Imagine a lion cub, rescued from physical abuse and the confines of a filthy cage in a Paris apartment, feeling the South African sunshine on his back for the first time and the dry grass beneath his paws.
King at Shamwari
That is the story of beautiful King the lion. Now successfully re-homed by International wildlife charityBorn Free at their big cat sanctuary in South Africa’s Shamwari Game Reserve; King’s story captured interest (and hearts) back in April, when an appeal was launched to raise the funds to deliver him back to his ancestral home of Africa, and highlight the issue of the illegal wildlife trade. For those of you who’d like to read the first part of King’s story, take a look here.
King, back in April, before his big move
The one-year-old lion cub was rescued from an apartment in Paris last summer where he was being kept illegally as an ‘exotic pet’ in appalling conditions.
After his rescue, he was temporarily homed at Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre, Belgium, awaiting his big journey back to African soil and lifetime care provided by Born Free.
A home fit for a King…
On July 5th he travelled from Belgium, to London Heathrow airport under the care of Born Free’s expert team. In his Born Free branded wooden container, King then flew to Africa, courtesy of Kenya Airways.
Katrina Hanson, Kenya Airways’ Area Cargo Manager, said: “We were delighted to assist in King’s amazing relocation to Born Free’s Big Cat Rescue Centre at Shamwari in South Africa. We have worked with Born Free for many years carrying rescued lions from Europe to Africa so they can enjoy being a lion. These relocations have been a great success and we do all we can to make it as stress free as possible for the lions.”
After a short internal flight, King touched down in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, before travelling the short distance by road to Shamwari and to his new home at Born Free’s Jean Byrd Centre. Shamwari, where I was fortunate enough to gain a 3-month volunteer placement back in 2008, has been home to Born Free’s two Big Cat Rescue Centres for more than 20 years.
“So many people responded to our appeal to bring young King to Shamwari, and now he has arrived!,” said Virginia McKenna OBE, Born Free’s Co-Founder and Trustee. “Thanks to everyone whose hearts were touched by his story, he now takes his first steps on African soil, and can begin his happy new life. May it be a long and peaceful one.”
The exotic pet trade
The sad story of King before he was rescued highlights the plight of millions of captive wild animals around the world that are kept as exotic pets.
I’m proud to support Born Free, who oppose the keeping of wild animals as pets. They state: \Wild animals, whether they have been taken from the wild or bred in captivity, have extremely complex social, physical and behavioural needs and are, therefore, particularly susceptible to suffer when kept as pets.
Dr Chris Draper, Born Free’s Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity, adds: “It is staggering that, in 2018, lion cubs are still finding their way into the pet trade in Europe. We are concerned that King’s case is the tip of the iceberg, and that a great many wild animals are being kept illegally as pets across Europe and elsewhere. This situation needs to be addressed urgently, and we hope that by introducing the world to King – his plight, his rescue and his rehoming to lifetime care – Born Free can draw attention to this important issue.”
I’m so glad to know that for King, the tale ends happily, but like many of the people who have reacted to this story; I find it shocking to think that wild animals are being kept privately in people’s homes. In the case of King, his owner’s warped sense of pride in posting pictures of the lion cub (and the abuse he suffered) on social media was his own downfall. Thank goodness that the right people saw his posts and reacted accordingly.
I am, however, concerned about the many wild animals whose owners are not foolish enough to post their mistreatment online. How many others are stuck in an existence like the one King had?
This month’s guest blog post comes from 15-year-old wildlife campaigner Bella Lack. Bella describes her unforgettable close encounter with a male orangutan…
The light had waned until the sky was a deep navy-blue.
We stood in the warm twilight of Borneo, in the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre in Sabah. The orang-utans had made their nests for the night and the piercing wails of the cicadas that started at sunset were slowly abating into a background throb of noise.
We were in a small group with one guide. We sat outside the orphan nursery on a damp slope, binoculars being passed round, pressed tightly to eyes and then passed on again. We were watching as the flying squirrels made their ‘leap of faith’. They would come out from their nests and scurry up the tree until, with a sudden thrust, they would launch into the night, their large bodies silhouetted against the darkening sky.
This was when our group would let out a collective sigh of wonderment as we watched these cat-sized creatures elegantly soaring through the tangled canopy. It was then that we first heard it. The sound is unlike any other I had ever heard.
Dr Brigitte Spillmann has described it as ‘a series of long booming pulses and grumbles, which can be heard through more than 1 km of dense jungle.”
However, nothing can compare with the feeling of hearing this call. It reverberates through your body.
“If he had stayed quietly in his throne of leaves, we would have been unaware of the regal presence mere metres above us.”
Upon hearing this, the guide whispered frantically into his walkie talkie. Within moments, swarms of excitable guides were materialising, weaving their way through the trees with the nimbleness and grace that only experienced forest dwellers possess. We knew this was special. In the excitement, we soon interpreted that that the male had never been seen before. He was wild.
It is not unusual for a dominant male to leave his nest if he has been disturbed. Regretfully, he must have obviously felt unsettled by the throng of binocular wielding apes that stood searching for flying squirrels and so he abandoned his nest and began to ‘long call’ in an attempt to dissuade us.
