Physical Geography

The role of the physical environment in issues of geographical significance

Kerguelen: France’s Desolate Islands

One of the most intriguing — and obscure — parts of France’s far-flung territorial domain is the Kerguelen Archipelago in the southern Indian Ocean, also known as the Desolation Islands. Dominated by Grande Terre Island, Kerguelen is one of the world’s largest remote oceanic landmasses; covering 2,786 square miles (7,215 km. sq.), it is roughly five times the size of Hawaii’s Oahu. Located far from the equator (at 49 degrees S.), the Desolation Islands are noted for their raw and windy weather. But if Kerguelen is always chilly, its maritime climate precludes real cold. Average monthly temperatures range from 46° F (7.9° C) in January to 36° F (2.3° C) in July.

Isolation and harsh climate have generated some ecological curiosities. Kerguelen’s butterflies, like its other insect species, have no wings; winds are so strong and persistent that flying insects would simply be blown out to sea. Like most oceanic islands, Kerguelen has no native land mammals. It does, however, support a number in introduced species, including rabbits, reindeer, rats, and feral house cats. The rabbits have proved destructive to the local vegetation, nearly wiping out the Azorerla “cushion plants” that once blanketed the lowlands, forming pillow-like structures up to a meter thick that were almost impossible to cross on foot. The Kerguelen cabbage, which once helped protect Antarctic mariners from scurvy, is also much reduced. Abundant lichens and mosses help support the islands’ estimated 4,000 reindeer, but they too are being over-grazed. French authorities have introduced an endangered sheep to one of the archipelago’s islands, but reproduction has been limited by the animals’ inability to adjust to the inversion of the seasons; they bear their young as winter approaches.

Kerguelen’s marine ecosystems are rich in wildlife, owing in part to the area’s giant brown kelp. Kelp forests surrounding the islands are thick enough to impede navigation, clogging ship propellers. Great rafts of kelp often wash ashore after storms, transferring nutrients from the marine to the terrestrial ecosystem. Whalers and sealers were formerly active in the area, almost wiping out local seal populations. Marine mammals are now protected, and their numbers have rebounded.

Kerguelen has no permanent human inhabitants, but it is staffed year-round. France maintains several research stations, one of which is devoted to satellite and rocket tracking. The archipelago’s winter population of around 70 swells to an average of 110 in the summer. People cluster around the “settlement” of Port-aux-Francais, which contains a chapel, hospital, library, gymnasium, and pub. The chapel is appropriately named Notre-Dame des Vents (“Our lady of the Winds”).

The Desolation Islands are a remnant of a long-lost continent that was once about a third the size of Australia. From roughly a hundred million years ago until 20 million years ago, most of the now largely submerged Kerguelen Plateau remained above sea level. The existence of such a sunken continent has provoked some imaginative speculation. One expansive website argues that several lines of “pseudo-primates” evolved into highly intelligent species that constructed elaborate civilizations on Kerguelen and went on to intervene in organic evolution on other continents. Even reputable sources have let their enthusiasm lead them astray. A 1999 BBC article entitled “‘Lost Continent’ Revealed” contended that “fifty million years ago, [Kerguelen] may have been covered in lush ferns, moist with tropical humidity. Small dinosaurs would have hidden in the undergrowth stalking their prey.” That would certainly be surprising, since dinosaurs were wiped out across the globe some 15 million years earlier, when a massive asteroid collided with the earth.

Kerguelen: France’s Desolate Islands Read More »

Sudan: Africa’s New Breadbasket?

As yesterday’s post discussed, Ethiopia’s western lowlands have significant agricultural potential. The agricultural resources of neighboring Sudan, however, are much greater. Vast clay plains cover much of east-central and southern Sudan; although they are not easy to farm, their soils are fertile and they have abundant – often too abundant – supplies of water. With adequate investment, Sudan could become a major agricultural exporter. Foreign firms and governments are interested. The United Arab Emirates has recently leased some 400,000 hectares, and other outside interests have made similar deals. Sudan, many hope, will become the “breadbasket of the Arab world.”

