Tiger tales pt3: The sovereign line

As soon as the gates open to the Ranthambhore National Park a frantic race begins.  I’m struggling to hold onto the side of the jeep, while trying to anticipate the twists and bumps of our frenzied ride.  My guide Balveer won’t answer my plea.  I shout into the wind. “What has been spotted?” “Is it Noor and her cubs?” Infuriatingly he’s trying to manage my expectations by pretending this is just an every-day, casual drive. This is a fantasy. He can barely contain his own excitement as we dart down hidden short-cuts and supposedly closed roads. “BRANCH!” Thankfully we all duck.

Scanning the forest I can see two other bouncing jeeps converging.  Noor and her three eight month old cubs have been spotted.  Will we get a fleeting glimpse, a clear sighting, a shot, a good shot, maybe a great shot?  What if there IS a great shot and I miss it?  My fear of missing out is taking over.

Fast approaching, I release my stabilising grip on the jeep and snatch twenty fuzzy, jumpy, awkward shots.  I curse myself for not resisting, for being such an amateur.  These photos will all be deleted.  Still moving, I try to assess the scene.  Where is the sun, is there cloud cover, are there ugly shadows?  Where is the clearest view, the cleanest background, an eye-level position, an interesting or beautiful natural feature?  What are Noor and her cubs doing? What might they do next?

We come to a screeching halt of choking, blinding dust.  Anxious and tense, I give short, sharp location instructions to our driver; knowing I could be completely wrong and could miss or mess up our one and only chance. Reverse.  Reposition.  Reverse and reposition again.  This is excruciating.

And then finally we settle.  I need to breath deeply now, slow down, stop and look.  I need to engage my brain and start to shoot consciously rather than emotionally.  Noor and her cubs are completely relaxed.  They are un-phased by the oooooohhhhhhs and aaaaaaahhhhs and constant camera clatter.

Compared to Noor, the cubs look like babies, but in reality a playful swipe from a cub would knock you to the floor and a gentle bite would fracture your arm.  Born blind and helpless the cubs are now at a tipping point where their individual characters are starting to form.  Is any one cub showing dominance? Maybe the dominant cub is the one with the stick, climbing the tree or initiating the fight?  Was that the same or a different cub?  They all look alike to my untrained eye.  The dominant cub will leave Noor in the next eight months to gain an advantage over its siblings by being the first to establish its own territory.

 

 

One cub is also likely to die.  As I’m watching I wonder which one it will be.  Will the cub be killed by a wandering male, starvation, an accident, poaching?  Am I seeing mother and all three cubs together for the very last time?

Suddenly, Noor is up and stalking.  Spinning around I’m trying to see what she’s seen.  Should I change my lens – no, adjust my camera settings, shift my position in anticipation of what might next happen?  Noor bounds across my view, changing from a nuzzling, caring mother to a taught, focused killer.  She jumps into the river, creating a blinding splash of white water and flailing limbs.  She’s missed the drinking Sambar.  All this within five seconds.  Did I miss the shot?

For the past two months the cubs have been learning to hunt with Noor by their side.  In around four months time they will be adult size and able to hunt for themselves.  For now they practice stalking while Noor leaves to find food.

The following morning we return to see Noor bringing back a light snack. This isn’t enough to feed all three cubs and one cub is pushed aside while the other two squabble over their breakfast.  Has the fate of this single cub already been determined?  Are the other two working out who is dominant?  Balveer watches with interest, safe in the knowledge that, for now at least, these three cubs represent a return to plenty for him and his own three young children.

 

Tiger tales pt2: The tiger trap

Secret hand signals, hidden paths, and preciously guarded knowledge.  I feel I’ve stumbled upon a medieval guild within the Ranthambhore National Park.  My naturalist guide to this unusual world is Balveer Singh.  Balveer has been a member of this strange select club for over five years.  A father of three, the procession of his life is laid out before him: from cattle guard to forest guard, check post guard to ranger, driver then naturalist, subdivisional officer and divisional forest officer. For a select few, assistant conservator of the forest, conservator of the forest, chief conservator of the forest and principle chief conservator of the forest.  A world where strict adherence to the codes and rules of the tiger guild promise status, salary and security.

Balveer wakes at 4:00am each morning, is in the park office by 4:30am to find out which zone and client he has been allocated.  By 5:15am he has picked up his clients, and is ready waiting for the park gate to open at 6:00am.  Balveer then spends twelve hours in dusty 42 degree heat hunting for tigers before collapsing into bed by 8:00pm.  At the height of the season this is a gruelling six-days-a-week regime.

Early morning queue.

I’m sat in a jeep waiting for the Ranthambhore gate to open for the day.  The imposing, 10th century castle gate is a fitting entrance to the theatre of the royal court inside.  This is when the show really begins for Balveer.  Managing the tension and high expectations of guests, stealing an inch in the jostling queue, sharing snippets of information with allies and a non-committal shrug with others.

