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December 2011: Polar exploration

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Polar Exploration

Polar Exploration

David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series enticed more tourists, including Robert E Fuller, to be polar explorerst as featured in the Yorkshire Post December 2011.

THEwealth of wildlife in Antarctica is breathtaking as anyone who has been watching David Attenborough's Frozen Planet series on BBC1 will know. But the survival of some of its species is under threat thanks to rats that were introduced inadvertently more than 100 years ago by whalers and sealers. This year scientists came up with, and have already begun to put into practice, one of the most ambitious conservation plans in history.

They aim to eradicate all rodents from the island of South Georgia, which is host to the world's most unique bird colonies. In September, I was invited to a ceremony at the House of Lords hosted by Baroness Young of Old Scone and attended by HRH Princes Anne to mark the early success of the campaign. It is the biggest rodent eradication campaign in history and I was fascinated to meet some of the scientists behind the project.

No-one really knows how many rats inhabit the island in the South Atlantic, but it could be millions and they have had a devastating impact on local seabird populations. Rats eat the chicks of ground-nesting seabirds. They take them alive, some of them chicks several times their size such as albatrosses, petrels, or prions.
Rat eradication has been tried on other islands around the world, notably off New Zealand and Australia - but nothing on the scale being attempted in South Georgia
Ordinarily, such a campaign would be impossible; such is the size of the landmass and the number of rats present.

But the 100-mile-long sub-Antarctic island is marked by numerous glaciers that divide up the territory into convenient killing zones that can be cleared one by one.
The rats cannot cross the ice tongues and so conservationists can be sure rodents from neighbouring zones will not re-infest baited areas at a later date. Some 50 tonnes of rodenticide was dropped on the island by helicopters in March. The helicopter pilots used GPS systems which guided them up and down the breadth of the zones so that not a single patch was missed.

The drop represented just the first phase in the project, and covered a mere 13% of the rat-infested land area of South Georgia. Nonetheless, the South Georgia Heritage Trust says it has been hugely encouraged by the results. It claims 100% success in the area baited. My visit to the island in 2007 was one of the most breathtaking of my career as a wildlife artist.

I landed at Salisbury Plain which is host to the world's largest king penguin colony. There are 200,000 birds there, and nearby St Andrew's Bay hosts some 100,000.
These magnificent birds are, at least, abundant. In fact I could barely cross the beach at St Andrew's Bay without tripping over a penguin, or seal, and in fact I actually witnessed a moment of 'beach rage' on the overcrowded sands.

I saw a king penguin slap an elephant seal with his flipper as he tried to get passed it to the water's edge. It was quite an astounding moment. The penguin lashed out in irritation as it tried to pick its way through the crowded beach. But it quickly realised its mistake when the half-tonne elephant seal roared back at it. And, realising it had picked on someone several times its size, the penguin slunk off to take the long way round.

But despite the crowds on the beaches, these populations are as nothing compared to the days before industrial sealers and whalers used the British protectorate as a base for their ships and processing plants. And some species have plunged into serious decline. The South Georgia Heritage Trust is particularly concerned about the South Georgia Pipit, the most southerly songbird on the planet; and the South Georgia Pintail, a duck species found only on South Georgia.

Inevitably, the programme has involved some collateral damage in the form of birds and other wildlife also consuming the rat bait. But the shape, colour and size of pellets used have been carefully designed to minimise accidental deaths. These losses have to be set against the benefits to nesting populations that will accrue in the years ahead and I for one shall be supporting the plan as it enters its second phase next year.
me of year, full of Thomson's gazelle, topi, zebra and wildebeest. A week of heavy rains had brought the landscape back to life, after well-documented droughts. Before long we rounded a bend and saw an impressive male lion in the distance on the opposite side of the Talek river. Our trip had barely begun and already we had a big cat to watch. And this sighting was to prove extremely unusual. I have never seen the Talek river so swollen after heavy rain - the last time I visited it was no more than a trickle - neither had our guide Daryl who has been in the Mara for every migration season for over 20 years.

