Ma Lives Matter

Ma Lives Matter

The “unlawful and forced eviction” of up to 70,000 Maasai in northeast Tanzania has turned bloody violent. According to Canada’s Globe & Mail an initial tear-gas episode in early June has escalated into outright warfare resulting in deaths and injuries.

“Shocking in its scale and brutality” this tragic situation is hardly new: Maasai have been driven from their pastures almost continually since their ancestors fled the Nubians in the 4th century BC. This complex story is one of the lectures I give on safari atop the Serengeti ‘Singing Rock’ that overlooks what was once the paradise of the Maasai before they ceded it to the government a half century ago.

The current conflict has its contemporary roots in a relocation of about 4,000 Maasai from northeast Tanzania in the 1960s right before Independence. A generation later in 1992 Maasai leaders formally accepted the government annexation of about 1600 sq. miles of their prime pastures which until then had remained an unresolved ownership issue with the British colonial government.

It remains uncertain whether the Maasai elders who ceded this huge area (the entire “Loliondo” district) understood exactly what they were doing or whether there was a lot of sugar spilled into the chai.

The area borders Kenya’s famous’ Maasai Mara to the north and Tanzania’s famous Serengeti to the west. These truly spectacular quintessential rolling grassland savannahs are perfect for cattle grazing, the traditional lifeway of Maasai.

Following the 1992 “treaty” the Tanzanian government quickly formalized smaller portions of that 1600 sq. miles as hunting reserves for Arab royalty. They had regularly hunted the area during their own insufferable summers ever since first being invited down by the British long, long ago for who knows what nefarious reasons.

After sectioning out hunting reserves for the Arabs who to this day claim they were given the whole of Loliondo by the British, the government declared the remainder “Wildlife Management Areas” (WMAs).

WMAs were and remain (intentionally?) so confusing that everybody and their brother ran up to this beautiful, game rich area to plant their own kind of stake. Including a group I was involved with for seven years.

In the early 2000s I had an interest in a company that had a remote wilderness camp close to where the Arabs were hunting. The mostly Jordanian militias that constantly harassed us claimed we were infringing on their area, but our WMA certificate had clearly delineated boundaries professionally surveyed for our 50,000 acres. Nevertheless, anyone coming into our “private reserve” would get a little beep on their cell phone, “Welcome to the Emirates!”

Ours was not the only non-hunting camp in the Loliondo area. By my last count in 2008 there were six. No one was ever able, however, to get a written document from either the Arabs or the Tanzanian government that would substantiate their claims to the entire Loliondo area.

I never got inside the Arab’s perimeter despite several attempts. Those who did reported “a little city” with an airport that routinely accepted the most modern private jet aircraft as well as C47’s that would disgorge limos and Range Rovers.

Maasai development was soaring by the end of the last century. Casual stock herding became true cattle ranching. In 1992 the price of a Maasai cow was around $70. Today it approaches $2000, a testament to Maasai’s rapid development and professional use of modern animal husbandry.

So more and more Maasai are choosing to “stay on the farm,” turning the tide that began in the 1980s when every promising young Maasai fled to the city. There are more and more cattle, more and more homesteads and guess what, no more land.

Disputes grew more violent after we left the area in 2008. Serious “wars” with Tanzania security forces occurred in 2009, 2013 and 2019.

I began blogging about this controversy in 2009. I ended that first blog by saying, “My take is that this is not going to get better, soon.”

The largest number of physical fights — not as deadly perhaps but much more acrimonious and self-destructive — have actually been between Kenyan and Tanzanian Maasai ranchers.

Originally, of course, there was no border splitting the Maasai into three countries (Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania). When the rain in the south was better, the Kenyan Maasai moved their cattle into Tanzania. And vice versa. So many more ranchers much better educated and lawyered up with many, many better cows are all fighting for the same number of blades of grass that grew here when the Maasai first arrived nearly 300 years ago.

In 2018 Tanzanian Maasai prevailed in the totally powerless East African Court of Justice which affirmed their historic rights to grazing throughout the area. This has sustained an increasingly articulate and powerful movement led by several courageous, young and very professional Maasai lawyers.

