Rewilding Weeloo, the Enigmatic Bush Stone-curlew

by Paula Peeters

Cold wind buffets my breath as the small boat bounces along the waves. We are heading towards a tiny, sun-bleached rocky nub of an island, one of the many that cluster about the sprawling, inverted triangle of Eyre Peninsula, like small fish shadowing a large, cruising shark. And sharks aren’t far from my mind. As I clamber from the boat to the sloping brown rocks, slick with algae, I’m concentrating hard on not falling in. Great white sharks are regulars in these waters – they take fish, seals, sea lions and the occasional unfortunate surfer or abalone diver. Right now the Australian sea lions are pupping, which is why I am here on this island. I’m helping researchers Peter Shaughnessy and Terry Dennis count this season’s pups to help track the status of this threatened species.

The Australian sea lion is golden-coated, dewy-eyed and the only pinniped that’s endemic to Australia. The lithe, sleek females are reclining here and there, dozing in the bright sunlight. Their chocolate-brown pups are less obvious and more difficult to find. We scramble transects across the low rocky brow of the island, keeping each other in sight to make sure no pups are missed.

Bush-stone-curlew_smallPP
Illustration by Paula Peeters

Eyre Peninsula is about halfway along the southern shoreline of Australia, and a special cast of creatures inhabit its coasts and islands. Dapper black-and-white pacific gulls stand sentinel on rocks and beaches, often in pairs. Green rock parrots tinkle as they alight daintily on the coastal bushes, gleaning puckered yellow berries from the ruby saltbush. They chatter to each other, inspecting cracks and crevices in the cliff lines for possible nest sites. Oystercatchers pipe sadly as they fly parallel to the beach, in pairs, and white-bellied sea eagles and ospreys can often be seen drifting high overhead. Some islands have bilbies, others have bettongs, rock wallabies, or stick-nest rats. There are also ark populations of pythons, and odd varieties of tiger snake.

Today, the matronly bulk of gentle grey Cape Barren geese are surveying us warily, red eyes alert behind zinc-yellow beaks. As I carefully examine the bony carapace of the island in my search for sea lion pups, my eyes occasionally sink into the unfocused depths of a downy goose nest. Its softness contrasts strangely with the harshness of the low spiky, salt-pruned bushes and the sparse threads of dry grass. And suddenly, glaring at me with its enormous yellow eyes, is a bush stone-curlew. Upright and obvious on its long, thin legs; slight and seemingly vulnerable against the wide sky.

Sea-lion, goose and stone-curlew, assembled on this low treeless island surrounded by sea – a striking image, and one that challenges my idea of the ‘normal’ habitat of a bush stone-curlew. I had associated this enigmatic, ground-dwelling bird with grassy woodlands, not rocky, sea-swept islands. But I am so happy to see it here, slowly sidling away, neck extended, its buff-and-brown markings already dissolving back into the landscape. The bush stone-curlew Burhinus grallarius – also known as the bush thick-knee – has declined over large parts of it range, including throughout Eyre Peninsula. It’s one of the threatened species we are trying to restore to Coffin Bay National Park, a mainland park that is not far away. Stone-curlews are described as ‘terrestrial waders’, and there are 10 species worldwide. But the bush stone-curlew is more closely associated with dry land than wetlands. Before European settlement it was found over much of the Australian mainland, but it is now listed as threatened in the south-eastern states of Victoria and New South Wales.

* * *

The barren calcrete landscape is illuminated in the headlights as K.D. Lang’s rich, languid voice fills the cab of the 4WD. Perhaps incongrously, but then perhaps there is a likeness between this landscape and the mid-winter bleakness of the lands of the 49th parallel. Nothing stirs as our 4WD lurches after ranger Tom’s ute, which is showing us the way over this seemingly blasted landscape of bare white rocks, twists of grazed-down grasses, and the bleached gnarled bodies of sheoaks, laying sideways where they once stood tall. Stubborn clumps of half green, half twiggy-dead coast beard-heath and other unpalatable shrubs loom in and out of view. And every now and then there is a movement – the rhythmic bounce of a western grey kangaroo – and then it stops and stands, turns to look towards us, into the headlights. Quizzical, and not very smart. An easy target if we had a gun, but we don’t. Tom Gerschwitz isn’t hunting roos tonight – the cull will be later in the year. Tonight we’re hunting bush stone-curlews, but not to kill. They’re a cherished native species, and part of the ecological restoration of this park. Tonight we’re trying call-playback to find out if they have returned.
The call of a bush stone-curlew is an unearthly, haunting thing. It begins as a weird wail that swells in volume and rises in tone, and then multiplies into a shuddering cacophony of hysterical cries. It sounds like many birds are calling, but I’m told it only emanates from one. But bush stone-curlews often call together – in gatherings that have been described as whistling concerts, corroborees or glee parties. In many Aboriginal cultures the stone-curlew’s call is associated with death. The Warlpiri people of the Tanami Desert believe that when a stone curlew calls in a certain way then there are many dingoes around; if it calls differently a small child might throw a trembling fit. Aboriginal names for these birds include Weeloo and Willaroo – which echo the sound of its call – and also Wayayi, Wirntiki and Ngamirlirli. No doubt there are many more Aboriginal names, since the bush stone-curlew’s natural range is most of mainland Australia.

We cut the gurgling diesel engines and are swallowed by the dark stillness of the night. Except for the distant sigh of the sea, in place of the sighing that the wind would have made in the sheoaks, were they still alive. Tom knows from old folk’s tales and surveyors’ maps that this place was a sheoak grassy woodland when white people settled here. The drooping sheoak Allocasuarina verticillata is a graceful greyish tree with fine long hanging branchlets that look soft and hairlike from a distance, like the tails of the feral horses only recently removed from the Park. The Ngarrindjeri aboriginal people believe that the sound of wind in the sheoaks are the voices of their spirit ancestors. These trees are drought-tolerant and nitrogen-fixing; nutritious and highly palatable to horse, sheep, cow and rabbit. The early settlers introduced all four, which competed with the kangaroos that also like eating sheoaks. Any sheoaks that were within browsing height were devoured, and old trees were felled to provide extra feed. Fire and rain loosened the thin precious topsoil – already bared of grass from overgrazing, and the long, dry Mediterranean-climate summers. The soil washed away, exposing the calcrete bones of the Coffin Bay Peninsula. They made it a National Park when it wasn’t good for much else: Coffin Bay National Park, on the south-western tip of Eyre Peninsula.

In the darkness Tom plays the recorded wailing call of the bush stone-curlew. And we wait quietly, our breath steaming in the cold starlight. There is no answer from bird or beast, so we move on to the next monitoring site. And the next. No calls respond to the recorded cries. There are no stone-curlews here.

* * *

Several years have passed, and I now live in Brisbane, subtropical Queensland, many miles northeast of the Eyre Peninsula. I often cycle to the Queensland Herbarium, nestled in the foothills of Mt Coot-tha Forest, on the grounds of the Brisbane Botanic Gardens. The last steep slope up to the back entrance of the Herbarium takes some effort, especially at the end of a long ride. One day, when I was slowly pedalling up this bitumen driveway, I felt those yellow eyes upon me once more. This time there were two pairs of eyes: two bush stone-curlews were sitting blithely on the verge of the road. One standing, one sitting; both eyeing me calmly from their chosen resting place that was in the open, amongst the bark-chip-mulch.

This is a resident pair that is often seen around the back of the Herbarium, seemingly oblivious to the comings and goings of botanists and ecologists, and the loading and unloading of vehicles. Bush stone-curlews may be threatened in most of south-eastern Australia, but they are still secure in northern Australia, including Queensland. Even in the suburbs of Brisbane – which is a major city – there are many places where the wailing cry of the bush stone-curlew is often heard. This made me curious, as foxes were often cited in southern Australia as a major cause of the bush stone-curlew’s decline. But foxes are present in Brisbane, along with dogs and cats.

As an ecologist, I’m always wary of the simple answer. Most ecosystems are composed of numerous species, interacting in a multitude of complex ways, in space and time. I am also suspicious of certain people that seem to gain satisfaction from killing feral animals, and are eager to vilify these creatures, and blame them for the decline of native species. I suspect it’s some sort of displaced guilt. Over the last 200 years or so, humans (and the domestic animals we nurture) have been by far the most destructive feral animals that have impacted on the Australian environment. But instead of facing this reality, there is much hatred directed towards feral cats, foxes and rabbits.

Sheoak-restorationPP
Sheoak restoration within grazing enclosure.

Feral animals are a significant threat to many native Australian species. But sometimes feral species are not the main threat to a native species, or even a threat at all. The main factors that seem to have caused the decline of the bush stone-curlew in south-eastern Australia are the destruction of its habitat by overgrazing, burning and intensive clearing of vegetation. Tom understood this for Coffin Bay National Park – that the stone-curlews were unlikely to return without the restoration of the sheoak grassy woodlands, despite an ongoing fox control program. I suspect that the long dry summers and generally lower productivity of southern Australia also make it much harder to restore some habitats and maintain healthy populations of certain native species. In the parts of northern Australia where the bush stone-curlew is secure, even common, the summers are hot and wet, and the winters are mild. Plant growth is rampant, which results in a large and continuous supply of leaf-litter and woody debris, which are used by stone-curlews as breeding, resting and feeding sites. Heat, moisture and abundant plantlife also results in high numbers of insects, other invertebrates, frogs and lizards which make up the bulk of the stone-curlew diet. As long as some native vegetation is retained, fires are infrequent and grazing pressure is low (as is the case in the more leafy suburbs of Brisbane) it seems that bush stone-curlew habitat is in reasonably good supply, and these birds continue to survive, and even thrive. Even in the presence of the foxes, dogs, cats – and people – who also live in the greater Brisbane area.

* * *

In Coffin Bay National Park, and elsewhere on Eyre Peninsula, people are trying to coax sheoaks and native grasses back into the landscape, and in this way conserve the native species that rely on sheoak grassy woodlands. (In Australia, the term ‘woodland’ is used for a treed ecosystem where the trees are relatively widely spaced, and the foliage cover of the tallest tree layer is less than 30%. The term ‘forest’ is reserved for denser stands of trees where foliage cover of the tallest tree
layer is greater than 30%.) Woodlands with an open, grassy understorey have been heavily exploited for grazing and cropping. It’s no coincidence that many native plant and animal species that once lived in these grassy woodlands – especially those in southern Australia – are now in decline or are gone forever. As I learnt from my island adventure, the bush stone-curlew doesn’t always live in woodlands – it has a preference for open area generally, and has been observed nesting where there is good visibility at ground level for at least 250 m all round. But in many mainland habitats the bush stone-curlew is strongly associated with leaf litter and woody debris. These provide good camouflage for the stone-curlew and also homes for the small creatures that it hunts. Fires, grazing, tree loss, firewood collection and just general ‘tidying up’ all result in less leaf litter and woody debris. Fortunately, people are learning that an ‘untidy’ woodland – where wood and litter are left where they fall – provides a much healthier habitat for wildlife than one that is regularly groomed, and devoid of organic clutter.