If he had stayed quietly in his throne of leaves, we would have been unaware of the regal presence mere metres above us.
He soon came down, his eyes ablaze with the anger that any human will know if they have been disturbed from deep sleep. His flanges protruded from his cheeks. His body was massive, drenched in thick orange hair. His hands were easily larger than my head and we watched in admiration as this king of the jungle attempted to proceed towards us.
Fortunately, the shoots that he used to try and swing towards were much too delicate for this mighty king. When his anger had heightened into a boiling rage, we were ushered away.
Yet, to this day, I can still see this indomitable being glaring at us through the foliage. It was an experience I could never forget.
Bella Lack is a young conservationist and wildlife campaigner. She has a strong social media presence, which she uses to educate and inspire others concerning global wildlife issues to help educate others on critical problems and encourage them to take action. As well as running her own blog; callfromthewild.com, she is an ambassador for Born Free Foundation and The Pocket Pals App. She is the youth organiser of the This Is Zero Hour London march, which empowers youth to lead the fight against climate change and will be speaking with other young naturalists at Birdfair on the 19th of August.Find her on Twitter: @BellaLack
Having the chance to get outdoors, tackle any signs of the so-called ‘nature-deficit disorder‘ and photograph all manner of birds, bugs and butterflies (I’ve shared some of these findingshere and on my Instagram feed), feels so good for the soul and does wonders for calming any stress or anxiety.
Badger watch at Tewin Orchard
I was also fortunate enough to attend my first ever badger watch at the start of June, at Tewin Orchard in Hertfordshire. Organised by my good friend Dominic Dyer, CEO of the Badger Trust, and lead by Christie Wood, Chair of the Herts & Middlesex Badger Group. What an amazing experience!
I had never seen a live badger before, just a handful of dead creatures at the side of the road during my years of growing up in Norfolk; so to actually see badgers coming into full view, bouncing towards us and sniffing the ground, was such a treat.
I had no idea that badgers have very poor eyesight, and follow ‘scent lines‘ to find their way around. They make these lines using a scent gland under their tails, which produces a smelly liquid called musk. They then use their scent lines to locate regular feeding spots.
During the course of the evening, we saw a total of 14 badgers (all at one time!), which were joined by a muntjac deer, 2 rabbits and 2 foxes; a timid vixen (pictured above) and a much more boisterous male. We even heard a owl hooting from nearby.
On the short drive home — to top off such a special evening — I spotted a family of foxes feeding at the side of the road. A mother with 4 cubs! I really did feel like I’d turned into Snow White for the evening! See more of my badger watch photos at the bottom of this post.
East Harling Primary School assembly
It seemed a great and fitting opportunity then, in the same month, to be approached by East Harling Primary School in Norfolk and asked to give a British wildlife themed assembly.
Helping the children to think about their whole school topic: “Whose world is it anyway?“, I prepared a talk focussing on badgers and foxes specifically and enlisted the help of Badger Trust CEO and Born Free Policy Advisor Dominic Dyer to advice the children on how we can best take care of our native wildlife.
Kate on Conservation giving an assembly about British wildlife at East Harling Primary School
Bringing the talk around to my role at National Geographic Kids magazine and my experience of blogging about wildlife and the environment, I discussed a few things I’d learnt about British wildlife.
I encouraged the children to think about the difference between native and non-native species, using grey squirrels and red squirrels as an example and we discussed the ways that grey squirrels compete with our native red squirrels.
I asked the children whether they had seen animals in the wild, perhaps near their houses or in local woodland, and was happy to see almost all hands raised. The children listed blackbirds, pigeon and deer as creatures they had encountered, and a few had even seen foxes and hand full cited badgers.
We played an ‘identify the species’ game, where I read out a fact, and the children had to respond to pictures; raising their hand to the badger picture if they thought the fact was about a badger, or to the fox if they thought it was a fox fact.
About 90 years ago, this animal began to move into our cities. Despite often being thought of as a countryside animal, today around 150,000 of them can be found in cities such as London. — fox
This animal’s babies are sometimes called kits — fox
This animal lives in an underground home called a ‘sett’ —badger
This animals’ tail is about one third of its length — fox
This animal can eat over 200 earthworms in a single night — badger
Traffic is a major threat to this animal, killing thousands every year. —both
I explained that sadly, 60% of foxes fall victim to road traffic collisions and 50,000 badgers are killed by cars every year – the most of any UK species. I showed them a couple of rescue stories from National Geographic Kids, about the care given to injured badgers and foxes, and how they were able to be released after being nursed back to health.
I told the children that this is why reporting any sightings of injured animals is so important, and that we also encourage readers to ask anyone they know who drives a car to slow down when driving on country roads — especially at night, as these animals are nocturnal – meaning they’re doing all their feeding and foraging at nighttime.
Slower speeds on the road means these animals are more safe, and if they do get injured, they stand a better chance at rescue and survival.
Dominic Dyer gives the children a chance to see and feel Boris the badger
Dominic elaborated further on this, with the help of ‘Boris the badger’ – a taxidermy badger who had himself suffered the fate of being killed by a car, years ago.
It seemed that Boris truly captured the children’s imaginations, and the buzz of excitement that came from have the chance to see and touch the figure of a real life badger was palpable.
