Wednesday, October 3, 2007

10,000 Wildebeest Drown in Migration "Pileup"

Scores of wildebeest lay dead along the banks of the Mara River in Kenya, having washed downstream after a bizarre mass death that occurred early last week. An estimated 10,000 of the animals drowned while attempting to cross the river during an annual migration, wiping out one percent of the total species population. Photograph courtesy Terilyn Lemaire/Mara Conservancy/WildlifeDirect

10,000 Wildebeest Drown in Migration "Pileup"
Blake de Pastino
National Geographic News
October 1, 2007

In a bizarre mishap that conservationists describe as "heartbreaking," an estimated 10,000 wildebeest have drowned while attempting to cross Kenya's Mara River during an annual migration.
The deaths, which occurred over the course of several days last week, are said to account for about one percent of the total species population.
The drownings created a grotesque wildlife pileup, after part of the migrating herd tried to ford the Mara at "a particularly treacherous crossing point," according to Terilyn Lemaire, a conservation worker with the Mara Conservancy who witnessed the incident. (See a photo gallery of the mass drowning.)
The first animals into the river failed to cross and drowned, while others continued to stampede into the water behind them, Lemaire told National Geographic News by email.
"Once they jumped into the water, they were unable to climb up either embankment onto land and, as a result, got swept up by the current and drowned," she said.
Some 2,000 wildebeest drowned at the crossing in a single afternoon, Lemaire estimated.
"There was no unusual flooding at the time, and there seems to be no extraneous circumstances to these deaths," she said.
"The wildebeest merely chose a crossing point that was too steep."
Drowning deaths are not uncommon during the migration, Lemaire added, but her organization has never witnessed fatalities on this scale.
"It is customary every year for the wildebeest to pick a particularly treacherous crossing point and for there to be a significant die-off," she said, "but the number of deaths during these crossings almost never exceeds one thousand."
Fatal Migration
More than a million wildebeest undertake an epic migration every year in late summer, leaving their calving grounds in the Serengeti Plain of Tanzania to seek greener pastures in Kenya to the north.
The animals, also known as gnu, journey some 2,000 total miles (3,200 kilometers) each year, often joined by thousands of zebras and Thomson's gazelles.
The deaths occurred at Kenya's Maasai Mara National Reserve, as the herd was beginning its swing to the east on its way back to the Serengeti.
Since the drownings, the animals' bodies have washed downriver, beaching on the Mara's muddy banks and getting caught under a nearby bridge, Lemaire wrote on her blog for the nonprofit WildlifeDirect.
The remains formed what she described as "pungent islands of bloated carcasses."
"The crocodiles, storks, and vultures have not had to worry about where to find their next meal," she wrote.
"Those that aren't consumed will be left and will eventually decompose in the water. These thousands of carcasses will undoubtedly affect the health of the water, but to what extent, only time will tell."
Lemaire also declined to speculate, in her email to National Geographic News, on the impact the mass deaths might have on the wildebeests' overall population health.
"I would imagine that such a significant decrease in population would have an effect," she said, "but what that effect would be and to what extent, I cannot say."

Ancient Pharaoh Temple Discovered Inside Egypt Mosque

Sections of columns and elaborately inscribed reliefs from an ancient Egyptian temple were recently discovered behind the walls of a mosque in Luxor. The oval relief, or cartouche, at center depicts the name of Ramses II, the pharaoh in whose name the temple was built around 1250 B.C. Photograph courtesy Zahi Hawass, Supreme Council of Antiquities

Ancient Pharaoh Temple Discovered Inside Egypt Mosque
Steven Stanek in Cairo, Egypt
for National Geographic News
September 27, 2007

