On Safari: Botswana’s Big Game

On Safari: Botswana’s Big Game

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Safari: The Okavango Delta

On Safari: The Okavango Delta

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

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

Jungle, in other words.

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

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

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

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

There are animals in The Delta, to be sure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

On to Moremi! Stay tuned!

On Safari: The Remarkable Pans

On Safari: The Remarkable Pans

GiantCricket.Botete.Apr14.640.JIMWhat surprising things we saw in the Makgadikgadi Pans! Red maned zebra, giant crickets, wattled cranes, tons of ele, and what’s left of the Botswana migration.

We stayed at a relatively new lodge on the Botete River, a river that had all been lost more than 30 years ago when Lake Ngami dried up.

WattledCrane.Botete.Apr14.640.FarrandBut three years ago it was in full flow once again, as it had been for centuries, and the animals returned!

The Botete defines the southwestern boundary of Makgadikgadi Pans national park. Together with Nxai Pan and a bunch of smaller pans this contiguous area is one of the most unique in the world.

During the heavy rains in the beginning of the year, these pans pool ever so slightly with water. The Kalahari sand soil drains water quickly, though, and without the constant thunderstorms of January and February, the pans are often dry.

At that point they resemble any great sand lake depression found around the world. Their uniqueness comes from the precious sets of grasses and plants that flourish at the perimeter of the pans and bloom in the rains.

This attracts the herbivores and triggers their migration from more wooded areas with more permanent sources of water. But the extraordinary nutrition of these new grasses and plants is just what the zebra and wildebeest need as they prepare to calve.

The destructive veterinary fences erected throughout Botswana in the last half century destroyed most of the herbivore migrations and greatly reduced their numbers. But what’s left now moves between the Kalahari and the Pans, and we caught it on its southern movement from Nxai Pan towards Makgadikgadi Pan, the shift triggered by the end of the rains and the onset of winter.

We saw the migration happening during a long day trip from our camp in the Makgadikgadi north via Baine’s Baobabs into Nxai Pan.

What we saw were dozens of elephant and probably a hundred giraffe all methodically moving south. Zebra are actually supposed to be the bulk of the migration, and we did see dozens but not more. But among those we did see was a striking red-maned zebra with a red-and-beige tail!

I’ve seen unusually colored animals throughout my career, including white and silver haired lions, and even a white wildebeest. But I’ve never seen a primary color variation as with this particular zebra. There was no doubt it was natural, as he had just swum across the Botete and thoroughly soaked himself.

In Nxai Pan we saw the lingerers, good numbers of wildebeest and zebra. They were nibbling at the last of the green grass. We also saw lots of springbok in Nxai that will not migrate, plus a good number of gemsbok.

Botswana, like all of the southern African countries, maintains “boreholes” (well stations with automatic pumps) throughout their national parks. These are specifically designed for the wild animals to help them cope and prosper in the very intensely dry winter of southern Africa.

It’s a wildlife management technique that remains controversial, but the fact is that without these boreholes there would be so few terrestrial herbivore herds left in Botswana, and so many fewer lion families, that big game would be drastically reduced, limited to the Delta, the area’s few natural aquifers and river systems.

Without boreholes, the Pans would of course retain their mystical beauty, but would essentially be without much big game. Whereas what we were lucky enough to see, while not approaching the concentration of East Africa’s herds, was certainly as good or better than anywhere else in southern Africa.

And the remoteness, otherwise untouched and harsh beauty of this fragile area of our planet, is an absolute wonder to behold.

And now, onto The Delta! Stay tuned!

Important Stories for 2013

Important Stories for 2013

Important 2013 StoriesMisreported elephant poaching, a changed attitude against big game hunting, enduring corruption, a radical change in how safaris are bought and sold, and the end of the “Black Jews” in Ethiopia are my last big stories for 2013.

#6 is the most welcome growing opposition to big game hunting.

It’s hard to tell which came first, public attitudes or government action, but the turning point was earlier this year when first Botswana, then Zambia, began to ban big game hunting.

Botswana banned all hunting in December, 2012, and a month later Zambia announced a ban on cats with an indication they would be going further. Until now big game hunting revenues in Zambia were almost as much as tourism’s photography safari revenues, that’s how important these two countries are to hunting. (Kenya banned all hunting in the 1980s.)

The decision to ban a traditional industry is major. While some animal populations are down (lions and elephants) many like the buffalo are thriving, so this is not wholly an ecological decision. Rather, I think, people’s attitudes are changing.

Then in October a movement began to “list lion” on CITES endangered species list, which would effectively ban hunting of lion even in countries that still allow it. There was little opposition in the media to this, except surprisingly by NatGeo which once again proved my point the organization is in terrible decline.

The fact is that public sentiment for big game hunting is shifting, and from my point of view, very nicely so.

#7 is the Exaggerate story of elephant poaching. I write this way intentionally, to buff the hysteria in the media which began in January with a breaking story in Newsweek and the Daily Beast.

Poaching of all animals is showing troubling increases, and elephants are at the top of that list. But in typical American news style that it has to “bleed to read” the story has been Exaggerate to the point that good news like China’s turnaround is ignored and that the necessary remedies will be missed.

Poaching today is nowhere near as apocalyptic as it was in the 1970s, but NGOs are trying to make it look so, and that it infuriates me. Poaching today is mostly individual. Unlike the horrible corrupt poaching that really didn’t nearly exterminate elephants in the 1970s and 80s.

Poaching today also carries an onerous new component that has nothing to do with elephants. It’s become a revenue stream for terrorists, and the hysteria to contribute to your local NGO to save elephants completely masks this probably more urgent situation.

And so important and completely missed in the headlining is that there are too many elephants. Don’t mistake me! I don’t mean we should kill them off. But in the huge difference in the size of African people populations in the 1970s and those of today, the stress of too many elephants can lead to easy local poaching, and that’s what’s happening.

#8 is a tectonic change in the way safaris are being bought and sold.

