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.

No Longer a Trophy

No Longer a Trophy

pheasanthuntSports hunting impedes conservation and may contribute to species extinction.

The Democratic staff of the House Natural Resources Committee says so in a press release issued a few days ago about their 25-page report, “Missing the Mark.”

The report infers that the killing of Cecil, the lion, was an inflexion point in U.S. legislators’ positions on sports hunting and concludes that “trophy hunting” as currently regulated threatens big game and derails conservation.

Lawmakers won’t dare say this yet about wolves or bobcats, and they can’t say it about deer or wild turkeys, and of course it wouldn’t apply to “canned hunts” of so-called wild pheasant or cats on private reserves. But the reasoning is sound, and the reasoning is easily applied to the hunting of all living animals.

It’s reasoning that I came to slowly over a number of years of working in Africa. I believed for most of my life that big-game hunting contributed to African conservation.

Completely protected areas (like national parks) were surrounded by hunting reserves which seemed to create a “buffer” against poaching in the completely protected area. Revenue from hunting was significant and notably greater than those assessed tourists.

Both those dynamics changed in the last 15 years. Big-game countries like Tanzania began hither-and-yon designations of where hunting could occur and made it even more complex by giving some authority over hunting to several different local authorities which often competed with federal laws for the same turf.

The anti-poaching buffer no longer exists.

Although the costs of big game hunting declined with the massive increase in demand – especially from America and Russia – government revenues from it were eclipsed by new taxes on tourism. Sports hunting is no longer considered a significant contributor to the government treasury while non-hunting tourism is.

There are many excellent scientific studies to this effect, some of which are quite old, but not until now are they getting the look they deserve.

I have to admit somewhat sheepishly that it was these two phenomena – the collapse of anti-poaching zone buffers and the diminution in government revenues from trophy fees – that led me away from my benign support of big-game hunting for so many years. Once released, though, I honestly recognized that I’d been pushing the moral argument into the deep background.

Isn’t that often the case? The questionable morality of something becomes revealed over time, when enough experience proves it true?

Last December the Obama administration listed lions on America’s Endangered Species Act and this has began a worldwide movement to do so on CITES’ list as well. Since December, any American who goes to Africa to hunt a lion could be in violation of federal law, and even those careful hunters who follow now difficult regulations paint themselves as anti-conservationists.

Frankly, I now embrace the notion that hunting almost anything can’t contribute to conservation and in our current fragile world is actually contributing to wide-scale species decline. Let me explain.

Hunting wolves and bobcats is lunacy, a political allowance that should be immediately stopped. There’s too much science to prove this.

Hunting deer (and waterfowl) now carries the stigma of immorality, but may be unstoppable. Deer populations have been managed for sports hunting for so many years in the United States that hunting may now be, unfortunately, linked to the animals lifestyle and likely, survival.

Canned hunts of lion in private reserves here and in Africa, or such canned hunting as for pheasants, has always struck me as immoral and pointless.

We have a lot of problems on planet earth and many wonderful organizations working to remedy or mitigate them. It’s time that more people like me come out of the closet and admit that sports hunting does not contribute to conservation and that it actually hastens that species decline.

It’s no great leap from that to conceding that sports hunting is immoral.

Smelly Puffball Trumpets

Smelly Puffball Trumpets

hyrax.650.jimToday, Friday the 13th, I formally apologize to all my readers and past misinformed clients. Turns out that, in fact, elephants are related to hyraxes.

Fifteen hundred rock hyraxes of average weight equals one elephant of average weight but in terms of actual volume, the tree hyraxes’ screeching call approaches the same decibel level of a juvenile elephant trumpeting.

The old safari guide’s myth, sui generis, is reborn! Let it forever prosper. Be damned further negative attempts at phylogenetic propaganda, or put another way remove the whiskey from the camp fire.

I don’t have to tell anyone what an elephant is, (except perhaps a Republican but that’s a different blog). Hyraxes, also known as dassies, are ugly looking little fat African rodents characterized by an ability to freeze in situ with no fear of predation because they smell so bad.

For years and years and years, for longer than old men prefer to recount, we safari guides delighted customers when we discovered one of these smelly unmoving puffballs on a rock.

“So what do you think that is?” we’d ask with delight.

