Land of Shere Khan

Land of Shere Khan

We weren’t going to tip over, at least I didn’t think so. But when our “guide” clonked out and bounced onto the rubber floor our raft of four plus him started twirling in the fizzy white water like an alka seltzer dissolving in a glass.

This was my first time on Nepal’s Rapti river and my rafting experience was very limited, although fortunately on a few rivers in Alaska that seemed as cold and wild as this one. But I was no paddle captain. Thank goodness that the other two rafts – both behind us – seemed OK. Until we saw in the distance what we had been looking for, but what was now suddenly a mortal threat:
Read more

Seal Attack

Seal Attack

Yesterday a baby seal, about the size of a small black lab, attacked multiple swimmers at Cape Town’s popular Clifton Beach. I’d come down exhausted from watching the House disaster, in need of several items of ordinary African news. And the first I found was this.

The seal first attacked a kid, then an older man rescued the kid and got attacked, then the lifeguards blew out warnings but one woman didn’t notice and the seal really bit a chunk out of her until a guy grabbed it, swung it around and then threw it back out to sea… where it immediately turned around and swam back to attack him.
Read more

Elephant Bus

Elephant Bus

Suspend your belief. I found an African charity that doesn’t boil my blood.

The human/wild animal conflict in Africa is almost as politically volatile as climate change throughout much of – especially rural Africa. Elephants in particular are the problem and a tour company has done something admirable about it.

Read more

Extreme Responsibility

Extreme Responsibility

A Florida woman canoeing down the Zambezi nearly lost her leg after being attacked by a hippo and undergoing hours of surgery in Johannesburg earlier this week.

Kristen and Ryan Yaldor were celebrating Kristen’s 37th birthday on one of my most favorite trips when I was younger. The guide noticed something unusual to the right, told the couple to paddle to the left, and moments later Kristen was in the mouth of an angry mother hippo.

Read more

Blame or Responsibility?

Blame or Responsibility?

CingorilladeathNeither Rin Tin Tin or Baloo are real, folks. The gorilla was and it had to be killed. The mother was negligent. And the Cincinnati Zoo’s gorilla display isn’t safe enough.

A good portion of my life has been spent teaching the dangers of anthropomorphization: Everyone involved from the zoo to the mother and child, to the authorities now conducting investigations are guilty of treating animals like people.

A human is more important than a gorilla. It’s unfortunate that situations like this force this distinction to be emphasized, because animals are one of the best conduits for leading us to better understandings of our planet’s ecologies. But like many good things sometimes it goes too far.

As a zoo director friend told me yesterday, “That gorilla can crush a coconut with his hand.”

Criticism of the zoo’s crisis response unit comes mainly from animal rights groups with exaggerated or incorrect arguments:

Harambee was not a “mountain gorilla,” of which there are fewer than a 1000 left. He was of the lowland gorilla species, of which there are 50,000 -90,000.

That’s still a critically endangered animal but it’s not the imminent threatened mountain gorilla that many are claiming.

Harambee was not captured in a West African jungle. He was born in the Gladys Porter Zoo in Texas. The vast majority of animals seen today in zoos have been born in zoos.

This is hardly the first time something like this has happened. The most recent was three years ago when a 2-year child fell into a pack of wild dogs in the Pittsburgh Zoo and was mauled to death.

Like with the current Cincinnati gorilla incident, the public was quick to judge the mother was mostly at fault in Pittsburgh. She sued, anyway, and the zoo settled.

Other recent incidents include a loyal animal keeper killed by the tiger she had cared for.

In all cases blame spreads pretty equally between the victim or the victim’s guardian, and the zoo. Zoos’ attempts at modernization have included better exhibits, but these exhibits probably compromise safety for entertainment.

But while the blame may spread around, the responsibility for an incident like this stops squarely at the zoo. They are the organizer, they invited the people with their children to come, and they must prepare for every conceivable eventuality.

Cincinnati did not.

I’ve written before that zoos have neglected safety for gate receipts and media. It was totally appropriate that Pittsburgh paid the family of the killed child thousands if not millions of dollars, even though they were not only to blame.

It’s an awesome responsibility zoos have assumed, and it begins by letting the visiting public understand the danger, and if that means a slightly worse view of the animal, so be it.

What is curious in this most recent Cincinnati case, though, is that it is so similar to the Pittsburgh case with the exception of the animal involved. This was a lowland gorilla. The Pittsburgh case involved wild (painted) dogs.

Wild dogs are actually more endangered ecologically than lowland gorillas, yet the outcry with this incident is considerable sharper.

I think that has to do mostly with the video. There was no video of the Pittsburgh incident. That suggests a large portion of our population doesn’t read, only watches.

That, by the way, is one of the distinctions between a person and a gorilla.

Lion Futures

Lion Futures

EwasoLionsTeam2015A ranger’s report filed yesterday from northern Kenya explains so perfectly why lions in the wild may quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Ewaso Lions is a stellar NGO working in the Laikipia/Samburu region of northern Kenya, a beautiful semi-arid terrain just north of Mt. Kenya. The small under 25-person group is run by a 4th generation Kenyan Asian, Shivani Bhalla, whose list of prizes from conservation organizations takes up a dozen lines of her resume.

More than half the staff is composed of local mostly Samburu. Jeneria Lekilelei, the Field Operations and Community Manager, won last year’s Conservation and Field Hero Award from the Walt Disney Foundation.

Jeneria’s field report explains that lion/human conflict in his region increases with the onset of the rains. During the dry season lions have a relatively easy time picking off wild game that must necessarily congregate at certain water sources.

With the rains wild game disperses. So does domestic stock: out of their bins where they’re fed hay during the dry season, they seek the same natural pastures that the wild game seeks.

