For Ethan

For the past week I was visiting family back in the Midwest. Last Saturday I had the pleasure of having dinner with my nephew Russ, his wife Erin and their two children Ethan and Nova. My dad, sister and brother-in-law were also there. Dinner was at a nice brew pub and the food was good. As usual there was lively conversation around the table.

I was sitting next to Ethan. I knew Ethan was very interested in animals from past encounters so I was expecting to talk to him about our latest trip to Africa. Even though Ethan is a bit on the quiet side he peppered me with questions about our safari. My sister had already warned me that he is very smart and usually right when he says something.

At some point Ethan asked me if I knew what a guineafowl was. I immediately launched into a description of the helmeted guineafowls that I had seen in Kenya and South Africa. What I didn’t know was that Ethan’s family raises domestic guineafowl. It wasn’t long before he was asking questions that I didn’t know the answers to. But of course he did…

Ethan then told me that guinea eggs were very tough and that he had even dropped one on concrete and it didn’t break. I had no reason to disbelieve him but I also thought it might just be the exaggeration of a 9-year-old. The rest of the meal continued in a pleasant fashion until we had to go our separate ways.

When I got home I decided, out of curiosity, to check Ethan’s claim of guinea egg durability. I Googled “helmeted guineafowl” and found an entry in Wikipedia that said “Domestic birds at least, are notable for producing extremely thick-shelled eggs.” This appeared to support Ethan’s claim, however, Wikipedia is not really the most reliable source around. I continued to search but mostly found a bunch of YouTube videos of questionable veracity. So I kept digging until I found this:

guineaeggsSo there it was. Ethan’s claim was substantiated by the journal of British Poultry Science!

Why am I writing about this? With his sharp mind and strong interest in animals Ethan would make an excellent Naturalist (among other things) someday. So this posting is to applaud all of the young people out there who are interested in science, wildlife and the environment. Our world needs people like them. Let’s encourage their interest so that our future will be brighter.

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South Africa Safari – Day 11

As we roll out of bed this morning we realize that this is our last full day on safari. Hopefully it will bring lots of exciting new discoveries.

We headed down to the river. Our ranger had heard there were lions there that had made a kill the night before. What a sight. I have never seen a group of lions with such extended bellies in my life. They could barely lie on their stomachs. Most lay on their backs with their feet extended in the air. Needles to say they weren’t very active. Comical but not active. We hung around for about 30 minutes photographing these lethargic beasts before moving on.

Driving around we spot a few zebras. Zebras are among the most beautiful of Africa’s animals. However, they photograph much better on the savanna of Masai Mara that the brush of the lowveld. It doesn’t help that this is the dry season and there is no green to contrast with their beautiful stripes. It does give an idea of how well the zebra’s stripes can serve as camouflage under the right conditions. We were also fortunate to spot a couple of endangered ground hornbills.

We headed over to a large water hole and spotted a hyena, and before we knew it there was a whole pack of them, including a couple of youngsters. We parked the land rover and watched these guys cavort in the water and chase each other for over 30 minutes. The main behavior of the pack seems to be checking out each others genitalia. The hyena is unique in that the female has a pseudo-penis. The female is also slightly larger than the male and they live in a female dominated pack. It was also astonishing the number of vocalizations that these animals made. It was downright noisy.

After the hyenas moved on we joined up with others from our group for our morning bush breakfast. These brief interludes each morning were highly civilized and gave us a chance to get to know our rangers and trackers better. And besides – they make great coffee!

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Ray, Pat, Ed, Tom and Colbert

As we wound our way back to camp we saw a crested francolin, a yellow billed hornbill, a warhog and a Nyala taking a rest in the shade. A pretty good morning overall.

Lunch was a special treat on this day. Our host at King’s Camp, Tristan, is the proud keeper of an African Wildcat. As this was our last lunch at King’s Camp he promised to bring the cat out for us to see. I wasn’t sure what an African Wildcat was but I was looking forward to seeing one. It turns out that the African Wildcat, to my eye, is indistinguishable from a common tabby. And for good reason. The house cat was probably domesticated from the African Wildcat about 9000 years ago in the fertile crescent of the Middle East. If you’d like to know more about what domestic cats have in common with the African Wildcat click here.

The weather was stunning as we left for our afternoon drive. We observed giraffes, including a young giraffe, more zebra and saw how birds can protect their nests by building them inside of a very thorny Acacia tree.

The afternoon, however, belonged to the elephants. We followed a large herd through the trees, brush and river bed for close to an hour. Our ranger, Remember, and our tracker, Elvis, did a good job of keeping us positioned to get some great shots. I never tire of watching these incredible animals.

