Sunday, 27 February 2011

Lighting the way against high speed rail

At 6pm tonight, thousands of beacons will be lit across the UK, in protest of the proposed high-speed trainline, linking London to Birmingham.

The event coincides with the government announcement to begin public consultation on the HS2 proposal. If successful, construction will begin in 2015, to build a new line that will cut the journey time between London and Birmingham by half an hour.

Supporters believe that the railway could give the UK economy a £44bn boost, while protesters say it will be a waste of money with costs that far out-way the benefits.

The controversial project plans to run through areas of quaint English countryside, idyllic villages and renowned landmarks. Despite ploughing straight through their backyards, the communities of areas such as Amersham and Great Missenden (Roald Dahl's home-ground and the setting for many of his most famous children's stories) would receive no benefit from the new line, which will run non-stop at over 250 miles an hour.

Groups such as Stop HS2 and Stop The Route have drawn significant support, whereas support from the general public has so far been limited.

Thirty communities along the proposed route, from Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Northamptonshire, Warwickshire and Staffordshire will continue their protests by burning beacons tonight, including one in David Cameron's constituency of Witney, Oxfordshire. To find out more about the event, click here

Read more about the HS2 route at these links:
- BBC News: Government starts highspeed rail consultation
- Stop HS2 press releases
- Yes to HS2

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Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Dracula on the Rampage in Peru

Travelers heading to Peru are being advised take precaution against the potentially fatal bites of rabies-carrying vampire bats.

Recent increases in the number of rabies-related deaths in the Amazon have been attributed to the rising number of vampire bats in the region. The rise is thought to be a result of deforestation. As the habitats of more sensitive species are lost, the bats experience of loss of predators, leading to imbalances in the food chain. An increase in cattle farming is also thought to have created more food for the bats, further boosting their populations.

Heath authorities are taking action by trying to vaccinate the communities living in bat-prone areas, but face a tough challenge. Many indigenous people are used to biting bats and are wary of modern medicene, so have been reluctant to accept modern vaccinations, preferring instead to rely on traditional remedies.

Five people died in recent outbreaks, with young children most vulnerable. The disease can lie dormant for up to six months, but once it takes hold, fever, hallucinations and, ultimately, death, are inevitable.

Hoping to learn more, and prevent future outbreaks, researchers have been carrying out research in Lima, by raiding Amazonian bat colonies and using DNA sequencing to monitor the evolution of the disease.

British travelers at risk are able to receive pre-exposure vaccinations in the UK. Go to for more info.

Listen to the full report on BBC World Service

Watch a video clip of bats on location at

Image taken from BBC World Service

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King Colobus Devon

A West African, King Colobus Monkey has been successfully bred at Paignton Zoo in Devon. Rated as 'vulnerable' by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, the successful birth of the healthy baby is thought to be a significant step towards boosting the species' population. At the time of writing, the threatened species can be seen in only six zoos within Europe.

Image taken from Pittsburgh Zoo website

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Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Broken Tail - A Pioneer for Tiger Conservation

This evening's Natural World told the story of Broken Tail, a plucky young tiger who met his end when he wandered far from the safety of his home-ground in India's Ranthambore National Park, described by narrator Colin Stafford-Johnson as "tiger paradise".

Colin communicates the personality behind the predator, describing how Broken Tail was unique in his mischievous, confident and often arrogant behaviour; traits which no doubt motivated his bold decision to leave the reserve. A year later, the animal was hit by a train, 100 miles away in Darrah.

In what seems initially like a futile journey, Colin aims to retrace the tiger's journey, through inhospitable landscapes and "tiger killing territory", rife with poachers. But he assures us that his mission is vital to aid tiger conservation, in highlighting the scattered habitats where Broken Tail would have found refuge on his route through the badlands.

Having left his home "in search of girls", we realise the cold reality that, for Broken tail "there was no-one else out there", and we are warned that "tigers are absolutely on the edge". If current trends continue, India's 1400 wild tigers will have disappeared in five years time. Making a vital connection, Colin conveys to us that human survival in India is wholly dependent on the existence of tigers: without tigers the forests will not be protected, and without forests watersheds will disappear.

But through the eye-witnesses he meets, Colin finds a glimmer of hope for the future of India's tiger population. The reverence many of India's people continue to hold for nature is evident in those who watched the tiger drink and pass through their homes on his journey. And when Broken Tail's body is stretchered off the railway track, he's cremated with the same respect as a human would be. "Can you imagine anyone allowing such a predator to roam freely in Europe?" Colin asks us.

Colin's quest was not in vain. Following his campaign to to connect India's unprotected habitat fragments, Darrah has since been designated a National Park and discussions over whether Ranthambore should become a designated tiger reserve are underway.

If you missed Natural World tonight, you can watch it again here on BBC iplayer

Image taken from WXXI

Other articles about Tiger conservation in India:
- The Lost Land of the Tiger
- Fierce Roars Over Tiger Tourism
- Tiger Penis and Shark Fin Soup

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Sunday, 13 February 2011

The Times publishes damaging and ill-informed ski-resort shock stories

In The Times this Saturday, Marie Tourres and Adam Sage commented that holidaysmakers heading to French ski resorts should "brace themselves for bumps, bruises and broken bones on rock hard slopes". Having returned fully intact from a week's skiing in Sainte Foy,where all but one of the pistes had a decent covering of dense white snow, I was intrigued to learn that, according to The Times, only resorts "at the highest altitudes" "such as Les Deux Alps" (3600m), were snow covered.

