Axed: Rampant Logging Hits India's Batmakers for Six

A worker crafts a Kashmiri willow wood cricket bat at a factory in Kashmir's Sangam village, on August 19, 2023. Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP
A worker crafts a Kashmiri willow wood cricket bat at a factory in Kashmir's Sangam village, on August 19, 2023. Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP
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Axed: Rampant Logging Hits India's Batmakers for Six

A worker crafts a Kashmiri willow wood cricket bat at a factory in Kashmir's Sangam village, on August 19, 2023. Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP
A worker crafts a Kashmiri willow wood cricket bat at a factory in Kashmir's Sangam village, on August 19, 2023. Tauseef MUSTAFA / AFP

When the Cricket World Cup opens in India next month several players will carry Kashmiri willow wood bats, but manufacturers say over-exploitation of trees means their craft faces ruin.

Unchecked logging without replanting has reduced swathes of woodland to scrub in the disputed Indian-administered Himalayan territory, and bat manufacturers face a bleak future, said AFP.

"It's a case of culling all the time and no sowing," said Irfan Ali Shah, a senior official in the government's forest service.

Willow grows far more slowly than the more commercially viable poplar, and bat-makers warn the entire industry -- a major employer -- is at risk.

"We have started searching far-off corners of the valley, but there is not much good willow to be found anywhere for making the best quality bats," said Fawzul Kabiir, whose GR8 bats are International Cricket Council-approved and sold worldwide.

"If the government doesn't help plant again soon on a large scale... we will run out of raw material in three to five years," he told AFP.

Found from Europe to central Asia, water-loving white willows -- scientific name Salix alba -- are deciduous trees growing up to 30 meters (100 feet) tall.

Numbers expanded enormously during the 19th century under British colonial rule, when plantations were laid for firewood during the freezing mountain winter.

The ready supply of willow -- the wood favored by cricketers -- also sparked a craft in bats.

Tendulkar, Kohli and Waugh
Willow has criss-crossing fibers that give it strength and tiny air pockets that reduce vibrations, making the wood light but powerful enough to smash a ball for six.

International big hitters have traditionally preferred willow from England, but the same tree grows in Kashmir and every year the region now produces three million "clefts" -- the rough-cut blocks of wood ready for shaping.

It is the bulk of global supply and bat-maker Kabiir, 31, insists: "The best Kashmir willow bat is at least as good as English willow."

GR8 says its customers include cricketing greats from Indian heroes Sachin Tendulkar and Virat Kohli to Australia's Steve Waugh and South Africa's Graeme Smith and AB de Villiers.

Kashmir's bat-makers prospered over the decades as cricket's popularity grew -- demand surged after India's 1983 World Cup win and the sport now has more than a billion fans globally.

Today, the industry employs some 120,000 people across 400 workshops, according to manufacturers.

It is a key contributor to the economy of Kashmir, a Muslim-majority region claimed in full by both India and Pakistan but split between them, with the portion controlled by New Delhi roiled by a long-running insurgency.

- 'Near extermination' -

But supplies are vanishing fast.

Agricultural scientists at Sher-e-Kashmir University have warned female willow trees -- the most suitable for bat-making -- are facing "near extermination" in Kashmir.

Nearly a million trees were logged in the past decade as the government removed plantations sucking up water from the shrinking Wular lake, protected under the United Nations Ramsar convention.

Elsewhere, willows have been hacked down to make space for farmland and rice paddies.

Demand for timber from other industries, including plywood and pencils, has meant some have replaced willow with swifter-growing poplar.

"A willow tree matures in 30 years and poplar in half the time, and it fetches the same price," said Feroz Ahmed Reshi, whose family has supplied willow wood to bat-makers for generations. "This year, we planted 300 poplars and about five willows."

'Our SOS'
The government banned cleft exports to the rest of India or overseas 25 years ago in a bid to control logging and boost industry in Kashmir.

But the law is repeatedly flouted with some 100,000 clefts illegally sent elsewhere annually, a bat-makers association official said.

"Smuggling of our precious raw material has not stopped," the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the topic.

Authorities used to plant willow on state land to maintain firewood supplies but stopped decades ago as electricity and gas became available for heating.

