Friday 26 January 2018

#035 Cheetah Story

"I never knew of a morning in Africa when I woke up and was not happy"
                                                                                             - Earnest Hemmingway

My earliest recollection of a wildlife documentary was a cheetah, filmed in slow motion, as it chased a Thompson's gazelle. Kinetic energy rippled down the flanks of the cat, pads momentarily touching the savanna, flicking up clouds of red dust, tail steering like a rudder as the gazelle jinked left and right, throwing off the momentum of its pursuant.

Over the years, in the course of my work as an expedition leader I have led several expeditions to eastern and southern Africa. During this time there has been a disturbing trend in the worldwide cheetah population and big cats in general.

Cheetah are now extinct in 20 countries where they formerly roamed. By January 2017 there were only 7100 left in the wild, a dramatic reduction of 90% from what there numbers were 100 years ago. Cheetah are classified as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. With the rapidity of de-population this iconic species could be on the brink of irretrievable extinction before science has time to classify it as such.

The last time I saw a cheetah in the wild was in 2008, in Lewa Downs conservancy in Kenya. It was one of my most treasured and special wildlife moments. 

I watched as a coalition of three adult male cheetah harassed a female with sub-adult cub to see of she was in condition to breed. These were the biggest, toughest looking cheetah I had ever seen. They were the famous Lewa brothers, powerful, impressive and confident. An attitude they took to their selection of prey, bringing down unlikely and unheard of species such as ostrich and fully grown zebra. They even had the ability to overpower grown lions.

A year later, wildlife camera man Simon King captured incredible footage of these behaviours for the BBC series 'Life'

(warning: scenes of natural predator and prey behaviour)
Cheetah hunt: BBC 'Life'

The bothers' strength was defined by their coalition. The death of the eldest, after a fight with a pride of lion, sealed their fate. The last of the brothers, seen to be listless as if mourning the loss of his sibling, was confirmed on Monday 30th April 2012 when a surveillance officer found the carcass. Their reign had lasted 14 years, a remarkable tenure. It is of course the natural cycle, but it was none the less a sad day for anyone who had enjoyed their magnificent and larger than life escapades.

Another series made by Simon, was Cheetahs Fast Track To Freedom (2004) told the story of Toki and Sambu, two three month old orphaned cheetah cubs and attempts to raise and habituate them to a wild environment. The documentary shows with heart breaking  clarity just how difficult this is. 
Cheetah Fast Track To Freedom

The follow up programme Tokis Tale (2007) leaves us only partially satisfied that the release to the wild had to be within a fenced (albeit very large) enclosure due to Toki apparently seeking out human company and not faring well in confrontations with other wild cheetah.

The main threats to cheetah come from habitat loss and fragmentation. IUCN state:

Because cheetah occur in low densities, conservation of viable populations requires large scale land management planning; most existing projected areas are not large enough to ensure the long term survival of cheetahs.

Conflict with farmers, especially in southern Africa, leads to cheetah being trapped and shot as vermin for largely perceived threat rather than the relatively little damage they cause. Loss of wild ungulate population will exacerbate this situation as well as depriving cheetah of food in areas where agriculture expansion is encroaching into cheetah home ranges.

But perhaps the most distressing cause of cheetah decline is the illegal trade live cubs smuggled to the middle-east market as exotic pets to be paraded as status symbols and fashion accessories. Of the crates and crates of cheetah cubs smuggled out of Africa, only one in six survives the journey. Most of the rest will die prematurely of malnutrition or be discarded if they reach maturity and their behaviour becomes unmanageable.

As the Simon King documentary shows, it is virtually impossible for these animals to be reintroduced to the wild. 

Despite unprecedented levels of funding for scientific research and analysis, more global awareness than ever thanks to the internet, big words from celebrities, personalities and some politicians: Cheetah are sliding inexorably and quickly into extinction. 

At what point will decisive, meaningful and effective action be taken, in addition to the efforts of a few dedicated individuals which are amounting to a sticking plaster over a heamorrhaging wound?    

Humans have a unique talent in destroying what they love. I now wonder if the cheetah brothers I saw in 2008 will be the last I shall ever see outside of captivity?

