Island Time

While on holiday I am perfectly happy to take it easy, relax and leave the watch at home. Actually, that is a total lie. I am just as obsessed with punctuality when I am on holidays as when I am at work and countries that do not know how clocks function drive me crazy. To ignore a concept pioneered by the Egyptians over two thousand years ago seems just plain disrespectful. They did it to make life more predictable and less stressful for people, and it works, so why not adopt it?

We returned recently from a week of scuba diving in the Solomon Islands. The resort where we stayed was quite remote from the capital, Honiara. Getting there required a one hour light plane flight followed by a thirty minute boat ride. It was a beautiful, isolated spot with great fish diversity and a few manta rays thrown in for good measure.

Our return flight was due to leave at 11.10 am, plenty of time to make our 3.00 pm connection back to Australia. The day before, we were informed that the flight was now scheduled to depart at 10.00 am. Considering we would now have quite a bit of time to sit around Honiara airport (not one of the more desirable of the world’s airports) we organised for a driver to meet us and show us the sights of the capital.

Next morning, we were informed that the flight was now leaving at 9.30 am. We quickly finished our breakfast, said our farewells and headed for the boat, congratulating ourselves once again on having the foresight to organise that Honiara tour.

There were seven of us leaving the resort and we arrived at the little grass airstrip just after 9.00 am. Check in involved weighing both ourselves and our luggage on what looked like kitchen scales. We then hunted around for a bit of shade, preferably with a breeze, to get out of the heat and humidity and settled down to wait for our flight. Our boredom turned to concern when a rather large school group appeared and also checked in.

The 9.30 am scheduled flight turned up at 10.15 am, a 19 seater twin engine otter. Our concern turned to relief when a chap wearing a yellow T-shirt, inside out, started loading our bags onto the plane, the baggage handler presumably. Our relief turned back to concern when he then refused to let us board, saying the school group would be getting on this plane. We informed him that he had already loaded our bags, so he should really let us get on the plane. Unfortunately he held firm and seemed a bit put out when we insisted that, in that case, he really must take the bags back off the plane. If we were not going to Honiara, neither was our luggage.

About half the school group boarded the plane and we gazed wistfully as it took off and disappeared into the distance. In an attempt to presumably cheer us up our friend with the inside out shirt informed us that another plane would be along around 11.40 am, thirty minutes after our originally scheduled flight.

At 12.15 pm a very small plane landed. The pilot informed us that he could only take five passengers. Fortunately two of our group volunteered to stay behind, avoiding the messy situation of having to club them to death. We loaded our luggage, climbed aboard and noticed with dismay that, no matter how many times the pilot tried, that pesky right engine simply would not start. I thought about offering to spin the propeller for him. Instead, we got out again and offloaded our luggage. The pilot informed us with a cheery smile that we should wait 20 minutes, he would try again and then the engine was bound to start.

Fortunately for us a second otter had just arrived and we raced for it, hoping its engines would be slightly more functional. This plane was able to fit both us and the remainder of the school group and we finally left the little grass airstrip at 1.30 pm, a mere four and a half hours after our arrival.

Although clocks don’t appear to exist in the Solomon Islands electronic communications do, and the pilot was able to radio ahead so that our connection was still sitting on the tarmac when we arrived. After landing we were checked through the domestic terminal, instead of having to cart all our bags to international, which would have been bizarre at the best of times considering our plane touched down right next to the Australia-bound jet.

Safely aboard we departed Honiara thirty minutes behind schedule. This created more anxiety because we had yet another connection to make at the other end. Fortunately it all ended well and we were even upgraded to Business Class for the flight to Australia. We thought this was an attempt by the airlines to make it up to us, but the pilot informed us that the plane had not been loaded properly, with insufficient weight up front, so they wanted us up there to act as ballast.

Thinking back, I wonder if our driver is still waiting at Honiara airport for us.