Shah, the forestry official, believes bat-makers must "plant their own willow on their own land" to replace each tree felled.

But private land is scarce in Kashmir, and prices have surged since New Delhi suspended the region's semi-autonomous status and imposed direct rule in 2019.

That allowed Indians from elsewhere to buy land in Kashmir for the first time, a policy denounced by critics as "settler colonialism".

GR8's factory and showroom are in the small town of Sangam, the center of the bat industry, where tourists snap up bats from lines of stores, spending anything from $12 to $180.

"This is our SOS to the government," owner Kabiir said. "We cannot do it alone."



Saudi Team Successfully Separates Nigerian Conjoined Twins

Saudi team successfully separates Nigerian conjoined twins. (SPA)
Saudi team successfully separates Nigerian conjoined twins. (SPA)
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Saudi Team Successfully Separates Nigerian Conjoined Twins

Saudi team successfully separates Nigerian conjoined twins. (SPA)
Saudi team successfully separates Nigerian conjoined twins. (SPA)

A medical team at King Abdullah Specialist Children's Hospital has successfully separated Nigerian conjoined twins, Hassana and Hasina, SPA said on Friday.
The separation comes under the directives of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister.
Following their arrival in Riyadh on October 31, 2023, the twins underwent extensive examinations, which revealed they shared areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves.
The complex 16.5-hour surgery, which was carried out Thursday morning by 39 medical professionals, marks the 60th operation performed by the Saudi program for separating conjoined twins.
Over the past 34 years, the program has cared for 135 conjoined twins from 25 countries.
"Such successive medical breakthroughs are a testament to the Kingdom's shining examples of progress and development," said Advisor to the Royal Court, Supervisor General of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief) and head of the medical team Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah in a statement following the surgery.
He highlighted the Kingdom's commitment to humanitarian and medical excellence, aligning with Vision 2030's healthcare development goals.
The twins' parents expressed their gratitude to the Saudi leadership and medical team for the life-changing surgery and exceptional care.


Saudi Press Agency, Sky News Arabia Sign Cooperation Agreement

Saudi Press Agency and Sky News Arabia sign cooperation agreement. (SPA)
Saudi Press Agency and Sky News Arabia sign cooperation agreement. (SPA)
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Saudi Press Agency, Sky News Arabia Sign Cooperation Agreement

Saudi Press Agency and Sky News Arabia sign cooperation agreement. (SPA)
Saudi Press Agency and Sky News Arabia sign cooperation agreement. (SPA)

The Saudi Press Agency and Sky News Arabia signed a cooperation agreement in the field of news training, SPA said on Friday.
Assistant Minister of Media Dr. Abdullah bin Ahmed Al-Maghlouth attended Thursday's signing ceremony which took place during the Human Capability Initiative (HCI) in Riyadh.
The HCI is held under the patronage of Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister and Chairman of Human Capability Development Program Committee Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
The program seeks to realize Saudi Vision 2030.
The agreement focuses on the specialized courses offered by the academy in the field of news, exchange of expertise, and utilization of technology.


Jeddah Middle Corniche Closed 10 Days for Maintenance

People stand on the corniche in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
People stand on the corniche in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
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Jeddah Middle Corniche Closed 10 Days for Maintenance

People stand on the corniche in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights
People stand on the corniche in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia March 8, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Al Nasser/File Photo Purchase Licensing Rights

The Jeddah Governorate Municipality announced that the waterfront on the middle Corniche will be closed starting next Sunday, March 3, for 10 days for maintenance and preparation work.

The municipality explained that the closure of the waterfront comes out of its concern for the safety and health of visitors during the maintenance work for the facilities at the waterfront, SPA reported.

The closure includes the seating and picnic areas, starting from Al-Anani Mosque to Palestine Street.
The maintenance work includes rehabilitating the entire plantings of the waterfront project on the Middle Corniche and the Palestine Street walkway, repairing sidewalks, and cleaning and equipping fountains and lighting poles.


Saudi Medical Team Begins Separating Nigerian Conjoined Twins

The twins share areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves. SPA
The twins share areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves. SPA
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Saudi Medical Team Begins Separating Nigerian Conjoined Twins

The twins share areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves. SPA
The twins share areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves. SPA

A Saudi medical and surgical team began on Thursday separating Nigerian conjoined twins Hassana and Hasina at King Abdullah Specialist Children's Hospital in King Abdulaziz Medical City in Riyadh.