It seemed that by the end of the morning, the children and teachers were completely on board with supporting British wildlife and National Badger Day (taking place on 6th October this year) and thinking about how they can help with raising awareness to make roads safer for badgers.
Dominic’s exciting presentation on the work of Born Free Foundation, which encouraged the children to enjoy wildlife in the wild — through showing them the kinds of species that Born Free works with and the scenarios from which they must rescue and relocate suffering animals — was the perfect way to extend their morning’s learning by applying the “Whose world is it anyway?” topic to a wider, global viewpoint.
I was delighted to receive after the assembly this wonderful fox drawing from Bellatrix Blades. What a fantastic confirmation that the children felt inspired by our wonderful British wildlife!
Many thanks to Dominic for his help with the assembly, and to Christie Wood for leading the badger watch. As promised, here are a few more shots from my amazing evening at Tewin Orchard to conclude a brilliant 30 Days Wild!
I stood as quiet as could be, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. I barely dared to breathe out, for fear of breaking the silence in room. Then I noticed it — a twitch and scurry signalled there was life in the faux nighttime of the nocturnal kiwi house, and watching intently, I saw this odd-looking wingless bird curiously exploring its surrounds by hurriedly hopping from one foot to another. I knew in that moment I was witnessing a rare and special scene.
Kiwi bird foraging in the forests of New Zealand. Image credit: Getty.
It was July 2012, back home, England was gripped by Olympic fever, but I had barely the chance to give that a second thought; for I was enjoying my first ever trip to New Zealand‘s North Island and my days were filled with hiking luscious green mountains, caving under star-like ceilings of glow worms and smelling the sulphur scent emanating from boiling hot geezers. And there was no way I could leave the island without visiting this kiwi breeding centre to catch a glimpse of New Zealand’s captivating national icon.
Today, conservationists are in a race against time to save New Zealand’s national bird. The unique and quirky kiwi is, sadly, on the vulnerable list as its numbers have shrunk by 99% — from 5 million to roughly 50,000. For this reason, I have joined the mission to save the kiwi with Old Mout Cider.
Old Mout Cider is supporting Kiwis for kiwi to relocate kiwi birds to predator-free islands where they will grow, thrive and reproduce. They will also donate 20p to the Kiwis for kiwi charity for each sign up they receive.
Kate on Conservation joins Old Mout Cider’s mission to #SaveTheKiwi – and you can too!
What is a kiwi bird?
There are several features of the kiwi that make it a unique and incredible bird. They are nocturnal and flightless birds, with distinctive feather-like hair and nostrils at the end of their long beaks. Notably, the kiwi also has the biggest egg in relation to its size.
Kiwi are thought to have developed their weird and wonderful features thanks to New Zealand’s ancient isolation and lack of mammals. Without the threats that would have been present in other eco-systems, kiwi were able to safely evolve as ‘ratites’ – an ancient group of birds that can’t fly.
It is thought they evolved to occupy a habitat and lifestyle that elsewhere in the world would be filled by mammals, and their one-off evolutionary design holds all sorts of biological records.
Despite an evolutionary journey that goes back millions of years to the time of the dinosaur, New Zealand’s indigenous kiwi could soon go the way of its prehistoric ancestor if action isn’t taken now.
Kiwis could vanish within 50 years
The kiwi has been around for 50 million years, but despite being distant cousins of the dinosaurs, this distinctive bird could vanish within 50.
Kiwi evolved for millions of years before predators arrived in New Zealand. With no mammals to hunt them, there was no need for wings, to help them escape. When Europeans arrived, however, they brought with them terrestrial mammals that are now a menace for the kiwi.
Just one hundred years ago, kiwi numbered in the millions. In the last 50 years alone, however, the kiwi population has reduced by 99% — from 5million to 50,000.
Today, an average of 27 kiwi fall prey to larger animals every week – unable to fly away from danger; only 1 in 20 kiwi chicks survive to adulthood on New Zealand’s mainland.
That’s a population decline of around 1,000 kiwi every year. At this rate, without intervention, kiwi may disappear from the mainland in our lifetime.
Therefore, it is down to our generation to help save the kiwi bird from going extinct.
What is Old Mout Cider’s mission to save the kiwi?
Now is the time to act, to save the kiwi from being resigned to the history books forever.
Old Mout Cider were shocked to find out that the New Zealand national icon, the kiwi, was in very real danger of going extinct. So they hatched a plan to help.
They’ve teamed up with Kiwis for kiwi –a national charity that supports community-led and Māori-led kiwi conservation projects — to help relocate kiwi to a safe environment, so that New Zealand’s most famous bird can thrive once again.
New Zealand-born Old Mout Cider has also joined forces with wildlife enthusiast Michaela Strachan to make the short film, ‘A Forgotten World’.
They are undertaking a remarkable feat – creating predator free islands – to ensure the kiwi’s best chance of survival.
Kiwis for kiwi relocate the birds to islands without larger mammals, where they can grow, thrive and reproduce without fear of being hunted. Kiwi chicks are then raised in a safe environment, protected from danger, until they’re strong enough and ready to be released back into the wild.
The survival rate of kiwis on these islands increases dramatically, to 99.2%!