Jeneria recounts one morning when “the lions killed camels in 5 locations so I was getting calls from all over. I raced to one area where Lengwe and his pride killed a camel and its baby…

“Three warriors from the village came and they all had guns. I was sure Lengwe was going to be killed by these warriors, so I sat with them under a bush all day” and talked them out of the killing.

There are several critical back stories to this positive tale.

The first is pretty evident: “I was getting calls from all over.” These weren’t warrior’s whoops, they were cell phone calls. Even the most remote wildernesses on earth are peppered with cell towers and there are generally more mobile phones per person in the developing world than in America.

Cell phones represent increasing connections of everything, including government and people. Killing a lion in Kenya is a crime.

The second back story is of Lengwe the lion. Lengwe would be a goner in the truly wild world of times past. Jeneria first encountered Lengwe when he was nearly dead, incapacitated by a broken femur. Ewaso Lions mobilized a remarkable rescue operation that included not only rounding up vets and federal wildlife rangers to immobilize Lengwe, but even of transporting an X-ray machine into the area for a correct diagnosis.

Lengwe was not exactly nursed back to health, but he was certainly monitored carefully and eventually he became a pride leader. Losing Lengwe to three young warriors would have been a rather sorry end to an otherwise heroic tale.

Finally the third back story was the rationale that Jeneria used to dissuade the warriors from their revenge killing: Where were the kids?

Stock – whether camels or cows or goats – is traditionally the responsibility of young boy herders. As Jeneria recounts asking the warriors, “Have you ever heard of a camel being killed when herded by a proper person?”

The question shamed the warriors. The implied answer is also quite illustrative: lions won’t go anywhere near Samburu or Maasai herding stock and this particular stock was being neglected. Not tending stock doesn’t just remove protection, it essentially cedes ownership.

Because of the good work of Ewaso Lions, the great Northern Frontier’s predator is faring better than it would otherwise. Because of cell phones, Maasai boys herding stock are going to become increasingly delinquent so that they can pass their CPAs.

This wonderful story with wonderful, positive characters ended beautifully, but its lesson is proof things will not go well as currently arranged. Climate change and human progress might be at odds in some places, but in this case they are working hand-in-hand to wreck havoc on this traditional tapestry of life.

Cecil & Swales

Cecil & Swales

bloodyface.lion.dena.435.skew.apr07The killing of Cecil the lion has now been followed by the killing of Swales the guide. Both tragedies are pathetic examples of horrifically poor safari management typical of Zimbabwe. Neither would have happened in Kenya, Tanzania or South Africa.

I haven’t written about Cecil until now, although canned hunting, which was the cause of Cecil’s murder, is a subject I’ve often blogged about.

The 2013 canned hunting scandal with cable start sportsperson Melissa Bachman rattled her employer, National Geographic, so much that they fired her.

Bachman had proudly displayed a lion she had shot on a canned hunt … just like the dentist did with Cecil.

But Bachman was a celebrity. The dentist wasn’t until now, and there are literally hundreds of Americans each year who book canned hunts in southern Africa… and, by the way, in Texas.

A lion almost as famous and certainly as monitored as Cecil, named Nxaha, was responsible last week for killing the Zimbabwean safari guide, Quinn Swales.

The American media jumped on the incident as a way of recounting the interest in Cecil, but the fact is that the two incidents are quite different.

Cecil was a sanctioned, canned hunt. The bluster currently being shown by the Zimbabwean government, going so far as to “demand” the extradition of the dentist back to Zimbabwe to face trial, is absurd.

They did nothing illegal. In fact, hundreds of Americans every year sanction this kind of thing by purchasing it. It was the dentist’s poor experience as a hunter that led to the lengthy tracking of the wounded animal.

In the more recent case it was abject incompetence if not complete stupidity.

Swales was taking a small party on a walking safari, and he is clearly not the one to do so. He recognized the tracks of lion, including cubs. Multiple reports, including from his employer and Zimbabwe parks, confirm that he recognized cub tracks.

You don’t walk towards lion cubs.

But he did, and they saw him.

“We can confirm that Quinn did everything he could to successfully protect his guests and ensure their safety, and that no guests were injured in the incident,” the owners of the camp Swales was associated with said in a statement.

Well, that’s wonderful.

But the event should never have happened in the first place.

Walking safaris are increasingly risky in Africa as human populations engulf wilderness areas and the habitat for big game decreases. I no longer allow my clients to walk in East Africa under any circumstances.

Southern Africa is different, although I wouldn’t recommend that anyone do anything in Zimbabwe, frankly. The country is a mess, conservation is in ruins and its national parks are badly managed.

But in all cases, you do not walk towards lion cubs.

None of the reports indicated how old the cubs were, and that could make a difference. If they were 9 or 10 months or older, then the protective instincts of the parents would have waned. I’m presuming this was not the case. For one thing a 9-month old male cub is about the same size as his mother.

I’m glad none of the tourists were hurt. But their very presence in Zimbabwe is an indication of further incompetence.

Incompetence in the wild is unforgivable. Second chances are very rare.

Reckless & Barbaric

Reckless & Barbaric

abjectstupidityThe young American killed yesterday by a lion in South Africa was as irresponsible as the lion park she was visiting.

Fatalities and serious injuries to visitors to these improperly named “parks” is exponentially greater than in the real wildernesses of Africa. I see these obscene facilities as modern gladiator stadiums built specifically to create the mauling of humans.

The yet-to-be-named 22-year old was in a sedan car in the Gauteng Lion Park just outside Johannesburg. (At the time of this writing, the website for this very popular facility was crashing or was taken down. Its address is

The park places signs throughout the driveways telling visitors to keep their windows closed. This woman was photographing the lion through her opened window when she was attacked.

