Saturday, 23 February 2013

Rhino on the Menu

There’s been a recent posting doing the rounds on face book that suggests that dried rhino poacher testicles are efficacious in the prevention of HIV AIDS. This I find very funny as I am sure many other readers do, and heaven forefend that I should pour cold water on the sharpness of that particular wit. Quite the opposite, such acerbic and cynical humour deserves to be encouraged because it demonstrates the sheer absurdity of the situation.

I am not a save the rhino activist, not because I have no interest but because I am not sure what the real value of this collective concern is. I have a hollow feeling that there is a fundamental fallacy in this world-wide breast-beating and that it is actually a reduction to fanciful and shallow declarations of rhino love that are doomed to failure. And before you fling this argument out with the bath water please consider some unassailable facts.

Here’s a quote from a concerned organisation – “At the beginning of the 20th century there were 500,000 rhinos across Africa and Asia; in 1970 there were 70,000;  . . . . . 95% of all the rhinos in the world have now been killed.” You can read the rest of the sorry facts at

The same article has a graph that chillingly demonstrates the rise in rhino killings over the immediate past few years, and needs no comment;


Killings mind you. The recent decimation of the rhino population has nothing to do with habitat loss; it is exclusively due to the direct and violent actions of man.

So here’s the deal, the very real deal. Yet again here is a test of our self appointed but evidentially shaky stewardship of the environment, and for once this test is a very simple one.

Here is a very visible mammal, one of the biggest and heaviest mammals still walking on this planet. This unique chap (and I use the word chap in a non-gender sense), this chap is on the verge of extinction exclusively because of the direct actions of members of our own species. This animal is being driven to extinction because its horn is supposed to increase the human sex drive.

The Rhino is on the menu. Not as burger meat, Diceros tartar, grilled, stewed or casseroled. (although I do wonder if had it been on restaurant menus the efforts towards its preservation might have been different) No, Rhinos are on a far more important menu. This is the menu that we have been unwittingly formulating for centuries. Previous delicacies have included the Dodo, the Carrier Pigeon, the Great Auk, the Quagga, and Stellers Sea Cow. Aside from the Rhino, current menu specials include the Leatherback Turtle, the Northern Right Whale, the Amur Leopard, the Chinese Giant Salamander (this last is incidentally being eaten to extinction). These are just some of the visible ones, there are many, many more less visible starters, main courses and sweets.

However unlike other menu items this one is different.

This has to be the subject of one of the most visible and obvious and controllable of all the traumas that we have visited upon our environment. We are better equipped to deal with this than any other that I can think of. It is contained. The threats are very visible and the locations of all remaining Rhinos are known. The sources of demand for the rhino-horn are known. The reasons for the crime are known. And above all it is recognised the world over as a crime! There is no debate, it is a crime. There is no demurring UN resolution. Even the killing of whales is subject to debate, but Rhino poaching is not. There is not one country that is insisting that rhino slaughter is necessary for the advancement of science. The more I write about this the more irrational I get! What am I missing?

We are living in a world where remotely controlled unmanned drones can kill entire families attending wedding ceremonies in Pakistan. Satellite technology is so intrusive that your most private and intimate moments al fresco in the bush or the countryside are visible to a peeping tom thousands of kilometres away in Langley Va, USA. Heat source recognition can identify warm blooded creatures over long distances, and DNA testing and mapping is at its most sophisticated. Yet – with all this technology that can be brought to bear (and doubtless much more that I know nothing about), we – the collective we that is – are allowing criminals to slaughter in unprecedented quantities very large, visible and ponderous beasts. A level of slaughter that will lead to their certain extinction in a matter of a very few years.

