings and literature. This breed is known as the Siberian husky, and are more commonly found in countries such as Greenland, and of course Siberia in Russia. In Greenland, some huskies are considered semi wild like their wolf cousins, and are used for hunting. In Norway and other popular sledding countries, if it’s a thrilling recreational sled ride you’re after, then Alaskan Huskies are a world-class breed of choice! Alaskan huskies are not considered pure bred, and are instead made up of a mix of Northern breeds; namely border collies, Greenland foxes, greyhounds and Akita; all popular for their intelligence, excellent work ethic, speed and strength.

Once we got some hugs and cuddles in, we joined our sledding team for the morning and off we charged across the blanket of snow, with the frosty air brushing past our skin. Our musher kept the dogs on the tips of their paws as they anticipated what the next call would be; left, right, up, and down inclines – these spirited dogs had no shortage of stamina or strength. In total there were 10 dogs pulling the sled, each took in turns to take the lead, with two at the back balancing out the weight of the sled as they raced across the undulating land. Each time we stopped to wait for the other teams to catch up, all the dogs would break out into fits of howling, as if to cry out “why have we stopped! Come on let’s go!”

These dogs were not only working dogs, taking out visitors sledding and even competing in races, but they were family members; curling up in front of a warm fire and seeking out their own arctic adventures with the musher, the alpha, into the wild mountains. When racing, like any living creature, they paced themselves so their energy levels were used effectively and efficiently. Nonetheless, these dogs could reach speeds of up to 50km per hour, and run up to 80km in one day. This also meant that they ate several times a day, depending on the activities planned for that day. Their diet consisted of meats, fish, biscuits and lots of water, which was added to their food so they remained hydrated at all time. They were getting so hot, I even saw some of them eating the snow whilst pulling the sled and there I was fingers, toes and face turning to ice trying to stay warm under my blanket. In spite of their spirited nature, I was surprised to find how gentle, loving and even timid some of the dogs were – I was definitely in love!

Day 2 – Whale Watching

The seas around Norway are an ideal location to spot some of the Oceans majestic giants, especially as the shallow waters around the northern coast provide an abundant stock of herring for large mammals such as Humpback whales and Orcas to feed on. This felt like a rather special birthday treat, being another year older, and hopefully by the end of the day, another year wiser spotting, observing, and understanding a little more about these charismatic and intelligent marine mammals.

Our first stop for the day was a fish factory, where I bundled into a bright fluorescent boiler suit to protect myself from the polar temperatures. Climbing into the RIB boat, off we sped, across the calm waters, zigzagging in between the icy fjords, with layers of dark and light blue clouds chasing us in the skies above. Every moment we spent out at sea was precious due to strict guidelines set by the International Whale Commission; we would only be able to observe the each whale or pod for a maximum of 20 minutes to respect their peace, wellbeing, freedom and natural habitat.

My eyes were darting from left to right and then in front again, whilst trying to shield my face from the frosty winds thundering past me; According to the on board marine biologist; there would be 3 different types of whale interaction we would see today – in 89% of cases, Orcas can be found hunting typical prey of Dolphins, porpoises and seals, when humpback whales will suddenly put themselves in the path of these Orcas, to save the smaller mammals. I learnt that despite being apex predators of the ocean, Orcas risk internal bleeding and injury if they choose to face the thrashing and wrath of a Humpback’s iconic tale. As a result, Humpbacks’ have acquired the coveted title ‘The superheros of the sea”. Nevertheless, these “superheros” aren’t invincible to an orcas’ ambition. In 9% of cases, Orcas do target smaller, vulnerable humpback calves, hence the title ‘Killer of whales’, as oppose to the incorrect and rather negative label ‘Killer whales’ branded upon them by historical literature. The remaining 2% of interaction is peaceful, and both giants leave each other alone to concentrate on feeding on the ample stocks of herring.

I was fortunate enough to see both several pods of Orcas and one lone Humpback whale feeding. As unfortunate as it is to admit, I had seen orcas at Seaworld as a naive child, and it certainly doesn’t compare to seeing those iconic dorsal fins standing up straight as they gracefully navigated the freedom of the ocean. For me, it highlighted the plight of all those depressed, and stressed orcas, circling their tanks, and missing their families. How on earth do you get a 5 -8 metres Orca weighing in at up to 6 tonnes into what is essentially, a giant paddling pool? An orca’s life span is halved in captivity, whereas in the wild they live up to 100 years old, with females usually living longer as the Matriarchs of this family unit. I learnt that Orcas are in fact members of the toothed oceanic dolphin family, and are not whales.

Watching the pods of Orcas glide through the water in perfect synchronicity, and rarely straying too far from one another made it apparent how strong their family and team work were to their dynamic. It is this very dynamic that make them successful hunters, thus establishing them as the Apex predators of the ocean. Film-makers have especially documented their ability to disable the once feared great white sharks. Their clever teamwork, enables them to flip the shark over, putting into a catatonic static, and then they bite into its stomach and rip over its liver to feed on. However, their feeding methods for smaller prey like herring resembles more of an experience on a Carousel ride, where they repeatedly circle the schools of herring to corale them together. However, on this Nordic winter’s day the tension and drama of a wildlife documentary took a back seat to the beauty and tranquillity of this frozen landscape.

One of the IWC’s most successful conservation stories are that of the Humpback whale, and we luckily spotted one circling beneath our boat as it corralled the herring together to feed upon. In the past humpback whales have been known to leave the arctic coast for warmer waters of the Caribbean to breed and give birth to new calves. However, scientists have found that more and more young humpbacks and females humpbacks have been staying behind in the winter months to feed and replenish their energy especially, after the tiresome experience of birth for the adult females.

Male or female, this lone humpbacks movement was rapid and agile, covering vast expanses of water. I couldn’t keep up with how fast it was moving from one side of the boat to the other without detection. At 15 metres, it was bigger than our RIB boat! How could I have not noticed? I eagerly anticipated each moment that it surfaced for air. Humpbacks normally come to the surface for air every 5 to 6 minutes, but they can hold their breath underwater for a staggering 20 minutes. The circles it was swimming in, got smaller and smaller, creating bubble nets to catch the herring in. As bubble nets get smaller and tighter, they begin the boil and push to the surface. As a result, the herring try to throw themselves out of the nets and away from the school of fish. The jaws then come up behind the nets to gulp the fish. I couldn’t quite believe I was witnessing this fantastic view before me! I saw the humpback breach the water several times as it circled, pushing its 45 to 50 tonne weight body out of the water, and crashing back down again and diving into the water, flipping its iconic tail behind it!

With daylight drawing to a close, it was soon time to return to port. With all the stories of cruelty, captivity, and wild capture I had seen, heard and read in films, documentaries, articles and social media, I felt a new and hopeful energy that there were still people out there protecting these magnificent marine creatures, and the fight for their freedom was only going to get stronger!

Day 3 – Reindeer and Sami Culture

To be honest, I was hesitant about meeting members of the Sami Culture and their reindeer, after reading so many horror stories about the poor conditions working animals are kept in all over the world. I received a warm welcome from our Sami guide for the afternoon, Nyles Peder Jaup. He was dressed up in all the Sami clothing characteristic of the culture; a tunic, with traditional embroidery representing the colours of their red, blue, yellow and green flag. On his feet and he wore reindeer skin and fur shoes to keep him warm. Against the white snow and dark night sky, he stood out. He guided us down the snowy hillside to a spot where he had two of his reindeer waiting for us; Muzet, 8 years old, and Juoevat, 7 years old. The reindeer were a lot smaller than I expected, but having been the stars of many a childhood Santa story, I felt captivated by them. Juoevet, although younger, was definitely the more shy, stubborn and weary of human beings of the two reindeer, and judging by the shape of his antlers, he’d been in a lot of fights with other reindeer; note to self “must ot get too close and anger him in any way”. Muzet on the other hand was quite happy being fed moss. Nevertheless, when dealing with semi wild reindeer, body language was key; rather than hide away under layers of thermals, I stood in clear eye sight so he didn’t feel challenged. Although these animals looked so placid, it was a gentle reminder that they were highly instinctive creatures, and Nyles emphasised that it was important we “respected their space”.

Juoevet and Muzet were two of Nyles own ten working reindeer; they were used to giving tourists sleigh rides, and in teaching; helping both tourists and his own grandchildren and other young people to gain more of an understanding about their importance within nature and the Sami culture. Within the Nyles family they had a herd of about 3000 reindeers; not all of them working “family members” as Nyles referred to them; some would be sent to slaughter in the autumn season; these would primarily be the male calves, as females were valuable for breeding. reindeer such as Muzet and Juoevet, however, had been traded for their strong physique and bought to work.

At over 3,000 years old, Sami Culture is one of the oldest indigenous cultures in the northern hemisphere. Speaking with Nyles about the significance the reindeer played within Sami life was eye opening. In many of my articles, I have emphasised the importance of respecting nature and its wildlife, choosing to be aware rather than ignorant, giving wildlife a voice that can be heard, and embracing their role next to us rather than against us in this world. However, despite these reindeer being slaughtered for their meat, or made to pull sled for work, I could see how well looked after they were. Nyles stressed that living within the Sami culture meant embracing nature wholeheartedly and letting it take its course. This meant that the reindeer although part of their herds were left to roam freely like wild reindeer, and fed off the land, meaning that they had an organic diet of moss, and leaves. He believed “eating reindeer meat is like eating vegetables”. Children were encouraged to be involved in the slaughter process from a very young age to prevent them from becoming sentimental about the reindeer, and to encourage them to see this as a circle of life. Nyles assured me that the slaughter process was quick and painless; the children get involved in cutting the carcass up and even carrying out parts such as the guts in preparation for sale. All the body parts are used from the meat, from the skin to the blood.

Nyles passion for these animals and his culture shone through. But despite talk of keeping an emotional distance from his reindeer, he clearly had formed some sentimental attachment to his business partners. A week before our arrival, a wolverine had killed a female reindeer during the night. When Nyles found the dead female, its calf was stood next to her crying for her to wake up. Seeing how lost and upset the calf was, Nyles took him into his care and herd; “you never know he may make a great working reindeer” he said bowing his head, but holding back the drops of tears forming in his eyes. His body language spoke volumes over his words. I was truly moved at the understanding and relationship the Sami people had built with these animals. They lived alongside these animals, trusting them to guide them across land. He playfully referred to the reindeer instinct as his very own “GPS” as they travelled between summer and winter grazing grounds, never leading them in the wrong direction.

