Ngami Pandemic

Ngami Pandemic

Shortly after crossing the parched deserts of what is now southern Namibia the explorer Charles John Andersson collapsed onto the embankment of the Hountop stream that ultimately led into the mighty Orange River. Dangerously relieved he almost fell asleep rather than drink some life-saving water. He had “made it through,” according to his book, Lake Ngami.

“But I was soon destined to experience a greater calamity… I was seized by a violent shivering fit which lasted three hours, then came the fever, of almost as long duration, accompanied by racking headache and profuse perspiration.”

These are classic symptoms of malaria. It was April just after the rains when malaria is most severe. But this was long before malaria was known and Andersson was convinced it was a pandemic.
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Doesn’t Falls

Doesn’t Falls

Victoria Falls without falls is disturbing enough but there are even more disturbing aspects to the viral dissemination of the falls turned off.

More than several times I’ve seen the falls this way. It reflects a severe drought to the west. But right now really destructive torrential rains are destroying large towns and major agricultural areas to the west as the drought breaks. In several months the falls will be running wild. No one seems to mention that… this time.

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#1: Viral Isolationism

#1: Viral Isolationism

Have you ever watched a colony of anemones? Touch the biggest one and it immediately begins to shrink into itself. Then even without touching others, all the anemones follow suit withdrawing into themselves.

It’s like the mopane tree in Africa. One giraffe starts to nimble a mopane leaf and the whole forest starts to fold leaves and emit toxins.

Africa’s top 2018 stories resemble the top stories in lots of other parts of the world. But believe it or not, Africa actually started earlier and may be ending sooner than much of the rest of the world, as evidenced by the February resignation of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa.

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OnSafari: Just Not Etosha

OnSafari: Just Not Etosha

Photo by Stephen Farrand, Namutoni Pan, Etosha
Photo by Stephen Farrand, Namutoni Pan, Etosha

We ended our Namibian trip with two game drives in Etosha National Park. You’ll find it odd that we were not particularly excited that we saw three black rhino, two cheetah, four lion and several families of elephant. My personal exception: real excitement at finding a rare pair of blue cranes.

Why no jubilation? If we see one rhino at 700 yards in the crater we celebrate for days! One of the three rhino we saw in Etosha practically bumped the car. So what’s going on?

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OnSafari: Desert Elephant

OnSafari: Desert Elephant

SteveJudyWatch2EleWhen Africa recovered from the millennia of drought that caused a small band of homo sapiens to migrate to Europe, the southern half of the continent flourished, again. Great grasslands and increasing forests nurtured enormous numbers of animals.

Then around 2000 years ago the climate in the south changed again, growing much hotter and drier. Many animals went extinct and those that remained were thinned out considerably.

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OnSafari: Twyfelfontein

OnSafari: Twyfelfontein

Highlighted etching on rock faceFor the endless generations that preceded Jao, the fertile valleys and hills of Damaraland filled his people’s pots with nutritious meats: too much oryx, springbok, kudu and sometimes even elephant. Damaraland was a paradise for hunter-gatherers. The climate was warm but not hot, the rains were good, and the great grasslands supported an enormous amount of wild game.

Only giraffe hadn’t experienced the quick death that Jao’s spear inflicted, its tip laced with the white toxin of the White Bush euphorbia. Giraffe were not hunted. It was known that with their necks outstretched, they could touch the clouds. Killing them might jeopardize the rains.

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OnSafari: The Namib-Naukluft

OnSafari: The Namib-Naukluft

publishsunsetEach evening of unbelievable color was followed by a vast darkness illuminated by an universe crowded with stars and planets and meteors and ashy galaxies. But its absolute quiet was disingenuous, like a thick blanket tucked over you in the dead of winter that doesn’t keep out the cold.

We might not have heard the nuclear blasts, but they were all around us. We saw out of our world every time we looked up into the night sky.

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OnSafari: So Old it’s New

OnSafari: So Old it’s New

flying into sossusvleiMost of the time I fly on safari from place to place. Today we flew backwards, nearly 138 million years.

The Namib-Naukluft is the oldest desert in the world and it has changed little over that enormous span of time. Modern man’s interest, though, has resuscitated long dormant forms of life that quite naturally had ceased to exist here when the rain stopped falling. Now, some are back. And, the rain’s started falling, again. It’s all kind of creepy.

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Worse than Thought

Worse than Thought

NambiaMore and more fireworks followed the sunsets around the world until the Trump administration corrected the misspelling or conflation or whatever, and Nambia ceased to exist in the official record. It was the briefest country ever to exist on earth.