One problem with this scenario is the fact that Sudan is only partially within the “Arab world”; over sixty percent of its people are not Arabs. Most of the recent land-leasing deals have been made in the largely Arabic-speaking east-central region, but the agricultural potential of non-Arab Southern Sudan is also huge. Southern Sudan, however, is a highly troubled place. Long the site of a determined rebellion against the central government that took some two million lives, it has been granted a degree of autonomy as well as the promise that it will be able to vote on actual independence in January 2011. Few outside observers expect this election to go smoothly. The Khartoum government does not want to lose this oil- and water-rich region, and the southern Sudanese themselves remain divided. Ethnic violence has been increasing over the past two years, leading the organization Refugees International to warn that Southern Sudan faces“total collapse.” Meanwhile, aid agencies are preparing for spikes in violence through much of Sudan as the country prepares for national elections next month, its first multiparty vote in 24 years.

Large-scale agricultural investment in Southern Sudan is thus unlikely in the near future. But if the region does become politically stable and if agricultural development does proceed, tensions between local people and outside investors could well be pronounced. Conflicts could also emerge between farming interests and those of wildlife conservation. The global environmental community was pleasantly shocked in 2006 when new aerial surveys in Boma National Park and elsewhere revealed vast populations of antelopes, elephants, and other species of wildlife, as it had previously been thought that the region’s long civil war had destroyed most of its fauna. “I have never seen wildlife like that, in such numbers, not even when flying over the mass migrations of the Serengeti,” reported project leader J. Michael Fay. “This could represent the biggest migration of large mammals on earth.” Southern Sudan’s government is now working to protect its newly discovered wildlife, hoping to profit from eco-tourism. Political conflict, ethnic tensions, and resource development, however, present huge obstacles.

Sudan: Africa’s New Breadbasket? Read More »

Christmas Island: Land Crabs and Detainees

Christmas Island is 52-square-mile rainforest-covered limestone and basalt platform several hundred miles south of Java. Most of the island is a national park, sheltering a limited and highly distinctive native fauna. It is best noted for its eponymous red crab, a land dwelling crustacean than lives in rainforest burrows – in staggering numbers. At the onset of the rainy season, some 120 million red crabs migrate to the sea to spawn, overrunning much of the island. Intriguingly, early accounts make scant mention of the unavoidable crabs. Some ecologists speculate that the red crab population had been kept in check by the endemic Maclear’s rat that once populated the island, also in large numbers. The introduced black rat, however, evidently infected the native rat with an exterminating disease, perhaps allowing the crab population to explode (although we must wonder why the black rat was not able to similarly limit the crab). Currently, crab numbers are declining due to the spread of the yellow crazy ant, a highly invasive “tramp ant” species. Supercolonies of yellow crazy ants have formed, killing an estimated 20 million crabs and reducing the populations of several bird species. Efforts to control the ants are now underway.

Phosphate-rich Christmas Island was annexed by Britain in 1888. Workers came from China and Malaysia; their descendants form the bulk of the island’s current 1400 inhabitants. The phosphate deposits are largely worked out, and efforts to establish the island as a gambling center and as a spaceport have not been successful. Prior to 1993, Christmas had postal independence, allowing it to profit by selling stamps to collectors. The booming business of processing and incarcerating asylum-seekers and thwarted immigrants is now the island’s economic mainstay.

Like Norfolk, Christmas Island is a geopolitical anomaly: in this case, a non-self-governing territory of Australia, located outside of Australia’s migration zone (see yesterday’s post). The island does have an elected advisory council, and its residents do vote in Australian federal elections. But in the end, Canberra runs Christmas. In recent years, the national government has decided to remake Christmas Island into a detention center for refugees and undocumented immigrants trying to reach the Australian mainland. In 2007, the island’s administration was transferred from the Department of Transport and Regional Services to the Attorney General’s Office, reflecting its prominent role in Australia’s fight to control immigration.

