OnSafari: Elephant Explosion

OnSafari: Elephant Explosion

eleTitleTwenty-five elephants exploded out of the forest about 400 meters away from us and cantered quickly directly at us. We were in open Landcruisers. No sides and a simple canvas top.

They stopped about half way. Not having had the time to look at the area with our binocs none of us at first realized it was a watering hole. My heart slowed down a bit. They weren’t coming at us; they were headed anxiously to water.
eleBAR
After light and late rains constrained by El Nino Savute has enjoyed some heavy rainfall recently. We were in an open meadow, but the grass was high and green and camouflaged the pond.

We watched them for a number of minutes as they sucked up huge amounts of water with their trunks then squirted it into their mouths, jostling for position. It was likely 3 or 4 families.

During our entire time in Botswana we hadn’t seen many elephants. At Savute we’d seen a group of about 20 scattered across a field, but they were all male! Before us now were real mixed families, although I noticed there were only a few juveniles and no babies at all in the group.

Then again out of the forest to the right exploded another group! This group had two youngsters under one year old. As they all gathered and jostled at this little watering hole I counted 67 elephant, with a couple huge bulls hanging slightly behind.

They didn’t linger drinking for very long. In fact I imagine many didn’t drink at all. As anxious as they seemed to get to the water, they now were equally anxious to leave.

Past us.

Our excellent driver/guide, Metal, had briefed everyone to keep quiet. The wind was in our favor. Most elephant can’t see very well or at all after they’ve reached their teenage years, but their sense of hearing and smell are acute. Our being quiet and the fortunate direction of a strong breeze meant they probably didn’t know we were there at first, or at least that we were anything too unusual.

There were two cars from our group about 70 meters apart on the road, pretty equidistant from the watering hole.

The assembled group began moving … quickly towards us. One family immediately pulled away to the right, but the big majority of them headed straight for the space between our two cars. The group to the right then circled back behind our car, and within moments, we were encircled.

When they realized that we weren’t trees or mountains or abandoned vehicles, there was some hesitation and confusion. We could hear a loud of rumbling. Humans can hear only 10% of elephants’ normal vocalization: the remainder is below our decibel level of hearing.

The big mamas pushed the babies forward anxiously with their trunks, and younger males flapped their ears at us. One very large matriarch stopped in the road and faced us as the great line of pachyderms moved quickly passed us.

Then, with a slight step or two towards us that made all our hearts stop and a flip of her ears, away she went, too.

There was no trumpeting and no real panic … on either side! It was an absolutely splendid event for our last game drive in Botswana!

Readers of my blog know that I believe there are too many elephants in Africa, today. This is particularly true in East Africa, but even here in Botswana the evidence is mounting.

Normal elephant behavior does not include large males congregating as we saw. Those males looked like residents, animals who had settled in to their environment and made peace with what normally would be a stressful living condition.

This happened during the years of heavy poaching in Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. Then the big tuskers took refuge in the caldera which was a safe haven from poaching. They learned to live together and never left, even when the poaching ended.

I don’t think this group in Savute has congregated for safety from poaching. It may have something to do with climate change and the radical weather all of Africa is experiencing… or something else. But it isn’t normal elephant behavior, and whatever the explanation I think a root cause is … too many elephants for whatever unusual situations exist today.

The beautiful group that passed between our two vehicles were not residents. They were traveling as elephants have been doing for millennia. When they travel it is normal for families that would normally stay well apart from one another to congregate as we saw.

The mystery remains why of so many elephants there were only 2 babies and no juveniles. The next youngest elephant I found in the group was in his teens.

Wild Africa is a never-ending source of drama and beauty. How lucky we’ve been!

OnSafari: Ending with a Bang!

OnSafari: Ending with a Bang!

DoginSavuteThe great prize on safari today is to see wild dogs. We saw them twice, once in Moremi and once in Savute.

We watched them hunt – and miss a reedbuck – in Moremi. In Savute we came upon them about a half hour after they had killed a young kudu. They were in a pond flooding their already distended bellies with water.

At first we thought they must have killed an impala, because the alpha female had serious puncture wounds in her face. But we learned from a film crew that was following them that the impala kill had been several days ago.

The story of today’s hunt was fascinating; the film crew lucked out and got it all:

The dogs spotted a kudu family about 400 yards from them and raced through the cover of tall grass. But another predator had also spotted the kudu: a leopard.

When the dog sensed the leopard, a few of them began popping up above the grass until the leopard recognized them and gave way, finally running up a distant tree. Even the largest leopard is no match for a pack of wild dogs.

The kudu, of course, had also seen the dog jumping, but some of the pack had been dispatched to surround the suddenly alert kudu.

All of this happened very quickly. The actual attack started only moments after the leopard fled. It was a large family of kudu and the dog quickly out ran and surrounded the youngest. Although almost every wild animal mother will try to defend her youngster, this doesn’t apply when wild dog are the attackers. Dog are the most gruesome and successful of the hunters.

There’s no hope for the animal once surrounded by dog.

The 9 dogs then tore the kudu apart eating it while it was still alive. According to the filmers in twelve minutes the roughly 220-pound kudu was gone.

Almost literally. When the dog tear apart their victim they will often run away with parts, so the remains of the kudu were scattered far and wide.

While we watched the dogs watering the sky began to fill with vultures. In a remarkably short time there were about 300 vultures circling above trying to focus on the kill site, but because the dogs scatter their kill, the vultures were at first confused.

Then a black kite dove into the grass and before a few moments passed vultures were landing all over the field: whitebacks, hooded, white-headed and lappet-faced.

