Friday, December 12, 2008



THE LARGEST LAND-DWELLING ANIMAL IN ASIA, this elephant is an impressive and intelligent giant. It spends its time ambling through forests in small herds, searching for fresh pastures to satisfy its purely vegetarian diet. Not as large as its African cousins, and with smaller ears, the Asian or Indian elephant was once common throughout the continent. It is now confined to a few areas in South and Southeast Asia. This elephant has a long association with humans and has been used for logging and transport.

Under Threat
The Asian elephant is in danger of extinction in the wild. It inhabits the world's most densely populated regions where human numbers are rising. As forests have been cleared for farming, so elephant have lost their habitat and traditional migration routes. They have begun raiding crops, leading to conflicts with farmers and, in turn, to political pressure to eliminate them near populated areas. Elephants are also illegally poached for ivory and meat. There are numerous conversation projects throughtout Asia, monitoring elephant populations, illegal trade, and also trying to minimize conflict between them and the local people. In Thailand, where logging has been banned, numerous domesticated elephants with their mashouts (keepers) have taken to begging on the streets; many starve.

Caring Community
Asian elephants live in herds of between three and 40 females and their young; older males are solitary, while younger ones join bachelor groups. An elderly female, or matriarch, is responsible for the safety of the herd and, each day, leads it to fresh pastures and water. Elephants don't appear to have sweat glands, so must bathe, roll in mud or blow dust over themselves to cool down. Communication is by touch, sight, scent and sound; elephants make a wide variety of noises, ranging from squeaks to loud, trumpeting calls. They greet each other by entwining their trunks and sniffing, and will reassure a frightened elephant by stroking it. Excellent swimmers, they sometimes swim or walk underwater using their trunks as snorkels.

Big Babies
A newborn is hairy with a short trunk and staggers to its feet within half-an-hour. Letting its trunk flop backwards on to its head, it uses its mouth to suckle from nipples between its mother's front legs. Young elephants grow fast and are very curious. As they gain confidence, they paly with other youngsters in the herd. Females in a herd often give birth at around the same time and care for the young together. While the calves are small, the herd travels slowly, the young holding on to their mother's tail with their trunk. Although infants nurse for 18 months, they start to eat grass once they are a few month old. They also eat their mother's dung which contains nutrients, as well as bacteria that aid cellulose digestion.

Marathon Munchers
Using its long trunk and small tusks, the Asian elephant can reach into trees and dig into the ground for food. It spends most of its day foraging and eating. Its favourite food is grass, which it pulls up with its trunk. It also browses on trees and bushes, tearing off leaves, twigs and even whole branches and using its tusks to strip bark. Elephants are unable to easily digest cellulose, so over half the food they consume is passed straight through their body. They drink at least once a day, noisily sucking up the water with their trunks, then pouring it into their mouths.

Status : Endangered
Social Unit : Group
Length : Up t0 3.5 m (11 ft)
Tail : 1 - 1.5 m ( 3 1/4 - 5 ft)
Weight : 2 - 5 tonnes (2 - 4 7/8 tons)
Sexual Maturity : About 15 years
Breeding Season : Any time
Gestation Period : 22 months
Number Of Young : 1
Breeding Interval : Up to 5 years
Diet : Grasses, tree bark, roots, leaves, bananas, rice and sugar-cane
Lifespan : Up to 70 years

Wednesday, November 26, 2008



THE POLAR BEAR is the world's largest land predator. Its thick, waterproof fur coat and layer of blubber keeps it warm and enables it to swim for hours in freezing Arctic seas. So effective is the polar bear's insulation, in fact, that adult males quickly overheat when running. Polar bears spend most of the year floating on massive ice floes, covering daily distances of up to 40 km (25 miles) in a constant quest for food. In a lifetime, they may cover an area equal to 260,000 sq km (100,000 sg miles).

Long-distance Swimmers
Polar bears are champion swimmers and can paddle more than 100 km (60 miles) without a rest. To wring water out of their fur, they drag themselves across the ice. They keep clean as matted, dirty fur is a poor insulator. On bitterly cold days, polar bears dig a shelter and curl up tightly, sometimes covering their muzzle, which radiates heat, with a paw. Bears displaying submissive behaviour are often allowed to share a kill. To beg food from another bear, a polar bear approaches slowly, circles and offers a tentative nose-to-nose greeting.

New Age Threats
An agreement to restrict hunting and protect polar bear habitats was signed by Canada, the USA, Denmark, Norway and the former USSR in 1973. The population stabilized at 25,000 but remains vulnerable to global warming. This causes ice to melt earlier in summer and freeze later in winter, giving bears less time to hunt seals. Pollution from mineral exploitation is another concern. Pollutants may be responsible for some female polar bears growing male sex organs.