With human populations growing so rapidly and taking up natural habitats, putting these animals to work and living alongside them, protected not only their survival from hunters, but also from extinction. In the case of the baby calf, it was strange to think that whilst Sami people slaughtered their reindeer, they at least used the whole body, and left no part wasted, showing respect to the reindeer that sacrificed it’s life whereas, the wolverine, just left the female reindeer to die and bleed out with no intention of feeding on the body, but only with the purpose of it being trained to hunt by its parents. Meeting Nyles and his reindeer was a reminder of why it’s important to step out of one’s comfort zone, seek adventure and explore this beautiful planet. My time within this unique world had helped to restore some of my faith in humanity.

As we flew above the snow-capped mountains, with the traditional Nordic wooden houses scattered amongst the frozen landscape, I waved goodbye to the arctic north. The few days I had spent in Norway had certainly stretched the emotions. I was sad to leave but on the other hand my encounter with this fairy-tale land had been food for the soul. The natural world was leading the way in creating a unique culture and way of living, and humanity was following.

Sri Lanka – Garden of Eden?

June 2016 – it was all getting too much, must escape! Whilst I thrive in the emails, questions and general human dilemmas of work, June spelt the end of yet another contract. It took me a long time to commit to my trip to Sri Lanka. My mind was a boggle; I kept coming up with excuses not to travel. I let the fear of the every non EU day get to me. The British masses raged amongst a tide of anger at the deafening Brexit fallout or should I say result, depending on what side you stood on. The whole country and seemed plagued by this uncertain future. Friends were unfriending each other on Facebook, statuses going up in flames on twitter, hate crime rose, whilst sterling dropped, A Nation divided and confused! “Just think of the elephants! Just think of the elephants!”– BOOKED!

As the aircraft came into land on this quaint island, all I could see was rainforest with a scattering of the odd building. December felt like a perfect climate for any holidaymakers escaping the arctic temperatures of Northern Europe. Most of the days were humid with a scattering of clouds, with the Sun making the odd appearance. Nevertheless the locals always smiled and strangers became friends. Arriving at my first stop for the night, the budget hotel overlooked a private beach where the stray dogs looked like they were taking their own vacation.

With globalisation opening up world markets and borders so many countries such as Sri Lanka have become economically dependent upon tourism. Before you travel one is inundated with a ‘to do list’ of iconic wonders to see, do and experience. I wanted to experience the wonder of Asia’s elephants and Leopards. I had already travelled the magnificent savannahs of Africa, and now I wanted to see these wild creatures in the rich Eden known as Sri Lanka.

That being said, you can escape the west without a warning of things to avoid whilst holidaying abroad; ‘don’t approach stray dogs and cats as you may catch rabies, don’t wander about alone at night, wear appropriate clothing and be respectful of the local culture, and don’t carry valuables or large amounts of cash on you’. As a lone female exploring the port town of Negombo, I expected to become a target for opportunistic street vendours selling trinkets and souvenirs – but back home they don’t warn you that you’re not going to be able to walk past even one local without being stalked down the street, or in my case, into the local church, all for the sale of a tuk tuk ride, or a tour around the town.

All I wanted to do was visit some of the local churches and temples, but nothing had prepared me for this. Not even the intense heat from the midday sun had stopped one man, who at first sight appeared to be dozing in the strategically placed chair outside his shop, from calling out to me to take a step into his shop of Sri Lankan treasures. What made them so determined, so motivated? Was it survival or dreams of an economic empire? The power of persuasion is a curious concept, and as I journeyed around Sri Lanka’s southern region, I found myself stepping closer to the feral existence of the dogs and cats, and further away from a species I had grown up side by side with.

My mind was my own – my understanding of rabies was that is a visible disease; with symptoms including foaming of the mouth due to over production of saliva, seizures, disorientation, staggering due to paralysis of the hind legs and weakness. Some of the dogs and cats I saw looked like they were being fed and watered by the locals, whilst others looked like they were suffering from severe skin conditions, injured paws and legs, and emaciation, but no rabies was visible in any of them. Over the ages, dogs have become universally known as ‘Man’s Best Friend’; we brought them into our homes, and made them our companions, and our protectors in exchange for love, shelter and food. So why had they ended up of the streets of the 21st Century? What made it so much worse was discovering that the majority of stray dogs were female. Many were used for breeding, and then turned out onto the streets, with the male puppies taken in by people, and the female puppies discarded. Still many of the ones I approached wanted to play, wanted cuddles, wanted to be loved.

Whilst one species relied on money and persistence in their efforts for survival, the other relied on the kindness and compassion of others to keep on living, to survive. The locals were relentless in their attempts to sway us out of our hard earned currency. Each conversation with the locals would begin with, “Where are you from?” followed by an array of Sri Lankan souvenirs, and the inevitable inflated costing. I found myself thinking, “I could probably find that for less in Camden Market!” Had the Sri Lankan locals ever heard of the word “Brexit”? It appeared not – here they were trying to sell their charms to us at marked up prices, whilst back home the British faced an ever uncertain political, economic and social future.

Sri Lanka didn’t seem like an economy that was struggling, especially with Safari’s costing up to 45 US Dollars In comparison to its northern neighbour, India, I had seen very little comparative poverty, the air seem clean and unaffected by pollution, and the streets were fairly clean. Likewise, Udawalawe and Yala National Park with their evergreen landscapes made ever more luscious by the Sri Lankan monsoons, had captured the imagination with wildlife including; elephants, Eagles, Kingfisher birds, crocodiles, spotted dear, wildebeest, mongoose, warthogs, and dancing peacocks. It was a wildlife photographer’s paradise.

With their eagerness to please their passengers, the jeep drivers drove very closely and aggressively up to the wild animals with no consideration for the distress and upset that they were, to my eyes, causing them. I struggled not to compare them with the beauty of the safaris I had taken in southern Africa. What’s worse was they were keeping the engines running disturbing the wildlife’s natural peace. Unlike in Africa, I noticed many of the animals turning their backs and quickly moving away from us because we had disturbed their peace and quiet. Rather than being an organic experience for both safari goers and the animals themselves, the experience began to feel more like a business transaction, void of compassion and emotion. I could understand that the parks wanted to ensure that we as travellers got value for money, however, it is this flick of the switch that has turned countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa into hubs for trophy hunting and poaching. Such sentiment detracts from the safari experience, and very little consideration and thought goes into, what will happen when there are no animals left to see?

Being able to see Sri Lankan elephants in the wild was a wondrous and moving sight. I noticed many of the older elephants didn’t have tusks, and interestingly I learnt that only up to 7% of Sri Lankan elephants grow tusks, unlike their African family. Knowing that this prehistoric species is under threat from trophy hunters and poachers in other areas of the world such as Africa, made me want to do more to help. As a growing species, I believe, we as humans, need to show them more kindness and acknowledge that they too have a voice, perhaps not in the conventional sense, but all living creatures have a right to be heard. I never saw any Leopards, but in a way, I was relieved that they had evolved to remain hidden to live their lives in peace. However, not all the animals I saw, had been so lucky, with some being forced to give up the wild, for the chains.

I always believed that Safaris were an opportunity to see and learn more about animals in their wild and natural environment, to understand their role in our world, and admire their beauty from afar. Instead, we have begun to view them as object up for sale, and we conversely risk selling their existence for a quick dollar. For example, during my trip to the Kataragama temples in Kudaoya, I saw an elephant chained up outside the Hindu temple, with its “owners” using it as bait for tourists, to take photos with him and feeding him fruit and vegetables. In a middle of a hub of temples, where people from all walks of life and faiths; Christian, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim come to share their blessings and prayers, there he was, an elephant tied up and weighted by chains, as nothing more than product of greed. Other more touristy areas of Sri Lanka such as Galle, saw men sat at the roadside with pet monkeys and snakes in baskets – photo opportunities of these vilified animals were available for a small price. Some might argue that these “owners” were simply trying to earn a living. Human compassion, is human compassion, and you can’t deny it, or make excuses regardless of geography, culture or tradition; not in a new world where markets are dictated by intelligent consumers.

Many of these elephants are transported from organisations fronting as sanctuaries. Examples of this include, Pinnawala Elephant Sanctuary, where injured and sick elephants of all ages, are taken from the wild under the guise that they need treating, but instead they are utilised as money making schemes, where they are beaten into submission so that tourists can touch them, feed them and ride them. This includes babies, who like the adults are chained up so tourists can make contact with them during feeding time.  This is a well-known fact amongst the locals. In addition, these elephants are often loaned out to temples and towns folks for festivals and parades. What justification is there to overlook our morals and indulge in these selfish moments?

The Elephant transit home in southern Sri Lanka, is a facility where injured baby elephants are nurtured back to health and then released and returned back to their mothers in the wild. The babies ranged from new-borns to 7 years old (the maximum age at which they are returned to the wild). Their days are spent roaming freely in the neighbouring Udawalawe National Park. The only time tourists can view them, is during their 3 hourly feeding sessions, where they are herded into a spacious feeding pen with a station for milk and an area where fresh grass is laid down for them to eat. Tourists are not permitted any physical contact with the elephants, and watch from behind a wire fence so as not to disturb the animals. There is a large sign stating ‘The Jungle Is Quiet, You be quiet too’, encouraging silence amongst the eager spectators. The youngest elephants were let in first, and they wandered in in pairs or 3 at a time, a bit like Noah’s Ark. Some of them were very naughty, with one new born who kept running back for more milk. Others got a gentle tap with a thin stick, from the carers when they tried to push other elephants out of the way, but judging by how often the carers were ignored, I would say that these elephants were very happy and carefree.

