ECUADOR: Project Isabela and the Judas Goat

So the video below is really entertaining but frames Project Isabela as a ridiculous human-animal war like the Australian Emu War of legend, but really, it’s more like Australia’s attempts to stop invasive species like cane toads or rabbits, or New Zealand’s war on land predators. However, unlike in the Antipodes, this project has actually been quite successful.

Goats had been introduced into the Galapagos Islands a few centuries ago, and were so successful that they were consuming all the plant life needed for native species like the Galapagos Tortoise – the ecological devastation was so severe that the tortoise was near extinction in the late 20th century. However, using extreme prejudice (sharpshooters in helicopters) and tricks like Judas Goats, the Ecuadorian government was able to eradicate the goats and work on restoring the natural habitat.

Here’s a bit more serious look at the same from the BBC, including comments from Ecuadorean conservationists. (Warning – video shows goats being shot).

Unsurprisingly, shooting down thousands and thousands of animals, even if an invasive species, was controversial. However, it was successful – in 2006, the Galapagos Islands were declared free of all large introduced mammals that were threatening the native wildlife: goats, pigs, and donkeys.

What did I learn: GABON

This month I learned more about Gabon – a country I had very little knowledge about when I started!

I focused a lot on politics in Gabon, especially President Ali Bongo – who holds power despite ill health, and inherited control of the country from his father Omar Bongo on his death (while Ali’s mother has taken her career in a different direction). The 2016 election still resonates deeply around Gabon’s politics and culture – the opposition almost ousted Bongo democratically, but vote rigging and then a violent crackdown balanced the tables back in Bongo’s favour.

France’s role in Gabon also kept coming up – like most of French Africa, Gabon is economically and fiscally tied to the former colonial power, and Gabon is particular was the poster child for La Françafrique – France’s neocolonial method of keeping control and access to resources in its former colonies.

Gabon’s own natural resources play a big part in the country’s story – the export of oil and timber, the deposits of uranium (including a rare natural nuclear reactor), and Gabon’s interesting new position as a climate leader, where it uses a carbon-negative status to garner international investment.

Gabon’s thick forest is also home to incredible natural wildlife, some of which is vanishingly rare in the rest of the world – forest elephants, beach hippos, and western lowland gorillas. There’s some amazing videos of them in the wild (including the famous mirror test). I also got a chance just a few days ago to see some of these Gabonese animals in-person at the Calgary Zoo – they’re part of an international western lowland gorilla breeding program, as the species is critically endangered. I even got an up-close from a soon-to-be mother who had propped her feet up on the glass to relax.

Nature and politics aside, Gabon also has some really interesting culture and media – lots of good podcasts, radio, tv shows like Mami Wata (please point me in the direction of episode 2!), movies like Boxing Libreville, Yannis Davy Guibinga‘s photography, and Angèle Rawiri’s novel The Fury and Cries of Women. There’s also great music, including modern pop from Shan’L, Arielle T, Latchow, J-Rio, 80s disco from Ondendo, and traditional musical instruments like the ngombi harp and the ngongo mouth bow. On top of that, I got to learn more about beautiful traditional weddings and Bwiti healing.

As for Gabonese cuisine, I definitely got to try a lot of new things – nyembwé chicken with rondelles was really tasty, and iporo is a great way to cook cassava leaves. I also found some good instant fufu and a great baked banana recipe. However, I may have had my biggest culinary failure of this year (not great since it’s only February) – I learned a hard lesson about checking an ingredient’s freshness with odika chicken.

GABON: More podcasts

Boulevard Triomphal, Libreville – Source

Some more podcasts from and about Gabon – language as marked!

The Talking Point: African Perspectives – Gabon (En) – If you’re looking to get your head around just the basics of Gabon, this South African podcast has a good interview with the head of a Gabonese ex-pat organization in the country. The interviewee wants to get more into the meat of the political struggles, but also wants to show Gabon well and promote the lovely things about it.