The water was flowing fast and furious creating mini-rapids and carrying debris in its wake. We were frustrated that on this occasion we were unable to cross the river in our Landcruiser to get closer to the lion. But we were pleased to watch from the vantage of the river bank as the lion swaggered towards the river and us with confidence, scent marking the trees as he went. I assumed this impressive beast was going for a drink. But I was astonished when, without breaking his stride, he walked straight into the raging water and began to confidently swim across the rapids. Of course, lions like most felines detest submerging themselves in any form of water no matter how still or shallow. This water was verging on being whitewater and not only that but crocodiles were known to linger camouflaged on its banks waiting for any unsuspecting victim to cross.

The current was so strong that it actually swept the lion downstream. For a while I could only make out his head above the brown muddy water. But he showed no fear and deftly catty-paddled through the deepest section before regaining his footing and marching towards the bank in front of us and hauling himself out onto dry land. He promptly shook himself down, sending droplets of water cart-wheeling off his luxurious mane. It was if it was water off a duck's back. The lion continued on his way across the plains, acting as though he owned the place.
We followed him for some distance in awe. This lion's nonchalance about his impressive feat was astounding. I was so amazed to have seen such an event, our guides were too. They had never seen such an occurrence.

But then, now out of sight of the river, this water-loving cat flopped down on the ground and began to doze, as though he didn't have anything pressing on after all. I couldn't understand what had prompted such a display of bravado followed by such inaction. Across the radio tanoy, came the voice of one of our other guides to tell us that a herd of wildebeest were gathering ready to cross downstream. After some consideration we reluctantly dragged ourselves away from him. We drove on to find that a number of wildebeest had already crossed and we watched as they streamed either side of our Landcruiser and began filing out onto the plain behind us. It is incredible how instinct drives the wildebeest to cross these crocodile infested waters in their thousands.

There were still quite a large number of beasts still to cross and we watched as they plunged impulsively into the water. The noise was deafening as adults that had become separated from their calves brayed anxiously. Sometimes the calves tried to cross back the other way against the flow of the traffic looking for their mother. Before long they had all made it across safely and we watched as the families regrouped before dispersing to graze. We decided to go back and see if our lion had woken up. He'd walked further over the plain but it didn't take us long to find him again and we started to piece together the reason for seeing his river crossing in the first place.

A few hundred metres away there was a lioness. She was clearly in season but she was flanked by another pride male. Male lions won't let a female that is in season out of their sight and will mate repeatedly. This one was no exception. He mated her on average every 17 minutes. Our water-loving lion had probably been drawn to cross the river by the irresistible scent given off by the female. He clearly knew his place in the pecking order and that his presence would be unwelcome - yet what a display of bravery in front of the lioness and her suitor. It's got to be said I was certainly impressed!

Yet, some lionesses are surprisingly scheming when they are in season. They mate with the pride male of their choice, but will also allow other males to mate with them. This is in the hope of tricking them into thinking that any offspring they have could be theirs. The tactic is aimed at ensuring they get extra protection from the coalition of males that make up the pride. I will never know if our lion had already had his opportunity with this cunning lioness already. One of our guides spotted a third older male lion looking on close by and immediately recognised him as being Notch made popular by the TV series Big Cat Diary. It looked like we had stumbled upon a famous pride without realising it.

It was interesting to see that this renowned King of the Mara was allowing this younger generation of males the mating rights over the pride females. Notch may be getting past it now at 14 years old but he is clearly still a clever predator. He knows that by stepping down without a fight that he can maintain a protected position within the pride in old age. He certainly looked well on it.

I couldn't have wished for a better first morning game drive. The breadth of sightings continued to impress, with great views of cheetah, leopard, elephant and rhino. This latest safari was so successful that I shall be taking a group of 12 with me again in 2012.

If you are interested in joining me click here for details.

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