OnSafari: Serengeti

OnSafari: Serengeti

lion.cubbellyfullAs usual for this time of year it was bone dry. Mornings were still and cold. Saturn twinkled above in the ink blue predawn sky almost as brightly as the half moon which had set in the middle of the night. The sun rose as a giant orange ball behind a charcoal grey curtain of dust and the first breezes tossled the fields of dead, blonde grass. By noon dust devils twisted across the veld. By afternoon strong winds obliterated the cloudless sky with layers of dust.

Pundits like to advise potential safari travelers that this is the best time to see cats. To a certain extent that’s true. But what they see isn’t often what they expect:

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Lucky Leopard

Lucky Leopard

LionNursesLeopardPolitics are changing lightning fast and climate is changing lightning fast, and now it seems that wild animal behavior is also seriously changing.

I’ve written about the catastrophic decline of lions, but recently we learned of one of the weirdest wild animal behaviors ever: inter-species nursing! Combined with several years ago, when a lionness adopted an oryx (!) in Samburu, I think we’re seeing nature desperately trying to evolve as fast as earth’s temperatures warm.

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Who Cares?

Who Cares?

savetheiceWhy are professionals from zoo directors to scientists – much less you! – less interested in the lion decline than the elephant decline? Why are you donating to Save The Elephants but not Save the Lions?

Lions-Wild estimates there were more than 100,000 lion living in the wild when I started my career. Today there are 15-20,000. That decline is greater and much more alarming than that of rhino or elephant. Worse yet the world’s most important lion researchers say another 50% decline will occur in just the next few years? Why is there so much less interest in the lion decline? I think I know the answer.

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The Monster Rests

The Monster Rests

rhinoNPR’s fuzzy wuzzy reporting in the last few days about the northern white rhino is high school journalism. I’m not suggesting that this story needs the due diligence of Jared Kushner’s Russia contacts, but what is an important battle between science and performance NPR has reduced to a smiling emoticon.

NPR reported as if it were new a crowdfunding campaign for in vitro fertilization to save the last three known surviving northern white rhino. In fact the campaign has languished for more than sixteen months. And there are good reasons it’s languishing.

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Dog Dangers

Dog Dangers

wilddoghuntAfter a decade of successful recovery by a worldwide effort to save wild dogs they are threatened once again.

Enough habitats have been secured and enough bred in the wild and reintroduced that except for one obstruction, they would currently be thriving. That one obstruction is human: farmers whose stock has been taken down.

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The Lion & The Goat

The Lion & The Goat

lion-and-the-goatI hate to say it, but lions are climbing trees more than ever before. I’ve got to figure this one out.

Lions have always climbed trees, but honestly not as much as people report them doing, now. On my own safaris I’ve noticed it, and blog and after blog today confirms the behavior as if it were as normal as strutting across the veld to find a piece of shade to flop down into. So how come?

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Elephant in The Room

Elephant in The Room

elephantintheroomCOP17, the CITES treaty working group, is winding down like a firecracker with the biggest boom possibly yet to come. Southern African countries prevailed in a bitter fight to keep all elephants from being listed as imminently going extinct, and the fight over lions begins today.

CITES was absolutely fundamental in saving elephants from extinction 30 years ago. But times have changed. Has it lost its power to politics?

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CITES Senses

CITES Senses

elephantgraphsMore than two thousand ardent scientists and advocates are in Johannesburg today preparing for next year’s CITES. Historical treaties like the Geneva Convention may actually effect our daily lives more noticeably but only CITES has attracted such global consensus that enforcement is aggressive and routine.

Today horse trading like you’ve never seen is going on, but in the end unlike so much else in today’s troubled world, everybody really will come together.

Sound nice? Yes, it is, but there’s still this one thing….

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OnSafari: Lion Alert

OnSafari: Lion Alert

lionintreeBPCats dominated our first few days of game viewing. On only four game drives we’ve racked up 34 lions, 6 cheetah and one leopard.

Lion aren’t doing well in Africa. Nearly a third of the population has been lost in the last decade, and we experienced first hand one of the reasons why.

Our first two days were spent at Ndutu Lodge in the very southwest of the Serengeti, only a few kilometers away from a rather highly populated rural area of ranching Maasai. Over the years Maasai have become much more sophisticated businessmen, using vitamins and antibiotics and modern farming methods.

So their herds have increased, their wealth has increased and their population centers have increased.

During that same time tourists have increased and on the other side of the great wildernesses, Africa’s dynamic cities and towns are exploding with population and industry.

This is the dry season. Virtually all the great herbivore herds have moved far north into Kenya’s Maasai Mara where it’s still raining and the grass is still growing. This puts enormous stress on the cats, who have survived for eons through these normal cycles of feast and famine.

But normal cycles have become exaggerated by climate change. It’s wetter and colder in the wet season and dryer and hotter in the dry season. Feasting is now gluttony. Famine is now starvation.

Two days before we arrived a pride of lion killed two Maasai cows. The ranchers vowed revenge and it is this dynamic now dominating the fringes of wilderness areas throughout the entire sub-Saharan Africa.

NGO and field researchers were summoned by the park authorities to try to defuse the situation. Their only weapon is talk. They try to convince the Maasai that the wilderness is essential for a Tanzanian future for a variety of reasons, especially tourism.

And now some NGOs are also offering to compensate farmers and ranchers who loose their stock to wild animals.

So the researcher in charge of our area actually solicited us to travel with him to an area where two lion were mating. The rest of the pride’s members had skedaddled away after their cow pilferage, but a mating pair won’t move for the duration of their 3-day affair.

So we tourists provided not only the cover-buffer against revenge but also an object lesson in the value of lions. These were our first two.

The next day as the mating pair finally moved on, they did so after first killing a Maasai donkey. Not good news.

With such human/wildlife conflict going on in our neighborhood, lions started to appear all over the place. Like in front of our rooms at Ndutu Lodge.

Askaris (guards) were summoned to patrol the area all night long with strong flashlights. Still, the deep throating of the lions and the cries of hyaena following them filled our night.

Today we left the southwest area for the middle of the park. There is a long stretch on the “main road” which is a vast, now desiccated plains which in the rainy season is the verdant prairie. Normally now no cats will be here, because the large herbivores are gone.

But the season has been so stressful, that we found a lioness on the side of the road – in very bad condition – stalking Thomson Gazelle! That’s ridiculous. These marvelous little creatures which don’t need water and eat roots in the arid plains, covered the landscape. But a full grown Thomson is hardly 35 pounds! More to the point, they’re way too quick and nimble for a lion.

The main road got clogged with safari vehicles stopping to watch the lion. It was rather bizarre and comic at the same time. She took no notice of the dozen vehicles hardly ten feet from here as she crouched behind some roadside grass intently stalking the gazelle.

Then two giant road craters came up and I told my group to scatter quickly. It just wasn’t a good situation. The lion was desperate. Even a weak and desperate lion is powerful.

During our later drive that afternoon along the Seronera River we saw 13 more lion and a leopard. Just before we ended the game drive, we saw six lion hanging from a tree as if someone slung giant sausages up there!

It’s always easy to find cats in the dry season, but what we’ve seen is a mixture of the wonderful normal and the really scary abnormal.

There is tension on the veld.

Louis, Judy, Ben & Swen on the Miller Family Safari.
Louis, Judy, Ben & Swen on the Miller Family Safari.