Long way home as Przewalski’s horses fly to Mongolia

TAKHIN TAL, Mongolia: Their violent kicks rattle the small army plane flying over Siberia as it transports the four rare horses from Prague to the vast Mongolian steppe where the once near-extinct species is slowly recovering.

Known as Przewalski’s horses, the ancient species has narrowly avoided extinction thanks to breeding programmes at zoos worldwide and is now gradually being re-introduced to a wildlife reserve in its original homeland.

But confined to wooden boxes, Finnish sisters Helmi and Hanna, German mare Spes and Yanja from a Swiss zoo are not enjoying the 30-hour trip to get to their new home one bit.

“The plane trip is the toughest part,” Prague Zoo chief vet Roman Vodicka told AFP over the constant drone of the twin-engine propeller plane.

“The horse might make a wrong move, get stuck and lie down, stopping the blood flow to the legs. If this happened on the truck, we might release them for a run in nature, but you can’t do that on the plane,” he said.

Prague Zoo, which has bred Przewalski’s horses since 1932 and keeps the world genealogy book for the endangered species tracking all new births, launched a project to reintroduce the animals to Mongolia in 2011.

The four round-bellied, short-legged, sandy-beige mares are set to join wild herds in Takhin Tal (meaning the wild horse steppe), where 220 Przewalski’s horses now gallop free.

In 1969, there was just one.

Whistles and hay

“These horses are getting a chance others won’t have. They’ll return home,” said Jan Marek, a Prague Zoo curator in charge of ungulates.

But, for the moment, they are restless after a busy day, which started at an acclimatisation centre on a farm belonging to Prague Zoo, south of the Czech capital.

Before being enclosed in the transport boxes, they were put to sleep, tested and treated by vets.

Then they were taken by truck to a military airbase on Prague’s outskirts and loaded onto the plane.

Marek and Vodicka monitor the horses throughout the trip, trying to calm them by talking and whistling, or with hay and pheromones.

Keeping them cool also helps and the plane is air-conditioned to 15°C-19°C.

After landing on the dirt runway in the western Mongolian town of Bulgan Sum, the mares take a bumpy truck journey to the remote Takhin Tal reserve, where they are finally able to gallop into an enclosure to find their hooves in their new home.

In the first half of next year, they will be released into the wild to join either a lone stallion, or be part of a harem — a group of around a dozen horses led by a dominant stallion — in Takhin Tal, which is part of the Great Gobi B protected area spanning over 9,000km².

“Harem organisation is a very nice social structure, everybody has his own role,” Ganbaatar Oyunsaikhan, Great Gobi B director, told AFP.

Rangers able to discern a stallion or harem at a distance when it is barely visible to the untrained eye, even with binoculars, will monitor the mares as they explore their new home.


Prague Zoo has released a total 31 Przewalski’s horses into the Mongolian wilderness, with funding for the project provided by zoos from across the globe.

“I decided to do this after the ‘dzud’, or very severe winter of 2009-2010, which had cut local (Przewalski’s) horse numbers by two thirds to about 50,” said Prague Zoo director Miroslav Bobek, standing outside a yurt in the Mongolian steppe.

First documented by Russian scientist Nikolai Przhevalsky in 1881, the species was nearly extinct in the 1960s and is still listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Bobek said the current population stands at around 2,400 horses, with 800 in the wild including in other parts of Mongolia and in China.

“All the living Przewalski’s horses come from a genetic bottleneck of about 10 animals,” he told AFP.

Genes matter

Zoologists hope the four new mares from different zoos will improve the genetic mix of the Mongolian herd.

“If we only brought Czech horses, it would be the same blood. We’re trying to make the population as diverse as possible,” says curator Marek.

New genetic research has suggested that the stocky horses that inspired dreamy pre-historic cave paintings are not the world’s last remaining wild horse as had been thought.

The journal Science reported in February that, despite their pre-historic looks, Przewalski’s horses were actually domesticated animals that escaped their human owner in the Botai area of northern Kazakhstan around 5,500 years ago.