The increased population is straining the island’s infrastructure – some say to the breaking point. Both the local inhabitants and the detainees are highly concentrated, roughly on opposite ends of the island. The expanding population of Christmas Island has increased the cost of living of the local inhabitants. Housing especially has gone up, as outsiders have been brought in to staff the detention facilities. As one local reported, “Now the island is at breaking point, the sewage treatment plant can’t cope, the power station can’t cope, the health system can’t cope, and the school can’t cope…” The housing shortage eased recently when a number of immigration workers were moved into Christmas Island’s mothballed casino. The detainees, meanwhile, are kept in bleak compounds on the far end of the island from the settlement. According to recent reports, the compounds will soon be expanded.

Christmas Island: Land Crabs and Detainees Read More »

Lord Howe Island: Return of the Tree Lobster

Isolated oceanic islands, with their small to non-existent populations and scant resources, are ignored in most discussion of global geography. Yet there are good reasons to pay them close attention. Remote islands form natural laboratories for research in biogeography, and their unique assemblages of flora and fauna are highly vulnerable to introduced species and other threats from the outer world. In regard to culture and geopolitics as well, isolated islands present us with significant curiosities and anomalies.

The largely submerged “continent” of Zealandia (see last week’s Geocurrents post) contains several islands of particular note. Today’s post will examine Lord Howe, and tomorrow’s will turn to Norfolk, two Australian islands celebrated for their beauty and unusual natural features.

Lord Howe Island, a 22 square mile gem sitting near the center of the Tasman Sea, was classified as a World Heritage Site in its entirety in 1982. Its waters contain some of the world’s southernmost coral reefs. Unknown to humankind before 1788, it held an array of endemic bird, insect, and plant species. The first visitors found the island’s wildlife completely — and tragically — unafraid of people. As one seaman reported, “When I was in the woods amongst the birds I cd. not help picturing to myself the Golden Age described by Ovid to see Fowls … walking totally fearless… so we had nothing more to do than to stand a minute or two & and knock down as many as we pleas’d wt. a short stick…” (quoted in Tim Flannery’s superb The Future Eaters, page 177). Within a few decades of discovery, the Lord Howe swamp hen, the white-throated pigeon, the red-crowned parakeet, and the Tasman booby had all been exterminated by human hunters. Several more bird species disappeared after the inadvertent introduction of the black rat in 1918. Similar rounds of extinction have occurred on other newly discovered islands, regardless of whether the first interlopers were European or Polynesian, but on Lord Howe Island the process is remarkably well documented.

The environmental future of Lord Howe Island seems promising. The human presence is strictly limited; only 347 people live on the island permanently, and visitors cannot exceed 400 at any time. A major restoration project is now underway. The endangered Lord Howe rail (or woodhen), currawong, and flax snail have seen significant recoveries. Several invasive species, including feral pigs, have been eliminated, and ecologists are discussing the possible reintroduction of several close relatives of the island’s extinct fauna. In February 2010, Australian authorities announced that they will drop 42 tons of rat poison by helicopter over the full expanse of the island in 2012, taking special precautions to protect the remaining native species. Once rats are eliminated, ecological restoration projects will have a much greater chance of success.

Prospects for environmental restoration were enhanced in 2001 with the discovery of a tiny surviving population of the noted Lord Howe stick insect, Dryococelus australis. Reaching up to 15 centimeters in length, these formerly common insects were called “tree lobsters” or even “walking sausages.” Dryococelus australis is remarkable not just for its size, but for its behavior as well. According to the Wikipedia, “The males and females form some kind of a bond. The males follow the females and their activities depend on what the female is doing. During the night the couple sleeps together with three of the male’s legs wrapped around the female.”

