Scant Rains is No Drought

Scant Rains is No Drought

migration.cartoonReports of a massive drought in the game rich areas of northern Tanzania may be exaggerated, although the wildebeest migration is off at least a month. That doesn’t mean several months down the line everything won’t be in sync.

The media, today, operates on the assumption that “if it bleeds, it reads.” It’s no less true of Obamacare than of the Serengeti migration.

In the case of the Serengeti migration, no less reputable media than the BBC report that the unusual weather-related movement of the great wildebeest migration has “never been seen before.”

Hmm. “Before” is a relative term. The BBC was quoting an official overseeing Kenya’s Maasai Mara ecosystem and perhaps he’s young, perhaps he’s inexperienced, or perhaps he’s more interested in promoting tourism than the truth. I’ve seen “it” before.

“It” is when the great wildebeest migration veers from its normal pattern. In this case it’s at least a month off: Right about now the migration should be moving slowly but certainly south through Tanzania’s northern Serengeti. It isn’t. The bulk of the wildebeest are lingering in Kenya’s far north Maasai Mara.

Several times in my career I’ve seen this, as well as a real reversal which this isn’t … yet. It’s proof that the migration is not a neurological hard-wiring, but a response to environmental conditions.

Click here for a fuller understanding of a normal migration.

The reason the migration is lingering in the north is because normal October and November rainfall was missed. NOAA’s satellites show that parts of the northern Serengeti received less than a tenth the normal rainfall for October and November.

Normally, heavy rains occur in November and the first part of December. They then reduce substantially, although the rains do continue right through June. Heavy “normal November” rains don’t normally start up again until March.

This drives the migration, as the great herds go where the grasses are growing.

NOAA’s mid-term (March through May) forecast is for normal or better than average rainfall.

That means all safaris planned for March on — if NOAA is correct as I expect it is — will not notice anything unusual.

But safaris, for example, expecting to see the migration in the Serengeti in November won’t. And safaris planned for December-February will experience difficulties finding the migration as it likely fragments more than normal, depending upon how soon we return to normal precipitation.

(For local farmers, by the way, it could be worse: wildebeest and zebra will now seep out of the national park onto ranches and compete with cows for pasture.)

Remember, too, that most of the animals on the veld don’t migrate. Indeed, they all suffer with scant rainfall, although the predators often prosper at these times. But unless an entire year of abnormal precipitation occurs, most animal life cycles aren’t effected enough that a casual visitor would notice anything significant.

There is even an indication that right now things are getting better. Surveying a number of traveler blogs being posted right now, I find pictures with green grass and accounts of some rain, already.

It’s infuriating when media like UPI misstate the situation, along with much of its historical evidence. Respectable journals like the South African Business Daily were even more off-the-mark.

“If it bleeds, it reads.”

It’s always dangerous to analyze anything that’s dependent on the weather, and I always caution my clients to never presume they’re going to see the migration, ever. But the facts right now do not suggest that migration patterns in just a few months will be anything but normal.

We will certainly lose a fraction of the animal, especially the herbivore population. But that’s the wild.

And it’s hardly the end of the game.

Oprah’s Mojo Kidogo Sana

Oprah’s Mojo Kidogo Sana

OprahWrongSideOprah Winfrey’s just completed her Tanzania safari, but she was on the wrong side of the river: the migration is in Kenya.

If Oprah can get it wrong, I suppose I shouldn’t be so upset that so many people get it wrong. And then, again, we don’t really know Oprah’s motivation for her very short 7-day safari, or why she chose Tanzania. Maybe she shares my politics and is critical of the Kenyan regime.

But it is migration season in Kenya, to be sure. And if you’re on the wrong side of the border, today, you’re out of luck.

Lots of photographs on Twitter and Facebook of the migration, today, crossing and recrossing the Mara river in Kenya. This really is the culmination of the migration, the furthest north they can go, the last good bits of grass before the whole region dries up by October.

A nonsensical straight line divides the unique Mara/Serengeti/Ngorongoro ecosystem into mostly Tanzania and bit of Kenya. And this bit of Kenya, the top of the ecosystem, is where the migration is today.

About four weeks ago I was in northern Tanzania where Oprah went to see the migration last week, and we saw the final bits of it as it was crossing into Kenya. It was a truly magnificent site, and we had made the long trek from Seronera (a 12-hour day) knowing that we might be too late.

Fortunately, we weren’t.

From the Balagonjwe gate west and north to the Mara and Sand Rivers was pretty solid wildebeest. This is about a five-mile corridor along the border. The rangers said there were still plenty of wildebeest south and west of here, over ragged hills that had no tracks, so there was no way to confirm this.

But from the slopes where we ate lunch we could see well into Kenya. We were just west of the Mara River Bridge and could see carpets of wildebeest already on the Kenyan side.

The family I was guiding knew quite well that the specific dates they had to travel were a bit late for the migration in Tanzania, and they had decided not to go to Kenya for a couple reasons: first, when the trip was being planned, the political situation in Kenya was unresolved.

Second, July is always an iffy month for predicting whether the migration will be in Kenya or Tanzania. I’ve seen the migration cross into Kenya as early as the first week of June, and I’ve waited despairing on the Kenyan side for it to arrive in late July:

Oh for the long gone days (before 1979) when the border was open and you could simply go back and forth truly following the herds.

But not since then has that been possible. The wildebeest we could see on the Kenyan side, perhaps 15 minutes from us as our Landcruiser could have made it through the low Sand River, were actually more than a day away from us.

We would have to fly back to an official Tanzanian border post. The nearest one (by travel time) would be Kilimanjaro airport, and after exiting Tanzania we’d fly to Nairobi, enter Kenya and then fly to the Mara. On scheduled service we could leave the area where we were watching wildebeest around 8 a.m. in the morning and arrive the other side of the river about 5 p.m. that same day for a travel cost of around $700 per person.

The closing of this border in 1979 was the result of a Cold War dispute, really, between then socialist Tanzania and capitalist Kenya. The two countries are the best of friends, today, but Tanzanians worry that the tourist industry they’ve spent the last 35 years building up would be consumed by the bigger capitalists in Kenya.

And frankly, the Kenyans are worried that their drivers and mechanics and pilots wouldn’t be treated very well by the Tanzanians suspicious of their motives.

So as best of friends, the two countries are quite content with keeping the border closed. And not even Oprah has the mojo to crash it.

Only gnu got this mojo, dude.

On Safari with Babu

On Safari with Babu

GrandpaDriving.655.Jul13Children really do better than their parents on a family safari in all cases, no matter how difficult or how easy it might be. And that makes sense.

The first question I get from a parent or grandparent considering taking their family on safari is what is the ideal age, or actually more often, what is too young to go?

The Felsenthal Family Safari organized by Babu Eddie just ended, and as I reflect on that ten days a lot of the answers I’ve given over the years are confirmed.

Children of virtually any age are as different as any person of any age, so the qualification that my generalization might not apply to your particular child is a very important one. I’ve had three-year-olds that two decades later would recite the days on safari with rapture. And I’ve had many repeat adult clients that for the life of them couldn’t remember what they’d done before.

But generalize I will. The best ages for children on safari are between 8 and 16. The Felsenthals had a 5-year-old and two 7-year-olds and the safari worked well. And last year I guided a family with university students, and they were outstanding safari travelers.

But in general kids under 8 lack the stamina a safari requires, and kids over 16 lack any interest for much except being home with their friends.
HoldingUpBoulder.NgongRock.Jul13.655
How this generalization was torn to smithereens by the Felsenthals! To begin with, I was amazed at how much they wanted to do as a family. With near unanimity the family pressed the envelope of reasonable game driving. According to my notes, we had four game drives of 12 hours!

And quite a few of ten!

Part of this was because a family safari usually does better with all-day drives with a picnic lunch, than with the traditional early morning and late afternoon drives separated by a long mid-day period in camp with lunch.

It’s easier for a family to get going in full light and without an early wakeup. But in my memory I don’t remember such enthusiasm as the Felsenthals.

We were unable to get satisfactory accommodation near the expected whereabouts of the migration in northern Tanzania, and that became the motivation for the 12-hour day. We left the central Serengeti around 7 a.m. and traveled to the Kenyan border, returning around 7 p.m.