The middle man, the multiple layers of agents inserted between the safari and its consumer have been eroding for decades. But in one fell swoop this year, a major South African hotel chain sold itself to Marriott, leapfrogging at least the decade behind that Africans were in selling their wares.

Most African tourism products are not bought by Americans, and so how safaris were are has mostly been governed by buying habits in such places as Europe. America is far ahead of the rest of the world in direct tour product buying, and the sale of Protea Hotels to Marriott signals to all of Africa that the American way is the world trend.

#9 is a depressing tale. After a number of years where Africa’s overall corruption seemed to be declining, last year it took a nosedive.

The good news/bad news flag came in September, when France’s President Hollande ended centuries
of deceitful collaboration between corrupt African leaders and the Élysée Palace.

Many of us jumped on this as a further indication of Africa’s improving transparency, but in fact, it was just the reverse and Hollande beat us to the punch. In November the European union gave Tanzania a spanking for being so egregiously corrupt.

And then Transparency International’s annual rankings came out. It’s so terribly disappointing and I’d like to think it all has to do with declining economies, but closer looks at places like Zimbabwe and South Africa suggest otherwise. I’m afraid the “public will” has just been sapped, and bad guys have taken advantage … again.

#10 is intriguing and since my own brush with “Operation Moses” in the 1980s, I’ve never stopped thinking about it. The last of Africa’s “Black Jews” were “brought home
” to Israel October 31.

A tribe in Ethiopia referred to as the “Falashas” has an oral history there that goes back to the 3rd century. Israel has always contended they were migrants from the land of the Jews, possibly the lost Tribe of Dan. Systematically, through an extreme range of politics that included the emperor Selassie, to the Tyrant Mengistu to today’s slightly more democratic Ethiopia, Israel has aided Ethiopia.

For only reason. To get the Black Jews back home. And whether they all are or not, Israel formally announced that they were on October 31.



The Botswana bushmen have finally been excluded from their homeland, having lost the final skirmishes in more than a century of battling to retain their right to a traditional life in the Central Kalahari Reserve.

As of today, Botswana’s ancestral San people may only enter the reserve on month-long permits, one third the stay allowed foreigners entering the reserve for tourism. The news was reported today by a respected African publication in London.

The Botswana government claims the exclusion policy is for environmental protection and Bushman community development, but tourism has become increasingly popular in the area, and … diamonds have been found, there.

The forced removal of peoples from their ancestral homelands is hardly new. The removal of Maasai from ancestral homelands in the Moru Kopjes in 1972 led to an immediate expansion of the Serengeti National Park that substantially and almost immediately increased animal populations, making the area more attractive for tourism.

Perhaps the most egregious of forced native removals were native Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, horribly summarized in what is commonly known as the Trail of Tears.

The difference with today’s situation with Bushmen in Botswana, and the next most recent similar situation with Maasai in Tanzania, is that the Bushmen seemed to have prevailed with a 2011 High Court decision that aggregated a number of earlier decisions securing use of their homelands.

But the Botswana government simply ignored its own high court orders and has continuously refused aboriginal people entry into the reserved and harassed those who snuck in.

The government’s defiant policy has succeeded in part because the numbers of Bushmen in the area seeking traditional rights in the Kalahari has plummeted in the last decade. There were likely 5,000 Bushmen in the Kalahari 50 years ago; today there are probably fewer than 1,000.

Numbers are down because — as the government is eager to show — many Bushmen have taken advantage of government education and training programs that result in their abandoning the traditional life style.

In the last few years I’ve encountered San people working in the Kalahari in tourist camps and have admired their wit as well as their intellect. Clearly at least for those few individuals, they had no desire to return to the bush.

Last June South Africa gave a state funeral to a famous Bushman who had worked his entire life for the betterment of his people. But as with himself and his children, that was principally to educate them in modern schools and find them modern, urban jobs.

Contemporary, modern opportunities for Botswana people are considerably better than for most other Africans from other countries on the continent. Botswana’s economic situation while challenged during the global recession is far superior to most of the rest of Africa, because of its rich endowment of diamonds and other minerals.

So the question devolves simply into whether the government – the wider community – knows better what’s good for certain individuals than they themselves claim. And whether the trade-off, ancestral land for a good-paying job and healthy lifestyle, is worth it.

The age-old argument applies to peoples round the world, from such diverse theories of eminent domain to gun control. Exclusion from ancestral lands is certainly at the extreme end of this spectrum, but fundamentally is no different from any individual liberty restriction.

How far can a government go restricting individual liberties and still be moral?

The removals of the Shoshone, Yavapai and Navajo in the United States were certainly no less egregious than the Bushman from the Kalahari.

Is it just that we pine for the old days? Or are we afraid of our own power, even if it will better a peoples? Or as with native Americans, that we really don’t care what happens to them?

On Safari: Chobe Today

On Safari: Chobe Today

Chobe National Park in Botswana provides the most spectacular elephant experience on the planet. Is it a realistic experience of elephant in the wild, or a tourist fantasy?

We concluded three wonderful days here with a deep morning excursion into parts of the park few tourists visit, down the main road to Savuti. It reminded me of the old days in Botswana, when there weren’t fancy lodges and … well, paved roads.

For fear of sounding like a nostalgic old man, those were the days! This was wild Africa, when animals ran from the sound of your car, and when Landrovers traveling on Botswana’s deep sand roads felt more like sailing in a fast-running estuary than driving.

Not today. Things have changed. Finding 50 elephants ten minutes after leaving your air-conditioned lodge is normal. For elephants, and for tourists, that’s probably a good thing. Yesterday I wrote about the serious challenges too many elephants in Chobe presents, but their accessibility and sheer numbers is breath-taking to virtually all of us visitors.

The panorama of the Chobe River as it divides Botswana from Namibia and begins the awesome confluence of the great Zambezi is itself worth the ticket price. The entire ecology of Botswana is so weird and spectacular that in itself seems unreal. We were here for only three days. In that short time the river rose three feet as the great flood from Angola begins in earnest.