The Gauteng Lion Park is one of Johannesburg’s most popular attractions. In fact “open zoos” are among South Africa’s most popular attractions countrywide. The one just outside Johannesburg when last reported had around 80 lions. The next largest park of this kind is in Port Elizabeth.

The density of predators in these parks is between ten and one hundred times the natural density of predators found in the wild. It’s darkly, hopelessly laughable that people visit these places, take photographs, then claim they’ve seen wild animals in Africa.

Last year 60 Minutes did a fabulous expose on this place. Shadowing one of the human keepers, the investigation revealed not only the inhumane nature of the park from the animal’s point of view, but that the park was breeding lions for “canned hunting.”

Canned Hunting is one of the most barbaric attractions of South Africa (and Texas, by the way). Big, naturally wild animals are raised from birth and tamed, then released to be shot by idiots who pay to do so.

Admittedly, I sometimes wonder even on one of my real safaris into Africa’s real wildernesses how visitors lack any respect for the vagaries and exigencies and chances of the wild.

Less than a year ago I was in the crater when through my binocs I saw a car changing a flat tire … quite normal, by the way. But it was right in front of a pride of lions. And hyaenas! And they were eating a kill!

Not only were the guides changing the flat endangering themselves, but they seemed from the photo I took to have completely neglected their clients, who were wandering about as well!

There were multiple ways they could have changed the tire without exposing everyone and themselves to danger, beginning with something simple like moving a car between the lions and the car… or, hey here’s a thought: call the rangers!

These two situations are perfect examples of the reckless and feckless attitude so many people have to the wild.

Large animals can be tamed, to be sure. But they will never earn a degree from Final Touch. Their normal behavior, like an elephant making a turn, can be deadly.

But more to the point, wild animals can be tamed to a point, but that point is never a safe one. Hollywood may judge the risk worthwhile. Circuses are more controversial.

But really wild animals like lions make no sense on our planet except when they’re wild. Altering their behavior is dangerous.

In the crater, where far too many people ride around in cars pretending to be in the African wilderness, a transition occurred more than a half century ago where the animals became much less fearful of people. That’s good … for tourism, but bad … for wild animals.

Degrees of tameness can now be seen throughout all of Africa’s wilds. I personally am most frightened of those areas where the tameness is greatest, like the crater. That’s where the unpredictability of wild is most frequently tempted by voyeurs of the wild.

In South Africa today there are more lions in these private parks than in South Africa’s excellent true protected wildernesses.

And yet, if you believe TripAdvisor, these are the places to be!

For idiots. Animal haters. Voyeurs. And scam-med travelers.

Violence is not Genetic

Violence is not Genetic

chimps fightingA recent study of chimps in Uganda is being misinterpreted to suggest human murder is natural, and sloppy scientists are reenforcing these beliefs.

Chimps have long been known to be murderers and cannibals. While dominance within many species is often violent and considered essential for the social organization of many species, it very rarely extends to murder and except for chimps, to cannibalism.

So scientists have been at odds for years trying to explain this behavior in chimpanzees. Research came to a head about five years ago when scientists carefully documented chimp gangs that persistently (sometimes over ten years) plotted against one another then celebrated territorial victories by eating their foe’s babies.

Anthropology Professor Jill Pruetz believed for many years that this chimp behavior was aberrant, that it would not occur naturally in the wild were it not for some unnatural interference. Most of the colleagues who agreed with her believed that “something else” was human interference.

It could be chimps mocking human behavior (many chimp studies occur near very violent parts of Africa) or humans stressing chimp’s habitat, but it seemed just impossible to ascribe murder and cannibalism to natural behavior.

Pruetz and most of the scientific community have relented based on a just published study in Nature.

The “study says chimpanzees kill their own as a survival strategy, not due to human contact,” summarizes science journalist Monte Morin in yesterday’s L.A. Times.

And as far as I can tell, virtually everyone agrees.

That’s fine. But what’s not fine and in my opinion absolutely horrible is to use this study as an explanation for human violence.

Arizona State professor Joan Silk wrote an opinion article in that same issue of Nature, which she titled, “The evolutionary roots of lethal conflict,” which says it all.

A closer look at Silk’s opinion may be more nuanced than the title, but her title is what was picked up and replayed time and again in the less refined media. Clearly she committed a grievous scientific error in not adding “in chimpanzees” to her title.

There is absolutely nothing scientific or even rational to presume that behavior in chimps explains behavior in humans.

In what I feel is yellow science Silk invited the comparisons.

“The origins and prevalence of human warfare may be echoed in the search for the answer to chimpanzee adaptation,” wrote one scientific blogger yesterday, and it’s a wholly rational conclusion from Silk’s title, whether she intended it or not.

“Peace-loving anti-war activists call war ‘unnatural,’ but our closest animal relatives show that at least a little bloodshed is perfectly natural,” wrote Rebecca Kaplan in Tech Times, yesterday.

And on and on.

Studies of evolutionary behavior cannot extend back 6-10 million years to the separation of the hominin and ape branches of the hominid evolutionary tree. That’s just too long ago.

Behavior changes infinitely more rapidly than DNA. To claim that today’s chimp’s murder-and-cannibalism as a survival tool means that our earliest common ancestor with chimps had that behavior, too, is ludicrous.

And even if the ECA did, it’s impossible to suggest that our behavior today is still manifest by it.

There is no question that war has been used as a survival tool by humankind. But this is not because it’s ingrained in our genes, which is how the current chimp study is being distorted.

Why human violence evolved is certainly an interesting question, but it’s not biological. And what’s even more troubling is how the uneducated reaction to this study devolves from societies to individuals, suggesting all individuals carry a kill instinct.

