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Diary of a Marathon Ape Man

One of the world's leading great ape conservation experts Ian Redmond will be running in the Flora London Marathon on Sunday April 18th 2004 in aid of the Ape Alliance and Born Free Ape Projects - from Gentil and other chimp orphans at Lwiro Sanctuary in Congo, to the UN Great Apes Survival Project.

Born Free will be monitoring his progress as he juggles his vital conservation work with preparation for the great race and Caribzones is proud to be associated with this worthy cause.

29th February 2004

- A Yen for Nature

Well, it looked green on the map. After the delights of splashing along a tropical beach during last Wednesday's training, I k that today was going to be, well, different. When I arrived in Tokyo last night, I thought I'd do today's run around one of the big, apparently green patches on the free map I picked up at the airport. My first choice was to run around the Imperial Palace right in the centre of the city, and be conveniently located for tomorrow's government meetings, but when I saw the prices of the hotels there, I changed my mind and settled for the Hotel Park Side, Ueno (half the price and only a few stops away on the tube).

The glass doors slid noiselessly apart at my approach, and I jogged out of the warm foyer into the cool, spring air. Having exhausted myself dragging my suitcase (30kg of GRASP leaflets and CBD documents, and now distinctly rhomboidal in shape with collapsed wheels), camera-bag and briefcase from airport to station to hotel last night, I didn't set an alarm for this morning and so there were already a few Sunday morning strollers and dog-walkers in the park. What contrasted this park from every other city park I have seen, however, was the total absence of grass. There were trees and shrubs (none in leaf yet), and statues and shrines, but most of the area of the park was tarmac or paving stones.

Ueno Park Tokyo Apart, that is, from Shinobazu Pond - a large stretch of open water with reeds and withies in the centre providing shelter for waterfowl. I thought I'd start by running around the pond, and enjoyed passing the odd flotilla of tufties (tufted ducks) propelling themselves towards anyone who looked like a duck-feeder.

The path was blocked by road-works towards the north end, and I ended up jogging through narrow little streets with no pavement, other than a broad white line, and doors that seemed to put people's living rooms right next to the road. Urban humans seem to like to congregate in dense clusters, but still need some contact with nature. By the time I found my way back to the park, there were more urbanites communing with nature by feeding the ducks; the tufties had now been joined by equal numbers of pochard, with their smart chestnut heads, and smaller numbers of pintails - the males looking really swish in their breeding plumage. An elderly gentleman was emptying a bag of crumbs, leaning on the fence beside the pond, causing splashy mayhem below. A female pintail on the bank decided she'd have more luck in the pond and flapped down, scoring a direct hit on a tufty, who disappeared from view, then bobbed back up like a toy duck in the bath, with silvery pearls of water rolling off him like, well, like water off a duck's back. I'd stopped to watch this, but also to stretch.

Stretching is something I have been neglecting to take seriously, it seems. Yesterday I had the good fortune to sit next to a fitness oracle on the flight from Kota Kinabalu to Kuala Lumpur. Brian Hunter is the General Manager of One (, a multi-million pound fitness and health complex in Edinburgh. He had been invited to address a spa conference in KK, and we were both watching Mount Kinabalu disappear from view wondering when next we would be back. After a typically British hesitant start, we chatted all the way to KL about our respective conferences and interests. When he heard of my rather hit and miss marathon training, his eyes rolled upwards (especially when I mentioned the daft skyscraper jogging episode, the 8 mile run barefoot on the beach, and the subsequent hobbling gait I'm forced to adopt when walking…). Brian wished he could let one of his umpteen fitness trainers loose on me, but I can't think of a good excuse to go up to Edinburgh, so I hung on his every word and got the message about stretching (thanks Brian). Of course, stretching at the moment causes, well, let's call it serious discomfort, as my abused calf muscles try to repair themselves.

A flight of broad, stone steps beckoned across the road from the pond, and I found myself jogging through the Gojotenjin Shrine and past the entrance to Ueno Zoo. To the left of the gates, garish roundabouts with Disney-style Seven Dwarves and Thomas the Tank Engine rides contrasted with a group of elderly musicians to the right, playing traditional Japanese music to a small but appreciative gathering. As I passed, I joined in their applause as the string and flute combo ended a piece, then jogged on through an exercise area with rings and high bars of different heights (but frustratingly, all too low for me to hang from). After a few minutes, I was drawn to a huge black steam locomotive, incongruously parked outside an imposing building - I've always had a thing about steam engines since junior school in Beverley, when, on a good day, I'd cross the footbridge over the railway line just as a steam engine passed underneath, enveloping me and my friends in warm white clouds full of excited laughter.