I think that Covid explains much of the current battle. No one came to Tanzania for nearly two years. Maasai in this area just naturally started grazing all over the place, including into the Serengeti National Park and the Arab hunting areas.

Covid’s over, the sheiks complained. Sheiks are rich and powerful. Maasai ranchers are not.

The piles of faulty treaties, questionable agreements and coerced submissions to informal modern use of deeply historical use, all compounded by an inept government that mistakenly tried to manage the area with incomprehensible regulations has just piled mess upon mess.

Untangling it is impossible. It’s time that the Tanzanian government emulate Canada with its First Nation policy or America with its modern Athabascan Alaskan policy and recognize the historical first principle of Maasai ownership of the lands and send the Arabs back in a heat wave.

Is that likely?

Haiwezakani sana…

OnSafari: Lion Story

OnSafari: Lion Story

It should have been the best day of his life. Instead, with every step he made walking away from the big black-maned pridemaster who was seated on the veld like the sphinx watching him, he pressed his eyes closed, lowering his head slightly. I wasn’t sure since I was looking at him through my binoculars from about 80 meters away, but I think he was in great pain.

Still, his belly wasn’t thin. In fact, it was pretty full. In fact all 11 in the pride including the kids had full bellies. The wilde must have been killed 2-3 hours before we arrived shortly after dawn, but it was already nearly licked clean.
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OnSafari: The Crater

OnSafari: The Crater

We were among the first at dawn onto the crater floor and were headed up the Mugai River to see the old Boer homestead when right there in the road in front of us was a mating pair of lion!

Lion have been observed by safari guests for generations, and crater animals in particular are unusually tame, so neither Tumaini or I had much reluctance to interrupt the romance for a better view. Until we got closer.

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OnSafari: Crater

OnSafari: Crater

Breakfast in the crater.
Our family safari plowed through the tse-tse of Tarangire, had a really quick picnic game drive in Manyara and settled into the crater for a fantastic day.

Tarangire was much wetter than usual but cold as usual. The odd combination kept the tse-tse somewhat at bay but really reduced our finding the transitory elephant in the southern half of the park. The northern half was chock-a-block full of elephant as always, and that’s where the most productive game viewing was.

On the way to our Sopa Lodge we passed elephant fighting on the rim and arrived just before dark.

The day in the crater was wonderful. I love these margins of the season, when the tourist rush hasn’t yet totally clogged out the crater and a drizzle every now keep the beautiful yellow biden-biden blooming so that the veld is covered in yellow.

When we went down there weren’t many wildebeest. We saw lots of zebra and quite a few lion – all fat and sassy from previous kills – but as we ended the morning a long line of wilde ran down the side along the down road.

They were kicking and blarting and the males were still actively rutting, which should have already come to an end. I couldn’t figure out why so much commotion and such clear migratory behavior in these 400 or so wilde, since they were headed in the wrong direction!

But that’s … nature! With so many beasts there isn’t an uniform movement, and for some reason this group – totally healthy and enthusiastic – either got turned around by a bee or the smell of new grass on the crater floor.

Whatever it was it was great fun to watch them. I’m having a particularly wonderful time, since this is my family. I guide a family safari every ten years. This was the 4th one!

From here it’s on to my favorite place in the world, the Serengeti. Stay tuned.

[Apologies from the bush. My laptop is having serious problems, and I’m going to great lengths to post blogs. Will do my best!]

OnSafari: Lion Kill

OnSafari: Lion Kill

The rains had finally restarted. For at least a month before they finally returned the buffalo in the crater wandered back and forth searching for every blade of grass that still grew. Cyclone Ida had stolen every drop of water from East Africa for her tempest against southern Africa.

The ton-heavy buff could withstand a month or so with little to eat. They’d spent their lives chomping down 20 kilos of fodder daily, building the most formidable muscles on the veld, and the crater still had good sources of water and salt.

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OnSafari: Surprising Final Drive

OnSafari: Surprising Final Drive

craterexperience.306Our 15-day journey through Kenya and Tanzania ended at Ngorongoro Crater, one of the most majestic landmarks earth has to show. Although it rained a little and was ominously overcast, the game viewing was good.

We saw about 20 lion, many elephant, lots of antelope though no big herds, plenty of hyaena and a bunch of other stuff, including the serval. That’s not a rare cat, but it’s very rare to see it.