The hunt, the take-down, the consumption and clean-up with a wild dog event is the quickest of any predation in Africa.

What an end on our final day on safari!

The Botswana trip has been fabulous. We sampled all its unique ecosystems: the Kalahari, the Delta and Moremi, and Savute.

Savute is the southern end of the massive Chobe National Park, a huge trapezoid that begins at the Zambezi River and extends more than 150 miles south towards the Delta. The vast majority of this area is incredibly arid, although heavily wooded, so there aren’t usually a lot of animals in its interior.

But along the Zambezi and where we were, on the opposite end in Savute, there is always some water and excellent grasslands. Many of these grasslands have been formed relatively recently, in the last half century for example, by the increasing numbers of elephant that destroy forests.

We saw quite a few elephants, but they were all male! Elephant behavior is changing as their densities increase and human/elephant conflict grows. It’s likely that most of these are traveling, north to south or vice versa, and Savute is a nice way station on these longer, stressful journeys between the fecund north of the country and the Delta.

Overall our game viewing these last 8 days has been fabulous. We saw nine lion and some of the group a few more. We saw a cheetah and glimpses of leopard. On our last day in the Delta, some of the group saw the rare sitatunga!

That’s a peculiar water-based antelope with webbed feet that makes a nest of reeds in the Delta.

Most of the group got gorgeous views of large families of lechwe and kudu, and of course, impala. We also saw reedbuck, steinbok and uncountable numbers of hippo often accompanied by crocs.

The group was fantastic. I don’t think anyone skipped a single game drive!

Most of the group now continues to Victoria Falls. Along with a few others, I’ll be returning home and my two months in Africa has been truly astounding. I’m so grateful to all my many clients!

See my next set of blogs where I summarize and compare the vast and many different parts of sub–Saharan Africa I’ve been so fortunate to experience again on this extended 40th guiding anniversary safari!sundowners1

OnSafari: Not Just a Little Botswana

OnSafari: Not Just a Little Botswana

Pigeon & LechweI can’t understand traveling to Botswana without visiting the Kalahari. The Kalahari is literally the heart of Botswana, the ancient home of the San People, the foundation for the Okavango Delta.

Traveling to Botswana and not visiting the Kalahari is like taking a vacation to New York City but not visiting Manhattan.

Rare Lesser Jacana
Rare Lesser Jacana

We began our Botswana safari with two fabulous days at Tau Pan in the Kalahari. The summer rains and hot temperatures were moderating. We had no rain and temperatures never got higher than the upper 80s.

The Kalahari is an enormous scrubland not really a desert. There are a variety of large bushes which provide birds, animals and the San with all sorts of food and medicines, as we learned on our “Bushman Walk.”

Around its “pans” are found the largest concentration of animals, because this is where the heavy summer rains pool. Admittedly this is not a Serengeti, but during our game drives around the 20 sq. km. Tau Pan we saw hundreds of springbok, many dozens of gemsbok, dozens of red hartebeest and wildebeest, a couple giraffe, lots of bat-eared foxes and jackals, a couple eland, some waterbuck and a few steinbok.

Oh, and 9 lion of which we watched 5 magnificent males come off their successful hunt, and a cheetah coming off its successful hunt.

The birdlife was terrific and the Kalahari (northern black) Korhaan provided the most fun. It’s a spectacular bird that was breeding, which means screeching itself to death whether or not a female is around! There were also kori bustards, the second heaviest bird in the world, and numerous other colorful weavers, seed-eaters, chats and others.

One of the great highlights in coming to the Kalahari is learning about the San People. That means learning about their current political battles with the Botswana parliament for greater control of the reserve, of their successful protests of some overly patronizing lodges that want them to pretend to still live as they did before.

But also learning how they lived in the old days, because the traditional San’s manipulation of the Kalahari ecosystem is actually mind blowing. There is not a bug, root, leaf or piece of dust that traditional San did not use for some practical purpose.

What all this meant was that probably three-quarters of the things we saw and learned at Tau Pan were not available anywhere else in Botswana.

Equally unique and much more famous and popular, of course, is the Okavango Delta. We spent a half day boating deep into the Delta. In a nutshell the Delta is the Kalahari in flood! Ridiculous amounts of water gushing out of the mountains of Angola spill onto the Kalahari ecosystem which is essentially almost all of northern Botswana, and then spread out creating channels and islands.

The ground and substrata is the same as around Tau Pan, but of course with so much water a new ecosystem is formed.

We saw water antelope like the red lechwe, river otters, learned of the many grasses, reeds and papyrus that define this ever changing swampland, and saw some incredible things like the painted frog and infinitesimally small reed frog. (You can place 5 or 6 side-by-side on your thumbnail.)

Birdlife is fabulous, and we were fortunate enough to find the rare lesser jacana as well as the headliners like the malachite kingfisher and fish eagle.

In the adjacent Moremi Game Reserve we were introduced to “Big Game” and what an introduction our first morning when we encountered wild dog hunting reedbuck! What a thrill!

Moremi was where the birdlife was most spectacular, with varieties of colorful storks, bee-eaters, starlings, larks – you name it! Have you ever seen a green-capped eremomela or out-of-this-world green pigeon? We did!

Our five days here in Botswana have been breath-taking, and we’ve seen its three great ecosystems: the Kalahari, the Delta and the big game woodlands of Moremi. We’re going to cap it off with some more big game in southern Chobe starting tomorrow.

Stay tuned!OnTheDelta

No Vote Can Change This

No Vote Can Change This

AfricaDroughtWeather events – like football – keep getting nastier, and the more we comment on them the less attention we pay.