Thought to have been exterminated by rat predation in the 1920s, the Lord Howe stick insect was rediscovered on Ball’s Pyramid, a nearby island. Ball’s Pyramid is itself a remarkable feature; measuring only 656 feet across, its summit sits 1844 feet above sea level (see photo above). Basically a barren rock, Ball’s Pyramid supports one small pocket of vegetation. On and under a single Melaleuca shrub, researchers discovered two dozen stick insects. A successful captive breeding program was soon underway. By 2008 the population had grown to 450, allowing 20 insects to be returned to Lord Howe Island.

The human residents of Lord Howe benefit directly from the island’s unique species. Other than tourism, the island has one major economic activity: the export of kentia palm (Howea forsteriana)seedlings. Noted for its three-meter long fronds, this Lord Howe endemic is considered an attractive ornamental species, and is now grown over much of the world.

Lord Howe Island: Return of the Tree Lobster Read More »

How Many Continents Are There?

How many continents are there?Zealandia, New Caledonia

The main problem with the continental scheme of world division is its mixture of physical geographical criteria (continents are defined as landmasses more or less separated from each other by waterways) with human geographical criteria (Europe is separated from Asia not by the physical landscape but by historical and cultural features). Intellectual coherence calls for one basis of division or the other. When human features are favored, the continental architecture vanishes altogether as North Africa joins the quasi-continent of the “Middle East,” while Latin America links southern North America with South America. Continents are thus essentially regions of physical geography, and should be defined accordingly.

But the standard physical definition of continents remains problematic, as the “more or less” formulation allows conceptual slippage. In much of the world, North and South America are viewed as a single continent, since they are clearly connected by the Panamanian isthmus. But by the same criterion, Eurasia and Africa would also have to be regarded as a single continent, Afroeurasia. And if one takes a long historical perspective, the Americas and Afroeurasia together form a single super-landmass. They are not separated by deep water, and they have been periodically joined together over the past few hundred thousand years; when the world goes into a glacial period, sea levels drop and the vast plains of Beringia emerge to link the two lands. When Beringia appears, temperate and arctic animals migrate between the continents. As a result, the fauna of temperate North America and Eurasia are remarkably similar. Even during non-glacial periods the circum-polar region forms a zone of inter-continental linkage, as is clearly visible on the Dymaxion projection map above.

A strict physical definition would thus hold continents to be landmasses enduringly separated from other landmasses by relatively deep waterways. If one employs this scheme of division, a very different map of the world emerges, one dominated by a mega-continent that we might call Amerafroeurasia, or simply “The World Continent.” This landmass is divided into the macro-continents of the Americas and Afroeurasia, which in turn are split into the “continentoids” of North America, South America, Eurasia, and Africa (the term “continentoid” indicates that these lands are not actually separated by water). A third order division of the world continent separates associated large islands and island groups, most of which are joined with the landmass during glacial periods.

Clearly separated from Amerafroeurasia are the meso-continents of Australia (including New Guinea) and Antarctica, which have not been connected to other lands for millions of years. As a result of such separation, Australia has a highly distinctive fauna. By the same token, Madagascar and New Zealand may be considered micro-continents. Focusing in still more closely, one may even distinguish nano-continents, such as New Caledonia. A nano-continent is distinguished from a mere oceanic island (such as Hawaii) by the fact that it is composed of continental crust that long ago hived off from a larger landmass. Alternatively, both New Caledonia and New Zealand can be regarded as fragments of the largely submerged meso-continent of Zealandia (see map above).

How Many Continents Are There? Read More »

Nonsense about Continents

Basic geographical education in the United States remains, in a word, pathetic. As students are required to learn virtually nothing about the world, we should not be surprised that few young Americans have any idea where Iraq or Afghanistan are located. And the one locational lesson in global geography that young students are required to master, that of the “seven continents,” is, in a word, nonsense. The absurdity of the continental framework is readily apparent in a lesson plan found on the My Schoolhouse website, a prominent educational resource. The page begins by informing students that, “the seven continents are North America, South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica.” But the map placed immediately below this assertion (see above) portrays Central America, the Middle East, and Greenland exactly as they do North America, Africa, and the other supposed continents. True irrationality comes with a question listed below the map: “What continent appears to be part of Asia?” But “Europe” and “Asia,” along with “Middle East,” appear on this map merely as labels attached to different areas of a single landmass. As such, students could just as easily deduce that “Asia appears to be part of Europe.”