The royal princess of Ranthambhore is Noor, which is Arabic for light. She is a beautiful eight year old tigress, identified by markings resembling a ring of jewels on her flank. Noor has three eight month old cubs. Every move of Noor and cubs is tracked and photographed.  Her character, changes in appearance, ability to hunt, and parenting skills are the subject of intense interest and gossip.  Forest guards check her scat for disease.  Rangers ensure her path is clear from over-eager members of her adoring public.  Conservators of the forest accompany dignitaries on audiences with Noor, Balveer accompanies us lesser mortals.  There are glorious celebrations by all when new cubs are born.

Noor

The fate of Balveer and Noor are tightly bound.  Without tigers there are no tourists, jobs or security for Balveer.  Without the tiger guild there would be environmental degradation, poachers and no tigers.  Both their futures are based on a fragile interdependence, which can be easily upended and can melt away in an instant.

For five years Noor’s father, The Supreme-Male, reigned across much of Ranthambhore.  This nine feet long tiger had territory across three of the nine zones, and was allegedly father to eighteen cubs.  And then suddenly in 2010, when Noor was less than a year old, the Supreme Male was tranquillised and moved to the Sariska Tiger Reserve.  This surprising move by the government authorities was an attempt to create a self-sustaining tiger population in the western most reaches of previously populated terrain.  This royal coup d’etat caused up-roar amongst the guild and local villagers.  Campaigns were started in the local and national press to reverse the decision; all to no avail. Tourist numbers declined because of the unpredictability of sightings as the remaining young male tigers fought to take control over the vacant empire.

The fight for domination after the removal of the Supreme-Male triggered instability and mass migration of tigers from Ranthambhore.  Noor’s brother, the one-year-old Sultanpur-Cub, fled for his life using 100 miles of secret natural wildlife corridors, crossing the treacherous Grand Chambal River to the Kuno Palpur tiger reserve.  Only to find that when he reached his destination it was a dead, barren world that was tigress-free and full of poachers.  It remains to be seen whether this young tiger will survive, move on, or make a triumphant, regal return to Ranthambhore.

During these difficult, unstable times a crazed six year old tiger called Ustad rose to dominance.  In 2012, Noor and Ustad had their first cub, Sultan.  Ustad was always an unusual tiger.  He wasn’t cautious or fearful around people.  He would drag his kill onto the highway to eat it in full view rather than hiding amongst the undergrowth like other tigers.  He would prowl around villages at night rather than avoid human contact.  And then he started to kill.

On July 3, 2010 and then again on March 9, 2012 Ustad allegedly killed villagers Ghamandi Saini and Ashfaq.  After this second killing, the National Tiger Conservation Authority issued an advisory notice to the Ranthambhore park authorities that Ustad should be moved to a secluded location away from villagers, guards and tourists.  This advisory notice was ignored. Early successes combating poaching had increased tiger numbers in Ranthambhore.  By 2012 there were around 65 tigers and 50 vehicles carrying 2,000 tourists a day.  This was a time of plenty for the park and the guild, and Ustad was one of the main attractions.

In 2014 two more male cubs, Kullua and Dholya were born to Noor.  But Ustad’s past was about to catch up with him.

Early in the morning of May 8 2015, Ustad was sighted very close to the Ranthambhore fort road used by devotees visiting the Ganesha Temple.  Later that evening, returning from routine tracking, forest guard Rampal Saini, 56, was stalked, attacked and killed by Ustad barely 100 metres from the main entrance of the park.  This time the park authorities had to act quickly.  On May 16th, Ustad was moved to the Sajjangarh Biological Park in Udaipur.

Although largely supported by villagers and the guild, the sudden removal of this dominant tiger caused absolute outrage amongst wildlife experts, animal activists and some ex-ministers.  There were many protests and huge demonstrations, especially on social media.  Candle-lit marches and rallies in support of Ustad were aired by international broadcasters including the BBC and Al Jazeera.  Petitions were lodged with the Supreme Court against the Ranthambhore forest officials for relocating Ustad without the approval of the National Tiger Conservation Authority.  But the campaigns and challenges had little affect. And, for human safety, this once dominant tiger now paces up and down in solitary confinement.  A space of less than a hectare rather than the 5000 hectares he once reigned.

With Ustad removed, Noor was again alone and her two small cubs, Kullua and Dholya, were vulnerable.  The fear amongst the guild was that a new dominant male would move into Noor’s territory and kill Noor’s two tiny cubs.  In October 2015 Noor left her cubs.  The guild was shocked, anxious, tense.  Noor moved into another zone and mated with Singhst, a young, naive, five year old tiger.  Two weeks later Singhst was seen side-by-side with Noor and cubs.  Singhst had been cuckolded:  tricked by Noor into protecting Ustad’s cubs.  Balveer and the guild were absolutely delighted, reverential at Noor’s cunning and scoffing at the naivety of Singhst.  In November 2016 Noor and Singst’s current litter of three healthy, playful cubs were born.  Beaming smiles and celebrations were everywhere. These cubs represent security for the sovereign line, and jobs for Balveer and the local communities.

The challenge for the future will be to manage the natural environment in a way that both protects the tiger and provides livelihoods for local communities. Balancing these complex changes in fragile, unstable parts of the world will become the challenge of our time.