In my quest to escape an island in flux over its political, economic, and social future, I found myself in a garden of Eden where the temptation to succumb to capitalist ideals was rather worryingly growing influence. Whilst as human beings we have a primal instinct to survive, we also must not forget our human selves hold a great capacity to feel raw emotion and compassion. I left Sri Lanka feeling torn between admiration for it’s natural beauty, and disappointment at it’s desire to please opportunistic visitors. My heart broke every time I saw an elephant desperately plodding away to escape a jeep full of tourists chasing them to get that coveted photo, which would prove “they had seen a wild elephant!”. On the other hand, as tourists we have a responsibility to these animals to lead with our hearts rather than our often disillusioned egos. We as humans are conditioned to believe that making any type of emotional investment will hinder the survival of our species. But without emotion, how do we measure our senses; pain, happiness, suffering, jubilation, compassion? I would argue, in a Garden of Eden where temptation is rife, the survival of our species on a dying Earth relies upon our sense of compassion to ensure it’s ecology continues to evolve.

 

Untamed Borneo

December 2015; Christmas, New Year and another birthday in sight; as if that wasn’t enough of a whirlwind. In an effort to delay those January blues, it felt like time for a new adventure. So several phone calls later to the travel agent and it seemed I was off on another journey of discovery to one of the world’s oldest rainforests. My expedition would take me to the Malaysian influenced, northern territories of Borneo, also known as Sabah and Sarawak.

At 140 million years old this untamed land is certainly one of the world’s natural wonders or as I quickly noted “green and filled with mosquitoes”! My every sense could feel, taste, smell and see this luscious, rich landscape wrapping itself and lifting me up as we drove along the winding roads of Kinabalu national park. We ambled across, steep slopes and the jungle rooftops of the botanical gardens with its brightly coloured orchids, ferns, and singing birds peeking out from the endless trees and plants. It would only seem right to stop and indulge in some green tea ice cream – a midday day must of course.

After a day of climbing up and down steps and navigating our way through undulating peaks of the jungle, we spent our first night at Sabah tea plantation. Standing at the top of this infinite valley of tea plants looking through the mist across to Mount Kinabalu was truly breath-taking. The landscape is untouched and untamed by western values and influences; it’s its own Garden of Eden with only the sounds and aromas of nature to serenade your ears; birds, crickets and various other tiny creatures. One member of our group even dared to ask “are those sounds recorded?” Had some of us really become so far removed from the natural world?

Early the next morning, we took to the factory floor, this was surely to disturb and shock the hearing and serenity of the valley. With 15% of the tea grains being distributed worldwide to satisfy brands such as ‘Earl Grey’, and ‘Twinnings’ tea, I was expecting to be hit with a barrage of bodies and a bustling factory floor. Instead, I only saw a handful of people collecting and sorting through the tea leaves, with the machinery modestly doing the rest. According to the locals, the most organic tea is the loose granules.

After our visit to the plantation, we were back on the road again, this time heading towards the Kinabatangan River. The road sides were a never-ending parade of Palm Oil Trees, something everyone should expect to see in any part of Borneo, both Malaysian and Indonesia. By association, palm oil has always reminded me of forest fires and the loss of habitat for many of Borneo’s wildlife and species. I couldn’t help feel a little heartbroken by these regimented rows of palm trees. Nowhere amongst them could I see any form of life. However, under Malaysian law in the year 2000, these vast fields were protected under a new RSPO Government policy. RSPO translated means ‘responsibly sourced palm oil’. This policy would ensure that palm oil farm land remained protected, and its growth and use remained sustainable. The Sabah RSPO policy dictated the following;

  • Anyone found encroaching upon these protected habitats would be slapped with a 5-10years prison sentence and a financial penalty.
  • 85% of the workforce should comprise of local labour.
  • Consumers must buy solely from these farms.

By 2010, the wildlife act was subsequently introduced and used to enforce this policy. It stated that no-one was allowed to kill or harm any wildlife, endangered or not, even if they wandered onto this land. Anyone, who dared defy this act, would not only serve the above jail time, but would also incur a 15 to 100k Malaysian Ringgit fine. This policy encouraged many stakeholders and producers to unite under one umbrella and join. I felt reassured that even the smallest countries are making such grand advances in maintaining and sustaining the world’s eco systems in such a consumer driven society. Suffice it to say, the Bornean rainforest didn’t get to the wise old age of 140 million years old for nothing.

This was no more evident than within the depths of the Kinabatangan river and wildlife sanctuaries of Sandakan. In Borneo, Sandakan is best known as the city of nature and the centre of the Sabah economy, linking all the areas of this beautiful rainforest. The new zoom lens I purchased prior to my trip, became my best friend as I snapped away at the Proboscis monkeys, the males with their long muppet baby/trunk like noses, looking puzzled at the strange looking humans snapping away on their DSLRs at these unique looking primates. One habitant of the river who was not so pleased to see us was the age old dinosaur of the wild, the crocodile. As the boats manoeuvred closer to the banks, hedging our bets, the crocs lay in wait, staring us out, no doubt anticipating out next move. Whilst some returned to the depths of the river to perhaps indulge in some much needed solitude, one young whippersnapper, with its feisty sense of self-preservation, decided to take a leap of faith and within seconds before anyone could catch their breath, launched himself towards the boat doing the infamous death roll to show off his prowess and visible strength. At 6am in the morning, most people’s sense of sight if not lost in the misty haze of sunrise, was now certainly alert, awake and speeding away, eager to stay on this crocodile’s good side.

Sadly, not all wildlife get to roam so freely. Due to the destruction of habitats and unfortunate human ignorance, many animals have a difficult start in life; either losing their parents to death and subsequently being taken in as caged pets out of a lack of education and curiosity. I was fortunate the visit some of the  wildlife sanctuaries at Sandakan that took animals such as; sun bears, many of whom came from a previous life where they had been farmed for their bile, kept in zoos, or sold on the black market as exotic pets.  Sun bears are known to be the smallest bears in the world, just think Winnie the Pooh. Unfortunately, many cannot be released back into the wild due to the trauma of their past life experiences, however, it was beautiful to see them tap into their wilder instinct; foraging for honey, fig fruits and insects or rolling about together.  At other times, these bears seemed almost human. I was especially captivated by the cautionary yet clumsy movements of one bear trying to climb down from a log. Leaning forward, he jostled with the air as he contemplated using his paws as a base in order to save himself from toppling down the hill. He paused.  He then gently turned his body around, holding onto the log with his sharp claws, he first guided his feet safely onto the ground, and then sliding down the log with the rest of his weight, off he plodded away into the forest. Sadly, the survival of these animals depends on a wire fence and surveillance, and yet the ability of these sanctuaries to create an environment so close to the wilds of their natural homes was more extraordinary than any animal kingdom at Disneyworld. The animals are respected and treasured as a vital part of the culture.

Leaving all my bags behind, I next made my way along the boardwalks of the world famous, Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre, eagerly anticipating my introduction to this gently, giant red-ape or as the locals knew them, the “man of the forest”. Some may argue that photo opportunities for visitors should be prohibited in these areas, and the sanctuaries should focus on healing these creatures. In fact, these centres in provide an educational incentive for people everywhere as well as locals, to see how rescued orangutans are being cared for before being released back into the wild.  Watching them swing excitedly through the trees to the nearest platform for twice daily feedings, or holding onto their buddies, shows that like humans, they are social and sentient beings; they do after all share 96.4% of human DNA. I was surprised at the trusting nature of these primates after all they had been through. Some of the silver leaf monkeys even allowed me to step within an inch of them, without even flinching. It spoke volumes about the symbiotic relationship between Borneo’s primates and their human counterparts.

Within rainforest lay some of Borneo’s more hidden treasures such as the Gomantong Caves. Unlike the shining lights of the rainforest, when venturing into these caves one might consider a more artificial torchlight and, more importantly a nose peg. The Gomantong caves are home to some of Borneo’s smaller inhabitants, including; long legged centipedes, over one million cockroaches and bats, and four species of swiftlet birds. As we walked along the boardwalk towards the caves, I envisioned crawling on my hands and knees through small, dark winding caves, which didn’t help my long standing fear of small and tight spaces. As I approached the caves, I was astonished to find a tall and open space, with sunlight shining through what looked like a natural skylight in one secluded corner of the ceiling. What one doesn’t see or know about is a powerful trick of the mind, thus most people fall into a state of psychological paranoia around all things bug related, flinching and ducking at the slightest sound and feeling that some small creature has taken a liking to their presence. Instead, it was more my struggle to dismiss the pungent odour of ammonia clouded my nasal passages as we walked around the walkway, which was covered in bat and bird droppings, cockroaches. One bat even decided to take a midday nap in the middle of the floor. The dark dingy ceilings of the caves prevented me from seeing the swiflets’ birds’ nests, which are historically considered a local delicacy for soups and such in Borneo. The bird’s nest are tendered 2 times out of the year for sale; 3 men, all with a weight under 47kg climb a ladder to collect the nests with or without the baby birds in them. Had I missed out on witnessing such tradition? My feelings could only be described as bitter sweet.  Where there is beauty, I suppose there must always be a beast.

Hidden beneath the tranquillity and serenity of these natural wonders, there was a darker layer to Borneo’s history. The steps we took as we ventured deeper into the rainforests, uncovered the brutality of the POW camps in Sandakan and tragic death marches at the hands of the Japanese during WW2. During one, 2 and a half hour hike along the Kinabatangan River, we came across a tree with a small hollow in it. This was not just any tree, but it was used to house up to 20 girls and food. These girls would have been trying to evade capture by the Japanese. In Japanese occupied Borneo, the Capture of young girls spelt out a life where they would be sold into prostitution. All one could do was to process the silence and carrying on taking the next step forward.

The final leg of my adventure through Northern Borneo carried me on a speedboat rushing towards to tropical Manukan Island, where snorkelling became my avenue to exploring the magic of the big blue. With my breathing tube securely in place, I turned my sights to the depths of the South China Sea. There I floated staring down onto the sea floor watching schools of tropical fish sneaking out the peaks of the coral reefs. I think I may have even found Dori. Eventually the multitude of jelly fish got the better of me, and lifting out of the depths of the blue I decided to head back to life on land.