El Nino is flooding away America, but it’s also drying to a crisp much of southern Africa. That’s what severe weather is all about: When part of the world burns up another part freezes solid.

FEWS, the world’s early famine warning system, issued a severe drought alert last week for portions of eastern southern Africa. FEWS is not a weather forecaster per se, but an organization that anticipates what the weather will do:

In this case, a “food security crisis … is considered likely in the latter half of 2016 and early 2017.” ‘Food Security Crisis’ is just a step above “famine.”

Absolutely the world’s best forecaster globally is America’s own and proud NOAA. (That’s only since the Obama administration, by the way. Previous Republican administrations had eviscerated its funding.)

NOAA predicts a moisture deficit crisis for all of Zimbabwe, more than half of Mozambique, much of Zambia, some Botswana and nearly the entire eastern half of South Africa.

NOAA’s predictions further out suggest a return to normal. From FEWS perspective, though, that’s not good, because starting in March “normal” in southern Africa is the start of a long dry season.

Combined with the failure of rains in the past rainy season because of El Nino, food production will be lost over much of the area.

Tourism may also be effected. Earlier this year a number of Okavango Delta camps suspended their water-based activities because the water levels were so low.

There’s been some improvement, but not enough according to the University of Botswana:

“Tourism activities have so far become the first casualties of the on-going drought as water levels go down in the Okavango Delta,” a professor of tourism from the university warned last week.

My own sources suggest it’s not quite that bad yet, but water-based activities are being assessed on a daily basis.

More critical to the wildernesses of southern Africa, though, antelope populations like sassaby, wildebeest, hartebeest and zebra are declining. These great herds are less adaptable to drought conditions than other ungulates like giraffe and buffalo. (From a tourist point of view, by the way, dry conditions usually mean better predator encounters.)

Further east, though, including the great Kruger National Park, its equally famous surrounding private reserves like Sabi Sands, and almost all of Zambia’s reserves could face real trouble next year. When elephants start dying tourism isn’t exactly boosted up.

Humans can’t handle a drought as well as animals.

“Now that the drought has become even more severe, [food] production has nosedived,” the Botswana Agricultural Marketing Board announced a couple weeks ago.

South Africa’s third largest city, Durban, began water rationing last July, and the situation has worsened considerably. By November publicly provided water systems were cut back 50% to both residences, businesses and farmers.

Sunday Durban began distributing bottled water to more than 2 million residents.

Compared to those in the South we in the North handle climate change pretty well, at least so far. Despite the headline news of apartments in mudslides, entire cities flooding down the river and beachfront eroding away, we aren’t starving and we aren’t likely to.

That’s not the case in the South. South Africa is the exception, although the climate situation there is so severe that it’s likely to put the country into a recession. But even that academic economic term carries a certainty that while dinners-out will be fewer, dinners-in will still happen.

Elsewhere in Africa’s south, that’s not the case. With each new climate change event there is greater hurt put on the world. Building walls might prevent the pain from getting to us right now, but someday it’s just going to get too severe.

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

Elephants Do Not Have Souls

EleRoverElephants do not have souls, and countenancing this myth is a sure fire way to accelerate their extinction.

The brilliant and stunning film, “Soul of the Elephant,” which aired on PBS’s Nature yesterday evening was rife with untruths and speculative science. It was as bad a nature documentary as a Fox News report.

The exquisite beauty of the film, the rhythmic narration and the beautiful background music including outstanding African-like acapella created a media poem of the finest sort. I wish it had been a feature film, because the main proposition that elephants are like people is something that can ultimately never be proved or disproved but as a fictional piece it would have been very strong.

Unfortunately, it’s untrue.

Before I list errors of fact, let me remind you why this is such a mission for me: Anthropomorphization in my view does more to harm African conservation than wars or poison. Films like this hasten the end of the African wilderness and its wondrous wildlife.

As I’ve written numerous times before, the almost exclusively western attempt to anthropomorphize Africa’s wildlife draws a red line with emerging intellectuals in Africa who are dedicated to the development of their social and political fabric in an extremely stressed part of the world.

It’s akin to America’s own political battle with the Citizens United/Campaign Finance controversy where corporations are treated as people.

If animals are considered people, inalienable rights attend them that make compromise if not impossible considerably more difficult with issues of land and agricultural development, highway construction, potable water reservoirs and innumerable other absolute necessities for human development.

But it isn’t just the outcome that bothers me. The proposition that elephant are “sentient beings, thinking thoughts, having ideas” and that they “think” — all of which is quoted directly from the film — is wrong. There is no science whatever to support this, only media poems.

The world of life is composed of a myriad of wondrous forms, each in my view essential to our fabric of existence. Biodiversity is the only goal we have left that can preserve our understanding of our own existence, but biodiversity resides in the notion that some living things “think” and some “don’t.” Elephants and virtually the vast majority of all other animals don’t either.

Man thinks.

Many of the Joubert’s errors are not egregious, but the plethora of them evidences their lack of scientific diligence. They created a wonderful poem, not a nature documentary:

They claimed there were once 5 million elephants. We’ll never know, because paleontologists have not yet collected enough evidence of prehistoric times to create population statistics. What we do know is that before the atrocious elephant poaching of the 1970s, there conceivably had been a population that “might” have approached a million.

Ivory harvesting by Arab traders began as early as the 13th Century, so it’s plausible that the apex of the population was prior to then. But even the 7 centuries of Arab harvesting on the scale that was possible back then could not have possibly eroded a 5 million animal population down to a million.