But for now, there is a flurry of noise, colour and excitement as the majestic Ranthambhore gate opens on a new day.

Tiger tales pt1: Chasing tigers

A low, urgent whisper. “Did you hear that?” My guide Balveer points to a bush in front of us. Maybe I’m a little tired, a little dehydrated. The terrible thing is, I just can’t tell whether I heard. For two weeks I’ve been waking at 4:30 am. I’ve spent long hot days tumbling about in a dusty open jeep hunting for Bengal tigers in India. I try listening again. Yes… I think I really did just hear the sound of tiger teeth crunching through bone.

Tigers feel so familiar. I see them on face-painted toddlers, fanatical football fans, tattooed boxers, and of course, tiger onesies. A symbol of strength, stealth and seduction. In reality though, there are less than 4,000 tigers in the wild, a staggering drop in two generations from 40,000 tigers in 1970. The Bali, Caspian, Java and South China tiger are all now extinct in the wild.

Tiger pug marks

Searching for the remaining tigers means looking for echoes of where they might have been. A desperate sifting of evidence, frantically combining information on sightings with knowledge of tiger behaviour. Listening for the eerie alarm calls of deer and jungle fowl.  Scattering dancing macaques.  Chasing up and down bumpy tracks looking for fresh pug, scat and scratch marks. Scanning tree tops for crows – suggesting a tiger on a kill – or tentatively, reluctantly, sniffing for the distinctive, pungent smell of a rotting carcass after two or three days in the baking heat.

But all too often, we come to an abrupt, clattering, deflating stop as the signs disappear.

This time however we’re very close. The bone crunching has stopped. Silence. The tension is finally broken by the thwang of a branch and scrunch of paws on dried leaves. Quickly, panicking, I reposition myself, raise my camera, desperate for a shot of that most elusive wild tiger as it moves through the undergrowth.

Life on the edge

I hate needles. And pills. And potions.

For the last 48 hours I’ve been obsessively measuring the growth of a blister on my throbbing left arm. I’ve been feeling sick from the tablets I received at my emergency appointment two days ago with the ‘Same-Day-Doctor’ in London, Canary Wharf. Worried and anxious, I’m now back for my results.

Thankfully, the Mantoux skin test has shown that I don’t have latent TB, my anti-malaria drugs are kicking in and I’ve had no reaction to the yellow-fever, typhoid, hepatitis A, DTP, BCG and goodness knows what else, jabs.

Preparations are progressing well for my trip to Ethiopia where I’m investigating how best to reduce Tuberculosis in some of the poorest communities in the world. TB, or consumption, is one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide. In 2015, 10.4 million people caught and 1.8 million people died from the disease.

Headlines from Ethiopia spin in my mind. LiveAid, Biblical Famine, Birth-place of Modern Humanity, endangered Gelada Baboon and Ethiopian Wolf. Bob bloody Geldof hectoring me to feed the bloody world. A swirling fog of vague recollections combine with feelings of frustration, catholic guilt and helplessness.

Arriving in Addis Ababa is like going back one hundred and fifty years to a Dickensian London of slums, child labour and consumption. With 100 million people, Ethiopia has the second largest population in Africa. A third of which earn less than $1.90 a day, many on coffee plantations providing my daily $5 coffee kick.

Close living in Addis Ababa

In Addis I’m working with a group of inspirational people and organisations trying to learn from their successes and failures in preventing and detecting Tuberculosis.

To raise awareness and counter the stigma of TB these organisations are using street theatre, social media campaigns and storylines on popular soap operas. They are supporting ex-TB sufferers in immigration camps who are choosing to wear ‘TB-Survivor’ T-Shirts and stand up in public to tell their story.

Creative approaches are being trialed to screen hard-to-reach groups. In an immigration camp, members of the Health Army have been trained to use World Health Organisation questionnaires to screen the complete population of 40,000 people. In a separate programme to support migratory communities, Health Army workers are being trained to go into the field to take sputum samples from those with persistent coughs, and to stain and fix these samples on slides for later diagnosis by medical professionals in clinics.

Sputum samples collected from hard-to-reach communities need to be tested by clinicians in hospitals and health clinics to detect whether people have TB. Through agreements negotiated by the World Health Organisation with for-profit businesses, a network of sophisticated TB diagnostic equipment and trained medical professionals is being created.

For people living in mountainous terrain, often two days away from any healthcare facilities, joint teams of volunteers, clinicians and doctors are working with local community leaders using mobile equipment to screen, take samples and test all members of a community over a small number of days. This community-based approach provides vital healthcare services where they are needed, and helps ensure the whole community takes responsibility for its collective health.

From all my discussions it’s clear that small amounts of money in the hands of passionate, dedicated people can have an immediate affect. But I want to see this for myself. I want to see whether this is scaleable and sustainable.

