Coy Putin laughs off remarriage question in phone-in

MOSCOW (AFP): President Vladimir Putin on Thursday laughed off a question about Russia’s next first lady during his annual phone-in with the nation, but hinted that “maybe” he will remarry one day. In 2013, the Russian strongman and his wife Lyudmila, his partner of nearly 30 years with whom he has two daughters, stunned Russia by announcing their divorce on television after attending a ballet performance at the Kremlin. Earlier this year, Russian media suggested that Putin’s former wife had found happiness again, marrying a 37-year-old man and taking his last name. Putin’s love life has always been a virtual taboo in Russia’s state-controlled media, although some reports have linked the president to former Olympic gymnast Alina Kabayeva, 32, even before his divorce.

During a highly choreographed annual televised call-in show, one curious female supporter asked the 63-year-old Putin when he was planning to introduce the country’s next first lady to Russians.

Putin laughed off the question, saying he was afraid his marriage may affect the country’s already wobbly foreign exchange rate or oil prices. “Maybe one day I will be able to satisfy your curiosity,” he said.

He also declared that elected officials should be judged by their deeds and that their personal life was not of “primary importance”.

He said he was in touch with his former wife, joking that their relationship might have even improved once they went their separate ways. “I know she’s doing well,” Putin said without specifying whether she had remarried. “She’s pleased with her life,” Putin said. “I am also pleased. I am doing very well too.”

Google Calendar helps make most of spare time

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP): Google on Wednesday made it tougher for people to hide behind excuses when it comes to finding time to hit the gym or learn new languages. Google added “Goals” tools to free calendar applications tailored for smartphones powered by Apple or Android software, using artificial intelligence to let software figure out when one could fit in workouts or lessons. “Whether it’s reading more books, learning a new language or working out regularly, achieving your goals can be really hard,” Google product manager Jyoti Ramnath said in a blog post. “That’s why starting today, we’re introducing Goals in Google Calendar.” People can add personal goals such as going for runs or getting to gyms, and then Google calendar software analyzes schedules for optimal times to squeeze in activities, according to Ramnath.

Calendar will automatically reschedule time for personal goals if conflicts arise, and is programmed to automatically reschedule activities if users simply prefer to put them off.

The more people use the Goals feature in Calendar, the better the software gets at picking times for personal objectives, according to Google. “Calendars should help you make the most of your time, not just be tools to track events,” Ramnath said.

China to ‘facilitate’ new GM crops after years of waiting

BEIJING (AFP): China will “facilitate” the planting of genetically modified corn and other plants on an industrial scale in the next five years, officials said, after not authorising any new commercial GM crops for a decade. The controversial science is a key trade issue with the US, whose biotechnology giant Monsanto is a global leader in the field, while its rival Syngenta has agreed a $43 billion takeover offer by Chinese state-owned firm ChemChina. Only two GM crops are currently commercially cultivated in the country - a type of cotton approved in 1996, and a virus resistant papaya authorised in 2006. GM soya, corn, cotton and rape can be imported as raw materials and as ingredients in processed products.

Processed sugar beet imports are also allowed. Beijing is pro-biotechnology as it has long been concerned over the world’s most populous country’s ability to feed itself - a fear that factored into the introduction of its controversial one-child policy.

But large-scale cultivation of GM crops remains sensitive as environmentalists and some scientists warn against the technology’s as-yet-unknown long-term consequences for biodiversity and human health.

“During the 13th five-year plan, we will... push forward the industrialisation of major products including new types of insect-resistant cotton and corn,” Liao Xiyuan, a senior official with the Chinese agriculture ministry, told reporters.

Corn is the top grain in China by both production and sown area - much of it used for animal feed - with rice only in second place, followed by wheat, official data shows.

The government will continue research on GM rice and wheat over the next five years, Liao said at a press conference Wednesday.

GM crops are sometimes found being grown illegally in the country and Liao said had authorities “rooted out” GM rice in the central province of Hubei. Last year they also destroyed a total of 73 hectares of GM corn in several areas. “Sporadic illegal planting of (GM crops) does exist in some areas and we will crack down harshly on it,” Liao said.

Runaway chimp survives fall from power line

TOKYO (AFP): A runaway chimpanzee in Japan was shot with a tranquiliser gun only to hang precariously from a power line before falling to the ground and surviving in a drama shown live on national television. The chimp, 24-year-old Chacha, was more fortunate than a zebra which escaped from a Tokyo zoo last month, its bid for freedom ending in death when it collapsed in a water trap after also being shot with a tranquiliser. The chimp escaped from Sendai Yagiyama Zoological Park with keepers in hot pursuit but climbed up an electricity pole.Zoo officials shot the chimp with the tranquiliser which eventually kicked in and caused him to lose his footing, though he managed to grab hold of a power line with one hand.