And … we found the migration! Big time, in fact. It was a relief to me, of course, and the family was fully aware that the information we had garnered might not have been accurate. But as it turned out, it was.

And on the way back, 7-year-old Nate simply fell asleep on the back seat of the cruiser, certainly the most bumpy part of the car!

I was amazed day after day how these young kids all chose to go out for hours longer than the average adult safari. But then I’d learned long ago that the stress of such a long day really hangs on the parents, not the kids.

They are understandably worried that such a trial of bumpy roads and long periods of seeing nothing foments the boredom that often turns into anxiety or peevishness in kids. But it doesn’t. And my saying so from experience after experience doesn’t seem to convince anyone.

But it doesn’t. Kids always … and I mean always … end up doing better than their parents on safari, and particularly when the safari is challenged by long drives and bumpy roads.

That isn’t to say they’re constantly enthused and wrapped in attention. It just means that the parents do more poorly than they do.

So the maxim stands: analyze your own stamina and interest, parents and grandparents, as the threshold of what the family safari should do. The kids will always work into it just fine!

I can’t thank the Felsenthals enough for giving me such a fine experience, too! Our elephant encounters in Tarangire were exceptional and so exciting. There was even a trunk into the pop-top roof!

In one morning around Seronera, we saw four leopard and twelve lion. Not to mention several hundred zebra, and a giant croc guarding its zebra kill.

We found the migration, a beautiful and always awe inspiring site. And as usual with migration experiences, there was something extremely unusual and dramatic: we saw at least four hundred vultures collected together near a bit of water drying their wings.

The Felsenthal kids spent a good hour or two mingling with school kids from Arusha on a field trip safari, and taught them tic-tac-toe! The Felsenthal boys played frisby on the endless plains of Lemuta, not another car in sight for 50 miles, even as a single Maasai teenager walked across this enormous veld to greet us.
LionFromCar.655.jul13

We saw hyaena relocating babies that couldn’t have been more than a day old. We watched a family of lion unsuccessfully hunt warthog that successfully held up backwards into a hole!

We walked around the actual place where Zinj, the Nutcracker Man, was found, and walked over the Shifting Sands hills that themselves walk over the veld. The kids pounded the magical Ngong Rock with granite stones to recreate the dream booms that called Maasai to their last conclave in 1972.

And for icing on the cake, hardly a half hour before we took off on the charter that started the journey home, a lionness flopped in the shade of the kids’ safari car!

There’s just nothing as good as a family safari. And no one as happy as the kids!
NateAsleepInCar

On Safari: Among the Great Herds

On Safari: Among the Great Herds

Friday Lunch
It was Bingo in Barafu today as we drove into the locus of the great migration, probably seeing a couple hundred thousand animals before the day was over.

This is always the easiest time of the year to find the largest single migratory group of wildebeest. It’s never the most dramatic time (which is the river crossings later on), but I prefer now because you see so many more animals.

And because there are so many babies. In fact, the herd has suddenly grown a quarter larger as nearly every mature female calves.

And set on a veld that is so spectacularly lush and colored by multitudes of wild flowers, it’s hard not to understand why this is my favorite time.

Nevertheless, finding “the migration” (which means a significantly large portion in one group) is not as easy as it seems.

The animals move with the most nutrient grasses, which grow where it rains. So finding the migration is as easy as exactly predicting the weather!

But we had intelligence that placed the migration in the Gol Kopjes, north of Naabi Hill. That in itself was a bit unusual, tad too far north and east for this time of the year. But clearly they were not around Ndutu, where “normally” they would have been, and yesterday our encounters with them after Olduvai to Lemuta suggested our intelligence was correct.

Mind you, there were wildebeest almost everywhere we looked or traveled in the southern quarter of the Serengeti/Ngorongoro. But the smaller scattered herds of maybe 200-400 were not a big enough or uniform enough group to be called “the migration.”

We headed to Naabi Hill, slipping and sliding as to be expected after yesterday’s incredible late afternoon downpour. On the way, we saw a family of three cheetah, a mother with two older cubs.

They were fat and sassy and not likely to hunt now, except that a juvenile Grant’s gazelle separated from its family group was trying to get back to it, and the cheetah were in the way!

I couldn’t believe how daring that young gazelle was, and it provoked one of the cheetah who gave it half chase. And that’s all it took for the gazelle to disappear into the sunset, apparently giving up whatever family ties prompted its initial reaction.

We saw another cheetah with full belly when we finally reached the Gol and then a lioness atop a kopjes, when we hit an empty but green plain filled with flies. That and confirmation of the droppings that lots of wilde had been there recently made us realize we were on the right track.

It was a lot further than I expected, given the intelligence we had, but the herds had obviously moved. Our intelligence was 3 days old and the herd was actually another 10k north and east of where I expected them to be.

But there it was, a “hot dog” shape of wildebeest perhaps 20-25 kilometers long and 3-4 kilometers wide. It lay north to south on the far eastern side of the Serengeti nearly touching Loliondo.

The northern-most portion was in the Barafu Kopjes, ridiculously far north for this time of the year. And the southern-most portion was … well, where we had stopped for lunch yesterday, at Lemuta.

We stopped for lunch on a high kopjes overlooking the veld. It was an incredible accomplishment finding this amazing spectacle, the greatest in the world, and everyone realized the long drive necessary to reach this point was worth it several times over.

The rest of the afternoon we spent cruising through the herds and making our way home. And towards the end of the day, we came upon the same four brother lions we had seen yesterday, and two of them were lying beside partially eaten ostrich!

I still have to think about this one. Lion don’t eat ostrich. Lion don’t defeather birds, and the ostrich feathers were in a pile. Lion don’t eat ostrich heads or bills, and those together with most of the necks of both ostrich were nowhere to be seen.

Seemed to me it had to be hyaena and our four brothers just got irritated with the fact the kill had come so close to them. Their bellies were still full from their kill several days ago. I’m sure they ate some of the bird, but most of it lay “unused.”

It was a fantastic, successful day!

On Safari: Into the Wilds

On Safari: Into the Wilds

2 Lions
This is one of my favorite days on safari, as we spend most of our time off-roading in the far southeastern corner of the Serengeti positioning ourselves to find the great herds in the next few days.

We left the crater just after breakfast, and there was heavy mist on the rim as we drove around the northwest side past the down road which has been closed for reconstruction. The road then swings around to the west for about 4 kilometers of beautiful driving on the north side of the giant alter-crater.

Like so much of the veld today, it was lush and green, but I saw only a smattering of zebra and wildebeest. The road then rises briefly over the lip of the alter-crater before dropping onto the north side of the crater towards the Serengeti.

Whistling thorn acacia reappear, so therefore do giraffe! Lots of zebra suddenly, and as we descended, more and more giraffe. As we approached the road to Olduvai Gorge, large numbers of wilde and zebra mixed in with Thomson’s Gazelle covered the veld.

I hesitated thinking this was part of a large hunk of the migration, but sure was tempting to think so. Fortunately I said nothing and it ended before we actually drove into Olduvai Gorge.

After our fascinating tour of the visitors center and museum and special visit to the site where Mary Leakey found Australopithecus bosei, we continued off-road onto the grassland plains towards Shifting Sands.

We passed several Maasai herders, and I noticed they were now ranching sheep as well as goats. Saw lots more wild animals and right around shifting sands the wilde population seemed pretty dense.

We continued overland towards Loliondo, stopping at a kopjes near Lemuta for lunch. On that hour or so drive from Shifting Sand, we stopped several times to photograph kills covered with birds, golden jackal, and several baby wilde that couldn’t have been more than a couple days old judging from the length of their umbilical chord.

Lunch on a Lemuta Kopjes is always a highlight of the trip. The views are astounding, and the entire veld was peppered with animals. This was an important clue, by the way, that would help us tomorrow in locating the largest hunk of the migration.

But it was getting on, and we had a ways to go to Ndutu Lodge, one of my favorite. So we changed direction and began heading southwest to the lakes area of the Serengeti. Passed numerous eland that ran before we were within a mile of them!

Photographed lots of hyaena just waiting on the outskirts of water holes for some thirsty beast to drink. And we ran into four brother lion who had killed a day before perhaps, with giant bellies so large they could hardly walk.

We reached the main road and took a breather so people could photograph themselves under the “Welcome to the Serengeti” sign, and the drivers who had been working so tirelessly since early this morning could rest a little.