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OnSafari: Tiny Places

OnSafari: Tiny Places

7.classic.mvAutonomy is the buzzword, now. The Navajo Nation, Catalonia, Maasai Ngorongoro, Yukon First Nations or Zanzibar, and they are all wrong. This is becoming clearer and clearer to me as I tour America’s southwest and listen to the same story lines and their dismal outcomes that I have heard in Tanzania for years.

Kathleen and I spent a half-day with T.J. in his pretty beat up jeep in Canyon de Chelly, a part of the greater Navajo nation. He showed us some amazing scenery and intrigued us with closeups of Anasazi, Hopi and other Pueblo indian pictograph and petroglyph. But I was belabored with his stilted view of history and saddened not just by his own personal story, but the story of his people.

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On Safari: Crater Lions

On Safari: Crater Lions

LionWithCub.640.apr14.mmichelAs she dragged the wildebeest from where it had been killed we could see that much of it had yet to be eaten, despite her belly which looked ready to explode.  She stopped often, panting and hyperventilating not from the exertion of the pull but from her insides trying to digest 50 pounds of unchewed meat.

She had to get a drink.  If lions don’t flood themselves with water after gorging themselves their gastro-intestinal system freezes up and they die.

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OnSafari: Crater Memories

OnSafari: Crater Memories

family by hippo lakeEvan got up at 5:55a (according to Evan) and was in the car with the rest of us at 6 a.m. It had rained so heavily during the night that my room attendant told me several bridges had been washed out.

Normally when we descend the crater at dawn the long drive to the “down road” is slow and difficult because it’s so foggy. That wasn’t the case, today. Normally it’s bitter cold (relatively speaking, in the 40s). Today it was in the upper 50s.

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OnSafari: End of the Game?

OnSafari: End of the Game?

erraticWetDryBPI suppose as we age the accumulation of changes so untethers us from our foundations that it seems apocalypse is right around the corner. Nevertheless, this safari truly makes me wonder if African wilderness will be around much longer.

I remind myself that in 1979 Peter Beard published a best-selling book, The End of the Game, and his predictions couldn’t have been more wrong. There was not the near total collapse of the wild animals in East Africa he predicted, but in fact a tripling of the animal populations.

So I’m hesitant now to render a similar prediction. Few knew the East African wilderness as well and intimately as Peter Beard. Few were as moderate or unopinionated as him.

Yesterday we left the crater for Lake Manyara National Park. The crater was enormously stressed, but not by the customary impacts of a normal dry season. This was a much different dry season, one framed by the extremities of climate change.

The single-most easily observed effect of climate change in East Africa is the severity of micro-weather cells. The crater like the Serengeti was severely dry, more so than normal. But the areas hardly a few miles away in the higher elevations of the crater rim and Karatu butte were soaked. Not so much by current rain (although there has been some unusual showers) but by the floods of the last rainy season which went on nearly a month longer than normal.

Drop back down to Lake Manyara and the desiccation of the veld was as bad as the Serengeti or the crater floor. Yet the lake itself is massive. Rivers flowing into the great lake itself are so strong that tracks I used in the rainy season in March are now under water!

All this because the higher elevations – a soaked micro weather cell – continued to drain off the unusually wet season.

Grass on the veld doesn’t grow because a nearby river is flowing, but it does mean that a normal light shower provides just enough moisture to bloom grass on that desiccated veld: I guess the best way to explain this is that despite an unusually hot, dusty and dry veld, an unusually high water table supports grass growth at the slightest encouragement.

We saw ridiculous numbers of baby buffalo in the crater. (Buffalo eat very little of anything but grass.)

We encountered so many giraffe in the Serengeti around lakes Ndutu and Masek that 8-year old Donovan began each game drive by announcing, “I guaranteed you we’ll see giraffe.” Masek and Ndutu were unusually large for the same reason as the crater lake and Manyara: heavy continuing runoffs from the nearby highlands.

Giraffes main food are the leafs of the acacia tree. Deep rooting acacia trees tap easily into a high water table. The acacia near all these lakes are leafing anew and even blooming, something not normal before November.