Once the elephants had finished with us we drove to the river where a large concrete dam had been built years ago to control the flow of the river. There lying on top of the concrete, basking in the golden glow of the setting sun was a beautiful leopard. He seemed completely unconcerned with anything other than having a comfortable nap. As the sun set we could see hippos swimming in the river and shore birds on the river bank. One last surprise awaited us as we exited the area. A scrub hare  was laying by the road, just waiting for us to take its photograph. A lovely way to end an exciting day!

Good News from the African Elephant Summit

It seems that all the conservation news is bad these days. Loss of habitat, climate change, poaching, etc. So occasionally when there is a bit of good news I like to celebrate it. After all, the subtitle for this blog is “Inform and Inspire.” Well we got some good news last week from the African Elephant Summit in Gaborone, Botswana. At the summit meeting governments of states where the illegal ivory trade occurs pledged to take “urgent measures” to try and stop the illegal trade and end poaching.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or IUCN, “2011 saw the highest levels of poaching and illegal ivory trade in at least 16 years, with around 25,000 elephants killed on the continent, and it says 2012 showed no signs of abating.” Furthermore, “eighteen large scale seizures of more than 40 tons of ivory had been recorded so far this year, which represented the greatest quantity of ivory seized over the last 25 years.”

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

If not stopped, poaching will reduce elephant herds significantly in the next 10 years.

“Our window of opportunity to tackle the growing illegal ivory trade is closing and if we do not stem the tide, future generations will condemn our unwillingness to act,” Botswana President Ian Khama told the summit.

“Now is the time for Africa and Asia to join forces to protect this universally valued and much needed species,” he said.

The governments in attendance published a list of Urgent Measures to be taken in 2014. This list was agreed upon by key African elephant range states including Gabon, Kenya, Niger and Zambia, ivory transit states such as Vietnam, Philippines and Malaysia, and ivory destination states, including China and Thailand, said the IUCN in a statement.

Probably the most urgent of the 14 measures classifies wildlife trafficking as a “serious crime.” According to the IUCN, this will unlock international law enforcement cooperation provided under the United Nations Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime, including mutual legal assistance, asset seizure and forfeiture, extradition and other tools to hold criminals accountable for wildlife crime. In other words, It won’t just be the Kenya Wildlife Service going up against international criminal cartels.

Will this action by the African Elephant Summit and IUCN put an end to poaching? Of course not. Poverty, greed and corruption, as well as increasing demand from Asia for ivory are strong motivators. But this action inspires hope that the number of needless deaths of elephants will decline. And that will be something to celebrate.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

One of the victims of poaching are the baby elephants that are orphaned when their mothers are killed for their ivory. Without the protection of the mother the baby will die or be killed by predators.

Side Note: When I was in South Africa in October I was reading an investigative article about the use of powdered rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM). In this story the investigator made undercover purchases of powdered ivory at traditional ethnic pharmacies and chemists shops in Asia. He then had all the samples tested by DNA sequencing. The result – not a single sample was authentic. Elephants and rhinos are being killed for their ivory and yet what people in Vietnam and China are buying is fake. It would almost be funny if it wasn’t so painful.

Sources:

  1. Urgent deal reached for African elephants, Key states commit to urgent measures to half illegal ivory trade; By Ray Faure, Associated Press – Wed, Dec 4, 2013 12:28 PM EST
  2. African Elephant Summit; Gaborone, Botswana; 2-4 December 2013; Urgent Measures 3 December 2013; https://cmsdata.iucn.org/downloads/african_elephant_summit_final_urgent_measures_3_dec_2013.pdf
  3. Zambia Assents to Secure Elephants; http://www.lusakatimes.com/2013/12/04/zambia-assents-secure-elephants/

South Africa Safari – Pink Pouch

Back on October 31st I wrote about our experiences in Londolozi when our land rover became stuck and our ranger and tracker had to free it. At that time I wrote:

“On the drive back to camp I asked Richard why he didn’t call for help to get out of the wash. His reply was along the lines of what I expected. Apparently there are no consequences to getting stuck at Londolozi, as long as you can free yourself. However, if you have to call for help the leather ammo pouch that each ranger carries on his belt is replaced by a pink ammo pouch for a month!”

It turns out that this is not just a myth that the rangers tell visitors. Last Saturday Mike Sutherland posted the following on the Londolozi blog:

The proud new owner of the Pink Pouch, Mr Byron Serrao. (Photographer not given)

The proud new owner of the Pink Pouch, Mr Byron Serrao. (Photographer not given)

Byron Serrao is only the most recent holder of the Pink Pouch. For more detail about the story behind the pouch check out James Tyrrell’s post from August 13th. 😉

Enjoy!
Mark

South Africa Safari – Day 10

What day 10 lacked in variety it made up for in quantity. One again we started the day by tracking a pride of lions on the hunt. It was clear that they sensed nearby prey but we never figured out what they were after. We stayed with them for over 30 minutes and they stalked through the dry grass before moving on.