Bush-stone-curlewPP
Bush Stone Curlew – image by Raymond Carpenter

In southern New South Wales the Nature Conservation Working Group has been releasing captive-bred bush stone-curlews to supplement the dwindling local populations of this species. There have been six releases since 2008. Most of the birds have survived and some have also bred, with the most recent chicks sighted in January 2015. Predator control is an important part of the rewilding of the bush stone-curlew, but it isn’t the only factor involved. A release of bush stone-curlews into a predator-free enclosure in New South Wales was less successful (in terms of bird survival) compared to a concurrent release of birds into a predator-controlled, unfenced area nearby. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy, which manages these sites, suggested that starvation was the cause of bird mortality in the predator-free area. Research by Elisa Tack in southern New South Wales and north east Victoria has also revealed the important, but often overlooked role of food availability for the conservation and rewilding of the bush stone-curlew.

Bush stone-curlew romance, or at least sex, has also made it to the internet, thanks to an innovative rewilding project in the Australian Capital Territory. The Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary has reintroduced a number of locally extinct woodland animals – including the bush stone-curlew – into a predator-free enclosure which adjoins a new suburb. By law, neighbouring residents are required to keep their cats on their premises at all times. A bird called Rowena was part of the first group of bush stone-curlews released in October 2014. Like many young adolescents she was keen to explore the world on her own terms, and promptly flew out of the predator-free enclosure to try a bit of urban living. Fortunately she survived some brief forays across roads, and some cat-naps on road verges and roundabouts, and was returned by concerned residents when they noticed her leg tag. Since then she has stayed within the predator-free Sanctuary, and has developed an attachment to fellow-release bird Herbie. Both were captured on film while trying to procreate and you can watch their tentative dance on YouTube (https://youtu.be/YxXbqYZ5v-c ). Kate Grarock, the ecologist at Mulligans Flat, thinks it’s unlikely that they will breed successfully for several months, but there is great excitement for the future. A second release of bush stone-curlews is planned for September/October 2015, and the local community appears to be enthusiastically behind the project.

The bush stone-curlew is a curious, charismatic, and some might say spooky part of Australia’s heritage. Many people across the country are concerned for its welfare, and are working hard to ensure the continued existence of this species. Our understanding of wildlife ecology is also maturing, as more and more people comprehend the complexity of ecological interactions, and the importance of good quality habitat as well as predator control when it comes to saving threatened species. Whether these efforts can keep up with the rapacious rate of ongoing environmental degradation, especially the impacts of a continuously growing human population, and the ongoing effects of climate change, is not known. But at least the bush stone-curlew has many friends, and the rewilding movement just keeps on growing.

* Update on the Mulligan’s Flat stone-curlews, December 2015: Rowena and Herbie are still living within the Sanctuary, and have raised their first chick. The chick is doing well, and is seen on camera each week. Ten more captive-bred bush stone-curlews were released into the Sanctuary in October 2015, and all have survived so far. Just before Christmas two of the newly-released birds (Lewis and Kay) were found to be protecting a nest with eggs, much to the delight of everyone involved in Mulligan’s Flat.

References and thanks

Anderson, G.J. (1991) The breeding biology and the bush thick-knee Burhinus magnirostris and notes on its distribution in the Brisbane area. The Sunbird 21:32-61

Gosford, B. 2010 Bird of the Week: the Bush Stone Curlew as a harbinger of death…and more. http://blogs.crikey.com.au/northern/2010/09/27/bird-of-the-week-the-bush-stone-curlew-as-a-harbinger-of-death-and-more/  Accessed 13/08/2015

Hume, R. & Bonan, A. (2013). Thick-knees (Burhinidae). In: del Hoyo, J., Elliott, A., Sargatal, J., Christie, D.A. & de Juana, E. (eds.) (2013). Handbook of the Birds of the World Alive. Lynx Edicions, Barcelona. (retrieved from http://www.hbw.com/node/52241 on 13 August 2015).

Kate Grarock, ecologist at Mulligans Flat Woodland Sanctuary, and www.bettongs.org Accessed 13/08/2015

Kemp, L., D Roshier, L Steindler, N Riessen (2014) Trialling Release Protocols and Thresholds of Predator Presence for the Reintroduction of the Bush Stone-curlew to southern Australia. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.

Marchant,S. and P.J. Higgins (1993) Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic birds. Volume 2. Raptors to Lapwings. Oxford University Press, Melbourne.

Nature Conservation Action Group http://www.bushstonecurlew.com.au/about Accessed 14/08/2015

Peeters, P. J., Gerschwitz, T., & Carpenter, R. J. (2006). Restoring sheoak grassy woodlands on lower Eyre Peninsula. Unpublished report, Department of Environment and Heritage, South Australia.

Tack, E. (2014) Lessons from 10 years of Studying Bush Stone-curlews. Abstract for the 3rd Curlew Summit, August 2014, Albury.

 

Paula Peeters is a writer, artist and ecologist. Her written work ranges from playful observations of nature, to science communication, and many things in between. Her art practice focusses on wildlife and ecosystems, and strives to capture the beauty, habit and characteristic light of these subjects. Paula blogs at www.paperbarkwriter.com

 

Header image courtesy of Raymond Carpenter.

Poetry – Issue 4.1

The Meter Magpie

by Anna Cathenka

scoobidy boo bop the magpie
talks in meter feet are bib bob scatting
stealing shiny snippets the rib rib
magpie mimics artists’ practice
unnoticed the bee bob meter magpie
skibbidy pop pops in black and white
feet hop the free hop
jazzed up corvid
pippity pop pops the free verse
flippity hop hops in improv
yippity do wop it won’t stop
bee bop flip flop
flying and ribbing
and ribbidy wee wah weaving
a work of waste word nest

 

ALPHA DREAMS

by Bill Cushing

The wolf bares fangs
even when sleeping.

Legs move
in rapid dream-twitches;
cheeks quiver from tickling
branches that swipe his head.

Leading the hunt,
he chases with others of the pack–
11111111111sweaty fear
11111111111fills his nostrils
11111111111and sanguine expectation
11111111111tingles through his flanks.

Nipping,
then ripping
at the flanks of a deer,
they jump
with him, as one.
Then, the imagined pack
straddles its fallen meal,
dining
without grace.

A lullaby of teeth,
as enamel scrapes against bone,
and the song of sinew,
stretching before tearing free from
the cooling carcass,
fill his night.

Stac an Armin

by David J. Costello

Oddly drenched,
the granite shark’s fin
sheds its gannets
in a perforating
avalanche of white.
From a distance
it deforms into
its own reflection,
dips its dirty icing
in the cold Atlantic swell.
Poses for my camera
like a newly laundered sheet.
Keened to spikes
the gannets pitch a plunge
and stitch my picture
back into its frame.

Note: Stac an Armin is a sea stack in St Kilda’s archipelago. It’s the site of the largest breeding colony of Gannets in the world.

Feedback

by Jan Moran Neil

Mother Hyena:
clearing agent of the Weld,
stripper of white bones;
powdered faeces, false penis,
howling, hunchbacked editor.

poemspacer

Illume

by Jenifer DeBellis

111111111111111illume / i lo͞om / verb
111111111111111illuminate; light up.

The first one was lucky to die
within a week. The second one shrunk

daily, its dorsal fin and caudal lobes
notched like a skeleton key, its eyes

bulged in a state of eternal fright.
The third week claimed the second

goldfish, and the fighter fish lasted
another day—its bloated body

floating alongside its broken heart.

Haar

by Joan Lennon

In the night the sea’s slow breath
rolled up from the shore,
filmed over colour with damp,
smudged the trees beyond the wall.

Each note of the blackbird’s challenge
swims past the window now
like a line of fish
patrolling the misted perimeter.

Even the crows stay low,
oar cautiously,
reluctant to bump against
the lid of the sky.

Poet Biographies:

Anna Cathenka is a non-fiction writer and poet studying Creative Writing at Falmouth University. She explores language at the meeting point between the human and the ‘natural’. Her poetry has been published in WiTH and The Wardrobe and she can be found online @annacathenka

Bill Cushing earned an MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and currently teaches English classes at both Mount San Antonio and East Los Angeles colleges. He has previously had poems published in Avocet, Brownstone Review, Penumbra, genius & madness, the Onion River Review, the Synergist, Spectrum, the Sabal Palm Review,andMetaphor. He has had work published in two anthologies, Getting Old and Stories of Music, as well as having a short story due out in Newtown Literary Journal.

David J. Costello lives in Wallasey, Merseyside, England. He is a member of Chester Poets. David has been widely published on-line and in print including Prole, The Lake, Provo Canyon Review, Magma and Envoi. David is a previous winner of the Welsh International Poetry Competition. His debut pamphlet, “Human Engineering”, was published by Thynks Publishing in October 2013. A second pamphlet will appear in September 2016 from Red Squirrel Press.

Jan Moran Neil has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Winner of BBC Writers’ short story competition. She has been running Creative Ink for Writers for 15 years. Her fifth play: A President in Waiting … was performed at the Desmond Tutu HIV Youth Foundation Centre , Cape Town last November. Her novel Blackberry Promises is available on Amazon as is her first collection of poetry and short stories: Serving Bluebird Pie. She is a regular contributor to Writing Magazine. www.janmoranneil.co.uk/blog

Jenifer DeBellis is Pink Panther Magazine’s editor. She’s a Solstice MFA grad and former Meadow Brook Writing Project Fellow. DeBellis teaches creative writing for Baker College and Oakland University’s Writing Camps. She’s published in the Aurorean, AWP’s Festival Writer, BAC Street Journal, the Good Men Project, and Solstice Lit Mag.

Joan Lennon is a Scottish-Canadian/Canadian-Scottish writer, living in Fife, in a flat overlooking the River Tay. She has had novels, stories and poems published for readers of all ages. Her latest YA novel, Silver Skin, is set in Skara Brae, Orkney. www.silver-skin.co.uk

Poetry – Issue 4.2

Genesis

by Susan DeFreitas

This morning’s creation wavers
below me, as special as any,
close enough to touch:
a fish with arms and
two tiny ruffs
sprouting from its head like
God’s own ferns
circulating in the current
of its ephemeral world.