Bobek described the study as “very interesting”, but is cautious.

“It could have been the other way round; the wild Przewalski’s horse could have been the source for Botai breeders,” he said.

“In any case, the uniqueness of Przewalski’s horse is obvious. We’ll carry on”. — AFP

China seizes 156 mammoth tusks in huge ivory haul

BEIJING: Chinese customs authorities said they seized 156 prehistoric mammoth tusks from a truck entering from Russia in one of the country’s largest such hauls.

The contraband was seized in late April at a border crossing in northeastern China’s Heilongjiang province bordering on Siberia, but the find was only announced this week by Chinese customs, state media said.

The haul, which also included two elephant tusks and a range of other animal parts, was hidden under a shipment of soybeans.

Eight suspects, including Russians and Chinese, have been arrested, the People’s Daily said.

China banned the sale and processing of elephant ivory last year after having banned its import in 2015.

This, along with global efforts to stamp out the ivory trade to save elephants from extinction, has led smugglers to turn to a stock of ancient mammoth tusks buried mostly in Siberia but also Europe and North America.

The People’s Daily said the shipment as a whole was one of China’s largest involving animal parts in recent years.

The official Xinhua news agency said the inventory included “two elephant tusks, 1,276 antelope horns, 156 mammoth tusks, 406 walrus tusks, 226 narwhal tusks, as well as gall bladders and bear teeth and 320 kilos of sea cucumbers”.

A wide variety of animal parts are sought after in China as traditional medicines or for other uses, while ivory carving is an ancient art in the country.

The latest seizure’s estimated value was 106 million yuan (RM63 million), Xinhua said, adding that an investigation was under way. — AFP

A shameful affair

IN 1914, Gurdit Singh chartered the Japanese ship, Komagata Maru, in Hong Kong to take 376 Punjabi passengers to Canada.

Their intent was to work in Canada, gather some wealth and return home after a few years.

The ship left Hong Kong on April 4 and reached Vancouver, Canada, on May 23.

But the ship was never allowed to dock at the harbour.

The passengers were seen as undesirable immigrants, something the Canadian government of the day feared would taint their “white man’s country”.

The Komagata Maru literally became a floating detention camp, and after 62 days of stand-off, its passengers were forced at gun point to return to India on July 23.

When the ship finally docked at Budge Budge, near Kolkata, India, on Sept 29, 19 of the ship’s passengers were shot to death when they ignored the directive of the British India authorities to board a special train to Punjab state.

“This event has been considered as one of the most shameful tragedies in Canadian race relations and immigration policies” says Ranjit Singh Malhi, who has detailed this historical event in his new book, The Komagata Maru Affair.

The 64-year-old prolific Malaysian historian and author adds that the vicitms, being subjects of the British Empire, strongly believed that they had the same right as any British citizen to travel and settle anywhere in the British Empire.

“Unfortunately, they were not given the same treatment because they belonged to the wrong colour and religion.”

Ranjit says the incident spurred thousands of diasporic Indians from different parts of the world to return home to expel the British from India.

While Ranjit admits he is not the first to have written about this event, he says he has rectified numerous errors found in earlier narratives.

“Factual accuracy is a prerequisite of any good historical work,” says the historian.

In his quest for the truth, Ranjit spent more than nine months researching on this incident from archival and library sources in Malaysia, India and Canada.

One main error he discovered concerns the origins of Gurdit. Many books had stated that Gurdit was from Singapore or Hong Kong, but Ranjit found out that Gurdit was a long-time resident of Serendah in Malaysia.

Ranjit gave readers a deeper insight into who Gurdit was in chapter four of his book, which has nine chapters in total, covering some 200 pages.

Gurdit was born into a poor peasant family in 1859 at Sarhali village, Amritsar, a district of Punjab, India.

The drought had affected the crops in his village and his father, Hukam Singh, immigrated to Malaya in the early 1870s to find a better life for his family.

Gurdit’s father worked for a Chinese businessman in Taiping and later joined the Perak police force as a constable.