The fact of the matter is that collectively we have it entirely within our power to stop the extinction of the rhino. And we should be taking this very seriously for two fundamental reasons. Firstly we known that unless we take action against ourselves the Rhino will die out; this is self evident and the world can be, and has been alerted to this fact. Secondly the rational world has the wherewithal to prevent the criminal activity that is going to be responsible for this act. If humanity does not take positive action we have betrayed our sentience, our hard won cognitive abilities and our cultural and spiritual heritage – our “humanity”; and we have negated to an astonishing degree our new found world-wide abilities of communication and collective governance. These will have been lost at the altar of greed and collective indifference.

The prevention of this scourge does not lie with those who manufacture clever aphorisms on face-book and other social media and buy car ornaments and windscreen stickers. 

I’m afraid these well intentioned efforts go nowhere, and indeed have gone nowhere.
What are you going to be able to say in 2020 when after any number of bumper stickers, faux rhino-horn grille badges and countless poignant face-book postings the last rhino has been slaughtered for a one hundredth of its body weight? Oh and by the way that was the last one, there are no more. All used up. . . . . "Well - I did my bit!" 

But did you? What you did was to express your solidarity with – what? A noble movement? You felt sympathy for a one ton mammal condemned because it had a fibrous growth that some silly sod some years ago deemed – deemed mind you – without any shred of analytical evidence (for which we sentient and inquisitive minds pride ourselves) to be somehow efficacious for the human metabolism. But you were never in a position to do anything about this.

You were never in a position to do anything about this because the real and practical responsibility lies with those who are responsible for the conduct of laws that are supposed to prevent the activities of criminals who are feeding the bizarre appetites of ignorant people who form a miniscule proportion of global society.

As face-book readers the world over chuckle over jokes about poachers testicles, there is a chap in Vietnam grinding up rhino horn to sell to some idiot who has been persuaded that his fading libido can be saved by imbibing powdered fibre. At the same time there are a bunch of guys in Mozambique gearing up to slaughter the 98th rhino (sorry this has just risen to 102nd during the period it’s taken me to write this piece) this year in the Kruger Park to supply the fellow in Vietnam. . . . and in between there are a bunch of felons who are profiting hugely from this activity.

So forgive me if I do not buy a dodgy looking plastic rhino-horn for the grille of my car or subscribe to yet another frankly directionless petition. I will keep the free “Save the Rhino” sticker (why not sell them to raise some cash for lobbying?) because it would be small minded to chuck it away – and god knows there is enough small minded behaviour involved here already.

No what I am going to do – is all I can do  – and that is write to my Minister for Environmental Affairs and request in the strongest possible terms that he sponsor or at least support a UN resolution that will insist that
a)                  South Africa, and any other country that has stewardship and responsibility for a rhino population take all necessary and draconian measures to protect their charges, and
b)                  that all countries that are known to be recipients of Rhino body parts be charged with pursuing miscreants with the utmost rigour and meting out the maximum possible sentences for those dealing with or consuming in any form those body parts, and that,
c)                  these countries and any other intermediary countries be responsible for continued and monitored dialogue between themselves in order to achieve the forgoing.

I suggest you do too, and quickly, because there is precious little time left and our citizen’s efforts have hitherto been utterly ineffectual. And if your own country demurs, obfuscates or places silly obstacles in the way of your demands then mass action might be a good response, because this is serious.

Oh, and don’t forget that simple economic price theory dictates that as the supply of Rhinos decreases the rewards for horns will increase. This game is going to get exponentially a whole lot dirtier.

A Rhino in the Mitchell garden, in a
very safe environment but also with little
hope of survival.
A Kruger Park Rhino in a very dangerous
environment with little hope of survival.   

Monday, 4 February 2013

Eating in Fogang Part 2

So there I sit in a jetlag fug supping Chinese tea and snacking on hardboiled quails eggs and slightly soggy steamed unshelled ground nuts (at least they are familiar) and half watching dreadful Chinese soaps on the telly. There is something dreamlike about being in an entirely foreign country and experiencing new sounds, smells and sights. After a very busy and taxing morning my mind and body are rapidly slowing into a state of alert relaxation. I am aware of a restaurant lackey entering the room. He is carrying a muslin sack and from his crouched gait and bowing stance is clearly here to elicit approval for its contents from the diners.

