Sunday, 5 October 2008

Scatter light donkeys

Greece was once the country of donkeys. When there was no motorised transport, you travelled by donkey. When there were no cars, the donkey helped to gather the olives, to harvest the hay and so on. The only island where this tradition is preserved is the island of Hydra, where motorised transport is prohibited and where donkeys still wait at the harbour for the boats, in order to take cargo up into the village.

Also on the island of Santorini you can still find a donkey service. They work in the tourist business, for those who want to climb up the 600 steps to the crater on the back of a donkey. Given this traffic continues throughout the day, donkeys on Santorini have a hard life.

Also on Lesvos you will find working donkeys. But they only do an excursion once a day: a safari to the beach, where the people can enjoy a barbecue, or on a ride through the mountains, so the tourists see something other than the beach. In the south of the island they still use donkeys for the olive harvest, because of the steep slopes the olive trees grow on.

The Greek donkey, however, is becoming an endangered species. A landscape with a Greek sitting on a jogging donkey used to be a common sight, now you will be lucky to photograph such a sight. Previously, there were half a million donkeys in Greece, but from 1950 to 1996 their population was reduced by 96%, to 18,000. That number has dramatically decreased in the last few years, partly due to the large wildfires last summer in the Peloponnese, the region where 40% of Greek donkeys live.

The farmers who previously used donkeys for transport, now drive around in pick-ups and donkeys are let go. They are simply released and are left alone to figure out for themselves how they want to live.

The donkeys on Lesvos with which you have such pleasant excursions are also given their freedom after the season. They are released in the mountains and have to look for food on their own. Not really such a bad life, because the mountains are full of tender morsels and they have the whole day to nibble on them.

Donkeys are firmly convinced that they have the right to eat everything, even if they accidentally come into your garden. The saying that donkeys are stupid is wrong. Donkeys are very smart animals. And their so-called stubbornness is just a refusal to do what someone asks them to do: a donkey knows what he wants and refuses occasionally, because he likes to follow his own course. If he discovers a nice snack in your garden, why would he abandon it?

The danger of wandering donkeys, however, is that they have no lights at night and also sometimes stand in the middle of the road to muse on their donkey life. So if you are driving in your car and round a bend, there may suddenly be a donkey in your path. Not that donkeys are the only hazard on Greek roads. Sheep and goats also make regular use of the road, just like the Greeks who are not afraid to gather in middle of the road with a passer by to share the latest news.

Greeks are not easy to change and sheep and goats have to cross the road from time to time in order to reach other pastures. The Greek government however believes that it can tackle the problem of stray animals. They started a project to mark horses (yes, even these animals regularly roam through the landscape and on the roads) and donkeys, so the owner can be easily found in case they are destroying your garden or they are involved in a collision, which frequently happens here on the island, sometimes with bad consequences.

Lesvos has been chosen as the pilot area for this project. I wonder how they will proceed. Especially in the south of the island you often meet donkeys, happy nibbling at the greenery and not at all concerned that their fat arses occupy a third of the road. To whom do these donkeys belong? Will they be gathered and put in a donkey home?

Here in the north, especially in the winter, it is much easier, because there are only two Greeks who have donkeys, namely those who organize the donkey safaris (I am not referring to some older Greeks who cherish their old donkeys as their best friend). When you find a herd of donkeys in your garden, marked or not, you know at whom you have to point your angry finger. With horses it is the same. Greeks are crazy about horses and once a year they like to parade them through the village. But why they continue to keep horses is a mystery to me. Not for the meat. Horses in Greece are like the sacred cows in India. When you tell a Greek that in the country you come from, they eat horsemeat, they look as if you just confessed that you're a cannibal.

Farmers all know each other and when you meet a stray horse it's easy to track down the owner. I doubt that farmers, once their animals are marked, will keep their animals in their fields. I am more worried about what will happen to all those stray donkeys. Will they release them so they can continue their free life and so that accidents will keep on happening?

I didn't get a clear answer from the article I read about this project in the Lesvorian Embros newspaper . I've only recently discovered that with just one click of a button on the internet you can translate whole websites. But don't be surprised with the result: Dutch (or English) as stupid as a donkey! But now at least I can page through the local papers online. The mysterious Greek words suddenly become recognisable and see here: an article on 'scatter light donkeys', the translation for 'adespota gaïdoeria' from Greek into Dutch (in English they give a correct translation: stray donkeys). Which Dutch dictionary is used by Google?

Fact is that the 'scatter light' donkeys of Lesvos are on their way to extinction. Killed by traffic or not, you see them less and less along the sides of roads. Another classic Greek image that will soon be gone, especially if this new marking project is introduced, because then all farmers will deny they have a donkey...

@ copyright Smitaki 2008

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