Last of the wild asses back from the brink By Helen Briggs

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionKulans live in pairs or small herds

Wild asses are returning to the grasslands of Kazakhstan where they once roamed in large numbers.

The equine animals, known as kulans, are native to the area but have been pushed to the brink of extinction by illegal hunting and loss of habitat.

Conservationists have started reintroducing the horses to their natural landscape.

This month, more kulan were released in the Altyn Dala nature reserve to establish a fourth population.

The project is being organised by the Association for the Conservation of Biodiversity of Kazakhstan (ACBK).

Sergey Sklyarenko said reintroduction started in a reserve on an island in the Aral Sea with fewer than 20 animals.

“We have got to now about 4,000 kulans in three wild populations,” he said.

“The creation of a fourth population will allow to provide new areas for the species and increase its sustainability.”

The wild asses were captured in the Altyn Emel National Park in the autumn.

KulansImage copyrightACBK
Image captionThe kulans were released at a nature reserve in the centre of the country

The population there has reached about 3,000 individuals, but there is little potential for future growth.

The kulans were moved to a centre at Alytn Dala in Central Kazakhstan, where they were kept in captivity over the winter to allow them to bond and adjust to local conditions.

Mares have been fitted with GPS collars so that the movement of herds can be tracked.

The animals have already started exploring the area, and it is hoped that they will thrive and breed.

Asian wild ass once ranged across the Russian Federation, Mongolia, northern China, northwest India, Central Asia, and the Middle East.

Today their main stronghold is southern Mongolia and China.

The Equus hemionus (Asian Wild Ass, Asiatic Wild Ass) is listed as Endangered, and considered to be facing a high risk of extinction in the wild, on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Although they are a protected species, they are hunted for their meat and their skins in some areas

18 April 2018

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Mammoth tusk haul seized by Chinese customs

Picture of mammoth tusks seized in Heilongjiang province in China on 11 April 2017Image copyrightCHINA NEWS SERVICE
Image captionThe haul of mammoth tusks, rhino horns and jade reportedly came from Russia

Chinese customs officers have seized more than a tonne of tusks from animals that have been extinct for thousands of years – mammoths.

State media are reporting that the massive haul came from Russia and was seized in north-east China in February.

The largest piece of mammoth ivory seized was more than 1.6m (5ft) long, a customs officer was quoted as saying.

There is no international ban on the trade but Chinese officials said the haul was not declared.

Millions of mammoths

The stockpile is part of a booming trade between Russia and China in ivory taken from the skeletons of mammoths found in the Siberian tundra. The effects of global warming in the Arctic has made it easier to collect tusks preserved in ice for thousands of years, researchers say.

More than 100 woolly mammoth tusks were seized at the port of Luobei in Heilongjiang province, in addition to 37 woolly rhino horn parts and more than a tonne of jade. They were hidden in concealed compartments in a truck, according to reports.

Picture of mammoth tusks seized in Heilongjiang province in China on 11 April 2017Image copyrightCHINA NEWS SERVICE
Image captionThe tusks were seized in February but were shown to media earlier this week

The truck driver is alleged to have claimed he was only carrying soybeans, and to have fled the scene when the truck was inspected.

He and another person were later arrested.

Listen: The growing and legal trade in mammoth ivory (BBC Radio 4)

DNA clues to why woolly mammoth died out

There are estimated to be around 10 million mammoths that “remain incarcerated within the permafrost of the Arctic tundra”, according to Douglas MacMillan, a professor of conservation and applied resource economics at the University of Kent.

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), or tundra mammothImage copyrightSCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Image captionMost of the world’s woolly mammoths had died out by about 10,500 years ago

Some mammoth experts have suggested that the trade in mammoth ivory should be banned, even though the animals are extinct. They argue that their tusks are often sold as elephant tusks, and thus encourage overall demand for ivory.

It is estimated that more than 50% of the ivory sold into China, which has has the biggest ivory market in the world, is mammoth ivory. Hong Kong is a major destination, and the ivory is used to make jewellery and other objects, including ornamental tusks.

But other experts like Prof MacMillan say that a ban would not halt the trade but rather “drive it underground and attract the attention of organised crime groups”.

Most of the world’s woolly mammoths had died out by about 10,500 years ago. Scientists believe that human hunting and environmental changes played a role in their extinction.

China has announced a ban on all elephant ivory trade and processing activities by the end of 2017.