The imposing building turned out to be the National Science Museum, and an even more incongruous sight on the far corner was a life-size statue of a blue whale, angled with head down at about 45 degrees. I wished I had someone with me who could translate the sign, and wondered whether it informed museum visitors of how mechanised whaling ships drove the largest species of animal ever to have existed on earth to near extinction. Japanese whaling ships are still side-stepping the moratorium on commercial whaling by 'scientific whaling' (the products of which still end up in the shops), and lobbying for a resumption of commercial whaling, though now they focus on smaller species that their predecessors would have ignored. That is the problem with Homo sapiens - we are generalist hunters, and just work our way down the size-scale as the larger animals disappear, until the apes and elephants are gone from the forest and the whales and dolphins from the seas. But the human population keeps growing because we just switch to rodents and antelopes in the forest and squid and sharks in the sea. We seem intent on converting the enormous diversity of life on earth into human biomass, fed by a few species of cereals and domestic livestock. The drawback is, all the indications suggest that such a simplified biosphere will not work - hence the need for serious policy changes to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halting biodiversity loss by 2010.

Plum-blossom time in Tokyo gives people a yen for natureThere wasn't too much biodiversity living naturally in Ueno Park, but a gaggle of starling-like LBJs (Little Brown Jobs to non-birders), working the pink blossoms in the plum trees, left me wishing my old University friend Mark Brazil was here. Mark is an ornithologist who has lived in Japan for years and has written a field guide to the birds of Japan. He has often talked of the paradox of Japanese attitudes to nature - there is a deep spiritual reverence for nature, and a love of the beauty and form of plants and animals, and yet Japanese exploitation of certain species seems ruthless. The example of the dancing cranes sticks in my mind - the birds are celebrated in Japanese art and poetry, and protected by law, but their habitat has shrunk alarmingly in the modern development of post-war Japan. But cranes cannot be nurtured and shaped as individuals like a bonsai tree, they need vast expanses of wetland and freedom to migrate without being trapped or captured for sale, to be admired in captivity.

This line of thought, as I passed the zoo gates again, took my thoughts to the events of last Friday; Born Free had asked me to look into the case of a dozen elephants that had been captured (see this article), and since discussing it briefly with the Minister on Tuesday, I'd been unable to reach the Director of Wildlife. He was not always in his office owing to health problems, and hadn't returned to the BBEC conference, but I really needed his permission to visit the site where the eles were being kept. His second in command was on leave and No.3 was helpful, but unable to give me authorisation. I had to choose whether to wait in the Director's office in the hope he arrived, or go without his permission and hope he would understand… by 10.00am I decided to head for the eles, 2.5 hours drive away. My taxi driver had a relation in a nearby town who gave good directions - we had to look for Sunny Tan's Ostrich Farm!

Elephant training area Sabah Sure enough, there was a sign off the main road saying Elephant Training. A couple of miles along a winding lane, we came to an open gate and drove slowly in expecting to meet someone. No-one came; we waited a few minutes and had a bite of lunch, but still no-one emerged to ask permission from, so we slowly drove on between pens of adult ostriches.

Eventually, we found the elephants and I took a quick look - not bad condition, and although chained fore and aft, the chains were several metres long and gave a radius of movement that included access to a loop of river, sand, mud and some food. Nearby, an open-sided barn with shackles in the floor suggested they were sometimes kept on shorter chains (and this was confirmed to me by another observer) but they could not access the shade it offered now, in the heat of the day. There were piles of banana leaves and palm fronds awaiting their next feed, and bits of kit lying around. The prospect of someone arriving and taking umbridge at my presence kept me from too close an examination, but the animals seemed calm and bore no obvious injuries.

Captivity or a life in the wild 
        in Sabah?Only one, a feisty young tusker, took exception to my being there, but I found it hard to take an elephant seriously - even when he was running at me - when he sported a shaggy beatles haircut.

This was my first encounter with the ly recognised Bornean subspecies of Asian elephant, and I was interested to note that most of them were eles with a fringe on top. I could see why they'd be appealing in a zoo or circus - there's always someone ready to make money out of that human need to relate to wild animals - but our hope is that the government will identify a suitable location for rehabilitation, well away from potential crop-raiding areas. Born Free stands ready to help, but in the meantime we would suggest that training be halted and that an enclosure be provided that enables them to mingle freely as and when they wish. Now, although their care is adequate in some respects, they do not have access to shade at all times, and are only able to have limited tactile contact with their immediate neighbour.

