Depressing though all this is, the ultimate safeguard is perhaps the sheer number of sites with drawings and, maybe, the presence of some yet undiscovered, known to the Tuareg but no Westerners with tendencies to remove or copy them. One day when our group was taking a long midday break to cool off in the shade of some shallow cliffs, I wandered off to another set of rock outcrops a kilometre or so distant. There were no vehicle tracks nearby so I assumed they were off any hardy tourist’s trail. To my surprise, as I examined much of the rock surface, there were oodles of rock drawings here too, many of them coloured; drawings of cattle, of herders with sticks, of animals including ostrich and hippos. Maybe this is their best safeguard; that they are so widely distributed – and so abundant – that many or most are virtually bound to survive. I hope so.
At least most of the turmoil and armed faction fighting post Gaddafi – and the country’s virtually total lack of governance – is less likely to impact on rock drawings in the middle of the Sahara than it obviously is in the more populated coastal areas of Libya where the destruction of archaeological and historic sites has been substantial. Italian archaeologists – many of whom have followed in Fabrizio Mori’s footsteps were proposing that the Libyans designate the Akakus as a national park and introduce better practical protection using the local Tuareg, by training responsible guards and by controlling any developments that could cause damage. But, because of Libya’s descent into virtual anarchy, that’s all pie in the sky for some considerable time to come!
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We might never be sure whether the Saharan climate flipped suddenly or gradually; from providing a land of plenty to an arid desert where few people can eke out a living of sorts. But change it did. And drastically. The rock art of the Akakus is a lesson we need to take heed of when we weigh up the potential impact of today’s changing climate.
City (or Town) Pigeons are one of the most successful birds in the world. And they are the one bird that more people on this planet see every day than any other. They are so commonplace in towns and cities across the world, most people pay them little or no attention. Unless, that is, one flutters up too close for comfort or manages to drop a small, white package on your new jacket. But there are a few people who pay them a great deal of attention: a small band of diehards who persist in feeding them, usually much to the annoyance of city authorities trying to keep building ledges, park benches and other places free of pigeon poo.
Descended long ago from Rock Doves that breed on sea-cliffs – and interbred with already domesticated pigeons (such as homing pigeons and show pigeons) -City Pigeons have adapted to breeding on the urban ‘cliffs’ of concrete, brick and stone buildings in villages, towns and cities virtually worldwide. There they have adapted equally to an abundance of urban food, most of it dropped or dumped by us untidy humans. The world over, there are maybe 260 million City Pigeons.
Their adaptability seems to have virtually no limits. Watch the television replays of the enormous flooding caused in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina passed close to the city on 29 August 2005 and you will see whole sections of the city underwater with few human residents in sight. Most had been evacuated. But look carefully at the film. Occasionally, a bird or two can be spotted, on rooftops, on walls, in trees or flying from one bit of dry urban construction to another. They are, of course, Town Pigeons. Presumably able to find enough food, they often survived the apocalyptic flooding better than people did.
And when you next see television film of a bomb-shattered town – in Syria for instance – you are almost certain to spot a group of City Pigeons picking about on the ground, then flying up when the next explosion shatters yet another couple of buildings, only to land again within seconds and resume foraging. They are some of the most adaptable birds on earth.
So you might reasonably assume that all this highly successful adaptation has attracted the attention of ornithologists around the world. Not a bit of it. Like most urban workers hurrying their way to their city office, few self-respecting ornithologists give the ubiquitous town or city pigeon a second glance, let alone study its success. It is as if this humble but hugely successful bird is somehow impure, not worthy of serious study, condemned because it is not a real species (it’s impossible now to distinguish Rock Doves from many City Pigeons), because it has become rather tame and, maybe, because it waddles about our urban areas picking up the detritus of human society. It’s a ‘Heinz 57’ of the bird world.
But one ornithologist who did study the Town Pigeon was John Tully, a retired school schoolteacher who lived near Bristol (he has since died). A few years ago I had the pleasure of spending a morning with him to chat about his research so that I could summarise his findings in my blog, Life With Birds: A Story of Mutual Exploitation (Whittles, 2011). He is one of the many amateur naturalists I have met over the years; people who give up hours of their personal time to follow their interest but who very often come up with new, sometimes crucial information on what’s happening to some of our wildlife and why. John Tully was one of those committed individuals whose work on Town Pigeons, House Sparrows and other species produced information on them that was unique. A delightful man, he was exceedingly helpful and great fun. In 2009, he had received a national award for services to ornithology at the annual conference of the British Trust for Ornithology. In part it recognised his key work on city pigeons.