I am so upset by this race to justify murder and violence. It slips so easily into the contemporary narratives supporting police using excessive force, violence and abuse against the less powerful like spouses and children, and not least of all, the rush back to war.

These are very troubling times, and scientists need to be very careful today. Joan Silk was not.

Culling & Killing

Culling & Killing

elephant-attacks-carHunting and culling are acceptable in certain cases to protect the lives and livelihoods of people. In Africa this is a complex and difficult topic.

In my series on hunting this week I argue that hunting is no longer a good conservation tool and that in most cases should be outlawed. But there are reasons beyond conservation that make hunting and culling reasonable in limited cases.

The obvious first one is to protect people and you may think it silly to even note this. But I do so to point out how easily the concept is abused.

In June a visitor near a trail head at the Denali Park headquarters shot and killed a moose that he claimed was charging his family. Although the Park Service decided it was a justified killing, it’s hard to imagine so.

Similarly and also because of Congress’ recent act to allow tourists to carry firearms into national parks, bears are now being killed.

Having been in Denali often, and often enjoyed the crowded visitors center, as well as a number of its well patrolled tracks, the authorities have a pretty good record at advising people how to remain out of harm’s way.

Until the Congressional law allowing firearms, it was not by shooting the animal that a tourist protected herself. Simply moving away from it has proved time and again the most effective defense. In fact there is every concern now that animals fired upon will grow increasingly aggressive.

So the specific cases in the foregoing represent abuse of an otherwise reasonable cause for killing an animal.

In Africa these human/animal conflicts are exponentially greater than here at home, and there are many more bigger and destructive animals.

It isn’t tourists being threatened in Africa, it’s farmers and school children. And as human population centers increase and necessarily compete with areas previously wild, these conflicts grow faster than even neutral policy makers are able to deal with.

There are no statistics in East Africa as kept by American parks or the State of Alaska. But everyone knows there are dozens of human/animal conflicts weekly just in the northern game area of Tanzania.

“The animals just cause problems. During the rainy season the lions and hyenas attack us all the time,” one Maasai farmer told London’s Guardian newspaper.

Because tourism, derived from these big animals now accounts for nearly 15% of Tanzania’s GDP, the acts of farmers to protect themselves, their livelihoods and families is technically illegal.

But in the same Guardian article, a Tanzanian field worker for one of the world’s most radical animal conservation organization, African People & Wildlife (APW), conceded “ “It’s not easy, there are lots of problems, but we must try to understand the villagers instead of just punishing them.”

So both Kenya and Tanzania have passed laws that compensate farmers and landholders who can document destruction by a wild animal. But documentation is difficult and corruption caps an absolute inability to effect this as workable policy.

APW is not yet up to my reasoning that given the lack of workable policy, villagers should be able to kill an animal that threatens them, but I think the mounting number of incidents in East Africa will ultimately make this policy.

Culling is a more delicate issue, and for years I felt it unnecessary, but now I don’t. It had been a standard practice throughout all of southern Africa until the mid 1990s when animal rights’ activists prevailed.

Culling was stopped throughout much of southern Africa when the most used and famous park, Kruger, banned culling in 1995. But then it was reinstated in 2008.

Arguments for culling are often flawed. Similar to those used to promote deer culling here at home, bad arguments are often proffered that extreme population densities of one species crowd out another.

Evidence of this doesn’t exist. I don’t subscribe to the notion of “invasive species” because there is no documented case of invasive species categorically pushing another species to extinction – not kudzu, not garlic mustard, not Asian carp or Japanese beetles … or any of the other similar species’ claims in Africa.

I see “invasive species” as the heroes of natural selection, and as best evidenced by the long-term results of the kudzu invasion, nothing bad really happens in the long-term. In fact, it’s usually a good outcome.

The initial invasion of kudzu produced visible declines in other plants, but after long-term studies many of those competing plants have returned, and researchers obsessed with the notion of “invasive species” had to result to chemical harms to the atmosphere, something much harder to refute but similarly much more oblique.

Many argue kudzu is now saving forests. After years of trying to insist kudzu was going to take over the world, southerners have come to grips with its advantages conceding the any destruction was insignificant.

See a documentary film produced at the University of Alabama.

An extreme theory of invasive species leads to the South African concept known as “Carrying Capacity” which claims to determine the most perfect balance among all species in an ecosystem, and then prunes and imports species to maintain this balance.

“Carrying Capacity” was the original reason used by Kruger park scientists to cull before giving in to to animal rights activists in 1995.

But it was something quite different that tipped the scales and allowed them to reverse their decision 13 years later. The compelling argument became “human-elephant conflict” according to parks’ studies.

To be fair, Kruger and South Africans still embrace “Carrying Capacity” which is, of course, allied to notions of controlling invasive species. Both arguments might be useful when managing a defined area natural wilderness. But neither is compelling when applied to larger areas or the wild as a whole at which point it becomes as destructive as the impetus for considering it.

Human/animal conflicts, though, are compelling enough. That’s when hunting and culling are justified.

Thursday, I’ll examine why sports hunting is no longer a viable conservation tool in Africa or here at home.

Don’t Walk on Safari

Don’t Walk on Safari

elePushesCarAs my clients well know, I don’t approve of walking safaris anywhere in East Africa, today. Tuesday morning another tourist was killed by an elephant near Tarangire National Park.

Thomas McAfee of San Diego was on a guided walking safari arranged by Tarangire River Camp where he was lodging.

The details are not complete, but reports of the local police report claim the incident occurred at 8 a.m., Tuesday, when McAfee and two others encountered about 50 elephant on their walk.

The report continues that the other two escaped by running away but that McAfee tripped and fell and was then killed by a charging elephant.