It’s not uncommon for Americans to conflate multiple African countries. It is quite uncommon that conflation makes it onto a prepared document. It’s unheard of these are then actually delivered by a Head of State.

Does it matter?

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Black, Blackie or Blacker?

Black, Blackie or Blacker?

KillToSaveTexas hunters, National Geographic, President Obama and one old hippo in the Cleveland Zoo .. My gosh, what a ‘tail to tale!’

By now you must have heard about the Dallas Safari Club’s auctioning off
a “black rhino hunt” in Namibia that fetched $350,000 … for black rhino conservation.

I just don’t get what all the fuss is suddenly about. This isn’t the first time. The exact situation happened before and the Obama administration even blessed it. No problem then. Why so much attention, now?

Do you know how wonderful the Redwood smells? I think we should start a campaign now on MoveOn to auction off a few trees from Muir Woods and then donate the proceeds to Redwood conservation.

And I think we can just keep the ball rolling, then. Based on personal experience, I’ve also always felt that if you just get rid of a few of us old farts now rather than wait for us to keel over, society would be so much more attractive!

We have entered, truly, the world of the absurd: Kill it to save it.

Yet it isn’t the first time, folks! It’s not the second or tenth time, in fact. And such lofty characters as National Geographic and the Obama Administration have been fully invested in such ideas until now.

Kill it to save it” is not a new concept. And it is the principle by which so much hunting – including in Africa – has been done for years and years.

Deer harvests are the most obvious example. Deer hunting has been a carefully regulated and nurtured social activity for six to seven generations, and today management of the deer population is a science extraordinaire. Were deer hunting to be summarily banned, there are plausible arguments that the entire population would crash.

And with a crash in one species, a panoply of similar and related species are jeopardized. Everything from their predators and scavengers (like wolves and crows) to the plants they consumer (like mustard garlic).

Of course it begs the question why hunting deer was ever nurtured then regulated in the first place. But that takes us well back into the 1800s and is such a lengthy period of human management of nature that the explanation is probably mute.

In Africa big game hunting, of which the black rhino was once an essential ingredient, was always regulated in a way that at least appeared to contribute to conservation.

Hunting reserves whether intentionally or by default surrounded the fully protected wilderness areas where no hunting was allowed. Those areas became known as the “buffers.”

Big game hunters in Africa are notoriously tyrannical. I have little doubt that when they lose their jobs they became commanders in blood diamond wars. So the “buffer” area around the national parks was policed in ways African governments could only hope could be the case inside the parks.

That protected the parks from poachers.

More to the point, people pay so much to kill a big African animal that the revenue stream into Africa was simply too much to refuse. This revenue stream was at least in part supposed to be used to nurture the fully protected parks.

This, in fact, is the argument used by Safari International. In October, though, CBC radio unmasked the real intention in a thoughtful interview of the safari auction’s lawyer. He admitted that the main reason hunters want to conserve anything is to be able to kill them, later.

Abe Lincoln once said something about being able to fool people but not always. Well, the public has been fooled for a very long time about hunting. You don’t kill something to save it.

In the current situation, the Dallas Safari Club’s most invoked second argument (after the first argument that the proceeds aid conservation) was that the rhino chosen was an old marauding male that was interfering with otherwise expected successful breeding in his community of wild rhinos.

Uncle Tom at a dashing 75 could charm the buttons off every prom girl in his community, and there were members of the family who wanted to bump him off, but we prevailed.

Don’t end this story, here. Remember that it was President Obama’s administration which was the first in the history of the Endangered Species Act and its worldwide equivalent, CITES, to issue a presidential waiver to a hunter
in Wisconsin to bring back a rhino he had killed in Namibia.

That hunter purchased his Namibian rhino hunt at a safari club auction.

The argument used by the administration was that the money the man had spent on the hunt would contribute to rhino conservation.

And more recently, National Geographic criticized attempts to “list lion” as endangered and thus stop all lion hunting, because according to this lofty magazine, hunting can contribute to conservation.

The Obama Administration’s action was abhorrent. NatGeo’s arguments were as thin as the Dallas Safari Club’s.

But it gets worse with NatGeo, because this time around they’ve criticized the Dallas auction. So add hypocrisy to abhorrence and you get absurdity.

So what do we do with old creatures no use anymore to procreation?

We do exactly what the Cleveland Zoo did for decades of agony to its budget. Yesterday, the oldest hippo in North America, Blackie, died at 59 years old.

Blackie was a pain. When I was first introduced to him he tried to attack me. Years later he just floated in an off-site enclosure that was built at great expense and tended to with the greatest care.