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I’m travelling to Gonder in the northern state of Amhara, the home of the Amhara people. Tired and coughing after a long, hot, dusty journey I’m becoming slightly paranoid. When is a persistent cough persistent? Clearly now an expert, I practise my sputum collection technique ‘just in case’. Relax. Three deep breaths. A deep, hard cough. Yellow or green gooey lung sputum is best. White saliva won’t do. Forgetting for a moment my pin-cushion arm, I’m consulting Dr Google. Ok, a persistent cough needs to be for three weeks, not three days. I think I’m going to survive.

The Amhara make up twenty five percent of the population in Ethiopia and are some of the poorest people in the world. Largely pastoral, many Amhara move throughout the year from mountainous, mid-temperate to low-land terrain to ensure access to pasture land for their livestock.

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Grouped into extended families of around fifty adjacent households, or Gote, male elders lead each community. By the age of eighteen, forty percent of girls have had an arranged marriage and then spend their lives looking after children, working the fields and fetching water. Divorce is illegal but widowed women – dressed in white – are allowed to remarry.

Walking through the streets of Gondar and the surrounding settlements I’m struck by the basic nature of their infrastructure. I find it difficult to understand how so many people can still be living in wood framed, mud houses with unreliable water, sanitation and power, after forty years of economic growth of over five and a half percent a year and thirty years of aid.

What is clear is that this style of living is ideal for the TB virus. When people with lung TB cough, sneeze or spit, they propel the TB germs into the air. A person needs to inhale only a few of these germs to become infected. In a population where eighty percent of people can have latent TB, close living in poorly ventilated rooms means that TB is easy to catch.

Dealing with TB in a meaningful, sustainable way therefore must also address the impact of extreme poverty. But there are no easy solutions. To improve the lives of the Amhara; government, private individuals and donors are helping fund housing, access to water, sanitation and electricity. Roads, schools and medical facilities are slowly being built. Being greeted everywhere by beaming, welcoming smiles makes it easy to romanticise this largely western approach to building communities. But of course this effectively urbanises parts of the population and in the process distances people from their pastoral traditions and social bonds. This at a time when many Western countries are experimenting with more sustainable, greener, community models.

Traditional ways of living are being strained further in Ethiopia by changes to the Amhara state boundary being made by the Ethiopian government. The government is dominated by the minority Tigray ethnic group, which since its election has been redrawing state boundaries to move fertile land from the Amhara state into the adjoining Addis and Tigray states. This forces the Amhara people into the less fertile Semien mountains, making it harder for them to grow food, generate income, and access health services, housing, roads, water, electricity and sanitation services. Flight into the mountains also speeds up the degradation of the natural environment and puts the Amhara into direct conflict with the Gelada Baboon.

Travelling into the Semien mountains I start to see some of the challenges of living in this beautiful rugged terrain.

Groups of very young children gather high in the mountains to tend cattle, sheep and goats rather than go to school. Most rural families can’t afford to send their children to school and many believe that work is simply more important. According to UNICEF, between 2002 – 2012 nearly 30% of children worked, and of those that did go to school 60% dropped out of primary education.

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Groups of children tending cattle in the Semien mountains, Ethiopia.

The degradation of the natural landscape because of extensive agriculture and mining is also clear to see.

As the Amhara people are pushed further into the mountains they in turn literally push the Gelada Baboon closer to the cliff edge. This is because the Gelada eat only leaves and grasses – the only primate graminivores – and are losing out in the battle for grazing pasture against domesticated cattle and goats. Most Gelada now stay within 2 km of the escarpment edges, where they retreat at night to sleep or if alarmed.

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Life on the cliff

Gelada used to have a very wide range, including South Africa, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Algeria, Morocco, Spain, and India. Ethiopia is now their last refuge, with numbers reducing from 800,000 to 200,000 over the last 50 years.

 

 

The Gelada live in large communities of up to 200, constantly preening, chattering and communicating. Some believe that the range of their vocalisations are close to that of humans and includes reassurance, appeasement, solicitation, ambivalence, aggression and defense.

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Serious preening

Gelada also communicate through gestures. They display threats by flipping their upper lips back on their nostrils to display their teeth and gums, and by pulling back their scalps to display pale eyelids.

Lip curl

 

The dry season is coming to an end and very soon the mountains will be cut off, covered in cloud and torrential rain. The Gelada will remain while many of the Amhara people will move to the low-lands and urban centres. My time in Ethiopia is also coming to a close.

Back in London three weeks after my return from Ethiopia I’m watching reports of riots and killings as Ethiopia spirals into chaos. The proposed reallocation of fertile land from Amhara into the Tigray state has caused rioting amongst the Amhara community and resulted in the most violent crackdown against protesters in Sub-Saharan Africa since the Ethiopian regime killed at least 75 people during protests in the Oromia Region in November and December 2015. The Ethiopian government has announced a state of emergency for six months, the UK Foreign and Common Wealth Office is recommending only essential travel and insurance companies are withdrawing cover.

BBC reporting on riots

I’ve learnt that there are no simple answers. Reducing tuberculosis clearly requires addressing immediate gaps in the health care system. Addressing the fundamentals of extreme poverty is also necessary but this can’t be achieved by blindly providing Western-style infrastructure. However if inequality and weaknesses in the democratic, representative process are not also addressed there will always be a risk of instability quickly and unpredictably crashing into crisis.