Then we started the last 25k to our lodge following Olduvai Gorge to Lake Ndutu. Halfway there it started to rain, and then thunder and lightning, then hail and then the rain became so heavy and the wind so dangerous we had to stop for a short time.

We literally couldn’t see because the sheaves of water falling from the sky were so severe.

I’ve lived through countless East African rainy seasons. I remember one of my camps blown away, of lodges and tented camps flooded. And perhaps it’s just the emotions of the moment, but it sure seems like the rain is harder, more and longer than in previous years.

We reached the Ndutu Forest just as the rain abated and got to our lodge around 7 p.m. It had been an 11-hour day, filled with tons of animals, extraordinary scenery and (lots of) rain. Until we had reached the main road to the Serengeti, about 40 minutes from our lodge, we hadn’t seen a single other vehicle other than our own four.

This is the Africa I love the best, and today reached all my expectations.

So Many Birds

Delayed With Little Compensation!

Delayed With Little Compensation!

The great wildebeest migration just lost its Kenyan visa.

Normally around a million wildebeest would still be in Kenya’s Maasai Mara at this time of the year. The Mara is the northernmost point in the 1200-mile roundtrip migration, an elliptical circuit that historically remains in the Mara from around July – October.

Not this year.

The herds which zigzagged back and forth at the Kenya/Tanzania border the last half of July finally moved en masse into Kenya around the first of August only to leave hardly a month later. If another decampment from Tanzania doesn’t occur, it will be among the shortest stays in Kenya ever.

The reason this matters so much is that tourists can’t follow the herds across the Tanzanian/Kenyan border. Only animals are allowed. Even if you have all the right visas, authorities on both sides of the border won’t allow you to follow the tracks and roads or cross the bridges used by the wildebeest.

Tourists have been prohibited from traveling between Kenya and Tanzania where the Serengeti and Mara converge since 1979. So it’s been the situation for a very long time. As a result, tourists trying to find the great migration plan their entire vacations on historical patterns that don’t always prevail.

Not even global film crews, which used to have free reign, can today cross the Mara or Sand Rivers to follow the dust of the migrating animals.

Because the wildebeest are historically in the Serengeti for a longer time than they are in the Mara simply because the Serengeti is 20 times as big as the Mara, there are fewer tourists disappointed who plan to see the migration in Tanzania than Kenya. But there have been years when even Tanzanian great migration plans have gone awry.

But this year’s very short stay in Kenya is not as apocalyptic or even as unusual as you’d think listening to Kenyan politicians, today. It’s remarkable how short some people’s memories are.

The great wildebeest migration, like virtually all animal and bird migrations, does not follow inflexible patterns. Migrations are hard-wired into some animal brains, but they are triggered and steered by environmental events.

Mostly by where the food is. The warbler migration that is just about ending where I live near the northern Mississippi river began ridiculously early this year, with blackburnians appearing in late July, easily a month early.

But then they stayed. They just didn’t keep moving south. Why? Because of bugs. We were just ending a drought and with a little bit of new rain, there were suddenly mosquitoes and gnats and tree beetles that had either become dormant or whose life cycles had been slowed waiting for rain.

The same can usually be said of the caribou migration in Alaska, the whale migrations into and out of the nutrient rich northern waters, and … of the wildebeest migration.

In the case of the wildebeest, when the rain is just as plentiful in the northern Serengeti (as it was last year) or just as scarce (as it is this year) in Kenya, there is much more opportunity for grazing in Tanzania than Kenya for the simple reason there is so much more land.

Historically the northern Serengeti dries up completely in July but rains continue to splash the Mara right until October. This year, like last, there was just as much rain in one place as the other.

So contrary to Kenyan politicians who like to find disaster in their teacups, it’s not necessarily because of the Mara’s bad roads or exploding licenses for new tourist camps and lodges, or even because of Maasai poisoning lions or teenagers honking car horns.

Not that the wildebeest like any of that, and to be sure, the Mara would be a better place if all that were remedied.

But until Kenya’s bigwigs figure out a way to turn off the rains in northern Tanzania while turning them on in Kenya, there’s going to be very little they can do.

Hot Migration Topic

Hot Migration Topic

Is it really such a burning issue: why are the wildebeest so late?

I’ve often experienced them crossing from Tanzania to Kenya even later, sometimes not until August. Normally, though, the herds cross the two river border that separates Tanzania from Kenya by mid- to late June, so we’re a month behind.

This year it’s stinging Kenya more than before.

Kenya’s tourism is reeling from terrorism and a rapidly inflating currency. So the few tourists coming to the Mara who are expressing disappointment is just another blow the Kenyans don’t need.

Looking anywhere for a reason their vacation has been diminished, there are a number of American tourists now blogging incorrectly that the reason the migration is late is because the Tanzanians are setting fires in the Serengeti which is disrupting the wildebeest from moving north.

And of course the general collection of end-of-the-world nuts have picked up this version of what’s happening.

They’re all wrong, but first let me explain where the less apocalyptic are coming from.

The wildebeest eat grass and nothing but grass. Their traditional migration patterns are based on where the grass grows when. It’s that simple. Historically the rain pattern traces a parabolic circle the north of which is Kenya’s Maasai Mara and the south of which is Tanzania’s Serengeti.

For more detail, click here.

The rainiest place in East Africa is Kenya’s Maasai Mara. When it’s dry everywhere else, it rains in the Mara, so the wildebeest go there. The Mara is higher and more rocky and has more acidic soil than in the Serengeti, and so the grass isn’t as nutritious. But at least it grows when it doesn’t grow in the Serengeti.

Separate from this rain dynamic that guides the migration is the age-old agricultural and wildlife management question about whether or not to burn grasses on a prairie.

A proponent of burning that I trust explains the necessity as the only way from keeping the prairie from turning into a forest. Most scientists agree with this explanation, but they also disagree that’s good. Most science suggests burning isn’t overall a good strategy for either agriculture (slash-and-burn) or wildlife management. In other words, it might be better to have a few more forests and a few less prairies.

The argument has been going on since Caesar.

Here’s a blogger that’s got it right.

Whichever side you choose, the fact all agree on is that the increased prairies in East Africa over the last half century is part of the reason that the wildebeest population has tripled. Another argument is over whether the current huge size of the wildebeest population is good or not, but certainly from a tourist point of view it is.

Both Kenya and Tanzania park rangers burn their grasslands. Come September and October when the rains return to parts of the Serengeti and the herds begin to leave Kenya, Kenyan rangers start furiously burning to delay their departure from there.

So both sides do it, and both sides argue they do it for scientific reasons, albeit there is a short-term benefit that does for a very short while delay the herds. Burning, as you may startle yourself from remembering 3rd grade science, produces water (moisture) which drops on the burned prairie and immediately sprouts new short grass even without rain.

Alas, a very tempting reason to stay and have another bite.

It was very unfortunate that an excellent Kenyan newspaper, Nairobi’s biggest, propagated the inaccurate story. It’s beneath the standard of the Daily Nation but even worse, suggesting the fires are being uniquely set as a blockage rather than just the normal half-century old grass burning strategy is totally irresponsible.

The greatest reason the herds are late is because the rains – like everywhere in the world – have been very unusual. I’m sitting in a place of a horrible drought. East Africa – northern Tanzania in particular – has had unusually heavy rains, and this has resulted in much more new late grass.

The migration isn’t so hard-wired that animals will leave a food source. Migrations worldwide are driven by food sources. We had an unusual warbler migration this year in the Midwest, because bugs – their food – appeared earlier than normal.

Burning is incidental to this, perhaps a short-term fix delay (a week, maybe two) but nothing more significant. Tourists who believe they can fine tune their “migration vacation” in periods of two-weeks are nuts.

Tanzanians blame Kenyans for everything wrong in Kenya, and Kenyans blame Tanzanians for everything wrong in Kenya. In this case there’s nothing wrong to begin with.

Except bad reporting and tourists who didn’t do their homework.

Way South of Scott Pelley

Way South of Scott Pelley

Sixty Minutes rebroadcast of “Into the Wild” Sunday night caused many of us experts serious angst. Basically three wonderfully short thumbnails of things wild in East Africa were riveted with inaccuracy.

