A giraffe is a giraffe. Is it?

Until yesterday I knew that a giraffe is a long-necked mammal with brown patches of fur on white, which walked gracefully through east African savannas, delicately picking leaves off the tops of trees. Now, while idly surfing for information on giraffes online, I find that there are more species of giraffes than I could hope to see in one trip. Web sites called Giraffe Conservation Foundation and Giraffe Worlds list out the four main species of giraffes: the northern, the southern, the Masai and the Reticulated. IUCN, meanwhile counts only one species, but concedes that these four are subspecies, each deserving of individual conservation effort. When I tried to access original literature on giraffes I was stunned to find how little they have been studied.

The Masai giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis tippelskirchi) ranges over large parts of Kenya and Tanzania, with an isolated population in Zambia. Even with the intense conservation effort that Kenya and Tanzania are known for, the population of the Masai giraffe has halved over the last decades, and now stands at about 35,000 individuals. This year it has been moved from a classification of Vulnerable to Endangered. It is such a pity that the tallest animal on earth, the 6 meter high adult Masai giraffe, is in danger of becoming extinct.

The reticulated giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis reticulata) can be found in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia (and probably inside Somalia as well). Most counts place their population at about 15,000. This has also been moved into the class of endangered species.

Distribution of giraffe species

The northern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) has extremely fragmented habitat, and therefore has been reclassified this year as Critically Endangered. The northern giraffe contains populations called the Nubian, Kordofan and West African giraffes. The Nubian giraffe can be seen in north-western Kenya, South Sudan, and Uganda. The Kordofan giraffe can be seen in Central African Republic, Chad, and Cameroon. To see the West African giraffe you need to travel to the extreme west of Niger. This population has only about 600 individuals left. Some add the Rothschild’s giraffe, from the Baringo area of Kenya, as a separate population to this species. This can be seen in the breeding center in Nairobi.

The southern giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis giraffa) has two sub-populations: the Angolan and South African. Fortunately, the conservation effort for this species has paid off, and both populations are on the increase. I understand that this holds out hope for giraffe conservation across the continent, although populations like the West African and Rothschild’s giraffes will have to pass through a really narrow genetic bottleneck. I understand that giraffes evolved in the Miocene era, about when apes were diverging from monkeys, and so evolved along with us in the East African Rift Valley geography which is our ur-homeland.

For a mere traveler like me, Kenya seems to be the most giraffe-diverse country. One should be able to see the Masai, reticulated, Rothschild’s, and Nubian giraffes in this one country.

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Pigeon Island

It was a windy afternoon as I strolled on the sea face next to the Ataturk Bulvari in Kusadasi. When The Family proposed visiting Pigeon Island, my inclination was to go back to the hotel and have a long hot coffee instead. So this story of Pigeon Island comes from her. The Island contains a sea fort which dates from the 16th century CE, when the Ottoman empire was vying with other European powers for control of the Mediterranean. The walls around it were built in the 19th century. A causeway joins the island to the shore, and it is studded with piers.

This is part of the port of Kusadasi, which, after the decline in commerce in the 19th and 20th centuries, has regained some importance as a port of call for tourist ferries plying the Greek islands. We’d seen these immense ferries come and go. At the time that The Family visited the island, none of these giants were moored there. That made it easier to take photos of the small two-masted sail boats moored at the piers on the causeway. In our search for things to do around Kusadasi, we didn’t come across the possibility of hiring sailboats.

Barbaros Hayreddin Pasha, whose statue can be seen in the fortress, was the Ottoman admiral whose victories gave the Ottoman empire its dominance in the Mediterranean during most of the 16th century CE. He was also instrumental in forging an alliance with France. even in a history filled with great navigators and admirals, his success is quite outstanding. His statue is appropriate here because he was responsible for putting a sea-fort on this island.

The fort itself is a little museum to Ottoman sea power in the Mediterranean. There are rusting cannons on the battlements, and a small tour through the fort which left little impression on The Family. What she came back with was an impressive photo of the skeleton of a whale which had been washed ashore. Once you see the skeletal remains of the pentadactyl flippers, you cannot mistake a whale for a fish. I hadn’t thought of the Mediterranean as a sea where cetaceans could be found, but after seeing this photo I recalled stories of ancient Greek sailors being helped by dolphins. On checking up, I found that there are eight cetacean species in the Mediterranen Sea. Maybe on another trip we will try to spot some of them.

Wildlife of Priene

After the crowded streets of Ephesus and the markets of Şirince, it was nice to relax in the deserted ruins of Priene. This ancient city never had more than five thousand inhabitants. On the day we were there, the population had shrunk to a handful. Wildlife had begun to take over. Around the ruins of the ancient agora we saw a field of Mediterranean milk thistles (Sylibum marianum). A bee had buried itself between the petals as it looked for nectar. It stayed there long enough for me to move around and take photos from different angles.