And this is no small river. Although broken by islands and sand bars that streak through its middle and edges providing habitat for ridiculously colored malachite kingfishers and stupendously beautiful carmine bee-eaters, the river is about 4 miles wide. So for this to raise 3 feet in three days is kind of overwhelming.

It’s a bit above average, but not too much, and nowhere near as dramatic as it was last year. This is nature flexing its rather striking biceps, and it’s humbling.

In three days how many elephants did we see? A thousand? Fifteen hundred? We stopped counting. They walked around our vehicles either as if we weren’t there or with little interest. When one did stop to flap its ears, we knew he was a newcomer, perhaps transiting from Namibia, but not one of the hundreds if thousands who spend a good portion of their lives playing in the water.

When inevitably one of these magnificent creatures dies, the shore of the river grows the ancient mole-like bumps of silent crocs, turned perpendicular to the shore, waiting for everyone to leave but them. We saw hundreds of crocs. We saw crocs tearing apart a dead baby hippo. We saw crocs stalking black heron. We saw impala worried about taking a drink from this unmeasurable amount of water.

The elephants have cleared the forests and impala and baboon have filled in the gaps. We also saw puku and lion, giraffe and kudu. It was the Lion King stage and the script was endless. I’ve rarely seen smiles glued on my clients for such a long time.

Yet I think back to the old days when part of the experience was fear. There was concern that a 6-ton beast might suddenly appear and tip your rover. There aren’t any 6-ton beasts anymore. The elephants are smaller, weaker than before, but still the world’s largest land creature and nothing to sneeze at.

I think back to the sounds of the late summer winds, the sounds of the river rising and gushing through the marshes. Today there are sounds of airplanes and cars, and boats and houseboats.

Life goes on, and my goodness, whether real or unreal or natural or somehow naturally contrived, Chobe is nothing less than magnificent. Yes, there are some real problems here for elephants and the wild in toto, but the moment is symphonic.

And whether it’s better or worse than before, it is what it is. And it’s nothing less than magnificent!

On Safari: Dead Elephant Walking

On Safari: Dead Elephant Walking

Chobe’s elephants are legendary, but what I saw this time is disconcerting. They are tame, inbred, their many broken tusks are like toothpicks, their family behaviors have broken down and they are destroying the Chobe forests. Is it time to cull?

There is a growing consensus in the affirmative. Even the conservation organization Elephants Without Borders, which can hardly be blamed for skirting the issues of culling, has come round to accepting it at least when human tragedies are caused.

These ‘problem elephants’ should be culled, according to a September, 2007, white paper written by EWB researcher, Dr. Michael Chase. Chase’s argument at that time was that a culled elephant would discourage other elephants from repeating the offense.

But that has proved untrue. And elephants causing injuring a person or destroying a small farm is hardly the major problem; it’s simply the one that gets the most attention. It’s the easiest to understand.

But there are far more serious consequences of too many elephant. It starts with the elephant itself. And the problem isn’t and wasn’t the elephant; it’s us.

Today we watched spectacular displays of multitudes of elephants in Chobe, playing in the water (actually swimming!), young adolescents sparring harmlessly, and at least three newborns just discovering the world. How can we not but simply sit back and enjoy this?

Chobe's toothpick elephants.
Because when looking a little closer, the scene ain’t so cute. It’s absolutely remarkable how many of Chobe’s elephants have broken tusks, an obvious reflection that if not eating themselves out of house-and-home, they’re at least so far eating themselves out of calcium.

And the tusks which remain are pitiful. We know that smaller tusked elephants throughout the continent are a result of the years of cataclysmic poaching in the 1970s and 1980s, when “small tusks” become a survival mechanism. Only big-tusked elephants were wanted by the poachers.

But large, healthy tusks are essential to a sustainable elephant population, which uses them for all sorts of things, like digging for salt and in dry times, water. So throughout the rest of Africa we’ve seen the slow improvement in the size of tusks.

But not in Chobe. Quite the reverse, and whatever makes for strong, healthy tusks is now jeopardized.

And then there’s the elephant’s important family behavior. Males that reach puberty are kicked out of the family unit. Females remain with the unit forever with their children, and a grand matriarch leads the family. In Chobe, that seems to have disappeared almost altogether, simply because there are so many elephant they can’t separate themselves into any type of grouping.

I hesitate to quote numbers, because elephant population studies are notoriously wrong, skewed by the bias of the organization making them, and official government conservation numbers can be even worse.

Moreover, elephant are difficult to count, because they travel such enormous distances so quickly and do not necessarily repeat travel routes. But suffice it to say there are lots of elephant in northern Botswana and similar habitats in surrounding Zambia, Angola and Namibia.

I have been visiting Chobe since 1978. Hardly is my analysis scientific, but my photos speak volumes. Most of Chobe was a forest in 1978. Today, every excursion from Kasane into the park that was once a dense forest will encounter meadows and eroded cavities with fibrous grasses.

Chobe is a resilient ecosystem, sitting along the rich river systems that eventually form the Zambezi, and in an area with relatively high rainfall. But while it may be true that ecosystem recovery is more possible here than in other places in Africa, it is clear the degradation of the ecosystem in the last 30 years has been severe.

What we can see is only the tip of the iceberg. The loss of biodiversity in grasses, trees and other plants leads to a loss of biodiversity in avifauna and much more.

Why will no organization undertake a definitive biomass study?

Because everyone knows the outcome, and no one wants to author it.

Even the official government site for Chobe National Park concedes, “Damage caused by the high numbers of elephants is rife in some areas of the Chobe National Park. In fact, concentration is so high throughout Chobe that culls have been considered, but are too controversial and have thus far been rejected.”

I think we’ll have to leave it to the younger and less prejudicial scientists yet unencumbered by worries about funding and tenure from a public obsessed with the “little bunny” syndrome. But for better or worse, young scientists taking the issue head on are concluding that culling is now not a viable option.