A rat? A giant guinea pig?

“No!” we exclaimed. “The relative of the elephant!”

No!!!!!! they countered, how magical is Africa anyway!

Very magical. We can say anything we like and it’s true! Anyway, that’s the way this story seemed to end about a decade ago when genetic analysis began to clarify the real world.

But the problem is that we safari guides prefer stories to studies, and we don’t read past a scientific title: Discordant Results.

“These discordant results suggest that the species diversification event that defined the three orders of Paenungulata occurred over a relatively short evolutionary time period,” remarked the study that made us all retreat quietly back to the camp fire.

“Discordant” is a big word, but we guides understood that one. We thought, incorrectly, that it was contradicting one of the first DNA studies which did, in fact, link hyraxes and elephant.

But … it really wasn’t.

Thanks to a loyal client and friend, who also fortunately happens to be a scientist, Stephen Farrand recently sent me a phylogenetic tree reinstating the great Safari Myth. It took only a few more exchanges of emails for me to realize how stupid I had been.

Now that I’ve returned to the scientific studies that originally turned all us guides away from story-telling, armed with a real scientist’s perspective, I can affirm that science is right.

About 99-96 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period (when dinosaurs were becoming supreme) there were three animals very closely related: an aquatic thing not similar to a dugong or manatee, the precursor to the mastodon, and an ox-size hyrax.

Those three animals certainly had to have had a common ancestor. Their snouts, trunks, toes and digestive track were all similar. They were and remain in the collective grouping or clade of taxonomic categories known as Paenungulata, or “almost ungulate.”

Then there were at least two radical evolutionary “pulses.” This means there was rapid evolutionary divergence, and believe me, Donald Trump can change his position six times in a minute, so you’ve got to believe that in the ensuing 90 million years they started not to look alike.

But the vestiges of shared holidays remain: that little smelly puffball with a ridiculously screeching voice has a 6-month gestation period. It still has the same number of toes as an elephant. Its extended snout is almost a trunk.

And it is, and forever will be, one of the best stories we old guides have!

You Can’t Burn Ivory Towers

You Can’t Burn Ivory Towers

width=No matter how much ivory Kenya burns or how widely NPR publicizes it, the poaching of elephant will not stop until individuals stop buying ivory and until rich people cede much of their wealth to the poor.

Conservation will not succeed if its implementation is so narrow as to neglect those who it could hurt or destroy.

It’s true that some of the earliest ivory ever used was for purpose not beauty. Its unusual molecular strength keeps it from splintering or breaking even under the most stressful conditions yet it has a “softness” that mutes rapid or forceful contact.

Ivory was plastic, before plastic was invented.

So what was useful for elephants and walruses undoubtedly was useful to early man.

Until seven millennia ago early elephants roamed China nearly as much as they are found in Africa, today. As they disappeared, ivory became a luxury item as much as a component of tools.

The “art of beauty” is often defined by levels of scarcity. Perhaps this contributed to ivory becoming a currency of the rich.

After more than a half century of very global and very public movements to save elephants and restrict ivory sales, even the Chinese are coming round. But demand for ivory, as with demand for old paintings or rare artifacts from Alepo, is not going to abate even as the Chinese public changes its attitudes.

The demand for ivory is global, not just Chinese. So long as there are rich people willing to pay for stolen treasures of the Mideast or blackmarket Picassos, there will be ivory seekers worldwide.

The supply side is equally daunting.

Today’s poaching of elephant is not the corporate business it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Virtually all the elephant killed today are lost to itinerant gangs unsupported by Emirate sheiks with their Sikorski helicopters and private ships.

These gangs risk the enormous hazards of killing an elephant then having to find some scumbag broker because they have no better way of surviving.

They have no jobs, no livelihood and the sustenance their ancestors eked out of their lands is no longer viable. The land is leeched or confiscated or over grazed, and sustenance living can’t provide the capital to be successful in a modern world.

It’s terribly disturbing to me that so many truly well-intentioned conservationists express “feeling sick” when they see a pyre of tusks being burned but are not similarly demonstrative over the destruction of Alepo or systematic reductions in U.S. foreign aid.

You just can’t separate the phenomena. It’s OK to “feel sick” seeing that media picture of burning tusks provided you in your mind also know how sick and neglected the children near that burning pyre actually are.