I’m sure that when a professor of dentistry speeds past a billboard for toothpaste he winces. Nothing wrong really with telling people they need to brush. Nothing wrong really with fluoride in the goop. Nothing wrong with a beautiful woman smiling like a bleached Mayan temple.

But probably lots wrong with everything in between, like how often, how hard, when and with what kind and temperature of water, and who knows what else.

I hope the bristles on my back as I watched the 60 Minutes show weren’t as stiff as a Number 10 toothbrush. (Admission: I watched the tape. I had calculated that the Patriots/49ers game would be less stressful. Wrong.)

There were three segments, and the most egregious was the best and first, about the great migration, the Mau Forest controversy and how it effects the Mara River, and the transformation of some Maasai land into community based tourism projects.

Most egregious because it was very, very close to the situation as I see it, but agonizingly not spot on, providing opportunities for enormous misunderstandings.

Pelley and crew were in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, which represents approximately 5% of the land area of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro ecosystem through which the migration moves. He was correct in pointing out that the migration was there “for a very short time every year” but arrogant and irresponsible in claiming this is its most dramatic moment.

Some years, yes. Most years, no. The drama moves with the weather, and the simple historical odds will place the greatest drama of river crossings at the Grumeti or Balanganjwe rivers in Tanzania, not the Mara in Kenya as Pelley claims.

Pelley said that the “few days that it takes the herds to cross the river, crocs will bring down enough food for months” implying that the river crossing in the Mara is brief and singular moment for any given group of wildebeest.

Not true. Wildebeest cross rivers back and forth multiple times for no good reason. It’s an instinctive part of their overriding component “to follow.” They might have crossed the river ten minutes ago, and another group is crossing in the other direction, and off they go. A single wildebeest might cross back-and-forth a hundred times the same river in the same year.

The problem here is that Pelley is treating the migration like so many casual observers as the sum of its parts, individual wildes on some monarch butterfly calculus of pretty constant direction. That’s just not the case with the migration.

From year to year the actual movements of the migration change massively. There are even years when it never gets to Kenya, or hardly at all. Unlike butterfly migrations, the wilde aren’t hard-wired with a map. They go where there’s grass. And grass grows where it rains. And over time there are definite patterns to this, and which right now are being dramatically altered by global warming.

I have other serious concerns, but none as important as the above: Pelley’s claim that the migration is predictable and that its “most dramatic moment” is in “late summer” when the herds cross “in a few days” the Mara River in Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.

Kudus though, and not of the animal kind, to Pelley for a thoughtful thumbnail of the Mau Forest controversy and of some local Maasai attempts to transform a dwindling agricultural lifestyle into tourism.

Finally, a recurrent criticism I have of American media is their lack of due diligence. The show used three experts for its three different segments. Two of the experts are honorable scientists to be sure, but none of the experts are current leaders in their fields.

Most of the current leaders of field research are no longer found in Kenya, or at their foundations in the United States. They are brilliant, younger and performing exceptional scientific work, many more in neighboring Tanzania than Kenya. It pains me constantly how a lack of effort by American media leads them not to the true sages but to the hack celebrities.

Nuff said. In sum it wasn’t bad. But to be good it needed care that perhaps no American TV is capable of. BBC where are you?

Storms Move The Serengeti

Storms Move The Serengeti

Photo by Sarah Vieth, Ndutu, November 2011
Climate change is slowly, steadily changing the ecology of the world’s most spectacular big game wilderness, the Serengeti. For a visitor, it’s nothing short of fantastic. For animals it’s terrifying. For the planet it’s just too complicated yet to say.

The roughly 7000 sq. miles of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro wilderness is the greatest wildlife area on earth. Said with bias. And the necessary qualifiers are many, of course. But this is classic Africa that seems to get better to the casual visitor year after year.

Historically northern Tanzania’s rains begin towards the end of the year and last (with a noticeable but incomplete interruption in February) for 5-6 months. This year, and last year, they began much much earlier and ended a little earlier.

And, predictably, this sent the wildebeest circling faster. And all of us “experts” are thrilled and surprised. The wilde now seem to spend less time in the Mara in the northern reaches of the migratory route, and more time in the Serengeti. They don’t follow the rains, but they follow the grass the rain grows.

Rain patterns are critical to the great migration, as well as practically everything else in this ecosystem from fields of yellow bidens flowers to the nesting habits of pink-eyelided eagle owls. For all my life until now all of this explosion of life was pretty predictable. Getting harder, now.

I was astounded this morning, for example, to read a blog posted by Bill and Sarah Vieth from Evansville, Indiana, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in the Serengeti. They probably had no idea how remarkable was the photo Sarah took when they were in the Ndutu area, which I’ve taken the great liberty of reposting atop this blog.

So what’s so unusual about a lioness bringing back a wildebeest baby to its pride for a slightly late Thanksgiving?

There shouldn’t be baby wildebeest, now. Wildebeest are the predictors of the veld’s health and sustainability because their migration and foaling is … well, at least until now, predictable. Wildebeest babies in Ndutu are born in February. That’s what the books say. That’s what I saw for 35-36 of the last 40 years. This birth, following 8 months of gestation, is maybe two months early.

But alas, it all starts to match if you’re willing to believe that the rain clock in Equatorial Africa is changing. It syncs beautifully with last year’s early end to the rains.

Wildebeest rutting historically occurs as the rains end, and last year they ended early. In fact the news blog posted by the owner of Ndutu last May read: “Lake Ndutu was completely dry by the end of May! It’s the first time in all her years of being here that Aadje has seen the lake dry so soon after the end of the ‘wet season.”

Early December minus eight months equals early April. Remarkable, a shift of 6 weeks to 2 months.

Now, was this just a fluke?

I called Bill. Bill was kind enough to give me permission to post his wife’s photo, and went on at great lengths about what a great trip they just had. And he proved that photo wasn’t a fluke.

When Sarah and he were descending into Ngorongoro crater first thing one morning, they watched one, then two wildebeest births. He excitedly described to me the lurking hyaena and how one of the younguns didn’t make it. But proof positive how early the births are occurring!

Now it isn’t so hunky dory and simply just a shift in the clock. I saw a young wildebeest being born in April this year around Ndutu. In September in the far north of the Serengeti I saw baby wildebeest that couldn’t have been more than three months old. So clearly mother nature’s change of habit is causing some confusion with the wildebeest.

Like men, wilde may be resisting the idea of climate change. I excuse them. Their brains are smaller.

Rains began in the northern Serengeti with a vengeance this August, and while they’ve abated a bit right now, the center and southern part of the ecosystem is near flooded. What I think we’re experiencing is not just a shift to earlier rains, but an extension of the entire rainy season. I think we’ll soon all agree that it rains more and more than half the year on the Serengeti.

Or as one blog puts it, “Short Rains Aren’t so Short!”

That jives with rain patterns all around the planet near the equator. With global warming there is more moisture in the atmosphere. We’ve all heard about the 90-mile wide icebergs calving from the Antarctic. It floats towards Cape Town and melts. Seas rise, yes, but so does the atmosphere which in a warmer state can hold more and more water.

And it dumps conveniently on the equator. The Serengeti.

Wish it were just all that simple, but equatorial meteorology is far more complex than my Chicago television weatherman suggests. We have discernible seasons in the north and south of the world, but the equator doesn’t. Rains in equatorial northern Peru were devastating in the last few years, but hard to predict.

One week is a series of torrential storms; the next week seems like a drought. That’s the basic pattern as you move away from the equator, away from the Serengeti. That’s why the Somali refugee camp at Dadaab had thousands of refugees fleeing a drought 4 months ago, and thousands now fleeing floods.

But closer to the equator the complexity is less stark. Basically, it just rains more; it’s wetter.

So what does this mean to the animals?

Having lived there and visited constantly throughout my adult life, I can say with care that the animal populations are bigger, the viewing more dramatic as tension among predators and competition for food sources increases, but my worry is that it will all come crushing down some day.

You might call it the Animal Bubble.

Things are good for the animals, now. Probably will be for a few years, but just as wildebeest sex lives are getting screwed up (pun intended), massive ecological systems don’t like quick change. The response to quick change is usually to crash.

But right now, a month or more early, the wildebeest have massed at Ndutu and it’s pouring. And for now, they couldn’t do it better at DreamWorks.

Mustering the Migration

Mustering the Migration

It’s very hard to know how much to push yourself on safari, and it’s difficult for the guide to know how much you really want to. Today we found the migration in northern Tanzania – it was an absolutely Number Ten experience. But it was psychically expensive.