I definitely didn’t want to leave this tropical paradise albeit I wouldn’t be sad to leave bloodthirsty mosquitoes and the allergy they had gifted me behind. Many of the stories of animal cruelty that I see, hear of or read have predominantly had their source in South East Asia. However, my raw experiences of the Bornean jungle undo the chains on these stereotypes and prejudices. Despite a history of occupation by the British, Dutch, and Chinese, Borneo remains an independent state, and more importantly an independent culture with a focus on creating its own separate identity. Malaysian influenced Borneo with its welcoming people, charmed culture, and wise old rainforests, is an island that stands tall amongst its pacific neighbours. And yet, within its very depths lie precious, rare, and untamed treasures that they guard with pride. In my opinion, they are leaders in the world of conservation; a prime example of our environment and wildlife past, present and future.

The Spirit of Southern Africa

“I never knew a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy”

– Ernest Hemmingway

The works of American literary writers such as Ernest Hemmingway had never really resonated with me, until the profile icon of our aptly named whatsapp group, ‘The Dream Team’ had changed to an image of a tree at sunset with these words painted across it. Africa was the dream for any wildlife enthusiast.  I had spent the last couple of years following the fantastic work of animal charities from all over the world; I’d signed up to newsletters and petitions, and followed live feeds as they happened on social media. I couldn’t imagine a world without wildlife and I wanted to make a difference. I had been transfixed by the beauty of these creatures I’d seen in wildlife documentaries, I had shed tears at the numerous petitions I’d signed calling stop baby elephants being separated from their mothers and sent to circuses in China, to ban trophy hunting, to kill the trade of ivory and Rhino Horn in the Far East. China and the US were both competing to rebuild the infrastructure of this vast continent, and in doing so, leaving a trail of political and environmental destruction in their wake.

The Spirit of Africa was calling out to me louder now, more than ever. I wanted to see first-hand how these majestic animals lived and moved across the savannahs of this wildlife mecca. Hemingway had himself been a hunting enthusiast, no doubt a product of the ignorant social norm entertainment of this time. Would I be stepping into the majesty of a BBC documentary, or the path of pain and suffering that global powers were leaving in their wake?

My “safari” would take me through South Africa, Botswana, and Zimbabwe. I would be camping for 18 days. This was rustic living and the only way to see Africa, and experience its living spirit. I would spend much of my time without any contact to the globalised world. Far removed from the distractions of an electronic screen, social media, and politics; we interacted on a face to face level, a rare experience in the technological age; there were no ipads, or TVs, and I went days without needing or even wanting to consult my phone. Mother Nature and ‘The Dream team’ was all the company I needed. ‘The Dream Team’ became a family of explorers, ready to create memories that would last a lifetime and change lives.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary – An endangered Heaven

We spent most of our first day travelling across the breadth of South Africa, from

Johannesburg through to Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana, reaching the sanctuary in the late afternoon. The heat of the African sun had transformed into dark and gloomy rainclouds, which didn’t bode well for our first game drive. As the 4x4s rolled into the muddy trail, the skies began to clear, washing away the murkiness of the grey clouds, and re-painting the airy canvas with shades of blue, red, yellow and orange. Rolling along the dirt tracks, the long stems of grass began to clear, revealing a calm savannah and lakes.

Families of zebra, wildebeest, and impalas stood in their groups basking in the tranquillity of their haven. The rhinos, despite their bold armour, were hard to spot. They remained still and statue like, blending in with the peaceful landscape. It was hard to tell whether you were looking at an animal or a large rock. One baby stayed in the shadows of its mother’s protection as they sipped water from the lake. Its doting mother was keeping a sharp eye on us, monitoring our every move, evaluating out threat level. It was a breath-taking occasion, and one I felt privileged to see; they were an endangered species with an uncertain future. We moved quietly past them, making sure we didn’t disturb this precious moment. The sun was setting quickly, and it was time to pitch up our tents in the bush. There were no amenities, all we had to rely on for the rest of the night was our human instinct. This was what it was like to live the wild life.

We awoke at the crack of dawn as the sun was rising again. With 3 countries to cross, we had a long drive ahead of us. No two glances out of the window were ever the same; the crop fields in the UK did not compare to the vast landscapes of arable farming in Botswana. These crops would go onto feed the world’s appetite. Each field transformed in colour as we drove the long road, milk chocolate, golden deliciousness, emerald green, and grades of reds and bronze. The clouds moved earth bound, locking in the colours radiated by the fields like an oil painting. We passed by donkeys and cattle grazing by the road side; at their own peril from passing traffic. One donkey wasn’t so lucky unfortunately. Three men and their dog were carving up its carcass; no doubt they were in store for a feast that evening. This wasn’t uncommon. Bushman belief in Botswana was that what had been given by God to the Earth, would be received as a blessing to nourish its soul. The art of appreciation was a humbling sentiment.

The Okavango Delta – An Island beneath the stars

We were on our way to one of the world’s largest inland delta’s, The Okavango Delta; a maze of canals, flora and fauna. The only way to reach our campsite would be by taking a ‘Mokoro’, which simply put, was a hollowed out canoe steered by the local ‘Polers’. Gliding through the long grasslands, and bamboo, the lilac water lilies decorated the surfaces of the water like tea lights. One red legged frog had leapt off the nearby flora and taken shade, under the straps of my backpack, to take a break from the intense midday heat.

As the heavens fell into darkness, the starry constellations lit up the night sky. Each of us from a different part of the world, gathered together on this remote island in the middle of delta and bonded around the burning fire; playing competitive card games, cooking meals, swimming in the delta surrounding our island camp site, and learning the art of mokoro steering; not as easy as it looked. What if every day could feel this raw and amazing?

The sun rose and the sun set; we traversed the plains in search of wildlife. We walked through the grassy plains silently in single file, so as not to disturb or scare the animals. To be wild meant that their behaviour was unpredictable, and we were mere aliens in their kingdom. I was literally walking in their footsteps! Lion paw prints imprinted themselves in the muddy soils of the plains and I could feel my heart jump; my senses became heightened. So this is what it felt like to survive? We came across several herds of zebras and wildebeest who travelled around the delta together; whilst zebras are known to have poor eyesight, wildebeest suffer from poor hearing; a symbol of the symbiotic relationship between the two species. Together they were a force against any predators, apart, they were only as strong as their weakest link. They would run away every time they saw us. Walking through the marshy delta one morning, however, rather than running away from us, the large herd of zebras lined up in a row to face us, with the head of the herd, taking a step forward to assert his rank. Time felt like it had stood still as our eyes flickered left and right. It was a moment of mutual understanding and acknowledgement – perhaps they recognised us? We weren’t a threat, but simply there to admire their beauty. Moments passed slowly but and they soon turned away and disappeared into the bush.

There were moments in the delta when we were waist deep in water, not knowing what aquatic creatures lay beneath. As the morning broke, the heat of the sun glared down. Struggling out of the swampy water, my clothes dried within minutes of being exposed to the sunlit air. We stood on the banks of the delta, keen to stay out of the water, and clear of any crocodiles. Spotting a family of hippos, we knew that the crocodiles were nearby. All we could see were their round, greyish, boulder like bodies bobbing on the surface of the water, with an occasional ear flickering above water. They seemed happy and relaxed. They never fully revealed their bold bodies. After a few moments, they all began to turn to face us, aware of our presence. But like the zebras, they carried on basking nonchalantly, in the cool of the water. Hippos have a reputation as being one of the animal kingdom’s most dangerous animals. In battle, if two male hippos face off, research has found that in the presence of humans, the weaker male will seek safety by walking away from the battle towards the nearby humans. Unfortunately, we were stood on the banks of the swampy lake, and with the sun intensifying its gaze, it felt like the right time to return to the shelter of the shaded campsite.

On this night, our last on our own island paradise, we danced around the camp fire like silhouettes in the night, and the locals serenaded us with traditional Botswanan folk songs. In the midst of the darkness, I looked up and saw my first shooting star soar across the sky. You’re supposed to make a wish when you see a shooting star, or so they say. But my wishes were already coming true; nature was my haven, and Africa was my spirit.

Elephants – Giants of Africa

The next day we were back on the road, on our way to the Salt Pans of Nata. The dry heat transformed the landscape, into a golden dessert. In the salt pans, the animals were few and far between; mainly horses, birds and the odd wildebeest, stood with their new-borns drinking from the sparse pools of water dotted around the landscape. We came across one bull elephant taking shade under a lonesome tree. His wrinkly, drying skin, and mammoth size, suggested he was one of the wise elders, known for wandering around on his own. His trunk and ivory tusks stretched the height of the tree, almost becoming a third leg. He had tears running across his ears which, were flapping to keep him cool. These were signs that he was on heat; we didn’t dare disembark the bus and risk him charging at us. The sheltering leaves began to take effect, and he drifted into a slumber. Hopefully he would stay safe dozing by the roadside. But with the increasing prevalence of poaching within the African subcontinent, I feared for this wise old man’s life and tusks. Ivory is big money globally, and the superstitious and wealthy of South East Asia are prepared to pay top dollar for it. Where once up to 25 million elephants roamed the African wilderness, now an elephant was being butchered every 15 minutes for its ivory. Following a survey spanning 3 years’ worth of research, National Geographic reported in 2016 that elephants were being slaughtered at an annual loss of 27,000 per year. Stripped of it’s wild beauty and soul, the majesty of these giants would be reduced down to nothing more than a tiny, futile ornament sitting idly on a mantelpiece.

Chobe National Park – Botswana’s hidden Gem

However, there was still hope – gliding along the quiet of the Chobe river I witnessed a family of what must have been 30 elephants, of all different ages and sizes gracefully plodding to the shores of the river where they all took it in turns to gain some refreshment, with the elders of the herd watching over the young and for any hidden predators that may have been nearby. I know I certainly spotted crocodiles lurking near the rivers’ edge. May be one I would return to see these babies all grown up, and having escaped the greed and vanity of this world.

The freedom these animals had seemed infinite; driving very slowly around the park, we saw giraffes eating from the dizzying heights of the trees, a male and female lion lounged in the shadows, gazelle locked antlers in a battle for supremacy, and colourful birds perched in treetops taking in the panorama of the park. I surprisingly saw more animal life in Chobe national Park than the more famous Krueger National Park in South Africa.