Dr. F. Bunny

 

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Bongo Congo

I am currently reading “Congo Journey” by Redmond O’Hanlon. Redmond and his travelling companion, Lary, journey through the Congo from Brazzaville in the south to Lake Tele in the north in search of the mythical mokele-mbembe, a kind of Congolese Loch Ness monster. They are accompanied on their travels by several local Congolese who “assist” them to navigate the maze of Congolese politics, villages and pygmies.

It is an interesting, thought provoking and, at times, hilarious read. One of the points the book touches on is the way people’s relationships towards animals differ. This is illustrated in an exchange between Redmond and Nze, one of the local Congolese who is about to kill a chicken for dinner. Redmond expresses concern and asks Nze to make sure he despatches the chicken quickly and humanely. Nze, puzzled, says, “It’s a chicken.”

There is no “fluffy bunny” syndrome in the Congolese jungle with animals divided roughly into two groups: useful and not useful. Those that are useful fall into that category because they provide meat, eggs or milk. The not useful group can be further subdivided into benignly not useful i.e. they have no discernible human use but they are not harmful either e.g. many of the birds, frogs, etc., and not useful but harmful, such as leopards, cobras and Driver ants.

The “human-animal” bond, as Redmond and Lary would understand it, appears not to exist. Presumably this is because, in a society where each day is a struggle for human survival and death an ever present possibility, the luxury of wasting food and emotions on non-human individuals that do not contribute physically to that survival cannot be afforded. This is not to say that they do not understand the animals that surround them. I would say they have a much better understanding of human-animal interdependencies than either Redmond or Lary. For the Congolese it is important to know how the natural world functions, not out of abstract scientific curiosity, but because everyone’s survival depends on it. There is no room for sentimentality over other species when human life is lived so precariously and human death occurs so frequently.

Much of what occurs in people’s lives on a daily basis is mired in superstition and magic with pygmies singing songs to ensure hunting success and sorcerers placing spells and curses on people for all sorts of bizarre purposes. The reasons behind these superstitions and religion in general are summed up in this elegant exchange between Lary and Redmond.

“God damn it all to hell and back twice,” announced Lary, outwardly peaceful, lying straight out on the groundsheet. “What’s the point, that’s what I want to know, what is the point of all this sorcery? What is the psychological and social function of all this fear? Why live in terror of all this magic and bullshit and spells for this and spells for that when you don’t have to? Why not say to Dokou (the sorcerer), “Dokou, old man, I’m sorry, I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but with all due respect for your great age and wisdom and authority in this village, why don’t you just take your mumbo jumbo and stick it up your ass and turn it sideways?”

“I don’t know,” I said. …. “The usual answer is that it gives a structure, a meaning to life, and that you certainly need one when all your thinking is pre-logical, when your idea of nature makes no distinction between subjective and objective impressions and thoughts –  when your inner and outer worlds are all mixed up, when there’s no obvious dividing line between your own mental reality and that of a passing leopard, or a bat over the hut, or a bamboo clump that’s holding a party for Driver ants. I imagine we all think like that for at least a fraction of each day, some more so than others, and more at some times of our life than at other times – when we’ve had a setback or a shock or when someone dies or when we’re ill or in love –  and more often at night than in the daytime. But here the nightmares never get an enclosing line drawn round them, they never get bagged up and thrown away – they just hang around out there, you meet them when you go for walks in the forest, they come at you between the trees, they get you after dark.” ….

“But the real point of it must be simple – you know the big fear is out there, waiting to bust in through your hut wall: you can be sure that two or three of your children will die as children, that you’ll get ill, that you’ll die young. So you give yourself lots of little fears, fears you half-know are not serious, to diffuse the big horror into the landscape. It’s a bit like the psychological bargain Christians and Muslims strike with themselves: you agree to abandon for life your ability to think straight; you accept a job-lot of fairy tales, all kinds of absurdities; and in return for the effort it costs to push your intellect back in to bed every time you get up in the morning, you’re released from the big one, the fear of death. You can really start to tell yourself that you’ll see your dead mother and father again, that your dead children are not dead, that your dead friends are still sitting drinking round the fire, and, maybe, even your favourite dog is waiting for you, fast asleep.”