Nonsense about the supposed continents extends well beyond elementary education. My favorite absurdity comes with the mountaineering quest to bag the “seven summits,” defined as the highest peaks on each of the world’s continents. The list includes some formidable peaks – but it also takes in Australia’s Mount Kosciuszko, a gentle rise that one could surmount on a bicycle, if only authorities would allow it. To be sure, Reinhold Messner proposed dropping Kosciuszko in favor of New Guinea’s Puncak Jaya, which is indeed a difficult climb. By any reasonable standard, Messner was absolutely correct: New Guinea is part of the same piece of continental crust as Australia (see map), and is thus by continental criteria as much part of Australia as Japan is part of Asia. But despite Messner’s fame – and demands of reason – Kosciuszko remains standard.

So what is the actual continental architecture of the world? That issue will be addressed in tomorrow’s post.

Nonsense about Continents Read More »

DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges

Yesterday’s post outlined the troubled history of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Today I would like to briefly examine a few of the geographical issues that make it a challenge for DR Congo to function as a country.

The first issue is transportation. To say that overland transportation is difficult in DR Congo is a laughable understatement, as is clear if one carefully examines the Wikipedia map included above. Note how the country’s meager road system fails to link many areas; note also how many roads are classified as “earth tracks,” meaning that they become impassible mud-pits after heavy rains, which occur frequently. As brief exercise, try figuring out how to travel from Goma in the east to Mbuji-Mayi in the south-center without using an “earth track.” Eastern DR Congo is much better connected to neighboring countries in east Africa than it is to the western DR Congo. It is noteworthy, however, that China recently (2007) agreed to lend DR Congo US $5 billion to improve its transportation system, in particular by upgrading the linkages between the major mining area around Lubumbashi and the ocean port at Matadi.

The second map overlays the distribution of DR Congo’s four major regional languages on a 1970 interpretation of its population density patterns. (Several hundred languages are spoken in the country, but these four are used as common, “transethnic” tongues.) Here we can clearly see how the country is divided into several distinctive “core” areas. Three of these linguistic groupings, moreover, extend deeply into neighboring countries. Eastern DR Congo thus has profound cultural ties to Kenya and Tanzania, where Swahili is also used as a common language. Voting patterns in the final round of the 2006 election closely followed language lines, with Joseph Kabila taking the Swahili-speaking areas, and Jean-Pierre Bemba, now imprisoned in the Hague for war crimes, winning in the rest of the country.

Does DR Congo make sense as a country? I wonder whether its recent history would have been less dismal if it had been allowed to break into four separate states after independence in 1960s.

DR Congo’s Geographical Challenges Read More »

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas

Despite its poverty, lack of infrastructure, and interminable wars, the Democratic Republic of Congo has admirably tried to salvage its national park system and preserve its wildlife. It has not been easy. Since 1994, an estimated 120 rangers have died trying to protect Virunga National Park alone. The existence of large wild areas in eastern DR Congo, moreover, generates its own problems. Guerilla leaders now use the parks as refuges for their own fighters, putting wildlife at increased risk and undermining the security of the region.

Virunga National Park in eastern DR Congo, established in 1925, was Africa’s first national park. Slightly smaller than Yellowstone, it is – or was – noted for its forest elephants, okapis, hippos, and especially its gorillas. The seemingly endless war has taken its toll: 95 percent of Virunga’s hippos have supposedly been slaughtered since 2006. Dauntless efforts by rangers kept the park’s gorillas relatively secure until the Hutu militia, called the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), began hiding in the park. In 2007, forces of the Tutsi-oriented, anti-FDLR militia led by Laurent Nkunda invaded the park, seized its headquarters, and expelled its rangers. In 2008, however, Nkunda allowed the rangers to return, and even began talking about protecting Virunga and developing a tourist destination. Rwanda’s arrest of Nkunda in early 2009, part of a complex deal between Rwanda and DR Congo aimed at uprooting the FDLR, put Virunga’s wildlife in renewed jeopardy.