Click on any image to enlarge it.

We explored the veldt for about 40 minutes before coming upon a few elephants at a watering hole. Unlike yesterday the light was good and we stopped to watch these magnificent animals.

We moved on but almost immediately came upon the rest of the herd. For a moment we thought we were going to see a scuffle as two males challenged each other. However, the smaller of the males showed good sense and backed down.

We drove ahead of the herd and parked at a second water hole and waited. Within minutes the herd arrived and began to fill up. Along with the herd was one baby elephant. It was so young it had not yet learned how to use its trunk to drink. It was so cute as the baby got down on its knees to drink water directly with its mouth. The adults kept the baby surrounded at all times in what was clearly a protective maneuver. There was lots of other activity around the water as well. There was some pushing and shoving by some of the elephants. Some waded directly into the water while the others remained on the bank. This continued for about 30 minutes. Then the herd reversed course and headed back into the bush.

With the departure of the elephants we resumed our search. We came across a few Cape Buffalo. I must admit that I find these beasts fascinating.

Cape buffalo, King's CampAfter about 50 minutes of exploration we found a leopard hidden in the bush with fresh prey. (An antelope or Impala I think.) We watched as the leopard ripped the fur from the carcass and then tore in to the meat. Despite the grisly scene in front of us you could not help but admire the beauty of this animal.

Our afternoon drive began with more elephants. It was probably part of the same herd that we saw this morning. We grabbed a few shots and moved on.

We decided to see if the leopard from this morning was still there – and she was. She was still working over her prey. A somewhat older cub briefly made an appearance but then quickly disappeared back into the bush.

Mother and cub

Mother and cub

As we drove around we spotted a few rhinos but not much else. Finally, around 5 pm, we came across a pride of lions. They of course were doing what lions do best – rest. We watched them lay about and groom each other. Then slowly they started to show some signs of life, eventually heading over to the water for a drink. By this time the sun was down and it was starting to get dark. (i.e.: some of the following shots were taken at ISO 12800) We left them as they were getting ready for their evening’s adventures.

South Africa Safari – Day 9

For our first full day at King’s Camp we were, as usual, out before sunrise. We found several white rhinos rather quickly browsing for their morning meal. Rhinos have always held a fascination for me because of their compact, powerful shape. They look as much like a train locomotive as anything else and that giant horn on the front of their head serves its purpose of appearing to be very threatening.

Click on any image to enlarge

In relatively short order we sighted some steenbok, a male Kudu, and elephants.

It was about 7:45 am when we spotted a pride of lions that appeared to be intently watching something. We approached cautiously so as not to disturb them. There was a herd of Cape Buffalo nearby that seemed to capture their full attention. We watched as they slowly got up out of the grass and slowly skulked their way towards the Cape Buffalo. It was fascinating to watch. Eventually they seemed to either loose interest or realized that their chances with this herd were not too great and settled back into the grass.

When we realized that the lions had given up the hunt we moved on to hunt for other animals ourselves. Alongside the river we found one of the leopards that we had seen the previous day. We watched it for a while but apparently it did not want company and disappeared into the bush. We also spotted a troop of baboons in the river bottom. One of the baboons had a baby riding on it’s back, horseback-style. We also saw a few more giraffes, always a delight.

The rest of the morning was fascinating as we came across a couple groups of elephants. We saw one group headed in the direction of one of the watering holes so we went on ahead and waited. In short order, the elephants showed up for their morning drink. Unfortunately, the light was very harsh, terrible for photography. But we got to watch as a family composed of a large bull, a matriarch, one young elephant and one baby came up to the hole for a drink.

They finished their drink and moved on and so did we. However, the same group re-appeared out of the bush and this time we were able to obtain some nice photos.

We arrived back at camp and had our usual splendid lunch. As we left the dining room we noticed that the front lawn was being mowed – South African style.

We began our afternoon drive by telling our ranger that we wanted to find some zebras. We really had not seen that many on this trip and I think that zebras are among the most beautiful of all the African mammals. We took off and had to drive for quite a distance but we were able to locate a small herd and obtain some great shots.

After leaving the zebras we started the long drive back towards camp. Our ranger “Remember” promised us something special. We passed up some more elephants (I think they were following us that day) and headed for one of the large watering holes. We arrived just as the sun was going down, and were astonished by the sight. We drove right into a herd of Cape Buffalo. The herd appeared to be 500 to 1000 animals strong. It was one of the most amazing sights I had seen and certainly one of the highlights of the safari.

The sun had now set and we headed back to camp. However as we passed another watering hole we saw two young spotted hyenas playing in the water. We had to stop even though it was almost dark. Time to crank up the ISO to 6400 and burn some electrons! We photographed the two hyenas for a while and then spotted the mother and an even younger pup. So of course we had to take a few more shots.