The exaggeration of numbers in the film continued to discussion of the Selina Spillway and that of Botswana itself. It was only this August, well after the film was near completed, that the first elephant count of the continent ever was done.

“There are no credible estimates for a continental population prior to the late 1970s. Thus for the continental (global) population, an extrapolation back to the beginning of three generations is plagued with high levels of uncertainty,” writes the Bible of Biodiversity, the IUCN Red List.

Exaggerating bad situations into catastrophes is a technique of terrorists and fools.

In one section alone Joubert claimed that “Seventy years ago a little baby [elephant] had less than a 10% chance of surviving.” That would have been in the 1940s, long before poaching ramped up and is an absurd proposition. Nearly as absurd as his claim that where he was filming “was a 5-day drive from the nearest town.”

I have often been in various parts of the Selinda Spillway. EWT will lead a Botswana trip there next March. There is no place that is more than 2-3 days from Kasane and possibly less from Maun. These are modern if rural towns.

Joubert concludes at some point that his love of elephants is best reflected by the “eyes that shine with a deep intelligence” which stretches poetic license to the limits, since many elephants eyes close perpetually after they reach their teen years.

I think what bothered me most about the film was trying to tell a story that didn’t exist. There was no baby elephant that was drowning. The film showed a baby elephant frolicking in the mud; it was not drowning.

It then cut to lions, that were not shot in the same vicinity. It then cut to the attack of a lion on a baby elephant. That was still a different set of lions and a different baby elephant altogether. The editing wasn’t even good enough to equalize the lighting that revealed deeply different seasons in the three different scenes, purported to be one.

I actually laughed when he suggested that the aggression the elephants were causing might have to do with the memory of the two dead elephants in the vicinity. The elephants were aggressive because he was too close! And imagine how many other pontoons and boats and canoes and cameras were there shooting him shoot!

It’s OK if it’s just a story. This is not a documentary. Elephants do not have souls. Elephants must be protected along with their environment, and Africa must have the freedom to grow and develop, and that is a puzzle that this film does everything in its power to prevent from being solved.

Snow Ball from Hell

Snow Ball from Hell

snowballMy nine weeks in Africa convinces me the most pressing issue of our time is climate change.

I’ve returned from a series of safaris with some of the most memorable moments of game viewing in my career. I met some incredibly wonderful new people and reacquainted myself with a number of dear clients.

From South Africa through Botswana into Tanzania, new political and conservation initiatives gave me optimism, but unfortunately the common theme dominating every single day was how destructive climate change has become:

To the animals, to the veld and most of all, to the people.

Of course negligence, corruption, bad politics and dysfunctional science also provide plenty of negative influences as well, but there is nothing – nothing more threatening to Africa’s future than our unprecedented global warming.

Cape Town normally has a mean high temperature in March of 77̊F. On March 3, while I was in Johannesburg, the temperature reached 108̊F, a whopping ten degrees higher than ever seen there before.

An alarming two percent of the precious Cape Flora Zone, the most unique and smallest of the six such zones in the world, was lost to fires.

We toured the wine country on highways with fires on both sides.

In Botswana a quarter of the unique Okavango Delta was lost this year to drought and fire. This is unheard of.

I arrived in Tanzania at the end of a six week drought. That drought came after record rainfalls in December, amounts that exceeded half the entire season’s normal precipitation in places like Ndutu.

The drought ended with devastating downpours. The Serengeti Super Storm that we experienced just a few days ago may be unprecedented.

The flip-flopping of extreme climate: droughts to floods to droughts, decimates animal populations as we discovered this year with the wildebeest. It endangers and enrages animals, as we discovered with several elephant events.

But most significantly, it’s destroying people’s lives.

Though my second safari saw a Tanzania as pretty and green and lush as I have ever seen, the withered and stunted crops that had survived a traditional schedule of planting at the beginning of the rainy season had already succumbed to the drought.

Not just agriculture is disrupted. In my own industry, tourism, extreme weather and unpredictable flip-flopping of season terribly disrupts property management that has until now depended so much on predictable seasons.

Building and renovations – particularly on the exteriors of lodges and camps – have traditionally been done at the end of the rainy season, which coincides with a lingering low tourist season: May and early June.

Landscaping, tempering of murramed walkways and gravel paths, sealing of tarred thatching … these depend on a wetter environment that have traditionally occurred at the beginning of the rainy season.

But now it’s anyone’s guess as to when it will rain or not. And when it does, it’s so severe that traditional construction methods are jeopardized.

You can’t understand global warming by any one moment. Senator Inhofe’s foolery on the Senate floor challenging the veracity of global warming by heaving a snowball is the basest of stupidity.

The main result and symptom of global warming is radical changes in climate. Yes, the world is slowly warming and that has many long term effects.

But short term devastation is not the result of warming, but of extremes: more violent weather, more cold then more hot, more drought then more floods, following on the heals of one another quicker and quicker.

That’s the horror I witnessed this season in Africa, and I felt ashamed and embarrassed at how my society at home seems so insensitive to this and therefore terribly inhumane to the less fortunate of the world.

We’re much more capable of protecting Brooklyn from the violence and rising of the sea than islanders can protect Honiara. We can react more immediately to changes in our fishing seas, to threats to our agriculture and even just to the disruptions of our commute to work than any place in Africa can.

So we kick the can down the road with greater confidence that the road spans a long enough period of time that something can be figured out: that new technologies, or new political alliances or who knows what will ultimately come to our rescue.

Africa can’t wait. The wilderness, the animals, the people … they don’t have the luxuries of our development.