In the dirt around the agora a butterfly sunned itself. As I took a couple of photos I realized it was a fritillary. Which one, though? Later, as I looked through field guides I realized that this was the red-banded fritllary, very appropriately named Melitaea didyma. After all the ruins of Didyma were close enough for us to drive there on the same day.

Everywhere poppies raised their bright red flowers to the sun. This is the Turkish red poppy (Papaver glaucum), identifiable by the black patch in the center. The petals are just about three cells in thickness, and the vivid colour is due to an intense concentration of pigments, apparently much more than in any other flower. In fact, the black colour is due to the pigment being present in such large amounts that it absorbs all the light that falls on it.

On one of the ancient marble blocks, shaped by men more than two millennia ago, a Greek tortoise (Testudo graeca) sunned itself. I’d read that they live very long, more than a 125 years in some cases. Even in lifetimes of this extremely long-loved creature the ruins were old: around 20 lifetimes. When our global civilization is not even memories, will the ruins of our cities hold such a variety of wildlife?

The first three notes just happen to be…

Göreme. Gö re me fa sol la te. I would have whistled as I walked if I weren’t so tuneless that The Family objects to it. Our first long walk in Cappadocia turned out to be full of wonderful sights. The fairy chimneys that the region is famous for are hollowed out with caves in which people used to live, and apparently still do. Göreme had several such caves still in use. The path was beautiful, full of the wildflowers that you can see in spring, and lots of sparrows and magpies.

The trail is well-marked, and you don’t need to worry about getting lost. We passed a party in progress. We tourists require exoticism, and the party disappointed by being totally ordinary: normal people dressed up for a party, holding glasses of wine in their hands and taking photos of each other. I did a little ambush photography. It had rained in the day, and the sky was full of clouds. But the sunset was glorious, and lit up the landscape like an enchantment.

Have a pheasant Monday

Kalij Pheasant (Lophura leucomelanos) spotted undisturbed in Jharipani near Mussoorie in Uttarakhand.

Some Mondays one doesn’t feel like talking. These pheasants are shy, and any talking is likely to disturb them.

Pika, Pika …

When The Family told me that she’d seen a Pika, I was flabbergasted. She couldn’t be playing Pokemon GO in a part of the Himalayas where the phone network is so sporadic. I had to google to figure out that she’d seen the Indian Pika (aka, Himalayan mouse-hare, Ochotona roylei). When I finally saw her photos I figured that they are indeed the small rabbit-like creatures which I’d read about in the meanwhile. She must have seen them at around the lowest elevation of their range; they are found at altitudes of 2.4 to 5.2 Kilometers above mean sea level. IUCN classes them as being of least concern for conservation, mainly based on the fact that there seem to be no new threats at these heights, although maybe at the lowest elevation there is some contraction of the population.

From The Family’s photos it seems that they like to live in burrows or crevices between stones, where predators may find it hard to reach. After a little search I found a study of these animals around the area that The Family had photographed them in. It was interesting to read that they do not hibernate, as a result of which they spend a large part of the year gathering food for winter. The Family had not noticed them doing much gathering. It could be that at the end of a prolonged winter they were more interested in foraging.

I’d been sure there were many studies of the natural history of these animals, but the study I found cited only two previous works. Observations in the field showed that a Pika typically moves far less than 100 meters from its burrow, although it must sometimes move much further in order to forage. Interestingly, inspections of its hoard showed that they often gather plants which are locally said to have medicinal properties. This could be part of the reason for the loss in Pika population at the lower end of its habitat where the density of people is increasing.

The Himalayan Tahr

The Himayalan Tahr (Hemitragus jemlahicus) is one of the several large hooved herbivores of the Himalayas. The Family told me about watching this individual walk down a steep slope as if it was on a highway. The spectacular long golden coat grows in winter and is shed in summer, revealing a dark undercoat. This picture is from mid-April, probably at about the time when the coat begins to fall off. It can be found along the length of the Himalayas, at a height of over 1500 meters, and up to about 5000 meters, with the eastern end of its range at Thimphu and the western end at Srinagar. In all the photos that The Family took, the Tahr is seen browsing on grass. As humans and their sheep range higher, the habitat of the Tahr is getting restricted, which is why IUCN now considers it to be near-threatened, even in the absence of a census.

The Family talked about standing on a road and looking at a far hillside where this individual walked down the steep slope while grazing. I looked at the photos, at the yellow eyes, the golden mane, and I wished I’d taken the trip with her. This is an animal I would love to see, wild in its natural habitat.

Rosy Pelican

Once upon a time the Rosy Pelican beer was quite common. I would look at the very rosy pelican on the label and wonder about the bird. It didn’t occur to me then that one did not have to travel far to see those birds. There was an attempt to revive the beer again in the early years of this century before it followed the Dodo into oblivion. I was reminded of this old favourite amongst lagers as I stood by the ponds of Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park and watched flocks of Rosy Pelicans (aka Great White Pelicans, Pelecanus onocrotalus)

Unlike the very similar looking Dalmatian Pelican, the Rosy Pelican is not a loner. Apart from the fact that they are gregarious, I eventually found that the easiest way to tell them apart is to look at the eyes. The Rosy has a large pink patch around the eyes, as you can see in these photos, whereas the Dalmatian has round yellow eyes and no eye patch. In size they seemed about similar. The bills are also similar (except that the Dalmatian’s may be more orange in colour than that of the Rosy). The Rosy Pelican is named for the yellowish or pinkish feathers of the neck and breast, a feature which I found needs mellow light to see clearly. The really major difference is that the Rosy Pelican is one of the decreasing number of species which are not yet endangered.