We left camp at 815a and we returned at 645p. The object of the day was to find the migration. The safari plan is to experience the migration at the end of the trip, in Kenya’s Maasai Mara, but a couple people were leaving the trip early and the simple drama of the notion we could see the migration earlier in Tanzania compelled everyone to try.

The rains have been unusual. (Hardly news, eh?) If they weren’t the vast bulk of the migration would have been out of Tanzania by the end of July at the latest. And it wouldn’t normally begin to return until a little bit later than now.

But as I’ve often written, global warming has a net increase in wetness to the equatorial regions. It’s sometimes hard to understand when all that’s in the newspapers is the “worst drought in 60 years” but consider our own situation in America. Texas has the “worst drought in 60 years” but the majority of the country has been unusually wet. Ditto for East Africa the last few years running.

The terrain in northern Tanzania is identical to Kenya’s Maasai Mara. Same altitude, same rolling hills, same rivers and creeks, and when wet, same beautiful grasslands. So for the last few years, the migration has often lingered longer in northern Tanzania or returned earlier from Kenya.

In fact, what I think is actually happening is neither. I think the range of the northern migration is spanning out south to north. That means less of a concentration anywhere, but a larger area of thick wildlife.

Whichever it is, quite a few Tanzanian companies have bet it’s going to continue. Once up north we passed six new semi-permanent camps erected at great expense far from a southern supply source, to cater to travelers wanting to “see the migration” in Tanzania.

Where we believed from on-the-ground info the migration could be seen was 150k from our camp on Mukoma Hill in the central Serengeti. The roads up to the area weren’t bad, so it mean we’d have a day of about 6 hours just traveling (3 there and 3 back), albeit through game areas.

But if we were to keep focused it meant we had to race right bye other great things!

We were out of camp hardly more than 20 minutes when we came upon a pod of hippo in the Seronera River. People began to click away, and my driver, Tumaini, knew that he had to keep them moving if we were to reach the northern Serengeti early enough to enjoy it. So he hurried people along.

Right around Seronera the veld was remarkably green. In fact, I presumed it would continue green and damp all the way north and so I began to worry what effect this unusual weather might play on the traditional March/April migration safari. But hardly before I was done worrying, we had entered a prolonged period of dryness, typical for this time of the year.

That dry swath continued all the way from the western road junction past Lobo almost to Balaganjwe. But then near just south of the Balaganjwe west of the Megogwa Hills the veld turned beautiful lemony yellow. Grass was everywhere, and so were wilde! This was about 10k south of the Sand River gate into Kenya (Maasai Mara).

We then used the Tanzanian park services’ new roads and tracks to follow the Sand River northwest to where it merged with the Mara right on the border. Kenyan travelers will know this as the “Mara Bridge” area. There were wilde everywhere, on both sides of the river. We watched a river crossing over the Sand River which was quite exciting.

Except for the green veld this far south, everything else looked pretty normal. The Sand River was dry at times, and the Mara though flowing nicely was not unusually high. We didn’t see many crocs; I had the impression they’d already eaten, but there were many nooks and crannies of the rivers that caught hunks of dead wilde with lots of birds.

In addition to the migration, my travelers saw for the first time both eland and topi. We’ll likely get them both in the crater later on, but it was an unexpected bonus for many.

We were diverted from lunch, once again on this safari!, by lion. A beautiful tree we had picked out at a distance on a hill that gave us great views had already been taken by four beautiful, fat and sassy young lion. Some great pictures!

So after lunch we went a little bit further but then had to turn back in order to get home in time. So all told, we had about three hours of great migration viewing.

But it was a very, very long day. And given that most of the veld is normal, that meant very dusty and very bumpy. Parks services fix roads right after the rainy season, but now with intermittent and often heavy rains at unusual times, the roads grow bad more often than before. And there’s either not enough money or willpower, or both, for the parks to maintain the roads more often.

I know that at least half my travelers this time wouldn’t have done it otherwise. Roger, Chris and Kimmy, and Sue were pretty ecstatic about the day. And it’s a hard call to make for the guide to even bring up the subject, because inevitably there are going to be travelers who join the pack when they really don’t want to.

But all told I was pretty satisfied. It was a truly beautiful sight. Nowhere near as crowded with other tourists and vehicles as in the migration areas in Kenya. But do we presume this will happen all the time, now?

As a betting man, I’d say yes. But wait for our report on the migration in Kenya, which ends this safari! Getting to this area of northern Tanzania is costly, time consuming and for some, stressful. In the end is it worth it? Stay tuned.

SERENGETI WATCH OUT OF SYNC

SERENGETI WATCH OUT OF SYNC

Contrary to Serengeti Watch’s weekend retraction that the Serengeti Highway had been scrapped, it has been scrapped. SW now needs to be as clear as it’s demanding the Tanzanian government be.

Friday I joined the world, including SW in announcing the Serengeti highway had been scrapped. It has been, but a retraction by SW with an unusually scrupulous reading of the official Tanzanian government announcement does confuse the issue, and this is intentional by the government. Let’s try to work through this.

First, what happened Friday was a Tanzanian government letter sent to UNESCO dated Wednesday got into the media. After the first reading SW sent out an alert to their thousands of members that the highway had been scrapped.

I’m not sure of the actual sequence of reporting, if SW was the first to report this or how exactly SW got a copy of the letter, but within seconds of the SW announcement the world press was reporting it, including the BBC. Before Friday ended in Africa, in fact, foreign correspondents as reputable as the London Telegraph’s Mike Planz were reporting “Wildebeest migration safe after Serengeti road plans scrapped.

Agence France Presse reported Friday from Paris, where UNESCO is located and to whom the letter was addressed, that UNESCO had confirmed the “Tanzania has stated it will reconsider its North Road project.”

And Sunday, media throughout Africa and the world picked up an Agence France report that as a result of the “reconsideration” UNESCO’s World Heritage Site board of trustees had decided not to list the Serengeti as an endangered World Heritage Site.

Click below for the best resolution I can give you of the Tanzanian government letter to UNESCO.
NoSerHiway_letter_6-22

SW considers the second paragraph of the letter dissimulating. The third paragraph, however, is pretty definitive:

Ezekiel Maige, Tanzanian’s Minister for Natural Resources & Tourism wrote, “…the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti National Park…”

So, then, what is the “proposed road.”

Maige explains this in the second paragraph as a two-part road divided by the Serengeti itself. The eastern portion will be a new paved road to Loliondo, plus a 58k stretch from Loliondo to the Serengeti’s Klein’s Camp Gate, although that long 58k that will not be paved.

He then continues to remark that a 53k section traversing the Serengeti “will remain gravel road” and continue to be managed by park authorities and presumably, funds “as it currently is.” Where that road ends, at the western Tabora Gate of the park, there would then be a new (or renewed) 12k gravel road to the town of Mugumo, where a new paved road would continue to Lake Victoria.

Excerpted from Harvey Maps, London.

Now the confusion comes because SW doesn’t seem to think that this 53k gravel road through the park exists. After a day’s elation, SW sent out an alert to its supporters claiming “No gravel road exists across this 53 km stretch.”

I’ve driven it many times. See the map above. It’s a horrible road in places, disappears in others, but it has been a designated Serengeti track road for at least the last 50 years.

“WASO” is the actual town to which the new paved road will be built from Mto-wa-Mbu. Maige and others commonly refer to the “Loliondo Road” but Loliondo is the entire district. There is a small political and government headquarters named Loliondo 6.2k east of Waso, but Waso in the main urban center.

The 57.6k gravel road that will be newly built or newly reconstructed but which will remain gravel will be from Waso to the Serengeti’s eastern park gate at Klein’s Camp. 58k on gravel is at the best of times a two-hour trip. This is no thoroughfare.

Maige’s reference to the “existing road” from the eastern to the western side of the park, and which had been generally (not specifically) the blueprint for the originally announced “highway” is the arched track shown above as a broken line that begins a few kilometers south of the Klein’s Camp gate on the main road to Lobo, then moves northwest, then southwest through the neck of the Serengeti to the western gate at Tabora.

Maige then said the existing track from the park gate to the town of Mugumo will be improved, and at Mugumo the paved road will continue to Lake Victoria.

