Beluga whale with Russian harness raises alarm in Norway

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Norwegian fisherman Joar Hesten tries to attract a beluga whale swimming next to his boat before the Norwegian fishermen were able to removed the tight harness, off the northern Norwegian coast Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP)
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A beluga whale seen as it swims next to a fishing boat before Norwegian fishermen removed the tight harness, swimming off the northern Norwegian coast Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP)
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Joergen Ree Wiig tries to reach the harness attached to a beluga whale before the Norwegian fishermen were able to removed the tight harness, off the northern Norwegian coast Friday, April 26, 2019. (AP)
Updated 29 April 2019

Beluga whale with Russian harness raises alarm in Norway

  • “Equipment St. Petersburg” is written on the harness strap, which features a mount for an action camera

COPENHAGEN: A beluga whale found with a tight harness that appeared to be Russian made has raised the alarm of Norwegian officials and prompted speculation that the animal may have come from a Russian military facility.
Joergen Ree Wiig of the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries says “Equipment St. Petersburg” is written on the harness strap, which features a mount for an action camera.
He said Monday fishermen in Arctic Norway last week reported the tame white cetacean with a tight harness swimming around. On Friday, fisherman Joar Hesten, aided by the Ree Wiig, jumped into the frigid water to remove the harness.
Ree Wiig said “people in Norway’s military have shown great interest” in the harness.
Audun Rikardsen, a professor at the Department of Arctic and Marine Biology at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsoe, northern Norway, believes “it is most likely that Russian Navy in Murmansk” is involved. Russia has major military facilities in and around Murmansk on the Kola Peninsula, in the far northwest of Russia.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the mammal was being trained for, or whether it was supposed to be part of any Russian military activity in the region.
Rikardsen said he had checked with scholars in Russia and Norway and said they have not reported any program or experiments using beluga whales.
“This is a tame animal that is used to get food served so that is why it has made contacts with the fishermen,” he said. “The question is now whether it can survive by finding food by itself. We have seen cases where other whales that have been in Russian captivity doing fine.”
Hesten told Norwegian broadcaster NRK that the whale began to rub itself again his boat when he first spotted it.
Russia does not have a history of using whales for military purposes but the Soviet Union had a full-fledged training program for dolphins.
The Soviet Union used a base in Sevastopol on the Crimean peninsula during the Cold War to train the mammals for military purposes such as searching for mines or other objects and planting explosives. The facility in Crimea was closed following the collapse of the Soviet Union, though unnamed reports shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea indicated that it had reopened.
The Russian Defense Ministry published a public tender in 2016 to purchase five dolphins for a training program. The tender did not explain what tasks the dolphins were supposed to perform, but indicated they were supposed to have good teeth. It was taken offline shortly after publication.


Outspoken Myanmar beauty queen held by Thai immigration

Updated 23 September 2022

Outspoken Myanmar beauty queen held by Thai immigration

  • Han Lay has been held at Bangkok's main international airport since Thursday after arriving on a flight from Vietnam
  • In a post on her verified Facebook page on Friday, Han Lay said she feared the Myanmar police would come and get her at the airport

BANGKOK: A Myanmar beauty queen who spoke out against the military coup in her homeland appealed Friday for help after being refused entry to Thailand by immigration officials.
Thaw Nandar Aung, better known by her professional moniker Han Lay, has been held at Bangkok’s main international airport since Thursday after arriving on a flight from Vietnam.
She made headlines in March 2021 when she urged the world to “save” the people of Myanmar from the military, which had seized power a month earlier.
Thai immigration officials said she was denied entry to the kingdom because of a problem with her passport.
In a post on her verified Facebook page on Friday, Han Lay said she feared the Myanmar police would come and get her at the airport.
“I request to Thai authority from here please help for me,” she wrote in English, adding that she had contacted the UN refugee agency.
A Thai official told AFP that Myanmar police had not spoken to her and said it was up to her to decide where to fly to from Bangkok.
While in Bangkok competing in the Miss Grand International contest, the former psychology student spoke out against the coup, which ousted the civilian government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
“I want to say from here to the world: please support the Myanmar people,” she told Thailand’s Khaosod English news outlet.
“So many people die in Myanmar by the guns of the military... Please save us.”
Myanmar has been in chaos since the coup, with the junta struggling to quell resistance to its rule.
A military crackdown on dissent has left more than 2,300 civilians dead, according to a local monitoring group.
The junta puts the civilian death toll at almost 3,900.