To ensure their calls can be heard piercing the forest air at dusk and dawn for centuries to come, New Zealand native, Old Mout Cider, is helping to support Kiwis for kiwi’s work and hoping to inspire us all to help save this vulnerable bird.
How can YOU join the mission?
Old Mout Cider is hoping to make the people of Britain fall in love with the kiwi and inspire them to save this incredible animal by signing up to its mission. And for everyone who signs up to save the kiwi, 20p will be donated to the Kiwis for kiwi charity.
I’ve signed up to support Old Mout Ciders’s mission and am very happy to discover that this ‘green’ brand has also worked to make their packaging 100% recyclable! Even better!
Pulling away from Kings Cross Station, head lolling against the window of the rickety train, I couldn’t have felt more content. Once in a while you have an experience that will stay with you forever, and for me; a day spent in the big smoke, celebrating big cats was everything I could have asked for and more.
More than just a source of information (though it certainly taught me a lot!), the day was a brilliant coming together of so many things that have brought me to the very place (and person) I am today; like the universe has been quietly watching and listening and chose this very day to drop it’s hints that I’m on the right track.
This was the first ever Big Cat Festival, hosted by Bradt’s travel guides at the Royal Geographical Society in London, and it will hopefully be the first of many…
1. Remembering Christian the lion
Alongside the beautiful, black-maned Cecil, Christian the lion is perhaps the internet’s most famous lion. The re-released footage of him reuniting with former owners John Rendall and Ace Bourke (with a great big lion hug) has been viewed collectively more than 35 million times on YouTube!
The beginning of my personal journey into conservation writing started with two brilliant films of my childhood, which would help foster a lifelong love of animals. The first was Disney’s animated classic, The Lion King, and the second was the 1966 live action depiction of Joy Adamson‘s bestselling book Born Free.
The film Born Free, featuring Virginia McKenna in the role of Joy and her real life husband, Bill Travers, playing Joy’s husband George Adamson would start a movement — eventually resulting in the founding of Born Free Foundation, but first helping to establish George Adamson’s pride.
After successfully releasing Elsa the lioness into the wild, George was tasked with releasing ‘Boy’ — a male lion used in the filming of Born Free — into his Kora reserve in Kenya. Christian, ‘the Harrods lion’, would be flown from London to Kenya to join Boy after a chance encounter between his owners in their aptly named furniture shop ‘Sophisticat’ in Kings Road, Chelsea, and Born Free actors Virginia and Bill; visiting the shop to buy a pine writing desk.
One of Christian’s former owner’s, John Rendall, kicked off the programme of speakers, joined by Christian’s official photographer Derek Cattani. Sharing some incredible photographs of Christian — in both his Chelsea flat and later in Kora with George — gave the audience a chance to delve deeper into the story.
I recently re-watched the documentary ‘The Lion Who Thought He Was People‘, featuring that clip of them reuniting, so getting this further perspective and hearing Derek Cattani’s voice on the experience for the first time was a real treat — and a great introduction to the book that the pair have co-authored, due for release in October. I also spotted George Adamson’s former assistant; Tony Fitzjohn in the audience of this talk, which was an added bonus.
2. BBC Big Cats — behind the scenes
This one is kind of a double-whammy. Along with 5.3 million other viewers, I loved BBC1’s Big Cats series. Learning about lesser known species of small cat — such as Fishing Cats, Margays and Sand Cat’s — and enjoying the amazing standard of wildlife filmmaking that the BBC has become synonymous with — made my frosty Thursday evenings more bearable this past January. So I was delighted to see that Series Producer and Director Gavin Boyland was billed to discuss the series.
Gavin unravelled the series from a filmmaking perspective; showing us how two separate camera buggies were used to film running cheetahs, with the help of a Newton arm and a Phantom Flex camera — which slows down action by 40%. While I’m not very familiar with filmmaking, gaining a simple understanding explained with on-screen examples was a great introduction to behind the scenes of the series.
I was fortunate enough to be attending the event with Tania Esteban, who has worked as Digital Researcher for a number of top BBC series, such as Planet Earth II, Blue Planet II, and — you guessed it — Big Cats; for whom she completed work experience as her first job at the BBC. I interviewed Tania on her career earlier in the year, and learnt so many fascinating things about her involvement with the Iberian Lynx segment of the series, so it was pretty special to share this experience with her.
Who better to visit Big Cat Festival with than Producer and Director of A Lion’s Tale, Tania Esteban
A brilliant take-home from this talk was that accompanying social media can sometimes be seen wider than the series itself.
I was surprised to hear that in a programme titled ‘Big Cats’, it was the small cats that stole the show — and social media played it’s part in elevating the small cats’ stories. Gavin explained that the below clip showing ‘the world’s deadliest cat’ (with a kill rate of 60%) has been viewed more 58 million times!
3. Cheetahs and HRH Princess Michael of Kent
HRH Princess Michael of Kent‘s fascinating connection with cheetahs is something I knew very little of before Bradt’s Big Cat Festival. But following the event, her book ‘A Cheetah’s Tale‘ is now top of my wishlist.