Stretching to reach tussock of grass As we left the scene, we stopped to chat to a young friendly worker who told us there were more than 400 ostriches on the farm, and from the mating display of a red-necked male in the nearest pen, they would soon have more. As I handed my visiting card and we began to head out, two trucks suddenly pulled up packed with grim-faced men who demanded to know what we were doing there. The heated exchanges were in rapid-fire Malay, but as we drove off my driver explained that he had told them he'd brought me from the Wildlife Dept office, which seemed to placate them. I asked him to drive me straight back to the Wildlife office, hoping to pre-empt any trouble, but it was 4.15pm when we got there and although the director had been in, he had left again. At least I had left my card, and the director had been told of my visit so he wouldn't be taken by surprise when word reached him.

After about an hour of jogging on Ueno Park paving stones, my left calf in particular was giving me gip, so I heeded the advice of the experts at the Flora Training Day (don't push it if you are in real pain - it will just make it worse!) and limped back to the hotel for a hot bath. Of course, cultural differences emerged in that department too, in that the whole bathroom, moulded out of a single piece of fibreglass, included a bath that you could either lie in with your legs in the air or sit in with your knees up and not much getting wet! At least it gave me an opportunity to delve into the latest additions to my library, acquired from the excellent natural history bookshop I'd visited in KK (

The afternoon was both a pleasure and a pain; a colleague at UNEP had put me in touch with a Tokyo friend, Makiko Kato, who had kindly agreed to show the 'gaijing' stranger around. We paid a visit to the nearby Yushimatenjin Shrine, where a wedding ceremony was in progress inside and a tea ceremony outside. Hundreds of prayers (for good luck in exams mainly) were being written on tablets of wood with a snow monkey painted on the reverse (it is the Year of the Monkey, remember) and hung up on racks beneath the plum blossom trees. Proceeding to Ueno Zoo at a brisk limp, I thought I'd do a bit of zoo checking while in the vicinity. Zoos are pretty depressing places at the best of times for anyone with an eye for animal behaviour, and Ueno has a mix of old, terrible enclosures and state of the art ones. The stereotypic pacing of the bears in particular brought tears to my eyes, especially as the educational graphics showed photos of bears in Churchill, Canada, where I had helped Born Free set up their project with Manitoba Conservation to give orphan cubs a second chance of life in the wild with a surrogate mother and prevent them suffering a fate like this.

Skirting a , but worryingly small, lion enclosure, I approached the gorilla exhibit with trepidation, but it turned out to be one of the exhibits, with environmental enrichment and more space than most such developments I have seen elsewhere. Not that I agree with keeping apes in captivity, you understand, but as long as they are there, they deserve the best care money can buy. It was only later, however, that I learned just how much money had bought the gorilla complex. Two billion yen! That is approximately US$20 million. That is not far short of the $25 million that GRASP told the world it needs for top priority projects to save thousands of gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos and orangutans in the wild (with all the other species in their habitat saved as a bonus, and poverty alleviation in local communities into the bargain).

Female gorilla in Ueno Zoo TokyoAnd yet umpteen zoos in major cities around the world - responding to their citizen's yen to commune with wildlife - have spent this sort of sum on fancy enclosures for a handful of animals that are unlikely ever to contribute to conservation of their species in their natural habitat. Where are we looking to decide on our priorities for conservation spending? But then again, what can $20 or $25 million really buy? A luxury yacht for one of the 500 or so billionaires on the Forbes Magazine list? Six months' running costs for an average hospital in the UK? A few hours of bombardment with cruise missiles? Or a kick-start to the UN initiative to save our closest relatives from extinction?

It is three months since the media carried the GRASP $25 million appeal to more newspapers, radio and tv broadcasts worldwide than any previous UNEP press release, and yet we are still waiting. So until governments or the mega-rich are moved to act, its up to us as concerned individuals to do what we can - which is why I'd better make sure I stagger the whole 26.2 miles on April 18th! And, I hope, you'll want to click on the sponsorship link below…

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Born Free is increasingly receiving donations from supporters who have run in other national races including the Great North Run, the Great South Run and the Flora Light Marathon for Women - all raising money for wildlife projects.

If you are taking part in any of these events or others no matter how big or small contact if you would like to raise funds for Born Free.


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