All day, those diminutive hands haunt me,
the way they cling to nothing.
The way the words for what is rare are disappearing

the world of the future

the way it will be

more imaginary

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Hummingbird in the Garage

by Karen Terrey

I opened my hand. The hummingbird tumbled
weightless in the grass, curled toenails shrouded
with cobweb. A false escape, to lunge
at the dirty light of the windowpanes again.
Again. Green chest heaving, my fingers
clumsy unthreading the spider’s threads.
That a trap for insects could catch this bundled
iridescence. Some desire of hers –
Food, shelter, love. Does it matter?
So quickly the scales can tip. Both of us
unfit for our tasks. Both trembling.
I left her in the sun and soon,
she was not there. And how should I love?
When I opened my hand I didn’t feel anything.

poemspacer

Snacking on the Plankton of St Kilda

by Seth Crook

Tides and light and you have life,
the multi-colours of anemones.
Dive with a breather,
and you can sit within a shoal of fish.
Without the bubbles
they don’t notice, or don’t care,
pass an arm’s-length from your face.
Sometimes the basking shark glides in,
so visible in un-silted water.
But it is sweet, with tiny teeth.
No more dangerous
than the one cloud weather system
that hangs over Boreray.

poemspacer

Old Elephants

by Linnea Wortham Harper

Time must have hooked itself to a chain
of old elephants to be going this slow.
These circus ghosts, retired with health care,
have nothing to do but drag it around their
sanctuary all day like a bale of rotting hay,
leaving bits and stalks in their lurch.

Shall we hitch a ride on the back
of this beast? Take the time and slow it down
to a dull glide? Scrape it against the walls
and drag it through the water trough?
Unhook it where it washes up,
watch it dry in the slow air?

Or we could keep our distance,
maybe pellet the tough hides
with pebbles from our peashooters,
try to get a rise.

When they were young, and shapely women
in scanty clothing rode their proud shoulders,
did they quicken their pace then?

And did time stop altogether in the spotlight,
in the warm glow of public applause,
and are they all recalling now
their last bow, one knee on the floor,
hoping against hope
it will never start again?

poemspacer

Snails

by Michael Murray

Snails glide across pre-dawn pavement stones,
mucal galleons;
striated, colour-schemed, banded shells
their thin veneer peeling in places.
At twilight always they trek back to grass —
following their path, returning;
their wet passage dotted, morse-coded,
by shells dipping, rocking,
as they glide and draw, glide and draw
their muscular foot.
I doubt tonight they will come, the rods of rain
would knock clear any track,
and puddle mud on their route back.
Even the ants have gone deep, off centre
in their safer chambers.

poemspacer

Poet Biographies

Susan DeFreitas is a writer, editor, and spoken word artist. Her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in The Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Southwestern American Literature, Fourth River, Weber—The Contemporary West, and Bayou Magazine, among other publications, and in 2014 her work was a finalist for a Best of the Net award. She is the author of the fiction chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications) and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She lives in Portland, Oregon, where she serves as an editor with Indigo Editing & Publications.

Karen Terrey’s poems have appeared in Rhino, Puerto del Sol, Canary, Cider Press Review, Grey Sparrow, Kokanee and Sierra Nevada Review.  Her chapbook Bite and Blood (2015) is available from Finishing Line Press. She teaches writing at Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra College. A graduate of the Goddard College MFA in creative writing, she lives in Truckee, California with her Cattledog Stoli.

Seth Crook taught philosophy at various universities for a number of years before deciding to move to the Hebrides. His poems have recently appeared in such places as Gutter, New Writing Scotland, Poetry Scotland, Northwords Now, the Open Mouse, Far Off Places, the Rialto, Magma, Envoi, Antiphon.

Linnea Wortham Harper lives on a tidal slough on the central Oregon coast. Before she was a poet, she was a social worker, and before she was a social worker, she was a poet. At the age of 5, she introduced WH Auden to the poetry of AA Milne. This has been her greatest poetic achievement to date.

Michael Murray lives on the edge of the English Peak District. He has been involved in animal keeping and welfare for many years. He sees as proof against the alienation effect of modern life, and Rilke’s First Elegy where we are not at home in the world.

New Development

by Dawn Paul

Shorter and shorter days. The sun pours its heat on my back but no longer drives me to find a part of the rock ledge still in shadow. In the long bright days, the sun was something to hide from, the whole length of my body crying out with too much heat. Especially after shedding, my skin new and tender. Now that remembered warmth feels good.

These are the two places I know, that I carry inside as home: the ledges and the den. One where I am alone, the other with so many of us. Two places with the long travel line stretched between. I follow the travel line when it’s time, trust that urge to keep going, let it draw me to the den. Always, I am reluctant to start. But now the stones of the ledges lose their heat before sunrise and my body wants to seek out the old trail. It senses the den out there, the heat of our bodies entwined, the darkness. The rasp of our skin, the smell of all of us there, together. No more hunting now. Wood rats, small quail: I am satisfied.

The day begins cold. The travel line enters me like the feeling of hot meat in the mouth. Like sunlight, like sex. When I am on the travel line, I cannot turn back. It draws me. I slip off the end of the ledge, slide down to the dust below, its open danger. Down, down, my tail gathering weight, my head thrusting forward, faster, my belly muscles trying to grip, to keep ahead of the flow of my own body.

Onward then through level ground: leaves, gravel, rocks. The land rises. Sand, small pools of water. I stop and drink. Thirst quenched, I need nothing now but movement. The travel line is not a place. It is not the ledges, not the den. It is only motion, a certainty that pulls me, spools me out, as though the earth is disappearing behind me, sliding off into its own nothingness.

The land levels out again, through tall dry grasses. I see the heat-flicker of mice, but do not pursue. Soon there will be the long dark path through rocks that leads up to the den. Coolness, then slipping down into gathering warmth. So many of us. I feel us all on our journeys, drawn along the travel lines that always lead to the den.

But now something new: short green grass, sunlight. In the middle of this grass, something looms. Like a strange square hill, but bright yellow, with no trees on it and many rectangles that glint in the sun. This place was not here before. This short grass is too open. It is not safe from things that attack from above, those winged shadows I know of but have never seen. Grasping claws, pain, such speed. Their danger inheres in me, in all of us. I hold still, confused.

The sun fades to night. The air cools. In darkness I go, stretch my body to reach the other side of the open place, to the safety of the woods beyond. I come out of the woods onto a hard flat place. It is smooth and holds the sun’s heat. Another new strangeness. But its warmth feels good and I curl up on its edge to wait for morning. The flat hardness starts to vibrate under me. Eyes glare like two suns in darkness and a scorched smell fills the air. The eyes come toward me, fast. I know two ways to meet a threat: leap toward or slide away. But I have no knowledge of this, not my own, not the danger-knowledge that exists inside to warn me. So I do neither, and the eyes flash by in a rush of poisonous wind. When the land and air is still, I slide off the flat place, sorry to leave its good warmth.

When the sun rises, I go across the smooth place. Into the woods, following the travel line through scrubby bushes, past crickets and their small bits of heat. I come out into another dread place of short grass that exposes my back. I go, this time quickly and in a straight line, toward the woods beyond. A large animal, reddish like a huge fox, appears and puts its black nose to my body. But it’s not a fox: a fox would know better. I leap at the foxlike animal. It jumps back, tongue lolling out of its mouth, eyes bright with surprise. It wags its tail, leans in again. I rear up, open my mouth, feel my fangs snap down, ready. My tail whirrs.

Then another animal, tall, moving on two legs, rushes to the foxlike one. They both flare with heat. The tall one grabs the neck of the foxlike one. I rear back to strike but this one pulls the other away. I turn, flee. In my terror, I lose the travel line.

What is this place and these creatures? Where is the danger-knowledge of them?
I wait until slowly, like damp, darkness, warmth, light, or hunger, the travel line enters me. I go again with dread across the open-back place, across another narrow smooth flatness. Into the woods and the large animals do not pursue me.

The travel line grows more certain. I feel us. I feel the torching heat of sun on a rock but the heat is in my body. Then I see the long warmth of one of us: yes, that one, large and old. I feel all of us on our travel lines. The old trail is now a strong vibration around me. I stretch my body, push each muscle against the earth, let the vibration enter. It surrounds me like water in a stream and I feel its current deep inside. The current grows stronger. I know this path through the rocks. All of us are around me now, part of the current, the vibrations. There is more short grass, but I see the backs of all of us rising from it. I see the long heat of our bodies glowing. We are all gathering. The den is near. I go.

But then—another square hill with gleaming rectangles. This one has a wood ledge attached to it. An animal stands on that ledge, a tall animal like the one that pulled the foxlike one away. It stands on its two legs, flaring heat. So much heat, like a wood rat just before we strike. But we are not hunting. We only want our den. Where is the pile of rocks that shelters our den?

The surface of the earth is changed and there are new animals. But the den must be here. The den is all we know, all we have. It has been here for all time. Perhaps this new animal now marks the endpoint of the travel line, a pillar of heat showing us the way.

We go.

Dawn Paul’s stories have been published most recently in The Sun Magazine, Valparaiso Fiction Review, and Apple Valley Review and she is the author of the novel, The Country of Loneliness (Marick Press). Her work has also been published in anthologies and performed with the Kelley Donovan Dance Company. She teaches writing and interdisciplinary studies at Montserrat College of Art.

The Loner

by James Roberts

 

You can see the source of the Monk’s Pool from a distance, a stain of deep green bleeding out from the brown, a horse shoe indentation in the slope. Water bubbles out of the ground from a little cup sized puddle which overflows into a stream so narrow the grass obscures it for most of its short journey down this Welsh hillside. The stream reveals the poverty of the soil here, its centuries of journeying having eroded only a few inches of the turf to a bed of mudstone. Bracken and gorse carpet the hill with, here and there, the odd thorn tree, split, wind-twisted and brittle. The pool was once edged with a line of Scots Pine but the level of the water was raised in recent times, flooding the roots of most of the trees which are now bare, bleached crucifixes.

Mid winter. The pool is usually empty at this time of cold sleep. But this has been a year of anomalies and it is inhabited now by a single juvenile mute swan. A mile south the potato crop has been harvested and the sheltered fields next to the river are starting to fill up with swans, hundreds of birds, many having migrated here from as far as Scandinavia. It is an old gathering place that all the swans in the region come to. Except for the single loner fifteen hundred feet up, facing a much harsher winter.