Discussing her first trip to Africa to visit her father’s farm, Princess Michael’s stories of camping on safari, eating a snake her father had accidentally run over and inadvertently smuggling a puppy across the border were utterly charming and completely captivating tales.
Giving a short history of how cheetah’s were used for hunting purposes by members of high society in India in the 1800s, Her Royal Highness explained that cheetahs have a high kill rate, at 50% (though still not as high as number 4’s African Black Footed Cat!)..
A great takeaway from this talk was hearing about her projects to raise baby cheetahs and re-release them back into the wild. I was also intrigued to hear about her collaborations with Laurie Marker of Cheetah Conservation Fund. Laurie uses Anatolian Shepherd Dogs to help conserve wild cheetah numbers — achieved by using the dogs to guard livestock, which in turn reduces the number of cheetahs killed by people for taking down their valuable cattle.
Watch the above video for full highlights.
4. The Big Cat People — Living with The Marsh Pride lions
Anyone who reads my blog regularly will know I’m a huge fan of The Big Cat People, Jonathan and Angela Scott. In fact, during my high school days I was so inspired by BBC’s Big Cat Diaries, I began my own handwritten and personally illustrated Big Cat project — which ended up being 200 pages long! Some 15 years later, stories of the Marsh Pride still have the ability to inspire awe and wonder.
With Jonathan at the helm, weaving through stories of this magnificent pride and their neighbours; the Ridge Pride (which today contains relatives of the Marsh Pride) — it was fascinating to hear of developments in recent times. How the original Marsh Pride contained 15 to 30 lions, but how today’s prides are smaller. How they get active around 5pm; how they mate around 1,500 times for every cub that’s born. How, like dogs, they have very few sweat glands. And how lion’s are not lazy — they’re just being lions.
All the while, Angie’s photography shines like a beacon above him, in an unusually darkened room (after the pair insist on a complete blackout, to allow the photography on display to really speak). Dramatic photographs of leopards (the big cat that Jonathan originally went to Africa to pursue), cubs, lion prides, a heavily scarred male, chipped teeth protruding out from a scarred lip and aged mane filled the screen. It’s beautiful and powerful, and so utterly distant from the reality of my chair in a dark room in London’s South Kensington.
Jonathan later joined a panel discussion on ‘the future of Big Cats’.
A somewhat shocking revelation from this talk was that females have been observed eating the remains of their own cubs following episodes of infanticide — where males who have newly taken over a pride kill the existing cubs to bring the females to heat sooner. As Jonathan quotes; “If lions could speak, we probably wouldn’t understand them.”
Perhaps a more recognisable instinct, however, was his explanation of how females with new litters often attack males; even the father of their cubs — a distrust born of the fact the male has likely killed one of her previous litters at the start of his reign.
It was great to catch up with Jonathan Scott after his talk
Before wrapping up, Jonathan announced a new series from himself and Angie, created by an Australian production company. How exciting! Although little more could be said on that for now, a thought-provoking parting message was that there is a counter argument against the kind of wondrous wildlife photography we’d just been treated to: that it makes people think there are more animals and wild spaces than there actually are.
I feel like that statement may be worth an entire discussion all of it’s own, but a quickly offered antidote was that it inspires people to care about the big, charismatic mammals; “and if you take care of big, charismatic mammals, you take care of everything else.”
5. The haul: Big Cat stalls and Bradt’s goody bags
The brilliant thing about the stalls at Big Cat Festival was that there was only a handful — so you really had the time to find your way around them. A host of brilliant books were on sale from Bradt — many of which had been discussed throughout the day; as well as information on Nambian-based charities Cheetah Conservation Fund and Africat; travel information from Exodus Travel, Travel Africa magazine and Kenya Airways — who even had a Born Free Elsa plush on their stand (see below) — and Swarovski Opik showcased some high quality binoculars.
It was inventible that I would leave with at least one new book, given I’m an avid collector of wildlife and natural history books, but I wasn’t expecting to get quite the bargain I ended up with! I took advantage of a half price offer on the stunning photography book Sacred Nature by Jonathan and Angela Scott, and was delighted to find a free copy of the book A Summer of British Wildlife in our goody bags.
A Summer of British Wildlife is designed for use as a 100-day guide to wildlife spotting over the summer; so I’m very excited to explore its recommendations.
Pictured above is my haul from the event — information pamphlets, early book previews, vouchers, magazines and more — I can’t wait to see what Big Cat Festival has in store next year!
Learn more about big cats
Want to hear more from the people working with big cats?
It’s no secret that I’m a lover of reading. So it was a real treat when first time author and all-round animal lover Cheryl Aguiar sent me a copy of her award-winning nature book, which chronicles herexperience of observing a family of great horned owls and finding herself part of a rescue mission to save their two young owlets.
A modern day ‘Pocahontas’, Cheryl’s draw to nature and the great outdoors is a deep-rooted desire that certainly resonates. As does her compassion to help wildlife, one animal at a time.
Kate on Conservation with author Cheryl Aguiar’s Great Horned Owlets Rescue book
Great Horned Owlets Rescue: Where There’s A Will, There’s a Way details Cheryl’s early encounters with wildlife in the woods where she grew up, and explains how these experiences — including rescuing a newborn baby rabbit and nursing it back to health as a child — inspired her later fascination with animals.
