Friday, 29 March 2013

Wrestling Wild Sloth Bears - Feeding Time at Daroji sanctuary, India

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Cameraman David Heath and I sat quietly just a few metres away from wild sloth bears as they slobbered, tussled and wrestled over honey at Daroji bear sanctuary, India. These bears are wild and protected within the large reserve. Some are nuisance bears that have been captured trying to steal food, or attack people, in local villages, others have been translocated from areas where their habitat is being destroyed. Once a day the wildlife wardens smear honey on a few rocks to ensure that the most recently introduced bears have enough food. This makes them more visible and helps the wardens to monitor the health and population of the reserves several hundred sloth bears. It also gave us the perfect opportunity to film and photograph them.

Following my time watching wild bears at Daroji I visited bannerghatta bear rescue centre where I saw the effect of the dancing bear trade, and how these endearing animals are tortured for entertainment. Read more and see the video here.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

The Slobbering Sloth Bears of India - Dancing no more

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I've been lucky enough to spend time with several species of bear but when I visited Karnataka in India,  I found sloth bears to be one of the most endearing and characterful of them all (to find out how the Sloth Bear got its name read my post from April 2012). My first stop was the Daroji bear sanctuary in Hampi, to see bears living in the wild. This visit would resonate deeply when I later visited the Bannerghata Bear Rescue Centre, to meet bears that had been rescued from a life of torture as a dancing bear.

Slobbering Sloth Bears

As I wrote in my field diary "He looked satisfied as he approached a nice patch of honey. As he walked his fluffy backside swayed like a big furry John Wayne. Adjusting his posture and almost crossing his legs, he hunched over to crinkle his soft snout up against the ground - like a pig snorting in a trough.  When he was finished with one patch he stood up and waddled across to another.  Not a care in the world the bear was completely oblivious to our presence."

Wild Sloth Bear, Daroji

Wild Sloth Bear, scratching, Daroji

"Sloth Bears have really poor eye sight and can see little further than 10 metres, so as long as we remained still and silent we would be able to observe the bears feeding, joyous in their slobbering glory. Occasionally the bear would surface from its sticky honey treat, raising his nose and opening his mouth like a panting dog. He was tasting the air and I wondered if he could detect the strangers in his midst. If he could then he must have decided that he had more pressing matters to attend to and chowed back down."

Bear hug, two youngsters tussle at Daroji

Dancing No More

At Daroji I met Samad Kottur, a local science teacher, who works with Wildlife SOS to protect and rescue Sloth Bears. Most of the bears that he has rescued have been from the brutal art of bear dancing - a traditional livelihood which has been practiced in rural India for centuries but which has been illegal since the wildlife protection act of 1972.

Stolen from their mothers young sloth bear cubs are sold to the traditional dancing bear community known as Kollanders. 'Here they begin a life of pain and discomfort.' Sammad told me that 'after a few months their canines are ripped out, their claws are clipped, males are castrated and a red hot iron is used to pierce their sensitive nuzzle through which a coarse rope is threaded.' it is the pain of pulling on this rope that makes them dance as they are dragged from village to village and made to perform, standing on their hind legs and used as puppets on a string.

'They are severely malnourished and are only given the very poorest food to survive on' says Sammad who is still moved to tears by his experiences 'when we rescue them they are in really bad shape'.
Read more in my blog post from 2009.

Rescued Sloth Bear Cub. Photo: Troy Snow

Seeing wild bears at Daroji made my subsequent trip to the Bannerghata Bear Rescue Centre even more heart-wrenching. Here I was introduced to some of the resident bears, and showed the strict daily routines that the vets and carers go through to ensure that these charismatic animals live out the rest of their days, trouble free and as healthy as can be. To see the drastic and devastating effect that 'dancing' has had on Sloth Bears is something that will stay with me for a long time.

The Last Dancing Bear

The video above was originally posted in 2009 and received over 200,000 views, later that year the last dancing bear was rescued from the streets of India. The trade continues in Russia and China. Following a viral attack originating in Russia, this video was inexplicably removed from YouTube - we believe that this was the work of those opposing conservation organisations who are trying to stop the trade. To help support the continuing work of Wildlife SOS, and ensure that these rescued bears can be cared for, please visit

Dancing bear with rope through his muzzle. Photograph by Troy Snow (used with permission)

Monday, 18 March 2013

Alien Anatomy - Insect Dissection #BBC4 - Gunther Von Hagens eat your heart out!