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions
Expedition Leader - Africa Specialist

#034 Rousay - The Egypt Of The North

Within sight of mainland Orkney and just a twenty minute ferry away, lies the small island of Rousay. With area of just under nineteen square miles, it has such an incredible density of important archaeological sites it has become known at 'the Egypt of the north'. There are no fewer than 15 chambered cairns on the island.

All along the south edge of the island is a string of Neolithic passage and chambered tombs. Many are sited on an ancient geological terrace over looking the waters of Eynhallow Sound. They bask in the glowing etherial light of the winter sun as it tracks low across mainland Orkney and behind the rugged hills of Hoy. None of this would have would have been accidental. Archaeological evidence shows the minds of our Neolithic ancestors where highly attuned to natural cycles and the passing of the seasons.

In our "Journeys Into The Stone Ageseries of short films we discuss the sophisticated cosmology of the Neolithic and how this displaced the Mesolithic hunter gatherers. 

Neolithic Orkney - Part 1
Neolithic Orkney - Part 2
The Neolithic Revolution in Ancient Guernsey
Stone Age Revolutions on the Isle Of Mull

Taversoe Tuick Chambered Cairn
This two storied tomb, dating from 3000BC, is one of only two known Neolithic tombs with two stories. The tomb is built on a hill so each storey can be accessed from ground level.
The lower tomb was originally entered by a long passage from the downhill side, leading to a chamber divided into four shelved compartments. 
The upper tomb was separate from the lower and different in design. Entered from uphill along a shorter passage into a chamber composed of two rounded compartments. 
The hatch between the two levels did not exist in pre-history. Archaeological excavations revealed several skeletons in lower level. In the upper chamber there were three cists which have since been removed, containing the cremated bone from a child and at least two adults. There were also many grave goods.

Blackhammer Chambered Cairn
Also dating from around 3000BC, the Blackhammer cairn is just a kilometer away. It is divided into seven compartments, or stalls and is over seven metres in length. 
Archaeological investigations revealed two skeletons and animal bone, including birds, with evidence of burning and that the tomb was deliberately blocked when it went out of use.
The original three metre passage entrance to the chamber has been replaced by a sliding door with steps down into the once corbel roofed chamber.

Knowe Of Yarso Stalled Cairn
The Knowe Of Yarso tomb is divided into four compartments and is entered through its original passage. It incorporates decorative slanting stonework, also seen in Blackhammer, which is reminiscent of markings on local Unstan Ware pottery. (We visit the Unstan Tomb on Mainland Orkney, in Neolithic Orkney Part 2 )

The 1930 excavation revealed 29 human skeletons with skulls set along base of walls. At least 36 deer skeletons were also discovered. To be interred in this way suggests the deer, or what they represented to the Neolithic community, were totemistic, like the dog skeletons at Cuween Hill tomb and the many bones of white tail sea eagles found inside the Isbister Carin on South Ronaldsay, also known as the Tomb Of The Eagles.
It is very possible that the eagles were part of a excarnation ritual, like a Tibetan sky funeral, before the deceased bones were stored within the tomb. At Wideford Hill the dogs may have served the same purpose. Or their remains kept among human bones may have served a more esoteric purpose. In the case of the dogs, the guardians of the houses of the living now keeping watch over the house of the dead.
Of course, deer are a herbivore species, so the excarnation explanation fails in this case.  The purpose of interring their bones in The Knowe of Yarso could have represented a spiritual function or offering. Rousay is not a large island and would only have supported a limited herd of deer. 
Our Neolithic ancestors living there would have to manage their harvesting of this resource. Indeed, a hard winter with high natural mortality and subsequent low numbers of calves may have had severe consequences for the Rousay tribes, giving rise to treating the bones of dead deer with the same reverence as those of humans. 

It is possible that the agricultural activities of the small Neolithic farming communities also interfered with the deers' natural behaviour of descending from high ground to lower pastures in late autumn for the annual rut.

