Friday, October 26, 2007

Dwarf Manatee discovered in the Brazilian Amazon

Here's some interesting news at Wildlife about a new dwarf species of Amazonian Manatee discovered by Marc van Roosmalen.
The Amazonian manatee was thought to be the only manatee fully adapted to living in fresh water, until the discovery of the Dwarf manatee, Trichechus Bernardi, or Prince Bernhard’s dwarf manatee.

The story started in September 2002 when Marc van Roosmalen collected a skull of a recently killed adult male. He had to wait for 2 years until he found living proof of the Dwarf manatee, when he was able to study and film a live specimen that was kept in a corral in its natural environment for 4 months.
Dwarf manatees are considered to be critically endangered as they are highly restricted ecologically and geographically. It is thought that there may be less than 100 individuals in this population, and they are not known from any other locality. They are hunted as game, and their habitat is highly susceptible to illegal mining of gravel and gold, timber extraction and commercial fishing.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

TV: Natalie Portman - Saving a Species: Gorillas on the Brink

Check out the Animal Planet channel from Friday, October 26th, and see Natalie Portman journeying deep into the Rwandan rainforest in search of mountain gorillas. Jack Hanna guides Natalie through her visit as she learns about these stunning endangered animals. There's plenty of airings of this TV special through the middle of November.

Also, check out this video coverage from CNN on the recent situation in the DR Congo.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Funny Google Searches #1

Any website owner is probably familiar with this one. Checking your Search Engine Referral logs for the wild and wacky searches people are performing that enables them to land on your site. Here's a couple of doozies from the last week...

Query: where can I buy condoms in shanghai?
Result: Post about the condoms for underwater sound recording in the Yangtze River

Query: Hugh is the only person I know who doesn't talk bollocks.
Result: Post about the Stephen Fry webchat at the Douglas Adams Continuum

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lulu pregnant, fertilized with frozen sperm

There's lots of coverage around the web that Lulu (being anesthetized) is pregnant again. Back in January of 2007, Lulu gave birth to Layla, the first rhino conceived by artificial insemination. This time, the sperm used was deep frozen.

From EUX.TV...
Budapest zoo said that the foetus was now 10 centimetres long. Layla's sibling is not expected to be born before the end of 2008 as rhinos carry their unborn calves for up to 17 months.

Layla herself, who was 58 kilogrammes at birth, is now almost 500 kilogrammes and is in excellent health, the zoo said.

Budapest Zoo's other rhino, Easyboy, became the sperm donor after romantic sparks failed to ignite between the couple.
This time though, the zoo used sperm from Simba, 38, a rhino from Britain's Colchester Zoo.

The implant was performed June 14 with experts from Hungary, Germany and Austria taking part, and the pregnancy was confirmed last week by an ultrasound scan.
All the pachyderms in the current project are Southern White Rhinos but experts hope to use the insemination program with the much rarer Northern White Rhinos, of which only three survive in the wild and eight in zoos.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Guerrillas in Their Midst

Thanks to Gwen, who pointed me in the direction of this extensive article at the Smithsonian Magazine on the current rebel crisis in the DR Congo. The article also features some video reports.
It's the gorillas that have reason to fear. Only about 750 mountain gorillas are left in the world: 350 in Uganda, 270 in Rwanda and a mere 150 here in Congo (formerly Zaire). They have been ravaged by poaching, habitat loss, disease and the violence of war. Many live in lawless regions, sharing territory with armed rebels from Uganda or the remnants of Hutu militias responsible for Rwanda's 1994 genocide of ethnic Tutsis. Today the biggest threat comes from the Congolese area of their range. Rebel groups opposed to Congo president Joseph Kabila control territory in the turbulent east. The most powerful group is led by an ethnic Tutsi named Laurent Nkunda, who commands thousands of well-armed rebels in the Virungas. Not far from here in January, troops from Nkunda's group killed and presumably ate two silverbacks. A female was shot in May, another male and four females were slain in July; their killers had not been identified as we went to press.

Friday, October 12, 2007

BBC's Protecting Mountain Gorillas Diary

BBC News's Protecting mountain gorillas diary continues. The main concern continues to be the rebels who have seized large areas of eastern Congo, and threaten to overrun the Mountain Gorilla habitat.
Fighting has intensified this week, resulting in the rebels re-seizing the entire Gorilla Sector after beating back the army.

We are undecided whether we should evacuate our families from Rumangabo Park headquarters.

There is an army base just four kilometres east of our station, and that is one of the rebels' targets.

If they take that, they can cut off the road to Goma, which is our main communication artery.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Mosher completes his 1000 mile hike. Well done Iain!