But he was alive. And zoos and real conservation organizations are interested in life.

The Dallas Safari Club, the Obama administration and NatGeo, seem to have more important priorities.

Weather Grounds Drones

Weather Grounds Drones

Predictions about African security linked to global warming have proved frighteningly correct. Does weather trump drones?

As the stubborn, not-too bright bully on the block, America has shifted to accepting global warming as human caused, but it took a few Katrinas and Sandys to tip the balance. And experts still spend inordinate amounts of time explaining the obvious to the recent convert:

“Global warming” or “climate change” or whatever you want to call it is manifest most dangerously in extremes, not just increasing temperatures. So terrible winters on top of terrible summers means we’ve screwed up nature. It’s our fault and we’ve altered nature.

Winter and summer are naturally the opponents in a ping pong game. If one hits harder, it sets up the rebound to be harder as well.

And while it’s been predicted for some time that the short-term global effects of climate change could actually benefit America, because America reigns as the world’s principal power, there’s no way we’ll avoid the much more terrible negative effects:

“The U.S…. may benefit from increased crop yields, [but] its military may be stretched dealing with global “humanitarian emergencies,” Scientific American reported five years ago.

The rest of the world has more or less recognized this for a long time, so there are plenty of studies to refer back to. As America’s conversion into reality became policy when the Obama administration came into power, America began to participate in the global studies.

Africa has the largest percentage of unstable societies in the world, and what early climate change studies show is that these misfortunes were mostly predictable, founded mostly if not exclusively on climate change.

Because Africa is the only continent to stretch so far into both hemispheres, it is unfortunately placed to feel the greatest effects of climate change.

Jihad, civil war, violence after contested elections – even the reemergence of debates about social issues like female circumcision – all seem to ebb and flow with the weather. They are all symptoms of climate change.

John Vidal writing last month in London’s Guardian cited a variety of studies showing that the Arab spring had less to do with human rights than food insecurity:

While the self immolation of the Tunisian street vendor “was in protest at heavy-handed treatment and harassment in the province where he lived… a host of new studies suggest that a major factor in the subsequent uprisings … was food insecurity.”

When the rains returned to drought-stricken Somalia, was it only coincidence that the Kenyan army occupied then pacified the country? Or more likely was the Kenyan army decision triggered by an easier time supplying its troops with food?

And now that drought has turned to floods, pacified Somalia is growing restive, again, and this instability is even spilling into neighboring Kenya.

Even in Namibia, among the least densely populated countries on earth, growing instability from climate change motivated the president to declare a state of emergency on Friday.

Record floods in 2011 have now been replaced by record droughts.

The frequency of climate disaster in Africa is increasing so fast that even statistics are lagging. PreventionWeb is a UN agency that simply documents human disasters. From 1980 – 2008, the ten greatest disasters in Africa were all due to drought.

We expect, now, that the top ten disasters when compiled for 2008-2013 will be from flooding.

It seems pretty simple. Forget about proselytizing or promoting democracy and free trade, cut carbon emissions.

Lion in the Dune?

Lion in the Dune?

No! Because there aren't any!
NPR’s Namibia stories this week distort the overall complexities of human-animal conflicts in Africa as whole. The reporting by Christopher Joyce was an admirable portrayal of one very unusual country’s struggle with wildlife, but when he generalized he was quite wrong.

I hope you listened to the two reports, one on Monday and the other on Tuesday. Read this, then listen to them, again.

Many issues regarding wildlife, hunting and social responsibilities of any country are universal. How to make use in a profitable and sustainable way of these natural resources is an ongoing struggle that I feel is being successfully addressed throughout most of Africa.

But not necessarily the ways Namibia is trying. How Namibia approaches this diminutive national resource is very much different from the rest of “Big Game” Africa. Namibia is a very, very unusual place.

The thrust of Christopher Joyce’s reporting for NPR was that the only way that wildlife can be preserved is by privatizing it. Maybe for Namibia, but dead wrong for Africa and the vast majority of the rest of the world.

A little bit bigger than Alaska, the country is mostly uninhabitable. Nearly half (the western regions that border the Atlantic Ocean) is so dry that some fishermen grow up never seeing rain. Much of this area is the Namib Desert, which is pure sand, and some of the most spectacular dunes on earth are found here.

There is very, very, very little wildlife compared to the rest of sub-Saharan Africa. In fact, compared to practically any other random part of the world. I can’t emphasize this enough, because Namibia is where many outstanding wildlife research projects have occurred recently. Some have even led to major discoveries (about elephant verbalization, for instance). But this may be the case, indeed because the wildlife here is so scarce.