Tarangire River Camp is a respectable camp located just outside the park itself. Many similar excellent camps and lodges throughout sub-Saharan Africa located just outside the boundaries of a government reserve are not restrained by park regulations restricting walking. So as a sales tool they offer walking safaris.

Park regulations are strict regarding walking. Walkers must pay a special fee and must be accompanied by an armed ranger, but for the last several years in Tarangire, the main northern ranger post has declined to lead walking safaris.

I can only speculate as to why the rangers have declined to lead walking safaris, since there has been no official reason. But I suspect it’s the same reason I have: there are too many elephants, they are too stressed, and it’s too dangerous.

Be cautious, now, about unqualified criticism of Tarangire River Camp. Virtually every off-reserve camp I know in Tarangire, including my favorite, Oliver’s Camp, promotes walking safaris.

Walking safaris strike consumers as an attractive option to remaining in the car all day, and that’s understandable, and nowhere at no time have they been offered without the understanding of added risk.

The finest and most professional walking safaris in Africa are led by remarkably professional rangers in South Africa’s Kruger National Park.

And even those have had serious incidents, but notably the professional has been the one who has suffered most, and in all cases in recent memory the tourists were uninjured.

And, of course, incidents occur to vehicles, too. Most of these, in fact, are reported again in Kruger National Park, and the reason is quite simple: There are many more tourists, there, and many self-drive cars, unlike in East Africa.

In my long forty years of guiding safaris I’ve been threatened by animals, mostly elephants, dozens and dozens of times. Three times were very serious. Game viewing – anywhere in Africa – is not a walk through your local county forest preserve.

But times started to seriously change 10-15 years ago. Today the risk of an animal attack while on safari is greater than ever. The risk is easily avoided, but it requires a change in tourist behavior from what for so many years has been considered acceptable.

Don’t walk.

There are qualifications, of course. If you recognize the added risk, then there are places where that risk is less and where the professionalism and heroism of its rangers has a long history. And that’s in southern Africa, especially Kruger.

Zambia’s Luangwa Valley is also a place where walking safaris have been the featured form of game viewing for more than half century, and where the guides have avoided serious incidents for a remarkably long time.

And in very remote locations, for example in Kenya’s fine Bush ‘n Beyond camps in the distant Northern Frontier, walking is probably OK.

Why is it less risky in some places? Because of different animal behaviors in different places, and because of the skill and professionalism of those who might guide you walking.

East Africa, Kenya in particular, has made great strides in the skill and professionalism of its rangers. Tanzania much less so, and Uganda is horrible. But no country in East Africa has the training or supervision that passes my requirements for a safe walk in the wild.

And East Africa’s wild animal population is out of control. Both in terms of simple numbers (which is a main reason I enjoy going there), and because of unusually rapid increases in human/animal conflicts that are not occurring in southern Africa.

Last night I was reading my precious first edition of Theodore Roosevelt’s Game Trails. The book is fascinating on many levels but is mostly an account of his incredibly extensive big game hunt through Kenya and Uganda in 1909.

Many, many times he and his professional hunters, Cunningham and Tarlton, approached elephant on foot, and not always just to kill them. Sometimes, just to taunt them, as when Teddy jovially reports throwing sticks and rocks at one.

To be sure Roosevelt was an accomplished hunter and sportsman, but he was careful about hunting without Cunningham or Tarlton with him. But when he accidentally “ran into” his old friend and fellow conservationist, Carl Ackley, on a private journey released from his professional hunters, he didn’t hesitate accepting Ackley’s request to kill an elephant for the New York Natural History Museum.

In those days, with the prairies and forests and velds literally saturated with game, and few if any people living anywhere, including indigenous people, the human intrusion into the animal paradise was a clear and unmitigated risk – not to the people, but to the animals!

Elephant had been hunted for ivory for centuries, and no human approached them except to kill them. It was virtually the same for anything wild, a bird as small as a wheatear was a target. Roosevelt’s arsenal contained a variety of weapons capable of downing a mole rat.

The relationship between animals and man was clear. Hunter and hunted. And man was supreme. The list of hunter injuries was great as world sportsmen defied death by challenging wild animals: Lord Delamere and Governor Jackson enjoyed showing Roosevelt their wounds from great hunts gone awry, and I definitely felt that Roosevelt tried and failed to be so heroically scarred himself.

But every animal on the veld knew that ultimately there was no contest with man. Man always, always won.

That’s changed.

Protecting animals has tamed them. And it’s important to remind ourselves that “tame” is our definition, not theirs. We have manipulated wild animals so that we can approach them more closely and enjoy them, even as they wander in the wild.

We’ve now had more than a half century of this, and that means a good two generations of elephant and far more in the lesser animals. Wild animals in African parks grow up far less afraid of man than their wild and natural behaviors would otherwise intuit.

That worked beautifully for many, many years. But about 15 years ago it became apparent there were too many wild animals too densely packed into these protected reserves in East Africa, where the most exciting and supreme game viewing occurs.

That’s logical, of course. You protect something and it will prosper. And to be sure “too many” is my own assessment and nothing more scientific than that. Reading Roosevelt it’s quite clear there were more animals then, than now, but they were spread all over the place. Roosevelt reports “zebra attacks” within the Nairobi city limits. Nowhere did he wander, even over the volcanic rock of the northern frontier, without encountering herds of animals.

But they were never as densely packed together as they are, today, in a national park.

Over population has its own inherent risks. It stresses the animals as they compete for the same food sources and breeding areas. Tarangire in particular has the most serious problem, because its principal wild animal is the elephant.

Normal elephant behavior broke down in Tarangire about 15 years ago. That’s when we began to see unusually large groups of elephants (more than several hundred together at once), multiple families, feeding, breeding and moving together. That’s not natural for elephants, but it was mandated by their reduced space.