The cob and pen arrived in early March, circling the pool over the spring passage flocks of teal and mallard, resident coots and moorhens. Small groups of Canada geese started landing soon afterwards. Almost as soon as the birds had settled the cob attacked, neck extended, head low, skidding towards them, air screaming over its wings. The geese took off, territory conceded. Later that week the swans began to build their nest inside an oval of bullrushes. Soon the pen was sitting on seven eggs while the cob defended the territory against every potential predator including the otter that started to leave its spraints on the boulders while it waited for the annual arrival of toads to their breeding ground at the pool’s shallow edges.

Six of the seven eggs hatched in early May with the first swallows arcing over the water and the sound of a pair of curlews off to the west where they were nesting near the stream. For the coming weeks the tiny cygnets would be guided around the lake by their parents, travelling single file with pen leading and cob guarding the rear unless a walker happened to stop, when the cob would paddle towards them hissing. At this time an ancient, battered old tractor started to appear by the lake, parked alongside the reed bed where the nest still held one beige egg that had not hatched. I walked up to it and an old farmer flung open the cab door. He was dressed in a wax jacket and hat that were almost rags. Inside was a sheepdog chained to the door, its teeth bared, doing its best to savage me until the farmer shouted it down. He told me that he has farmed on the hill for seventy years and this was the first time he’d ever seen swans breed on the pool.

Because they are a regular sight on urban waterways mute swans are regarded as a common bird in the UK. But the population is actually quite sparse, with only around 7000 breeding pairs. Compare this to the 100,000 pairs of mallards or the 60,000 pairs of Canada geese. An average year produces  only about 3500 successfully reared cygnets. It is possible that this was the first time swans had ever bred here.

My first experience of a wild pool was near the North Midlands housing estate where I grew up. It was located behind an old priory and had once been a mill pond, the mill itself long demolished. The pool was almost identical to the Monk’s Pool in size, though instead of being surrounded by a thousand acres of heath, it was hemmed in by a similar acreage of council houses and overlooked by a twenty storey block of flats. The pond was fed by an underground spring which trickled out from a steep embankment at its north end. It was a ghost of rural life lingering in the industrial suburban spread, managing to maintain a wild community. The water was always swarming with sticklebacks in summer and we all knew that a monster pike lurked in its trenches, some of us having had the good fortune to hook it while never managing to land it. A large, bordering willow had fallen into the pond and regrown. Within a fork in its horizontal trunk was the swans’ nest.

Every summer there were cygnets on the pond, such a regular feature that I hardly noticed them. As I reached my teens deindustrialisation began and the pond mirrored the decline of its surroundings. The spring seemed to dry up for long periods and the water became stagnant, carpeted with slime that I could smell all the way from my garden. Litter started to appear, at first the odd glass bottle thrown into the water, then, as packaging plastics began to be used more frequently the surrounding trees filled up with coloured bags that draped from the branches like dead sea creatures. The swans bred less and less succesfully and eventually stopped breeding altogether, only using the pond as an occasional stop-off point. The decades old nest filled up with litter. The water is almost lifeless now, the surrounding paths strewn with smashed glass, dangerous for wildife and people. The last time I visited the area was being menaced by a lone cob which had lost its mate. It threatened anyone who passed, wings thrashing, hissing, grief transformed into aggression.

Swans are one of the heaviest of flying birds. The serene white creature that, on water, moves without moving, its neck sinuous as a river, has to batter itself aloft. It needs an enormous amount of space to do this. The Monk’s Pool is barely large enough to allow a successful take off, requiring the bird to begin its ascent at the edge of the water and to aim itself at the gaps between the fringe of trees and bushes. It takes a full ten seconds of thrashing across the water, feet scrabbling for propulsion, wingtips slapping the surface, before a few feet of altitude is attained. Once in the air it is a noisy machine, the rapid thrum of its wingbeats drowning out the surrounding birdsong. They are not skilful flyers. In the early autumn winds I watched a pair make a wide and slow circle of the hill before navigating a route to the pool. They then became stuck as they attempted to land into the wind, suspended twenty feet above the water, moving slowly backwards. In the end they gave up and turned towards the river below and shelter from the westerly. They were replaced by a lone red kite tilting, tail fanned, wings motionless as it slid through the cracks in the gale.

Throughout the summer the swans continued to patrol the pool in military formation.  The pen pulled up weeds from the pool bed and dropped them onto the surface of the water for the cygnets to pick at daintily. They made continual, barely audible, whistling calls. They doubled in size every few weeks. By early July the cob had let down his guard a little and had begun to wander around the pool away from the family while the cygnets travelled in a cluster, following the pen but not closely.  Then, one morning, the cob was gone. I searched for hours in the reeds and surrounding bracken for signs of predation. There were none. The pen didn’t seem too concerned, she attended to her young as normal. Swans are one of many species of bird that pair for life but, as with humans, separations occur. Guillemots have been studied closely in this regard and it has been found that most separations are due to bad parenting. In these cases the deviant bird is aggressively seen off. I’m sure this was not the case with the swans. There were no signs of aggression by the cob to its young and I never saw the pen attempt to drive off its mate. The cob just left.

Mute swans can hold their territories with incredible tenacity even when those territories are unsuitable. On the river Wye, below the road bridge leading into town a low island of reeds and hazel separates the stream into a fork. A pair of swans have nested in this place every year I have lived here. In April heavy rains begin and the Wye, being a shallow, mountain river, rises rapidly until only the tops of the hazels show, the nest drowned and destroyed, the unhatched eggs washed away. It doesn’t deter them, the next year they begin again. Only this year, in a spring of little rainfall, have they succeeded in raising young. The pair were still on their patch of river in early winter with their three juveniles in tow.

 

Anomalous behaviour in wild animals is not rare. Anyone who spends a lot of time observing the natural world will come across unusual behaviour. As the writer Neil Ansell states in his book “Deep Country”, watching wildlife over long periods of time is like peeling an onion, you penetrate through to layer after layer of ever more complex behaviour. Mute Swans are huge birds and voracious eaters. They can consume up to 8 pounds of vegetation each day. Monk’s Pool is less than an acre in area. It is my guess that the cob left its territory so the young had an ample supply of food for the rest of their dependent stage.

“The Six Swans” is a well known oral story with variants across Germany and Scandinavia. In the tale a king gets lost hunting in the forest and meets a witch who will only agree to show him the way back to his castle if he takes her daughter as wife. The king reluctantly agrees and marries the daughter on his return. But, though his bride is beautiful, he does not trust her. He removes his children from the castle and takes them to a place where they will be hidden from their stepmother. The new queen grows suspicious and eventually finds the hidden place. When she visits it the six boys, believing her to be their father arriving, run out to greet her. The witch stepmother then turns each of them into swans. But she does not discover the seventh child, the boys’ sister. The abandoned sister searches the wild forest until she finds her swan brothers who are cursed to only be able to throw off their feathers and become human for a few minutes each day. The only way she can give them back their forms permanently is to make no sound for six years and to weave each brother a shirt of starwort. This she promises to do. The girl is then discovered in the forest by another king who falls in love with her and they marry. But the girl has inherited another wicked guardian and each time she bears a child the old woman steals it and marks the young mother’s lips with blood, accusing her of devouring her own child. The girl is mute and cannot defend herself but the king does not believe his mother. Eventually after their third child receives the same fate the king can defend his wife no more and she is condemned to burn at the stake. But by now six years has passed and she has woven the shirts of starwort except for a single sleeve. As the pyre is about to be set alight six swans swoop down to her and she throws a shirt over each one. The swans are transformed back to her brothers, one with a white wing in place of an arm. The sister can finally tell the truth and the king’s mother is forced to reveal where the children are hidden, after which she is burned to ashes.

The story was first written down by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm. It was one of their favourite tales because of its theme of family fidelity. The detail that seems most strange about the story is the single white wing left in place of the brother’s arm. I think that it is a reminder of the faithfulness of creatures, that the surrounding presence of wild beings teaches and inspires us and should not be forgotten or dismissed.

The moult began in late summer, feathers rimming the pool forming a random, pale tideline. The cygnets were by now almost the size of the pen, though they still followed their mother everywhere. Their infant calls remained, the continual shy “seep” that now seemed incongrous with their size. Weeks later, with the first heavy dew settling and the ends of the bracken fronds curling and brown, the pen began flying lessons, spreading and beating its wings in front of them and then launching itself across the pool. The cygnets began to rear out of the water and test the strength of their own wings.

On a late September morning I arrived just after dawn to see the pen and only four cygnets. A few days later, there were two. Then, on a day when the first mist blurred the whole valley, I looked over a silver oval of water now empty of swans. I walked down to the nest, still perfectly intact inside its moat, with the single unhatched egg still undisturbed. I collected a few white feathers from among the reeds, while a pair of ravens flipped and circled over the row of drowned pines. And then I heard, close by, the call of a cygnet and looked up to see it bending and poking among the bullrushes. One had stayed. Over the following weeks the pen returned many times to try to guide its youngster away from the pool. Sometimes it stayed for a day, other times three or four but each time the pen left and the gaps between visits became longer. The juvenile refused to leave.

For a whole month storms have been raging, gale force winds ravaging the peaks, ripping weak branches from the thorn trees and scouring the dead bracken. The upland is  scattered with sulphur tufts and scarlet caps like tiny fires amongst the star moss and sedge. A flock of fieldfares cleared the last berries from the neglected hedges but now they have moved on, leaving the hill to a pair of red kites who will hunt here all winter. A few crows and ravens hang out in the tree skeletons, slinging insults. Occasionally I spot a kestrel hovering above the scrub where the curlews nested. The hill is almost deserted. The Monk’s Pool is a cold eye peering out of the barren landscape, the young swan its only inhabitant, now struggling with the conditions.

A week ago the temperature dropped and the ground froze hard. The pool became a giant cobweb of ice. The sun rises almost from the south now, beginning its shallow arc clearing the long line of whaleback mountains for the few hours before dark. In the red, dawn light I could see the long necked silhouette of the swan out in the middle of the pool. It struggled to get though the ice, trying to climb out, falling through, trying to peck its way forwards. Then it opened its wings and I saw how stunted they were, unable to lift it even a few inches from the surface. Its voice had finally changed. While it stuggled it made the low, plaintive, and rarely heard call of the mature swan.

After the short cold snap another series of more violent storms blew in. Howling wind and torrential rain lasted all week and I did not make it onto the hill until this morning. Under the shut sky the pool was edged with grey foam, the water still cresting, the reeds slapped flat. The swan was not there. Heading back to the road I saw two ravens flip-diving in the last of the wind eddies and went to stand under them. As I turned for home I noticed something pale amongst the sedge. It was a patch of skin the size of my palm, coated with white feathers.

