Didik’s Journey To Orangutan Baby School

Shot and stolen from the wild, one orphaned orangutan, an emblem of conservation efforts, gets a second chance.

By Vicki Croke

He’s proved to be a fighter, more resilient than anyone could have imagined when he was rescued from a shop in West Borneo on June 14.

On that very first day, what the experienced team from International Animal Rescue (IAR) saw was a baby orangutan near death. Most likely he had been stolen from the wild, and kept as someone’s pet before being abandoned among shelves of groceries and hardware items. He was in pain, malnourished, and suffering from skin and eye infections.


When he arrived, little Didik was depressed, in pain, and unable to eat. (Caretakers at the IAR facility wear face masks because all the orangutans are vulnerable to human disease.) Photo: IAR.

Back at the IAR facility on Borneo, which cares for 109 other rescued orangutans— mostly adolescents and babies— caretakers named their latest arrival Didik. A thorough exam revealed how dire the orangutan’s situation was: X-rays showed a bullet was lodged in his right shoulder. And he weighed in at only six pounds. That’s closer to the size of an infant than the 18-month-old that the development of his teeth revealed he was.

Didik’s story is emblematic of the plight of many orangutans. Both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are critically endangered, losing their forest homes to fire, logging, and oil palm plantations.

“The situation for orangutan populations has reached a critical point. The Bornean orangutan population has declined by 50 percent in the past 60 years and that rapid decline is showing no sign of slowing down. The main threats to the species are habitat loss and illegal hunting. Deforestation to convert land to palm oil plantations and other agro-industries is rapidly destroying the orangutans’ forest home.”  — Lis Key, International Animal Rescue

Last year, fires started by land clearance efforts and fanned by El niño weather conditions “turned a really desperate situation for the orangutans into a crisis of massive proportions,” Key says in an email. IAR reports that five million acres of forest were likely lost.



Book review — ‘I Want To Know What It Is Like To Be A Wild Thing’

The New York Times Book Review

Charles Foster’s ‘Being A Beast’
By Vicki Constantine Croke

NYTimes-Olivier Schrauwen

Olivier Schrauwen

It’s not easy being a theriomorph. The gods of myth never seem to break a sweat when they sprout an elephant head, goat hooves or swan’s wings. But few of us mere mortals can take on an animal’s nature so effortlessly.

My own early experiments in this transformation involved a strange quadrupedal scuttle meant to mimic the stride of my childhood dog, a collie mix named Penny. The gait slowed me down, gave me a head rush and produced grass stains on my culottes that infuriated my mother. Beyond the suburbs, traditional shamanic uses of hallucinogens, such as ayahuasca, are said to facilitate such metamorphoses. But here again, a novice’s pants might require more than spot cleaning, this time from the explosive biological side effects.

The messiness of morphing is a pungent theme of “Being a Beast: Adventures Across the Species Divide,” a meditative romp that leaves you laughing out loud (and occasionally cursing in anger) even as you soak up the spray of science… READ MORE

Courage Of A Tiny Orphaned Rhino

In an Indian park, where every rhino life counts toward keeping the species going, a baby is saved in a monsoon. 

By Vicki Croke

Nearly 2-3 days old male rhino calf found alone in the wilderness of Agoratoli range is rescued by the Kaziranga forest staff and handed over to Centre for Wildlife Rehabilitation and Conservation (CWRC) the IFAW-WTI wildlife care facility for care on Monday,6th July 2015.Photo:Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI

The tiny orphaned male rhino, just days old, was discovered holding his own in a rushing stream. He was then handed over to the rescue unit of a rehabilitation center run by the International Fund for Animal Welfare and the Wildlife Trust of India. Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI.

A newborn baby Indian rhino, orphaned just days ago in Kaziranga National Park in Assam, is safe now and being bottle-fed round the clock by teams of experienced caregivers.

In this place, which contains the highest concentration of Indian rhinos in the world, each rhino life counts toward keeping the species going.

The tiny, days-old “neonate” Indian rhinoceros was alone and frightened when he was saved from a rushing stream Monday in the eastern part of Kaziranga National Park in India.

Male rhino calf rescue 06 copy

The baby rhino is so young that even his thick, segmented skin looks baggy on him. Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee/IFAW-WTI.

So young that his body-armor skin is still baggy, and his ears too big for his head, he was separated from his mother, and barely holding his own against the current. That’s when one of the park’s anti-poaching teams discovered him. The group was able to pull the calf from the torrent, but once on dry land, his troubles continued. A thorough effort to find his mother turned up nothing…


As Antelope Die-Off Ends, The Mystery Deepens

Nearly half the world’s population of the saiga died in just the past few weeks. Now, scientists are digging in to find out why.