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Israeli researchers find opium residue in 3,500-year-old pottery

Updated 20 September 2022

Israeli researchers find opium residue in 3,500-year-old pottery

  • The joint investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Weizmann Institute of Science began in 2012
  • Researchers found pottery vessels at the site that resembled poppy flowers dating back to the 14th century BC

YEHUD, Israel: Israeli archaeologists said Tuesday they had discovered opium residue in 3,500-year-old pottery pieces, providing evidence to support the theory that the hallucinogenic drug was used in ancient burial rituals.
The joint investigation by the Israel Antiquities Authority and Weizmann Institute of Science began in 2012 when excavations in the central Israeli town of Yehud revealed a series of Late Bronze Age graves.
Researchers found pottery vessels at the site that resembled poppy flowers — from which opium is derived — dating back to the 14th century BC.
They then examined whether they had served as containers for the drug, which earlier writing had suggested was used in burial rituals in Canaan, and found “opium residue in eight vessels,” the researchers said in a statement.
These were likely “placed in graves for ceremonial meals, rites and rituals performed by the living for their deceased family members,” said Ron Be’eri, an archaeologist with the antiquities authority.
During these ceremonies, “family members or a priest on their behalf” would “attempt to summon the spirit of their dead relatives... and enter an ecstatic state by using opium,” Be’eri said.
But he acknowledged that much remained unknown about its use in ancient times. “We can only speculate what was done with opium,” he said.

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Care home mix-up sees Slovenian family bury wrong man

Updated 18 September 2022

Care home mix-up sees Slovenian family bury wrong man

LJUBLJANA: An identity mix-up in Slovenia plunged one family into mourning, only to discover after their grandfather’s alleged funeral that they had buried another man from his care home.
Authorities were left so red-faced on Thursday that the health minister offered to resign after the two men, both the same age and both confined to wheelchairs were taken to the same hospital from the same care home in Slovenia’s eastern town of Zidani Most.
“Somebody buried their father yesterday and today found out he was alive, while another family realized today that it was their father who died,” Health Minister Danijel Besic Loredan told a news conference.
The two residents, one of whom had advanced dementia, were taken to hospital last week suffering from different health problems.
One of them died two days later, only for the wrong family to be informed. After a mandatory forensic check, the family organized a cremation and held a funeral on Wednesday.
The mistake was only discovered after the second man recovered from his illness and returned to his care home, where staff realized that he had the wrong identity tag on his wrist.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Besic Loredan told reporters. His offer of resignation was not accepted by the prime minister. Instead, an investigation into the case of mistaken identity has been ordered.
 

 

 


Cheetahs return to India 70 years after local extinction

One of the Cheetahs released in Kuno National Park, in Madhya Pradesh, India on Saturday. (AFP)
Updated 18 September 2022

Cheetahs return to India 70 years after local extinction

  • Wildlife experts say park in India intended to be cheetahs’ new
  • Critics have warned the creatures may struggle to adapt to the Indian habitat

NEW DELHI: Eight Namibian cheetahs arrived in India on Saturday, part of an ambitious project to reintroduce the world’s fastest land animal to the South Asian country where it has been extinct for over 70 years.

Cheetahs, once found in great numbers across Africa and Asia, are facing the threat of global extinction, with their population estimated to be fewer than 8,000 in the wild, down by 50 percent over the last four decades.
In India, local extinction was officially declared in 1952 following years of extensive hunting and habitat loss. Project Cheetah — launched on Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s birthday, Sept. 17 — is expected to cost $11 million over five years. The Indian Oil Corporation is offering financial support.
“Decades ago, the age-old link of biodiversity was broken and had become extinct. Today, we have a chance to reconnect it,” Modi said after releasing the wild cats into a soft enclosure in Kuno National Park. “Twenty-first-century India is giving a message to the whole world that economy and ecology are not conflicting fields.”

FASTFACT

Cheetahs, once found in great numbers across Africa and Asia, are facing the threat of global extinction, with their population estimated to be fewer than 8,000 in the wild, down by 50 percent over the last four decades.