As well as swan stories, there are many Welsh oral tales involving upland pools. They are the places where magical creatures are conjured from the water to spend a time living with mortals. But the beautiful beings are always in some way, injured by life. They return to their pools, dive down, and are never seen again.

 

monk'spool

 

James Roberts co-edits Zoomorphic.

Amphibious Assault

by Richard LeBlond

It has been raining hard for several hours – not your typical summer drizzle, but a 40-day, 40-night special. Tonight there will be no reading of newspapers, no fidgeting with the bills, no dining in a cozy Cape Cod restaurant. Instead, I will drive the amphibious assault craft, for this is the night that has called forth the toad and the toader.

I was conscripted for the work by a good friend who is studying the eastern spadefoot toad, a creature about whom very little is known. Our ignorance of the spadefoot is not due to a lack of interest, but to the peculiar life style of this biological relic. It is more closely related to ancient lost tribes of amphibians than it is to any living family of frogs and toads. The spadefoot apparently spends the great majority of its life below ground, emerging only on wet nights, probably to feed, and on the wettest to breed.

The spadefoot is equipped with a hard and pointed tubercle on each of its hind feet, which is its “spade” for burrowing into dry soil. A descending spadefoot takes with it a lungful of air, burrowing to a depth as great as three feet, and remains there until called out by a summer downpour. It is thought this self-entombment can last as long as several years. On one breath.

The toader and I have been out before. There has been a full cup of rainy days this summer. We saw spadefoots up and down the Outer Cape, scattered and solitary, but out and about. The problem with these earlier forays was the lack of a breeding rain.

The spadefoot only breeds in temporary pools and puddles, because they are fish-free. The pool or puddle has to be deep enough to allow time for the transformation from egg to tadpole to toad before the nursery evaporates. Although many breeding attempts end in dehydrated failure, the spadefoot has the miraculous ability to make the transit from egg to toad in two weeks, clambering out onto land with its tail still evident, ready for a life of mostly sleep.

Driving the amphibious assault craft is not an easy task, because it is on the road itself where the toads are first found. The driver is always in danger of squashing the project, and of presenting a hazard to other drivers on dark and rainy nights. The toader and I agreed from the start that the main highway, Route 6, was off-limits to the study. Only on the side roads can this modern assay of ancient urge be effectively and safely employed.

The Outer Cape is so small and the road system so extensive that crossing asphalt barrens has become part of the journey for the toad venturing from upland woods to bottomland puddle. For some reason, both the common Fowler’s toad and the rare spadefoot halt on the asphalt. Maybe they sit soaking up the surface rainwater, or are disoriented by the flatness and hardness of the roadbed in what is otherwise a journey of humic descent. Maybe they sense something alien, or are stymied by a silence in the genetic code. Whatever, there they sit on the road, looking like small stones, or too often, like medium-size pancakes.

“Toad!” shouts the toader, and I bring the craft to a stop. It is a spadefoot. Down go the windows, in spite of the rain, and we listen. But the road toad is not the quarry. It is the indicator. We are listening for the breeding pool.

The spadefoot has the strangest mating call of all our toads and frogs, but we rarely get to hear it. This call has been described variously as “the coarse low-pitched complaint of a young crow” and “a deafening, agonizing roar, hoarse and woeful.” The toader and I had listened to recordings of this call, and were prepared.

We had been prepared all spring and summer. After hundreds of miles of stopping for toads and toad-like rocks, sticks, and oak leaves, we wondered whether we would ever hear the call in the wild. So far, all we had gotten for rolling down the windows at each spadefoot sighting were rain-splattered laps. But this night of heavy rain – possibly the best spadefoot breeding rain since the launching of Noah’s Ark – had potential, and did not let us down.

The voices of what turned out to be three lovesick spadefoot males made their way up an embankment through the sheeting sound of the rain. (For what it’s worth, I’ll add my own description of the spadefoot mating call: it sounds like a sick duck.) We worked our way down the embankment and found the toads clinging to rushes in a pool maybe six inches deep. With a flashlight we were able to watch this lonesome trio, the vocal sac expanding to three times the size of the head before each croak. The sudden release of air caused their little bodies to bob up and down on the submerged rushes.

We returned three days later to see if the male spadefoots had found romance. But instead of finding eggs or tadpoles, we found a waterless mudhole. Somewhere up the hill, the toads had snuggled themselves once again into the Cape’s soft earth, to endure what likely may be another fruitless summer. There they will wait out the seasons and the years as they have done since parting with the ancients. They spend so little time on the earth and so much time in it, the greatest threat to spadefoots is not a dried-up pool or the asphalt barrens, but the unearthing of their foundations for our own.

Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. He has been writing about life experiences, travel to Europe and North Africa in the 1970s, and more recent adventures in eastern Canada and the U.S. West. His essays and photographs have appeared in several U.S. and international journals.

Green Sanctuaries Amid the Brown

by Tom Leskiw

“Where is my oasis? Too far from
here for me to crawl with these
dead legs, refusing to co-operate
Hands and fingers clawing uselessly
through the grains of sand…”

— Kiera Woodhull, Chaos of the Mind

The late-November air warmed quickly as Carianne Campbell, landscape restoration program manager at Sky Island Alliance, spoke to our group of volunteers.

“We’re here in the Whetstone Mountains to monitor McGrew Spring, which is located at Kartchner Caverns State Park. In Arizona and throughout the desert southwest, springs serve as vital rest and re-fueling areas for migratory wildlife such as birds, butterflies, and mammals.”

Carianne paused and pointed eastward toward the distant cottonwood-lined course of the San Pedro River. “Scientists have long acknowledged the critical role of rivers and streams in desert areas. As a result, watercourses and riparian areas have been intensely studied. However, springs have been somewhat overlooked. In addition, previous monitoring efforts didn’t use a standardized protocol that would allow us to discern changes at individual sites or assess and compare the relative importance of each site. With your help, we’re embarking on this exciting new project.”

After a short question-and-answer period, Carianne asked us to introduce ourselves. There was Nikki Miscione, a Kartchner Caverns employee, and Carol Jelinek, a Kartchner volunteer. Stuart Brody was originally from upstate New York—a fellow snowbird who visited nearby Patagonia… and ended up staying. Rosemary Schiano was a wildlife biologist and tracker who leaves Colorado each winter to explore these borderlands. As for me, I’m an avid birder and retired hydrologic-biologic technician who, together with my wife, spend the winter months about 40 miles from Kartchner.

We stuffed a measuring tape, other equipment, data forms, a small bucket, and short section of plastic pipe into our daypacks and set out down the trail. As we hiked, Carianne identified many of the trailside plants and expanded on the goals of the project, “Springs are keystone ecosystems in the Sky Island Region and are known to be biodiversity hotspots.”

I reflected on the concept of desert springs as keystone ecosystems. Although I was familiar with both the critical role of water in the desert and the concept of keystone species such as wolf, beaver, and Red-naped Sapsucker, the term keystone ecosystem was new to me. But it made sense, given what I knew about the definition of keystone species and their disproportionate influence on surrounding landscapes. Beavers and their dam-building activities, for example, slacken water velocity, raise the water table, and expand wetlands. Their beneficial activities that reduce water’s erosive power and provide a measure of flood control have all-too-often become clear only after they’ve been removed from a watershed. In addition, beaver ponds increase suitable areas for water-loving plants like willow and cottonwood to become established, thus helping to improve water quality, stabilize stream banks, and benefit a wide range of wildlife.

I gazed through the heat waves to the highest point in the Whetstones: 7,711-foot Apache Peak. Although they were little more than distant green splotches, ponderosa pines near the summit testified to this sky island’s ability to milk moisture from passing clouds, with a diverse mosaic of plant communities—desert to pine forest—being the result. Witnessing such diversity brought to mind Roger Tory Peterson’s words from his travelogue Wild America, published in 1955. Although he was referring to the nearby Chiricahua Mountains, the description rings true for the Whetstones as well:

There they were, in the crystal morning light, rising like a massive blue island from the sea of the desert. And an island it was, in truth, part of an archipelago composed of a dozen similar ranges. They are as much a true archipelago as the Azores or Hawaii, but no surf washes their talused bases; instead the desert, dry and shimmering, besieges their foothills and sweeps across the flats to the next range, twenty, thirty, or forty miles away. And like islands, their climate, plants, their animals are as different from those of their surroundings as though they were isolated by the sea.

Birders and naturalists have long known that southeastern Arizona’s sky islands’ reputation as a biological crossroads and incredible melting pot of diversity is also due to their ecotonal location at the intersection of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts, plus being where the southern Rocky Mountains meet Mexico’s Sierra Madre Mountains.

Our hike brought us to a gate, a corral, and a tall, cylindrical metal water tank—range improvements built by cattle ranchers. Stealthily, we approached the tank, startling six Mourning Doves into flight. The tall grass just upslope of the tank was lush by Arizona standards and the damp, squishy meadow suggested that McGrew Spring lay just upslope. After several more minutes of hiking, we reached a narrow rivulet of water. We paused at the upper end of the grassy area, where surface water surrendered to the thirsty desert, percolating into the soil. Large mesquite and netleaf hackberry trees provided shade as we walked beside the narrow channel of water.

whetstone_survey
Surveying in the Whetstone Mountains – image by Carianne Campbell

We pulled measuring tapes, cameras, pencils, and data forms from our daypacks. Item by item, we collected data, such as the aquatic insects, butterflies, and birds at the site. Long ago, the spring had been dug out to create a small pond, which we measured to be 25 feet long by 14 feet wide. Permanent photo points had been established around the perimeter of the pond during July’s monitoring efforts, their purpose being to aid in creating a photo record of changes at the spring. Carol stood at these points and snapped photographs, while Rosemary noted the tracks of wildlife that were using the site. We measured the length of the shallow rivulet that drained the spring; it flowed for a distance of just under 50 feet before disappearing into the soil. I placed the section of 2-inch-diameter pipe into the flowing water and, digging with my hands, packed mud around its haunches. I continued to add mud to my small dam until it reached six inches high and extended to both banks of the tiny stream. When all the water was captured and flowing through the pipe, I set a bucket under it and the group performed a timed count to determine how many gallons per minute the spring was producing.

Carianne told us that plans to restore the area included the addition of native plants favored by pollinators such as hummingbirds, butterflies, and other insects. She added that McGrew Spring may be an important water source for several species of bat—cave myotis, Mexican long-tongued, Townsend’s big-eared, and lesser long-nosed—that roost in nearby abandoned mine shafts.