The NPR report itself confirmed there might be 125 lion in the entire country. That is about the same number of lion for this massive 325000 sq. miles as found in tiny 100 sq. mile Ngorongoro Crater in Tanzania. For a similar area in East Africa the size of Namibia there is likely upwards of 50 times as many lion.

And that metric applies pretty well for any other wildlife comparison between Namibia and the main wildlife viewing countries of Africa. The exception could be oryx and springbok, two antelope species which do exceedingly well in very dry environments. But except for these two antelope, Namibia is not a place to go to see wildlife.

The most famous wildlife park in Namibia is Etosha Pan, which is about 7% of the entire country’s land mass (22,000 sq. miles). It’s hard to find an animal census for the park, probably because it’s not very good. The Namibian government claims there are 2500 elephant (dubious) and makes the grandiose claim that, “It is well known that Etosha has the single-largest population of black rhinos in the world, but the actual count is kept secret so that this fact – and the population of rhinos it defines – is never threatened.”

Such unsubstantiated remarks need to be taken with a lot of grains of salt, of which Etosha has a vast supply. Moreover I’m absolutely sure there are many more black rhinos in places like Lewa Downs in Kenya as well as in a number of South African private reserves.

Namibia’s richest wildlife area is the eastern Caprivi Strip, the area squeezed between Botswana and Angola which is hardly 300 sq. miles large. This is where many of the private wildlife reserves Christopher Joyce discussed in his radio reports are located. Interestingly, though, it was not where Christopher Joyce of NPR spent most of his time.

The reserves Joyce reported from may have the least amount of wildlife of any of the collection of private reserves in Namibia, which does make it a compelling story as to how they are trying to exploit the little they have. But I am concerned that at no time did he explain this serious difference between Namibia and the more popular areas for wildlife viewing in Africa: i.e., there is hardly any wildlife in Namibia.

(Joyce spent most of his time on the few reserves on arid, near desert terrains where the provocative topic of hunting was raised. I thought he did a decent job with this topic although he might have considered interviewing the equally if not larger segment of the population in Namibia that opposes hunting. Nevertheless, this is a topic universal to privatization of wildlife reserves throughout the continent.)

The Caprivi is a beautiful, wooded and riverine area with a varied biomass, and what to do with it is a critical issue but keep in mind how small an area this is. It may contain up to three-quarters of all Namibia’s non-desert wildlife, but it is one one-hundredth of the country in size, only one quarter the size of Yosemite National Park.

I hope you see where I’m going with this. To call Namibia an African wildlife destination is really rather stretching it. It has some extraordinarily unusual wildlife, because of its extraordinary desert ecologies, well worth a zoologist’s interest. But to consider it a viable tourist destination for wildlife is a ruse.

Namibia’s attractions are grand, but they do not include wildlife.

And it’s probably precisely this reason that the government wants to develop the little that remains as best they can. Fair enough. And it may, indeed, be true as Joyce suggests that privatization of such a minimal resource is the only way to sustain it…in Namibia.

But this strategy is absolutely not an evidently good one for more normal environments elsewhere in Africa, where the wildlife is more naturally abundant. In fact, it’s a major and often contentious issue in areas that have naturally abundant game. Personally I’m in the camp of folks who do not believe that privatization of important national resources like wildlife is good.

And when Joyce ended his final episode by claiming the people “from all over the world and Africa” were coming to Namibia to learn from their privatization projects, I started to laugh then became rather irritated.

It’s like suggesting farmers are traveling to New York see how to grow corn. There is some corn grown on Long Island, and probably in very creative and interesting ways, but it’s sure no general model.

Private wildlife reserves are flourishing all over Africa, hundreds more than in Namibia, because they have much more wildlife to show off. Now it could be that the particular model for Namibia’s privatization is better, say, than Tanzania’s WMA (Wildlife Management Areas) or South Africa’s private wildlife zoning ordinances, with regards to fairness to the local population or to the wildlife or whatever. But Joyce didn’t explore this.

Namibia’s future is not with wildlife. Its tourism development must — and has, actually, at least until now — feature many other wonderful things before wildlife. Wildlife could be the icing on the cake of a fabulous Skeleton Coast safari, but the cake is substantively without animals.

Moreover, Namibia’s broader economic and social development is not with wildlife. It is squarely with how to divide the special wealth from its rich deposits of uranium, diamonds and a few other minerals; and with the growing conflicts with its rapidly developing indigenous populations like the Ovahimba.

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t all be fascinated by the story Joyce told. Just put it in perspective, which he should have done but didn’t.