Parts of a temple dating to the reign of pharaoh Ramses II have been discovered inside a mosque in Luxor, Egypt, officials report (see map).
Experts restoring the historic mosque uncovered sections of columns, capitals, and elaborately inscribed reliefs from one of the ancient temple's courtyards built around 1250 B.C.
The previously concealed architectural elements reveal well-preserved hieroglyphics and unique scenes depicting the powerful pharaoh.
The discovery is likely to touch a nerve among religious leaders, because the newly exposed reliefs contain representations of humans and animals, which are forbidden inside mosques, the experts said.
The mosque was erected as a shrine to Muslim saint Abul Haggag in the 13th century A.D. on the site of an earlier Christian church, which was itself built on top of the ancient temple, the archaeologists explained.
The discovery was made during repair work on the mosque after a fire damaged part of the structure in June.
"To do this project of restoration, [workers] had to reclean and reopen many things, and this is when the scenes were found, and they are really unique," said Zahi Hawass, secretary general of Egypt's Supreme Council of Antiquities.
(Hawass is also a National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence. National Geographic News is a division of the National Geographic Society.)
Encryptions and Glyphs
Christians, and later Muslims, frequently built their shrines on top of ancient Egyptian holy sites, said W. Raymond Johnson, an Egyptologist at the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago who has seen the newly exposed temple sections.
Builders of both faiths usually erased or defaced ancient artwork in the temples, he said, but the newfound reliefs remain virtually untouched.
"We are very lucky that these have been so well preserved," Johnson said.
Rather than destroying the reliefs, the mosques builders carefully hid them away with a protective layer of straw-reinforced plaster, shielding them from the elements.
"We didn't know we would find the reliefs and the inscriptions in such good condition," said Mansour Boraik, general supervisor of the Supreme Council of Antiquities in Luxor.
"The people who built the mosque for Haggag … actually saved the inscriptions and reliefs."
More images and inscriptions will likely be discovered as the restoration continues, he said.
The reliefs are thought to depict the temple's dedication. (Read related story: "Giant Ancient Egyptian Sun Temple Discovered in Cairo" [March 1, 2006].)
Among the most important scenes are those that feature Ramses II offering the sun god Amun Re two obelisks to be installed at the temple's front facade. One of those obelisks still stands at the temple, and the other is now at the Place de la Concorde in Paris.

Another relief shows three statues of Ramses II wearing his traditional white crown.
Experts say the carved inscriptions provide some of best examples of cryptographic or enigmatic writing, an unusual form of hieroglyphic text in which each glyph could stand for an entire word, phrase, or concept.
"Moral Quandary"
Now that the depictions have been uncovered, archaeologists will likely have to negotiate with local religious leaders who see the exposed renderings in their mosque as a violation of Islamic law.
"There is no damage to the mosque whatsoever, but its a moral quandary because you have these two places of worship, one still alive and one from the past," said Johnson, of the Oriental Institute.
"It's a living sacred space."
Boraik said that his team is in talks with mosque leaders about how to proceed.
"I think all of them understand the importance of these things," he said.
The researchers expect to reach a compromise, they said, which might include retractable coverings or screens over the inscriptions. Removing the ancient features entirely would likely cause damage to the mosque.
"One has to be very sensitive about the restoration work and make sure the people know you are doing something good," said Salima Ikram, a professor of Egyptology at the American University of Cairo.
She added that such issues are common in a country with such a rich religious heritage.
"In a way the mosque is part of the history of the temple—both are significant monuments of antiquity."

Kenya Plans for Huge Sugar Factory Spark Bitter Dispute

Plans for a massive sugar factory in a Kenyan wetland could irreversibly ruin the ecosystem, conservationists say. The project, they warn, would wreak havoc on several indigenous groups, a vast array of bird and fish species, and two types of endangered primates—including the highly rare Tana River mangabey (above). But proponents note that the planned facility would provide up to 20,000 new jobs in an impoverished region of the country that has already seen several failed attempts at kick-starting the local economy. Photograph courtesy Julie Wieczkowski

Kenya Plans for Huge Sugar Factory Spark Bitter Dispute
Nick Wadhams in Nairobi, Kenya
for National Geographic News
September 24, 2007