Benjamin Golas of the 2013 class of graduates of the University of Pennsylvania veterinarian school is one of them. He writes about Chobe:

“Too many elephants…”

“I would hardly be a good conservationist if I did not bring up [the fact that] the region, which can happily and sustainably hold a few thousand pachyderms, is home to upwards of an estimated 140,000… and it shows.

“Trees become scarce… Baobab that remain… look sick and scarred.”

Golas sees the most terrible situation looming. He believes that we have avoided culling for so long that now “the sheer numbers of elephants have made responsible culling impracticable” and there is no viable alternative.

No viable alternative? So then, what?

Perhaps the natural crashing of the population, a Biology 101 phenomenon that every college student learns: Left to nature’s devices, too many of one species will ultimately result in its cataclysmic decline, suddenly and often without warning.

It could be a virus that spreads like wildfire. It could be a syncing of estrus cycles caused by unusual weather. It could be a a new political shift in local human populations that just get fed up with the problem. But something will ultimately cull the elephant, now that we haven’t.

For years I espoused this position: let nature take its own course: Hand’s off. But now I see the danger of so doing, that as the elephant takes itself down, it may take much of the biomass with it.

Is it time to cull?

It’s too late.

On Safari: A Precious Fragile Delta

On Safari: A Precious Fragile Delta

The one-of-the-kind Okavango Delta in far off Botswana, like every other part of the world, is threatened by the unusually rapid global warming caused by Chinese factories and soccer mom’s SUVs in Minneapolis. It makes our trip now even more treasured.

Numerous studies as early as 2007 from a variety of high-tech government organizations around the world have established that the Okavango is in for a mighty wallop. I experienced it myself last year when the flow from Angola was so severe we were flooded out of our first camp.

Numerous tourist businesses in Botswana suffered from that flood. This year it’s better. The flow seems to be ordinary, but that’s not the end of the story. The rains, which generally have had minimal impact on the water levels of the Delta, have been so intense in the region that rivers, roads, lagoons and lakes are overflowing.

The ice cap has to go somewhere.

Few places in the wild world are studied as intense as The Delta. This is because it’s so unique. No one is happy with what’s happening or is expected to come, soon. Too much water in The Delta will change it significantly.

But what does this mean for animals and plants, for the system as a whole? I’ve often written that the ecology of Africa is marvelously adaptable. The problem is what will that adaptation be? Retreat from man? A part of the downwards spiral of increased carbon emissions?

I worry about that for the Delta. The storms have been so intense, all sorts of lighting fires have been started this year. Add to that increased human pressures, particularly from honey harvested in wilderness regions, and fires are spreading through the Delta as if it were San Bernadino in August.

And then there’s elephants. So many. Too many? Elephants contribute to the loss of forests, and forests recycle carbon gases.

For my clients this time it was magnificent. In one game drive alone we saw the Big Five, mainly because rhino reintroduction throughout Botswana by a number of organizations has been so remarkably successful. I’ve often seen the Big Five Minus Rhino on a game drive, but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen them all on a single several-hour game drive.

So for the time being and thanks to such wonderful projects as rhino reintroduction, the Delta remains spectacular.

But, for how long?

Six of the 10 lion in one pride that we saw yesterday.

On Safari: Moremi Game Reserve

On Safari: Moremi Game Reserve

On the drive from Chief’s Camp airstrip we saw elephant, kudu, hyaena, impala and giraffe. That took about 30 minutes. The Okavango Delta at this time of year is truly magnificent!

The veld is beautiful right now. Everything is lush and green. It’s a bit late for the blooming trees and flowers, although I did see one acacia still flowering and a beautiful wild iris of the most delicate pink color seen from time to time throughout our drives.

The juvenile carmine bee-eaters are just getting their full color, and the migrants – like the yellow-billed stork – are still here in large numbers, so to a certain extent we’ve got the best of both seasons as far as birding goes.

It’s the end of the Delta’s summer, temperatures today began in the mid 70s and would rise throughout the day to nothing more than the upper 80s. A huge cold front has moved into the southern part of the continent, so we were lucky. But even without this front, it would hardly be ten degrees higher.

The highlight for me on the morning drive was seeing a pair of wattled cranes. These magnificent birds were almost extinct less than a decade ago, and according to the Wattled Crane Rescue Foundation there are now 235 in South Africa. (There are no good number estimates for Botswana, but I imagine it’s higher.)

The crane was challenged by what challenges most of Africa’s wildlife, today, growing human settlements, and in particular, power lines. Baby wattled cranes fly up to six weeks before they can walk, so if knocked out of the sky on their juvenile flights, they’re often doomed.

Like whooping cranes and California condors saving the crane fell to a consortium of private groups which raised the funds and enthusiasm for a sustained recovery effort that began with collecting eggs and raising chicks in safe facilities for later reintroduction.

Fortunately, normal behavior of the crane is to lay two eggs but to raise only one chick, so pilfering the nest of a single egg had little impact on the status quo.

Always a highlight is the incredible numbers of elephant, everywhere. Today we encountered 20-30 on the drive of all ages, and several groups of large males. During lunch at Chief’s Camp everyone was treated to 24 elephant in two families and a male following at some distance.

They moved into the swamp behind camp and found a channel where they watered and played, and then a secondary mud hole where the young especially spent a long time rolling and playing. It was an extraordinary course to an otherwise exceptional meal!

We’re here at Chief’s for three nights. Stay tuned!

Is African Big Game Hunting Ending?

Is African Big Game Hunting Ending?

Zambia’s decision yesterday to ban the hunting of cats is electrifying and marks a new movement against big game hunting in Africa.

The tourism minister told the BBC, “Tourists come to Zambia to see the lion and if we lose the lion we will be killing our tourism industry.”

From my point of view the announcement is actually more important than Botswana’s announcement a month ago to ban all hunting, but taken together, this is striking.

Despite Botswana’s wild game biomass probably exceeding Zambia’s (and this is absolutely true with regards to elephant), Zambia probably has more cats, and for sure it right now has much more big game hunting.