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Insect Dissection: How Insects Work - Wednesday 20 March, 9-10pm

A colony of army ants can be over 700,000 strong. When a flea jumps it accelerates at a rate 20x faster than a rocket being launched into space. The combined weight of all the insects in the world is 12 times greater than the weight of the entire human population, and for every human alive, there are 200 million insects. These are just a few of the remarkable pub facts that I've picked up so far from BBC 4's insect season 'Alien Nation' 

Clearly, insects are far more successful than we gangly bipedal humans have ever been - they thrive in environments where we wouldn’t last minutes, and they live on and within us. We mostly perceive them as pests yet without these bugs, entire ecosystems would collapse, crops would disappear and waste would pile high. 'Insect Dissection: How Insects Work' reveals the secret of their success? Their incredible alien anatomy.

To reveal this extraordinary hidden world, entomologists Dr James Logan and Brendan Dunphy carry out a complete insect dissection (Gunther Von Hagens, eat your heart out). Cutting edge imaging technology shows us the beauty and precision of the natural engineering inside even the simplest insects. Stripping back the layers, they uncover ingenious body systems and finely tuned senses – a bug body plan that is the hidden blueprint behind insects’ global domination. And they discover how science is now using the secrets of insect anatomy to inspire technology that could save human lives.

As Marcus Herbert, Executive Producer, BBC Scotland says...

"Insect Dissection is about ... er ... dissecting insects.  Not on the face of it, the most obvious TV proposition. But seen in ultra close-up, insect anatomy is truly amazing, and is one reason why they are the most successful creatures on the planet. So we borrowed the anatomy museum at Glasgow University, brought in two entomologists – James Logan and Brendan Dunphy – gave them some scalpels and some bugs, and left them to it. Of course we didn’t – we spent a lot of time thinking about which insects would be most interesting to cut open, and how we could film in enough detail to show what they discovered. But one of the things we do try to do in science programmes (and other factual content as well) is to let experts share their knowledge in as direct and natural way as possible. Not always easy to achieve with the cameras and the lights and the rest of the baggage that TV brings. But watching James’s excitement as for the first time he dissected the stomach of a mosquito that was full of his own blood, was a moment when you felt TV had captured real professional passion."

Thursday, 14 March 2013

The cutest face in the forest - Saving The Slow Loris

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(Photo: Paul Williams, taken at the JAAN Animal aid network, Jakarta.)

A few months ago I visited JAAN, Animal Aid Network, in Java to see the work that they are doing on the front line of wildlife conservation, rescuing wildlife across the Indonesian islands. Amongst the rare and beautiful species that they are working to save is one of the most endearing of all primates - the Slow Loris. They had recently rescued 7 of these shy animals from street traders in Jakarta and I was able to see for myself the condition of these nervous individuals. Hiding amongst the foliage, their large eyes seemed to convey a deep despair. It's easy to empathise with such a charming face but this is also the root of their troubles. Just a few years ago, this shy primate became an instant celebrity when more than 12 million people watched a YouTube video of a loris being tickled in a Russian flat. Sadly this sudden popularity has fuelled a boom in the international pet trade which has pushed the slow loris closer to extinction. They are being sold internationally on the internet, in pet shops, and are particularly fashionable in China and Japan. According to the Japan Wildlife Conservation Society, women are fond of them because "they're easy to keep, they don't cry, they're small, and just very cute". At the markets these nocturnal forest animals are thrown around in small cramped cages and exposed to unbearable heat in the harsh South Asian sun. Their teeth are often cut off with nail clippers to protect the handler from the loris’s uniquely toxic bite. This painful mutilation causes terrible infections, often leading to a slow and painful death. Many slow lorises die before they've been sold. Thankfully for some individuals, organisations like JAAN get to them first.

The Little Fireface Project, named after the Sundanese word for loris, aims to save these primates from extinction through learning more about their ecology and using this information to educate local people and law enforcement officers, leading  to empathy and empowerment whereby people in countries where lorises exist will want to save them for themselves.

Slow Loris for sale in Thailand, Photo: Prof Anna Nekaris, Little Fireface Project.

International Animal Rescue has established a facility in Ciapus, West Java, specialising in the care of slow lorises like those rescued by JAAN. The centre and its lorises feature prominently in the BBC Natural World documentary, Jungle Gremlins of Java, that was broadcast in 2012.

Slow Loris, rescued from street traders in Jakarta, Photo: JAAN

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

You are 96.4% Orang-utan - meet the newest member of the family @OrangutansSOS

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I was recently in Sumatra to work with the Sumatran Orang-utan Society. Not only did I experience the wonderful work that they are doing to save this species, but I also had the privilege of spending time observing an Orang-utan and her one week old baby in the wild. Here's a photo of the newest member of the family.