Addressing these challenges is complex, messy and requires a long-term commitment. But withdrawing isn’t an answer either. As well as having a direct, catastrophic impact on the people immediately involved, the consequences of instability and crisis will continue to spill over national borders. This could be in the form of health pandemics, mass migration or the degradation of our natural environment.

Having the humility to realise that we don’t have all the answers and that we need to enable local people to drive their own change is a good starting point. Providing focused expertise and funding to support locally identified and well-defined changes is also valuable. Well-timed support from trusted people and institutions, which understand the limitations of their own power and influence can also help the political process.

My fetish weekend

Deep in the forest surrounding the Pozharevo wetlands, I’m watching three wobbly, pale, naked men’s bottoms squeeze into tight rubber suits. The rising sun is just starting to reach our little clearing, providing slithers of gentle relief on this crisp, cold, Bulgarian morning. Nightingale whistles and the chirp of a million frogs envelop us, and then, abruptly, without warning; silence. A disturbing, unsettling rhythm.

Growing up willying around in comprehensive school changing rooms and municipal swimming baths has given me an ease with nakedness around other men. A flash-back to an innocent, uncomplicated childhood. The two retired GPs with me are also oh too familiar with the crevices, wrinkles and, increasingly at first hand, failures of the human body.

Our daily routine isn’t yet set, so our movements are still nervy and tentative. Check and double check. I’m closely watching everyone without wanting to make eye contact, without wanting to seem ill at ease. Specialist equipment, specialist clothing, stepping into the unknown, a new experience. Have I forgotten anything? Will it all work? Why didn’t I read the instructions?

A mud-spattered bin bag on the floor for protection, rubber suit turned inside out, rubber booties close by and a friend on hand to help with the trickier manoeuvres. Ok, deep breath. Strip off. Good grief it’s cold, every bone is chattering. Wriggle into suit. Hopping on bin bag. One soggy boot on and then the other.

I bought my wet suit a few weeks ago in the forlorn hope that it would encourage me to ‘slim into’ it. It hasn’t worked. Holding my breath, I force shut the zipper, and I’m ready.

Preparing floating hides

Preparing floating hides

Pushing off, we’re starting five days photographing birds from a floating hide on the wetlands of the Danube on the Bulgaria-Romania border. Too much water and the birds aren’t able to reach the bottom to feed, too little means lots of vegetation for us to wade through and no clear shots, too much change means the birds aren’t settled before mating and nesting, so move around, and are therefore harder to find.  Life is a delicate, vulnerable balance, which can tip unpredictably at any point.

 

 

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Hides, floating

Uneasy, fragile, my two GPs have elected to stay close together for our first session, staying in the shallower vegetation-infested areas.

 

 

 

 

 

Still, calm water. Tranquil and peaceful. I’m alone, following the light of early morning spring as it slowly spreads across a tree-lined channel of deep water.

untitled-6055Eye-to-eye with red-knecked grebes, garganey, and black and whiskered terns, I’m looking for the perfect reflection of a bird bathed in golden light with a catch-light in its eye. An intimate connection with the natural world.

After two hours of quiet suspension in deep, cold water, only broken by a short-lived glow as warm pee spreads throughout my wet suit, I’m forced to stand rigid, on my tip toes for 10 minutes, a shooting pain up my calves. Dressed head to toe in my restrictive rubber suit, I’m now breathing heavily. And then release. A strange sort of euphoria seeping, spreading throughout my aching body.

My first ever shot of a little grebe.

 

Little grebe

Little grebe

I have a list. My ideal shots. My must-try experiences. Number one is ticked off, red-necked grebes next.

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Red necked grebe

 

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Red necked grebe

I’m on a roll. Next frogs.

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Bull frog

 

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bullfrog

Over the next few days my list provides focused intent. Surety and direction.

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Pochard

 

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Pochard

 

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Black necked grebe

 

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Black necked grebe

 

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Black necked grebe

 

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Black necked grebe

Day four. I’ve been bobbing up and down in cold, murky water all morning.  Time is passing too quickly. An increasing urgency to complete my list. To not leave things untried.

I’ve just turned 50. A short five years from now, at age 55, my dad’s heart, lungs and liver collapsed, restricting his remaining life. I reflect on a closure never achieved, things left unsaid. I also reflect on the children I may well never have.

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Leech

I’m jolted into the present, a piercing pain in my left wrist. Three blades making a Y-shaped incision as the leech starts to feast. I’m panicking, trying to shake it off. It’s tail connects to my hand providing two anchor points.

Shaking furiously, I’m afraid to yank it free as I fear that would release a torrent of blood. Breathing deeply, slowing down, gaining self-control, I resolve to wait. To let it feed on me. It’s growing before my eyes. A piercing pain through my hand. Within 30 minutes it’s doubled in size.

I watch in horror. In disgust. In fascination. An hour. A sharp pain and slow pulsating from my wrist. I’m overcome with panic again and try to shake it off. This time the leech drops into the water. Rich red blood flows from my wrist. Smears onto the side of the hide and drips into the waist-deep surrounding water.