More than a hundred elephant around Lake Masek, dozens in the crater forests, and yesterday, almost a hundred elephant in Lake Manyara is not something I expected to see, now. There were many babies, and elephant abort at the slightest indication of a drought. Elephant are the most voracious consumers of vegetation on earth. They can easily move great distances and they don’t remain in areas without food.

So why sound the alarm?

Elephant, buffalo and to some extent giraffe, easily move great distances and fairly rapidly. Other animals don’t. Impala are home-bodies, with family collections rarely shifting far. Hippo might travel ten miles a night to eat, but they don’t easily adjust their territories, returning to the same river bed or lake each morning.

We normally see hundreds if not thousands of impala on a normal safari. I think so far we’ve counted 35 or so.

The first four hippo we found were frozen dead in the dwindling waters of the Seronera river, their hides already cracked wide opened and storks already picking into them.

All the 20 or so hippo we saw in the crater were crammed into the single lake at Lokitok with none in other normal areas like the well-signed “hippo pool.” At the famous hippo viewing area in Manyara we saw only a couple hippo and they were all very sick, their hides chalked with salt.

Could it be that only those animals capable of rapid shifts in territory will now survive? There’s more water than ever, but it comes as torrential rains in shorter intervals into smaller areas followed often by severe heat and drought.

Animals that can react to these anomalies might not just survive but prosper. Those that can’t will die. But the matrix that emerges will be radically different from the one that has existed all my career until now. Can the ecology retool and resync this fast?

My gut says no. But then so did Peter Beard’s almost a half century ago.

OnSafari: Crater Climate Change

OnSafari: Crater Climate Change

lionkillcraterBPLazy guys, content curmudgeons, and sassy big boys told us some marvelous stories about the crater this year. In sum, better than expected rains have relieved some tension in the wild.

Normally I find less than a few thousand wildebeest in the crater now at the height of the dry season, and these are often late birthed calves that missed the normal time to migrant and were then captured by the crater’s slightly better rainfall and subsequent scarce grasses.

This year rack up at least five thousand and it could be many more, and I’m sure that there were late birthed calves among these but it was mostly overly lazy males. After the males rut in May they sort of discard any more personal responsibilities, moving only when their belly tells them to. They lack the intuitive urge to migrate that the females have with calves in tow, and migrate only because grasses die.

Apparently the grasses didn’t die as usual in the crater because of slightly better rainfall, and moreover, the Serengeti just beyond the crater’s rim is so terribly dry that they might have turned back when they hit the dust.

Unlike the Serengeti we experienced the last few days, the crater showed some rain with slight patches of green especially on its eastern side. The rivers were flowing more than normal suggesting the rim got even more rain, and the central lake was much larger than usual, displaying a good number of flamingoes.

So the male wildebeest decided heh, what-the-heck, there’s grass here! And they were joined by several thousand zebra that are driven more by available water than the wildebeest (who also need water, but are more finicky about the type of grass they eat than zebra).

So it was a bonus for us, but potentially a very dangerous situation for these male wildebeest if the dry season now resyncs normally. Between them and the wonderfully green Mara far to the north where their brides and children have gone is one of the most desiccated Serengeti’s I can remember.

One of the first things we saw the first afternoon in the crater was a pride of lion finishing off a buffalo kill. (By the way, it was right at the edge of one of the designated picnic sites!) That was cool enough all by itself, but more telling were two big, healthy male elephants who had wandered into the area.

These old curmudgeons weren’t up to much of anything, displaying vast amounts of boredom. They sucked in great amounts of water and then let it dribble out or squirted it in funny ways all over the place, obviously not in need of a drink.

When this game got tiresome they started what I can only describe as trunk yoga. Contracting their trunk upwards, it spiraled into a corkscrew and for obviously no reason.

At first they didn’t seem the least interested in the lions and their kill hardly 40 meters away. But after they’d cycled through their list of personal games, one of them turned towards the lions and froze before a slow, lumbering towards the kill.

Most of the lions scattered, but the one big female whose belly exceeded that of any of the others, stood her ground and growled.

The 6-ton ele hesitated momentarily, then lowered his head and moved forward.

She growled some more.

