Africa’s Pol Pot?

Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe has begun to burn the houses of thousands of urban poor people and drive them into the already-starving countryside. One of Africa’s rare food exporters has been turned into something resembling a subtropical North Korea.

I was in Zimbabwe shortly before the current troubles began and fell in love with it. Even then, the eerie “Big Brother” porteaits of Mugabe in every public room struck an ominous note. I wonder if I could ever go back knowing what we do now. A village council elder in a southwestern village we visited to see their (then) excellent “Campfire” conservation program has since been beheaded. I believe I shook his hand.

From Winds of Change the whole story, which has made at least one Canadian rethink his position on the right to bear arms.

Thanks to Chas of Nature Blog.

Am I in the wrong trade?

Jonathan Hanson of Alpha Environmentalist and I have a long history of trying to one- up each other with the worst and always hilarious excesses of postmodern academic– i. e., art school– “art”. This is not actually the worst, but will do as a contender.

“In May, at the annual spring auction at Christie’s in New York City, Massachusetts artist Tom Friedman managed to sell a piece consisting of an ink squiggle on a 12-by-18-inch piece of white paper (described in the Christie’s catalog as “starting an old dry pen on a piece of paper”). It was sold for $26,400, according to a Washington Post report. Friedman was less successful in offering a 2-foot white cube that contained, on one surface, a tiny speck of his own feces, for which he expected an opening bid of $45,000, but got no takers.”

Imagine how many trips to Kazakhstan, fine shotguns etc. those prices would soon buy me. I mean, it’s pretty easy to be prolific…

Fashion Week in Almaty

Sometimes it is very hard to convey the realities of Central Asia. People can just about get the idea of what remote parts of Mongolia are like– they like the idea of “primitive”.

But what about Almaty? It is a huge modern city with tree- lined boulevards and excellent restaurants and cyber- cafes, situated in the green foothills beween 14,000 foot peaks and steppes like the plains of Wyoming. It is inhabited by Kazakhs and Russians living in enviable harmony (and often intermarrying), Germans, Moslems, Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Jews. What’s more, as a Russian friend says, “you can take public transport to snow leopards”.

And the town is inhabited, thronged, by incredibly beautiful and stylish women. Everyone in the US seems to think Central Asian women look like East German Athletes or Stalinist WW II vets– it ain’t so! Renato Sala, an irreverent Italian archaeologist based in Almaty, once said to us through clouds of Gauloise smoke that ” Kazakhstan has the MOST beautiful women– Stalin or Chingizz or somebody must have killed all the ugly ones!” Only an Italian.

Dress is interesting too. Libby thought to bring “Cover Up” clothes in deference to both what we thought were local mores and to the season, but it was still hot (early September) and the local women were dressed in bare midriffs and slit skirts and very high heels.

So, catching up on the usually serious Registan, I was delighted to see this hilarious post from Nathan last month. I think that the one that he describes as owing something to pre- teen D & D players– the one with the tall covered headress and the less modest “body”– might owe something to the Golden “Man”. (Doctor Jeannine Davis- Kimball says he is a she).

Sorry for the image quality of the G. M.— the only photo available wouldn’t load, and this one is a Kazakh kid’s drawing.

Nasyma Raybayevna
(Above image: Our friend Nasyma Raybayevna, who is studying business in Almaty and has lived in London, with a berkut. Photo by Wolfgang Regar– or, as he is known in Almaty, “Regarbayev”.)

Parrot Reality Check

Parrot trainer, falconer, and writer Rebecca O’Connor of Operation Desert Dove gently rebukes me for the “crap” implied in the bbc article below: “Please please remind all to refrain from calling what parrots do language. They are excellent labelers, excelling at using learned noises at appropriate moments. They cannot however, understand the abstract concepts involved in language. This is one of the very things that gets so many parrot owners in trouble. They think of their speaking parrots as two year old children (Like Dr. Irene Pepperberg, the premier grey parrot researcher advices us.) Children they are NOT! Like you said, Steve their brain works entirely differently. They are incredibly intelligent but deserve to have their behaviors translated through the lens of what a wild parrots would do naturally.”

She suggests this article as a corrective.