That evening, I leafed through a bulging file I keep on the importance of water in the desert. Since 2009, federal agencies, academics, and conservation groups have assessed the status of America’s birds in an annual “State of the Birds” report, which focuses on the habitats that species need to survive. The 2014 report found that “While some overall improvement has occurred to wetlands, arid-land habitats—which include the deserts, sagebrush, and chaparral of the American West—continue to be degraded. Birds in these fragile arid-land habitats show the steepest population declines in the nation with a 46 percent loss in the population of these birds since 1968 and a 6 percent drop just since 2009.”

One paper stated that “in Arizona and New Mexico, at least 80 percent of all animals use riparian areas at some stage of their lives, and more than half of these species are considered to be riparian obligates [require spring or streamside areas for breeding]. Studies in the southwestern United States show that riparian areas support a higher breeding diversity of birds than all other western habitats combined.”

Studying Neotropical migrant birds—and identifying management strategies to conserve them—is like peeling back the layers of an onion. Early research focused on Layer 1: the species’ breeding grounds. Habitat destruction or fragmentation or an increase in predators that consume adults, chicks, or eggs are among the factors that can affect breeding success. Layer 2: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter when occupying their wintering habitat. Layer 3: Identify and try to mitigate for threats that birds encounter while on their migration route between summer and winter habitats. Scientists refer to this layer as stopover ecology: in this ever-changing world, are there suitable areas to rest and feed at appropriate intervals along the species’ migration corridor?

It had been a long day. My eyes were growing tired and words began to swim across the page. I struggled to stay awake as I read the following: “Additionally, over 60 percent of the species which are identified as Neotropical migratory birds use riparian areas in the West as stopover areas during migration.” My eyelids shut and the paper slipped from my hand…

I’m dreaming that I’m flying. But not like in previous dreams, where my frantic fluttering slowly lifts me toward the ceiling of a cavernous warehouse, away from the bad guys. This is a journey that spans several weeks.. I’m a Yellow Warbler, returning to northern Alaska after a winter in Peru. For several days, this has been my world: long nightly flights, followed by daylight respite: seeking shelter in groves of trees to feed, doze, and hide from the hawks and falcons that want to make a meal of me.

After the end of one more long night, dazzling pin-pricks of stars in an indigo sky begin to fade. The eastern sky slowly lightens, then the rays of the sun poke above the mountains. As the air warms, turbulence buffets me. Far to the west tower snow-capped mountains, but immediately below me, I see nothing but a parched brown plain, broken here and there by gullies with scattered shrubs. I descend to better scan the terrain and find a safe spot to spend the day. Nothing but rocks and brown dirt, rocks and more dirt.

Suddenly, I spot it: a patch of green, where I know I’ll find water and succulent bugs. I continue my descent, I make a brief, half-circle recon flight over the small cluster of trees before dropping into their protective embrace. There, I find caterpillars dining on the trees’ succulent foliage. One-by-one, I pluck them from the tree, their moisture replacing what I’ve lost during the long night. I lose track of passing time, intent on filling my belly with food. I hear a faint trickling sound and pick my way along furrowed trunk and thorny branches to get a better look. Water bubbles from the ground; a ribbon of green plants grows along the shallow gully that contains the water. But the green ribbon ends abruptly where the water disappears into the ground. Beyond this point lies nothing but rock and powder-dry dirt. Nothing stirs.

For many people, phrases like “biological crossroads” and “melting pot of diversity” are abstractions. Although not the highest, largest, or most well-known of southeastern Arizona’s sky islands, the Whetstones and the range of wildlife it nurtures brings these terms into clearer focus. A jaguar that’s been photographed a number of times since 2012 along the eastern flanks of the nearby Santa Rita Mountains was first photographed in the Whetstones during November 2011. And photographic evidence of an ocelot in the Whetstones was obtained in 2009. Groundwater that emerges as springs or a stream in this mountain range nurtures five species of amphibian: Sonoran tiger salamander; Sonoran mud turtle; and Chiricahua leopard, northern leopard, and lowland leopard frogs. And the mosaic of habitats doesn’t stop at the ground’s surface: Kartchner Caverns’ delicate formations such as “Kubla Khan,” the largest cave columns in Arizona, reveal the range’s limestone underpinnings. During the summer months, the cave’s Big Room serves as a nursery roost for over 1,000 female cave myotis bats.

Say the word “oasis,” and the mental image that most often comes to mind is a cluster of palm trees surrounded by a sea of rock or sand. This corner of Arizona is at too high an elevation to support palms, but its springs, creeks, and occasional river are nevertheless oases. As Wyoming writer Gretel Ehrlich points out: “As a topographic feature, an oasis is life; it is a gathering point, a sanctuary, and a feeding station. It is the desert’s umbilical.” The co-existence of limestone caverns, jaguars, and ocelots here—features and wildlife we normally associate with other regions—are dependent on the Whetstone’s life-giving waters.

Climate change and our own thirst for water threaten to unravel migratory processes that date back many thousands of years. As terrestrial and winged migrants alike encounter ever-warmer temperatures during their journeys, these ribbons of green, sustained by widely scattered desert water sources, are now more important than ever.

 

Tom Leskiw and his wife Sue and their dog Zevon split their time between Eureka, California and Palominas, Arizona. He retired in 2009 following a 31-year career as a hydrologic/biologic technician for Six Rivers National Forest. More than three dozen of his essays have appeared in literary journals. www.tomleskiw.com

 

Lost Ant

by Giles Goodland

Once I found one circling on my table in a café, in March, divining a lost pheromone – trail under plates and among coffee – rings. I imagined a corridored world, under – ground, with no main thorough – fares. To get anywhere, to say arrive home, you have to choose between thousands of rooms, with doors leading to more, and each one has a slightly different quality, you pass through a thousand living – rooms to reach yours, where the light – bulb bares its filament for you alone. A drift is aliving in their sensing as the clock – work sleeps. Unidentifiable in their smallness they gather when our elegies are lost, we force them on the page but they fly like black birds back into the trees. Also once I saw one on the rim of the office toilet. Others I have seen word – riven, sword – lit, or sense – attacked, quishy among the fecundary homes, post nature. Dilatorily out – of – place, its tongue – wet rubber – end connectedly brokended its cock – eye. Don’t think straight think like the thread a rain – drop makes upon this window entangled, the bread’s breadth is too dense with what procreates, child – head heaps up, in such situations, we describe a circle or my feet make a line not scan. Crusoed among the washing – up where was dec. The signified cannot hear the signifier, the road composes its waking life. I ran in the soul in the throat of the hour – glass to chance to be here to be the fagend in my own life – time. I have broke the folding eye and slept between the cracks protected by words, mere flames, lips crackling. There are silences lodged in hotels where we must trust the sentence to lead us before such a night as collapses in the smog, between the four chaosses contained in your loss. The eye – lash trembles under the hood, we have loved also a room the size of an eye where we remit and the imputed sky becomes plain, is aloof on the resting surface of arm, in here we feel or portray the silence we wish for as we sit behind the message that stirs in us, to share with the edge, for they say the ant’s shoulder can carry away a house. In dactylic cling to wend the out – worn glossary its workings indentured in disrupts of shadow – stalk follow the proxied world – lord of lost river, ancient path, division of rain – drops—these follow no map, sweep before all in order to bear home the sugar – grain. I walked past the table to a window, and a large balcony. There was a view of the lake a the bottom of the hill. It was blue, beautiful, and warm. No one was bathing there, the grassy shore clear, and the water translucent, inviting. Looking down – wards things seemed full of warmth and potential joy, but I woke with a head – ache and a strong thirst.

Giles Goodland has had several books published over the last 20 years, most recently from Salt and Shearsman. He is currently working on a sequence concerning invertebrates.

Life with a Puma in my Heart

By Laura Coleman

Sweat cascaded down my face, dripped hot and wet down my back and fused at the base of my spine. Mosquitoes buzzed around me, a black cloud that parted and pooled as I walked. My head was covered by a tight net, tucked into the double collars of my two long sleeved shirts, the sleeves buttoned and carefully inserted into thick gloves. But the mosquitoes – the green and the gold, the angry purples and the shy ones with the sapphire blue wings – dive-bombed my forehead, my ears, the tip of my nose, the backs of my shoulders, the flabby bits at my hips, the tops of my fingers, anywhere that my skin touched material. I itched constantly, not just from the mosquito bites but from the lice that were crawling in my hair, from the most recent attack of scabies that wouldn’t seem to budge, and from the conspicuous lump on the back of my neck that I suspected was a worm, beginning to hatch under my skin. My trousers were wet up to the crotch, where I’d waded through the black swamp on my way out into the jungle, and my rubber boots made a nasty sucking sound in the mud. It hadn’t rained in days, and the swamp was lower than it had been, but still it was misery. I was lucky though – most parts of her territory were dry. But that meant the trails were covered in leaves. She didn’t like leaves. And so here I was, at six on a Sunday morning with one hundred per cent humidity, raking leaves off the forest floor. The rake was old and rusty, and fifty per cent useless. I had new blisters too, blooming across my skin. I was desperate for the loo, but I would rather urinate though my wet trousers than expose my soft behind to the bugs. In one slap, I could kill over one hundred mosquitoes, easy. Feeling my strength beginning to flag, I transferred the awkward wad of coca leaves in my cheek to the other side, pushing it across with my tongue. The bitter juice from the leaves entered my blood stream, giving me energy. This was why I was still standing, rather than curled up in an exhausted, beaten ball of human flesh. Coca and, of course, her.

The puma (Puma concolor), also commonly known as cougar, mountain lion, panther, or catamount, is a large felid of the subfamily Felinae native to the Americas. They are the second heaviest cats in the region, after the jaguar, and their coats range from brown to tawny to deep grey. Solitary by nature, they are nocturnal and crepuscular. The puma is an ambush predator, and they prefer dense underbrush and rocky areas for stalking. They are also the largest felines in the world that can purr.

Ten years ago, I had a vague sense that a puma was a cat, probably a large one, but that was as far as my knowledge went. I had no sense of the jungle, beginning to brush its dark leaves against the very edges of my future, and no sense at all that a puma was going to be the thing that would change my life for good. I had finished an MA, and was working happily in the city, wearing smart suits and pointy shoes, relishing the buzz and smog of London. I was, at the same time, on the verge of beginning a PhD, which I planned to centre on the obscurity of eighteenth century art. Life was good. But, the thought niggled, I had never really travelled. And I wanted to do that before I settled into the dusky life of an academic.

So I went to South America. Not for too long, I wanted to be back in England for the summer festival season, for the picnics in Hyde Park and the late evening drinks in Covent Garden. I bought a three-month ticket to Bolivia. I knew nothing about Bolivia, only that it was the cheapest country on the continent.