The plan is to relocate batches of cheetahs from southern Africa into India, until the country has a cheetah population of around 40. On Saturday, the first batch arrived on a Boeing 747 from Namibia and were taken to their new home in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh.
Dr. Satya Prakash Yadav, director of Wildlife Institute of India, which will oversee the project, told Arab News that this is the first intercontinental relocation of cheetahs that will be released into the wild.
“The plan is to have 20 cheetahs in the first year and after that, depending on adaptability, their survival, their conservation, their breeding and behavior, we will supplement the population every year for the next five years, unless a viable better population is established,” Yadav said. At Kuno, the cheetahs will share 5,000 square kilometers of forest and grassland with other wildlife, including leopards. But experts say that is not enough space for the newly arrived cats to thrive.
The ambitious experiment should provide a habitat of at least 10,000 square kilometers and include a population of wild prey for the cheetahs, according to Ullas Karanth, a wildlife expert at the Center for Wildlife Studies in the southern city of Bangalore. Kuno is too small to sustain a cheetah population, he said.
“That habitat should have been created first before bringing these African cheetahs,” Karanth told Arab News. “The present project puts the cart before the horse, bringing cheetahs before the habitat is suitably prepared.
“This is not a scientific conservation goal, more of a public relations effort which will end up as just another large tourist zoo.”
“The key question that needs to be asked is: What is the purpose of this exercise?” Avijit Sarkhel, a Delhi-based wildlife activist, told Arab News, as he raised concerns about India’s ability to protect the cheetahs.
“I am not sure if this is a wise decision. To me, it is more about reclaiming India’s spot as the largest pool of wild cats in the world,” Sarkhel said. “We need to see how we can manage this.”
Kuno National Park was intended to become home to some of the last remaining Asiatic lions — and experts say that the area is more suitable for those animals. Residents of some two dozen villages were relocated for that project, which promised tourism development for the region.
But the project stalled after the government of the state of Gujarat, where all the Asiatic lions live, opposed the move. Two years ago, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a plan to bring in cheetahs from Namibia, imported on an experimental basis.
“We should remember that the villages which were evacuated suffer from extreme poverty, malnutrition and backwardness and these problems would have been addressed had tourism been allowed to develop around Kuno National Park,” Ajay Dubey, a wildlife and social activist from Bhopal city in Madhya Pradesh, told Arab News.
With the cheetahs now brought in for the purpose of restoring their population, the “villagers have lost all hopes of improvement in their livelihoods,” Dubey claimed.


Namibian cheetahs head for India, 70 years after local extinction

Updated 16 September 2022

Namibian cheetahs head for India, 70 years after local extinction

  • The wild cheetahs were moved by road from a game park north of the Namibian capital Windhoek
  • They will be personally welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, his 72nd birthday

WINDHOEK, Namibia: Eight Namibian cheetahs were on Friday airlifted to India, part of an ambitious project to reintroduce the big cats after they were driven to extinction there decades ago, officials and vets said.
The wild cheetahs were moved by road from a game park north of the Namibian capital Windhoek to board a chartered Boeing 747 dubbed “Cat plane” for an 11-hour flight.
They will be personally welcomed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Saturday, his 72nd birthday.
He will swing open the gates of Kuno National Park, a new sanctuary created for the cats, 320 kilometers (200 miles) south of Delhi.
The 750-square-kilometer (290-square-mile) protected park was selected as a home because of its abundant prey and grasslands.
The project is the world’s first inter-continental translocation of cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal, according to the Indian high commissioner to Namibia, Prashant Agrawal.
“This is historic, global first. Game-changing,” he told AFP. “We are all the more excited because it is happening in the 75th year of Indian independence.”
Critics have warned that the Namibian cheetahs may struggle to adapt to the Indian habitat and may clash with the significant number of leopards already present.
But organizers are unfazed.
“Cheetahs are very adaptable and (I’m) assuming that they will adapt well into this environment. So I don’t have a lot of worries,” said Dr. Laurie Marker, founder of the Namibia-based charity Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), which has been central to the project logistics.
The project has been in the making for more than a decade. Initial discussion started in the 1990s, she told AFP.
India was once home to the Asiatic cheetah but it was declared extinct there by 1952. The critically endangered subspecies, which once roamed across the Middle East, Central Asia and India, are now only found, in very small numbers, in Iran.
New Delhi has since 2020 been working to reintroduce the animals after the Supreme Court announced that African cheetahs, a different subspecies, could be settled in a “carefully chosen location” on an experimental basis.
The five females and three males, aged between two and five and a half, will each be fitted with a satellite collar.
They are a donation from the government of Namibia, one of a tiny handful of countries in Africa where the magnificent creature survives in the wild.
Negotiations are ongoing for similar translocation from South Africa, a government official told AFP on Friday, with vets suggesting 12 cats could be moved.
Cheetahs became extinct in India primarily because of habitat loss and hunting for their distinctive spotted coats.
An Indian prince, the Maharaja Ramanuj Pratap Singh Deo, is widely believed to have killed the last three recorded cheetahs in India in the late 1940s.
One of the oldest of the big cat species, with ancestors dating back about 8.5 million years, cheetahs once roamed widely throughout Asia and Africa in great numbers, said CCF.
But today only around 7,000 remain, primarily in the African savannas.
The cheetah is listed globally as “Vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
In North Africa and Asia it is “Critically Endangered.”
Their survival is threatened primarily by dwindling natural habitat and loss of prey due to human hunting, the development of land for other purposes and climate change.