Next to Tanzania, Zambia is the most sought after country in the world by big game hunters. This is because it still has very large tracts of land open to all types of big game hunting.

Botswana banned hunting lions in 2002, severely restricted its other hunting quadrants in 2007 and in 2009 essentially closed all the good hunting areas in the Okavango. So the announcement last month to end big game hunting everywhere in Botswana for good was actually an incremental move.

Zambia has actually encouraged hunting to the point of government involvement in hunting trade shows. Yesterday marks an incredible and fairly abrupt about face. Why?

I don’t want to get into the argument of whether hunting is truly a conservation technique or not, because in its purest form I actually believe it is, and I know that riles a lot of people. And I’m no hunter. But properly sanctioned hunting can essentially do what the South African rangers do in Kruger National Park: cull.

While earning the government a hefty dime for letting a foreigner do the job for them.

But we don’t have to argue that. Although that’s the theory under which virtually all African countries sanction big game hunting, I can’t think of a single one – South Africa included (with the current rampant increase in corruption there) – where anything, much less hunting, is done the way it’s supposed to.

So instead of 1 or 2 elephants hunted out of quadrants assigned by the government per season and overseen by licensed big game hunters, you have dozens of elephants, antelope, lions and anything else that moves, blasted to smithereens often by unlicensed amateurs with little regards to the stated conservation policies.

All it takes is bribing the right officials, and if not that, the local communities near the productive hunting areas. Big game hunting in Africa today more resembles the business of poaching than it does Ducks Unlimited.

Maybe, maybe with the Zambian announcement yesterday we can say this is changing.

Hardly a week ago the head of Zambia’s big game hunting government bureaucracy was fired along with 4 close officials. The official reason was for “irregularity in awarding [hunting] licenses.”

I think the current Zambian government, relatively new and among the better in years, discovered as it dug into the dirt under the animals a den of iniquity. I really think that Zambia’s move is an incredibly laudable one and should be seen in terms of government transparency rather than conservation.

Nothing is ever clear in Africa, and to be sure, the increase in poaching and decreases in some large animals – especially cats – forces the accountant to begin analyzing the cost/benefit ratio of hunting versus tourism.

And in that one, tourism has been winning for at least the last decade. The cost of hunting had been much greater than any form of non-hunting tourism. But with today’s incredibly up-market safari properties, a wildlife photography safari can be just as expensive as a hunting safari.

With just as many taxes for the government.

In any case, we now have three of Africa’s most famous big game countries (Kenya, Botswana and Zambia) either completely restricting big game hunting or severely so.

It’s a very important milestone in the history of Africa’s big game.

Diamonds Are Forever

Diamonds Are Forever

Botswana has had a remarkably long streak of luck; and lions don’t have enough lives. With less than a generation left of certain revenue, there is concern the stately country could fall into the dustbin of failed states.

Right now Botswana is the richest country in Africa. With a GDP per capita around $15,000, it ranks 65 in the World Bank’s country list of 180.

Eighty percent of this is from diamonds.

When diamonds were first mined in earnest in the mid 1960s, Botswana was among the poorest countries in the world, not just Africa. Being also one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world this tends to exaggerate both the good times and the bad, but it’s fair to say before the 1960s Botswana was nearly nothing.

In colonial times the country wasn’t wanted by anyone. It was of early renown because Livingstone’s earliest journeys went through what is today Botswana, and it became the normal 19th century route to Victoria Falls from South Africa.

But virtually the entire northern half of the country, which is roughly the size of France, is good for nothing but wild animals. This is the Kalahari Desert in various forms, including the magnificent Okavango Delta (which is the Kalahari in flood).

This isn’t a sand desert like the neighboring, great Namib, but it is related. And it means that under a veneer of pleasant-looking bush can be 3-4 meters of sand in the form nearly of dust.

An apple tree would fall down. A house would blow away. A railway would have to be a very deep subway.

The south half of the country loses some of the dust earth and becomes more of a Mojave-like desert. Around World War II significant coal deposits discovered in neighboring Rhodesia spilled over a tiny bit into eastern south Botswana.

And between the great wars, Boer farmers developed wide tracts of land in southern and western Botswana for cattle farming.

But even today, when other mining and agriculture is being developed with all the desperation of a country that sees its horizon, those other-than-diamond industries pale in comparison to diamond mining.

And the diamonds are running out.

I’m always cautious about predictions of some natural resource running out. You remember the OPEC oil crisis, right? We weren’t running out of oil as then predicted, we just weren’t looking in the right places deep enough.

But diamonds are more predictable. Their formation precedes oil. In fact the better, larger diamonds, are likely the older – more than 3 billion years old. There just haven’t been multiple 3-billion year-old cycles for diamond formation, as with oil’s palsy hundreds of millions of years, or coal’s tens of millions of years.

So there is a greater likelihood that predictions that Botswana’s diamonds will run out in 20 years is correct.

What will it do?

Tourism obviously comes to mind, and Botswana’s tourism is outstanding. But defined as it is by the ever-changing, nonsolid Kalahari, these aren’t the great plains of the Serengeti, where tarmac roads follow limestone river banks and great lodges are built on granite.

Roads are hard to build anywhere in Botswana. Lodges are mostly “camps” that are often considered quite temporary.

There aren’t aquifers or lakes or wetlands outside the Okavango itself. And the Okavango’s magic is specifically in its ever-changing character. An island one year is a watercourse the next.

This is universally true, and there are notable exceptions like Chief’s Island and the edges of the Linyanti wetlands, and the great pans of the central east. But add up all these areas and they amount to about a hundredth of the available bed nights in wilderness areas in South Africa.

Which is right next door.

Botswana cannot rely on tourism to take it through this century. Yet there seems little else that’s left.

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.

On Safari: Wild Dog in Botswana

On Safari: Wild Dog in Botswana

We just completed a fabulous safari in Botswana that believe it or not actually had a first for this safari guide of forty years: a wild dog hunt!