Back in India, Gurdit had wanted to join the British Indian Army but was rejected due to his small-sized chest.

In 1877, he immigrated to Malaya to join his father and brother Pehlu who had immigrated two years earlier.

Gurdit worked with a Chinese pork dealer in Taiping and later operated a dairy business.

In the early 1890s, he moved to Serendah, Selangor, and became a successful contractor dealing with railway and road construction. He also planted rubber.

In 1913, Gurdit went to Hong Kong to pursue a case against his former business partner who had apparently absconded with his money.

In Hong Kong, he met with some Indians who were keen to make a better life for themselves in Canada. It was then that he decided to make their dream a reality.

He chartered the Komagata Maru, a coal-transport steamship which had been converted into a cargo-cum-passenger ship with 533 bunks, for their journey.

Little did Gurdit realise that his action would create one of history’s darkest hours which would be talked about for years to come.

Ranjit has deliberately adopted a simple writing style in telling the story of the Komagata Maru.

He wants the book to be enjoyed by not only academics but also anyone interested in our history and the issue of racial discrimination that still haunts our society to this day.

But Ranjit is happy to see that things have drastically changed in Canada over the years, and now the country has become more racially diverse and more culturally tolerant.

When Justin Trudeau became the prime minister in 2015, he appointed four ethnic Sikhs to his Cabinet.

And on May 18, 2016, Trudeau, on behalf of the Canadian government, issued a formal apology for the 1914 Komagata Maru incident to a standing ovation in parliament.

Meanwhile, in India, the government is currently building a large memorial to the victims of the massacre at Budge Budge. There are also reports that Bollywood plans to make a movie on this incident.

“The important lesson we can learn from this is that we should always uphold racial equality and justice,” says Ranjit.

The Komagata Maru Affair will be launched officially on July 24 at the Grand Ballroom of the Royal Selangor Club in Kuala Lumpur.

The softcover book, priced at RM50, and the hardcover copy (RM80), can be purchased directly from the author at 012–3350 555 or via email to ranjit@tqm.com.my.

Book Review: Any Minute Now

THIS IS Eric Van Lustbader’s latest non-Jason Bourne thriller. Any Minute Now offers Bourne’s fans a distinctively different narrative that even thriller readers will find it a challenge to keep up.

The book is centred around Red Rover, a private security firm that’s known for handling “blacker than black ops”.

Most of their assignments come from the NSA (the US’ National Security Agency), who hires them through a subcontractor to handle its most dangerous missions.

Led by Greg Whitman, Red Rover heads to Pakistan in search of a man named Seiran el-Habib.

Instead, they walk into an ambush and, thereafter, encounter one casualty after another, suffering numerous injuries along the way.

This prompts Whitman’s superiors to abort the mission. Whitman, however, decides to disobey orders and forges ahead instead.

To replace a fallen team member, Whitman turns to his old contact, Charlie Daou, a weapons expert who makes her own “custom boom-sticks”.

Daou’s weapons are unique in that they’re undetectable, even to scanners.

Meanwhile, Whitman is unaware that Luther St Vincent, one of the NSA’s top dogs, is heading up an experimental operation to chemically engineer and weaponise soldiers.

This requires doctors to play with the soldier’s brains, which eventually, has its consequences.

The conspiracies go deeper as everyone seems to be connected in one way or another to a shadowy, mysterious character called the Preacher.

To complicated matters further, there’s another player at work here, a group called the Alchemists.

Eventually, everything is thrown together in what is designed to be a riveting, supernatural action-drama or suspense novel.

As hard as this book was to get through at times, there are moments of exciting action dramas a la Jason Bourne. The characters are all interesting and unique, and they related to one another well.

If nothing else, Van Lustbader did come up with an original story, even if it is not one that I expected. .

Book Review: If I Could Tell You Just One Thing…

AUTHOR Richard Reed is the founder of Art Everywhere and co-founder of Innocent Foundation and Jamjar Investments.

This is his first book and each personality he features is accompanied by a beautiful sketch drawn by Samuel Kerr.