Plans for a 50,000-acre (20,000-hectare) sugar production plant in Kenya's Tana River Delta have ignited a bitter dispute between conservation groups and economic-minded officials.
Supporters say studies show that sugar cane grows nearly three times as fast in the delta's rich wetlands as it does in western Kenya, where the bulk of the country's sugar is currently produced.
Such output would give Kenya's sugar industry a huge boost when it needs it most, proponents say, and would provide up to 20,000 new jobs in an impoverished region of the country.
But opponents argue that development could irreversibly ruin the delta, which is home to several indigenous groups, a vast array of bird and fish species, and two species of highly endangered primates.
On a single day in January of this year, the Mwamba Bird Observatory and Field Study Centre counted 15,000 water birds belonging to 69 species, including herons, terns, African skimmers, and stork.
Colin Jackson, who led the recent count, estimated that the census covered only 15 percent of the delta's acreage (see a map of Kenya showing the Tana River).
"I was stunned by the number of birds and the diversity, the volume—and we were only looking at a tiny percentage of the whole area," Jackson said.
He added that he was surprised at how little attention the sugar factory issue has received so far from other environmental groups.
"It appeared that there was actually very little concern being raised in the conservation world about this, even though the site is really, really important," Jackson said.
"Normally with a development of this size, which is huge and will have a major impact on the ecosystem, there's normally quite some noise being made."
Finding Balance
The situation in the Tana River Delta is a microcosm of the challenges facing Kenya and much of East Africa.
While the region boasts extraordinary biological diversity, it is also a place of deep poverty, leaving many people desperate for development.
Balancing the need to protect the ecosystem with locals' demands for jobs has not been easy.
The sugar project, to be run by Kenya's Mumias Sugar Company, is the latest in a string of proposed development ideas for the delta.
And other producers have been showing increased interest in the area in recent days.
Mat International Sugar announced this week that it has snapped up 223,000 acres (90,000 hectares) of land adjacent to Mumias's claim as part of a second, two-billion-dollar sugar project.
The firm hopes to produce 1.2 million tons of sugar each year.
"We intend to have seamless sugarcane farms where each village will have a plantation in addition to farms to take care of food security," Mat's project co-coordinator Moses Changwony told the East African Standard newspaper.
Under Pressure
One of Mumias's most important backers is the Tana and Athi Rivers Development Authority (TARDA), whose chair is a nephew of Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki.
President Kibaki has expressed his support for the project, which comes at a crucial time for the Kenyan economy.
Next February Kenya is expected to drop tariffs for sugar imported from other countries in the regional trading group known as Common Markets of Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA).
Sugar from elsewhere in COMESA is about 40 percent cheaper than Kenyan sugar.
Government officials fear that without its own cheap source, Kenya's sugar industry could be wiped out—unless the country decides to extend the tariffs.
"In 2008, once COMESA starts bringing duty-free sugar [into the country] … it means we will lose out, so we have to produce sugar at low production cost so that we bridge the deficit gap," said TARDA spokesperson Damaris Kiarie.
An environmental impact study of the proposal is underway.
But even the team conducting the assessment acknowledges that it is under pressure to come up with a solution that doesn't just leave the delta in its current state.
"We have to be neutral and ensure that we come up with a solution which is all-inclusive so that the environmental crusaders will not say, Oh, they are biased on the others' side," said an environmental studies professor involved with the assessment.
The professor spoke on condition of anonymity because his contract bars him from talking publicly to the press.
"And we don't want the local people to say, Oh, we gave in to the international organizations and the local people, we leave them suffering," he added.
"In the delta, the poverty level is 73 percent—73 percent of the people live below one dollar per day. So if it is not a sugar project, we must recommend something which can be done which is viable."
Multiple Attempts
Over the years the delta has seen several failed attempts at bringing in money and development.
Among the most notorious was a World Bank project meant to protect the region's red colobus monkey and the crested mangabey—two species counted among the world's top 25 most endangered primates by the World Conservation Union.
The bank's solution was to relocate people, an idea that only fanned anger and resentment toward wildlife. Eventually the project was abandoned.
In a similar vein a reserve established in 1976 to protect the animals was abolished earlier this year.
Experts found that the reserve only increased locals' resentment toward the animals and put the primates under new threats of retaliation.
And in 2000 and 2001 deadly clashes erupted between two ethnic groups living in the delta: the Orma, who are traditionally herders, and the Pokomo, who are mostly farmers.
Many observers believe that the conflict over use of land and water was caused in part by numerous failed irrigation projects in the delta.
The newly proposed sugar projects would also require irrigation networks using water pumped in from the delta.
The Pokomo are largely in favor, while the Orma are opposed.
Tentative plans call for many farmers to be moved away from the delta, an idea that could lead to new animosity.
Critics of the sugar plans have suggested that developers focus instead on the resources that the delta already has: freshwater fisheries, mango plantations, rice, and tourism.
"The product is there already, why do they want to destroy that with sugar?" said Hadley Becha, head of the Conservation Program at the East African Wildlife Society.
Becha argues that the studies on sugar growth cited by proponents of the projects have not been submitted for peer review or public scrutiny.
"There are those who are saying that sugar is the only development," Becha said.
"But we are saying that sugar is not the only development, because it is not for and by the [local] people. It will displace them, it will make them lose their livelihoods."