Krueger National Park

Krueger, a haven for wildlife lovers, was one of the last stops on our tour but I found it hard not to make a comparison with its Botswanan counterpart. The only way to get around the vast expanses of the park was to drive. With the exception of several herds of wildebeest migrating through the park, I was surprised at how few animals I saw driving through

Krueger National Park. Some of the animals seemed a little spooked by our presence. Giraffes strode through the tall grasses, turning to check how close or faraway we were, and zebras cautiously crossed the road, remember their sight isn’t the best, so they were probably checking the sounds of our engines to gauge distance. The speed limits were very low and strict so animal safety was placed first. But with humans once again encroaching upon their natural habitats, animals were still falling victim to modernity, and being killed by the increasing vehicle and human traffic crossing through the park. Was this tourism gone wild? I felt a sadness for these animals. In trying to understand and learn more about their kingdom, where did we draw the line on how close we got to them?

One old wise elephant, stood alone, coming near to the end of his days. I wanted to wipe away the tears streaming from his deep eyes. He had lived many a year and had created many memories. My heart and soul prayed for him, that peace would arrive soon for him. He’d travelled the plains of Africa gracing it with his wisdom and beauty. Both he and his pre-historic ancestors had helped to maintain vital ecosystems for other species, as well as contribute to the rich biodiversity of their habitats, and now it was time for Earth to give back to him.

Victoria Falls  – ‘The Smoke that thunders’

Ten days had been and gone – leaving Botswana, we crossed nervously into Zimbabwe. I’d heard and read about stories of political upheaval, and corruption in Zimbabwe, so I was certainly feeling a little tense about the time we’d spend here. Throughout our time in Zimbabwe, we were stopped very randomly by the police, not for any traffic violation, just because they could. The instinctive sense of every man for himself was a stark contrast to this country’s natural beauty. We would be staying in a campsite very close to the Zambezi River, where one had to cross the awe-inspiring Victoria Falls, also known as ‘The Smoke that Thunders’ by local tribes in the 1800s, to travel between the borders of Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Walking along the winding trails of Victoria Falls, we were transfixed into a state of wonder at its grandeur. Water cascaded into its pools like a bucket overflowing with water. The vapour and condensation from the torrential currents filled the air, creating misty clouds over the canyon. Rain poured over us from one end of the trails to another, as we followed the rainbow which radiated across the skies from the Zambian border to the border of Zimbabwe.  All that separated the formally unified countries was a bridge over the river. Intimidating Police officials paced the border check points whilst people queued up to one of the world’s most famous bungee jumping points, in search of their adrenalin fix. Neither were to be messed with. The wrong move and you would land your selves either on the wrong side of the border, or the ominous side of the law. The rainfall was relentless and it had soaked through my apparently “waterproof” jacket. Time to leave for drier climates outside this biological dome. However, as we left the heavens opened, and within minutes, we were wading through flooding water that was rising in level every second all the way back to our campsite. I nearly lost my flip flops several times. We were met by a very muddy campsite with our only relief being a nice hot shower, if not the rainbow’s pot of gold.

The Pot of “Gold”

But gold had little value in the African economy, in comparison to the prolific poaching to rhino horn and ivory. Countries such as China, Vietnam and the US were competing to get a piece of whatever part of Africa they could lay claim on, and with that came a power hungry ego and set of fallible beliefs. Africa’s kingdom was suffering. In Matobo National Park in Zimbabwe, the rangers were given permission to shoot any poachers on sight. My faith in humanity hadn’t been lost – these people were risking, and in some cases sacrificing their lives for mother earth and her kingdom of living, breathing, feeling creatures. As we followed the rangers through the rocky landscape, pushing the long grass and untamed plants out of our way, we could hear the birds calling out above. They were alerting the other animals that the humans were on their way, beware! All creatures great and small depended on one another. The white rhinos, a now rare sight anywhere in the world, huddled together under a tree. The mother and daughter faced in opposite directions, no doubt so they had full sight of the scenery around them. We were advised to crouch and move very slowly so as not to rattle them. If they charged us, we had no chance. The park rangers had removed their horns to reduce their appeal to poachers.

The meaning behind the term “conservation” has been challenged by trophy hunters over the years, with many claiming that their kills have been in the name of conservation; they were culling the wildlife landscapes to control numbers and remove “nuisance” animals as a threat to the ever expanding residential communities around the continent. With China and the US investing heavily in the African infrastructure and economy, animals across Africa had been losing their habitats at an alarming rate, leaving them confused and lost as to where to call home. One ranger had revealed that he was both a wildlife conservationist and had led many hunts. It was a dichotomy I wasn’t sure I would ever fathom, nonetheless, I was curious. These trophy hunting expeditions that he had led, included people from all over the world, predominantly Americans and Europeans, as well as the rich and ignorant from Asia. His argument, if these people wanted to part with tens of thousands of pounds to kill an animal, he would happily take their money and enrich the lives of the locals who could use it to feed more people, repair local facilities, grow more crops and help other local wildlife. These hunts targeted “nuisance”, ageing animals, at their end of their lives, as if somehow these justified both the means and the ends. Whilst human populations boomed, it had caused animal populations to plummet at an unprecedented rate. Who came first, the dinosaurs or humanity?

We were playing with a vital ecosystem, created by the natural world. What right did we have to kill these animals for sport, where once man had hunted for survival? Had human instinct reduced itself down to a level where only money talked? In the struggle for power, we have been placing animal species on the endangered list and pitting the locals into unnecessary battles with their four legged neighbours. As we travelled to Hwange National Park, we were lucky to watch a pride of lions and their cubs in the midst of a hunt. Their prey wasn’t visible, but their sense were very much attuned to the environment surrounding them. They moved with grace, stealth and synchronicity, as if they were communicating telepathically; each one knew when and how to move through the long grass so they remained hidden from their prey to make that timely attack. They had spent centuries evolving and perfecting the skills of a wild hunt. They were the masters of their realm. These animals killed quickly and didn’t let their kill suffer. They had evolved, yet it seems human life’s lustful desire for blood, was in regression. Upon returning to the UK, I learnt that the one of the rhinos I had seen, had sadly been slaughtered by poachers.

Cecil The Lion Heart

Is there ever really any excuse to kill any life for sport be it human or animal? A year after my trip the semantics behind the term ‘trophy hunting’ would transfix the world and its media. His name was Cecil the lion, named after Cecil Rhodes. A lion and his pride that was being studied and tracked by a team at the University of Oxford. He was killed by a poisoned bow and arrow and then dragged his exhausted, wounded and dying body for 40 hours of suffering and agony before giving into the poison and dying. His body skinned, his tracked collar removed and his head decapitated from his body. Broadcasters, politicians, celebrities’ and, animal activists roared at the heart-breaking news; online petitions gaining rapid momentum. Airlines began to ban the transportation of trophy hunts. Trophy hunting would continue in the years to come, but anyone who dared make a claim, would have blood on their hands and the world would hunt them. Walter Palmer escaped criminal proceedings unlike his hunter guides, but he’d lost the respect and compassion of the world. No doubt he was hiding behind within the walls of his empty heart, drowning in his own self-pity.

As for Cecil’s pride, his brother, Jericho, would assume his position as head of the pride, and uncharacteristically for new pride leaders he continued to protect Cecil’s cubs.

Unfortunately though in July 2017, Cecil’s son, Xander would become another victim at the hands of sad and pathetic trophy hunters. Cecil’s sacrifice brought the tragedy of ‘trophy hunting’ to the world’s attention. It would continue, but not without a face off; compassion versus ego. Powerful billionaires such as Arsenal FC owner Stan Kronke ignored the outcry of the public by broadcasting his hunting and blood sports channel, all for money and greed.

There were tribes and communities in Africa that lived now as they had done thousands of years ago, relying on the land around them for sustenance. Evidence of this had been found on the Bushman paintings located in the Caves at Motobo National Park. Research studies had revealed that a kill would feed a family for up to 2 to 3 days, as every part of the animal would be consumed and nothing was left to waste as I had seen earlier in the trip, by the roadside in Botswana. The animals that were killed were respected and cherished, and thanked for sacrificing their lives. These tribes would kill for the thrill of the chase, and it has been found that some tribes would go for up to a month before they hunted their next meal source.

What you take from the Earth, you must give back because Mother Earth certainly has a funny sense of humour. This blog is my gift to mother Earth. It is my voice and fight to save its stunning and necessary wildlife. Having seen these awesome creatures roam wild and free there was absolutely no way I’d be able to ever tolerate seeing them caged behind the bars of a zoo, trapped, waiting for an end. I was in awe at every single animal I came across; each one was individual in its own right and deserving of living freely and peacefully. But this trip also restored my faith in people; for all the barbaric, vain and superstitious nonsense that fuelled people’s greed to hurt these animals, there were wildlife warriors placing their lives on the line to keep their legacy going. I was overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of the people we met as we travelled through its southern countries. They opened their hearts, minds, homes and lives to our western tribe. They mesmerised us with their traditional dances, singing, beautiful vistas, and affection for their wild animals. They were the soulful voice of Africa. Western attitudes towards this vast continent have often been founded on rhetoric we learn from the news, that this is a nation and culture that “needs” our help and is forever in crisis. When, in fact, I would suggest that not only in the west, but anywhere in the world, we could learn so much from a culture that is loving, sharing, open and most importantly happy. I’d left a piece of my heart in mama Africa and I walked away from this chapter feeling rich with the new friends and family I had made. I was more determined than ever to fight and give a voice to these enigmatic yet voiceless creatures.

 

 

 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

“Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?” they each recite as they stand swaying from side to side in front of their dressing room reflections; the colours, shades, shapes, spots, stripes and textures exploding in front of their eyes. A hand peaks through the dressing room curtain; the rose carving wraps so delicately around the index finger; it beams brightly under the spotlights setting off the purity of the ivory ring. A pair of crocodile skin boots are placed at the client’s feet. They stare again at this wild reflection standing before them, contemplating a minute longer; “something still isn’t quite right?” Another pause as eyes dart up and down the contours of the garments and suddenly there it is, “Made in China, Born in Africa”. The label is quickly tucked back into the neck of the coat, the black credit card handed over to the cash clerk, a stylish turn with a Harvey Nichols bag in tow as hips strut through the glass doors, swiftly exiting the store.