Waiting Game
Mating occurs during the spring but through a remarkable process called 'delayed implantation', embryo development goes on hold until late autumn. Then, provided the female has enough fat reserves, she digs a maternity den in which to hibernate and give birth. If she does not have adequate reserves, the embryo is re-absorbed. Cubs, which are roughly hamster-sized when born, are fed by their mother for at least two years.

Patience Pays
With their acute of smell and excellent underwater vision, polar bears hunt among shoreline ice floes. They often wait for hours by a seal's breathing hole, then as it surfaces, they pounce and kill it with a single bite to the head or a blow from their massive, heavy paws. Polar bears depend on the presence of ice for access to seals. In summer when floes retreat north, they travel hundreds of kilometres for food.

Status : Lower risk
Social Unit : Individual
Length : 2.1 - 3.4 m (7 - 11 ft)
Weight : Male, 400 - 680 kg (880 - 1,500 lb); female weight 50% less
Migration : May migrate south in winter; returns in summer when the ice breaks up
Sexual Maturity : Female, 4 - 5 years; male, 8 years
Mating season : Spring
Gestation Period : 8 - 9 months
Number Of Young : 1 - 4; commonly 2
Breeding Interval : 3 years
Diet : Mainly seals, but also seabirds, fish, small mammals and bird's eggs
Lifespan : 20 - 25 years

Sunday, November 23, 2008



SLEEK AND POWERFUL, the great white shark cruises effortlessly through the seas in search of prey. The largest flesh-eating shark, it eats mainly seals and sea lions, and spends most of its time in coastal areas and around reefs where prey is plentiful. Armed with ferocious teeth, it attacks with deadly speed, yet despite its reputation, it rarely attacks humans. The great white shark roams temperate and tropical seas and oceans around the world and has no enemy other than man.

Solo Patrol
The great white shark usually patrols the water alone, swimming slowly just above the sea floor or close to the surface. Some sharks seem to return to the same feeding grounds annually and show signs of aggressive behaviour around other sharks, as if defending their territory. It is noe believed that some of their swimming behaviour is aimed at guarding their personal space, such as the cautiously-timed 'turn-aways' between two sharks converging on the same point and when two sharks 'parallel-swim' keeping a set distance between them.

Deadly Accuracy
The great white is capable of short bursts of great speed and can jump 2 m (7 1/2 ft) out of the water in pursuit of prey. It often does a test charge on unfamiliar prey, bashing it with its snout to assess it. When it senses movement or blood, the great white changes direction and swims upwards, homing rapidly in on its prey. Just before impact, its eyes roll back in their sockets and its jaws open wide. Striking at top speed, it tears off a chunk of flesh that it swallows whole. If the prey is large, the shark turns away and waits for it to die before returning to finish it off.

Big Baby
Male great white sharks have two claspers below their tail that they use to inject sperm into a female. In the uterus, the young shark feed on unfertilized eggs and other embryos, and they even swallow their own sets of teeth after they have been shed. When they are born, they are already about 1.5 m (nearly 5 ft) long and can swim straight away. The mother usually gives birth in shallow waters where the young will be relatively safe from other sharks but otherwise she does nothing more for them.

Slaughtered for Soup
The great white shark is now very rare, yet many are still slaughtered every year. It is killed primarily to make shark fin soup, but in some countries it is caught for sport and is often accidentally trapped in gillnets. Increasingly polluted seas are also a threat to the great white shark, worldwide. It is now a protected species in south Africa, California, the Eastern USA and Australia.

Status : Vulnerable
Length : Up to 6.4 m (21 ft)
Weight : 2 tonnes (4,409 lb)
Sexual Maturity : Females, 12 - 15 years; Males, 9 - 10 years
Breeding Season : Spring to late summer
Gestation Period : Estimated at 1 year
Number Of Young : 7 - 10
Diet : Seals, sea lions, large fish, dolphins
Lifespan : Estimated at 30 - 40 years

Wednesday, November 19, 2008



DRESSED IN A SUIT OF BONY PLATES and looking like an armoured tank, the Nile crocodile could be a creature from prehistoric times. With a long tail used to propel it at speed through the water and large jaws, lined with 60 or so pointed teeth, this reptile is a lethal hunting machine. Despite its name, the nile crocodile is found in most of Africa. Living in lakes, rivers and swamps - and sometimes along beaches and even 10 km out to sea - these crocodiles seldom venture far from water. Only if their pool dries up will they trek overland in search of a new aquatic home.