The situation in Garamba National Park in northeastern DR Congo is more dire still. Garamba, established in 1938, was best known as the last remaining holdout of the northern white rhino. In January 2009, the park headquarters were attacked by the brutal Ugandan rebel force known as the Lord’s Resistance Army. The LRA bizarrely combines Acholi nationalism (focused on an ethnic group in northern Uganda) with a religious hybrid of indigenous beliefs and Christianity. The LRA, as infamous for its use of child soldiers as for having displaced some 1.6 million persons, uses the park as a sanctuary, from which it terrorizes a broad swath of land extending across several countries. Uganda, Sudan, and DR Congo tried to dislodge the LRA from the park later in 2009. The resulting “Operation Lightning Thunder” was not successful; rebel reader Joseph Kony eluded capture, and the LRA retaliated by mutilating and killing over a thousand local civilians.

Optimistic reports have recently been coming out of eastern DRC, claiming that mediation is working and violence is on the wane. “Normalcy Returns to Eastern DR Congo: Mediators,” reads a January 25, 2010 headline in China’s People’s Daily Online. One week later, the UN News Centre reported that the LRA had just slaughtered 100 civilians in the Congolese village of Magamba. Optimism may be comforting, but in the DR Congo it is generally misplaced.

National Parks of DR Congo: Hippos, Rhinos, Gorillas, and Guerillas Read More »

The Geography of the Bolivian Election

Latin American electoral politics have been trending to the left in recent years. Although Chile just confounded that tendency by voting in a center-right president, Bolivia overwhelmingly reelected its socialist president, Evo Morales, in December 2009. Morales, the champion of Bolivia’s indigenous majority, received 64 percent of the national vote, while his main challenger, Manfred Reyes Villa, received only 36 percent.

As the map shows, Morales trounced Reyes Villa in the southwestern highlands, Bolivia’s traditional center of population and political power, and the main seat of its indigenous population. An Aymara Indian, Morales won more than 90 percent of the vote in most of the Aymara speaking region (marked with a yellow “A” on the map), and did almost as well in the Quechua-speaking zone (marked with a green “Q”). The only highland province to vote for Reyes Villa was Oropeza, home to the country’s constitutional capital of Sucre, a largely Spanish-speaking city. Reyes Villa did reasonable well in Tomás Frías province, where the city of Potosí is located, and in his hometown of Cochabama (marked with a white triangle), although he lost in both places (for the voting base maps, see; linguistic divisions based on the Ethnologue map of Bolivia).

As expected, Reyes Villa won a much higher percentage of the vote in the lowlands of eastern Bolivia, where most people are of mestizo rather than indigenous background, and where agriculture is oriented toward commerce more than subsistence. Yet as the map shows, here too many provinces went for Morales, if narrowly. Reyes Villa did win a convincing victory in the city of Santa Cruz (outlined in black on the map), the lowland’s commercial center and major metropolis. He did even better along the eastern border, where economic interests look more to Brazil than to the rest on Bolivia. The city of Tarija in the south, center of Bolivia’s recently nationalized natural gas industry, also gave Reyes Villa the majority of its votes.

Bolivia has undergone a major political transformation in recent decades as democracy has become more fully entrenched and as power has shifted from the traditional elite to the indigenous majority. Such a transformation has generated substantial geographical divisions in Bolivian politics. Several years ago, as Morales rose to power, a major movement for autonomy gained strength in the eastern lowlands. But as the 2005 election map shows, the regional division in voting behavior was far more pronounced then than it was four years later in 2009. Calls for eastern separation are less pronounced now, as Morales’s popularity has grown in the east. In the urban highlands outside the Aymara zone, meanwhile, Morales has lost some of his support. As the regional political divide has lessened, the urban-rural divide seems to have grown.