“ . . . between me and the bloody snake is nothing 
but a muslin bag and a digital camera.” 
The main item on the menu is confirmed.
I am not qualified to pass comment on the edibility of a substantial and clearly upset black skinned yellow banded snake. Mr. C is delighted by this unfolding drama and picks up the bag and says something along the lines of “Here you are Steve, get a photo of that”. The delectable Belinda lets out a shriek and cowers behind me. 

Ancient protective instincts over the helpless female rise to the fore, but there is not a lot of room for real heroism because between me and the bloody snake is nothing but a muslin bag and a digital camera. 

After this initial commotion the animal is duly approved and removed, decorum is restored and we repair to the table for luncheon. Various dishes arrive and are placed on the perpetually revolving Lazy Susan. I manfully make grabs for the food as it swings past. The capture of food without natural handles or hooks is difficult enough with chopsticks under static conditions. Practice can result in a nonchalant devil may care attitude, belied in my case by the protruding tongue of concentration clenched between the gritted teeth of determination. However when it is a moving target it takes on a whole new life. Just as you have established a tenuous grip the serving bowl is passing the limits of your reach and the decision to drop pending another attempt half a minute later, or a damn-your-eyes-and-go-for-it-and-sod-the-consequences decision has to be made. An embarrassing and all too visible flotsam trail of dropped food and dripped sauces develops between the edge of the revolve and my plate.

The rice wine is liberally dispensed. This stuff is one notch down from surgical alcohol and is capable of stripping the enamel off your teeth and melting you fillings. I reckon that you have to mix it with beer, which I do.

At this point another auxiliary restaurant employee appears bearing two glasses. One is filled with clear liquid which I assume to be more rice wine, and the other is filled with a liquid just like tomato juice – but isn't.  I am invited to taste the snakes’ gore. With an excessive display of politeness I decline and am too shaken to see if anyone else does.

“Belinda says ‘Steve, use your tooth picks to 
pick it up’ ” Mr. Hau is as dubious about 
this piece of advice as I am.
A casserole dish is duly brought to the table. I am seated between Mr Wu and Mr Hau. Mr. Wu is on my right and well positioned to serve me from the clockwise revolving Lazy Susan. He deftly smarts a couple of joints of casseroled snake onto my plate as the serving dish shimmies past. This is it - chopsticks poised in sweaty hands – anchor the one and manipulate the other, grip gently and ease into the food. Yea right! Snake steak is all ribcage. What do you grip? Belinda says “Steve, use your tooth picks to pick it up” which I also try. In the end I fall back on a more familiar tradition and do it the African way – fingers!

“It’s fine. Tastes a bit like a cross between 
chicken and duck” Mr Wu and I replete behind 
an empty casserole of snake
It’s fine and tastes a bit like a cross between chicken and duck. In common with most cooking it all depends on the admixtures, and this sauce was good. Unlike more “conventional” meat dishes the meat to bone ratio is very much lower so you do have to work hard to get your protein. The last dish was a carpet of celery on which rolls of snake skin were decorously placed. The skin I guess had been steamed. I tried – and it was a bit like eating very thin aromatic leather – which to all intents and purposes I suppose it is. Something akin to chewing on delicate ballet slippers rather than well used running shoes.

So there you have it – my potentially nightmare meal – but of course it wasn't.  The company was stimulating and amusing and the food was very good. The fact that I’d seen some of the menu in the flesh (as it were) was so far removed from the eating of it that it was of no account.

Now there’s a thought.

The company was stimulating and amusing”. 
Outrageous behaviour after mixing rice wine with western 
style beer.
And here's another lingering thought. Back in the salon privet, before the waiters clear the table there is a fan of detritus on the tablecloth, the apex of which declares, like a blue commemorative plaque bolted to the wall of my memory - "Mitchell Sat Here."