France Culture: Gabon, comment sortir de l’impasse? (Fr) – French analysis from 2016 during the contested election between Ali Bongo and Jean Ping – it covers the vote rigging, the violence, and the media blackout, but also covers the political history that lead up this, including France’s involvement in Gabon’s politics – all in 7 minutes.

Sky News ClimateCast: How do you put a price on nature? (En) – Gabon is one of the most forested countries and has some of the lowest levels of deforestation, making it not just a home for incredible biodiversity, but as a vital carbon sink. This makes Gabon is one of the few carbon-negative countries, taking in through its forests more carbon than it emits – even with an oil industry. However the podcast looks into Gabon’s economic choice over its forests as its oil reserves begin to run low – it could log the forests, or it could solicit investments from other countries to keep its forests intact. The question is if other countries will pay to stop Gabon from logging, and would this model work elsewhere?

RFI Couleurs tropicales – Sémaine Speciale Gabon Ep 1 (Fr) – The first episode of a multi-part series on RFI’s African music show focusing exclusively on music from Gabon and its diaspora. It’s more of a DJ set with a bit of interview clips and artist details mixed in (all the artist names are listed in the description). Really high energy and fun, with a host with a lot of national pride about Gabon’s music scene.

Urban FM: Mystères Urbains (Fr) – This is so much fun if you like spooky campy stuff, this Gabonese podcast covers urban legends, occult, and monsters from across the country. I listened to one on an urban legend of the “Devil’s Cat” – a lesson in kindness to animals that builds off superstitions around black cats.

GABON: Streetviews

I’ve been having fun poking through the streetviews of Gabon on Google – there’s hasn’t been comprehensive street-by-street coverage yet, so it’s just what individuals have uploaded themselves. There’s a total mix – some beautiful and scenic views and some very prosaic or random ones. One of the prettiest is this sunrise drone shot of Libreville.

Also on a quiet early morning in front of a fancy hotel in Libreville. It makes me feel like that first jetlagged morning on vacation when you wake up at an unholy hour and go out for a walk just as the day wakes. There’s also an nicely decorated mosque next door and flags of neighbouring countries in front.

A nice shot of the beach in Loango National Park, a large park with rare protected ecosystems and wildlife, including the famed “surfing hippos“.

A view from the top of the Kongou falls, way in the interior.

I like this one, because it not only gives you a sense of the thick forests around the country, but this one guy seamlessly getting three times in the shot.

There are lots of really random streetviews of offices, stores, and other buildings. I like this upstairs of a homegoods store mainly because I really want that multi-coloured square rug.

This one I like for no other reason that this random office in Gabon has the exact same colour combination as my own living room.

We’re two of a kind.

GABON: An all-natural nuclear reactor

In a mine in Oklo, near Franceville in southeastern Gabon, scientists in the 70s found a rich vein of uranium ore. However, when they tested it, they found it was weirdly missing a certain isotope – it had a makeup more like spent nuclear fuel than natural radioactive material. This was something that shouldn’t happen with untouched natural uranium.

It turns out that two billion years ago, specific conditions underground created a natural nuclear reactor, one that used water to transfer heat and moderate output much the same way that power plants do. That used up the radioactive isotopes, so by the time humans evolved, figured out nuclear power, and went looking for uranium, they were long gone. Here’s a good explanation of how it worked:

GABON: Biodiversity and wildlife

Gabon has some of the most richly biodiverse forests and ecosystems, with a stunning variety of wildlife. Most of these forests are in a relatively untouched state, and are home to many endangered species. Here’s what was seen by just one camera trap along a trail in a nature reserve near the town of Nyonié – forest elephants, jaguars, gorillas, chimps, miniature deer, pangolins, and more.