It is without a doubt that we live in a society fuelled by consumerism and an intonating stock market, with the buzz word of many a conversation being ‘money’. You only have to look at a fashion magazine, which provides its readers with a step by step guide on how to look like their favourite celebrity by investing in the latest catwalk trends; either for a small percentage of the original price or by splashing the cash on one of a kind pieces from the recent Christopher Kane collection. Since 2013 many designers; such as ; Christopher Kane, Celine, Todd Lynn, Gucci, Versace, Prada and Birger Christensen, have been featuring animal products such as real furs within their Autumn/Winter collections, with globally recognised brands such as Harvey Nichols coincidentally reintroducing real animal furs back into their stores in 2014, after a 10 year ban.

The use of real furs has polarised the world of fashion most poignantly since the 1990s, with popular names such as Stella McCartney and Twiggy openly condemning it’s use and need in fashion, and instead voicing the realities of the cruelties these animals suffer all in the name of looking catwalk ready. By reinvesting and making space for these real animal furs in our wardrobes are we honestly turning a blind eye to the unimaginable and inhumane suffering we put these animals through for the sake of being or desiring fashionista status? I wouldn’t trust any designer that is clearly not informed or just simply in denial (I’m more convinced of the later) of the way their products are produced. Furthermore, shame on those who buy these products for creating any demand, as any business person would say, its demand itself that keeps the supply flowing.

Why do 80 minks have to die a slow, agonising death as their fur is peeled from their body whilst they are still alive, for the sake of making one coat? These animals use their furs, ivory, spots, stripes, colours to camouflage in with their environment, to keep warm, to adjust to hide or fend off predators, to keep nature’s eco-system in check, and here we are destroying it in the name of looking on trend. We don’t need animal products such as furs and ivory to decorate ourselves or our homes; unlike our Neolithic and medieval ancestors, we have central heating and naturally sourced fabrics to furnish and warm our homes as well as ourselves. If humans needed fur wouldn’t we grow thick coats of it? On the flipside, with more and more beauty parlours up everywhere and the sky high prices of hair removal treatment with an ever rising number of men and women pampering themselves with waxing and hair removal laser treatment, we have created somewhat of a dichotomy – on the one hand we want to remove hair, yet on the other there is a desire to see a real fur coat draped around our shoulders with the matching ivory bracelet strapped around our wrists.

Watching a tiger fur bouncing up and down the Champs Elysees doesn’t somehow have the same regal elegance as would observing a wild tiger majestically prowling the plains of the African Savannah, with its stripes blending into the long golden grains of grass and deep rich red sands of the rustic earth. Sadly, this is a sight we may no longer be able to see due to the rise in illegal poaching to meet the demands of economic markets such as in China as well as trophy hunting by America’s super rich. According to WWF statistics, between 2007 and 2013 the number of rhinos poached for their horns soared from 13 per year to a whopping 1,004 per year; that’s almost 3 per day. Furthermore, tiger numbers have plummeted to 3,200 wild tigers left in the wild with 1,537 tiger parts being seized in Asia between 2000 and 2013. When examining such shocking statistics one naturally can’t help but draw a correlation with the Chinese economy and it’s ever increasing trade with countries within the African continent.

In an article written for Forbes magazine in September 2014, Paul Young writes that from 2001 to 2010 trade between China and Africa augmented by 700 per cent with export – import surpassing $62.7 million in loans alone to African countries. He argues that, China may not necessarily intend on influencing any cultural change in Africa, but instead they may be more in pursuit of taking advantage of Africa’s rich natural resources such as oil and minerals. With 90 per cent of the world’s population living in the developing world, China is in a prime position to trade, offer foreign investment and provide aid largesse. Economically, I can see the logic in this approach, but at what cost and what are the side effects on the environment from which they are extracting all these rich natural resources? In 2012 alone, 22,000 elephants were killed for their ivory tusks with experts suggesting that they could be made extinct by the year 2020 if the illegal poaching continues. With the expansion of cyber-crime, it is a huge concern that this theory may soon become a reality. With a barren land, void of any life due to all the killing, all that will be left is a barren economy. Asia’s business strategy relies on creating short term results without looking at the long term effects of their actions.

Nevertheless, the story gets worse; by 2009, China had replaced the US as Africa’s prime trading partner, which could only lead to rivalry between the 2 economies vying for African business and ties. It is without a doubt, that more often than not the finger gets pointed at the Chinese or far eastern nations when talking about making money out of cruelty inflicted upon animals; you only have to look at the plethora of campaigns on social media. However, the West are in no way innocent and cannot hide behind the glass wall of democracy. Between 1996 and 2008, 5663 lions were killed, due to trophy hunting with prolific hunters such as Melissa Bachman, Jimmy John Liautaud, Sarah Palin, Kid Rock and Gerard Depardieu making the news for this tragic display of arrogance. I don’t know what they were thinking, but it came across more as a pathetic parade of insecurity rather than a prize to be won. Sadly, lions are already extinct in 26 countries yet such people are under the illusion that this doesn’t affect them, but it does. By killing these highly intelligent species they disturb the highly complex social spectrum between the animal kingdom and human sociology.

This is a story of truth – wild animals such as tigers, minks, bears, elephants and rhinos to name a few are born with these signature features as their story is one of survival. Their wildness is what makes them so beautiful. The human desire, however, for animal products such as furs and ivory, is a story of vanity and greed and in no way emulates the natural grace, elegance and beauty of our planet’s wildlife.

Organisations such as the Wildlife Conservation society are already working on banning the sale of animal products such as ivory in California, the US’s second largest market for the product, having already banned it in New Jersey and New York, so progress is being made slowly. But it’s important to emphasise that this is not just about making laws, but about informing people and helping them understand the cruel realities of their aesthetic decisions and the effects they are having upon our environment, and ultimately the comforts of the world they are living in. More importantly, we must recognise that this cruelty occurs in many counties globally, and is not just a headline restricted to China and the USA. We can’t just rely on wildlife conservation organisations such as the WWF and the Wildlife conservation society to make the changes for us. As Gandhi famously said, “Be the change you want to see in the world”.

#NepalSayNo

DATE: Saturday 11th October 2014 – The Gadhimai Slaughter festival peace rally and petition hand in.

LOCATION: Kensington Court, London

PURPOSE: To hand in a petition asking the Nepalese government to stop the unnecessary and inhumane slaughter of thousands of animals.

In a southern region of Nepal called Bariyarpur thousands of Nepalese Hindus gather to watch and slaughter animals including water buffalo, goats, pigs, chickens and pigeons to the Hindu Goddess Gadhimai. The slaughter is carried out as a sacrificial ritual to cleanse the people of the region of any demonic spirits as oppose to sacrificing the animals for their meat. More often than not, the men carrying out the slaughter are unskilled, and use blunt tools, leaving these animals to die slow, severely painful and tragic deaths only to be left lying in piles on top of each other in a sea of blood. This blood bath is a so called “tradition” that has been carried out in this region, every 5 years since the 19th Century.  In 2009 the event began to receive increasing exposure, and organisations such as Compassion in World Farming have worked extremely hard alongside grassroots organisations within Nepal itself to raise awareness and end this bloody ritual. Over 300,000 animals were barbarically slaughtered in the name of “religion”.

Let me start off by saying that slaughter is not about race or religion. This sacrifice is not an event celebrated by all Nepalese people, and many have shunned participation in this festival. The event has regional roots and was founded by a Feudal Lord in the Bariyarpur region in the 19th Century, who, whilst sitting in his jail cell came up with the idea that in order to bring prosperity and power into his life he needed to kill all the demons. His thinking led him to believe that by sacrificing the animals, he was sacrificing the animals within our human nature. Gadhimai refers to the Hindu Goddess of power, and by sacrificing the animals she will come forth and dance in the blood of these animals and end all the evil, instead bringing prosperity and power to the region.

Having attended the peaceful protest myself, I was overwhelmed with happiness to see such an international mix of faces sharing my own love for animals and the importance of giving them a voice, including both Indian Hindus and Nepalese Hindus. As I listened to the speeches of ambassadors including Joanna Lumley, and the head on the UK Hindu Society, praise was given to the beauty associated with Nepalese culture, and as a fellow Hindu myself I thought it was such a shame that this region of people participate in the slaughter in the name of “religion”.  Furthermore, I was astounded by the response of one particular Nepalese journalist on Twitter who perceived the rally as an attack on Nepalese culture, and all I can say to that is how can it be an attack when much of the population in Nepal widely oppose it? The focus of the argument is on this tragedy taking place in one region of Nepal not the whole country.

As a Hindu myself, I am ashamed and embarrassed that these people have the audacity to call themselves Hindu. They claim to take part in the murderous activity in the name of Hinduism. For those that have examined Hindu texts, no where do they advocate animal slaughter. Hinduism is a faith, a belief from the heart; a belief in God, that he is there to guide us and not to dictate how we live our lives. It is a faith that encourages peace, and compassion. So where is the logic in killing animals to please a goddess in exchange for power? By killing an innocent animal for power, it would suggest that one is motivated by greed and money and therefore resulting in bad karma.

The peaceful protest in London the weekend of the 11th October 2014 is one of many that is taking place just over a month before this year’s “Gadhimai festival”. Cities such as New York, Tokyo, Berlin and Prague will be joining the march to stand up against this blood bath. Nepal’s own ‘Animal Welfare Network Nepal’ have reported that organisers of the festival plan to increase the number of animals slaughtered since the festival started to get media attention without any understanding of the social and political implications of their actions. The Animal Welfare Network Nepal have been trying to encourage organisers to find less cruel ways to celebrate the event and have been holding talks with local villagers to express and encourage them to see the futility of the slaughter. In previous years organisers have encouraged farmers to sell their animals and as a result many are taken across the border from India. Even days before the slaughter animals are treated brutally; they are not fed or watered and it has been said many of the young die from stress, dehydration and exhaustion caused by the sweltering temperatures.

Many have criticised Nepalese politicians for standing back and allowing this tragedy to take place. Some say politicians have not done anything to stop this atrocity for fear of losing their place in power. All I have to say is ‘Nepal, the world is watching you’. I think this is an opportunity for the Nepalese government to shine and gain the respect it is at a great risk of losing if they allow the ‘Gadhimai festival’ to go ahead. In the words of ‘Mahatma Gandhi’

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated”.