Just to clarify, this is not another book of quotations. It is a book that briefly covers why a personality is interesting and why the person’s advice (which is based on experience) is meaningful.

Reed himself relates an experience from his childhood going on long walks with his father as a reference point.

He poses the same question to all the personalities featured in the book: Given all that you have experienced, given all that you now know and given all that you have learnt, if you could pass on only one piece of advice, what would it be?

From former US President Bill Clinton to His Holiness Dalai Lama, to celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Simon Cowell, sports figures like Andy Murray, and activists-cum-celebrities such as Joanna Lumley and Annie Lennox, we are treated to some valuable pearls of wisdom.

This book makes for easy reading and is better than the regular self-help book.

Jewellery that represents feminine power

OVER THE decades, women had shown great strength and courage in meeting everyday challenges, and much like today’s multi-hyphenated women who accomplish everything they do with decisive confidence, the movement of female empowerment is becoming increasingly loud and apparent.

Amira Yahya and Foo Chia Chern of fine jewellery label The Straits Finery observes the many versatile and independent minds that are written all over history and felt it was important to recognise these women for their achievements.

Surely no woman is a certain kind; she is a daughter to her mother, a wife to her husband, a mother to her child and a sister to her siblings, at the same time juggling her many vocations, thus she is many things.

She has passions, she has interests, she has success but also failures. Undeniably, a woman has so much to do that the pieces of jewellery she wears need to fit into her lifestyle.

Celebrating woman at her best, The Straits Finery has released a new collection named after and inspired by the cultural icon of World War II, Rosie The Riveter.

She was the start of a patriotic campaign, or rather a motivational propaganda aimed at encouraging women to make tangible contribution and services in factories during the time of the war.

Rosie became a symbol of feminism in contemporary culture and inspired several social movements for women to rise to the occasion in all fields.

She represents the realisation that women can do and be, anything. Beneath the delicate and graceful of mien of a woman lies steel and determination.

The theme is reflected in the new collection by taking influence from the Art Deco era, essentially a pastiche of various styles but shares the desire to be modern.

Its principles are all about streamlining forms follows function with decadent jewellery pieces made of 14-karat solid gold and sterling silver that spans across three distinctive chapters.

Each explores the theme of courage, feminity and tenacity of a woman that makes her the person she is. Staying true to the philosophy of the eponymous label, the designs in each chapter allow the wearer to combine the individual pieces in order to craft her own story.

Featuring minimalist yet elegant designs coupled with impeccable craftsmanship, the first series of the Rosie The Riveter collection may look simple but speak volume.

Expressed in bold geometric forms of Cubism or rather Art Moderne and in the more linear designs with hard edges.

Such as the Box ring is crafted with a masculine undertone to encourage a woman to discover a tougher side of herself, that she is strong and capable.

Chapter two embraces women to find strength in her feminity and recognises vulnerability is just a part of human nature. Inner strength is the symbolic triumph of the modern woman who is bold in the face of adversity and always in control of her life.

The diamond shape is prevalent in the designs of this chapter, showing a feminine visage in contrast with the strong edges of chapter one.

The pillars in characterising a woman’s mettle come to an end in the final chapter.

Confidence and self-assurance are the main driving force behind every woman’s accomplishment regardless of efforts.

Rosie The Riveter collection starting with the first chapter will progressively be made available online and in-store at Snackfood on July 30 onwards.

Astro Kasih is looking for the next badminton champions

ASTRO Kasih has announced that it will be organising the Astro Junior Championships (National level) at Stadium Juara in Kuala Lumpur from Sept 6 to Sept 9.

The tournament is set to attract 32 Malaysian badminton teams of which the Champion and First Runner-up will be competing with prominent badminton clubs from the ASEAN region which will take place at the Astro Invitational Junior Championships (Regional level) from Nov 12 to Nov 15.

The Astro Junior Championships is a collaboration between Astro Kasih, Badminton Association of Malaysia, Badminton Asia, and Ministry of Youth & Sports and Ministry of Education.