We were hardly ten minutes out game viewing from Lebala Camp in the Linyanti Reserve when our guide said dog had been sighted. We were only ten minutes away, and what a thrill to drive slowly on a road that 11 wild dog siestas were now occupying!

Most of the dog sightings I remember are deep in bush shade or scattered helter-skelter over uneven terrain difficult to view. Here we sat, on flat open country, capable of tracing the beautiful palomino markings of eleven wild dog!

But it got better. The curious hyper greeting behavior that precedes one of their hunts began, and we knew a very rare opportunity was at hand. Sure enough, the alpha male began nervous ear pricking and sniffing in the air. After another short hiatus of rest, the alpha male and female and the only other adult dog, another female, went stomping off with the kids anxiously following.

That’s when it gets interesting and if we weren’t in cars designed for bushwacking it would have been impossible. These were old South African Yuris, the military vehicles used in the Angolan and Caprivi wars. They go anywhere, do anything, although often at the expense of your oscillating body positions.

Still it was hard to follow them. We had three vehicles but none could keep up with the forward adult females. We stuck with the male. Every once in a while he would stop and listen, and we would turn off the engine so as not to distract him. There were impala all over the place.
The other two cars watched the youngsters try to attack a warthog with two piglets. Eight-month old dogs are nearly three-quarters full size, but mama warthog managed to send them fleeing when she challenged them.

When our car lost the alpha male all three vehicles rendez-voused with the pups and soon an adult female came running back to regurgitate, indicating she had killed. Dogs are the only predator that ensures the young eat first. The adult who kills eats only a few internal organs before racing back to feed the pups.

Interestingly, the adult female then laid down as if to rest, with the kids all around her. But then there was a distinctive high pitched dog scream, and the whole bunch went shooting towards it like a bevy of fired canons.

The call was from the alpha female. She had returned a ways, but was waiting for them to take them to the actual kill. We were able to follow. It was remarkable how quickly the impala was dismembered and dispatched. True to form, these are gruesome killers.

Our safari was filled with other exciting moments, especially a number of great elephant encounters in both the Okavango Delta and Linyanti. We had dramatic encounters with lion in the Kalahari, one of my favorite places, and saw the zebra migration in Nxai Pan. We saw over 300 species of birds and 15 larger mammals including roan and sable antelope, as well as the rare sitatunga.

March is a hot time and rainy time in Botswana. The Kalahari had temperatures over 100F, although in most places it was in the mid 80s. But it is precisely because of this that the game viewing was so exceptionally good, in contrast to Botswana’s winter when actually the majority of travelers visit.

And this end of summer is a rainbow of beauty. The veld is still fresh with blossoming wild flowers and the acacias, jackalberries, wild gardenias and even Baobab trees are in full leaf! The great grasses, including the turpentine grass, are fully matured waving seed in the warm breezes. The veld is absolutely at its most beautiful!

But of all our experiences, the wild dog hunt stands out. A first for me!

John Donahue, Mary Jane Mortenson, Rich & Ingrid Dubberke & Les Fisher

Top Ten 2011 Africa Stories

Top Ten 2011 Africa Stories

Twevolution, the Arab Spring [by Twitter] is universally considered the most important story of the year, much less just in Africa. But I believe the Kenyan invasion of Somalia will have as lasting an effect on Africa, so I’ve considered them both Number One.

On October 18 Kenya invaded Somalia, where 4-5,000 of its troops remain today. Provoked by several kidnapings and other fighting in and around the rapidly growing refugee camp of Dadaab, the impression given at the time was that Kenyans had “just had enough” of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorism group in The Horn which at the time controlled approximately the southern third of Somalia. Later on, however, it became apparent that the invasion had been in the works for some time.

At the beginning of the invasion the Kenyan command announced its objective was the port city of Kismayo. To date that hasn’t happened. Aided by American drones and intelligence, and by French intelligence and naval warships, an assessment was made early on that the battle for Kismayo would be much harder than the Kenyans first assumed, and the strategy was reduced to laying siege.

That continues and remarkably, might be working. Call it what you will, but the Kenyan restraint managed to gain the support of a number of other African nations, and Kenya is now theoretically but a part of the larger African Union peacekeeping force which has been in Somali for 8 years. Moreover, the capital of Mogadishu has been pretty much secured, a task the previous peace keepers had been unable to do for 8 years.

The invasion costs Kenya dearly. The Kenyan shilling has lost about a third of its value, there are food shortages nationwide, about a half dozen terrorist attacks in retribution have occurred killing and wounding scores of people (2 in Nairobi city) and tourism – its principal source of foreign reserves – lingers around a third of what it would otherwise be had there be no invasion.

At first I considered this was just another failed “war against terrorism” albeit in this case the avowed terrorists controlled the country right next door. Moreover, I saw it as basically a proxy war by France and the U.S., which it may indeed be. But the Kenyan military restraint and the near unanimous support for the war at home, as well as the accumulation of individually marginal battle successes and outside support now coming to Kenya in assistance, all makes me wonder if once again Africans have shown us how to do it right.

That’s what makes this such an important story. The possibility that conventional military reaction to guerilla terrorism has learned a way to succeed, essentially displacing the great powers – the U.S. primarily – as the world’s best military strategists. There is as much hope in this statement as evidence, but both exist, and that alone raises this story to the top.

You may also wish to review Top al-Shabaab Leader Killed and Somali Professionals Flee as Refugees.

The Egyptian uprising, unlike its Tunisian predecessor, ensured that no African government was immune to revolution, perhaps no government in the world. I called it Twevolution because especially in Egypt the moment-by-moment activities of the mass was definitely managed by Twitter.

And the particular connection to Kenya was fabulous, because the software that powered the Twitter, Facebook and other similar revolution managing tools came originally from Kenya.

Similar of course to Tunisia was the platform for any “software instructions” – the power of the people! And this in the face of the most unimaginable odds if you’re rating the brute physical force of the regime in power.