Midhowe Stalled Cairn
At 23 metres, this is the longest stalled cairn in Orkney. It is divided into 12 compartments, many with stone benches and is sited unusually low, right down on the coast. But, given its magnificent size, this decision would have made the tomb's construction much easier as it is next to the sea front, where shelves of flagstone are exposed. The flagstone would have been readily cleaved away, giving building materials within just a few metres of the tomb site. 
1930's excavations revealed 25 skeletons including two children, some still on the stone benches where they had apparently been laid to rest. Gave goods – pottery and animal bones. The tomb had been back filled with rubble when it went out of use.
A modern structure has been built over the tomb to preserve it from the Atlantic elements.

I wonder if subsequent Neolithic tribes built and populated each cairn with the dead in chronological sequence. So when a tomb was back-filled and put out of use, the next one was build further along the coast line, but keeping the significance of facing the sea channel and movement of the sun, especially in winter as it remained low in the southern sky during the short days either side of the solstice. 

Significant events, such as local exhaustion or near extinction of the red deer population, for instance, could have precipitated a shift in cultural emphasis and the building of a new tomb in the Knowe Of Yarso case.

Or were there several co-existing communities? Each conforming to a general code of funerary practice but with particular cultural identities and idiosyncrasies, which we see in the masonry style and grave goods found in each tomb. These artisan flourishes and expressions of behaviour define the individual and their sense of belonging, it is a fundamentally enduring aspect of the human condition.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions

Wednesday 10 January 2018

#033 Experimental Bushcraft: The Paleolithic Horse

Exhibited at Creswell Crags visitor centre is a small fragment of rib bone (species unknown) on to which the image of a horse has been engraved. The artist had certainly studied his subject with anatomical awareness. This object is a remarkable and rare surviving example of upper paleolithic art. The highly polished nature of the bone suggests it had been handled many times, perhaps as a personal possession.

The significance of the image would have been highly relevant to its hunter gatherer owner, quite possibly a totemic or lucky talisman. At some point it was left at the back of the western chamber of the Robin Hood Cave at Creswell Crags. There it lay for 12,500 years until its discovery in 1876.
A series of grooves and vertical lines have scored across the flank of the horse. It has been speculated that these may represent spears. However, in later Neolithic times archaeological evidence shows a practice of putting objects, such as pottery, and spiritual places such as tombs beyond use by smashing or infilling.

Hence, the scored lines could equally be a precursor of this type of behaviour, essentially marking the end of the totem’s usefulness. Once can imagine this being done during a lean period of hunting, consigned to a spiritual repository within the cave, or simply discarded.

I set out to recreate the paleolithic horse at the same scale as the original. It just over 7 centimetres in length. Not having a convenient animal rib bone, I used a fragment of naturally cast antler which had been bleached from several months of being kept outdoors.

For this first attempt, I was keen to capture the likeness of the image so I used a metal tool. Our paleolithic ancestors would have used finely flaked flint.

Whilst carving two factors readily came to mind. In slightly subdued tungsten light I found etching the detail extremely hard on the eyes. Half way through, I resorted to using a magnifying glass. The inferences I drew from this was that the paleolithic artist had good eyesight, making him (or her) more likely to be young. Eyesight generally deteriorates with age and certainly, someone in their forties, as I am, would be considered to be long lived in the stone ages. But also as a diurnal species, human eyes have evolved to be most efficient in daylight hours. To carve in this scale and detail just by firelight in a cave would have been a strain on the eyes.

All this suggests an impression of our paleolithic ancestor sitting at the cave entrance in the afternoon, scratching with the fine edge of a microlith flint, absorbed in thoughts of the hunt and with moving images of his quarry guiding his hand.

Cresswell Crags remained in use, possibly seasonally, for several thousand years. As well as habitation, it is also a natural kill zone where animals could be funnelled and dispatched with greater ease than in an open area.

On a quiet midweek, Creswell Crags and the caves hewn into the limestone rock is a superb place to re-imagine these scenes of daily life over ten thousand years ago, when Britain was just emerging from the last great ice age. A few weeks later, I was guiding a group of clients on a walk in the White Peak. Our route took us through several limestone dales and the similarity of the natural features sprang out.

With such a relatively close distance to Creswell Crags with a similar climate and environment I could not dismiss the image of wolf, bear, giant deer and hyaena also roaming in the heart of the Peak District, followed by bands of nomadic hunter gatherers.

Stu Westfield
Ranger Expeditions