Heh, what-the-heck, he seemed to say as he flapped his ears, I made my point! And he lumbered away. All in all it was just an old guy, very well fed, with a lot of time on his ears.

This morning just after dawn we followed a bunch of excited hyaenas as they headed towards a big family of buffalo. Having last March just watched such as situation ending with a dozen of these monsters tearing apart an old, sick bull, I wasn’t about to leave.

But this time it was different. The family had dozens of youngsters and almost as many newborns. I noticed that one group of hyaena was actually cleaning up the after-birth, while others were testing the health of the newborns with quick little sorties into the herd.

Buffalo birth year-round and like elephant tend to abort when conditions are poor. That’s why we don’t usually see a lot of births in the dry season, but this dry season is obviously not so dry … at least here in the crater.

Normally the big males of the family guard the rest, but heh, what-the-heck, it was such a beautiful day the males had disappeared somewhere! Later we’d find them lulling about in mud and water chewing their cud near a wonderful patch of green grass. So it was the mothers who were now darting back at the hyaena to protect the youngsters.

I’m sure I’ve anthropomorphized the couple days in the crater a bit more than I usually tolerate of others, but it was a mostly happy situation, with the crater more beautiful and full of animals than is normally the case in the dry season.

Anomalous seasons have a potential, though, to turn ugly. The thousands of wildebeest that elected to remain behind in the crater and not migrate, or the many new born buffalo who need several months of voracious eating to grow strong enough to survive, have hung their fates on the hope the crater won’t turn as dry as the neighboring Serengeti.

Normally, rains don’t return before November.

But the wild often predicts outcomes better than meteorologists. Climate change is confusing weather patterns all over the place. Perhaps this year, in this one place, it will all be for the better.

OnSafari: Crater Drama

OnSafari: Crater Drama

elechargengorongoroForty very large elephant running six miles from one northern end to the southern end of the crater intersected the road endangering our early morning game drive.

We stopped to watch, and their trumpeting exploded all around us. The matriarchs of each of the four families turned to us, opened their ears and two charged!

Youngsters, one hardly a week old, didn’t know where to turn as the mothers confronted us. We held our ground; they were mock charges, and I knew that we couldn’t run from them if it were anything else.

We stayed quiet as they ran far past us, their trumpeting continuing and diminishing, the beautiful song of the red-naped lark finally penetrating their screeching.

The stillness of the early morning crater was forever unsettled. What had happened to them? I don’t know. It was only just after sunrise. No one else was on the floor but us. What had set them off?

It would be easy to say someone had tried to poach them, but that’s unlikely. Poachers don’t dare try to take down an elephant in such a large and wild group. We’ll never know. Perhaps they were from some distant place and had never seen the vast plains of the crater, moving their lives from one forest to another.

I just don’t know. But it was super powerful and heart-thumping. I just hope in the forests beyond the crater rim they’ll find some peace…

The rest of the morning in the crater was beautiful, perfect and normal. That’s quite abnormal!

About 25,000 animals were scattered marvelously among the mostly green plains and lush and verdant crater rim sides. There was a baby wildebeest for every two adults, 25 fat and sassy lions some licking deep hunting wounds, a giant rhino, hundreds of buffalo, black-backed and golden jackals, eland and hartebeest, hippo and elegant birds like the Hildebrandt’s starling and purple grenadier.

There are too many elephant in East Africa, and there are too many tourists in Ngorongoro Crater but it just can’t be missed. The crater is magical and often unbelievable, dense mixtures of animals and predators that would never be seen so close together elsewhere on the veld.

Nowhere else are the chances of seeing black rhino as we did so great. Nowhere do multiple lion families live so close together. Nowhere are zebra so approachable that you really could stick your hand out of the car and touch them.

Is this wild Africa? No, but it’s been this way for nearly a hundred years, ever since hunters have been restricted from the crater floor.

Many potential travelers on safari complain that they hear there are just too many tourists, that it’s too crowded. As tomorrow on this safari will show, there are many days – if not most days on safari that my convoy of vehicles is the only one on hundreds of square miles of veld.

But it’s true of the crater, because there is nothing else like it on earth, and it simply cannot be missed.

OnSafari: Lion Kill!

OnSafari: Lion Kill!

craterlionsIt was just after 7 a.m. and I spotted four lions devouring a wildebeest.