The arched track through the Serengeti is what SW claimed does not exist. Of course it does, and it appears on a number of the last issues of the Frankfurt Zoological Society’s maps of the park. The oldest one I have was published in June, 1970. A 2008 one is republished by Harvey Maps of London and is available for sale to the public.

To improve this existing track will require significant effort. There is nothing in Maige’s announcement to suggest there will be any further upgrading or building of bridges, or anything of the sort, on the 53k track that links Klein’s Camp Gate (east) with Tabora Gate (west). Frankly, I doubt they’ll do a thing.

The existing track just gives up the ghost in huge sections, and a number of new bridges (over the Balanganjwe and Mbalimbali to name two) would have to be built. No small or inexpensive task. It does not seem to jive with Maige’s claim of an “existing road” nor one that would be managed “as it is currently.”

As it is currently, a better Landcruiser than mine would be needed to make the entire journey. I suppose that park rangers on poaching patrol might manage along it, but that’s about it.

So this is the crux of the dissimulation, and I suppose it’s understandable that SW might suspect the government of trying to fool its way into retaining UNESCO World Heritage status while still planning to dissect the Serengeti. But frankly, I don’t even think Tanzanian politicians are that foolish.

Maige said definitively “the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti” and that’s what the world community and UNESCO is taking at face value.

In fact, were Tanzania to do so, I can imagine nothing but incredible ramifications to the country as a whole, and not just from UNESCO, but the World Bank and the U.S. which has just orchestrated new aid for the country.

Yes, you can argue Maige’s letter is clever dissimulation but in fact it would be considered outright lying to the NGOs and foreign donors on which the country depends for its very existence. There are just too many sentences in that letter that stand as evidence that “the proposed road will not dissect the Serengeti.”

I think the letter is intended as much for local consumption as UNESCO. Like any good Tanzanian politician, Maige will never admit the government has changed its mind. And Tanzanian politicians’ track record of fooling Tanzanians more than outsiders is legend. It’s totally realistic to suppose what the government is doing, here, is leading unsuspecting local supporters of a faster link from Arusha to Lake Victoria down a nonexistent track.

If Tanzania really intended to build a new road, why write this letter in the first place? Do you really think Maige believed he could fool UNESCO, the World Bank and the United States with something like this?

That’s just too unbelievable.

Nothing is ever final in government or politics, whether it be Tanzania or here, and we have every reason to demand a greater clarification from Tanzania. But my money’s still on no new road through the park for the foreseeable future.

Victory in the Serengeti!

Victory in the Serengeti!

On November 9, 2010, I posted this graphic above my blog suggesting the Tanzanians would eventually back down from building a road through the Serengeti.
As I’ve been suggesting for a year, the “Serengeti Highway” will not be built through the park, but will be built right up to the eastern edge, and the goal of reaching the Lake Victoria port of Mwanza will be pursued as a new southern road from Arusha.

Wednesday, the Tanzanian government released a letter to UNESCO’s World Heritage Site office, which had threatened to remove World Heritage Status from the Serengeti if it were bisected by the highway, confirming that a paved west/east road through the neck of the park had been scrapped.

This is not a total victory, but a significant one. Let me explain why it’s not total.

Right now commercial traffic does move through the Serengeti, but it’s laborious. A paved road leads to the entry to the Ngorongoro Conservation Authority (NCA), and it’s then gravel for a long way, 5-6 hours to the Serengeti’s western gate.

What is planned, now, is for a new paved road to the eastern edge of the Serengeti, which will then continue as a new (short) gravel road to the existing gravel thoroughfare that runs roughly from Lobo to the western gate. When completed this “new route” will cut down the existing travel time through the Serengeti from 5-6 hours to about 3-4 hours.

The “new route” will also be significantly easier, as it will be straighter and less hilly than the winding cloud forest road through the NCA. So there will definitely be a new incentive for commercial traffic to increase once the route is completed.

But it is still likely a toss-up for commercial traffic to take this [faster] route rather than start from Arusha in a northwesterly direction on paved roads the whole way. This and the fact all roads within the park will remain unpaved are significant disincentives to commercial travel.

So in this sense it ends at least for the time being nearly two years of the most aggressive efforts by conservationists and scientists worldwide to alter a local country’s management of its sovereign wilderness.

Don’t pop the champagne.

First, this could not have been easy for the Tanzanians to have done. They have backed down. Can anyone imagine Eric Cantor backing down? Some creative spinning and long-term vengeance is in the political forecast.

Second, the real reasons for abandoning the project may not be known for some time, and I believe the main one is economic and strictly so. If I’m right, when the economic situation improves, the issue could reemerge.

Third, there is enough ambiguity in the letter that a flipflop would be easy … at any time.

Certainly there are recent indications that foreign donors – including the United States – engaged in some hard bargaining which may result in greater foreign aid to Tanzania, and likely for the construction of that southern road.

Hillary Clinton was in a specially good bargaining position last week. She was in Dar when the al-Qaeda leader, Mohammed Fazul, was killed in Somalia, and when his passport revealed that the only country which had given him safe haven was Tanzania.

What she told Tanzanian officials about Fazul’s capture is not known, and what was released instead included her reprimand about building a highway through the Serengeti.

Clinton was only the last of a long list of prominent diplomats who opposed the highway. Consortiums of scientists and wildlife organizations presented an impressive array of opposition, too. I remain seriously disappointed that our own American consortium of zoos was unable to get it together to join the impressive team.

An effort to get AZA, the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to join the world conservation opposition failed last year.

The first suggestions about the road came in early September, 2009, when East Africa was not yet suffering the world economic depression. What is hard for westerners to understand is that much of the developing world, and East Africa in particular, actually experienced increased growth until virtually this year.

But this year has hit East Africa very hard. Most prominently, the master road-builder China is reassessing its aid to East Africa and the world economic recession means that year after year, now, there is less to give to Africa.

Tanzanian president Kikwete is bound by a net of politics to help the Maasai in Loliondo, just to the east of the Serengeti. He linked this good, ostensible need with a bevy of corrupt components to give it a PR smile.

He can forego the corrupt goals, but the Maasai goal can’t be abandoned. This is the reason the government said, and I knew they would always have to deliver, a paved road up to the eastern edge of the park.

With less aid that will be difficult, now. But I feel that actually takes precedence over the grand scheme of linking Arusha with Mwanza, linking Tanzania’s northern heart to Lake Victoria. The priority must be the road to Loliondo.

So what happens when that is completed, but money runs out for the much more expensive southern road?

It depends. It depends upon how well tourism fairs in this down economic times. It depends upon how well Bilila Lodge (which was in the route of the old proposed highway), in which the president holds personal and substantial stock, does.

It depends upon whether the Grumeti Reserves continue to draw too much water from Lake Victoria. It depends upon whether American hedge fund traders do well enough to build the new Serengeti headquarters as they’ve promised.

It depends upon how prominent the opposition MP from Arusha, Godbless Lema, fairs in the next couple years.

All of these depends reduce to this:

If foreign donors put up the funds and build the southern road before all of the above depends play themselves out, the Serengeti is safe for another decade or two. If they don’t, it all depends.

Widely Wild Wrongly Written Wildebeest Writings

Widely Wild Wrongly Written Wildebeest Writings

I'm no photographer.
But I took this, this year, with my Cannon SureShot.
Widely circulated reports about a crash in Kenya’s Maasai Mara wildlife are (1) premature, (2) likely false and (3) infuriating. PS (4) I’m fed up with western news sources about Africa. Unless it’s another apocalypse, it isn’t published.

Many of you truly concerned wildlife enthusiasts have sent me the link to the bad BBC story claiming that Kenya’s best game reserve is in a tailspin. Thank you, but take a powder and lie-down.

The purported “study” by Joseph Ogutu at the University of Hohenheim is the second study by Ogutu on the Mara. His first purported up to 95% of certain animals had disappeared and was uniformly dismissed by scientists worldwide.

I found it interesting this morning that the branch of the university that Ogutu is supposedly registered with, has an “internet problem.” Linking to the Bioinfomatics Unit of the University of Hohenheim cited in the BBC report generates this message [poorly translated from the German]: “Because of maintenance work the Intranet and some other homepages are not available.”

Hmm.