Climate change is killing them far more effectively than ebola or ISIS.

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

OnSafari: Elephant Hysteria

woolycircusElephant hysteria has reached a new high, and I left Botswana amazed at how dangerously unorganized elephant protection is.

The almighty and by this writer much revered CITES seems wobbling. African research organizations nip at each rather than cooperate to gather much needed facts. Positive moves in China get ignored so the country can be bashed still again. Meaningless grandstanding gets the headlines.

And so, we clone a wooly mammoth?

I’m not kidding. Within four years we’re going to have a live wooly mammoth, with DNA from a permafrosted 3300 year-old baby slipped into the DNA of a healthy modern elephant by Harvard researchers.

Zimbabwe is among the best places to traffic ivory, and now even live elephants. In blatant disregard of CITES, Zimbabwe is sending 34 baby elephants to Asia and Arabia.

The outcry was formidable, but not a single country in CITES asked that the treaty enforcement provisions be applied to Zimbabwe.

It’s a circus, folks. At least for three more years. That’s when Ringling Brothers has announced they will discontinue using elephants. Jump to hashtag #3YrsTooLong.

What you have is a mess. Nobody really knows how much poaching is going on. The reported figures are so disparate as to be laughable.

The once respectable Save The Elephant Fund issued a critical news release claiming that 50,000 elephant were poached annually, while the also once respectable National Geographic said 25,000.

Think one of them’s wrong? Or both?

We have no idea how many elephant are being poached, for the same reason that we have no idea how many elephant there are. African government wildlife agencies don’t undertake counts or can’t be trusted, and not-for-profit wildlife NGOs refuse to cooperate because it might jeopardize their fund raising.

One of the most respected government wildlife agencies, the Kenyan Wildlife Service, sacked five top officials last year for involvement in the ivory trade. Hardly a day after one of Kenya’s most notorious wildlife traffickers was arrested on an Interpol warrant, the man jumped bail.

Meanwhile, the Ethiopian Government – probably among the top conduits for illegal ivory – won headlines worldwide for burning ivory and proclaiming a “Zero Tolerance” for wildlife poaching. But no journalist noticed that the entire top of the pyre was actual carved ivory sculptures and trinkets. Ivory isn’t carved until it gets to Asia. Where did that come from?

You confused? Join the pack.

His Excellency the honorable Minister of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism, Tshekedi Khama, told a conference in Botswana last week that any elephant problem that exists doesn’t come from Botswana elephants, but “ensues from elephants that migrate from neighboring countries,” which – he then deduced for us – means that those countries have serious problems.

We just finished a successful safari in Botswana, and we didn’t see all that many elephants, but I’m told more elephants exist in Botswana than anywhere else on earth.

Do I believe that?

Jim filed this from Arusha, Tanzania.

OnSafari: A “Real” Village Experience

OnSafari: A “Real” Village Experience

bushmenThe Naru Bushman experience was the highlight of our two days in the Kalahari.

I’m continually upset when clients ask me to “visit a village.” There are no traditional villages left in most of Africa, and certainly not in the areas that tourists can visit.

Braame Bodenhorst explains to Marty Fisher re-enactment''.
Braame Bodenhorst explains to Marty Fisher ‘re-enactment’.
Yet someone will insist that their friends just came back and that they “visited a real village.”

What their friends saw and what they ask me to see are horrible remnants of traditional life. As Africa progresses rapidly, traditional life styles are understandably being lost as Africans seek better education and a better life.

In many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, however, the development cannot meet the demand, and so many traditional peoples get caught between the old ways and the new ways.

Binding arrowheads & making shafts from acacia.
Binding arrowheads & making shafts from acacia.

The so-called “villages” that people claim to have experienced are impoverished groups of people who wish they were better off and in most cases are stuck in the worst of two worlds.

It is the identical situation to many impoverished communities in America — distressed villages in Appalachia or southwest Wisconsin. I’m infuriated that travelers will actually return from these visits, claiming to have experienced “the real Africa.”

No longer nomadic, many of these so-called villages become unclean and their children get sick. That was not the case when nomadic peoples moved regularly. Unable to get the jobs that their schooling prepared them for, they down poorly maintained traditional garb for tourists and “interpret” the old ways in the near perfect English they would prefer was being used in a business in town.

Demonstrating water harvesting/staroage.
Demonstrating water harvesting/storage.

In the end traditional life is not conveyed at all. What is conveyed is the disgusting failures of modern development. The glorious and successes of traditional Africa life ways are completely obscured.

Braame Badenhorst, owner/manager of Deception Valley Lodge, has mastered a display of early Bushmen life without denigrating the people who portray it.

Our two Naru Bushmen trackers, both 31-year olds and fine staff additions to our successful game drives, traveled with us into the bush, then hopped off the vehicle as our other guide, Jacob, explained they were going to change costumes.

Bramme wants people to understand what real traditional Bushmen life was like, especially the younger generation of Naru. But he makes no bones about it: “There aren’t any traditional Bushmen, anymore,” he flatly tells his guests.

What his two staff members are going to do, to both our and their benefit, is reenact what it was like 30 years ago.

Many uses of roots.
Many uses of roots.

So they stripped off their khakis, pulled out their earplugs from their iPhones, and gave us the best example of “traditional peoples” I’ve ever had the privilege to see.

It was fabulous. The kids, who I’m ashamed to say I can’t transliterate their names, had mastered their grandparents’ techniques in water and food gathering, hunting, and tool building. They conveyed to us a life style that may no longer exist, but demonstrated how creative and clever their ancestors’ – our species – can be.