Global warming has radicalized the feeding cycles. Increased human populations on the periphery of reserves primarily pursuing farming exacerbates the human/elephant conflict.

So the tension between man and elephant increased substantially over the last 10-15 years. A terribly frightful incident on one of my own safaris in 2007, when a dear client was pinned on the ground by an elephant was the final determination I needed. (Stephen Farrand suffered only cuts and scratches after professional and quick action by one of my drivers.)

And since then the situation has been aggravated even further as unusual rains increased animal herds too fast, and as the Great Global Recession sparked increased poaching. And the poaching as I’ve often written is quite different from the corporate, helicopter, big-truck harvest poaching of the 1970s/80s.

The poaching today is generally by a small group of raiders on foot, because the value of a single tusk is so great, the small scale ad-hoc poaching proves economically worth it.

Imagine a generation of elephants, tamed to the point of putting their inquiring trunks through the top of my opened vehicles (as often happens), suddenly confronted one night by 4 or 5 men on foot trying to kill it.

Pursuit as was man’s only role in Roosevelt’s time is new to a young elephant in today’s world. Man is supposed to be that pretty admirer in a steel box. Suddenly that man is trying to kill it.

Contrary to many researchers and general mythology, elephant aren’t smart. They’re beasts, reactive, powerful and now … terribly confused.

Don’t walk among these tembo. We’ve known this for a number of years, now. We’ve been unsuccessful stopping the camps from offering the activity. It’s now your responsibility, and an easy one to embrace.

Don’t walk.

Maul Special

Maul Special

Pretty story but not very effective: recruit Maasai morani – the legendary warriors that are expert lion killers – to protect lions. Sort of like hiring the ultimate teenage hacker to protect HSBC.

Lion numbers are dropping alarmingly, and better than any other great African savannah animal lion are a true indicator of the health of the African wild.

Unlike elephant or rhino – which are being poached at alarming rates even as their wild population increases – lion are the top of a complex pyramid of life and while masters of their position are beholding to the foundations.

Many important studies have suggested unusual reasons for the decline over the last several decades, but it now seems clear that the reason is quite simple: the wild is contracting.

Of the big cats, only the solitary leopard seems capable of adapting to a world increasingly dominated by man. The others – and especially the lion – seem unable to establish any relationship with a world increasingly dominated by homo sapiens except to war with him.

And the greatest battles are those legendary pitched posses of Maasai warriors in Old Testament regalia: Maasai don’t kill any animals for fun or food. They kill in retaliation, as if a lesson can be learned.

When a lion threatens their goats or cattle Maasai go on a war path, and some of the most spectacular stories out of Maasailand are of the greatest and most noble of the lion hunts. In the old days headmen were often determined by those who successfully killed a lion.

And remember, this isn’t with a gun. It’s with a spear and a knife.

Maasai and lion have coexisted for centuries because they use the same habitat. The grazing necessary for Maasai stock is the same that all sorts of antelope on the plains need. When there was enough for all, everyone was fat and sassy. There were enough antelope for the lion that much preferred them to a smaller goat or a larger and lanky cow.

Maasai cattle were bred not for meat but for milk. The cost/benefit ratio of a lion bringing down a Maasai cow compared to a wildebeest was no contest. The wildebeest could be killed more quickly (cats kill by strangulation, and this takes enormous time with a cow) and the dinner table had lots more meat for the effort.

But times changed. And note, too, that traditional Maasai are declining just as rapidly if not more so than the wild animals in their homelands. And maybe for the same reasons:

Shopping malls, highways, schools and hospitals, modern farms.

It takes no kopjes scientist to know where this is going.

So arise the Lion Guardians! This high profile NGO in East Africa was formed by dedicated conservationists “to promote and sustain coexistence between people & wildlife through ecological monitoring and local capacity building.”

IE: Pay Maasai morani to protect rather than kill lions.

It’s noble, yes. And anything that can give paid work to young traditional Maasai who are themselves increasingly threatened, is good. Especially in the West Kilimanjaro area adjacent Amboseli National Park.

This area is a microcosm of lion difficulties everywhere. Amboseli is one of the most important and well-known big game parks in the world famous especially for its elephant. Elephant are being threatened today by increased poaching, but their numbers are still increasing in places like Amboseli, because … well, elephant get their way.

But Amboseli is surrounded by an increasingly developed agriculture, particularly just to its south in Tanzania. The highlands of Kilimanjaro are perfect for wheat and other cash crop farming.

The towns of Arusha to the west and Moshi to the east are expanding rapidly. The roads are being paved.

All of this – not just farming – needs water. This is draining the existing aquifers and Amboseli is becoming drier and drier. This is a death sentence for much game like buffalo and wildebeest. The increased elephant population results in deforestation, and combined with the loss of aquifer power the reduction of forests is terrible for impala, duiker and a chorus of tiny things like voles and mice that animals like hyaena and jackal need to survive.

So you see … or don’t, so to speak, as time passes. No traditional food, Mr. Lion heads south to where Maasai live with their goats and cattle.

Lion Guardians believes in conserving the wild and in promoting tourism. It’s a two-pronged argument that often sticks it to itself. Tourism is one thing. Conservation is another.

There’s no doubt that tourism suffers as there are fewer lions to see in the wild. But tourism is already suffering drastically, mainly from the political situation in Kenya linked directly to the violently unsettled situation in Somalia. We hope this is temporary.

Whether temporary or not, conservation is another matter.

I grow quite sad thinking the day may come when there won’t be lions in the wild as I’ve seen all my life. But it’s hard to argue to save the lion with the same powerful scientific arguments for saving the Amazon rain forest. We know almost everything possible about lions and the African savannah. There are of course mysteries yet to be revealed … but not many.