“Throughout the years, my love for wildlife continued to grow, along with many attempts at saving anything from small birds to tiny frogs”, Cheryl writes. “Some were successful and some were not, but I always tried to give them a fighting chance.”
I must admit, I knew very little about the Great Horned Owl before reading this book. Found throughout North America and Canada, these large raptors have bright yellow eyes and distinctive feather ear tufts, which combined with their deep sounding hoots, make them the perfect storybook owl.
Through Cheryl’s tales of her daily (and weekly) visits to the owl family, I was able to learn fascinating facts about their diet (which consists of small animals; rodents, lizards, insects); how, and when, they are fed by their parents; the different stages of their maturity (i.e. when they lose their down feathers, when they leave the nest, etc.) and the challenges they face in their natural environment.
This charming tale takes readers on a journey of the highs and lows that Cheryl, husband Jim, her nearby Aunt and Uncle and close neighbours who share their woods, experience when high April winds bring down the gradually depleted nest that the young owlets have been hatched into.
Their affectionately named parents; Mama and Papa, like many great horned owls, chose to reuse an old nest — possibly built by hawks a year or so previously — and in this instance, it wasn’t up to the job!
Fortunately, Cheryl springs to action to save the little owlets, who find themselves alone and vulnerable on the forest floor as the last light of day is fading.
With her afore mentioned team of rescuers and the expert advice of seasoned pro and founder of Eyes On Owls in Dunstable, Massachusetts; Mark, she is able to give the little owls a fighting chance (and a brand new basket nest!). And so begins this beautiful and dedicated chapter of her life.
Great Horned Owlets Rescue by Cheryl Aguiar
An enjoyable read and a great source of information (for example, I had no idea that owl feathers are not waterproof, to enable them to be silent flyers), this is a cute little read and a great way to connect with nature.
To learn more about about Cheryl Aguiar, order her book or view her wildlife photography, click here.
It’s hard to imagine the unstoppable, untameable force of the lion fitting into a tiny cage in private home. But King the lion cub found himself trapped in such a scenario. A victim of the illegal exotic pet trade, he was rescued from an apartment in Paris after shocking social media footage showed his captor beating the tiny cub.
King made international headlines in October last year, when he was found half-starved and cowering in a dirty cage in an abandoned apartment in Paris.
Just a few months old and kept illegally as an exotic pet, he had been beaten and kicked by his owner who then posted videos of the abuse online.
It’s hard to imagine such a shocking case can exist so close to home, and the thought of living near by to someone with a pet lion sounds like something that would only happen decades ago — but the latest research by international wildlife charity Born Free has revealed more than 292 dangerous wild cats – including at least nine lions – are being kept privately, and legally, in Great Britain under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976.
The growing demand for wild animals to be kept as exotic pets worldwide is fuelled by both the legal and illegal wildlife trade. The illegal trade alone is worth an estimated $23 billion US dollars a year!
These wild species may be captive-bred, sourced from zoos and circuses or wild-caught, and they are sold through various means — such as online, in pet shops, trade fairs, markets and directly through breeders.
In response to King’s story, Born Free, has launched an urgent appeal to rehome King to its big cat sanctuary at Shamwari Game Reserve — a place I was fortunate enough to volunteer at many years ago — in the Eastern Cape of South Africa.
King has now been given a temporary home at Natuurhulpcentrum rescue centre, in Belgium, and Born Free plans to transport him from Belgium to South Africa, where he will be given a permanent home at their long-established big cat sanctuary at Shamwari. The sanctuary is already home to 16 lions and leopards rescued from appalling captive conditions.
King’s new life at Born Free’s big cat sanctuary will be a world away from the Paris apartment in which he was discovered. He will be given lifetime care in a spacious, safe and natural environment, surrounded by the beautiful sights and sounds of Africa.
King, in Belgium, awaiting a ‘forever home’ at Shamwari’s big cat sanctuary
He was born free, he should live free
I have always been a huge supporter of Born Free Foundation, who strongly oppose the keeping of wild animals as pets. Wild animals have complex social, physical and behavioural needs and are, therefore, particularly susceptible to welfare problems when kept as pets.
“Whether wild-caught or captive-bred, wild animals retain their wild instincts and their often complex social, behaviour and environmental needs: needs that are impossible to meet in a domestic environment,” Born Free’s Head of Animal Welfare & Captivity, Dr Chris Draper explains.
“It is high time that we stop viewing exotic wild animals simply as objects to own, and start considering their welfare — and the risks they may sometimes pose to us. It should be abundantly clear that the never-ending demand for increasingly exotic and dangerous wild animals in the pet trade needs to stop.”
As ever, perhaps the most impassioned voice comes from Born Free Co-Founder and Trustee, Virginia McKenna OBE: “Have we learned nothing over the years? How can we not understand that keeping wild animals in cages is not just cruel, but shameful? Lions are known as kings of the jungle.”
“This little king, sadly, will never wear his crown, but at least we can give him love and respect and a natural environment to roam and rest in. That is the least he deserves, and I hope people will help us write a happy ending to this story.””