Please show your support by signing the petition below or tweeting ‘Stop the Gadhimai Slaughter #NepalSayNo’

  • To sign the petition please visit (still taking signatures):

http://action.ciwf.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.campaign.id=31383&ea.client.id=119&ea.tracking.id=&ea.campaign.mode=DEMO&v=c%3AshowBuild&ea-account.campaign.id=31383&ea.retain.account.session.error=true&ea.clear.campaign.session.id=true

  • For more information about the work of Compassion In World Farming and the “Gadhimai festival”, please visit:

http://www.ciwf.org.uk/

  • More information on the work of Animal Welfare Network Nepal  in the Baiyarpur region of Nepal. Please visit:

http://www.awnnepal.org/

“Man’s Best Friend”

Most people commonly associate the age old saying ‘Man’s best friend’ with our wild animal family member, the dog. Dog fever is a phenomena sweeping the western world by storm from popular television shows such as Paul O’Grady’s ‘For The Love Of Dogs’ to legendary stories of Japanese Hero ‘Hachiko’ the akita dog that waited for his owner on a train platform for 10 years. Organisations such as The American Kennel club have documented that there are more pet dogs in the USA than there are people in Britain. However, it is for this very reason that dogs are also coming under threat as strays as well as pets, and are viewed as pests or even stolen and abused only to be traded for meat or barbarically murdered in other parts of the world such as Romania, Bulgaria, China, Vietnam and South Korea. The purpose of my article is to explore the evolving perception and linguistics of our beloved yet threated friends and the imbalance between cultural attitudes.

“Gentlemen of the jury, a man’s dog stands by him in prosperity and poverty, in health and sickness. He will sleep on the cold ground, where the wintry winds blow, and the snow drives fiercely, if only he can be near his master’s side. He will kiss the hand that has no food to offer; he will lick the wounds and sores that come in encounter with the roughness of the world. He guards the sleep of his pauper master as if he were a prince. When all other friends desert, he remains. When riches take wings and reputation falls to pieces, he is as constant in his love as the sun in its journey through the heavens.”

‘Eulogy To A Dog’: George Graham Vest 1870

This rather touching and heartfelt speech came about during a court case in Warrensburg, Missouri, where George Graham Vest sued a farmer for shooting his much loved friend. It definitely represents a sentiment that any dog or animal lover can relate to today in many countries particularly the west. In previous years, surprisingly, dogs were not always favoured by man and were often treated with sentimental detachment and see rather as hunting dogs, and the concept of hanging dogs was a common one amongst those that caught dogs chasing sheep, which we now view as just canine playfulness. The case of old drum, it has been said, represents a turning point in history in terms of our attitudes to dogs. Dogs have become man’s hero as well as his best friend; Other canine heros, include Hachiko, the dog that waited at Shibuya railway station in Japan for his much loved owner for 10 years. Memorials have been constructed in his honour around Shibuya and are popular and much loved not only by locals but by tourists. Dogs fight by our side in wars and even give up their lives to protect us. The US war dog’s association has documented the love and respect we have for our canines serving in the military allowing users to share their stories, get an insight into the duties and work military dogs do, as well as commemorate and honour our four legged soldiers that have sacrificed their lives in order to save ours. So why is it when dogs have undeniably demonstrated their strong ability to feel, and demonstrate loyalty, courage and protectiveness for humans do we still act so barbarically and cruelly?

Two key examples of this are the practices of the dog meat trade and the cold hearted disposal of dogs; both strays and pets in countries such as Romania, China, Vietnam, South Korea and Bulgaria. It’s hard to think that what we consider family members others view as meat or food. This practise started centuries ago when famine and food shortages were common and people turned to other sources of meat protein, such as dog and cat meat as no other options were available. But today in China and the rest of the world food consumption is very high, so the trade and slaughter of dog and cat meat seems unnecessary and extremely cruel! A lot of these dogs are stolen from families who love and adore them, or trafficked off the streets under the belief that they are pests or unwanted, and fall victim to inhumane and horrific slaughter practices that are monstrous in every sense of the word. These include being hung and skinned whilst another dog watches on as the belief is in south east Asia that fear increases sexual potency of the meat, some have their legs broken so they can’t flee and then their throats cut, in some areas they are cramped into small cages in display for consumers to pick and choose whilst they are still alive and then taken out back and killed. Can you hand on heart as you read this statement, say that this is acceptable behaviour from any human? Witness accounts have documented the insufferable and tragic crying, yelping and howling during the process of slaughter coming from these amazing, intelligent and feeling creatures.

Organisations such as World Animal Protection (www.worldanimalprotection.org) are doing all they can to raise awareness of these tragic, and I would call old world practices, and I would go as far to say that this has nothing to do with culture! In a world where every country is vying for power, we are modernising and evolving with one another to stay competitive and to remain on top. Countries such as Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan have even banned the dog meat trade, as well as becoming unpopular amongst younger generations in countries still practising such as South Korea, the Philippines, China and Vietnam . In the viral world we live in where capacity for information and communication is a black hole, younger generations are savvy to the need to change and develop to move forward and help the animals and environment to sustain an Earth which, is I would say, struggling to meet human demands. Rather than fighting our animal friends for space and power should we not recognise their vitality in sustaining our ways of life?

Romania has become a hotbed of murderous activity against stray dogs treating them as if they are vermin and to be honest I don’t think there is any need for it. Why do they feel justified in storming rescue homes or a dog walking on the street and then beating it up, and killing it slowly whilst another films it? In a particular case, in the small village of Devin in Bulgaria, one man was persecuted by other villagers for taking in a stray dog called Borko. These villagers beat defenceless Borko when he was a puppy, so badly, leaving his spine broken and paralysed that he could no longer walk. Dr.Litov and his family took him in thankfully. Luckily, the state found the evidence inadmissible and Dr. Litov and Borko were reunited . I am thankful to human beings such as Dr. Litov, the young generations of China, South Korea and Vietnam that despite the cultural pressures, they see the need to give these intelligent animals a chance at a good and loving life, that they are not the enemy but ‘Man’s best friend’.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not suggesting that the world is on a witch hunt to demonise these cultures or countries; it just wants to give these stray animals as well as family members, a right and a voice. After finding that many stray dogs were walking into stadiums in the chaos and confusion of the construction of the Sochi Olympic village, a company was ordered to carry out a mass cull of these dogs with the general sentiment suggesting that they didn’t matter and wouldn’t be missed. One representative for this company went as far as calling these dogs “biological trash”. Well, it’s no wonder the world exploded in outrage with petitions blowing up social networking sites and overflowing with signatures. With the political and rather tense history between the west and Russia, there is bound to be some inference that old grudges were resurfacing. Nevertheless thanks to the compassionate actions of one of Russia’s richest men; Oleg Deripaska, as well as social networking campaigns, as many as 150 dogs were rescued and rehomed. In an interview with the BBC he stated,

“My first dog I found in the street of my village, the tiny village [where I grew up]… It was a very close friend for almost five years.”

Over the centuries attitudes have adorned themselves to the essence of our canine friends; their love, protection, loyalty, intelligence and life. In my opinion, we owe it to them to be worthy of such devotion. I wouldn’t even say the linguistics are culturally specific, instead in my opinion, it is more about education. We have dogs fighting in wars, showing us companionship when we’re alone, protecting us when we are scared, standing by us through good and bad times, so I strongly believe there is no justifiable reason to beat them for walking freely on the street or brutally put them through an agonising death for their meat. These dogs do no harm and show strength and character through adversity, and we as humans could learn a lot from them. It’s easy to forget that in order to modernise, we as humans need to show more compassion. Throughout this article, there are examples of the strength of the friendship between a dog and his owner. Dogs are really man’s best friend and I think it’s time we showed them the respect, love and care they so rightly deserve.

• To sponsor a dog please click on the links below http://www.k9-rescue.org.uk/become-a-k9-sponsor-angel • End the dog meat trade in the Philippines https://networkforanimals.netdonor.net/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=1736&ea.campaign.id=21656

• Stop the mass killing of dogs in Romania http://takeaction.wspa.org.uk/ea-action/action?ea.client.id=11&ea.campaign.id=23048&ea.tracking.id=em&j=16413033&e=

Captive Kingdom

This article is inspired by the film, ‘Deep Blue Sea’. Despite its Hollywood esq story execution and effects, I took away an important message after watching it; we as humans; with our need to entertain, study, research and experiment with these highly intelligent animals, threaten their natural existence, intelligence and freedom. By trapping them in what might as well be a small prison cell, and then asking them to perform for our amusement or to find out more about how they live, we cause them distress and harm as illustrated by documentaries such as ‘Blackfish’. The deep and vast oceans and the majestic plains are indeed grand for the very reason that they enable animals to live freely and evolve. It is the place these creatures call home. My question to you is, is our changing sociology and need to captivate our populations creating a natural imbalance? Although we are kings of the food chain, do we need a parliament to curb our enthusiasm in kidnapping these feeling creatures from their homes and trafficking them into a life of slavery and captivity?

Aged 9, I remember feeling so excited about visiting SeaWorld and being so close to these beautiful creatures. I remember standing next to this very small tank at a distance. I stood astounded by the number of dolphins cramped together in this one tank. There were so many that I couldn’t count. I couldn’t imagine the claustrophobia they must have been feeling. It was like placing an innocent person in a small prison cell that has committed no crime, then asking them to perform tricks with no room to exercise their muscles. Instead they are left there to die a slow and painful death. All every living creature wants is it’s freedom; do we not have a moral obligation to fulfil that?

Holding first rank in the food chain, we divide our world into the human realm and the animal kingdom; however we forget that some of these animals are mammals like us. For instance, during the Taiji cove slaughter a rare baby albino dolphin was captured, quickly removed from the ocean, and placed on display in the Taiji Whale Museum. It’s reported the mother frantically spy hopped calling out to her baby and in the end took herself down to the bottom of the cove and never resurfaced, and the fears are that she is now dead. I think that demonstrates how feeling and thinking these creatures are and not at all different to humans emotionally and mentally[1].