The forest provides my oxygen. The veld powers my imagination – no small thing – but not exactly biological.

And what we know mostly is that Maasai recruited to protect lions are getting mauled, and in the end, not saving any more lions and not convincing their young teen Maasai not to go to the city and become certified public accountants.

That’s life.

Wild Animals Aren’t Nice Anymore

Wild Animals Aren’t Nice Anymore

Pepper spray, moats, blow horns, flashing lights … nothing seems to work. People around the world are getting fed up with wildlife.

And it’s becoming frighteningly unclear if the benefits of tourism are greater than the disadvantages that local communities now believe they must bear to support that tourism. And which is more important: agriculture or tourism? Resource development or tourism? A relaxing Sunday walk in the park, or tourism?

And as a result the greater question of biological diversity gets subsumed in this more immediate question.

Last week officials from the Kenyan Wildlife Service held town meetings in southern Kenya to admonish citizens not to try to move ton plus buffalos themselves, while in the west of the country exploding populations of wild dogs have begun to attack farmers’ sheep.

With nearly 15% Kenya’s land wilderness reserves that protect wild animals, it’s hard to find any human area short of the megalopolis of Nairobi that isn’t effected.

But it isn’t just Africa, of course. It’s worldwide. From India to Indiana. From elephants to wolves to beavers. And what’s worse is that the conflict is becoming tinier and tinier!

Two years ago Amanda H. Gilleland of the University of South Florida (USF) completed a meticulous study documenting a growing intolerance for wildlife by the citizens of southern Florida. But not just to cougars and alligators, but to armadillos, possums, racoons, squirrels and … even frogs!

More poisoning, more illegal shooting, more often cruel and unnecessary “eradication.”

Man against Beast.

What’s going on?

Two simple things: (1) increasing wildlife populations which have been unexpectedly even more increased by (2) global warming.

Obviously global warming threatens a few species like the polar bear, but for the vast majority of the planet’s mammalian biomass it’s actually a boon to survival. Wild animals adapt to changing weather much better than people do and warm is better than cold.

When elks move north from Isle Royale because it’s getting too hot for their food source, wolves are then left without a meal. So with the first warm breeze, wolves move towards their next easiest dinner: the nearby sheep farms of northern Wisconsin.

When excessive drought and flooding caused by global warming in the equatorial regions threatens the grass dinners of the African buffalo, the massive herds simply move into people’s backyards and irrigated farms.

And all of this is happening after decades of successful work to conserve wolves and buffalos, boosting their populations even without the help from Chinese factories.

It isn’t as if scientist haven’t been trying to do something. But conference after conference from my point of view seems to slam into the brick wall of the simple fact “there is too much.” There are more people. There are more animals. There are too many.

The host for the black bear/human conflict conference held this year in Missoula characterized his responsibility to sum up the gathering’s scientific findings as “the guy with the broom at the end of the parade, sweeping up the horse apples.”

“Bear managers in North America are victims of their own success,” he concluded.

It’s incredibly ironic that successful big game management, which the Kenya Wildlife Service inscribes as Kenya’s “posterity,” is a main source of the problem. Wild dog is the best example.

Nearly extirpated throughout Kenya ten years ago, a large scale project to vaccinate pet dogs that lived on the outskirts of wilderness areas essentially controlled distemper that had been migrating from those pets into the wild population. Now pets and wild dogs are distemper free, but sheep farmers have become quite ill tempered.

Of course a huge part of the problem would be easily solved if we solved global warming. (Oh, and by the way, that solution would create a few other benefits to humankind as well.)

But even if a sudden, miraculous consensus was found in the world to deal with global warming, it would take a lot longer to accomplish than some sheep farmers in Kiambu or Wausau are willing to tolerate.

Besides, it’s only half the problem. The other half of the problem is that animal populations are growing. In some cases like elephants it’s fair to say they’re exploding, and in almost all cases so are the human populations sitting next to them. “There is just so much flour you can put into a loaf of bread,” my grandmother used to say.

But not resolving the issue to at least some extent will create the defacto solution implicit in the USF study:

Wild animals won’t be considered nice, anymore.

Africa may have presented us with the solution, although it’s expensive.

First accomplished in Namibia with Etosha National Park in 1973, the 500-mile 9-foot reenforced double electrified fence with moat, successfully divided big game from ranchers, and over the last 40 years both ranching and tourism have prospered.

And more recently in Kenya, the Aberdare National Park is now fenced in. The 250-mile long fence included 100,000 posts hand driven into the ground. But it cost what amounts to the average annual wage of one million Kenyans.

There’s no alternative, folks. Some places like Tanzania’s Serengeti and Botswana’s Okavango Delta may remain mostly unfenced for another generation or two, but the day is coming. If we don’t stop the war of Man Against Beast, we know who will win.

Animals are Not People

Animals are Not People

Time and again men and women unable to foster human relationships create them with animals whose only ability to resist is to kill them in return.

I love animals and always have. I expect someone watching me play with my lab/hound mix would ascribe all sorts of human characteristics to the relationship, and undoubtedly while playing or petting or observing, I can’t help but see “Morgan” in human terms.

But I won’t buy a cemetery plot for him. I won’t subscribe to PetMeds while monitoring his blood sugar and I’m even adverse to putting gooey tick repellent on him. He isn’t human. He’s a pet.

Throughout my career in Africa I’ve encountered numerous researchers who cross the rational limit of thinking of animals as humans. The most flagrant examples are those ascribed to elephants: how they return to where close relatives have died, how they sacrifice their own well-being for another individual.

Balderdash. These are human behaviors that while I concede we can never scientifically measure in an animal with the clarity that I suppose, I trust my intuition on this one. I even question whether pain as we humans understand it is anywhere similar to what animals experience.