Media captionWoolly mammoths died out because of “mutational meltdown”, Dr Rebekah Rogers tells The World Tonight

Germans find ‘Harald Bluetooth’ medieval treasure

Part of Schaprode treasure trove, 13 Apr 18Image copyrightAFP
Image captionHarald Bluetooth might have buried the treasure while fleeing from enemies

Treasure linked to the reign of 10th-century Danish King Harald Bluetooth has been dug up in northern Germany.

An amateur archaeologist and a 13-year-old boy found a silver coin on the Baltic island of Rügen in January when scanning a field with metal detectors.

Experts kept the find secret until a team dug up 400sq metres (4,300sq ft) of land at the weekend.

They found braided necklaces, a Thor’s hammer, brooches, rings and about 600 coins, probably buried in the 980s.

“This trove is the biggest single discovery of Bluetooth coins in the southern Baltic sea region and is therefore of great significance,” said lead archaeologist Michael Schirren.

Schaprode coins, 13 Apr 18Image copyrightAFP
Image captionChristian crosses feature on many of the coins, but there is quite a variety

Harald Bluetooth was born a Viking and is credited with unifying Denmark and introducing Christianity there during his reign.

In the 980s he fled to Pomerania, now in north Germany, after losing a big sea battle against forces loyal to his son Sweyn Forkbeard. Bluetooth died in 987.

The king was immortalised by Nordic technology firms when they embedded their wireless “Bluetooth” technology in digital gadgets.

Amateur archaeologist Rene Schoen (L) and 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnichenko look for a treasure with a metal detector in Schaprode, northern Germany on April 13, 2018Image copyrightAFP
Image captionRene Schoen (L) and 13-year-old student Luca Malaschnichenko were the first to find the treasure

The site of the treasure trove, Schaprode, is a few kilometres from Hiddensee, where a 16-piece gold hoard dating from Bluetooth’s reign was found in the 19th Century.

The Schaprode discoverers – 13-year-old Luca Malaschnitschenko and amateur archaeologist René Schön – are in a group of enthusiasts looking after historical sites in Mecklenburg-West Pomerania state in north-eastern Germany.

Warrior king

Bluetooth led his warriors in campaigns against Frankish nobles who ruled parts of France and Germany in the Carolingian Age.

After converting to Christianity in 950, he set up bishoprics in Denmark, consolidated his kingdom with forts and seized some territory in Norway and north Germany.

The earliest coin in the Schaprode hoard is reckoned to be a Damascus dirham dating from 714, and the latest ones are Frankish Otto-Adelheid pennies minted in 983.

More than 100 of the 600 coins are believed to have been minted in Bluetooth’s kingdom. They have Christian crosses on them and were given to Danish nobles.

By BBC News 16th April 2018

 

Ancient sea reptile was one of the largest animals ever

Sea reptilesImage copyright N TAMURA
Image captionIchthyosaurs are large marine reptiles that lived between 250 and 95 million years ago

Sea reptiles the size of whales swam off the English coast while dinosaurs walked the land, according to a new fossil discovery.

The jaw bone, found on a Somerset beach, is giving clues to the ”last of the giants” that roamed the oceans 205 million years ago.

The one-metre-long bone came from the mouth of a huge predatory ichthyosaur.

The creature would have been one of the largest ever known, behind only blue whales and dinosaurs, say scientists.

The ancient jawbone was found near the village of Lilstock by fossil collector Paul de la Salle.

He first thought it was a piece of rock but after seeing a distinctive ”groove and bone structure” realised it might be part of an ichthyosaur.

Dean Lomax, a world leading expert on ichthyosaurs from the University of Manchester, compared the bone with other specimens.

”It was a giant piece of mandible from an ichthyosaur,” the palaeontologist told BBC News.

”We were mind blown to think that a sea creature the size of a blue whale was swimming off the English coast about 200 million years ago.”

Severn Crossing

The discovery, reported in the journal, PLOS One, also clears up another long-standing mystery.

In 1850, a large bone was found at Aust Cliff below the Severn Bridge in Gloucestershire.

Prehistoric reptile’s last meal revealed

‘Sea dragon’ fossils ‘new to science’

‘Sea dragon’ fossil ‘largest on record’

Scientists have been unable to work-out whether the fossil and several other large bones found at the site came from a dinosaur or from a mystery reptile.

The two fossil experts now believe the Aust bones are also jaw bones from a giant, previously unrecognised ichthyosaur.

The jaw bone
Image copyright  PLOS ONE/LOMAX
Image caption The jaw bone from Lilstock

”Every fossil tells a story,” said Dean Lomax. ”It shows there are these things out there – hopefully someone’s going to find a whole one.”

Extinction stories

During the age of the dinosaurs, the ocean was home to many types of ichthyosaur.