The Geography of the Bolivian Election Read More »

Sakha: World Capital of Cold

The attention of the global media usually remains focused on a limited portion of the earth’s surface. Wealthy countries and regions are covered in depth, as are places considered threatening to the developed world, but most parts of the earth are more often ignored.

Consider, for example, Sakha (Yakutia), a vast internal Russian republic spanning three time zones that is roughly the size of India. Sakha has the interesting distinction of being the world’s largest “statoid” (statoids being the highest-order territorial subdivisions of sovereign states [see]). Sakha is rather lightly populated, but it has more inhabitants than 42 internationally recognized countries. Considering as well its sizable mineral deposits, Sakha is a significant place.

The few news reports from Sakha that reach the global media usually focus on diamond mining. On January 7, 2010, however, the BBC devoted much of a story to simply recounting living conditions in the republic ( This unusual article was prompted by bitterly cold conditions in Europe, leading reporters to ask what life is like in truly cold places. In Sakha’s capital of Yakutsk, a city of 210,000 people, the average January high temperature is -36 degrees Celsius (-33 F): farther north, much colder conditions are encountered. Compared to Sakha, central Alaska has a balmy winter climate.

Sakha’s population of almost one million is roughly split between Russians and the indigenous Sakha (or Yakut) nationality, although other indigenous ethnic groups are also present. The Sakha are a Turkic people who were largely converted from their original shamanism to Russian Orthodoxy in the 1800s. Their traditional way of life was based was based mostly on raising cattle and horses-–quite a challenge, considering the climate of their homeland. Unlike most of the indigenous peoples of Siberia, the Sakha have relatively high rates of education and have adapted reasonably well to the challenges of modern life. Some authors have suggested that they benefited from an influx of intellectuals when previous Russian regimes exiled political dissidents to their villages. From the dissidents’ point of view, being sentenced to Yakutia was considered especially onerous, due to both the climate and the local dietary staple: “milk tar,” a frozen mash of fish, berries, bones, and the inner bark of pine trees conveniently dissolved in sour milk.

Sakha: World Capital of Cold Read More »

Bad News and Good News for Tigers

Siberian/Caspian Tiger map
Siberian/Caspian Tiger

On December 22, 2009, the BBC reported that a Chinese man was sentenced to twelve years in prison for killing and eating an Indochinese tiger, perhaps the last of its kind living in China. The man, Kang Wannian, claimed that the tiger had attacked him while he was gathering freshwater clams in a nature reserve near China’s border with Laos. Four other men were sentenced to shorter terms in jail for sharing in the tiger meal and for covering up the crime.

While the Indochinese subspecies of tiger is now perhaps gone from China, an estimated 1,800 still roam the forests of mainland Southeast Asia. Far more rare is the South China tiger, whose meager remaining range is located farther to the east (see map). It is thought that this subspecies, the “stem” tiger from other populations evolved, numbers fewer than twenty in the wild. China is supporting a captive breeding program in South Africa (of all places), and hopes eventually to release new populations of South China tigers into the wild.

The South China tiger is fortunate when compared with the extinct Caspian tiger, the last of which was supposedly killed in the late 1950s. This cat once inhabited forests in the highlands of Central Asia and the Caucasus, as well as thickets that once lined the rivers that flowed out of these mountains into the Central Asian deserts (see map).

Genetic studies conducted in 2009, however, showed that the Caspian tiger was genetically identical with the Siberian tiger, which today numbers roughly 500 in the wild. The Siberian tiger, the world’s largest cat, is a formidable predator indeed. It is estimated that up to eight percent of its diet is bear meat. Some tigers reportedly imitate bear calls in order to attract and then ambush them.