The mixed team tournament which features boy’s and girl’s singles and doubles, and mixed doubles, is open to all Malaysian shuttlers under-15.

Each team led by a team manager, must have a minimum of 8 players and no more than 10 players on the roster.

Teams will stand a chance to win cash prizes up to RM14,000.

The Regional level which will be hosted in Malaysia in November, will see the two Astro Junior Championships (National level) finalists compete alongside 12 prominent junior badminton clubs invited from ASEAN countries including Japan and China.

Registration for the Astro Junior Championships (National level) opens from 16 July 2018 at www.astrokasih.org/championships, with an entry fee of RM200 per team on first-come-first-serve basis.

The Astro Junior Championships is a continuation of Astro’s commitment in developing young shuttlers through its badminton development program, Astro Kem Badminton.

Since its inception in 2012, Astro Kem Badminton has benefitted more than 15,000 young badminton enthusiasts in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Over 130 shuttlers have experienced rigorous advanced intensive training in Japan and China.

Shoots for the stars: Briton grows microgreens for top French chefs

SAINT-JEAN-EN-VAL, France: Fuchsia-coloured lights glow over a miniature garden where tiny plants pack a wealth of flavour and nutrients headed for the tables of Michelin-starred French chefs.

British producer Chris Kilner nurtures his “microgreens” on a farm in Saint-Jean-en-Val, a village only a couple of hours from France’s gastronomic capital Lyon.

“Our clients determine what we grow,” says the soft-spoken Kilner, 47. “They’re very demanding”.

Unlike sprouts that are grown in water and eaten whole, Kilner’s come up in soil and are snipped just at the right time for maximum impact on the palate.

They don’t hang around for long. Some are only a week old when they are harvested, and none grow for more than two months.

Kilner plucks a tiny leaf to check on progress, like a vintner fussing over ripening grapes.

“Everyone knows what rocket tastes like, but around day 11 its taste is suddenly more precise,” Kilner says as he bites into the heart-shaped, lilliputian green. “You recognise it clearly when you taste it. It’s perfect, with no bitterness”.

The practised chef can conjure licorice from agastache microgreens; shiso is redolent of anise or cumin, depending on the variety; the big blue star-shaped flowers of the borage plant give off the fresh, crunchy quality of the cucumber.

Microgreens, the young seedlings of edible vegetables and herbs, can exude the most startling flavours — mustard, wasabi, pepper, citrus, capers and even oysters — and in such high concentrations that they substitute easily for their counterparts on the spice or condiment rack.

One thing is certain: the microgreen is not for decoration.

“It’s an ingredient unto itself; you can’t do without it,” said Dorian Van Bronkhorst, head chef at the Michelin-starred Atelier Yssoirien restaurant in the town of Issoire, in the Auvergne region near Kilner’s farm. “It’s a flavour enhancer that adds finesse and colour, as well as acidity or sweetness”.

The self-taught entrepreneur is a former robotics engineer who helped develop the humanoid robots Nao and Pepper for Aldebaran Robotics.

Once they went into mass production, Kilner was ready leave the high-tech world to spend more time with his wife Virginie Vial, a 46-year-old development economist, at the family farmhouse.

It was in 2016 that Kilner went microgreen, partly inspired by his wife’s fondness for growing her own soybean sprouts and others.

Kilner’s company Radix — from the Latin for “roots” — supplies Van Bronkhorst and dozens of other chefs in the region, including many boasting Michelin stars, with a turnover of around 50,000 euros (RM237,043) last year.

With such tiny crops — around 50 microgreen varieties sprout under special lamps or in miniature greenhouses — Kilner operates in a space of some 500 square metres (5,000 square feet).

But thanks to growing demand — “most big chefs use microgreens,” he says — Kilner may move to a bigger space in the autumn.

‘I’m not a magician’

The key to his success? The only inputs are water and a keen attention to detail.

“I’m not a magician,” Kilner says. “You have to keep tasting all the time, and it’s your taste buds that guide you”.

Before Kilner set up shop here, French chefs have relied on the Dutch company Koppert Cress, which has enjoyed a near-monopoly in France.