According to the article, with a resort height of 1550m, Sainte Foy's ski season should be non-existent, yet being predominantly north facing and well sheltered, Sainte Foy was enjoying a spectacular season with good quality snow all the way down to resort level, despite snowfalls being less abundant than 2009-10. In fact, with my chalet, The Peak, conveniently located on the piste, I could literally ski all the way back down to resort level and shoosh right into my own driveway.

It's no secret that, right now, boarders will not find metres of champagne powder to carve through off-piste, but seriously, with most tourists spending no more than one week-a-year on the slopes, how many of us could honestly say we plan to spend our ski holidays being chased by avalanches and doing massive cliff-drops into fluffy powder bowls? In reality, push your average punter off-piste and into a foot of fresh powder, and within five minutes they'd be crawling back onto the piste, begging for something more solid.

But maybe I got lucky. Local residents explained to me that Sainte Foy is one of the best resorts in The Tarentaise are for holding onto its snow. So I contacted a few friends half an hour's drive up the hill in Val d'Isere, a resort The Times reported to have "no more than a sprinkling of white amid green pastures and grey escarpments". does seem odd that, considering skis come to an abrupt halt the second they touch but the tiniest section of turf, that 144 out of the resort's 156 pistes were still open, despite all those 'green pastures'.

The Times' article, which seemed to based on little more than exaggerated hearsay, has the potential to fuel further misguided rumors and, of most concern, to translate into damaging impacts in resorts which often depend solely on seasonal income. There's no hiding from the fact that France has seen a far lower accumulation of snow this season than is usual, but in publishing an article which portrayed all but the highest altitudes as being almost completely devoid of snow was both irresponsible and factually untrue.

Closer reading of the article allows for some lenience, with quotes from those in the know promising that pistes are still open and snow quality is "good". But these voices were lost under the tabloid-style headline, and overshadowed by a shocking photograph of skiers desperately trying to slide down a patch of snow running through a sunny meadow. And, although the sunny mood in Sainte Foy matched the weather, staff at luxury chalet company and Sainte Foy specialists, Premier Neige, were well aware at how damaging such headlines can be. However, they were confident that the genuine reports from their, somewhat surprised, guests returning to the UK would filter through.

Is it just Sainte Foy and Val d'Isere that are exempt? Do all other resorts resemble the Times' depiction of snow-starved Leysin in Switzerland? I would be very cautious to comment without physical evidence, which is perhaps where the Times went wrong; maybe they should consider commissioning journalists based in Val d'Isere, rather than in Paris...

Just returned from a ski-resort? What were your experiences of snow cover? Post your genuine piste-reports below...

Friday, 11 February 2011

Human Planet: Mountain - Life in Thin Air

Last night’s episode of Human Planet is guaranteed to have been a talking point in many workplaces today; conversations that will no doubt inspire anyone who missed ‘Life in Thin Air’ to catch-up on BBCiplayer this weekend.

The fifth episode in the BBC’s eight-part series documented the lives of those who live in some of the most brutal mountain environments on earth. From the practice of ancient ancestral traditions, to the introduction of modern science and economic demands, stunning camera-work and well-paced narration will have left many jaws gapping for the full duration of the 50 minute documentary. If you can’t wait till tonight to watch Human Planet on iplayer, read on…

Beginning in Mongolia’s Altai Mountains, we meet 16 year old Berick who trains a baby eagle for five months, to become his loyal hunting partner. Essential companions for Kasak hunters, Berick would stand little chance of successful tracking in this remote wilderness, where elusive creatures, such as the Mongolian fox, are essential sources of food and clothing.

Forty degrees south, we meet the children of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains, whose essential job it is to protect their community’s harvest from 600-strong troops of Gelada monkeys, who can strip a field of grain in minutes. With their skeletal faces, scarlet markings, broken fangs and glowing eyes, these sinister-looking creatures threaten the daily lives and livelihoods of those who share their habitats.

Closer to the equator, Indonesian miners risk their lungs and life-expectancies to extract sulphur crystals from the heart of active volcanoes. A 90kilo load of the sweetcorn-yellow element rewards each miner with a payment of $5. “They say working here can shorten your life” explains one miner, “I do it to feed my wife and kids”, “No other job pays this well”.

A reminder of how more traditional methods of resource exploitation sustain human life, communities in the mountains of New Guinea turn to the ways of their ancestors when protein has become scarce. After cutting a corridor in the forest, they rig a huge net, to catch giant bats which fly through the forests at night. After successfully trapping 15 fox-like bats in a single night, they return home with enough protein to feed their families for two weeks.

A glimpse at how modernity can benefit mountain communities across the globe takes us to high altitudes in the Himalayas and Swiss Alps. In Nepal, modern medicine is helping to cure blindness caused by strong UV rays, and in Switzerland, avalanche control has become an essential component of longevity for both residents and tourists.

Finally, a consideration of the practicalities of death and disposal at altitude, where decomposition is slow. At 4000 metres, with no trees to burn for cremation, sky burials have been practiced for centuries. Allowing vultures to consume the corpses of their dead, Buddhists see these burials as sacred acts, essential to sustain the life of another by avoiding the spread of disease.

You’ve got two months left to watch Mountains – Life in Thin Air. Click here to view in BBCiplayer, where you can also see the previous four, equally mind-blowing, episodes of Human Planet. Don’t miss next week’s episode, ‘Grasslands’, the sixth in the series.

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