Critics will contend I’m setting up situations that allow for animal cruelty, but that, too, is balderdash. I have a hard time understanding why people swat flies with such vengeance or unload aerosols into gardens or are amused at young boys firing beebee guns at the nearest squirrel. I have serious questions about the morality of hunting animals for sport.

But to think of an animal as a child, or parent, or human friend, is to diminish the radiance of our own place in the biology of the world. It’s a terrible shortcut for trying to understand the complexities of life and does significantly more injustice to that life form than accepting it for what it is.

And it’s so absolutely clear to me whether it’s an old man, doting spinstress, recluse or young career-minded couple that has traded procreation for a more balanced 401K – all of whom embrace their dog with the ridiculousness of human attractions — are doing so entirely, utterly and selfishly to assuage their own inadequacies, and at the horrible expense of the meaning of that dog, the beauty of its form in the biomass in which we also participate.

There are so many negatives to anthropormorphizing animals, but one overriding one is that whatever faux emotion is created in the human master, it probably decreases that person’s empathy to humans in need. It likely distracts the master from the misery of his servants.

And, then, ultimately the price is paid, in an inevitable and ultimate way.

Last month a famous relationship between a hippo and a man came to an end when the hippo killed the man.

The jolly guy, a stellar citizen and former military officer, was a farmer who adopted an estranged baby hippo. (As I once adopted an estranged baby baboon.) He raised it with tender loving care. (As I raised mine.) But when baby turned adult, when the full sense of the creature came to the fore, he couldn’t give way. He claimed again and again, to over a quarter million viewers on YouTube, that everything was just fine.

“Humphrey’s like a son to me,” Marius Els told his local South African newspaper. “He’s just like a human.”

Marius Els, 41, had no son, no viable human relationship with a child. Why doesn’t matter, but nor should he have tried to create that relationship as a shortcut with an animal. The hippo bit him multiple times, then pulled him into the river and drowned him on November 14.

Ele Kills Zimbabwe Guide

Ele Kills Zimbabwe Guide

Last week a bull elephant killed an employee within a hundred meters of a popular Victoria Falls hotel, further proof that Zimbabwe is not a safe place to travel.

There have been about a dozen tourists killed by elephant every year in Africa since tourism began in the 1960s, and reporting a single incident is not in itself a good indication of relative safety. And that statistic, a dozen annually, is actually a very good one representing a safety level far higher, for example, than bear killings in our own national parks in America.

But the event last week is unusual. It does not fit the normal pattern of someone doing something wrong, and that is usually why wild animal killings occur, whether here or in Africa.

The man killed was an experienced guide doing everything correctly close to residential areas of Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. His actions, in fact, were heroic. He placed himself between the tourist he was walking with and the elephant. The tourist remains unnamed but is alive and unhurt.

The account of the incident was not published until this past weekend, and that in itself is curious, although it is hard to extrapolate anything meaningful from that given the situation in Zimbabwe, today.

But taking the account at face value, the head guide at a popular safari lodge at the falls was with a single tourist watching animals at the lodge’s water hole. Many lodges are either built near water holes or cultivate them so that guests can watch animals while relaxing at the lodge.

This particular lodge had built a hide, or small enclosed structure, that allowed guests to get much closer to the water hole. Less common, it’s not necessarily unsafe. According to the single press report duplicated throughout the media, the guide and tourist had finished watching a single, aggressive bull elephant chase other elephants from the hole, when they began their walk back to the lodge.

The report calls the guide extremely experienced, and it is clear from the report that he gave his life for the tourist. It was reported that he fired his gun at the attacking elephant, but was not successful stopping it.

The tourist apparently wishes to remain anonymous, and both the lodge and tour company that owns the lodge, African Albida, will not elaborate further on the single press release issued last week.

I have been in several dicey situations with elephant, and lately I’ve become very cautious continent-wide. Nonetheless, the situation in Zimbabwe is unique, and I think this incident is more evidence that it is simply not safe to travel there.

The wildlife in Zimbabwe is under extraordinary stress, significantly more than in other African countries. This is caused by a combination of the country’s economic and political crises.

It’s been reported for some time that Zimbabwean soldiers, themselves rarely paid, are hunting elephant inside national parks. The normal protection that a national park affords animals normally translates into these animals understanding more or less the boundaries between hunting and non-hunting reserves.

They become more approachable within the non-hunting reserves and many spend their entire lives there, becoming used to vehicles and people. The densities of all animals are significantly higher within a national non-hunting park than outside one.

But once those boundaries are lost – as they have been in Zimbabwe – animals will revert to their best natures, their instincts for survival. It is altogether natural for a big bull elephant in musth to charge anything he can see.

Several years ago unscrupulous mostly hunting safari companies began to find ways themselves to place their clients in areas with higher densities of elephant.

A huge scandal developed in 2009 when an American company then calling it self “Cape to Cairo Safaris” actually advertised on its website that it had permission to shoot up to fifty elephants inside Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe’s largest and most famous national park.

The company has since removed any mention of the offer from its website.

Whenever wild animals are harassed like this, they can no longer be considered “safe to watch” using the practices that have become common with a half century of safari tourism.

My own opinion goes further in the case of elephants, today. The elephant population – even within good national parks like Kenya and Tanzania – is too large, and this in itself leads to greater stress among the elephants.

I don’t believe anywhere in Africa is any longer safe to walk close to elephants, armed or not. And I insist that in the camps and lodges located among elephants, that they keep them away with careful practices like the use of air guns and electric fences.

But in Zimbabwe it’s a much different story, altogether. Right now, there are no safeguards against the dangers of elephants, there. The only way to be safe wildlife viewing in Zimbabwe is not go there.