The same photographer who sets these camera traps, Xavier Hubert-Brierre, went viral for setting up a mirror along a trail and watching the wildlife’s reaction to it. There was everything from silverback male gorillas trying to fight their rival in the mirror, elephants and jaguars trying to seduce their reflection, and a team of chimps that had realized it was their own reflection and mourned the loss of the mirror when it was taken down.

Gabon is home to the majority of the critically endangered African forest elephant, the smallest living elephant. Human encroachment, climate change, and conflicts in neighbouring countries have put huge pressure on the species.

There’s a lot of work happening in Gabon to protect the forests. Here’s a great spotlight on Gabonese ecologist Andréa Minkwe and the work she and her team does to protect Gabon’s wildlife and nature.

Gabon is also hoping to build up an ecotourism industry, which would both create jobs and investment, and protect and manage forest – right now logging is the main economic “use” and is putting unsustainable pressure on the forest.

There’s also a really interesting quirk of geography – in the far southeastern corner of Gabon, there is the Batéké Plateau, which is shared with the Republic of Congo. This is a spot where the thick equatorial rainforest that covers most of Gabon runs smack into the northernmost point of the savannah that stretches down over southern Africa. This is the only known place where the habitats of gorillas and lions overlap.

GABON: Podcasts

Kongou Falls, one of the fastest flowing waterfalls in the world – Source

A good mix of podcasts from and about Gabon, both in English and French.

WNYC Studios Radiolab: Breaking Bongo (En) – Probably one of the best podcasts I’ve listened to in a while, because it really got me thinking about a serious ethical grey area in politics and media. New York-based journalists interview democracy activists and political opponents of the Bongo regime in the Gabonese diaspora. The podcast gives a great background to the contested 2016 election, where Bongo almost lost to opponent Jean Ping were it not for one province’s rigged vote, the violence and crackdown following the election, Bongo’s health crisis in 2019 and the New Year’s greeting video, the attempted coup, and how the activists try to oppose the government from afar. However, where it gets very very interesting, is that the activists are increasingly turning to dubious methods – starting unfounded rumours of Bongo’s death, doctoring reports, creating “Fake News” – in order to create further confusion and undermine Bongo’s rule. The journalists ask some of the really hard questions here – this was a movement that started out providing truthful reporting and pushing for openness and democracy; is it not threatening its own reliability and legitimacy by resorting to these methods? But at the same time, when the regime is willing to use the same tools, as well as violence, wrongful detention, and censorship to crush you, do you not do everything in your power to fight them?

Institut Français Gabon: Le podcast du Mardi (Fr) – Short podcasts by the local Institut Français (a French organization that supports French culture and language study around the world) interviewing Gabonese personalities and thinkers. I listened to Toutes les opinions sont-elles tolérables? (Are all opinions tolerable?) about Spinoza, and the limits of opinions, facts, and the truth. I also listened to an interview with Chérine from Chey Libreville, a Gabonese influencer (I shared her post about traditional weddings here). Chey speaks about social media, sharing Gabon with the wider world, developing online shopping in Gabon, and the challenges she’s faced with being a full-time blogger, especially since she is a one-woman operation.

Africa in my Kitchen: Gabon – Odika (En) – I probably should have listened to this podcast before my disastrous attempt at odika chicken. The podcast covers Gabonese cuisine, and gets into cooking with odika. The hosts, Ijeoma and Yemi (who are both of Nigerian origin) are split on cooking with odika/ogbono – it’s apparently a very “acquired taste” and texture, even when fresh.

Le Grand RDV: Gabon: Et de trois pour Ali Bongo? Que peut l’opposition? (Fr) – A recent episode from Africa Radio’s podcast series on current events on the continent. Gabonese civil society leaders from various sides of the political spectrum debate if Ali Bongo could or should run for a third time in the upcoming 2023 presidential election. There’s a mix of supporters and critics, and they touch on his capacity after his stroke, why his ministers are trial ballooning him running right now, who would run instead if he could not, and the (weak) state of Gabonese democracy.