Seconds later however Chacha lost his grip and fell, live footage on TBS showed.

Chacha bounced off a lower cable before plummeting headfirst towards the ground where waiting rescuers tried to break the fall with a plastic sheet. He was then wrapped in a blanket before being placed into a zoo ambulance.

“Chacha is coming to from the tranquiliser,” Zoo staffer Toshikazu Abe told AFP. “Despite the fall, he was unhurt and there is no threat to his life,” he added. “We are investigating why he escaped.”

Every year a Tokyo zoo stages a drill where a keeper dresses as an animal and stages an escape, giving zoo workers the opportunity to hone their techniques.

Malaysia destroys huge ivory trove

PORT DICKSON, Malaysia (AFP): Malaysia on Thursday destroyed 9.5 tonnes of elephant ivory it had seized over the years, which authorities hope will help deter smugglers who have long used the country as a trans-shipment point. The huge pile of African elephant tusks, estimated to be worth $20 million, was first fed into in an industrial crusher to be pulverised, and then incinerated in a giant furnace in Port Dickson in southern Malaysia. Malaysia has previously announced in Parliament that 4,624 ivory tusks were confiscated between 2011 and 2014. “This is our first-ever ivory destruction. We want to send a strong message to the world that Malaysia does not compromise in protecting endangered species,” Natural Resources and Environment Minister Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar told AFP.

The international ivory trade, with rare exceptions, has been outlawed since 1989 after the population of African elephants declined from millions in the mid-20th century to just 600,000 by the end of the 1980s.

But poachers and smugglers have continued to exploit demand, mainly from Asia and particularly China, where ivory is highly prized for medicinal and decorative uses.

Malaysia, a signatory to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), has seized a number of shipments over the years, mostly by sea.

In March, officials said they had confiscated 159 kilogrammes (350 pounds) of ivory smuggled by passengers aboard commercial flights.

Wan Junaidi said the tusks destroyed Thursday originated from 11 African countries ranging from Ghana to Tanzania.

They were publicly destroyed to deter smugglers, he said, while adding it also was partly in response to questions raised by conservationists over the fate of seized ivory.

“I do not want any of the seized ivory lost. If the ivory is no longer needed to be kept for evidence, we will destroy it,” he said.

The event was witnessed by foreign diplomats and conservation groups.

“We look forward to these good intentions being bolstered with concrete actions to tackle the factors that have made Malaysia a key transit point in the global ivory trade,” said Kanitha Krishnasamy, programme manager for TRAFFIC in Southeast Asia.

Pistols owned by Simon Bolivar sell for $1.8 million

NEW YORK (AFP): A pair of pistols that once belonged to the Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar sold for $1.8 million at the auction house Christie’s in New York on Wednesday. The guns’ provenance prompted special interest. They were a present from the French aristocrat the Marquis de Lafayette, who fought in the French and American revolutions and believed Bolivar - who led the liberation of several states from Spanish rule - shared common Enlightenment ideals. He sent Bolivar the two ceremonial pistols, made by royal gunsmiths at Versailles, in 1825.

Contained inside a wooden box, the weapons are inlaid with gold and silver and embossed with symbols from Greek and Roman mythology. Born into a wealthy family in Caracas, Bolivar led the troops who forced the Spanish to surrender control of the Captaincy General of Venezuela in 1813.

He went on to play a decisive role in the establishment of Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, whose name is derived from his. He died in 1830 at age 47.

Rare Bengal tiger cubs born to travelling circus

SAN RAFAEL DEL SUR, Nicaragua (AFP): A trio of rare Bengal tiger cubs have become the stars of a Mexican circus in Nicaragua, one of the few Central American countries that still allow circuses to own live animals. The tigers - one white, one orange and one golden - were born three months ago to Paulina, a 200-kilogram (440-pound) female in the De Renato Circus, its owner, Renato Fuentes Townsend, told AFP. Bengal tigers are classed as an endangered species, and Fuentes said “it is the first case I’ve seen” of such varied coloring in one litter. His outfit, part of a traditional Mexican circus group called Hermanos Gasca, is unable to return to its homeland because of a law passed there 15 months ago prohibiting circuses from owning live animals, in line with legislation across much of Central America.

The circus has been touring for the past five years with a menagerie that also includes female elephants, two camels, a buffalo, a pony, two miniature donkeys and four horses.