Mara wildlife has declined, and local wildlife censuses have confirmed this, but nowhere near as catastrophic as suggested in Ogutu’s report. Ogutu told the BBC that Mara wildlife had declined by “two-thirds.”

Nonsense.

Here’s the truth. No one knows in any good scientific way. The Kenya Wildlife Service conducts wildlife censuses that are excellent, but KWS has limited jurisdiction in the Mara which is technically controlled by local county counsels. In fact as I’ve decried loudly before, the Mara’s catastrophic problem is management not an apocalyptic reduction in game.

At one point three separate entities were controlling what we call “the Mara” and they didn’t like one another. So it’s literally impossible to conduct uniform studies over the area. And to make matters worse, historically the data is equally terrible.

Ogutu did the worst possible research as a result. He picked and chose segmented area studies over 15 years, none of which were comprehensive of the area as a whole. Moreover, I’m certain in the weeks ahead real scientists will challenge much of his root data.

Ogutu had decided the Mara was in a tailspin even before he did this study. Last year when the area was just recovering from a three-year drought, he claimed half the animals in the Mara were gone by incorrectly citing a continent-wide study
from the United Nations Environment Programme and London Zoological Society which addressed the whole continent, not just the Mara.

There are good studies, particularly from the Frankfurt Zoological Society, on the biomass of the Serengeti and larger Serengeti/Mara ecosystems. There are also good studies on individual species, like lion and elephant and so forth. And unfortunately, we can only surmise by broad intersections of these individual studies what the situation is, in the Mara.

It’s OK.

It’s very threatened, perhaps more so than at any time before. This is mostly because of (1) weather, also closely because of (2) Kenya’s rapidly developing economy leading to human/wild animal conflicts, and interminably (3) the untenable way the poor reserve is managed.

But don’t write it off, yet. Kenyans are remarkably creative these days.

Ogutu is correct that there has been a significant decline in Mara herbivores, particularly with regards to the wildebeest migration. But this is not directly due to cattle grazing encroachment as he claims. It is because of weather. Two dynamics are at play.

First, the Serengeti just below the Mara has been much wetter than normal (as has the Mara) but while areas just immediately to the north and east have been much drier. Global warming at its best on the equator creates these weird and frighteningly small and distinct weather regions.

So while there were floods in the Mara, in adjacent cattle grazing Koiyaki and Lemuk private reserves, it was bone dry. In times of drought cattle tended by cattle owners over compete with wild game.

Second, because the Serengeti has been wetter than normal, the wildebeest have not needed to move into the Mara (the furthest northern part of their migration) with the same regularity as in the past. Historically the Mara was the wettest part of the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem. That definitely is changing. There will be less and less of the migration traveling into the Mara, now, with global warming.

The wildebeest population has remained constant at around 1.5 million animals for more than ten years. Ditto for the third of a million zebra.

So without intending to minimize the real threats existing in the Mara, let’s not exaggerate them, either. I wish Vanity Fair or the New York Review of Books would do a story. There is no new crisis in the Mara. Visitors today will notice little difference from ten years ago, except maybe with regards to the migration.

Rather there is a continuing decade’s long crisis we definitely need to do something about, which cannot exclude global warming. And there is an ever deepening crisis in the way we learn things.

Poorly Guided Tourists Hide Wilde

Poorly Guided Tourists Hide Wilde

This week the Huffington Post said the “migration was delayed.” True. It was delayed. About as long as getting stuck in Chicago traffic delays a dinner engagement.

“I can assure you the raingods are smiling,” the owner/manager of Ndutu lodge emailed me this morning. “The animals have streamed back onto the plains!… Everything right now is sprouting, growing and sparkling with life!”

The Huffington piece was written by a very respected conservationist, Carl Pope, Chairman of the Sierra Club.

Pope’s problem is the same as any other tourist who believes they are Robert Burton searching for the source of the Nile. TripAdvisor is full of this nonsense.

“…gazelles are waiting on the southern grasslands, but the short rains failed this December. The million wildebeest that drive the world’s greatest wildlife spectacle have not yet scented enough rain to trust their destinies to the grasslands. The migration, which follows the rain, must also wait for it,” Pope writes.

Poetic but untrue.

I am fan of the Huffington Post and consider myself allied to anyone who calls themself a conservationist. I’m not saying Pope was lying. His mistake – a very serious one – is suggesting that his one brief perspective from one small area puts him in a position to make such gross generalizations.

It was not immediately clear where Pope had been, but I dare say he probably wasn’t there very long and didn’t have a very good guide.

The Serengeti ecosystem is nearly the size of New Jersey, but unlike New Jersey it lies nearly astride the equator. Weather systems are fabulously complex, there, and especially now with global warming.

There can be small pockets of drought surrounded by areas that are flooded. Right now the northern districts of Kenya are suffering another drought. Perhaps he found himself in one such small area in the Serengeti, but the overall Serengeti is just fine, and actually, quite normally fine.

Pope’s assumption in his article that the herds are drawn by the “scent of grass” or sensitivity to rain is uncertain; we don’t know exactly what prompts the migration. Moreover, grass disappears for other reasons than drought. It can be eaten. By cattle as well as wildebeest, a serious ecological battle raging these last few years at the edge of the Serengeti with Maasai range lands.

He also suggested as typical of a casual tourist that the migration is a single thing — entity — that either moves or not. A million animals does not a marching band make! They are often split up all over terra firma.

He said the “gazelles were delayed.” Thomson’s gazelle often don’t migrate. Some do, some don’t. I see literally tens of thousands of Thomson’s gazelle on the totally desiccated plains north of Olduvai at the driest time of the year, July and the first of August. These marvelous creatures don’t need to drink, and they survive quite nicely by eating the roots of grass.

Pope marked his visit in “December.” But the information I have for December was that light rains began over the grassland plains of the Serengeti December 18 and 19, and the following week saw normal rain patterns. This is about 2-3 weeks late, no more. There was then a let up at the end of the year, as is also normal, and now as the Ndutu owner explains, everything is beautifully green.

Blogs posted by other travelers and tour companies suggest that the bulk of the wildebeest moved through the northern part of the Serengeti out of Kenya as early as the end of November/beginning of December. Right on schedule.

Several weeks later, perfectly positioned to profit from the first rains of the season, the herds were mostly divided widely between the Kusini plains to the west and the Gol Kopjes to the east.

This is the real magic of the migration. Until these first rains fall germinating new grass, there is simply no understandable motivation to draw the large herds into the area. Yet they come, year after year after year. Many believe as I do that it is a homing instinct triggered not by “scent of grass” or of rain, but of a lack of grass whence the herds came.

Whatever it is, this wondrous magic is diminished when respectable media like the Huffington Post publish reputable writers like Pope who offer tiny personal experiences as adequate accounts of complex situations, acting like experts when all they are, are poorly guided tourists.

Top Ten 2010 Stories

Top Ten 2010 Stories

East Africa is booming, so many of the stories of 2010 were terrifically good news. But there were the tragedies as well like the Kampala bombings. Below I try to put the year in perspective with my top ten stories for East Africa for 2010.

1. Populace democracy grows.
2. Terrorism grows, as does the battle against it.
3. Huge stop in the mercenary purchases of Coltan.
4. Momentum for peace in the runup to establishing a new South Sudan.
5. Tourism clashes with development, especially with the proposed Serengeti Highway.
6. New discoveries of fossil fuels produces new wealth and a new relationship with China.
7. Gay Rights grow public but loses ground.
8. Rhino poaching becomes corporate.
9. Hot air ballooning’s safety newly questioned in game parks.
10. Newest early man discoveries reconfirm sub-Saharan Africa as the birthplace of man.

#1: POPULACE DEMOCRACY GROWS
Theoretically, all the East African countries have operated as “democracies” except for the torrential years of Idi Amin in Uganda. But the quality of this democracy was never very good.

Tanzania was a one-party state for its first 20 years, and that same party continues to rule although more democratically today. Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi experienced one dictator after another, even while democratic elections at regional levels challenged the executive.

But the end of the Cold War destroyed the alliances these developing countries had with super powers. Purse strings were cut, and political cow-towing ended. All of them moved towards a truly more democratic culture.

And in 2010 huge leaps were made in all the countries towards more truly representative government. The most important example by far was the overwhelming passing of the new constitution in Kenya in a national referendum where more than 75% of registered voters participated.