“Put like that,” said Lary quietly, “it’s not such a bad bargain.”

Dr. F. Bunny

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Resistance Is Futile

1928 was a happy year for humanity as this was the year that a nondescript mould called Penicillium notatum was found to have antibacterial properties. This mould would prove to be the first in a long line of what we now know as antibiotics. Antibiotics are a group of drugs that kill bacteria for us either by interfering with their cell wall, mucking up their DNA or messing with their metabolic processes so they cease to function. Unfortunately they do not affect viruses.

Before the discovery of antibiotics people died from all sorts of minor complaints such as small infected skin wounds (before penicillin1 in 9 skin infections killed people), mild burn infections, tooth abscesses and infected insect stings. Unfortunately, according to a recently published World Health Organisation report (http://www.who.int/drugresistance/documents/surveillancereport/en/), that time could be returning as more and more bacteria are laughing in the face of the antibiotics we use.

The natural world uses a marvellous tool to adapt to changing circumstances. It is called natural selection and it is based on genetic diversity. This means that when a disease comes along it rarely kills everyone. Some people will be naturally resistant to it. They will survive and breed and, before you know it, most people will be resistant and the disease will no longer kill people. Unfortunately the same is true for bacteria and antibiotics. In any given bacterial population some bacteria will be resistant to a given antibiotic. Using that antibiotic will kill off the sensitive bacteria, leaving the resistant ones behind to proliferate. This activity can be accelerated by increasing the use of antibiotics, especially when they are prescribed for conditions that cannot be resolved by antibiotic use, such as the common cold or flu, both of which are viruses and completely unaffected by antibiotics.

If you are prescribed antibiotics, to delay the onset of resistance appearing, it is vital to take your full dose and complete the prescription, even if you feel better ahead of time. Otherwise you have not killed the bacteria but only wounded them, allowing them the opportunity to strike back bigger and better than before.

It is also important to practice effective preventative medicine to minimise the number of times that antibiotics are needed. An example of this is gonorrhoea. More than one million people are infected with gonorrhoea around the world every day. Resistance of this bacterium to all antibiotics is becoming more and more common. Prevention is simple and obvious. All it requires is a condom. Preventative measures for other diseases can include vaccination, washing your hands with soap and water, wearing your protective gear at work, not allowing your pets to stick their tongues down your throat, washing your hands with soap and water, observing good hygiene when preparing food, washing your hands with soap and water, and sticking with bottled water if you are uncertain of the quality of the water supply. Oh, and did I mention washing your hands with soap and water?

Dr. F. Bunny

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MERS

MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) is the latest disease in nature’s little bag of tricks, which could turn into the next pandemic and solve our population issues for us. It is closely related to SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), both belonging to the same virus family. But, while SARS appeared in Asia, MERS first popped up in Saudi Arabia in 2012. Since then all cases have been seen either in the Middle East or in people who have travelled to the Middle East. As of June 2014 we have had 697 cases of which 210 people have died. As usual symptoms have been flu-like.

This is quite a high case fatality rate but, like bird flu, the virus has not raced around the world killing a third of the world’s population because it is not easily transferred from person to person, yet.

Any time one of these new diseases pops up it requires quite a bit of detective work to try and determine where it came from and how it works. It will probably come as no surprise that bats are once again implicated, the virus having been found in Egyptian tomb bats, a name guaranteed to generate sympathy with a nervous public.

Intriguingly the virus has also been found in camels, a situation which has some similarities with Hendra virus in Australia. Hendra virus lives happily in bats, infects horses (and kills them) and then spreads from horses to humans. However, as yet, there are no recorded cases of MERS causing disease in camels (although a number of camels have died in the UAE recently of undetermined cause, so this situation may change) and we have only recently seen the first confirmed case of a human catching the disease from a camel. Most of the other cases have been in people who have had very close contact with other sufferers. Where they caught it originally is still open to speculation.

It makes me think that the practice of veterinary medicine may be more dangerous than first thought. While we are all aware of the wonderful things we can catch from our primate neighbours no one really believed there was anything worth catching from our more distant cousins, like horses. Twenty years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a snuffly horse. Two years ago you would not have thought twice about examining a camel.

