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Today’s post takes us back to Namibia.  The vast empty desert nation is the home to beautiful cheetahs, the world’s fastest land animal.  In fact Namibia has the greatest number of cheetahs in the world.  Namibia is also (now) home to heavily armed sheep farmers who make their living by raising delicious delicious sheep in the cheetah-haunted arid scrublands.  This mixture has led to…um…misunderstandings of all kinds.

Cheetah, Namibia

Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus) on dune with desert landscape in back ground. Namibia.

There is no need to dwell on just what the hell German sheep farmers are doing in a vast African desert anyway (or whether their forbears committed terrible genocidal acts in 1894 to obtain their lands).  History is rife with…misunderstandings.  What is important is where we stand now.  Because of habitat destruction, disease, and hunting, cheetahs are fading from the world.  And here is where the heroic Anatolian shepherd comes in.

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Anatolian shepherds are huge powerful dogs which trace their heritage to Turkey at the dawn of civilization.  The first herdsman faced similar problems to today’s Namibian sheep farmers (namely unreformed wolves, lions, and leopards brazenly preying on their livestock).  These early farmers responded by breeding big bold dogs to bodily confront large predators.  However, as civilization moved onward, the nature and appearance of herding dogs changed too.

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An Anatolian Shepherd with a border collie

Most modern shepherd dogs are smaller than cheetahs.  German shepherds, collies, corgis, et cetera tend to have long coats for cold climates. They also react to threats by herding their flocks toward safety. This was not working in Namibia, as it triggered cheetah’s hardwired chasing instincts which lead to even further carnage misunderstanding.

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With short pale hair, ideal for the desert heat, Anatolian shepherds stand 69 to 74 centimeters tall and weigh as much as the largest cheetahs.  They are less “shepherds” who move flocks around and more “guards” who directly confront predators. This triggers the cheetah’s hardwired running away instincts.  As misunderstanding decrease, the cheetah population in the world’s most populous country (for cheetahs) is stabilizing.  Happy news for beleaguered cheetahs and farmers…and good news for the Anatolian shepherd too a big beautiful dog with a new (old) job.

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Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

Giant topiary reindeer in Covent Garden Piazza, London

When I was a child, my best-loved emblem of the Christmas/holiday season was the reindeer (although, admittedly, I thought they were “rain deer”).  My poor mother had to track down reindeer-themed decorations and jumpers all over the place.  The magnificent antlered beasts were not just my favorite ornaments, but they were also the subjects of my most-preferred songs (in fact, I still find Rudolph’s ascendancy to personal empowerment through effulgent appendages and meteorological coincidence to be quite stirring).  Yet reindeer are not just mythical creatures made up for the holidays—the true nature of these magnificent cold weather specialists is even more remarkable than folklore.

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus)

Reindeer (Rangifer tarandus) are large powerful cervids native to the trackless tundra of the Arctic and to the taiga and bogs of the subarctic (a vast habitat which encompasses most of Alaska,Canada, Siberia, and northern Europe).  The North American subspecies of reindeer are commonly known as caribou. Although the migratory caribou are rangier (with thinner bodies and longer legs than old world reindeer), they are fundamentally the same creature.  The caribou are the last animals in the Americas to still migrate across the wilderness en masse.  The largest herds number in the hundred thousands (!) and evoke thoughts of the Pliocene or of the Serengeti (although like most other wildlife, the great herds are quickly declining).

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

A caribou migration in contemporary Alaska

Adult male reindeer weigh up to 180 kilograms (400 lbs) although a few exceptionally huge bucks have been measured weighing nearly twice that.  The fur of reindeer has two layers: a layer of long hollow outer hairs and a down-like layer of dense fluff.  The fur can be all sorts of shades of stippled and variegated brown, black, cream, and white. Both genders of reindeer grow antlers, and the antlers are the largest in proportion to body mass of any cervid.

Reindeer have many special traits to help them survive the rigorous conditions of their northern habitat. In summer their hooves become sponge-like and flatten out to give them traction on mud.  In winter reindeer hooves harden into sharp wedges for cutting through ice and snow. Unlike white-tailed deer, reindeer can see into the indigo and ultraviolet spectrum.  This ability helps them survive in the grey tundra and the great monochromatic boreal forests.  Many things invisible in the (human) visible spectrum pop out in ultraviolet (most notably fur and urine).