And like the U.S. election which followed shortly thereafter, and like support for national health care in the U.S. and so many other issues (like no tax cuts for the rich), Kenyan politicians dragged their feet right up to the critical moment. They tried and tried, and ultimately failed, to dissuade Kenyans from their fundamental desire to eliminate tribalism in government and more fairly distribute the huge wealth being newly created.

I see this as People vs. Politicians, and in this wonderful case, the People won!

And there was some progress as well in Tanzania’s December election, with the opposition growing and its influence today moving that country towards a more democratic constitution.

(It was not so good in Rwanda or Uganda, where stiff-arm techniques and government manipulation of the electoral process undermined any attempt at real democracy.) But the huge leap forward in Kenya, and the little hop in Tanzania, made this the absolute top story of the year.

#2: TERRORISM GROWS
Four smaller bombings in Nairobi’s central business district over the year were eclipsed by two horrible simultaneous bombings in Kampala bars on July 11 while patrons were watching the world cup.

Police display an unexploded suicide vest.

Al-Shabaab, Al-Qaeda in Somali, claimed responsibility. And throughout the year Shabaab grew increasingly visible along the Kenyan border as its power in Somali increased.

I’ve written for a long time about how the west has had its collective head in the sand as regards terrorism and Al-Qaeda in particular. Long ago I pointed out that the locus of Al-Qaeda terrorism had moved to the horn from Afghanistan, and this year proved it in spades.

The country with the most to lose and most to gain in this war on terror is Kenya, because of its long shared border with Somalia. And the year also marked a striking increase in the Kenyan government’s war on terror, and with considerable success.

With much more deftness and delicacy than us Kenya has stepped up the battle against Al-Shabaab while pursuing policies aimed at pacifying any overt threats to its security, by such brilliant moves as allowing Omar Bashir into the country and not arresting him (on an international U.N. warrant). As I said in a blog, Kenya Gets It, and the story is therefore a hopeful one.

#3: CONGO WAR & COLTAN
This is also a U.S. story.

The Dodd-Frank Act is our victory!
The Congo Wars continue but are abating, and in large part because of a little known provision in the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act which now makes it almost impossible for major corporations in the U.S. to buy the precious metal Coltan on the black market.

A black market which has funded perhaps Africa’s most horrible war for more than a generation. Hundreds of thousands – perhaps millions – have been killed and raped, and more than 20,000 children conscripted into brutal wars, funded by purchases of Coltan and other precious metals by Intel, Sony and Apple.

It certainly wasn’t just this little legislative move. The U.N. peace-keeping force, fabulous diplomatic initiatives by Uganda and a real diplomatic vigilance by the U.S. all were instrumental. But the year ended with the least violence in the region in more than two decades.

#4: SOUTH SUDAN
I may be jumping the gun on this one, because the referendum to create a new country, the South Sudan, is not scheduled to occur before next month. But the runup to the referendum, including the registration process, while labored looks like it’s working.

Allied loosely with the Congo Wars, the civil war between the North and South Sudan had gone on for generations until a brokered peace deal five years ago included the ultimate end to the story: succession of the South into a new country.

The concept is rife with problems, most notably that the division line straddles important oil-producing areas. But in spite of all of this, and many other ups and downs along the way, it looks to me like there will be a South Sudan, and soon. And this year’s new U.N. presence in Juba, donor-construction of roads and airports, all points to the main global players in the controversy also thinking the same.

The creation of a new state out of a near failed one is not the be-all or end-all of the many problems of this massive and powerfully oil-rich area. But it is a giant leap forward.

#5: THE SERENGETI HIGHWAY & TOURISM
Last night NBC news aired a segment on the Serengeti Highway controversy, elevating an East African story into American prime time. Good.

But like so many reports of this controversy, the simplification ran amok. NBC’s reporter Engels claimed the motivation for the road was to facilitate rare earth metals like Coltan (see above) getting into Chinese hands more quickly.

While there may be something to this, it’s definitely not the main reason, which is much more general and harder therefore to fight. As I’ve often written, the highway as planned will be a real boon to the Maasai currently living to the east of the Serengeti, as much if not more than to the Chinese.

And as far as I know, Maasai don’t use Coltan.

Roads bring commerce and may be the single quickest way to develop a region. This region is sorely in need of development and recent Tanzania politics has aligned to the need for this regional development.

The highway is just one of many such issues which came to the fore throughout 2010 in Kenya and Tanzania. Concern that the west is just interested in East Africa as a vacation destination with no regards for the struggle for development, has governed quite a few local elections this year.

The whole concept of tourism may be changing as the debate progresses. I believe very deeply that the Serengeti highway as proposed would hinder rather than help development. But as I’ve pointed out, alternatives are in the works.

And the real story of which the highway story is only a part, is how dramatically different East Africans have begun to view tourists in 2010.

#6: NEW RESOURCE DISCOVERIES ALTER GEOPOLITICS
For years I and other African experts have referred to East Africa as “resource-poor.” Kenya, in particular, had nothing but potash. Boy, did that change this year!

Although only one proven reserve has been announced in Kenya, several have begun production in Uganda and we know many more are to come.

China has announced plans for a pipeline and oil port in northern Kenya at a cost of nearly $16 billion dollars, that’s more than twice the entire annual budget for the Kenya government! Deep earth techniques have matured, and China knows how to use them.

More gold has been found in Tanzania, new coal deposits in Uganda, more precious metals in Rwanda… East Africa is turning into the world’s rare earth commodities market.

A lot of these new discoveries are a result of technology improving: going deeper into the earth. But 2010 freed East Africa from the shackle of being “resource-poor” and that’s a very big deal.

#7: GAY RIGHTS ON THE HOOK
African societies have never embraced gay rights but as they rapidly develop, until now there was none of the gay bashing of the sort the rightest backlash produces in the U.S.

U.S. Righties manipulating East Africa.

That changed this year, and in large part because of the meddling of U.S. rightest groups.

In what appears to now have been a concerted many year effort, support from U.S. righties is leading to a vote in Uganda’s parliament that would make homosexuality a capital offense, and would jail for long terms those who failed to out known gays.

This extreme is not African, it is American. Mostly an insidious attempt by those unable to evince such insanity in their own society to go to some more manipulative place. The story isn’t over as the vote has yet to occur, but it emerged and reached a crescendo this year.

#8: RHINO POACHING EXPLODES
Poaching is a constant problem in wildlife reserves worldwide and Africa in particular. Rhino are particularly vulnerable, and efforts to ensure safe, wild habitats have been decades in the making.

Dagger from rhino horn.

This year, they seemed to come apart. It’s not clear if the economic downturn has something to do with this, but the poaching seems to have morphed this year from individual crimes to corporate business plans.

This leap in criminal sophistication must be explained by wealth opportunities that haven’t existed previously. And whether that was the depressing of financial goals caused by the economic downturn, increased wealth in the Horn of Africa where so much of the rhino horn is destined, or reduced law enforcement, we don’t yet know. But 2010 was the sad year that this poaching exploded.

#9: IS HOT AIR BALLOONING SAFE?
Hot air ballooning in Africa’s two great wildernesses of the Maasai Mara (Kenya) and the Serengeti (Tanzania) has been a staple of exciting options to visiting tourists for nearly 30 years. That might be changing.

Is it Safe?

A terrible accident in the Serengeti in early October that killed two passengers and injured others opened a hornet’s nest of new questions.

After working on this story for some time I’ve personally concluded 2010 was the year I learned I should not step into a hot air balloon in East Africa, at least for the time being!

#10: EARLY MAN WONDERS
There were not quite as many spectacular discoveries or announcements about early man this year as in years previously, but one really did stand out as outstanding and you might wonder what it has to do with East Africa!

Representation by Tomislan Maricic.

DNA testing of Neanderthal proved that early man from Africa didn’t wipe them out after all, but absorbed them into the ever-evolving homin species.

And that absorption, and not massacre, happened outside Africa to be sure. But it finally helps smooth out the story that began in Africa: It’s likely that Neanderthal were earlier migrants from Africa, and absorption was therefore easier, physiologically and biologically.

It’s a wonderful story, and fresh and exciting, unlike the only other major African early man announcement about Ardi which was really a much older story, anyway.

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HAPPY NEW YEAR to all my loyal readers, with a giant thank you from me for your attention but especially your wonderful comments throughout the year. See you next year!