Australia has the largest feral camel population in the world, but no human cases of MERS. Preliminary testing of 25 camels has failed to find any evidence of MERS, implying that the Middle East camels may have been infected from the tomb bats or that the virus appeared in Middle East camels after the Australian population was established.

The upshot of all this is that we have absolutely no idea where the next fun plague might be coming from. As I get older and more paranoid I am becoming increasingly more nervous about travelling on crowded trains, planes and buses, full of sneezing and coughing people. And I am starting to think that sport is much more enjoyable when viewed from the comfort of my living room than from one of those packed sporting stadiums. I can see the day coming when I refuse to venture outside without my biohazard suit on.

Paranoia aside, most viruses are transferred between us via the things we touch, such as door handles, coffee cups, pens, etc. The best way to prevent this is by washing your hands frequently, with soap and water. To do it properly, sing the Happy Birthday song through twice while you are soaping up your hands. Oh, and don’t kiss bats, camels or any other non-human life forms. And maybe not even the human life forms.

Dr. F. Bunny

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More governments adopting controversial ‘triage’ approach to conservation

From http://www.ecosmagazine.com/paper/EC14126.htm.

Governments in Australia and internationally are coming round to the idea of taking a ‘triage approach’ to conservation, according to the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED). This involves agencies focusing available resources on saving as many endangered species as possible, rather than trying to save fewer ‘living dead’ species.

A male superb parrot; this species is listed as threatened in Victoria and vulnerable in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. The entire population may only be a few thousand birds.
A male superb parrot; this species is listed as threatened in Victoria and vulnerable in the Australian Capital Territory and New South Wales. The entire population may only be a few thousand birds.

Credit: Ron Knight

 

The concept of saving more species for the same cost, or triage, was proposed to the Australian Federal Government in 1999 by Professor Hugh Possingham, now Director of CEED.

Prof. Possingham says the NSW, Tasmanian and New Zealand governments have all adopted versions of conservation triage, and the Queensland and US governments are considering it.

‘Conservation triage is still a sensitive topic because it forces people to acknowledge that we don’t have enough resources to save all threatened species; that choices have to be made, even though we may not like making them,’ he says.

‘In an age of catastrophic decline in the Earth’s and Australia’s biodiversity, we need to acknowledge that the resources we are currently devoting to conservation are not going to save everything.

‘If that’s the case, you have to take a decision what you are going to save – and which species will most repay your efforts to save them. Otherwise you end up spending scarce resource on species you cannot save – and have too little left to save those you probably could have rescued.’

Associate Professor Michael McCarthy, deputy director of CEED, rejects the claims of some environmental groups that adopting a triage policy ‘makes extinction acceptable’.

‘It certainly doesn’t,’ Dr McCarthy says. ‘Instead it forces us to ask: can we save this animal? How much will it cost to do so? How important is it to its ecosystem? And does the community care enough about it to help in the fight to save it?

‘Importantly, triage is not about letting the most endangered species go extinct, it is wisely choosing those species which have the best chance of recovery, rationally accounting for cost and chance of success. The most threatened species may well be the ones that receive most investment.’

Dr McCarthy says triage forces society to acknowledge it is better to save the things it can, rather than devote scarce resources to those it cannot.

‘It also makes the decision about what to save a more public one, which requires society to take greater responsibility for it, instead of decisions being taken behind closed doors.’

Prof. Possingham says that, at a time of limited government funding for conservation, the public will have to shoulder a greater load if it cares about preserving species for its grandchildren.

‘We have some great examples where the community has rallied round to save particular species – an example is the public effort in southern Queensland to save the Richmond birdwing butterfly by replanting the native vines that it feeds and depends on,’ he says.

‘At the moment, governments don’t tell us which species they are not funding – only the ones they are,’ he notes. ‘Under triage you publish the priority funding tables, and the community can then decide where to help.