They appeared in the Triassic, reached their peak in the Jurassic, then disappeared in the Cretaceous – several million years before the last dinosaurs died out.

Ichthyosaurs were among the first skeletons to be discovered by early fossil-hunters, at a time when theories of evolution and concepts of geology were starting to take shape.

The fossil hunter Mary Anning discovered the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaur in the cliffs near Lyme Regis, Dorset, in 1810.

Her discovery shook up the scientific world and provided evidence for new ideas about the history of the Earth.

The 150-year-old story of Sri Lankan tea-making

 

Two tea pluckers work on a plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Almost 5% of the population of Sri Lanka work in the billion-dollar tea industry, picking leaves on the mountain slopes and processing the tea in plantation factories.

The cultivation and selling of black tea has shaped the lives of generations of Sri Lankans since 1867.

Documentary photographer Schmoo Theune visited plantations in the country to explore the world of Ceylon tea production.

A tea plantation in Sri LankaImage copyright SCHMOO THEUNE

Tea bushes on mountain slopes are situated above the barracks-style housing which each plantation provides for its workers.

Tea buds must be picked by hand every seven to 14 days, before the leaves grow too tough.

This means the working location can change from day to day, depending on where the buds need to be collected.

The tea leaves are gathered in tarpaulin bags, which are lighter than the traditional wicker baskets that were once used.

A tea plucker in a plantation fieldImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

The leaves are weighed throughout the day and a tea-picker earns 600 Sri Lankan Rupees (LKR), which is approximately £2.70, if they reach the desired quota of 18kg a day.

If they do not meet this target then they are paid 300 LKR (approximately £1.30).

Some plantations use different wage models, such as paying staff monthly and offering temporary loans to employees.

The majority of Sri Lankan tea workers are ethnically Indian Tamils, a people who were transported by the British to work on the plantations.

They differ from Jaffna Tamils who originate from Sri Lanka’s north.

A person travels down a road in a small sunlit valleyImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Dirt roads connect the workers’ housing to the tea plantations.

Tea bushes are grown on steep hillsides a metre apart.

Altitude affects the flavour of the tea, with higher altitudes producing a more delicately flavoured crop.

This is more highly valued than the robustly flavoured tea produced at lower elevations.

A tea plucker holds out her handsImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Veteran tea-pickers often have rough callouses on their hands.

The difficult physical nature of the work is causing a shortage of young tea-pickers.

Many daughters are choosing to work in garment factories, or abroad in domestic roles, rather than the fields of the plantations.

There can be four different levels of hierarchy on a small plantation, ranging from the owner down to tea-pickers.

Each layer supervises the level below it.

The sun sets over worker houses on a tea plantation near Kandy.Image copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some of the houses the workers live in were built by the British during a housing boom in the 1920s when about 20,000 rooms were built for tea-pickers.

The buildings have changed little since.

Families raise their children in a village setting in colourful barracks-style houses.

Many buildings only have electricity or running water for a few hours each day, or do not have them at all.

Many daily tasks such as washing or bathing are carried out in streams and rivers.

Families walk outside their houses next to a tea plantation.Image copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE
The side of a tea plantation houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman collects water in containers outside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Some areas of housing are supplied with water only once every three days which must be collected in containers.

Tea-pickers and other labourers start work at 7.30am.

In plantation communities, children often have to walk several kilometres to school.

Tea-picking earns relatively low wages, so some tea plantation families have family members who work abroad in the Middle East, or in other cities around Sri Lanka, who send money back home.

A tea plucker poses inside her houseImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE

Women who labour on the plantations also have household duties such as cooking, cleaning and taking care of children.

A shelf of food containersImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

The fresh tea leaves are taken to a factory near the plantation for processing, like the one seen below near the Sri Lankan city of Kandy.

A view of a tea plantation factoryImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

‘Withering’ is the first step, requiring the blowing of dry air to extract moisture from the leaf, which gives it a pliable texture.

A batch of 18kg of fresh leaves can yield 5kg of Ceylon tea after it has been processed in plantation factories.

A worker places tea leaves into a machineImage copyright    SCHMOO THEUNE

A rolling machine then twists the withered leaves and begins the fermentation process, which starts to develop the distinctive flavour.

The machinery used in the tea processing is often up to 100 years old.

Finished tea is separated by leaf size, and packaged in bulk bags to be sent for auction in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.

A machine processes tea leavesImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
A woman past a large pile of processed teaImage copyright   SCHMOO THEUNE
Workers work in a tea shop in KandyImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE

Ceylon tea is not just an export, it is an essential part of Sri Lankan daily life, consumed by office workers, labourers, students, and everyone in-between.