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

A reindeer poses in front a glacier in Svalbard

Reindeer/caribou live predominantly on grasses, sedges, and tender tree shoots during the summer, but in winter their diet changes in accordance with the barrenness of their environment.  During the long lean dark times of winter reindeer largely live on lichen.  The reindeer are almost alone among animals in possessing the enzyme necessary to metabolize the tough lichen (only a handful of gastropod mollusks have been found to also produce lichenase).

DENA_ReindeerTundraYoung reindeer are hunted by golden eagles and wolverines.  Mature adults are largely invulnerable to any animals other than polar bears, brown bears, and above all wolves.  Wolves may be the ultimate predator of reindeer and certain packs live mutualistically with the reindeer herds and follow them all winter.

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

The Sami people prepare to migrate with the herd

Humankind has a similarly ancient and intimate relationship with the reindeer and caribou. Since the depths of the ice age, human hunter-gatherers have stalked the great herds of deer. Some tribes began to follow the herds along their entire migratory routes and eventually the people and deer gradually became integrated.  The domestication of animals began similarly with goats (ibexes), cows (aurochs), and pigs, but, in the case of reindeer, the process stalled in the middle. Certain herds of reindeer are semi-domesticated: but the herders follow the deer as much as the reverse.  The reindeer provide skin, meat, milk, and transportation to the tough herding/hunting nomads of the north (mainly the Sami in the modern world).  The herders protect the reindeer from wolves, bear, and hunters.

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

A reindeer sleigh in Lapland (image from the Finnish Tourism Bureau)

Although they are not perfectly domesticated (and would probably keep on with their ancient migrations if humankind all dropped dead or decided to emigrate to Alfa-Centauri), reindeer are docile, gentle, and extremely beautiful.  They are a perfect emblem of the season (although Santa’s presumably male herd would shed their antlers before Christmas), but they are an even greater emblem of the last great wilds which can be found in the far north.  I devoutly hope that the great changes of the Anthropocene do not reduce the reindeer and caribou herds to a fraction of what they are today.  I guess I still love them as much as ever.  Where is that sweater with reindeer on it and the old Rudolph record?

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I'll be away for the next couple days...

Happy Holidays from Ferrebeekeeper! I’ll be away for the next couple days…

The Elk (Cervus Canadensis)

The Elk (Cervus Canadensis)

The Elk (Cervus Canadensis) is one of the world’s largest deer: adult male elk can weigh up to 331 kg (730 lb) and stands 1.5 m (4.9 ft) at the shoulder.  The magnificent antlered beasts are believed to have originated in Beringia, a now vanished steppeland which connected North America and Asia during the Pleistocene.  The poor Elk suffers substantial name confusion.  In Europe, moose (Alces alces) are known as elk.  When Europeans arrived in North America, they thought the animals were similar so they christened Cervus Canadensis as “elk”.  Native Americans called the creatures wapiti.  Now elk are known by the European name “Elk” in America and the American name “wapiti” in Eurasia (so that they are not confused with moose which are still called elk).  Ugh!

The current range of elki/wapiti (dark green) versus the original range (pale green)

The current range of elki/wapiti (dark green) versus the original range (pale green)

Elk currently live in the great grasslands of northern China/Siberia and in the unpopulated western reaches of the United States and Canada (where they tend to be found in places like Wyoming and Colorado), however their range was once much more extensive.  Before development and farming became universal, elk could be found in South China and in the Eastern United States.  Kentucky has been experimenting with returning the great Elk herds to lands where they once last roamed wild before the Civil War.  Obviously nobody wants to abandon farmlands or private forests to the ungentle hooves of a giant deer-monster, but Kentucky was extensively and abusively strip mined.  The mountains were blasted down and great tracts of worthless wasteland was left.  Far-sighted conservationists imported elk from out west, and the animals flourished tremendously.  In less than two decades the Kentucky herds have become the largest in the nation outside of the world’s largest herd in Wyoming!