The separation is in implementation of the directives of Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud, Crown Prince and Prime Minister.

Following their arrival in Riyadh on October 31, the twins underwent extensive examinations, which revealed they share areas in the lower abdomen, pelvis, lower spine, and lower spinal nerves.

The surgery will be performed in nine stages and is expected to take approximately 14 hours.

A team of 38 consultants, specialists, technicians, and nursing staff in the specialties of anesthesia, pediatric surgery, urology, orthopedics, plastic surgery, and pediatric neurosurgery will participate in the operation.

According to Advisor at the Royal Court, Supervisor General of the King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center (KSrelief), and head of the medical team Dr. Abdullah Al Rabeeah, the success rate of the operation is 70%.

This is the 60th operation performed by the Saudi program for separating Siamese twins.

Over the past 34 years, the program has cared for 135 conjoined twins from 25 countries.
Al Rabeeah expressed gratitude to the Saudi leadership for its support of the program.


Living Near Fast Food Restaurants Could Affect Heart Health, New Study

(FILES) A driver in a vehicle places his order from a drive-thru lane at a Wendy's fast food resturant in Alhambra, California on May 5, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
(FILES) A driver in a vehicle places his order from a drive-thru lane at a Wendy's fast food resturant in Alhambra, California on May 5, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
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Living Near Fast Food Restaurants Could Affect Heart Health, New Study

(FILES) A driver in a vehicle places his order from a drive-thru lane at a Wendy's fast food resturant in Alhambra, California on May 5, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
(FILES) A driver in a vehicle places his order from a drive-thru lane at a Wendy's fast food resturant in Alhambra, California on May 5, 2020. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

A new British study, involving 500,000 adults, has found that living near fast food restaurants could harm the health of the heart.

These kinds of ready-to-eat food environments typically provide unhealthy foods and drinks, and have been linked to cardiovascular diseases, mostly heart failure. The findings were published in Circulation, an American Heart Association journal.

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart muscle can’t pump enough blood to meet the body’s needs for blood and oxygen. In this case, fluids can accumulate in the lungs, causing shortness of breath. This condition can lead to narrowing the heart arteries and raising blood pressure.

This study is likely the first to assess the association between food environment and heart failure with long-term observation, according to the researchers.

The study involved more than 500,000 adults, ages 37-73 years old, in the UK.

During the research, the team measured the link between living within one-kilometer from three types of food environments — pubs or bars, restaurants or cafeterias and fast-food restaurants.

The study documented nearly 13,000 heart failure cases during a 12-year follow-up period.

The analysis found that a closer proximity and a greater density of ready-to-eat food outlets were associated with a 16% risk of heart failure compared to those with no ready-to-eat food environments near their homes.

It also found that those in the highest density areas of pubs and bars showed a 14% higher risk for heart failure; while those in the highest density areas for fast-food outlets had a 12% higher risk.

Heart failure risk was stronger among participants without a college degree and adults in urban areas without access to formal physical activity facilities such as gyms.

According to the researchers, these findings add to previous studies that have suggested that exposure to ready-to-eat food environments is associated with risks of other disorders, such as Type 2 diabetes and obesity, which may also increase the risk of heart failure.

Authors said the findings suggest that improving access to healthier food environments and physical fitness facilities in urban areas, along with helping more people attain higher levels of education, could reduce the increased risk of heart failure linked to quick-meal options.


Theater Supervisors from Australia Train Saudi School Teachers

Training on making marionettes and how to move them on stage (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Training on making marionettes and how to move them on stage (Asharq Al-Awsat)
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Theater Supervisors from Australia Train Saudi School Teachers

Training on making marionettes and how to move them on stage (Asharq Al-Awsat)
Training on making marionettes and how to move them on stage (Asharq Al-Awsat)

The Saudi Ministry of Culture gives great attention to enhancing arts and culture in the local community, and recognizes the vital role school theater plays in growing the talents and skill of students.