In so doing, they preserved for themselves, us and generations to come, mechanisms and solutions for survival that may be valuable even in the modern age, and will preserve in ways no written account can, the history of these magnificent people.

This was a true visit into the past: an unpretentious reenactment of something that no longer exists and risks being lost forever.

Taking questions.
Taking questions.
If a traveler wants to see poverty, disease and human distress, it’s much closer to his home than Africa, I’m sure. If a traveler wants to understand what traditional African life ways were all about, they will not “visit a village,” because traditional villages do not exist where 99.9% of travellers go.

Whether it is innate racism or a weak intellect, travelers are plagued by a desire to see “bad.”

Put a Naru Bushman’s day opposite one of John Boehner’s, and there’s no contest. That’s the truthful message waiting for travelers with a real desire to understand what traditional Africa is all about.

OnSafari: Kalahari

OnSafari: Kalahari

kallionthrugrassWe found a Kalahari lion our first day on safari!

Unlike the more traditional lions roaming the great savannahs of Africa, the Kalahari lion has a lot more work cut out for him. Lions have to flood themselves with water after gorging on a kill or their insides close down.

Carol, Michelle & David at Deception Valley Lodge.
Carol Winikoff, Michelle Fisher & David Winikoff at Deception Valley Lodge.

In the best of years, which last year was with regards to rain, the Kalahari gets a few months of tumultuous thunderstorms then dries up. In the long dry part of the year Kalahari lions are restricted to water from the bodily fluids of their kills.

This normally results in a much shorter life span and many fewer lions. The owner/guide of the camp where we’re staying, Deception Valley Lodge, told us that traditionally a Kalahari male lion’s territory could extend into the hundreds of square kilometers.

It’s one of the reasons that throughout so much of southern Africa, national parks and private reserves have constructed borehills (water wells) for the animals, particularly the larger ones and the carnivores.

Deception Valley Lodge drilled its first bore hole in 1997. The reserve has since continually had a healthy pride of lion that today is dominated by a single male, and three females with nearly a dozen cubs among them.

The male acted like the males I’ve seen throughout East Africa and had a beautiful extensive black mane, but as our guide pointed out, fewer scars because he’s had fewer scraps with other lions … since there are so few lions.

He’s now nearly ten years old, extraordinary for a Kalahari lion. When I watched him walk it was apparent he had hip or spinal problems, but otherwise looked quite regal.

This northwestern section of the Kalahari is thick scrubland with many more low lying trees including a variety of acacias. In several regards it reminds me of the drier parts of East Africa.

During our two days we saw a great variety of animals, including lots of kudu, giraffe, warthog, zebra, lots of steinbok, and good birds including the spectacular crimson-breasted shrike.

On to the Delta!

It rains only briefly, although sometimes torrentially (as last year) so the pools of water necessary for lions are frequent during the rains.

Delta Destruction

Delta Destruction

DeltaDestructionThe battle between fossil fuel mining and the environment has moved into Botswana’s main tourist attraction, the Okavango Delta.

The photo above of a painted frog was taken by EWT client, Melissa Michel, this year. The background of a mining waste dump is compliments of Rio Tinto.

Tourism in the Okavango Delta is the second largest source of Botswana’s GDP, after mining (which dwarfs it, by the way: 40% vs 12%).

Exact figures are hard to confirm, because the government has not defined how government and ancillary industries like educational training and direct contributions contribute to or diminish the tourism and mining sectors. But clearly mining is 3 to 5 times as important as tourism.

Historically most of this was with diamonds. Botswana is the world’s largest diamond producer, but several years ago the government recognized that “diamonds aren’t forever.”

This led to increased fossil fuel exploration and bingo, there’s a lot of it. Relative to diamonds, coals lasts forever.

The largest Botswana owned company, Tsodilo, listed on the Toronto stock exchange, recently announced plans to mine more than 440 million tons of iron ore, and with less fanfare, a rather sizeable amount of coal.

Botswana’s chief mining official said that Rio Tinto, the world’s largest mining company, would be the principal in coal extraction.

“The future of Botswana mining is going to be the coal and iron ore resources…,” he said before adding as an afterthought, “and of course diamonds.”

Botswana is already the 65th richest country in the world. This will likely push it up further.

Unfortunately, much of the iron ore discovered is underneath or close to the Okavango Delta.

Although Botswana has a variety of big game habitats, it is the Delta which is the draw. Unique on earth, it’s where a desert seasonally floods. This produces extremely unusual habitat as well as major deterrents to human settlement.

Over the eons vast numbers of endemic species have arisen in The Delta, many which remain to this area alone. These are mostly plants, amphibians and fish, but the area is also outstanding for more notable, rare and larger animals like sitatunga and wild dog. Many water fowl absolutely depend upon the Delta and many are extremely rare, like the Wattled Crane.

The world’s growing appetite for fossil fuels is as undisputed as the fact that most of them will come from Africa.

Why should Botswana be denied compromising its ecosystem for greater wealth, as Alaska and California did big time last century?

The answer is usually that the world’s just come too far. Time is not on their side, as it was with the Rockefellers and early gold diggers: The global warming apocalypse takes precedence.

That’s such a subjective argument it falls on deaf ears in Africa. South African environmentalists, however, are trying more clever answers.

Winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, Desmond D’Sa recently explained that the argument that mining will “create wealth for the people” was fallacious. “We’ve seen the mining industry in South Africa, hundreds of years, has created impoverishment and poverty… The majority, the 99 percent of us in the country, are poor, are living in abject, poor conditions.”