There’s nothing like the excitement of new life. Scooping out the final handful of cool sand to reveal the first couple of pristine, squishy white eggs, it was a complete thrill to know that soon there would be a mass of tiny loggerhead sea turtles hatched out and running toward the sea.
Watching the Sarasota sun rising in the sky as we completed documenting and recording every detail of the nest, I felt the wave of sickness in my tummy starting to shift too. It was morning sickness. Like the tiny little lives flourishing inside the eggs of the sandy nest we’d been recording, there was a tiny life flourishing inside of me too.
Joining Mote’s sea turtle nest monitoring team on Venice Beach, Sarasota was a fantastic assignment. Finding the newly dug egg chambers, having the opportunity to actually see the eggs — and then protecting the nests from unsuspecting beachgoers who may accidentally stand on them — was a very moving experience.
As a soon-to-be mum; seeing the effort that these incredible turtle mothers go through to find the perfect nesting spot to give their young the best chance at life brought a tear to my eye! (ok, lots of things brought a tear to my eye when I was pregnant, but this truly was special).
Out and about with the Mote team
I learnt that over the previous year’s nesting season, Mote’s Sea Turtle Conservation and Research Program reported that Longboat Key through Venice hosted a total of 4,588 nests (beating the 2015 record by 2,103 nests), showing this thriving nesting area’s importance to the local sea turtle population.
Shifting sands and moving nests
Sometimes, when the nests are in a spot that may be affected by human impact, such as beach nourishment, it’s necessary for the Mote team to move them.
A nourishment project takes place where there is a need to place fresh sand on the beach. It takes a while for the turtles to get used to the new sand, because its texture and height can be different and create obstacles.
Following the previous year’s nourishment project on Venice beach, the turtles would not come very far up the sand. There were almost three times as many false crawls (where a mother comes onto the beach to lay her eggs, but returns to the sea without actually nesting) as there were nests.
A false crawl, where a mother turtle has turned around and returned to the sea without nesting
in 2016, the team had to relocate 200 nests! Which meant moving up to eight a day. This is no easy feat when there’s a tight deadline to move nests by 9.30am, before visitors and tourists come to the beach.
Apparently it takes an hour to find all the eggs, dig them all out of the sand, and put them all back in at the new location. Of course eggs have to be moved extremely delicately and carefully, as the team don’t know exactly when the eggs were laid overnight.
To make the task even more complex, when a new nest chamber is dug, it must be exactly like that which the mother created.
“You have to measure it perfectly and dig a new one exactly the same,” Mote’s Kirsten Mazzarella tells me. “And you have to find a spot that’s not going to have a predators and a place that doesn’t have any lighting to draw them in the wrong direction. You don’t want to move them to a worse spot than where the mum laid them.”
Mote’s Kirsten tells us all about the nest relocation programme. Photo by Mark Sickles
Mote feel very strongly about creating nests the way that mother’s intended, as they try not to interfere with nature. Moving nests is not something they like to do, as usually the mother has picked the best natural spot and they may be moving it to a less desirable area. If the mother has picked a bad site, they don’t like to move this either, as that’s nature’s way of saying the genes were not meant to be passed on.
“We take care of human impact, but not nature’s impact,” Kirsten explains. “We used to move the nests that were too close to the water higher up the beach, but now if the mother turtle gets it wrong, we allow nature to take its course. The only time we actively move a nest is when a nourishment project of the sand is actively taking place. That requires the nourishment people to get a special permit and then contact Mote to do the work.”
Turtle treatment and recovery
Mote work hard to reduce human impact and help the turtle populations in other ways too. They own one of only three wildlife hospitals in Florida with special facilities and training to care for turtles suffering from fibropapilloma tumors.
Because scientists are still learning how the disease is transmitted among turtles, they must provide a separate facility just for animals with these tumours.
Grace the green turtle gets ready for surgery to remove her fibropapilloma tumours. Photo by Mark Sickles
Tumours can grow on the surface of the flippers, inside the mouth (affecting feeding), and on the turtle’s eyes. All tumours are removed by laser surgery, though the animal must have at least one salvageable eye after removal of the tumours in order to be released back into the wild.
It was an incredible and emotive experience to be allowed behind the scenes in this amazing facility, which really is changing the lives of these beautiful animals. The care and attention delivered by staff is admirable, and I don’t quite know what the outcome would be for the injured and sick turtles if it weren’t for Mote.
It’s also fascinating to discover how far the facility has come and what they have learnt in the day-to-day handling of its patients.
Up until 2010, they used to have to keep turtles in the centre for a year after their tumour-removal surgery, to ensure they were not contagious. If they had a re-growth of any tumours, they would have to start that clock again.
This meant that some animals were being kept at the facility for two years and more! But in 2010, Sarasota had an outbreak of red tide (a harmful algal bloom), which saw the hospital inundated with patients, so they made the decision to release turtles with the disease as soon as they healed from surgery.
Over time they learnt that the virus comes out in times of stress, so keeping them in captivity to ensure they were healed was actually creating a vicious cycle where they ended up getting more tumours instead of recovering.
I learnt so much about Mote’s projects and Sarasota’s different species of turtle (loggerhead, leatherback, green turtle, hawksbill and Kemp’s ridley) on my trip — all of which are mentioned in my Nat Geo Kids article. If you’d like to read about them and much more about the turtle nesting patrol and turtle hospital (I’ve tried to keep the content of this blog post quite different from the article), the May issue is out now!
