Thursday, June 28, 2012

In the News: Galapagos, Bhutan, and Mali

There have been several news stories within the past week that have hit close to home for us, as they involve places that we have visited over the past few years.

In the Galapagos, Lonesome George, the 100-year-old Pinta giant tortoise who was the last living member of his subspecies (Chelonoidis abingdoni), passed away on June 24. Repeated attempts to get him to reproduce during the 40 years that he was under the care of the Galapagos National Park were unsuccessful, and his subspecies is now extinct. A cause of death is not currently known.

The tortoises in the Galapagos evolved into different subspecies on the different islands, with unique characteristics specialized for their particular environments. In the 1800’s, humans killed tortoises on the islands to the point of near extinction. Some tortoises were removed and given to zoos around the world. In fact, the Pinta subspecies was thought to be extinct until Lonesome George was discovered on Pinta island in 1971. In 1972, park rangers brought him to the Tortoise Center (now the Charles Darwin Research Station) on Santa Cruz. The hope was that a female Pinta tortoise could be found (perhaps even in a zoo in another country, if not in the wild). When this didn’t happen, they found the giant tortoise subspecies which is closest to the Pinta tortoise (the EspaƱola tortoise). Females were placed in the same enclosure as Lonesome George, but they were unsuccessful at breeding.

This is what I wrote about him during our visit to the Charles Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz island:
As we continued along the various walkways, we were gazing down into the pens and admiring all the birds that darted in and out of the trees. Soon we reached a rather large viewing platform and wondered what it was used for. The pen seemed empty on first glance but then it all became clear. This pen was the home of the research station's most famous resident, Lonesome George. He is the sole survivor of the subspecies of Pinta tortoises, who so far has been unable to successfully reproduce. The station has not given up on George and regularly attempts to mate him with the next closest subspecies. Visitors are not able to enter his enclosure, but there is a raised viewing platform which overlooks his paddock. He has a reputation for being pretty shy, and was so far away from the viewing platform that it was difficult to see him in his enclosure. We could barely make out his shape from afar. We tried inspecting his pen from various angles but nothing offered a nicer view of him. In the end we had to settle for just a glimpse of the real George, so we decided to pick up a postcard for a more detailed view.

Lonesome George was seen as a mascot for the good work that the scientific community is doing to try to conserve the biodiversity of the Galapagos. His loss is sad, but his memory will live on and will inspire future generations not to let this happen again.
Lonesome George's Enclosure April 2008
On the other side of the world, in Bhutan, Wangdue Phodrang Dzong, the third oldest dzong (fortress/monastery/government building) in Bhutan, burned to the ground. It had been built in 1638. When we visited it in 2007, we wrote the following:
This monastery hasn't been restored, and the paintings on the walls are centuries old. They are protected behind curtains, but you are allowed to pull the curtains aside to view them. They have aged remarkably well and the colors are still surprisingly vivid. There was a golden statue of Buddha, a bit smaller than ones we had seen in previous dzongs. Young monks were chanting, reading from long narrow cards written in dzongkha. One monk was beating a drum. It was mesmerizing and we felt entranced. I couldn't help feeling a bit awkward, like we were intruding on something private and spiritual. I think this was because it was the first time we were witnessing something like this alone; unaccompanied by Dorji. The monks didn't seem to mind our presence at all, and we made sure to be very quiet and respectful, minimizing our movements and just watching a listening to the scene unfolding around us.

After soaking up the atmosphere inside the monastery, we went back to the courtyard and spun the old prayer wheels, some of which were off axis and looking rather worse for wear. It was nice to see an older (non-restored) dzong. Though the restored ones are gorgeous, this one somehow felt more authentic. As we walked through the courtyard, we noticed a small tan cat relaxing in the rafters. I took pictures of some young monks as they brushed their teeth with sticks, and they corrected my pronunciation of "thank you" in dzongkha.
Wangdue Phodrang Dzong October 2007

Thankfully, many relics were able to be saved. People hoisted statues out of windows with ropes, and put other relics into safe boxes and dropped them from the roof. Apparently the architecture made it difficult to fight the fire efficiently, and the entire structure was lost. The Bhutanese are mourning the loss of this historic ediface, and our thoughts are with them. They plan to rebuild, but obviously much has been lost. They think that the fire may have started with an electrical short.  Photos of the fire appear on  KuenselOnline.

Wangdue Phodrang Dzong October 2007
And then there is Mali, the west African country whose government has been overthrown, launching the country into a state of chaos. The north of the country (including the historic city of Timbuktu) is under siege, fought over by Tuareg rebels and Islamist militants. Refugees have fled to other countries, and internally displaced persons have fled south within Mali. The Tuaregs want to secede from Mali, and have declared their own independent state which they call Azawad. Islamist militants want to impose sharia law over northern Mali, whereas Mali’s general population follows a more liberal form of Islam with a secular government. Timbuktu contains historic architecture as well as priceless collections of ancient manuscripts, which UNESCO believes are now in danger of looting and destruction.

We received an e-mail from our friend Daniel, the director of the Kori-Maounde school in Dogon country near Bandiagara. Their village has taken in internally displaced persons from the north, and their scarce resources are having to be stretched even further. As if this wasn’t enough, locusts are currently plaguing Mali, making the problem of food scarcity even worse. Chemicals and vehicles normally used for pest control have been destroyed by rebels, so there is no recourse against the insects.

Our friends in Mali (Daniel, Timothee, Bahini, Bouba, El Hadj, as well as all of the wonderful villagers from Kori-Maounde) are in our thoughts and prayers. Our friend Anna Taft at the Tandana Foundation is raising money to provide sacks of food for communities in Mali. Tandana is a grassroots organization that planned our service project in Kori-Maounde back in 2009. It’s a tax-deductible donation which can help directly with food security in the area.

Djingereber Mosque, Timbuktu January 2009