Bird Brains?

I have always been fairly unimpessed with the “linguistic” exploits of our closest genetic relatives, the great apes– the communications chasm seems wider than that between us and our dogs, despite their having been trained to manipulate some symbols.

Which is why recent developments in bird speech and cognition are so mind-boggling, especially as the avian brain is physically extremely different in
its structure. There is a lot of info out there, but check out this BBC
story for a good example of the most talented talking bird, the African gray


A good line from contrarian blogger- evolutionist- film critic Steve Sailer: “One conservative element I like about “Lord of the Rings” is Tolkien’s arch-Tory / proto-hippie conservationism. Here in the U.S., conservatives tend to assume that the essence of conservatism is to bulldoze a forest and build a Costco. Tolkien would have shuddered.”

Panther Purity

A cougar, probably of the so- called “Florida panther” race, was hit and killed by a car in northern Florida, far from the usual southern haunts of the subspecies. A story in the St Augustine Record by Peter Guinta– it requires registration so I’ll just quote– records the good news that the cat’s range is expanding but flirts with an odd obsession with genetic purity that crops up in many places, from genetics- obsessed dog standards to the sneers at the restored eastern peregrine as “Cornell chickens”.

” “In recent years their numbers have been increasing, and now we’ve just
lost one,” she [ Sarah Owen of the Florida Wildlife Federation]said. “But we’re not going to get too excited until we find
out through DNA testing where it’s from.”

Cunningham said the same thing — a DNA test is required because there was an experiment in North Florida three years ago that involved releasing
sterilized Texas cougars to find out if a second population of Florida
panthers could survive there. Some of the vasectomies given to those cats
were not effective and they began breeding, he said.

“I couldn’t tell the difference at necropsy,” he said. “This one did not
have some of the characteristics of the pure, inbred Florida panthers. I
still think it was a Florida panther, but I don’t want to rule out that
this could be connected to that project.””

Don’t get me wrong– having the locally- adapted type would always be better– unless there were none, or the population was dwn to where the remaining animals had problems. But Florida’s panthers were in exactly that kind of shape.

“In 1989, data collected from 29 radio-collared panthers indicated that the
population was losing genetic diversity at a rate of three to sevenpercent
yearly. Researchers believed that the gene pool would continue to erode
even if the population stabilized, leading to extinction within 40 years.
Three years later, with the health of the population continuing to
decline, biologists made a controversial decision. In an effort to increase genetic
diversity, wildlife managers introduced several female Texas cougars —
the closest remaining cougar population that had historically shared Florida
panther range — into the Florida panther population in 1995. Several
hybrid litters have since been produced, and the introduction seems to
have corrected some of the problems experts generally attribute to inbreeding.
Experts are still debating the role of the Texas cougars in panther recovery.”

Debating? Why on earth, other than purely pohilosophically? Is it better to lose the panther entirely? Most likely, the environment will shape it back eventually in the direction of the Florida “type”– though some think that the defining characters of that type may have been signs of inbreeding pathology!

Other questions raised: if the environment is different, does a reintroduced species take on different characteristics? The old eastern anatum peregrine was bigger than its replacement. But if it was because its prey was the big, swift, and abundant passenger pigeon, will the new peregrine ever get as large? Species and ecosystems are fluid entities…

Also: what does this tell us about closed dog studbooks? Hint: nothing good.

I’ll soon have some stuff on the passenger pigeon ecosystem up in “Other Works”.

Thanks for the tip to Grayal Farr.

Decline and Fall

I have a feeling that the decline and fall of Britain may end up a constant theme here. This just in from Jonathan Hanson– emphasis mine: “Official guidelines issued in May by Britain’s Joint Council on Qualifications, directed to agencies that administer high school and junior high standardized tests, call for students to receive extra points on the test if they have experienced pre-exam stress due to selected circumstances: death of a parent or close relative (up to 5 percent extra), death of other relative (up to 4 percent), death of pet (2 percent if on exam day, 1 percent if the day before), WITNESSING A DISTRESSING EVENT ON EXAM DAY (up to 3 percent), just-broken arm or leg (up to 3 percent), headache (1 percent).