Egypt fell rather quickly and the aftermath was remarkably peaceful. Compared to the original demonstrations, later civil disobedience whether it was against the Coptics or the military, was actually quite small. So I found it particularly fascinating how world travelers reacted. Whereas tourist murders, kidnapings and muggings were common for the many years that Egypt experienced millions of visitors annually, tourists balked at coming now that such political acts against tourists no longer occurred, because the instigators were now a part of the political process! This despite incredible deals.

We wait with baited breath for the outcome in Syria, but less visible countries like Botswana and Malawi also experienced their own Twevolution. And I listed 11 dictators that I expected would ultimately fall because of the Egyptian revolution.

Like any major revolution, the path has been bumpy, the future not easily predicted. But I’m certain, for example, that the hard and often brutal tactics of the military who currently assumes the reins of state will ultimately be vindicated. And certainly this tumultuous African revolution if not the outright cause was an important factor in our own protests, like Occupy Wall Street.

The free election and emergence of South Sudan as Africa’s 54th country would have been the year’s top story if all that revolution hadn’t started further north! In the making for more than ten years, a remarkably successful diplomatic coup for the United States, this new western ally rich with natural resources was gingerly excised from of the west’s most notorious foes, The Sudan.

Even as Sudan’s president was being indicted for war crimes in Darfur, he ostensibly participated in the creation of this new entity. But because of the drama up north, the final act of the ultimate referendum in the South which set up the new republic produced no more news noise than a snap of the fingers.

Regrettably, with so much of the world’s attention focused elsewhere, the new country was hassled violently by its former parent to the north. We can only hope that this new country will forge a more humane path than its parent, and my greatest concern for Africa right now is that global attention to reigning in the brutal regime of the north will be directed elsewhere.

Twevolution essentially effected every country in Africa in some way. Uganda’s strongman, Yoweri Museveni, looked in the early part of the last decade like he was in for life. Much was made about his attachment to American politicians on the right, and this right after he was Bill Clinton’s Africa doll child.

But even before Twevolution – or perhaps because of the same dynamics that first erupted in Tunisia and Egypt – Museveni’s opponents grew bold and his vicious suppression of their attempts to legitimately oust him from power ended with the most flawed election seen in East Africa since Independence.

But unlike in neighboring Kenya where a similar 2007 election caused nationwide turmoil and an ultimate power sharing agreement, Museveni simply jailed anyone who opposed him. At first this seemed to work but several months later the opposition resurfaced and it became apparent that the country was at a crossroads. Submit to the strongman or fight him.

Meanwhile, tourism sunk into near oblivion. And by mid-May I was predicting that Museveni was the new Mugabe and had successfully oppressed his country to his regime. But as it turned out it was a hiatus not a surrender and a month later demonstrations began, twice as strong as before. And it was sad, because they went on and on and on, and hundreds if not thousands of people were injured and jailed.

Finally towards the end of August a major demonstration seemed to alter the balance. And if it did so it was because Museveni simply wouldn’t believe what was happening.

I wish I could tell you the story continued to a happy ending, but it hasn’t, at least not yet. There is an uneasy calm in Ugandan society, one buoyed to some extent by a new voice in legislators that dares to criticize Museveni, that has begun a number of inquiries and with media that has even dared to suggest Museveni will be impeached. The U.S. deployment of 100 green berets in the country enroute the Central African Republic in October essentially seems to have actually raised Museveni’s popularity. So Uganda falters, and how it falls – either way – will dramatically alter the East African landscape for decades.

This is a global phenomena, of course, but it is the developing world like so much of Africa which suffers the most and is least capable of dealing with it. The year began with incessant reporting by western media of droughts, then floods, in a confused misunderstanding of what global warming means.

It means both, just as in temperate climates it means colder and hotter. With statistics that questions the very name “Developed World,” America is reported to still have a third of its citizens disputing that global warming is even happening, and an even greater percentage who accept it is happening but believe man is not responsible either for it occurring or trying to change it. Even as clear and obvious events happen all around them.

Global warming is pretty simple to understand, so doubters’ only recourse is to make it much more confusing than it really is. And the most important reason that we must get everyone to understand and accept global warming, is we then must accept global responsibilities for doing something about it. I was incensed, for example, about how so much of the media described the droughts in Africa as fate when in fact they are a direct result of the developed world’s high carbon emissions.

And the news continued in a depressing way with the very bad (proponents call it “compromised”) outcome of the Durban climate talks. My take was that even the countries most effected, the developed world, were basically bought off from making a bigger stink.

Environmentalists will argue, understandably, that this is really the biggest story and will remain so until we all fry. The problem is that our lives are measured in the nano seconds of video games, and until we can embrace a long view of humanity and that our most fundamental role is to keep the world alive for those who come after us, it won’t even make the top ten for too much longer.

This is a remarkable story that so little attention has been given. An obscure part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act essentially halved if not ultimately will end the wars in the eastern Congo which have been going on for decades.

These wars are very much like the fractional wars in Somalia before al-Shabaab began to consolidate its power, there. Numerous militias, certain ones predominant, but a series of fiefdoms up and down the eastern Congo. You can’t survive in this deepest jungle of interior Africa without money, and that money came from the sale of this area’s rich rare earth metals.

Tantalum, coltran more commonly said, is needed by virtually every cell phone, computer and communication device used today. And there are mines in the U.S. and Australia and elsewhere, but the deal came from the warlords in the eastern Congo. And Playbox masters, Sony, and computer wizards, Intel, bought illegally from these warlords because the price was right.

And that price funded guns, rape, pillaging and the destruction of the jungle. The Consumer Protection Agency, set up by the Dodd-Frank Act, now forbids these giants of technology from doing business in the U.S. unless they can prove they aren’t buying Coltran from the warlords. Done. War if not right now, soon over.