Very many congratulations to Iain "Mosher" Purdie, who's now completed his 1000 Mile Charity Walk across Europe. Terrific effort Iain. And you're right, the thank you video from the Blue Dragon Children’s Foundation is touching indeed. Best of luck with your future endeavors.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

The Story of Last Chance To See (by David Haddock)

The story of Last Chance to See begins with Douglas being telephoned by the World Wildlife Fund and asked to go to Madagascar and look for the rarest form of lemur then known - the Aye-Aye. He was to do this in the company of zoologist Mark Carwardine who would act as the expert foil to Douglas who would be writing about the trip. The trip took place in the Spring of 1985, and the photographer Alain le Garsmeur went along to provide the pictures, and Jane Belson who was later to be Douglas’s wife also joined the group.

The article duly appeared in the Observer Sunday Magazine (9th June 1985) with plenty of pictures of other lemurs, nice photogenic ones that were active during the day, like the Ring-tailed lemur shown on the cover, and the Sifaka lemur in the body of the article. However, much to everyone's surprise they did manage to capture the nocturnal Aye-Aye on film as well, and so a grainy picture of it was also published in the article. The aim of the project was to promote conservation in Madagascar, and to that end it was sponsored by Fiat, which donated a pound to the WWF for every person that called an advertised phone number.

Incidentally, Douglas used the expedition as the basis of a chatty ten-minute radio programme of him speaking over a background of wildlife sounds that was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1st November 1985 under the title Natural Selection: In Search of the Aye-Aye. Douglas returned to the subject of the Aye-Aye, specifically the evolution of its distinctive middle finger, in a one-minute programme for a 1998 BBC2 series called Natural Selections, with his contribution broadcast on March 28th.

An account of the Madagascar trip, and how it led to the others, is given in the introductory chapter of Last Chance to See entitled Twig Technology. After successfully finding the Aye-Aye, Mark was telling Douglas about some of the many other endangered species and Douglas goes and gets his Filofax and says, “I've just got a couple of novels to write, but, er, what are you doing in 1988?” The preparation for these later trips is discussed in Neil Gaiman's book, Don't Panic: The Official Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy Companion, published in 1988, and mentions three particular species that they planned to look for: the Kouprey, the Quetzal and the Kakapo. The last of these did make it into the final selection, but the Kouprey, an ox-like creature found in Vietnam and the Quetzal, the national bird of Guatemala, did not. Choosing where to go and what to see was somewhat haphazard with Mark and Douglas horse-trading over a map of the world about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to see. “The Congo? The Seychelles? Split the difference – Mauritius”, reported Gaiman's book, which also said that initial thoughts were to produce a television series, but the first place they asked about filming was in China and as the permit was going to cost £200,000 they quickly shelved that idea, and turned it into a radio series. The radio series was eventually funded by the advance on the book, with the authors paying the expenses of the BBC sound engineers that individually accompanied them: Gaynor Shutte and Chris Muir.

The various trips to search for the animals eventually took place in 1988 and 1989 after Douglas wrote the two Dirk Gently novels and Mark had to change all the arrangements because the books took a little longer than expected. The book of Last Chance to See is still in print, but the full radio series seems only been to have been broadcast in the UK in October / November 1989, with a repeat of four of the six episodes the next year. A clip from the show made the prestigious Pick of the Year BBC radio selection. The full set of episodes did receive an airing in Australia in 2001, and the Fruit Bat episode was included in the three-hour tribute to Adams broadcast on BBC7 in 2003. There are clips from each episode on the triple CD package, Douglas Adams at the BBC.

Last Chance to See – Radio Episode Guide
Prelude: Natural Selection: In Search of the Aye-Aye [Aye-Aye Lemurs - 01/11/1985]
  1. Ralph, The Fragrant Parrot Of Codfish Island [Kakapo Parrot - 04/10/1989]
  2. Gone Fishing! [Yangtze River Dolphin - 11/10/1989]
  3. Animal, Vegetable Or Mineral? [Amazonian Manatee - 18/10/1989]
  4. The Answer Is Blowing In The Wind [Rodrigues Fruit Bat - 25/10/1989]
  5. A Man-Eating, Evil-Smelling Dragon [Komodo Dragon - 01/11/1989]
  6. The Sultan Of Juan Fernandez [Fur Seal - 08/11/1989]
The episodes went out at 12.25pm on Wednesdays with a repeat at 8.00pm on the following Sunday. In the absence of a commercial release, all the episodes should be available to listen to at the National Sound Archive. In May 1997 Radio 4 broadcast another set of five fifteen-minute programmes under the title Last Chance to See. These were Douglas reading from the Komodo Dragon chapter of the book, and a companion website was created at the time is still available at

The radio series was made with each episode having three or four Hitchhikers Guide style vignettes read by Peter Jones, but with the majority of the content coming from the on the spot recordings made on their travels. These provide their instant reaction to what they are seeing allowing Mark to describe the creatures and Douglas to give his commentary. There are also some more considered comments that were recorded by Douglas after their return that has a background of typewriter noises. The radio programmes featured in a two-page article in the Radio Times (30/09/1989) that quoted Douglas as saying, “The intention of the series is to be serious, but because I'm a comedy writer the tone will be light. The aim is to bring these issues to a broader audience: greens tend to preach to the converted on green issues.”