The difference with Kilner is that he delivers his microgreens in the soil they sprouted in.

“You’re sure of getting the product in season, ultra-fresh, and you cut it only as you are putting it on the plate,” said Cyrille Zen, who runs the Michelin-starred La Bergerie de Sarpoil in Saint-Jean-en-Val.

While chefs began coveting microgreens about a decade ago, they are also prized for their nutritional value.

According to a study published in 2012 by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, microgreens contain four to 40 times the vitamins and antioxidants of their mature counterparts. — AFP

Poland’s double-edged vodka tradition

WARSAW: Be it a source of national pride or negative stereotypes, vodka is an integral part of Polish identity.

The country has just turned a former distillery into a museum celebrating its long vodka tradition but the location in a Warsaw neighbourhood once known for thieves and drunkards also recalls the downside of the national tipple.

“It’s part of our DNA, our history, our heritage and our tradition,” says Andrzej Szumowski, president of the Polish Vodka Association, which co-sponsored the new museum, the first of its kind in Poland.

“Just like there’s no French history without cognac or champagne, no British history without gin or Scotch whiskey or no Mexican history without tequila, you can’t talk about Polish history without mentioning vodka”.

That history includes the French expression “drunk as a Pole”, which today is derogatory but originally had the opposite meaning when Napoleon allegedly first used it with his soldiers.

It was his way of saying, “You can drink but you must know how to be drunk like Poles who, even when inebriated, are able to get up and fight,” according to Szumowski.

Noble monopoly

Poland was a kingdom of beer and mead before vodka appeared in the 15th century and upended drinking habits.

The landed gentry began assigning an ever-increasing percentage of the wheat harvest to the production of spirits.

According to the monopoly that only completely disappeared just before the 19th century, the nobles had the exclusive right to import, produce and sell alcohol on their properties.

They even had the right to require their serfs to purchase a certain amount of alcohol.

Named after “woda”, Polish for “water”, vodka has also served as bartering currency during times of scarcity, of which there have been many over the course of Poland’s troubled history.

After World War I, the state liquor monopoly accounted for 10% of the state’s budget and even up to 15% after the end of World War II, according to Poland’s edition of Forbes.

Poland currently produces the equivalent of nearly 100 million litres of pure alcohol each year, according to the national spirits industry association ZPPPS.

That puts it among the world’s top producers along with the United States, Ukraine and Russia.

King of consumption

“Unfortunately, though, above all, we’re exceptional at consuming alcohol,” says Krzysztof Brzoska, who heads the PARPA state agency for the prevention of alcohol-related problems.

“Almost all of the alcohol produced here ends up on the domestic market,” he adds, saying that Poles are drinking more and more. The current favourite is beer.

While neighbouring Lithuania consumes the most alcohol per capita each year in Europe, Poles lead the way when it comes to the amount consumed at one time.

“We drink less often than the French or Italians, but when we do drink we go the whole way,” says Brzoska, adding that around 1,500 Poles die of an alcohol overdose each year.

In the country of 38 million people, more than 800,000 are alcohol dependent, according to Dariusz Wasilewski, a psychiatrist specialising in drinking problems.

But he adds that the number of Poles whose drinking habits are detrimental to their health is three or four times higher.

“I just can’t accept the idea that an alcoholic beverage could be the object of national pride,” he tells AFP.

Art of vodka

For Tadeusz Dorda, marketing head of the Chopin brand, there is an art to drinking vodka: “We want it to be talked about in a smart way”.

He wants it to be known for example that vodka does not need to be served ice cold.

In fact, some connoisseurs say that the mark of a vodka’s quality is whether it is drinkable at a temperature of between six to eight degrees Celsius.

That is when it is possible to detect the vodka’s particular taste and fragrance, which depend on its main ingredient, as well as where and when it was made, according to Dorda.

Potato-based vodka has a heavy quality, while the rye kind is lighter and is also known for its bitter taste and strong fragrance. Wheat-based vodka offers the mildest flavour. — AFP