We headed back to camp, or so we thought. Some of us noticed that we were going in the wrong direction. We soon discovered that the day’s activities were not yet over. The camp staff had planned an elaborate bush dinner for us. “Oh the rigors of a safari…” Yet somehow we survived the evening.

South Africa Safari – Day 8

The morning of October 2nd was to be our last game drive at Mala Mala. After an abbreviated drive  we would move to our final safari destination, Kings Camp in the Timbavati game preserve.

We were out before 6 am as usual and found the usual herd of Impala grazing near the camp. It was quite chilly that morning. Continuing on we came across a termite mound. Between our Kenya trip and this one we had seen dozens of termite mounds. What was unique about this one was that it was clearly active with steam rising from the mound and condensing in the cold morning air.

Click on any photo to enlarge

Active termite mound.

Active termite mound.

At about 6:15 we spotted a bush buck. We watched him for a while and then came across a beautiful African fish eagle and a male kudu.

Around 7:30 we spotted a pride of lions at the “green slime” watering hole. One lioness was pacing at the edge of the water and staring out to the center where an animal carcass was stuck. It appeared to be a Nyala but how it got there I don’t know. What I did know was that the lioness wanted it and was trying to figure out how to get it.

We watched her try to figure out how she could get to the carcass and drag it to shore. Finally, almost without warning, she leaped into the pond only to find herself chest deep in mud. This was a nasty turn of events that clearly displeased her. When we left about a half hour later she was still lying at the edge of the water hole trying to figure out how to get the carcass.

After leaving the lions at the water hole we found another leopard. This handsome cat spent most of the time either under a tree or creeping through the brush. We followed the cat for about a half hour but then needed to head back to camp. On the way back to camp we did get a photo of a water buck. We had been trying to get a good shot of a water buck ever since we went to Kenya.

We got back to camp, packed our bags and loaded into a small bus for the 2 hour drive to King’s Camp. The drive was interesting. We were a long way from the urban centers yet we saw a lot of residential construction. Most of the homes are very small and made from concrete blocks. Most were unfinished. Apparently people would buy construction materials as they could afford them and then continue building their homes as they were able to.

We arrived at Kings Camp, our final destination for this safari, and were warmly welcomed, as usual, by the owners and staff. Unlike Londolozi and Mala Mala, which were unfenced, Kings Camp was surrounded by a wide electric fence to discourage the wildlife from entering the compound and snacking on the tourists! Despite the fence, we were warned not to roam the camp unescorted at night.

It was almost 4 pm by the time we began our afternoon drive. Our Ranger/Driver for King’s Camp was “Remember” and our tracker’s name was Elvis. Almost immediately we discovered a giraffe busy munching on trees nearby. With that long neck and horns on its head the giraffe always appears rather cartoon-like. Continuing on our way we soon came across a pride of lions. They appeared to be tracking some nearby wildlife. They were clearly attentive but unhurried. The largest male had a large abscess or growth on his left front leg. Eventually they settled down in the grass and do what lions do so well much of the time – nothing.

We saw a herd of Cape Buffalo nearby and headed in that direction. After watching the herd for a short while Remember mentioned that there was a watering hole nearby and the herd seemed to be slowly moving in that direction. He suggested that we go down to the watering hole and wait for the herd there. We arrived at the watering hole and positioned ourselves strategically such that we would have good light when the buffalo arrived. Remember was correct. Within 10 minutes the herd was meandering towards the water for an afternoon drink. And we were in the perfect position to capture nature in action.

The Cape Buffalo finished up and wandered off about 5:15 so we took off in search of other animals. In short order we came across a spotted hyena. Hyenas are very odd animals, looking like they were built with left over spare parts of other animals. Some people consider them to be ugly, but I just think they look kind of strange.

As we were driving around I spotted a tree with whitish/yellow roots growing on top of a boulder. I asked Remember what type of tree it was. It was a Large-leaved Rock Fig tree (Ficus abutilifolia), a member of the mulberry family. They characteristically grow out of the rocks with their roots penetrating the cracks, searching for water. The fruit is said to be quite tasty.

By now it was almost sunset. One thing about southern Africa is that the sunsets are typically spectacular. Presumably this is due to the presence of the Kalahari desert to the west which kicks up lots of dust into the atmosphere. Whatever the cause, the colors are incredible.

Sunset

Sunset

On the way back to camp we lucked upon another leopard. This cat was definitely on the prowl for its dinner. We followed it in the gathering darkness for about 20 minutes. To our surprise it headed for our camp! When it came to the electric fence the cat was not deterred in the least. With one easy leap he soared over the fence and into the camp. Now I understood the warning about not roaming around the camp unescorted at night!