Ckilsenpensent : les réactions à la future adhésion du Gabon au Commonwealth (Fr) – Gabon announced that it plans to join the Commonwealth this year. It wouldn’t be the first country with no connections to the British Empire to join – I looked at why Mozambique joined, and Rwanda and Cameroon have also come on board (former Portuguese, Belgian, and French colonies, respectively). However, there’s been debate on if this is just a way to gain distance from France, and if this is just switching one former-colonial relationship for another. This podcast from Info241 is vox-pops from the Gabonese public, with many people framing this as a language question – does this signal a larger turn to the Anglosphere and will it involve dropping French in favour of English to take advantage of business opportunities?

GABON: A suspicious New Year’s greeting

A really interesting report into the 2019 attempted coup in Gabon, which was set off by secrecy around President Ali Bongo’s health, and rumours around a New Year’s greeting video where something was very off. While not a Deepfake, it sets out a pretty clear example of how a lack of transparency feeds into questions of legitimacy that can then be spun up into instability.

However, the coup was unsuccessful, and Ali Bongo continues to make appearances, though it seems he needs mobility assistance. Just a few months ago, he appeared at the Future Investment Initiative conference to speak about the Gabon’s climate commitments and encourage foreign investment.

What did I learn: NEW ZEALAND

Possibly the actual location of heaven – Source

This month I got to learn more about New Zealand. This is the first country I’ve pulled for Locally Foreign that I’ve actually been to! Because of that, my dad’s connections to NZ, and me being from a closely-related country, I started with a fair amount of base knowledge. However, there was so much more that I got a chance to learn about.

I really gravitated to learning about Maori history, politics, and culture. That included the use of Aotearoa as the country’s name, the revitalization of te reo Maori, the Treaty of Waitangi and Maori law, ta moko tattoos, the haka, Maori heavy metal, and reading The Bone People. I also got to learn about the Moriori, as well as New Zealand’s own colonies: Niue, the Cook Islands, Tokelau, and previously, Samoa.

In Canada, we have an image of New Zealand as having much better relations between settlers and Indigenous people than we do. However, there is still plenty of racism against Maori (including formal complaints when te reo is used on TV) and it still doesn’t shake the reality of both Canada and New Zealand as settler colonies in the first place, with all the violence, displacement, and cultural damage that entails. But between the later arrival of Europeans, the power of the Maori during the New Zealand Wars (both weakened and honed from the previous Musket Wars), and the cultural and linguistic closeness of the iwis, it feels like Maori are in a position to advance self-determination in a way that is less readily available to other Indigenous peoples right now. The huge revival of Maori culture and language, especially in wider New Zealand society, and the Treaty of Waitangi as a living document in current law are powerful examples that the rest of the world can learn from.

I also got to learn about other bits of life in New Zealand – there’s more good podcasts than you can shake a stick at, including two great history ones, a look at New Zealand’s housing crisis, its relationship with China, or reflections on the tragedies of the 2019 Christchurch mosque shootings or the 2011 earthquake (and the slow work repairing its iconic ruined cathedral). I also got a chance to learn more about the unique wildlife of Aotearoa, see some of the sillier side of politics, and check out two blockbuster Kiwi films; The Piano and What We Do in the Shadows.

As for food, the biggest thing I noticed was how many dishes are contested between New Zealand and Australia. I didn’t get a chance to attempt pavlova, but alongside Anzac biscuits, Minties, and flat whites, there’s a lot of antipodean overlap and arguing over who invented what. I was shocked that “regular coffee” (aka drip coffee) is almost unheard of in NZ. I also got a giant box of snacks (1,2,3), took a crack at trying non-sauv blanc wines, warmed up to Marmite, and attempted to make Kiwi onion dip while missing an ingredient.

This month has really made me want to go back to New Zealand now as an adult – catch me on the hiking trails! Kia ora, Aotearoa!

Mt. Eden, Auckland – Source