Crafty Predator
Crocodiles are meat-eaters, taking fish, turtles, and any mammal including zebra, young hippos, big cats, and even people. Hatchlings eat small prey like frogs and insects. Adult use a range of hunting techniques, from rushing at prey to herding schools of fish into bays with their tails. They also lie in wait near the shore, with only their eyes above water, waiting for animals to come to drink. The unwary fall victim to a sudden lunge in which the crocodile seizes the prey's head between its huge jaws, or fells it with a whip-like blow of the tail. To feed, it rolls over in the water with its prey until a piece of the animal's fleshis torn off. Amazingly, the Nile crocodile can go without food for up to a year.

Prized for its Skin
The Nile crocodile exists in healthy numbers in most of its range, but is very rare in Egypt and under pressure in West Africa. In South Africa an introduced invasive plant known as the 'trifid weed' ( Chromolaena odorata ) is causing crocodiles to abandon nesting sites. More general threats include river pollution and poachers who kill the crocodile for its skin, which is used for fine leather. Crocodiles are also hunted where they are perceived as a threat to people and farm animals, despite the fact that they have legal protection in some African countries.

Crocodile Creche
For such a fierce-looking creature, the female crocodile is a remarkably caring mother. After mating, she digs a nest in a sandy bank and lays an average of 50 eggs, which are incubated by rotting vegetation in the nest. She stays nearby to deter predators. When the eggs hatch, the babies call for their mother, making chirping noises loud enough to be heard through the sand covering the nest. The female digs them out and carries them in her mouth to nearby water. Hatchlings stay in a 'creche' with the juveniles of the previous season, protected by the female. The young do not leave the family group until they are about two years old.

Group Living
Mature adults live in groups that range from 20 or 30 to several hundred. There is a strict hierarchy. Larger dominant males drive smaller males away from potential mates, but there is surprisingly little fighting. Crocodiles bask on the banks in the morning, with their mouths open to let excess heat escape. They allow small birds, such as the spur-winged plover, to pick trapped meat from between their teeth. By noon, crocodiles return to the water to hunt. They often swallow stones as ballast, so they will float lower down in the water and be less obvious to animals on the banks.

Status : Common
Length : 3.5 - 6 m (11 20 ft)
Weight : Up to 900 kg (1,980 lb)
Habit : Mostly aquatic
Sexual Maturity : 8 - 12 years
Incubation Period : 80 - 90 days average
Number Of Eggs : 50 average; up to 100 recorded
Diet : Fish and turtles, mammals from small monkeys and antelope to young big cats and humans
Lifespan : 70 - 100 years

Tuesday, November 18, 2008



STREAMLINED AND SLENDER, cheetahs are superb sprinters. Using a brief burst of phenomenal speed, they can outrun any other land animal. The cheetah does not look or move like any other big cat. Its exceptionally elongated body and legs enable it to run with the agility of a greyhound. The cheetah is dog-like in other ways, with its blunt, non-retractable claws and barking calls. Most cheetahs are found in the extensive grasslands and semi-desert regions of Africa. A handful cling to survival in Asia.

Daytime Hunter
The cheetah preys on hares, gamebirds, gazelles and antelopes. It hunts by day, either alone or in family groups. The cheetah stalks its prey to within a short distance, using incredible acceleration for a final sprint lasting 20-30 seconds and possibly exceeding 110 km/h (68mph). As it closes in, the cheetah slashes swiftly with the hook-like dewclaw on its front paw, catching the prey by a leg and bringing it down. It kills by suffocation, locking its jaws on the victim's throat. Despite its hunting skills, the cheetah often loses its meal. As it pauses to recover from the chase, scavengers such as hyenas, or even a lion, move in. The cheetah, no match for such competitors, does not defend its kill.

Vulnerable Cubs
Cheetahs breed all year round, the females first mating when they are about two years old. Pregnancy lasts 90-95 days and litters of up to six tiny, blind cubs are born. The young are highly vulnerable to predators. Their long, grey, babyhood fur is believed to provide camouflage among grasses and to mimic the colouring of the fierce honey badger, or ratel, as a deterrent to would-be hunters. Despite this, many cheetah cubs are snatched by other big cats or hyenas. The cubs stay with their mother for about 18 months, learning to hunt. When the female finally leaves them, to breed again, the whole litter normally stays together for several more months.