 

And then I see them. Seven leeches rushing towards me. Attracted by the heady mix in the water of my blood and body heat in the water. Climbing up my wet suit, desperate for the one and only meal of the year. The meal that will sate them. I’m flailing in the water, pushing away, forcing through the reeds. After 15 minutes I stop. Shudder. I think I’ll call it a day.

Day five. Thunder and lightning has kept me awake all night. There’s been too much rain. The water channels are too high. This, combined with my curtailed session yesterday means I’ve run out of time. I can’t complete my list. Frustrated, I need to step back, reprioritise and consider what is possible.

Inevitably, we pass the morning sharing wonderful stories of past exploits, and shots from the last few days.

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Courting bullfrogs

I then elect to spend the next three hours under a tree waiting for the storm to pass, while also photographing a penduline tit bringing food back to its nest. The tree and nest, swinging in the storm, makes an erratic, difficult photographic target, whilst the tit effortlessly readjusts it’s flight path each time to compensate for its changing environment.

Cold, I’m also mildly disappointed at not being able to warm up by peeing. A chuckle from my GP, “you should think yourself lucky that you’re still able to remember not to just pee”. The weather easing I’m finally able to walk back to the car from my tree. Wearing a massive pair of borrowed wellies, I splosh in pools of water and mud. Quiet, slow, contemplative. My camera and tripod over my shoulder. Enjoying the walk. Enjoying the release. Enjoying the freedom.

Perfect.  Today wasn’t on my list.

Our joint fetish with birds and cameras is coming to a close. I’m learning to let go, accept, and make the most of what’s left (ok, to be fair, this might still be ‘work in progress’). To be open to shared, ludicrous, unexpected experiences surrounded by people at peace.

Driving away from the hotel I realise I’ve left my too tight wetsuit hanging in the bathroom. The rubber, fetid, musty smell; a discarded skin.  I decide to stay quiet and leave it.

Food glorious food

Do you eat because you’re hungry?

Are you a social eater, or a ‘foodie’?

Or, like millions of others, do you have a more complex, sometimes destructive, relationship with your food?

I’ve never felt hungry in my life.  Food is everywhere.  I take it for granted. I abuse it.  I’ve therefore decided to go on the ‘Lighter Life’ diet.  A maximum of 500 calories a day, made up of two shakes and two bars. Goodness knows why I’ve decided to do this ludicrous diet during one of the largest feeding frenzies on earth.

Geographic spread of the Pantanal flood plains.

I’m in the Brazilian Pantanal during the dry season, where reduced water means a concentration of food, and a great feast for birds and caiman, giant otter and capybara, tapir, giant anteater and jaguar. Extending from the Amazon, the Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland, with flood plains bigger than England and Wales combined.  The Pantanal is home to the largest diversity of fish on the planet with 650 varieties compared to 500 across Europe.

From April to November the dry season shrinks the Pantanal by roughly 80%, intensifying competition for food.

A hungry eater?

Losing the fight for food during the Pantanal’s dry season could result in hunger and starvation when the rains tip the balance back in favour of aquatic life.  There is therefore intense competition between the 1,000 or so bird varieties across the Pantanal.

Many compete for fish,

with some a little greedier than others.

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This can turn into an intense struggle for survival.

Fight for food between a black-collared hawk (left) and road-side hawk (right).

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Lots of birds also compete for nuts, seeds and fruit,

while some prefer insects.

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Great Kiskadee (and termite)

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Road-side hawk and cicada

Some birds are masters at just waiting for their opportunity to stave off hunger.

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Ten million Yacare caiman share the waterways with these birds, making the Pantanal the highest concentration of crocodilians in the World.  Crawling along the floor watching their beady eyes, pretending to be brave but knowing that at the first twitch I’m off, is terrifying.  This lone hunter watches for hours, conserving its energy, only taking the food it really needs to survive.

Brazilian wasp (and Caiman).

It waits; and waits.  Letting food go by.

Until.

It feeds.

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Caiman and catfish

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Grilled fish.

It’s dinner time back at camp and after watching animals eat all afternoon I’m absolutely starving.  My stomach is rumbling. I’m salivating.  Strawberry flavour food pack. Soya protein. Guar gum. Xanthan gum. Carboxylate methyl cellulose. The absolute agony of ‘extreme dieting’. It’s been five hours.

After a further week of dieting I’ve moved into ketosis – burning fat. It’s a constant struggle to get back to animal basics. Listening to my body, eating only when hungry and stopping when not. This sounds simple. It’s not. A life-time of emotional, stress and boredom eating, of completely ignoring my own physical needs, is hard to break. I’m starting to build coping strategies. The regularity of only eating every four hours, of not buying ‘real’ food but having sachets and bars. This is the bed-rock of taking back control in a constantly shifting world of emotions, thoughts and hormones. I also need to drink lots and lots of water if I’m to avoid headaches and dizziness.

A social eater?

Many species need to cooperate in order to survive.  For these animals food often also strengthens social bonds.