In early 2010, Russian and Iranian scientists announced a joint plan to reestablish the Siberian/Caspian tiger in the mountains of northern Iran. Iran also pledged to help Russia return the Asiatic cheetah to the dry plains around the Caspian Sea. Iran itself, however, only holds some 40 to 50 wild cheetahs, which roam the periphery of its central desert, the Dasht-e-Kavir. India also hopes to return the Asiatic cheetah to several of its national parks.

It is perhaps odd to think of cheetahs in Russia, or of tigers in Iran, but that is only because both animals have been exterminated from most of their natural range by human activity. The Asiatic lion once lived through much of the same region, but the last lion of the Caucasus was supposedly killed in the tenth century. Today the Asiatic lion, which numbers some 350, has been reduced to one reserve in western India.

Bad News and Good News for Tigers Read More »

Australian Camel Invasion

Feral Camel Range

The remote Aboriginal village of Kaltukatjara (“Docker River”) in Australia’s Northern Territory is currently under siege – from camels. Severe drought has driven some 6,000 dromedaries into the community, where they wreak havoc by knocking over fire hydrants and busting into houses – right through the walls in some cases – in search of water. The community’s 350 residents have been reportedly living in fear of the feral animals for the past two months. The situation recently became critical after the animals blocked the town’s airstrip, effectively preventing medical evacuations.

Wild dromedary camels are extinct in their native homeland of Arabia, but they have thrived as an introduced species in the arid Australian outback. Up to a million wild camels now inhabit Australia, their population reportedly expanding at a rate of 18 percent a year. They are so numerous in many areas that they are degrading the vegetation, threatening indigenous animal species, and contributing to dust storms that span much of the continent. The Australian government has recently dedicated A $19 million to a culling program. In the Kaltukatjara area, the Central Land Council has brought in helicopters to herd the animals out of town. According to current plans, 3,000 will then be shot. Animal rights activists in urban Australia and abroad are incensed at the proposed cull; locals are more upset by the fact that the carcasses will simply be allowed to rot rather than being processed for meat.

Much of Australia has been in the grips of an extreme drought for the past decade. This year, however, prolonged rains fell in many areas. Rainfall was so heavy in parts of Queensland and New South Wales that normally dry basins were flooded, including the massive saltpan known as Lake Eyre. But in central Australia – prime camel habitat – drought conditions unfortunately persist.

Camels are not the only problematic feral species in Australia. Wild goats, cattle, horses, hogs, and even water buffalo are numerous in many areas. Ranchers in Western Australia have for some time rounded up wild goats from helicopters so that they can be exported live to the Persian Gulf states, where they are especially valued for the feasts that mark the end of Ramadan. Some people would like to do something similar with camels, as the Camels Australia Export website ( shows. According to the website, camel oil is a particularly valuable commodity, “lower in cholesterol than other animal cooking fats, [and] also suitable for manufacture of soaps and cosmetics. Camel oil based products have unique properties with baby dermatology creams being one specialist product.”

Australian Camel Invasion Read More »

Giant Killer Mice of Gough Island

Remote oceanic islands often form interesting laboratories for biological process, as well as arresting geopolitical anomalies. Few are as remarkable as Gough Island, a 35 square mile landmass in the temperate reaches of the South Atlantic. Although without a self-sustaining permanent population, Gough is one of the world’s most isolated places with a continuing human presence, which usually consists of six people running a weather station. Gough itself is a dependency of Tristan da Cunha, which is a dependency of Saint Helena, which is a British overseas territory.

In regard to biology, Gough is best known for its “giant killer mice.” Inadvertently introduced house mice have evolved into a new form roughly three times the size of their progenitors. Unfortunately, these super-rodents have learned to prey on seabird nestlings. In 2005, researchers announced that mice predation risked driving several endemic bird species to extinction, including the Tristan albatross and the Atlantic petrel. In response, the British government brought in experts from New Zealand, who have considerable experience dealing with biologically threatened islands. Officials in Britain are currently considering their proposals for eliminating the killer mice.

Giant Killer Mice of Gough Island Read More »