I have just returned from a week spent in Prague, enjoying the beauty and culture of that city and also meeting new colleagues and doing some research into biodiesel production and indeed potential wildlife conservation involving the zoo there. I have mixed feelings about zoos, but for some species, the creature would be extinct where it not for the efforts of them, and it seems that the hippopotamus (a creature of interest to me) if not already on the "endangered" list is certainly at risk. The problem for the hippo is that it has rather large teeth, made of ivory, and so if elephants are now protected from "tusk-hunters", hippos are not and have become a welcome substitute among poachers who will similarly machine-gun them to death in order to extract ivory from them.
I feel the enfeeblement of man in this way, needing to resort to fire-arms to kill such an utterly magnificent animal, without which a human would stand no chance against at all! Weighing-in at around 3 tonnes, an adult male hippopotamus, armed with incisor teeth as spears up to half a metre long, held in a head that itself weighs around half-a-ton, would prove a formidable adversary, and not too surprisingly they have no natural predators! They can trot comfortably at around 9 miles per hour and while estimates vary about their top-speed, it is claimed they can reach 30 miles per hour over short bursts. Since this is well beyond the velocity of humans, it would be foolish to either challenge one to a road-race or to get in the way of a hippo intent on getting back to the cool comfort of a river. Even crocodiles stand little chance against the hippopotamus, which can bite an adult "croc" in two! I have written a series of children's stories about a young hippo and the impact of the changing global environment on his perception of hippo-life, which I am currently in the process of marketing.
Prague zoo is a wonderful place to observe hippos, with two adults, a male called Slavek and his female partner Maruska ("Maria", in English), who last year gave birth to the product of their happy union in the form of a baby boy called Tomik ("Thomas" or "Tom" as he is known). Tom shares the same birthday as me, April 21 st, and at about 13 months old I estimate (assuming a barrel-form, and the mathematically described volume of a cylinder: pi x radius^2 x length) he must weigh about 400 kilograms. A big boy indeed. He is also a marvellous swimmer - submerging and then bobbing joyously above the surface, and doing seemingly choreographed aquatic side-motions - head held proudly above the water; alternately jumping over his parents backs - possibly dispelling the myth that hippos are unable to swim. I have seen them all swimming and so from this first-hand experience I know that they can! Tom is pretty cute, I have to say!
The Museum of Communism is also well worth a visit. Now, I have been told various things about that particular regime, but not having experienced it myself I keep an open mind. My colleagues in (now) Russia, Armenia, Slovakia, Poland, Bulgaria, Romania and the Czech Republic all have their own stories, for example the heavy guarding of the borders, e.g. between Slovakia and Austria, which was lined evenly by machine-gun turrets spaced 100 metres apart. Anybody entering this "forbidden zone" would be shot, and the guy who did this would probably get a promotion, or even a Communist flat (apartment) , though this would be in an area such as Petrozelka, which a Slovak friend described to me looking over it from the castle in Bratislava as "this is our Bronx". I used to live in Liverpool and I can envisage similarities with some of the more deprived areas there too. The Museum of Communism appears to me to give a very well balanced and unbiased view of the regime itself, its consequences and the human toll in totality... I am glad that I didn't live under it, I have to say. In its favour was a highly advanced education system, and belief in university-level knowledge that I once shared, rather than a totalitarian university system as now pervades in the UK, and in some shabby examples has "Professors" (that's "Full Professor", in the US) with no published work in the subject in which they are supposed to be entitled to "profess"!
In the Museum is one startling statistic, to the effect that when the Communism "fell" and industry accordingly declined, life-expectancy in the Czech Republic increased by an average of 5 years! I mention this now is the context of inevitable industrial decline in the Western world, following the "Oil Dearth" era that is imminent. However, our own life-expectancy will depend on whether we can provide sufficient food and basic energy (electricity and heat) requirements to keep our population fuelled and thriving.