And that’s true and compelling … for the instant. But what happens if – as many of us hope – this changes and there is a real redistribution of wealth? Like in China?

Reversing the world’s poverty is going to take a lot of industry. Protecting the unique ecosystems under which that industry is fired will be no small task.

On Safari: Wild Dog Kill!

On Safari: Wild Dog Kill!

wilddoghunt.apr14.640.chiefs.jimOur final game drive in Botswana ended with a wild dog kill!

The story of wild dogs is one of the most hopeful, positive stories of the African wildernesses! And for us to have experienced it was a totally unexpected bonus to a great safari in Botswana!

We were looking for leopard. In fact, for three hours we were looking in vain for leopard. We had seen all the other Big Five and the driver/guides, especially, were worried that we wouldn’t find numero cinko.

It’s a bane of leading a safari when the trip is winding down and some of the expectations for animal sightings haven’t been met. I’m personally very philosophical about it, and I hope I convey that calm obviousness to my clients, and frankly, I think most of my clients accept it.

But to be sure the bulk of tourists to Africa don’t. They have a checklist to be compared with the friends who recommended they go in the first place, and a competition of successful vacation planning that seems to drive so much American tourism.

And the driver/guides know this well, because they are dependent upon their tips. Find a leopard, and the tip is 50% higher. Maybe it shouldn’t be that way, but that’s the way it is.

And so in my own case it means trying to convey to the driver/guides that my clients aren’t normal; they understand luck in a way a normal tourist might not. With my own drivers in Tanzania I’ve successfully conveyed it, but elsewhere I’ve never wholly achieved that goal.

And so for three hours we bushwacked through Botswana looking for a leopard and seeing nothing else.

Then as the light was falling and no leopard had been found, we raced to the sundowners being set up by one of the three drivers at a pond’s edge.

And as we just came in view of them, I saw the dog.

It was classic. Every wild dog family today is somewhere between 10 and 25 individuals if there are juveniles. The family is composed of the alpha female and male, perhaps several of the males siblings or cousins, and the juveniles.

We arrived on the scene with 9 juvenile dogs strung all over the place and impala snorting and pronking and prancing in every which direction. This is typical. The hunt normally begins at sunrise or sunset (except when there’s a full or almost full moon, then maybe at night, too), and the juveniles are the ones who begin the hunt.

Most all of the time the prey is impala.

And right after beginning the assault, the juveniles get kicked to near smithereens. I immediately saw two juveniles limping. One had his right foreleg dislocated and the other was limping on his right rear leg.

The impala scatter helter skelter freaking out. The alpha female or male then chooses a target individual and chases it up to speeds of 40 mph (twice the speed of an impala) and brings it down. That we didn’t see.

Four out of five attempts are successful. That makes the wild dog the most successful killer on the African veld. (Lions are successful maybe 1/4 or 1/5.)

The alpha adult then lets out a single high-pitched hoot. We didn’t hear that, but we immediately saw the reaction: The 9 juveniles immediately perked up and began running in near formation towards the call of victory.

The alpha female came out of the bush and met them at the edge of a pond and regurgitated a bit of the proof that the impala was down.

They all got instantly hyper, defecating and jumping in the water, raising their tails, prostrating themselves to each other, whining in a hectic, frantic 15 or 20 seconds of celebration before then all running off back to the kill.

We followed through the bush and there the alpha male was eating, but he stopped to let the younger of the family consume what was left of the impala.

Literally in two minutes it was all gone. And it was nearly dark. Likely they would do it all over again before complete darkness, since it was hardly enough, but we had to go.

What an extraordinary way for us to end a fabulous safari in Botswana!

On Safari: Botswana’s Big Game

On Safari: Botswana’s Big Game

photographingLION.chiefs.640.apr14.jimIt isn’t just game viewing, it’s the extended stories about what you’re seeing that make the wilderness so fascinating.

As expected our best big game viewing in Botswana occurred in the Moremi Game Reserve, for us on Chief’s Island. On our first game drive we encountered a lion kill of a smallish female buffalo.

There were three mature lionesses on the kill with one squealing cub that couldn’t have been more than 2½-3 weeks old. That in itself was interesting, since lion litters are routinely 5-7 cubs of which usually 4 survive for at least a month; plus the fact that normally mothers won’t display their cubs at quite this young an age.

But there was only one cub, and when we arrived all three lionesses were leaving the kill to water, and the poor cub was squealing louder than a pig at slaughter. As the lionesses lumbered through the grass, their distended bellies slowing their gate, the poor cub was jumping madly after them while falling behind.

The mother didn’t seem to care. It was clear which was the mother, since her mammary glands were bursting at the seams: an indication that she’d lost all the others in the litter already, and a further caution that the poor remaining cub could be endangered by her producing too much milk.
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Later she’d try to nurse the cub, but he was as round as balloon and had obviously already had his fill. In such a situation, her glands might infect.

Finally the cub just couldn’t keep up. He turned back into a nearby forest and toned down his whining. The females proceeded to a puddle of a waterhole, probably dug by an elephant, and drank their hearts out.

The cub started to squeal, again, and as the mother got her necessary fill of water, she perked up to listen to him. Either she was sated with water or anxiety, and left the other two lionesses to find her cub and bring him back to the kill.

Several times she tried to pick him up as lions routinely do, but for some reason she’d drop him after just a few short instants. I don’t think it was anything he was doing, because once in his mother’s mouth he went totally limp as cubs are wont to do.