(Photo: Orangutan in the wild with 1 week old baby, Paul Williams)

The Sumatran orangutan is endemic to the island of Sumatra, Indonesia where its population has decreased by 86% over the past 100 years. The most recent estimate (Wich et al, 2008) is that less than 6624 Sumatran orangutan still survive in the wild - this is decreasing every year. The loss of forest cover is the main cause of this decline. Between 1985 and 1997 61% of the forest in Sumatra was lost due to logging, infrastructure development, internal migration, and plantation development. The Sumatran orangutan is critically endangered and is listed as one of the twenty-five most endangered primates in the world (IUCN, 2006).

Find out more about what is being done to save this enchanting species visit the Sumatran Orang-utan Society

(Photo: Orangutan in the wild, Sumatra, Paul Williams)

Monday, 11 March 2013

Alien Nation - The wonderful world of Insects in 6 films

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BBC Four is super-sizing the insect world in an ambitious new season - Alien Nation. The season features six programmes that will cast a light on this miniature realm in a unique and unprecedented way.

Planet Ant will unearth the natural home of the Leafcutter ant in the biggest manufactured colony in Europe. 

Insect Worlds Steve Backshall explores the world of insects and their close relatives. reveal the anatomies of insects via dissection coupled with cutting edge imaging technology.

Insect Dissection Uncovering ingenious body systems and finely tuned senses.

Can Eating Insects Save The World? will explore whether insect cuisine could be the key to our future.

Monarch Butterfly: Four Wings And A Prayer focuses on the miraculous migration of the mysterious and beautiful Monarch butterfly.

Metamorphosis investigates nature’s ultimate evolutionary magic trick, the amazing transformation of one living creature into a totally different animal. 

Edwardian Insects on film recalls how Edwardian natural historian Percy Smith, came up with an innovative way of filming insects doing remarkable things.

As an added treat watch the cute series of french animation shorts - Minuscule - The private life of insects.

“Come and get better acquainted, or alienated, with some ancestors of ours… insects. BBC Four is bravely going where most people actively avoid by getting up close and personal with insects of all shapes and sizes. Wreaking havoc with our courage and using cutting-edge filming technology, BBC Four is breaking out of the usual two-dimensional take on bugs and really finding how insects work, how they live and how this alien nation might ultimately be the true lords of the universe.”
- Richard Klein, Controller, BBC Four

Pick of the season...
Planet Ant - Tues 12th March

Presented by Dr George McGavin and Dr Adam Hart, Planet Ant uncovers the wonders of the ants. Beneath the Glasgow Science Tower a unique exhibit has been constructed, playing home to an ant colony built to mimic the natural home of the Leafcutter ant. Utilising the exhibit and incorporating latest filming techniques, Planet Ant will unlock the secrets of the ant world, revealing in vivid detail just how individual ants, from queens to workers, live within one of the most mysterious and complex societies on Earth. Find out more on the BBC programme page.

"With our battery of technology – endoscopes, microscopes, microphones, timelapse cameras and radio-tracking gear, we set about capturing every aspect of life inside the colony, to bring the hidden realm of the ants to the television screen. I don’t want to give too much away, but suffice to say, much as I berate my children for inappropriate use of the word ‘awesome’, I can’t think of a better one!" - Series Producer Jacqueline Smith on Planet Ant

"The ants certainly left their mark – on some members of the production team more than others. Assistant Producer Nathan Budd embarked on the expedition to film the colony being dug out of the ground in Trinidad – just a week before getting married. The wedding photographer was later to remark that it was a rare groom who turned up with his face covered in ant bites." - Series Producer Jacqueline Smith on Planet Ant

Metamorphosis - Weds 13th March

Metamorphosis seems like the ultimate evolutionary magic trick: the amazing transformation of one living creature into a totally different animal. One life, two bodies. Author David Malone investigates the natural world of metamorphosis and uncovers the answers to questions such as; what is the hidden science at the heart of such ingenious transformation? What light can it shed on how we are all made? And how has the idea of shape-shifting populated our culture, our dreams and our nightmares?

Friday, 8 March 2013

Wacky Races & Camel Jockeys replaced by Robots #WildArabia

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Wild Arabia, Tonight - March 8th, 9pm

"Even by the BBC’s high standards, its current crop of natural history series are quite outstanding – with this three-part series on the under-appreciated wildlife of the Arabian peninsula one of the best. The final part looks at how the vast oil wealth of the Gulf states has utterly transformed the local environment and its inhabitants – wild and human – in the past 50 years." - Telegraph

Wacky Races - this has got to be seen to be believed! The traditional sport of camel racing in Arabia has taken a modern twist—jockeys have now been replaced by robots...

Exclusive: Behind the scenes filming the races. 
While the locals prepare for the camel races, the Wild Arabia team get into position to catch all the action.