Writing the book to accompany the series was somewhat of a struggle. Mark and Douglas planned to do this over the course of four months at a villa in Juan-les-Pins in the South of France. With Mark commuting weekly and Douglas there full time, they managed to produce a solitary page, although they did do a great deal of planning and lunching. Returning to London the pair were apparently locked into Douglas's house in Islington in order to produce the book, which, so the story goes, the publishers took as soon as they thought it was long enough. The page written in France didn't make the final edit. This is one of the reasons that two of the species they searched for did not make the book at all: the Juan Fernandez Fur Seal and the Amazonian Manatee. The audio version of the book, the English version of which is read by Douglas Adams, further excludes a couple of the book chapters in order to fit the double cassette format.

Last Chance to See – Book Chapter Guide
  1. Twig Technology [Aye-Aye]
  2. Here Be Chickens [Komodo Dragon]
  3. Leopardskin Pillbox Hat [Northern White Rhino / Gorilla]
  4. Heartbeats in the Night [Kakapo]
  5. Blind Panic [River Dolphin]
  6. Rare, or Medium Rare? [Rodrigues Fruit Bat]
  7. Sifting Through the Embers [Sibylline Books]
  8. Mark's Last Word ... [Summary / News]
A CD-ROM followed in 1992, produced by The Voyager Company. This has audio recordings of Douglas reading the whole of the book as well as some contributions from Mark about the individual animals and extracts from their on the spot recordings. There are also over 800 photographs from the trip included in the multimedia package. In 2001 a German company re-released the CD-ROM, the book having been successful in translation into German, and a German audio-book also being available. Other translations of the book include Dutch, Polish, Czech and Hebrew editions.

The trips that he and Mark undertook awoke within Douglas a sense of wonderment at the natural world that can be seen in his subsequent writings. Both Mostly Harmless (1992), with the section about Perfectly Normal Beast, and the Salmon of Doubt (2002) with the Rhino's point of view of a rampage, reflect the development of his ecological awareness. In a March 1998 interview with Matt Newsome, partly reproduced in The Salmon of Doubt, Douglas mentions the impact of his trip to Madagascar on the first Dirk Gently book, although the author admitted that “I recast it for various reasons as Mauritius”. The interview also touched on the possibility of a Last Chance to See TV series, although Douglas presaged that part of the interview with “I probably shouldn't say this” as the discussions were only just beginning, and at the time came to naught. After publishing the first Dirk Gently book, Douglas became friends with Richard Dawkins who had written Douglas a fan letter after reading the novel, and this again reinforced and developed his interest in evolution and natural history. Douglas eventually became a patron of both Save The Rhino and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, charities for which the annual Douglas Adams Memorial Lectures have raised money.

A set of follow-up trips were touted and an article appeared in The Times (19th February 1991) which indicated that the pair were to be even more intrepid than on their previous trips and look specifically at species whose predicaments had been caused by their proximity to war zones. Again the Kouprey was mentioned by name, described as living “on the borders of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, which has been devastated by minefields”. The article also mentioned the pair having researched the plight of animals in Afghanistan, Uganda and Nicaragua, and the potential of looking at the predicament of fish and birds in the oil spills of the (First) Gulf War zone. This is as far as the second series seemed to get, however, the Last Chance to See story does not end there, as nearly twenty years after the original radio series we now have the prospect of a televisual update with the working title Another Chance to See.

At a lecture in London in November 2006, to raise money for tiger conservation, Mark Carwardine was introduced as “the author of 54 books, and shortly to film a series with Stephen Fry”. Asked about it after the lecture Mark confirmed that he was in the process of arranging the filming dates for going to visit the people and animals that he had seen with Douglas and hoped the series would be broadcast in Spring of 2008. Stephen Fry would be filling the role of enthusiastic amateur now Douglas is no longer with us, and was not only a great friend of Adams, but also has his own environmental pedigree with his TV programme, book on the Spectacled Bear, as well as a charity to help protect it. The TV series has had quite a long gestation. Stephen Fry mentioned on a webchat that he was in discussions about this project with Mark back in June 2006. Another Chance to See seemed to take a major step forward when the TV company Iostar announced it on their website as part of their launch at the TV trade show MIP-TV in Cannes during the second week of April 2007. Part of the text ran: “This time it's Stephen Fry at the helm with Carwardine, as they revisit the six featured endangered species and bring their stories right up to date. From Madagascar to Mauritius, and from China to the Congo, the pair will be guided by the ethereal presence of Douglas Adams whose voice lives on, loud and clear in scene-setting audio.” The company then went spectacularly bust soon afterwards. However, the project is far from being dodo-like, with both Mark and Stephen publicly talking about it, the expeditions are still planned, but now for 2008, and with broadcast in mind for Spring 2009.

A version of this article, also by David Haddock, first appeared in issue #105 of Mostly Harmless, the magazine of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the Official Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Appreciation Society. See