As part of its efforts to promote school theater, the ministry has carried on an initiative aimed at training school teachers on theater arts, with the help of 160 supervisors who provide the guidance and support that schools need to develop and implement theater-related activities.

The School Theater Initiative is one of the top national initiatives launched by the Theater and Performing Arts Commission, as part of a strategic partnership with the Ministry of Education, to create a school theater movement aimed at enhancing the theater culture and growing a generation interested in theater.

The commission stated that the initiative will develop and grow the skills of supervisors and teachers through international programs curated by experts in theater and performative arts, in collaboration with Australia’s Monash University. The efforts seek to provide the trainees with the skills needed to fuel the sector with the essential theater elements, including acting, drama, design and direction.

The training program consists of several phases: the first ran from October 2002 until November 2022, during which several visits were paid to schools in Riyadh, to take a closer look at theater activities in the Kingdom and form the training team. The second saw the launch of the training program for the first promotion, including 20 teachers and 40 supervisors, as well as reviewing and assessing the content after the conclusion of the training.

The training started in the third phase, while the fourth, which ran between December 2023 and January 2024, graduated the first promotion of supervisors, who were responsible for training several groups of 20 teachers. The training program of the third and fourth promotions covered the cities of Riyadh, Jeddah, Dammam, Abha and Tabuk.

The fifth phase, which has kicked off earlier this year and ends in December, is designed to supervise and support the teachers that will be trained by 160 supervisors, in addition to selecting the best 1,000 school plays from different cities and provinces.


Volcanic Ash Forces Some Airlines to Suspend Flights from Mexico City 

The Popocatepetl volcano emits smoke and ash, seen from Mexico City at sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP)
The Popocatepetl volcano emits smoke and ash, seen from Mexico City at sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP)
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Volcanic Ash Forces Some Airlines to Suspend Flights from Mexico City 

The Popocatepetl volcano emits smoke and ash, seen from Mexico City at sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP)
The Popocatepetl volcano emits smoke and ash, seen from Mexico City at sunrise on Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2024. (AP)

Mexico City International Airport on Tuesday said airlines have canceled 22 domestic and international flights to carry out safety checks after planes encountered ash from the Popocatepetl volcano while flying toward the capital.

In a post on X, the airport said it remains open and in operation.

"Specialized teams and management remain on alert and are evaluating the ash conditions," the airport said. "At this time, the volcanic ash cloud is heading toward the Gulf of Mexico."

The airport advised travelers to stay informed through their airlines and official airport channels.

The government has issued a "yellow alert" for activity from the nearby volcano, whose name in the Aztec Nahuatl language means "Smoking Mountain."

Authorities earlier on Tuesday said a column of smoke from the volcano was blowing to the north-northwest and could bring ash over the capital.


South Korea’s Fertility Rate Dropped to Fresh Record Low in 2023 

Nurses take care of babies at a postnatal care center in Seoul, South Korea, 28 February 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)
Nurses take care of babies at a postnatal care center in Seoul, South Korea, 28 February 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)
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South Korea’s Fertility Rate Dropped to Fresh Record Low in 2023 

Nurses take care of babies at a postnatal care center in Seoul, South Korea, 28 February 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)
Nurses take care of babies at a postnatal care center in Seoul, South Korea, 28 February 2024. (EPA/Yonhap)

South Korea's fertility rate, already the world's lowest, dropped to a fresh record low in 2023, defying the billions of dollars spent by the country to try to reverse the trend as the population shrank for a fourth straight year.

The average number of expected babies for a South Korean woman during her reproductive life fell to 0.72 from 0.78 in 2022, data from Statistics Korea showed on Wednesday.

Since 2018, South Korea has been the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to have a rate below 1.

The South Korean government has made it a national priority to reverse the falling birth rate and in December promised to come up with "extraordinary measures" to tackle the situation.

Meanwhile, ahead of elections in April South Korea's major political parties vowed more public housing and easier loans in an effort to stem population decline, aiming to allay fears of "national extinction" as fertility rates crumble.

The parties' focus on population in their election planks reflects growing alarm after spending of more than 360 trillion won ($270 billion) in areas such as childcare subsidies since 2006 has failed to reverse record low fertility rates.

Being married is seen as a prerequisite to having children in South Korea, but marriages are also falling in the country with high financial burden cited as the main reason.