Solitary Sisters, Brotherly Bonds
The social organization of cheetahs is unusual. Females without cubs tend to live alone. The males, however, often form lifelong bonds with litter-brothers. Single animals of either sex are usually unaggressive nomads, ranging over areas of up t0 1,500 sq km (580 sq miles). All-male groups ('coalitions') keep to much smaller ranges and can be very territorial. Cheetahs do not growl or roar but make bird-like chirruping noises. Like domestic cats, they will spit or hiss in anger and purr when contented. They also use a high-pitched, far-carrying yelp or bark.

Saving the Cheetah
Cheetah numbers are declining because of habitat loss, scarcity of prey, and a weakening of the species through inbreeding. In Asia, fewer than 60 cheetahs survive; throughout Africa there are only about 12,000. Cheetahs are protected in Namibia but most live on farmland so face being captured or shot to prevent them killing livestock. From the early 1990s, the Cheetah Conservation Fund has been working for the long-term conservation of the African cheetah and its habitat. In 2001, programmes began in Iran to save the Asiatic cheetah from extinction.

Status : Vulnerable
Social Unit : Individual / pair
Length : 1.1 - 1.5 m (3 1/2 - 5 ft)
Tail : 60 - 80 cm (23 1/2 - 32 in)
Shoulder Height : 71 - 80 cm (28 - 31 in)
Sexual Maturity : 20 - 24 months
Breeding Season : All year round
Gestation Period : 90 - 95 days
Number Of Young : 1 - 8; usually 2 - 4
Breeding Interval : 16 - 18 months
Diet : Small antelopes, gazelles, hares, gamebirds
Lifespan : 12 - 14 years

Monday, November 17, 2008



WITH LARGE, SOULFUL EYES, an expressive face and a hairy, reddish-brown body similar in size to that of an average man, the orang-utan is unnervingly human. The largest animal in the world to spend its entire life in trees, the orang-utan gets its name from the Malaysian word for 'man of the forest'. These apes are extremely intelligent and, up to the age of two, orang-utan babies actually develop in understanding at the same rate as human babies. Sadly, these remarkable animals, which are among our closest relatives, are also most endangered of all the great apes.

Passion for Fruit
Orang-utans feed mostly on fruit and leaves, using their hands and teeth to strip plants and peel fruits to expose the flesh inside. They also eat honey and supplement their diet with small animals such as lizards, termites and nestling birds and eggs. As the fruit on different trees ripens at different times, the orang-utan's intelligence and memory are vital. Armed with this knowledge, the orang utan can then plan the best route to arrive at each tree at just the right time. It drinks by lapping water, using its cupped hands.

The Vanishing Forest
The orang-utan is the most endangered of the great apes. There are about 15,000 of the Bornean orang-utans left and only 3,000 of the Sumatran species. Loss of habitat presents the main threat to their survival - forest fires, logging and forest clearance for both palm oil plantations and gold mining continue to erode the forest at a frightening rate. The apes' survival is also threatened by its slow reproductive rate - females give birth once every four to eight years. Orang-utans are now protected by law, but infants are still captured (the mother is killed) and sold illegally as pets, especially in Taiwan.

Solitary Tree Dweller
The orang-utan spends most of its life in trees, swinging from branch to branch. It even sleeps in the trees in a nest of branches and leaves, with a thick roof of big leaves if it is raining. It is mostly solitary because each individual needs such a wide range to forage for food. Orang-utans use sticks to scratch themselves, dig out termites, prise open fruit cases, or hit snakes. Chewed-up leaves act as a sponge to soak up water, and large leaves serve as umbrellas. Orang-utans communicate by lip-smacking and scream when scared. When frustrated, they seem to grind their teeth. Adult male orang-utans use their throat pouch to make a call that echoes through the forest. This 'long call' advertises their presence to females and rival males.

Treetop birth
Orang-utans mate hanging by their arms in the trees. After eight or nine months, the female gives birth, usually to a single baby, but occasionally to twins, high up in her treetop nest. The infant clings to its mother's belly fur as she travels through the trees until it is one year old. It then travels through the trees until it is one year old. It then travels on her back until it is two. Babies are nursed at their mother's breast, and, while, at four months, the baby can take soft food from its mother's lip, it is not fully weaned until well over three years old. Mother and baby will remain together for at least eight years. Daughters may stay with the mother into adolescence to learn parenting skills.

Status : Endangered
Social Unit : Individual
Height : 1.1 - 1.4 m (3 1/2 - 4 1/2 ft)
Weight : 40 - 80 kg (88 - 175 lb)
Sexual Maturity : 6 - 8 years; females have a monthly cycle like humans
Gestation Period : 233 - 63 days
Number Of Young : 1
Diet : fruit such as durian and figs, plus honey, young leaves, insects, reptiles, termites, nestling birds, eggs
Lifespan : Up to 50 years