They had obviously just killed it and their faces, necks and front paws and legs were covered with blood and they were eating madly, eating like a cheetah in fact.

Lions don’t go to finishing school, and despite Mary Disse’s wonder if they ever share, they are pretty much gluttons with poor manners. But it’s really only the cheetah that eats as if the world is going to end, because it has such trouble keeping its kill.

Lions are the king of beasts, right?

There were two adult females and two 6-month old juveniles on the kill and they were absolutely frantic, and soon we learned why.

The hyaena were coming in droves.

Whether they anticipated this, or whether the new crater ecology caused by global warming has turned the tables on the king of the beasts, it was now clear why they were eating “like cheetahs.”

The first group of around a dozen cheetah arrived with the tails up, hooting and prancing around in obvious challenge to the small pride on the wildebeest kill. At first the pride took no notice.

When there were 15 hyaena the lions started to get visibly nervous, interrupting their chow-down with raised heads and barred teeth trying to dissuade the hyaena that were coming closer and closer.

At one point everyone was confused as most of the pack of hyaena turned around and chased three new hyaena that were coming towards the kill. That didn’t last long, though, and soon the three that were challenged had joined “the pack.”

There were now more than 20 hyaena and plenty for the attack.

They moved like in thrusts together, all towards the kill. Finally one of the females was bitten on her left hind leg and yelped, and at that point I expected the hyaena to tear apart the lions.

I’d seen it before.

But this time the hyaenas were more hungry than vicious. The lion stood up as if unmolested and walked away from their only partially eaten kill..

The now 25 hyaena pounced on the kill and probably one another, tearing apart every morsel that was left. By the time the lion had walked within 50m of us, found a small rise in the ground and flopped down to lick one another, the kill was practically gone.

I figured the lion had killed the wilde about 20 minutes before we arrived. We were there about an hour, and so in less than 90 minutes a wilde had been killed, eaten and totally consumed.

This is the dry season … I guess. As I’m writing this now, about 5 hours after the event, it’s raining! Reports are that the great wildebeest migration which follows the rains and should be far distant in the Mara in Kenya is fractured and partially still in the Serengeti.

This is climate change. We saw far more wildebeest and zebra in the crater than should be at this time of the year, and they must have grass. Grass only grows when it rains. It’s probably raining in Kenya’s Mara as natural, but it’s also raining here.

Yesterday in the crater we saw a pride of 23 lion near one of the hippo pools. This isn’t normal, either. Certainly there are cases I remember of large prides, but never 23. This absolutely represents a coalition of prides.

I can’t explain it other than to defer to the obvious that things are changing on the veld, and they are changing because the weather is changing. Global warming means more rain for the equatorial regions of the world (and also shorter but deeper droughts in between the heavy rains).

For my clients it was an exceptional morning. After we watched the first kill, we happened upon some juvenile males waiting in ambush for an arriving group of grazing wilde.

As usual, the juvenile males botched the attempt, although it wasn’t completely their fault. By the time the wilde had wandered anywhere near close enough to their ambush spot, there were nearly 20 cars with excited people talking far too loudly.

This is the high season. It’s when there are the most cars in the crater. But because we planned well, and got down onto the floor just after dawn long before most of the cars did, we had a dramatic and splendid morning.

Stay tuned. We’re headed into the far north Serengeti!

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

20Jul.OldTuskerHippos.STaylor.303.crater.Sep09EWT Guide and former Cleveland Zoo Director, Steve Taylor, took this precious photo in Ngorongoro Crater in September, 2011. It’s one of my favorite photos of EWT safaris over the last 39 years. Big tuskers like this one are all but dying out, the few survivors of the horrible years of poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. Come back on July 23 as I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania!

OnVacation: Best Photos

OnVacation: Best Photos

17Jul.RMattas.Mar08.456This remarkable photo was taken on March 19, 2008, by Rich Mattas, while we were game viewing in Ngorongoro Crater. It’s part of my favorite photos from the last 39 years of guiding safaris which I’m posting while on vacation. (BTW, the buf shook off the lions and seems none too disturbed.) Come back on July 23 when I begin guiding my last safari of the season in Tanzania!