The Pantanal is the last strong-hold of the giant river otter. The size of a Labrador, there are less that 5,000 of this endangered species in the wild. This social, cooperative animal lives in groups of ten and is dominated by one mating couple. The whole group care for their pups, protect the territory, hunt and share food.

Giant river otter

Extremely territorial, the river otter work together to defend their preferred feeding grounds.

With appropriate vocalisations.

An efficient pack-hunter,

An effective hunter.

Giant river otter and catfish.

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River otter and electric eel.

the river otter ‘sometimes’ share food.

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Another massively social creature, Capybara, are everywhere! The largest rodent in the world, they live in groups of 10–20 individuals. These amazing mammals are led by four dominate males, which build social bonds, provide leadership and seek group consensus!

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Male Capybara.

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Within a week, the young can eat grass, but continue to suckle—from any female in the group—until weaned around 16 weeks.  Again building a strong bond amongst their social group.

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Suckling Capybara

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Meanwhile…

Food is also central to our own socialising, ritualistic bonding and entertainment. I’m struggling to stay connected. Over the last week or so I’ve tried eating just before dinner and then sitting at the table drinking water while everyone eats. And eats. And eats. And talks about food. And share stories of wildlife. Eating. I might be becoming slightly obsessed.

Crispy peanut flavour bar, ‘full of goodness’. Tapioca starch. Polydextrose. Rice syrup. Trimangnesium citrate.  More generally, and beyond this trip, there is a fascination about this diet. It’s a bit like new parents and their comfort talking about bodily functions. Normally completely taboo subjects become the topic of discussion. How much have I eaten? What have I eaten? How much do I weigh? Poo.

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There is the majority, including the amazing people sharing this Brazilian adventure, that express their strongly held views – how I’m fine as I am, how the diet is inadvisable – and then support and encourage me despite any reservations.

There are others that find my diet intimidating, maybe projecting their own insecurities, that respond with strong, disproportionate criticism. When this happens I’m shaken by people feeling they can tell me what to eat. Trying to take control of my most basic function.

This feels really uncomfortable. The temptation is to withdraw. Avoid meals. Avoid meeting people for drinks. It’s just easier. Less tempting. Less awkward. Less confrontational. Although this can also bring loneliness and isolation and a sense from others that I’m aloof and anti-social. A self-imposed exile.

A destructive eater?

One hundred and fifty years of clearance and munching cattle has made the Pantanal feel very familiar. A working farm or a gentle stroll across the closely cropped lawns of a classic English summer garden.

With jaguar hiding in the bushes.

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A romanticised garden of Eden. An easy coexistence between human and non-human animals, the Pantanal has provided an environment of last resort for many endangered species including the Brazilian Tapir, Giant Anteater and soon to be endangered, Jaguar.

The Brazilian Tapir eat from planted mango groves and can weigh over 50 stone – I’m DEFINITELY staying off mango.

Tapir and not-yet-ripe mango.

Whereas the seven feet long, giant anteater take advantage of ploughed fields to find ants and termites.

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Giant anteater

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A call on the radio, a 65 kilometres an hour bond-like zoom in a speedboat through narrow, bendy streams.

dsc_7851Then stillness.

Waiting and waiting in 110 degree heat trying to spot a jaguar amongst the bushes from the largest jaguar population in the world.

The apex predator, regulating the populations of all other animals, the jaguar has the most powerful jaws of any cat, biting directly through the skull of its prey to deliver a fatal bite to the brain. I’m slightly in awe.

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But look a little closer. There are signs that a new apex predator is becoming more desperate in its own search for food.

Approximately 99% of the land in the Pantanal is used for agriculture and ranching. There are 2500 fazendas and up to eight million cattle. The Pantanal is threatened from efforts to clear areas for cattle ranching, rice and soy plantations, agricultural pesticides and mercury from gold mining, along with heavy siltation that destroys fish and aquatic plants.

Bush fires can rage for days, potentially tipping the balance in this fragile environment.

Bush fires used to clear land for ranching rage for days.

Bush fires used to clear land for ranching rage for days.

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According to the Living Planet Index, by 2020 30% of animal species that existed in 1970 could be extinct. The biggest cause of extinction is the destruction of wild areas for farming and logging: the majority of the Earth’s land area has now been impacted by humans, with just 15% protected for nature. Through prudent use, the average Westerner can save 45 gallons of water a day. It takes 460 gallons to make one burger.

It clearly isn’t sustainable that we pretend that we live in an isolated bubble, that we are not part of a greater order of human and non-human animals.  Neither is a diet where I also live in my own little bubble, minimising contact with other people.

Maybe I should try the ‘Shorter Life’ diet. Forty roll-ups and two glasses of red a day.

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Adapt or die

Eco-tourism brings together an idealised, romanticised view of the world and a brutal, hostile reality; often resulting in difficult, messy compromises.

But when is it a compromise too far?  Tourists visiting a fragile environment?  Indigenous people using natural resources for trade? Or selling shooting licenses to big game hunters?