A tea plucker works on a plantationImage copyright  SCHMOO THEUNE  
BBC News 10 April 2018

How cured meats protect us from food poisoning

But in many parts of the world, this is not such an unusual sight. Walking down a quiet street in Asia, you’ll often happen on slightly macabre culinary set-pieces – long, thick slices of pork belly, draped over a clothes hanger, slabs of fish, or even, as I did once, a whole pig leg dangling next to a light post, hoof and all. As unnerving as it sometimes is to come across, these al-fresco meat dryers are doing something that’s been done for centuries, if not millennia: air-curing.

When we stress about forgetting the chicken breasts on the counter for an afternoon, how is it possible to leave meat — in the Sun, no less — for days, eat it, and live to tell the tale?

The key is moisture. Inside a length of pork, or that whole pig leg, there’s a race going on between bacteria and evaporation, with those hoping for a nice bit of ham for lunch egging the evaporation on.

Chinese pork sausages (Credit: Getty Images)

In China, pork sausages are also often dried in the air (Credit: Getty Images)

That process usually begins with salt. Coating a piece of meat with salt draws the water within the tissue out to the surface, where it evaporates, in much the same way that salting a slice of aubergine or courgette will get rid of its excess water. At the same time, the salt makes the surface of the meat and some portion of the interior inhospitable to microscopic bacterial beasts. That level of saltiness will strip them of their water as well, leaving only harmless microbe jerky.

With a large piece of meat, however, the evaporation race cannot draw out water fast enough to keep the interior safe. Injecting the salt, mixed with a tiny bit of water, deep into the muscle every inch or so, helps take care of that. This treatment often includes small amounts of sodium nitrite, a preservative that halts microbial growth at the same time that it clings to proteins in the muscle, in a chemical reaction that turns the meat a gentle pink. Water might encourage bacterial life, but in this case it also allows the cure, as the salt and nitrite mixture is known, to trickle further. That’s why, in many recipes for dry curing, the first stage is to leave the meat in a cool, moist environment, says Antonio Mata, a meat scientist and an adviser to the food website AmazingRibs.com.

If you draw out moisture too quickly, the surface of the ham dries out – Greg Blonder, Boston University

Once the cure has seeped into the meat, it’s time to turn the temperature up and play the evaporation game again – but gently. “If you draw out moisture too quickly, the surface of the ham dries out,” says Greg Blonder, a professor at Boston University and another scientist for the same site. Traditionally, the exact details of the process vary according the local climate – “Ham recipes depend on terroir,” Blonder notes – but someplace warm with carefully controlled humidity is key.

In China, as in many other places, home-cured meats ranging from preserved pork belly to wind-dried pork sausages are usually made in winter, when the climactic conditions allow meat to dry safely, and are considered a festive food. (Humans aren’t the only ones with a taste for cured meat, however; home curers should beware the cheese skipper, larder beetle, and red-legged ham beetle, warns a Virginia Tech pamphlet on curing ham. These whimsically named insects will lodge themselves and their growing families in a drying piece of meat.)

Dried ham (Credit: Getty Images)

Salting the outside of the meat draws out moisture, making it harder for bacteria to survive (Credit: Getty Images)

Even if you can dodge the cheese skippers, it can take months for a dry-cured ham to reach a tasty equilibrium. But many cultures around the world have proven themselves ready to wait. China’s famed Jinhua ham usually ages for at least six months; Italy’s culatellogoes for 14-48 months. The most expensive ham in the world, from Spain, ages for six years, according to the Guinness Book of World Records.

The longer a ham goes, the funkier it usually tastes, as the fat eventually begins to go rancid. But for some, it’s all part of the taste adventure.

These days, the evaporation process takes place in carefully controlled chambers and can be stretched out for a surprisingly long time

Desiccation is also important to making dry-aged beef, that mainstay of high-end restaurants, where letting a cut of beef gradually lose moisture and grow a protective rind of mould, which is sliced off before cooking, produces a stronger flavour. These days, the evaporation process takes place in carefully controlled chambers and can be stretched out for a surprisingly long time, given that in dry-aging there are no preservatives to keep the meat from going off. In fact, Mata once worked with a chef in Chicago to produce beef that had been aged for 71 days.

In the past, however, home cooks had a decidedly low-tech approach. “Let it hang in your cellar as long as you can bear for the stinking,” reads one recipe from 18th Century England, “and till it begins to be a little sappy.”

Try running that one by the neighbours.

By Veronique Greenwood 9 April 2018