South Korea is not alone in the region struggling with a rapidly ageing population. The fertility rate in neighboring Japan's hit a record low of 1.26 in 2022, while China recorded 1.09, also a record low.

In South Korea, the capital Seoul had the lowest fertility rate of 0.55 last year.

South Korea has previously projected its fertility rate is likely to fall further to 0.68 in 2024.


Britain's Prince William Pulls Out of Event Due to Personal Matter

20 February 2024, United Kingdom, London: Prince William of Wales visits the headquarters of the British Red Cross, to hear about the humanitarian efforts taking place to support those affected by the conflict in Gaza. Photo: Kin Cheung/PA Wire/dpa
20 February 2024, United Kingdom, London: Prince William of Wales visits the headquarters of the British Red Cross, to hear about the humanitarian efforts taking place to support those affected by the conflict in Gaza. Photo: Kin Cheung/PA Wire/dpa
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Britain's Prince William Pulls Out of Event Due to Personal Matter

20 February 2024, United Kingdom, London: Prince William of Wales visits the headquarters of the British Red Cross, to hear about the humanitarian efforts taking place to support those affected by the conflict in Gaza. Photo: Kin Cheung/PA Wire/dpa
20 February 2024, United Kingdom, London: Prince William of Wales visits the headquarters of the British Red Cross, to hear about the humanitarian efforts taking place to support those affected by the conflict in Gaza. Photo: Kin Cheung/PA Wire/dpa

Britain's Prince William has pulled out of attending a memorial service at Windsor Castle for the late King Constantine of Greece because of an unspecified personal matter, his office said Tuesday.
"Unfortunately, the Prince of Wales is no longer able to attend the King Constantine Memorial Service this morning due to a personal matter," Kensington Palace said, according to Reuters.
The palace declined to give any further details, but it comes after his wife Kate, 42, underwent abdominal surgery last month. However, a royal source said Kate was continuing to do well.
Following Kate's operation, William, the 41-year-old heir to the throne, postponed official duties to care for her and their three children, before resuming public engagements earlier this month.
His absence comes as his father King Charles is also absent from his public role as he undergoes treatment for an unspecified form of cancer.
In Charles' absence, his wife Camilla has become the most senior royal performing engagements.


India Announces Four-member Crew for Space Mission

FILE PHOTO: Intuitive Machines' Odysseus spacecraft passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21, 2024, in this handout image released February 22, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Intuitive Machines' Odysseus spacecraft passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21, 2024, in this handout image released February 22, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via REUTERS
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India Announces Four-member Crew for Space Mission

FILE PHOTO: Intuitive Machines' Odysseus spacecraft passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21, 2024, in this handout image released February 22, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via REUTERS
FILE PHOTO: Intuitive Machines' Odysseus spacecraft passes over the near side of the Moon following lunar orbit insertion on February 21, 2024, in this handout image released February 22, 2024. Intuitive Machines/Handout via REUTERS

India on Tuesday introduced four crew members for its maiden 'Gaganyaan' space voyage, as it aims to become the world's fourth country to send a crewed mission into space just months after a historic landing on the south pole of the moon.
Gaganyaan, or "sky craft" in Hindi, is the first mission of its kind for India and will cost about 90.23 billion rupees ($1.1 billion). It involves the launch of a habitable space capsule over the next year to an orbit of 400 km (250 miles) and its return via a landing in the Indian Ocean.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi awarded the four crew members, all of them air force officers, "astronaut wings" at a space center in Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala state on Tuesday, in their first public appearance after months of rigorous training.
The four officers are Prashanth Balakrishnan Nair, Ajit Krishnan, Angad Pratap and Shubhanshu Shukla, a government statement said.
It was not clear if all four astronauts would be on board the mission, Reuters reported.
Gaganyaan is a "historic" achievement for India, Modi said on X and in a statement, coming four decades after air force officer, Rakesh Sharma, became the first Indian to travel to space - with a Soviet mission.
"Time is ours, countdown is ours and so is the rocket," Modi told space scientists.
Only the United States, Russia, and China have sent their own crewed missions into space.
Astronauts from more than three dozen other countries have made space trips aboard either US or Russian missions.