So why do we persist in this behaviour? Recent examples include 2 Orca Whales, the female named Narnia and her male companion; in addition to 6 others that were stolen from the Okhotsk Sea to perform at the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics. Despite thousands of signatures on petitions, these Orca Whales although stopped from performing at the Olympics, have been shipped to other marine parks in other countries such as China to perform circus tricks. Considering the difficulties these countries endured during their communist regimes as part of the former USSR, they still display a complete lack of compassion for life. In this gluttonous quest for financial profit, is the human heart entering an ice age? Documentaries such as ‘Blackfish’ have demonstrated the depraved mental state these larger than life animals suffer, shortening their life span. By taking these wild mammals from their natural environment are we not harming their natural populations and hence acting against conservation?[2]

Organisations such as Whales and Dolphins Conservation have recorded how countries such as Japan and China brutally remove these highly intelligent creatures either during live hunts or airlift them by commercial airlines to marine parks. In the human world when snatched from your home to be then sold into a life of entertainment for other people’s pleasure is classed as trafficking and even slavery. Why should we condone such brutality of our natural world, of creatures that it has been proved have an enormous intellectual capacity, and make a significant contribution to maintaining equilibrium of our natural environment? For me, such people who condone this behaviour or even enjoy it incapacitate human intelligence.  These staged shows and tricks are not a means by which we learn about these animals, but instead limit the potential these animals and we as humans have to evolve.[3] These creatures deserve to live in a world that allows them their freedom and safety to live, and there are many people that sacrifice their lives to ensure this.[4]

In his blog, Mark J. Palmer, associate director of the International marine mammal project, highlights that under the provisions of the federal marine mammal act in the USA at least, dolphins and whales are considered as part of the public trust and that SeaWorld and similar aquariums do NOT “own” the dolphins and whales that are performing tricks for the public. They are on “loan” to the facility.[5]

More recently seaworld has been found guilty of violating the animal welfare act, and keeping these ‘blackfish’ in conditions which are detrimental and potentially fatal to their health.  In my mind the only motivation companies such as SeaWorld have to keep Orca whales and other marine wildlife in captivity is profit making, what other reason is there? If it’s really about educating the public then why charge so much to watch them perform tricks in a tiny tank that doesn’t do any justice to their size? Why not take people out, charge them a fortune to see them in their own natural, wild environment?[6] We have already lost Marius the Giraffe, the latest victim of captivity, to Mr Bengst Holst deciding to take the process of natural selection into his own hands and kill a perfectly healthy and young giraffe[7].

Should we not be promoting life rather than taking it away? By allowing the children to watch the now dead giraffe being carved up for dinner, does this not promote a pro kill attitude? Why do we need to research these animals so much when we don’t even understand enough about the human mind? What are we, primitive beasts? Surely these institutions have a duty of care, especially taking these gracious creatures from their natural environment to work at our pleasure. It’s certainly not an education to hold these animals in restricted areas.

People such as Bengst Holst baffle me when they call themselves animal conservationists, or even just hold such roles, because conservation is about encouraging life not interfering with it. With all our human laws regarding human rights, euthanasia, abortion and honour killings, I don’t know why these institutions then act as if they are the exception and animals don’t serve or contribute the same level of importance to our natural landscapes. I believe that these attitudes do affect the evolution of humans and these barbaric acts suggest that we are reverting to primitive methods of existence.

In turn, these atrocities are making entire cultures vulnerable to heavy criticism and political upheaval in a world at constant war. Yoko Ono expresses this beautifully in a letter to the Taiji fishermen that have been criticised for blasé attitude to the annual capturing and slaughter of dolphins. She highlights how these acts can harm the reputation of an entire country and culture in a time when every country in the world wants to be a super power and is looking for any excuse to weaken another. She even goes as far as to say that celebrating such atrocities as seen by the west will make the children of the world hate Japan[8].

Again as with the case of Marius she points out that celebrating brutality and the unnecessary killing of these amazing animals is not an education for children. I agree, as I think all these centres holding wild animals captive, should not underestimate the intelligence of our younger generations. In the prime of their youth children are fearless, and able to think for themselves. Captivity not only threatens the animal kingdom but it also threatens the education and the views of upcoming generations.

There are so many cases that I wanted to highlight in this article to reflect the mighty scale of trauma that we put these amazing animals through; Tania the elephant stolen from her family in the wild as a baby, and held captive in a Romanian zoo for 37 years in solitary confinement[9], the animals dying of starvation at Kharkiv Zoo in Ukraine, victims of the fighting between Russia and Ukraine[10]

My conclusion is this…the welfare of these highly intelligent, feeling, living creatures requires a public response and organisations such as SeaWorld and zoos should be providing a means to maintain public trust. They’re not just animals as I feel I have demonstrated. They live in a Kingdom that we are still trying to understand, but I feel interfering with their evolution and standing so closely doesn’t allow anyone to grow or be educated. Upcoming generations can learn nothing from a thinking, feeling, knowing animal that exists rather than lives in a tiny tank or cage or being killed for entertainment. Like any human in this same situation, you will never see them flourish. Treating animals so barbarically has serious political implications upon individual cultures and countries. I write these articles as I want to give these amazing creatures a voice. They’re not just animals but part of what makes our world so great and beautiful so give them their freedom and you’ll be educated.


The Marmite Effect on Fox Hunting

Foxes are like marmite, you either love them or hate them, however the two camps struggle to co-exist and have often provoked passionate debates about their place not only in the environment but also within society. I fall into the camp where having watched a television show where a fox cub endured the fright and terror of being captured in a cage for goodness knows how long, only to be faced by its tormentor before being brutally shot dead. How many foxes actually die quick deaths by the first bullet? All I have to say to the “hate” camp is hashtag have a heart.

I feel rather than killing everything that gets in your way, perhaps it’s time to acknowledge that co-existence is necessary, it’s not an option. If bear baiting, dog fighting and other so called “sports” are universally accepted as cruel to animals, then why should fox hunting be any different? For civilisation to be civilised, then man’s development should be at least cost to the rest of nature and we should limit bull dozing our way across the landscape and slaughtering wildlife simply because it is inconvenient to accommodate them. To utilise the argument that fox hunting is a “tradition” amongst the rural community dating back to the 16th century is dependent upon perspective as British tradition too has evolved; The Sunday Church Service has been replaced by the Sunday shopping sales, cuisine such as the balti, vindaloo and korma have become national dishes, and fox hunting used to considered a means of pest control rather than a blood “sport”.

I would like to reiterate that these are my personal views and I speak for myself and no-one else, although I’d like to think there are many out there that would agree with me. I have indeed read articles found on the websites of organisations such as ‘The Countryside Alliance’, and whilst I respect their cause to preserve what little countryside we have left in Britain and the battle against building “faster” rail lines and big multinational corporations building concrete landscapes, I do have a problem with sweeping generalisations used to lead their campaigns as illustrated by an extract taken from their website;

The Hunting Act 2004 came into force at midnight on 17th February 2005. Our relentless campaigning has guaranteed that the Hunting Act is now widely acknowledged to be bad law. It is no accident that many political commentators, Chief Constables, senior civil servants and a majority of the public have taken this view. The Countryside Alliance has worked tirelessly to expose the law for what it is: hard to interpret and enforce illiberal, bad for animal welfare and a waste of police resources.’[1]

Mass statements such as these lack substance as throwing in the word ‘senior’ or ‘chief’ next to a title doesn’t mean that their opinions matter more than the rest of us or even that they have more sway. They claim that they serve as a bastion to preserve all that is British, when in fact they only represent the well-heeled gentry. By hiding behind the guise that this is a moral argument, they instead like any cunning politician draw political divides between those that are powerful and those that are not. The mistake these organisations make is taking kindness for weakness. Brutality serves as a mask for insecurity and weakness, and I believe tolerance, compassion and kindness are much more signs of strength. In Britain we have the luxury of calling ourselves a developed country so should we not practice what we preach?

Animal welfare and conservation organisations such as the RSPCA have the right to save as many animal lives as they can with our support! Foxes and countryside wildlife are wild! They are not supposed to have human interaction, and we are imposing on their habitat and their homes. The Countryside Alliance claim to have worked tirelessly to expose the law, but their pursuit only represents private landowners’ financial interests rather than the general public’s access to rural pursuits.

In an article from The Times newspaper, dated the 2nd January, Dominic Kennedy, investigations editor writes, “The RSPCA has been accused of spurious and politically motivated prosecutions of hunt supporters after a study showed that four out of five attempts to prosecute hunts had failed, costing taxpayers at least £70,000.” [2]

This article follows allegations made by the RSPCA against the Heythrop hunt which covers areas in and around Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire. I certainly have to question the validity of these findings. I ask myself, how many people were questioned? Which locations were targeted for research? What research techniques were used? How were people vetted during the study? Who was the research aimed at? How were questions worded? Was there even a distinct possibility that questions were leading or that people answered in accordance to what researchers required them to answer? Furthermore, may I suggest that it is the hunters themselves that are costing the tax payer £70,000 in taxes because for each time they go out in search of blood for the sake of sport or more accurately fun, we have to send out police officers to remind them that they are not the law abiding citizens that they claim to be.

It is well known that fox hunting has its roots in 16th century farming practices when it was used as a method of pest control. However, almost 600 years on, animal welfare and conservation has become a hot topic of discussion particularly in the west, with headlines such as the horse meat scandal dominating news bulletins, celebrities speaking out against the fur trade and Sainsbury’s supermarket finally selling eggs from cage free hens as part of their basic range. We and our views have evolved dramatically since ye old days. To call fox hunting a tradition is to hold on to a dated or even primitive way of living, before industrialisation, before technology, before a social welfare system, before the political state. As the Countryside Alliance have stated, “four out of five attempts to prosecute hunts had failed”[3] demonstrating that their ideals are embedded in a struggle for power. Foxes are no threat to us as humans or to our way of life as we have all the tools at our disposal making us heads of the food chain. We do nevertheless; have a necessary obligation to protect these beautiful creatures as they are a necessary part of the landscape and the circle of life. I for one would rather look out of my window to an abundance of wildlife rather than a rural plain with no life.