Want to know more about my work with Nat Geo Kids?
My latest Kate on Conservation guest blog post explores the reality of orcas in captivity. Just two weeks after a new film detailing the story of Tokitae (renamed Lolita by Miami Seaquarium) was shared online, this post from Ben Stockwell was inspired by his Geography dissertation, and reminds us all why the issue of orca captivity is one we should still be talking about after the death of SeaWorld’s Tilikum.
In 2014 I wrote my undergraduate Geography dissertation, entitled Killer whales in captivity: ExploitationorConservation and Education? Since then, public and media attention around the topic has soared as a result of Gabriela Cowperthwaite’s incredible Blackfish released in 2013.
The documentary followed the life of SeaWorld’s prized bull orca, Tillikum, and his involvement in the tragic deaths of three people, highlighting the issues with keeping such large, intelligent animals captive along the way.
Whilst publication of the topic is not in short supply, I couldn’t let this stop me (finally) sharing some of my findings. I have chosen to focus on my favourite section of the project, which looked at the pros and cons of anthropomorphising orcas (assigning them human characteristics). Now this might not seem like a good way of arguing for or against keeping orcas captive, but just bear with me.
Humans certainly have a desire to label things, especially in ways that we can relate to. Take pets; we give them human names and assign them human characteristics. A good example is the viral sensation ‘Grumpy Cat’, whose underbite and feline dwarfism induced ‘grumpy’ face made her a social media sensation (she even has her own movie, Grumpy Cat’s Worst Christmas Ever!). By identifying animals, such as a (grumpy) cat, as having shared features and even emotions with us, we can empathise and relate to them, forming tighter bonds.
In the case of SeaWorld, these bonds are developed via the naming of their orcas, say Tilikum, or even ‘Tilly’ for short. Additionally, the orca perform human actions throughout the show, splashing the crowd and blowing raspberries — a playful act that signifies their intelligence and further helps us empathise with them. They reinforce this message by referring to trainers and orcas as being part of ‘one really big family’ and each orca having a ‘unique personality’.
The shows combine anthropomorphisation of the orca with repeated messaging about our ‘one ocean’ that is under threat, which through ‘conservation and education’, ‘we’ can help to protect. I do actually think that these techniques will inspire many watching about the species and their natural habitats. You only need to look at dogs and cats, animals we have forever anthropomorphised, and look how well we treat them!
However, this all needs to be considered in the context of these being wild animals living in unnatural circumstances. Suggesting they are ‘one big family’ is simply not true, as the artificial pods in captivity are often highly dysfunctional, comprised of individuals from sub-species thrown together in a small pool. The result is often raised levels of aggression towards each other (and humans), high levels of stress and abnormal behaviours.
Similarly, applying human characteristics to animals, like names and human behaviours, hardly educates the public about orcas in the wild (or even the issues they face). Yes, being able to blow bubbles on command is impressive, but it’s not a natural behaviour that would occur without our interference. I think this provides very little educational value to the shows and whilst they do attempt to inspire the audience to relate to the orca, I would be very interested to know how many people go on to donate to conservation efforts as a result.
In fact, it is highly likely that this form of consumptive tourism attributes to some of the issues orca face in the wild anyways. Think about the number of single-use plastics sold at SeaWorld – how many of those end up in in the marine environment? Even SeaWorld’s own orca have a legacy of damaging wild populations – the Southern Resident population is now Endangered, largely as a result of the 47 individuals killed or captured by the industry in the 60s and 70s. I suppose there is a strange irony that this staged spectacle is sold as a conservation and education tool, whilst it may well have contributed or is still contributing to the plight of wild killer whales (but this is a whole other section of my project, which I won’t bore you with!).
Ben Stockwell completed a degree in physical geography, focussing his dissertation on keeping killer whales in captivity, before going on to complete a Masters in Conservation Ecology. Working for Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, he gained experience in community engagement and urban conservation and is now working for the Galapagos Conservation Trust as the Communications and Membership Assistant.
Helping Rhinos stated “His condition worsened significantly in the last 24 hours; he was unable to stand up and seemed to be suffering a great deal. The veterinary team from the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta and Kenya Wildlife Service made the decision to euthanize him.”
The Northern White Rhino is a sub species that we have literally witnessed the extinction of. Sudan was one of only three known northern white rhinos left in the world; the remaining two females are his daughter, Najin and granddaughter, Fatu.
Photographic portraits of the last three northern white rhinos.
I spoke to Simon Jones, Helping Rhinos, CEO who said: “Losing Sudan is of course tragic, not so much for Sudan himself, he was an old man and had lived a good life, but his death represents the loss of the last male of an iconic species. It is humans that have caused such a demise of the northern white rhinos, and it is humans that can ensure we create a legacy that Sudan would be proud of. Let us make sure this is the last time we bid farewell to the last of a species”
With this sad news, we must remember that he had a death denied to so many rhinos — at the age of 45, he died of old age. Safe and dignified.
He did not have his horn hacked from his face.
He did not die in a pool of his own blood, butchered by poachers for a lump of keratin.