You must realize that the father and brother and uncle of that little girl care about her, that they care so much about her that they will commit a crime to feed her.

You’ll notice once you affect that understanding that things get more complicated, that your “sickness” isn’t quite what you thought. It’s cure isn’t quite as simple.

Kenya is doing the right thing. They are doing it possibly for duplicitous reasons, that tourism needs a boost, but I also really believe that young, educated Kenyans have seriously embraced conservation. That’s wonderful.

But it just … doesn’t matter.

It won’t stop poaching. Rich people alone can stop poaching. They can stop buying and hoarding ivory, and their wealth alone redistributed can eradicate global poverty.

Otherwise, the wild elephant is doomed.

Facebook Reject

Facebook Reject

mohawkWhen a wild animal kills a person, should it be killed?

Kenyan park rangers killed the lion Mohawk last week after he killed a man. But zoo authorities in Palm Beach didn’t dispatch the tiger that killed its keeper.

The protocol especially since the days of the Man-Eaters of Tsavo has been to kill any wild animal that kills a man. Presumption: it likes the taste.

The 35 or so lions that live in Nairobi National Park are very unusual. Their territory is strictly defined — something truly wild lion would never accept — and many, many photos exist of these lions testing this limit otherwise known as Ngong Road.

Rarely yet nevertheless captured on at least 200 cell phones at the same time, the lion stroll out of the forest onto the street during rush hour! Cars stop – which they do routinely in Nairobi’s rush hour anyway – and the lions pad their way down the highway for a while before returning to the forest.

Last week one of these celebrity lions attacked a man in a market and was then shot by a ranger.

Mohawk it was, indisputably. His name comes from his unusual hairdo (naturally, by the way, not as sculpted by Nairobi mall professionals). He had wandered ten miles out of the park, the opposite direction of Ngong Road.

Mohawk traveled out of the park onto a prairie which more or less begins a massive wilderness that stretches into the great Tanzanian parks of Ngorongoro and Serengeti. But then, he made a sudden left turn and strutted into a very distant suburban/rural town called Isinya. Truly wild lion would never strut into a town but Mohawk’s a celebrity. He needs people!

The rural people of Isinya aren’t like the Benz-driving, hipster Galaxy Tablet crowd commuting on Ngong Road who need increasingly imaginative excuses for being late too work. Maybe the farmers of Isinya weren’t quite as “enthralled” as the young execs in Nairobi? Nobody took his picture? So …Mohawk killed a man!

And rangers then killed him.

Half way round the world at about the same time a much larger cat bit the neck of its young woman keeper.

Authorities didn’t kill the tiger but tranquilized it, and so it took up to five minutes before medics could untangle the cat from its prey.

The multiple investigations now going are specifically targeted to the question whether the keeper died while waiting for the tranquilizer to take effect.

African lions will soon be listed as endangered, because their population has decreased from 30,000 to 9,000 in the last two decades. There are fewer than 400 Malaysian tigers, already listed as endangered.

In my opinion both cases are the result of humanizing wildlife, which we snobs prefer to call “anthropomorphizing.”

Mohawk directed traffic. He posed at last count for more than 100,000 photographs. His death is now a Twitter hashtag, #JusticeForMohawk, there was a Memorial Service for him, and today’s opinion page in Nairobi’s major newspaper vilified the public for not giving wildlife enough space.

Less aplomb among the Palm Beach Zoo authorities who are in a terrible balancing act between conservation and common practice. Few wildlife authorities will dispute that the Palm Beach Zoo tiger is now more dangerous, but with so few left…

And … was trying to save an endangered species justification for delaying saving a human?

These should not be the enigmas they seem. If we didn’t think then treat wild life with human considerations and affection, if we accept the common sense that because wildlife cannot save us but we can save wildlife that we are more important, then we might move out of this fairy tale universe of pirouetting hippopotamus and friendships between warthogs and hyaena into the reality of ecological wonderment.

By believing we “love” the lion, we never really learn what a lion is. We bury its awesome behaviors and biological complexities under notions of humanness.

Humanizing wildlife invites them onto highways and disarms their keepers. Flash: Don’t try, Mohawk didn’t have a Facebook account.