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The elk have brought tourism and national interest to their new (old?) home but there have been problems too as elk refuse to jump out of the way of cars and angry drivers, refusing to yield the right-of-way, drive blithely into the immense creatures (to the benefit of neither party).  The elk also damage cultivated trees and gardens.  Yet issuing hunting permits in order to manage the herd has brought waves of hunters.

A votress of Artemis poses with a trophy elk.  Have I mentioned how BIG elk are?

A votress of Artemis poses with a trophy elk. Have I mentioned how BIG elk are?

Additionally, the elk are beautiful–and were here before we were (well, probably… it’s a little hard to tell when humans came across Beringia, but we had to get there from Africa, whereas the elk started out there).  Nearby states are also excited by the programs so Virginia, Ohio, and West Virginia may soon also have beautiful deer monsters of their own for the first time in centuries!

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Landing horses from Australia (attributed to J. B. East ca.1834,
Watercolor on paper)

Horses are first known to have arrived in Australia in 1788.  They came as part of an invasion fleet—the “first fleet,” which consisted of eleven British ships filled with marines, soldiers, “free” (but penniless) crown subjects, male and female convicts, horses, dogs, cats, rats, mice, bedbugs, fleas, smallpox, and a handful of King George’s officers.  Some of these various life-forms quickly escaped the hungry sweltering colony on Sydney Cove and began to alter the island continent. The first rogue horses were seen around Sydney in 1804.  In subsequent years other colonists and business concerns brought yet more horses.  Australians imported “Capers”, robust horses from South Africa.  In the North, tiny Timor Ponies (renowned for toughness and the ability to thrive in the tropics) were purchased from Indonesia. Miners brought in hard-headed ponies from Cornwall, Wales, and Dartmoor. Wealthy squatters (land barons) brought in thoroughbreds and Arabians.  Farmers brought Clydesdales and Percherons. Most of these horses ended up pulling wagons, ploughing fields, or carrying rich men on their backs—they were domestic horses doing human bidding–but a few lit out for freedom in forests and deserts which had never before known the hoof.

The result of the mixture was the “brumby”, the wild horse of Australia. In a continent where the largest native grazer was the stolid wombat, horses quickly began to thrive. In a few generations, feral horses completely adapted to the harsh arid climate of Australia. Huge herds roam the wasteland (particularly in the Australian Alps).

The Distribution of the Feral Horse in Australia According to the Department of Conservation

Thanks to natural selection, brumbies quickly reverted to the appearance of wild ancestral horses.  Iliveforhorses.com describes the brumby with no particular enthusiasm:

The Brumby varies in conformation but generally has a heavy head with a short neck and back, straight shoulders, sloping quarters, and strong legs. Their shape is generally poor although the occasional one has a through back to Thoroughbred ancestry and will have some quality, especially in the head region. They can be any color and their height varies but they tend to be small.

The same website is equally censorious about brumby temperament, noting that brumbies, “are, like any feral animal, extremely difficult to capture and tame, and have rebellious and willful natures.”

Brumbies might have poor shapes and willful natures, but they have proven excellent at surviving in the wild. During the 19th century, horses were in such demand that round-ups occurred and wild brumbies were “broken” back into domestication, but as mechanization increased during the 20th century, huge herds of brumbies ran roughshod over the Australian ecosystem.  Environmentalists, farmers, and politicians implemented the same solution to this problem which they had first used for the rabbit infestation—the gun.  Huge numbers of brumbies were shot for meat and hide (apparently there is still a thriving horsemeat market in Europe).  Others were simply left for dead, whether cleanly killed or not.  Animal lovers reacted with outrage to the slaughter and have demanded more humane solutions to the brumby problem (such as round-ups or mass sterilization).  Implementing these solutions has, however, proven costly (and not entirely efficacious) so the fate of great herds of brumbies has become a political wrestling match between environmentalists on one side and animal lovers on the other.  Whether herds are larger or smaller, there is no way to eradicate them entirely.  Horses have joined kangaroos, echidnas, koalas, platypuses, numbats, and crocodiles as one of the characteristic natives of Australia.

Brumbies in a eucalyptus forest

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