Earlier in the day I’d seen a solitary pelican foraging in a body of water, accompanied by a Bronze-winged Jacana (Metopidius indicus). It seems that Pelicans catch more fish with less effort when they are alone, but, paradoxically, prefer to be in large flocks. In their breeding grounds in Africa, Pelicans may take 10-25% of the stocks of fish in lakes, setting up potential conflict with humans. The rosy colour of the neck feathers apparently comes from ferric oxide in the silt in its African habitats. This may partly explain why the individuals I saw had paler feathers than in the stock photos one sees. The label on the beer bottle definitely took artistic license with reality.

These birds are good fliers, migrating every year from their main breeding grounds in Africa to winter in India, stopping to feed multiple times on the way. When you see them on the wing, they seem to glide effortlessly, moving their wings with great economy. On our last evening in Bharatpur, as we passed the huge marsh where I’d seen Cheetal and Pelicans foraging together I had the exciting view of a flock of Rosy Pelicans taking off. As they fly, the black edges of the wings can be seen clearly. When the wings are folded, these black primary feathers are hidden under the whites of the remainder of the wing. They took off with great flaps of their wings, but once they leveled off in flight, I was impressed by the elegant economy of their motion.

Skimmers and Gharials

The one thing common between the Gharial (Gavialis gangeticus) and the Indian Skimmer (Rynchops albicolis) is that both eat only fish. That is if you don’t count the fact that both species are declining in numbers. The Skimmer is classed as vulnerable by IUCN, and the Gharial is said to be critically endangered. We took a boat ride on the Chambal river, at the border of Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, through the National Chambal Sanctuary to see them.

This was my first good view of Skimmers. As you can see, they are so distinctive that you won’t forget them once you’ve seen one. The general black and white colour is in contrast to the bright orange bill, distinctly down-curved, with the upper bill shorter than the lower one. We saw a small flock skimming across the river, lower bill occasionally dipping into the water. I couldn’t see whether they caught any fish. Although they passed pretty close to the boat, a small boat riding high on waves is not a good perch from which to take photos. I pressed the shutter button down, but the boat yawed a bit and I got a shot of the blank sky. Some people think that skimmers could be largely nocturnal. From the fact that flocks of skimmers were mostly resting, they could be right. There are said to be between 6000 and 10000 of these birds left in the world. We probably saw about 1% to 2% of the world’s population of skimmers.

Gharials used to be common enough once that it takes an effort to understand how severe the crisis in their conservation is. A decade ago there were only about 250 mature individuals left in the wild, now the numbers are estimated to be up to between 300 and 900. The few individuals we saw were about 1% of the world’s population of gharials. The tri-state agency which is supposed to look after the conservation of these grand ancient animals perhaps has more employees than the total number of gharials across the world. Their long snout, and the tightly interlocking teeth used to give me a fright when I was a child, until I realized that they would much rather be left alone to fish. I don’t think any of my nieces or nephews has even seen a gharial. What an impoverished world we are leaving to the coming generations.

Strange Fruit

As we entered Bharatpur’s Keoladeo National Park early one morning we looked up to find a tall ficus tree bearing what looked like large green fruit. Wild figs are usually small and red, so this deserved a closer look. It wasn’t fruits of course, it was a flock of Yellow-footed Green Pigeons (Treron phoenicopterus) at their characteristic early morning foraging. These birds are critical in dispersing the seeds of many trees. In a good forest like this, seeds of trees have been observed to be widely dispersed by these pigeons. A study found that in degraded forests, when the population of these fruit-eaters decreases, the seeds remains in the neighbourhood of the parent.

There was a bit of an early morning chill in the air, and my layers felt a little restrictive on my arms as I raised my camera to take photos. The light was wonderful after the shower of the previous evening. When I zoomed in to individual birds I could see that they had fluffed up their feathers to trap a layer of warm air inside. I’ve seldom seen these pigeons looking so nearly spherical.

These green pigeons are widespread across India, and as far east as Vietnam, as a result of which IUCN classes it as being of least concern for conservation efforts. Nevertheless, there are widespread reports of habitat degradation, and a census is probably called for. After the big shower the previous evening we had seen some of these green pigeons in the neighbourhood of the same tree, looking extremely bedraggled. It is strange that there seem to be no studies of the genetics of this widespread species, in spite of the fact that multiple subspecies cohabit within its geographical spread, and that there is no evidence of mixing of the subspecies. We don’t really know whether Maharashtra’s state bird is a single species or a species complex.