I travelled. I did what normal travellers did – I visited the salt deserts and the canyons with the condors, I went on a carefully curated Amazon tour, I saw the place where Che Guevara was executed and I lost a few weeks in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city. I enjoyed it, but half way through, the rootlessness of backpacker life began to get me down. I kind of wanted to go home. Flirting with the idea of moving my flight forward, I was sitting in an internet café in a hot northern town, when a random flyer caught my eye. There was a cute photo of a monkey on the front. I picked it up, and read: Volunteer at Ambue Ari animal refuge. Stay for two weeks or a month and work with rescued exotic wildlife. I considered this. I didn’t really want to change my flight, and maybe staying in the same place for a few weeks would ease my craving for stability. And monkeys were fun, right? So I got on a bus; five hours later I was getting off again, on a straight tarmac road deep in the Amazon jungle.

The first creature I met was a pig. A black pig, almost the size of a small cow, with sharp yellow teeth, beady brown eyes, a long wiry-haired snout and a smell like month old sewage. She was watching me when I got off the bus, a bright red bra hanging incongruously from her mouth. Our eyes met, and then she snorted, and turned, and disappeared down a small trail into the trees. Not knowing what else to do, I followed her. The trail was thin and winding, and every few yards a new trampled piece of underwear lay forlornly in the mud.

The second creature I met at Ambue Ari was a person, but one that smelt almost as bad as the pig and was just as dirty. The path opened up into a ramshackle clearing, spread about with various wooden huts and benches. Washing lines, presumably the source of the pig’s pilfered goods, hung about the place. A man, adorned with a formidable beard, looking to be, like me, in his mid-twenties, approached. He had a lump in his cheek, which I would have thought was some kind of growth if he hadn’t opened his mouth to speak, and I hadn’t seen the inexplicable edge of a wad of leaves. I recoiled. His teeth were stained green, and green-black saliva bubbled on his lips.
“You here to volunteer?” he grunted.

I looked down at myself. My clean jeans, my bright white trainers, my impeccably packed rucksack, my soft skin and shining, newly washed hair. I wasn’t so sure. The pig, bra lost, suddenly reappeared covered in wet compost. She began to rub her snout up and down the man’s leg, emitting a smell from her behind like old urine. And then a huge monkey, red as fire, swung down from a tree and landed with a howl on the man’s shoulders. The monkey bared his teeth, and exposed his erect penis. And then it wasn’t just the man, the pig, the monkey and me – there was a whole crowd of people, all feral. They took my backpack, covered me with their sweat, showed me a bunk in one of the wooden huts, and signed me up, reluctantly, for two weeks.

The camp was run by Bolivians, but the majority of the volunteers were foreigners like me. They were a motley collection, and there were no more than ten at most when I first arrived. Some people had been there weeks, some months, some years. Pigs, monkeys, birds, deer and tapirs lived in and around the camp. They had all been rescued from the black market, some with the intention of release but most – due to governmental legislation, the animals’ inability to look after themselves, and lack of resources at the camp itself – were there for life. The red monkey, who I quickly learned had a penchant for flashing his penis at women, had lived in a hotel in La Paz – where he had smoked cigarettes, watched TV and drank alcohol – until he became too aggressive. His owners had then left him at Ambue Ari. He was terrified of the jungle, and he was happiest when reclining in the bunk beds of the female volunteers. But he was a sad animal, and would often sit forlornly on the aged camp motorcycle, staring at his own reflection in the solitary wing mirror. Sometimes, he would attack people. Men, specifically the tall ones with dark beards, and then afterwards if not prevented, he would beat himself, or find his way to the road to sit suicidally in the middle of the tarmac. It was this that made me first fall in love with Ambue Ari. This monkey – his name was Coco – was never put in a cage. He hated cages. If he attacked someone, that person had to leave. Ambue was Coco’s home, and it was our job to make him as happy as we were able. His comfort was primary, and ours – as human volunteers – was secondary.

puma_1At that time, Ambue cared for about fifteen big cats. Jaguars, pumas and ocelots. They lived deep in the jungle. They each had their own cages and their own walking trails, and it was taboo to go and visit a cat that was not your own appointed charge. These cats had no hope of release, and for them stability and peace was essential. Some of them were happy; some of them were volatile and scared. They were given as much enrichment as was possible – some walked and swum with volunteers outside of their cages, others were simply too aggressive or playful to be in close contact with humans.

If there were enough volunteers, each person was given one cat, and the full time care of that cat was their responsibility. The ocelots had one appointed volunteer, the pumas and jaguars two, sometimes three. If you wanted to work with a cat, you had to stay for a month minimum. When I learned this, I extended my stay. I was given an ocelot, called Lazy Cat. She was appropriately sleepy, calm, and affectionate. We spent a glorious month together. Every morning I trekked out into the jungle to her cage. And then on a rope looped around my waist, we walked together through the trees. Her in front, stalking sunbeams and monkeys; me behind, trying to keep quiet. When she got tired, she would lie down and I would sit next to her, and watch her sleep. At six in the evening, we would go back to her cage. I would feed her and then return to camp, where I would while away the candlelit nights with the other humans, playing cards and watching the stars.

My month passed quickly. I loved the freedom of the place. I loved the forest and the trees, the easy purpose of placing the care of an animal above yourself, and the lack of electricity, hot water, phone signal and internet. I slipped into the remoteness of it with an ease that surprised me, and I found that I enjoyed not showering. Wearing the same muddy clothes each day was a relief rather than a hardship. But my flight home was looming. I was sad about it, then just as I was beginning to pack, the woman who was in charge said to me:

“Quieres irse?” (Do you want to leave?)

I shrugged.

“Hay un puma, quien es muy triste y dificil. Pienso que te quedas y cuidas de este puma, si? Se llama Wayra.” (There is a puma, who is very sad and difficult. I think you stay, and look after this puma, yes? Her name is Wayra.)

puma_3

 

I don’t know if I felt something then, something that felt like fate, but I know I didn’t put up much of a fight. I hitched a ride into town and extended my flight for another three months. Life at the refuge was cheap, and whilst my savings would not have lasted in London, in Bolivia I had more than enough. The next day, I began my training with Wayra.

She was terrifying. She was the size of a very large dog, and her coat glimmered silver under the shadow of the trees. The first time I saw her, Wayra launched herself at me with such a depth of anger that, if it hadn’t been for the fence between us, I thought she would have killed me. Her claws were razors, her teeth sharp and huge. Saliva dribbled down her chin. Her eyes were black, swollen and frantic. She hissed unceasingly, racing back and forth, back and forth, giant paws beating the compacted dirt, and then she launched again, the fence bowing dangerously. I backed away.

This was Wayra. Her mother had been killed by hunters; she’d been sold on the black market as a house pet. At ten months, she’d then been left at the refuge. I met her when she was three years old. She was thin, and only ate when she was happy – which, at that time, wasn’t very much. Her mood could change in a second. One moment she’d be relatively calm, and the next she’d be spitting and hissing and acting like the world was crashing down around her ears. She was terrified of everything, from the brush of a gust of wind to the crunch of a leaf under her feet. She’d jump, all four paws in the air, and then turn on you, incensed that you had the gall to think her afraid.

puma_2We would attach a rope to her collar through the safety of the door, and then attach this rope to a long ‘runner’ – a sturdy cord that ran for thirty metres between her cage and the start of her trail. This was a way for her to be outside her cage, but as independent as possible. She’d lie down and sleep, and ignore me. If I dared to breathe too loud, she’d raise her head, eyes flashing, and hiss.

When she wanted to walk, she’d pace to the beginning of her trail and stare at me distastefully. If I made her wait too long, she would let me know by growling, sometimes faking a lunge, teeth bared. When she walked, she had to have someone in front, a bodyguard, someone on whom she could focus herself. This was in part protection, and in part a way (I think) for her to forget that there was also someone behind her, someone who had a rope, someone she was attached to. This, she hated. She could walk for hours, running and stalking – and seem happy. But then, something would happen. The person behind would stand on a stick, or a leaf, and then she would spin and she would hiss and she would flinch back in fear and confusion, and then she would growl and hiss again and bolt, racing and hissing and growling and spitting all the way back to her cage.

Then we would all fall asleep, exhausted, and I would wake up to her licking my face.

I fell in love with Wayra quicker and more deeply than I have ever fallen in love with anyone. I stayed, that time, over four months. By the time I left, she seemed calmer. I left because I felt I should, because it wasn’t reasonable to spend so long in the jungle, was it? But I couldn’t go back to England – I’d already missed my flight anyway – so I travelled again. I travelled to Columbia and Ecuador, Chile and Brazil and Argentina. I travelled for a year, treading a giant loop around South America until eventually I found my way back to her.

I have now spent the better part of the last nine years with her. I stay for as long as I can – sometimes a few months, sometimes a year – and then I return to England where I am always, without fail, floored by culture shock. I think about her, all the time, and I miss her deeply. I now live more in England than I do in the jungle, but I go back as much as I can and so far she has always remembered me. She has her ups and downs. She is more happy than not, but she is still Wayra. The world – the human world – has done her a terrible injustice, but her capacity for trust and patience, love and compassion is immense.

Ambue has over thirty cats now, and needs more than forty volunteers at any one time to function properly. Logging trucks speed by every day, wild cats crowd our paths because their territories are shrinking, and rescued animals relentlessly turn up needing homes. Wayra is not alone in her frustration and fear, and neither am I. There are many others like me, volunteers (often with no prior experience of animal care) who’ve found the refuge, who’ve connected with a particular animal, and had their lives changed because of it. I never ended up doing a PhD. I started an arts/ecology charity called Onca. I wanted to tell stories about her, and then I saw that other people wanted also to tell stories about their own connections with the changing nature of the wild. So I opened a gallery, specifically for these kinds of stories. Essential, life-altering stories that offer a way to help us re-imagine our role on this planet. To re-imagine who we are, as humans and as animals, just as Wayra has done for me.