And why she was bringing him back to the kill was another mystery. He was far too young to eat, and the kill was an invitation for battle. The lionesses had carefully buried the intestines in sand to reduce the smell, and they’d pulled the carcass into a bush, but the vultures on the trees were proof their treasure had already been discovered.

At the kill the little tyke rubbed and rolled all over mom, but despite her attempts to get him to nurse, again, he was just too full.

Finally the mother lioness got too nervous and disappeared into the forest with her cub, and the whining stopped.

The background supplied to us by the Chief’s Camp drivers helped enormously to understand exactly what was going on.

The three lionesses were two daughters of one mother, and they had never successfully reared cubs. The daughters were about 4 years old, so that in itself was unusual.

The three were constantly harassed by the males in the area. The current pridemasters, two younger males who we never saw and were reported to be “patrolling” the perimeters of their territory and were unaware of the buffalo kill, had dislodged a single pride master several years ago and killed four of his cubs.

This is common lion behavior: a new pridemaster kills all the cubs of the previous pridemaster.

The current little cub was from the first litter sired by one of the new pridemasters, but one of the guides felt that one of the pridemasters might kill the cub (and might have killed the cub’s siblings already) because he was not the specific one who sired him.

That’s interesting but as far as I know undocumented behavior. Multiple pridemasters are almost always brothers or cousins from the same family, and if the theory of natural selection which explains pridemasters killing cubs really governs behavior, then they would be close enough genetically to accept each other’s progeny.

The first successfully raised litter is always the most challenging for the mother lion. It could be that multiple conditions, including the unnatural floods of the last several years as well as the constant male harassment, just rattled the young mom too much.

On the second day we saw the lionesses finish off the carcass. Killing a buffalo is no small feat even for three lionesses, and their still raw wounds attested to that. But since the pridemasters never found the kill, the females gorged themselves to their hearts content.

We left the scene with the rollie pollie little cub feisty and healthy. But I know his chances of survival aren’t good, given the stress filled scene we’d been so lucky to explore these last few days.
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On Safari: The Okavango Delta

On Safari: The Okavango Delta

BBarrett.OKDelta.Apr14.640.JimGuides make or break a wilderness trip, and this is so much truer in places like the Okavango Delta, which is difficult to truly appreciate without adequate interpretation. Fortunately for us our guide here was outstanding.

Think of the Okavango Delta as similar to the Everglades or Amazon. Of course it’s as different as it is the same as these other wildernesses, but in all three cases the particular feature is a unique biodiversity that isn’t immediately apparent, visually overwhelming because of the density of plants, and at least some of the year with a very uncomfortable climate.

Jungle, in other words.

The Delta is a “jungle” swamp, the outcome of the enormous flow of water coming off Africa’s ridiculously off-center continental divide spilling over the Kalahari Desert. And because the Delta’s flow from year to year can be so radically different, the topographical features are constantly changing. With a few major exceptions like the enormous land mass in the middle of the Delta called “Chief’s Island” the water channels, smaller islands, thousands of lagoons and marshes are in nearly constant flux.

To make things even more complicated, there is no Okavango Delta defined by any wilderness area or natural geography. Moremi Game Reserve includes part of The Delta, but since the Delta changes from year to year, you can’t buy a map of the static Okavango Delta. And as a result, numerous camps and lodges call themselves Delta camps with some abandon, and many visitors to Botswana believe they have visited The Delta when they probably haven’t.

The guide makes or breaks a Delta trip.
The guide makes or breaks a Delta trip.
We stayed at a real Delta camp, Xugana Lodge. The island on which the lodge is situated is surrounded by water, as you’d expect, and so vehicle game drives aren’t possible. Everything must be done by boat, although there are a few nearby islands where the boats drop folks for walking.

Birders have no problem appreciating the Delta. We have been particularly lucky, catching several migrants that would normally have left by now, such as the Greater Marsh Warbler. But the resident species from the African Fish Eagle to the spectacular Malachite Kingfisher are abundant and relatively easy to find. Truly rare birds like Pell’s Fishing Eagle are becoming so popular that their whereabouts are often known throughout the year.

There are animals in The Delta, to be sure.

We saw quite a few elephant, which of course seems to be true everywhere, today. But the elephant are essential in cutting out the channels from year to year. As the flow declines in September and October, the elephants choose paths through The Delta that are likely to become next year’s channels.

We also saw the water animals, the red lechwe and puku, two land antelopes that survive at water’s edge. We hope yet to find the rarer sitantunga, an antelope that remains in the water most of its life, has webbed feet and births in a nest of reeds.

We got remarkably close to a 3-meter long croc that had recently feasted and was deep into dormancy. And hippos are virtually everywhere, sometimes as in our case, right outside our bungalows!

But despite this panoply of bigger game, it is never as abundant or visible as in any more common wilderness reserve like The Pans from which we just came, or to Moremi Game Reserve to which we’re heading tomorrow.

So the essential appreciation comes from learning about the intricacies of this mighty biosphere. Our guide explained at length the flows of The Delta and how that sculpts the landscape from year to year. He taught us about the water lillies, and how the two main species complement each other opening and closing at day and night. We tracked the path of ancient elephants by the unusual stands of palm trees, and most popualr of all, held the half-thumbnail size painted and long-toed frogs, whose voices exceed most normal lake frogs at home.

We caught brim and cat fish and fried them up for dinner! We watched Pied Kingfishers and Fish Eagles dive for their prey. And we enjoyed our sundowners overlooking our own private lagoon, literally miles from the next tourist outpost, providing that essential remoteness that allows the casual visitor to understand the intractable power of the wild.

On to Moremi! Stay tuned!
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