The semi-decade meeting of CITES occurred this March in Doha, Qatar, and the big fight of interest to me was over elephants. The two basic opposing positions on whether to downlist elephants from an endangered species hasn’t changed: those opposed to taking elephants off the list so that their body parts (ivory) could be traded believed that poaching was at bay, and that at least it was at bay in their country. South Africa has led this flank for years and has a compelling argument, since poaching of elephants is controlled in the south and the stockpiling of ivory, incapable of being sold, lessens the funds that might otherwise be available for wider conservation.

The east and most western countries like the U.S. and U.K. argue that while this may be true in the south, it isn’t at all true elsewhere on the continent, and that once a market is legal no matter from where, poaching will increase geometrically especially in the east where it is more difficult to control. I concur with this argument, although it is weakened by the fact that elephants are overpopulated in the east, now, and that there are no good strategic plans to do something about the increasing human/elephant conflicts, there.

But while the arguments didn’t change, the proponents themselves did. In a dramatic retreat from its East African colleagues, Tanzania sided with the south, and that put enormous strain on the negotiations. When evidence emerged that Tanzania was about the worst country in all of Africa to manage its poaching and that officials there were likely involved, the tide returned to normal and the convention voted to continue keeping elephants listed as an endangered species.

For the first time in history, an animal product (ground rhino horn) became more expensive on illicit markets than gold.

Rhino, unlike elephant, is not doing well in the wild. It’s doing wonderfully in captivity and right next to the wild in many private reserves, but in the wild it’s too easy a take. This year’s elevation of the value of rhino horn resulted in unexpectedly high poaching, and some of it very high profile.

This story isn’t all good, but mostly, because the Serengeti Highway project was shelved and that’s the important part. And to be sure, the success of stopping this untenable project was aided by a group called Serengeti Watch.

But after some extremely good and aggressive work, Serengeti Watch started to behave like Congress, more interested in keeping itself in place than doing the work it was intended to do. The first indication of this came when a Tanzanian government report in February, which on careful reading suggested the government was having second thoughts about the project, was identified but for some reason not carefully analyzed by Watch.

So while the highway is at least for the time being dead, Serengeti Watch which based on its original genesis should be as well, isn’t.

The ongoing and now seemingly endless transformation of Kenyan society and politics provoked by the widespread election violence of 2007, and which has led to a marvelous new constitution, is an ongoing top ten story for this year for sure. But more specifically, the acceptance of this new Kenyan society of the validity of the World Court has elevated the power of that controversial institution well beyond anyone’s expectations here in the west.

Following last year’s publication by the court of the principal accused of the crimes against humanity that fired the 2007 violence, it was widely expected that Kenya would simply ignore it. Not so. Politicians and current government officials of the highest profile, including the son of the founder of Kenya, dutifully traveled to The Hague to voluntarily participate in the global judicial process that ultimately has the power to incarcerate them.

The outcome, of course, remains to be seen and no telling what they’ll do if actually convicted. It’s very hard to imagine them all getting on an airplane in Nairobi to walk into a cell in Rotterdam.

But in a real switcheroo this travel to The Hague has even been spun by those accused as something positive and in fact might have boosted their political standing at home. And however it effects the specific accused, or Kenya society’s orientation to them, the main story is how it has validated a global institution’s political authority.

Deserts Awakening Everywhere!

Deserts Awakening Everywhere!

The African Awakening is unstoppable, even in Libya and Syria, and maybe coming to China after Saudi Arabia. But did you ever expect it to emerge full force in little Botswana?

Well Botswana isn’t little in terms of geographical size: about the size of Texas, but whereas Texas has about 25 million residents, Botswana has only 2 million. And Botswana is undoubtedly used by those infamous Texas high school textbooks as a model of stability.

Well… not quite.

Botswana is in the midst of a very successful national strike that among other things is closing hospitals, schools and borders. Tourists, for example, may not be able to travel overland into neighboring countries from April 18-29.

“There are different ways to take over governance, and that includes by force,” Agence France Presse reported today that the strike leader, Duma Boko, told a rally in Gaberone.

“If we can come together we can take our government as it happened in Egypt and Tunisia.”

As it happened in Egypt and Tunisia there was a lot of violence, and that won’t happen in “little Botswana.” But change will, and for Botswana it could be quite profound.

The current topic is over wages, not governance. Government jobs account for a sizeable portion of Botswana’s otherwise diverse and historically vibrant economy. The wages have been frozen for 3 years, and strike leaders are demanding a 16% wage increase just as the Botswana government must go sheepishly to the world markets increasing its public debt.

Botswana is not skilled at raising debt. Diamonds, especially, and other mining makes it one of Africa’s richest countries (in terms of GDP or percapita income.)

But the world depression hit luxury goods like diamonds very hard. The industry has been relatively slow to recover.

But the history of the current political turbulence is not strictly economic. A side issue which threatens to emerge as the most potent political outcome is the struggle by bushmen to regain control of their ancestral home in the Kalahari.

It’s a long battle whose ideological complexities are being highlighted by the current strike. In 1996, the London-based Gem Diamond Company discovered a huge streak of diamonds in the central Kalahari; in fact, inside the already proclaimed Central Kalahari Reserve, Botswana’s largest protected wilderness.

The government then leased an area to the company, in contravention of its own law, and later offered the mega tourism company, Wilderness Safaris, a lease to develop the first camp in the Kalahari, also otherwise illegal without Bushmen consent.

The Bushmen sued and prevailed in Botswana’s high court in 2006. Gem then threatened to sue the government of Botswana. Wilderness Safaris (working hard to create a good “ecotourism” image) stuck its tail between its legs and moved to another part of the giant reserve and has only sporadically operated a semi-permanent camp, there.

But the Botswana government continued to harass the Bushmen. As recently as last year the government was still trying to forcibly move out the Bushmen.

This “political” issue has gained new traction with the country’s unions and likely could be the ideological basis of bringing down Botswana’s government for the first time since its Independence from Britain in the 1960s.

This is a great story. It’s filled with ideas, not guns or commercial lies. It’s the epitome of what the African Awakening is all about: significant nonviolent political change.