Ambue Ari is one of three animal refuges run by the Bolivian NGO, Comunidad Inti Wara Yassi. They are always in need of volunteers. For more information on how to help, visit www.intiwarayassi.org

Laura Coleman is the Founder and Director of Onca, a small charity inspiring creativity and positive action in the face of environmental change. She is based in the South East of England at the Onca Centre for Arts and Ecology, curating an ongoing programme of exhibitions, workshops and events. She also acts as a consultant for artists and arts organisations, sharing her understanding of the growing need for new interpretations of our changing planet. In addition, Laura is a writer, public speaker and explorer. Since her early twenties, she has been rescuing and rehabilitating exotic wildlife in the Bolivian Amazon. www.onca.org.uk

 

All images by Laura Coleman

The Shadow of a Pangolin

by Josh Flatman

The torturous drip…drip of water from my roof into one of the plastic tubs on the floor has ceased for the time-being. Peering through my mosquito net and the gap in the curtains I can see the flashes from distant storms. I am not sure the drips will stay away for long. I am in central Namibia, the 5th least populated country on the planet, home to spectacular scenery and wildlife and what is thought to be the oldest desert in the world. I arrived at the end of the rainy season, the heat of the day often culminating in a frantic shower of lightning and a dumping of rain onto the shrubland. Flowers and grasses spring into action, seizing the opportunity before the long dry winter, producing colourful, thick, dewy carpets in contrast to the orange, cracked earth. It was not quite the weather I had expected for fieldwork in Southern Africa.

I was working at the Rare and Endangered Species Trust (REST), a small organisation that has a rehabilitation and education centre 47km south of Otjiwarongo, with the aim to care for, rehabilitate and release wildlife. REST also aims to carry out research and education on some species which are not often in the spotlight, but are thought to be of particular conservation concern, of which it has coined the phrase, Namibia’s forgotten five (more recently the forgotten five plus one). These are the Cape griffon vulture, dwarf python, African wild dog, Temminck’s ground pangolin or Cape pangolin, Damara dik-dik and the spotted rubber frog. These animals are representative of the entire land ecosystem of Namibia. REST is also home to a number of animals that are not deemed fit for release.

Maria Diekmann, REST’s founder, was originally inspired to help Namibia’s wildlife by the plight of the majestic Cape griffon vulture and the majority of the project’s initial conservation work focussed on this species. The largest bird of its kind in Africa, it is threatened by electrocution from power lines, habitat change and by poisonings both directly and indirectly. More so in the last three years than ever before, elephant and rhino poachers are lacing carcasses with poison to directly target vultures, whose aerial presence, above an animal they have slain, is seen as a clear giveaway to the poacher’s whereabouts, potentially alerting and informing officials in the area. Farmers and ranchers also sometimes use poisons in the carcasses of animals, to target predators, which they believe threaten their stock. The outcome of both is the same, the gregarious nature of vultures results in mass die offs, 50-500 can be poisoned from one carcass. The species is listed as vulnerable with the global population thought to stand at around 8000 birds, but despite Maria and REST’s best efforts, which have included releasing birds from South African populations into Namibia, radio tracking and tagging individuals, it is now classed as extinct as a breeding species in the country. Evidence from Maria’s radio tracking of individuals shows flights of up to 400km into neighbouring countries, with just one poisoned carcass enough to prove fatal, it demonstrates just how difficult a problem this is to tackle.

vulture_pangolin_3In the large aviary built into the side of the mountain on which REST lies in shadow, Nesher, one of the three resident, un-releasable, Capes and the only male, lands a few feet away, his two and a half metre wingspan sending dust and spiralling feathers towards me, as he slows down to steady himself on landing. Nesher was captive bred and despite efforts he is too tame to be released back into the wild. It is hoped he will be instrumental in captive breeding programmes. He looks quizzically at me, his long bald neck craning to see if I am carrying any food. A brighter white than the white-backed vultures they can be confused with and bulkier than their nearest rival in size, the lappet-faced vulture. I am aware I will never have the opportunity to be in such close quarters with these birds again, to admire the industrial bill, the long, thick reptilian toes or to be fixed in the yellow eyes of an animal that has evolved so perfectly to cope with the poisons of the natural world such as anthrax and botulism, but not to such rapid and intense human pressure. It is a tragedy that now no one can see this mighty bird, in the wild, in Namibia.

As well as the Cape griffon vultures it is safe to say that Maria’s other passion lies with pangolins. This has much to do with one particular pangolin named Katiti and his mother Roxy. To think of an animal more bizarre would be difficult; it is bipedal, holding its front legs, complete with long claws, close to its body, which is fully covered in scales. It has a tongue that can be longer than its body. The largest species can weigh up to 33kg and measure 140cm long and its closest genetic relation is the carnivora order containing hyenas and wolves. However within these comic complexities and obscurities hides darker facts about this animal; it is particularly vulnerable to electrocution by electric fence, all eight species are threatened with extinction and it is listed by the IUCN as the most illegally trafficked mammal in the world. We might wipe out this curious oddball before we know anything about it.

Roxy was seized from the black market and given to Maria to be rehabilitated and released. Unbeknown to REST staff, Roxy was pregnant and the subsequent birth of a male pup enabled the first footage to be recorded of a Cape pangolin birth. Everything was new at this stage and the first photo in the public domain of a Cape pangolin pup being carried on the back of its mother was also captured by REST. However, after a foraging trip Roxy did not return to her pup and Maria and her staff were forced to raise the animal themselves. That was two and half years ago and on my first meeting with Katiti, it certainly did not look like it had held him back. Almost more surprising than the very nature of a pangolin was the fact that Maria was carrying him around her neck and on her head. Every day Katiti was taken out to forage for up to 5 hours and in order to supply him with enough ants and termites that hadn’t previously been disturbed, it was important to take him to different areas of REST’s land. This required carrying him to and from foraging grounds and the most comfortable way for both pangolin and accomplice is either sat on your shoulder with his muscular tail wrapped around your neck or perched on top of your head. I learned it was a good idea to wear a hat if Katiti chose the latter method of transportation.
Pangolins do not generally fare well in captivity, not being able to cope with the stress and the change in environment. However, Katiti is flourishing. He is measured and weighed twice a day and enjoys sleeping for most for it. Upon waking he is taken out to forage. In this way Katiti forages completely naturally, using his strong front claws to dig into ant nests in the hard ground, fishing out its inhabitants with his long tongue. He can visit between 50-150 nests in one session. The number of times he eats, what he eats and a GPS track is recorded by the observer. Very little is known about pangolin behaviour due to their elusive nature, therefore being able to follow Katiti in this way enables not only important data to be collected but provides an insight into the lives of these poorly understood creatures.

Pangolin_1Katiti trundles along, his armoured tail raised parallel to the ground as well as his front limbs, his elephant-like, stump back legs powering him, constantly alert to the vibrations or sounds of ants underground. He stops and the sharp ends of his long, adapted nails flick at the pea sized entrance hole to the ant nest, attempting to breach the rock hard earth. I flinch, imagining the feeling of losing a fingernail, as his powerful limbs are making no headway. But Katiti is undeterred, his claws much stronger than I imagine. He is in, flicking clods of earth around him, then spraying sand as the ground gets softer. His tongue goes to work and so do the ants, swarming all over him. A protective membrane covers his eyes and being heavily scaled helps protect from the bites, but I wonder about his soft underbelly. Sometimes he spends less than a minute at a nest, other times nearer ten, digging deep into the earth and the heart of the nest. Katiti pushes on through the bush, a small battering ram, over and through thick thorn bushes, dead trees and ditches, unaware of the difficulty for his human follower. He is equipped with a tracking device, screwed onto one of his hard scales, in case the vicious, skin-tearing, shirt-ripping African flora is too thick for me and he is lost. Fortunately, he is quite easy to hear ploughing through the undergrowth, even if lost to sight. Occasionally Katiti will flinch into his protective ball, in response to something unseen, unheard, unfelt by me, but clearly a perceived danger. A more primitive defence mechanism surely does not exist than to become an immobile, impenetrable ball. Sadly this has led to the pangolin’s demise, as this may be enough to fool big cats but it makes them an easy target for humans.

Although foraging in the cooler part of the day, sometimes it is too hot for Katiti and he will rest on his scaly back with his belly exposed and urinate over himself, wiggling, trying to spread the cooling liquid over him with his forelimbs. It is much the same action when he finds a muddy puddle, he will roll around on his back and shake vigorously, stirring the mud up and covering himself the best he can. It is likely that this benefits his scales and skin by providing protection against parasites and the strong African sun.

pangolin_2Katiti’s role at REST is not only as a powerful educational tool, to promote awareness among local people and visitors, but also in helping to rehabilitate other pangolins. Due to an increase in demand for pangolin products in both Africa and Asia, REST have received many that have been seized from the black market. Those in good health are released as quickly as possible into protected areas. More often, however, pangolins are received emaciated, stressed and dehydrated and the extra shock of being admitted to a rehabilitation centre is sometimes enough to kill them. Maria has had more success in rehabilitating these animals using Katiti. She believes that Katiti, as he is comfortable in the surroundings, helps to settle his compatriots so they can begin to behave more naturally and build up the strength to be releasable.

REST is a small organization run by Maria and her only permanent member of staff, Margareth, trying its best to tackle problems of biodiversity loss in Namibia. Perhaps it is too late for the Cape griffon vulture in the country and an appetite for the pangolins’ skin, scales and meat has thrown all eight species across the globe into steep decline. Pangolin skin is used in the manufacture of boots and other leather items, the meat is consumed as a delicacy as well as imparting perceived health benefits, and the scales are dried and used in traditional medicines to treat a variety of ills from asthma to cancers, even to promote lactation. As populations of the four Asian pangolin species are not able to meet current demand, due to over-hunting, there is evidence to suggest that the resultant high prices are driving the smuggling of African pangolins across continents to meet the shortfall. Perhaps this market is the biggest threat to Katiti and his species, currently classed as vulnerable. Will the four African species go the same way as their Asian cousins (two species listed as endangered, two as critically endangered)?

As for REST, the organisation where I have been able to experience such magical moments with animals I am not likely to ever see again, they are learning things about these creatures that no one else in the world knows. Their passionate, labour intensive, all-consuming, conservation and rehabilitation work provides hope for many African creatures, inspires many children and educates farmers and ranchers on how to treat wildlife. Now the very existence of REST, as if some twisted metaphor for the animals it is trying to save, hangs in the balance. Maria is seeing the organisation that she built from scratch in the African bush, threatened with eviction. Wildlife conservation is often a labour of love, a passionate endeavour that puts personal hardship second to the benefit of species that can’t thank you for doing so. It is a struggle and a fight against people and organisations that choose not to care for conservation and wildlife. REST will continue to fight but if organisations like them lose what will Namibia, Africa and the world lose?

REST are in urgent need of support to continue their work in Namibia. For more information, visit their website: http://www.restafrica.org

Josh Flatman is a graduate from Exeter University with a conservation biology and ecology degree and a masters by research in wildlife disease management. He has participated in turtle conservation in Northern Cyprus, cetacean research in Norway and most recently volunteered in Namibia at REST and at a baboon research project run by ZSL. www.joshflatman.com

 

All images by Josh Flatman