Source: CEED

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You Will Obey

My daughter’s horse sailed gracefully over the jump, and then made a sharp left turn. Unfortunately my daughter continued going straight ahead, making a less than graceful face plant into the dirt. She dusted herself off, spat the sand out of her mouth, wiped the blood from her lip, climbed back on and completed the course.

When I commented to my daughter that she was certainly not lacking in courage, she just shrugged her shoulders and said that she had to finish the course. Otherwise her horse would learn that if he bucked her off the workout would be over, and he could go back to his paddock to eat grass and ready himself to panic next time a paper bag appeared in a tree.

I asked if that meant he did not enjoy being ridden. She just gave me one of those looks and walked off, confirming what I had long suspected. Horses do not particularly enjoy being saddled, ridden, coerced over jumps and made to ride in weird configurations around a show ring (this is called dressage). So why do they allow it? Why does a 500 kg horse allow itself to be dictated to by a girl barely a tenth of its weight? Surely a horse must have more grey cells than a cow, who wouldn’t dream of allowing someone on its back? And what about elephants? While they do trample the odd mahout, by and large they let themselves be pushed around by tiny men with pointed sticks and do nothing about it. Imagine trying that with a rhino or a hippo.

It does baffle me how often this occurs, a smaller, physically weaker creature dominating a much more powerful one. And now, if you’ll excuse me, the cats want feeding and then I have to provide a lap for their mid-afternoon snooze.

Dr. F. Bunny

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Feeding ducks ‘human food’ leads to health problems

From http://www.thedailyreporter.com/article/20140602/NEWS/140609873/-1/news.

By Chirsty Hart-Harris
Twitter: @ChristyTDR

Posted Jun. 2, 2014 @ 12:02 pm

Coldwater, Mich.

COLDWATER — Every year during the summer months, Waterworks park is filled with families enjoying the sun, company and the many ducks that frequent the park’s river. The best part is feeding the ducks. Although it is done with good intentions, feeding the duck bread and human food products can cause their organs to become engorged and fatty, which in turn can cause them to suffer from heart disease, liver problems and other health complications.

According to Duck rescue network, a informational organization specializing in duck rescues, “When wild ducks are fed human food (especially bread or crackers) their Bread also has very few nutrients, and can get compacted in a bird’s crop. Many rehabilitators see “bread-impacted crop” in sick and distressed park ducks.”

Bread is very low in protein and contains additives that wildfowl are not able to digest properly. Ducklings require vital nutrients during their crucial first weeks. If they are fed bread, they can experience splay leg, angel wing, slipped tendons and other growing defects.

Waterfowl at artificial feeding sites are often found to suffer from poor nutrition. In a natural setting they will seek out a variety of nutritious foods such as aquatic plants, natural grains, and invertebrates.

Sophia DiPietro, Biologist and Wildlife Rescuer at All Species Kinship in Battle Creek Mich., said, “There are healthier ways to feed wildlife without causing the harmful impacts of bread feeding. The most helpful time to feed birds is during winter-time when food sources are scarce.”

DiPietro suggests feeding them cracked corn, non-medicated poultry scratch and greens such as turnips or dandelion greens ripped into small pieces.

Feeding the ducks at the parks can be a fun experience for children especially. It can also cause issues to arise between the ducks and humans. As most frequenters of Waterworks park have witnessed, competition for each bread crumb is extremely high. Ducks may also become unnaturally aggressive towards each other and to humans. Some ducks, usually the younger ones, are unable to compete for the food and never learn to forage naturally.

Feeding the ducks also has the potential to creates an unnaturally high population of waterfowl and diseases can flourish in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions.

In addition, attracting ducks teaches them not to fear humans. This can be a problem as some “rehabilitators often see ducks purposefully chased by dogs and children, with injuries from dog bites or thrown rocks – or – all too often run over by cars,” said DRN.

DNR suggests substituting bread with “cheerios, grapes cut in half, a thawed bag of frozen peas or corn, or kale, romaine or other leafy greens (not iceberg lettuce).”

DiPietro said, “Say no to bread and yes to greens and grains instead.”

 

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