Navigating these compromises to the benefit of the environment requires clear-headed adaptation to a fast changing world.


A romanticised world?

The tip of my nose is stuck to the back of my camera.  I’m trying to suppress a mild panic as my brain races to understand what the heck is going on.  I step back, putting my hand briefly on a metal rail for balance.  My hand sticks, and with a slight tear I jerk it away. *$!!!%%* that stings.  Freezing, I’m going back inside the Tundra Buggy to warm up and check out my polar bear shots.
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Every half hour I go back inside the Tundra Buggy to thaw out the tip of my right index finger – THE most important piece of equipment for a photographer.  Fuelled by hot chocolate, soup and lots of snacks I’m sharing my protective little bubble with 10 others who are also searching for polar bears in this beautiful, wild world.

 

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Exploding into life, we bounce across the tundra, fragile fingers slamming shut drafty windows, expensive equipment jumping around, unsecured on seats, nervous tension ahead of an anticipated sighting.

Then silence.  Eyes straining.  Heart pounding.  Another false alarm? Waiting.  More waiting.

Then I see it.  A beautiful young polar bear snoozing against a rock.  Slowly it stirs, sniffs the air and then casually walks towards and then around our Buggy.

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Overcome by emotion from such a close encounter with the poster-child of the environmental movement, my tundra buddies are unable to contain themselves. Handkerchiefs and hugs are passed around. For some this represents the culmination of a life-time of sacrifice and saving and, for others, a desperate yearning for connection, a seasonal pilgrimage.

My last hour has passed in a minute.  I feel dazed, elated, and amazingly privileged to have been able to look straight into the eyes of such a beautiful, inquisitive animal without any fear or threat from either side.  Lulled by years of marketing images, I could almost reach out and stroke it.
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Brutal reality?

Adult male polar bears can weigh 700 kg and measure 9 ft 10 in total length.  The largest can be over 11 ft tall on their hind legs.  Each year over 400 polar bears are attracted to Hudson Bay because the fresh water from the Churchill River freezes before the surrounding salty ocean, providing the first route to the pack ice and food.  Polar bears generally need ice about 30 cm thick to support their weight, which could take a day or two of freezing weather.  This year has again been mild, which means conflict between angry, hungry bears.

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Away from the tundra for a day, I’m driving a much smaller 4×4 vehicle, looking for Arctic fox and ptarmigan.  For the last half hour, however, we’ve been following a large wayward polar bear, which is now quickly walking down a path directly towards my parked car.  I’m trying not to show panic in my voice as I shout instructions to my passenger to get back into the car, close the door and roll up their window.  I rev the engine to encourage a sense of urgency.  It’s so easy to become lost in the moment and forget that these are fast, intelligent, powerful predators.  With one swipe they can drag a 4ft, 70kg ringed seal out of the water and on to the ice.  Suddenly I feel small and vulnerable.  With everyone in the vehicle, we take a few shots before speeding off.  That was too close.  I’m shaking.  Adrenalin mixed with fear.
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_dsc9547Starving, the polar bears haven’t eaten for four months.  They are surrounded by the strong scent of unfamiliar food – just out of reach.  There’s something primeval about them.  An intelligent killer reading the situation, calculating and testing, and seeing me as its prey.

My marketing bubble has burst, I’m not tempted to stroke ANYTHING.

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Messy compromises?

I’m woken again at 3am by fire crackers as rangers light up the street to discourage inquisitive bears.  In two hours time I will take the nervy, icy, 15 minute walk for breakfast with the rest of my group; like a skittish herd of arctic reindeer, no-one wanting to be caught out on their own.  All car and house doors are left unlocked to provide emergency refuge for anyone coming across a prowling bear.  Repeat offenders are held in the ‘polar bear prison’ where they are given only water, no food, to imprint on them that this is a bad place to be.  There are also strict controls on the disposal of dead animals so as not to entice bears further.

 

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Established in 1943 as a military base for tracking U-boats, spying on Russians and launching missiles, Churchill is the world polar bear capital.

 

Churchill is a magnet for the dwindling number of Eskimo, Swampy Cree and Chipewyan people forced south by climate and social change, has around 10,000 visitors per year paying $15,000 each to see bears, 800 residents and 400 polar bears.  With the sea ice melting earlier and freezing later, people and polar bears are being forced together for longer periods, making it increasingly difficult for them to easily co-exist.

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A compromise too far?

Whether for polar bears, mountain gorilla or tigers, what is a compromise too far?

Parachuting in eco-tourists with disposable income can cause resentment, creeping urbanisation, human-predator conflict and climate change from long-haul flights.  They can also bring a voice and money, which if used wisely can be crucial to support sustainable habitats, indigenous livelihoods and wildlife.

Noble Inuits securing their 6,000 year old culture by using traditional methods to hunt 400 polar bear a year, again seems acceptable to most people.

But that same Inuit selling a polar bear hunting license for $20,000 to a trophy hunter, which both secures the Inuit future and reduces the number of polar bears killed to 40?

Navigating these compromises requires clear-headed adaptation in a fast changing world.

Adapt or die.