By Vicki Croke

FAO:Sergei Khomenko saiga

Steffen Zuther, acting director of the Association for the biodiversity of Kazakhstan, was among the first witnesses on the scene. Photo: FAO/Sergei Khomenko.

The dying may be over but the accounting has just begun.

More than a hundred thousand antelope have perished in one area in just a few weeks and scientists are left with no idea—yet—of what caused it or why it has extinguished itself.

That’s the strange and deadly mystery playing out right now in Kazakhstan among the herds of a critically endangered kind of antelope called the saiga. The herd animals have dropped dead in the thousands—at least 127,000 gone, according to the official estimate, since mid-May.

It seems to have stopped as mysteriously and abruptly as it began, leaving perhaps only half the world’s population (about 250,000 last year) of saiga alive.

Steffen Zuther-dead saiga

Steffen Zuther observed the devastation: whole herds lying dead—the carcasses of calves curled up at the bellies of their dead mothers. Photo: Steffen Zuther.

Last month, biologists and conservationists came to the saiga calving areas to see the beginning of life—babies being born by the thousands—but instead, what they witnessed was the end of life—with the carcasses of tens of thousands strewn over the terrain. Steffen Zuther, acting director of the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan, was among the first witnesses on the scene. On May 10 and 11 and in the days that followed, he observed the devastation: whole herds lying dead—the carcasses of calves curled up at the bellies of their dead mothers.

In a Skype interview from Astana, Kazakhstan, Zuther told me about the start of this die-off. Within two days of his arrival in the field, he says, “most of the calving herd was dead.”

The catastrophic collapse was reported in New Scientist:

The animals began dying from an unidentified cause around 10 May. The death toll soared within days to 27,000, at which point the Kazakh government requested help from the secretariat of the convention [UN Convention on Migratory Species.]. A team of vets, led by Richard Kock of the Royal Veterinary College in Hatfield, UK, flew out on Friday.

“It’s very dramatic and traumatic, with 100 per cent mortality,” Kock told New Scientist from Betpak-Dala in central Kazakhstan. “I know of no example in history with this level of mortality, killing all the animals and all the calves.” The animals die through severe diarrhoea and difficulty breathing.

Zuther says the die-off has essentially ended, but the race is on to find the cause. Scientists are on scene, conducting necropsies, or animal autopsies, and analyzing tissue. Though they think two kinds of bacteria (pasteurella and clostridia) have contributed to the deaths, they don’t believe they are the main culprits. That’s because these kinds of bacteria are usually present in healthy saiga as well. Most likely, that means something is affecting the immune system and allowing the bacteria to turn deadly…


The Secrets Of Gift-Giving Crows

By Vicki Croke

Joe McKenna-Flickr

Joe McKenna/Flickr Creative Commons

It’s an intriguing headline: “Seattle Girl Befriends Neighborhood Crows, Making Bird Lovers Everywhere Jealous.”

It ran over Audubon online’s story about Gabi Mann, an 8-year-old girl in Seattle who has befriended a group of crows in her neighborhood by putting food out for them. Gabi and her family report that for the past couple of years, in an exchange—or just out of pure friendship—the birds have been leaving the girl small, often shiny items, which the family says are gifts: small pieces of brown glass, a bead, a button, a paper clip. Her favorite is a little heart pendant.

As soon as I read that story, I wanted to know more about it, especially because I had had a fun friendship years ago with a group of crows in my neighborhood, a friendship that had been coached by Kevin McGowan, a crow expert with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

First, I read what John Marzluff, a crow expert and author, and professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington, had to say about this to the BBC News Magazine. He pointed out that crows do give gifts among themselves and that they certainly interact with people and quickly learn things when food is involved:

“If you want to form a bond with a crow, be consistent in rewarding them,” advises John Marzluff, professor of wildlife science at the University of Washington. He specialises in birds, particularly crows and ravens…

READ MORE on WBUR’s The Wild Life

Book review — Helen Macdonald’s ‘H Is for Hawk’

The New York Times Book Review

Helen Macdonald’s ‘H Is for Hawk’
By Vicki Constantine Croke

22CROKESUB-blog427-v2If birds are made of air, as the nature writer Sy Montgomery says, then writing a great bird book is a little like dusting for the fingerprints of a ghost. It calls for poetry and science, conjuring and evidence. In her breathtaking new book, “H Is for Hawk,” winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book Award, Helen Macdonald renders an indelible impression of a raptor’s fierce essence — and her own — with words that mimic feathers, so impossibly pretty we don’t notice their astonishing engineering… READ MORE

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