Getting to the Bottom of It

Getting to the Bottom of It

getting to the bottom of itWhile the battle against corruption in Africa is mostly going well, it’s hit a brick wall in Tanzania. Yesterday, most of the aid-giving free world (less the U.S.) chided Tanzania for dragging its feet.

The donor group, calling itself the “General Budget Support” (GBS) Group, gives Tanzania approximately a half billion dollars annually as direct cash into its general budget fund, about 10% of the country’s projected national budget.

The U.S. in comparison plans to give Tanzania this year approximately $1.15 billion.

The difference with USAid is that it doesn’t flow without conditions into the country’s general fund as is the case with the GBS, but towards specific projects and programs, many of which are outside the Tanzanian government’s budget programs.

Specificity in aid is a hallmark of U.S. assistance, and a controversial one. It’s not only a hallmark of USAid, but of Tanzania’s other principal donor, China.

By specifying what the money is supposed to be used for, the vendors receiving the funds are often U.S. and Chinese companies.

And the U.S. usually does a pretty good job; China often doesn’t.

It’s been less than a year since China finished the Namanga/Arusha/Dodoma road, and it’s collapsing already.

I’ve traveled that road multiple times annually since 1973. It’s rare to be in very good shape, but the best period was from about 2000 to 2008, a legacy of Japanese aid and workmanship.

But no road lasts forever, and even less so when a country is developing and its trucks and commerce are growing.

So we were all extremely excited last year, despite the delays of construction, that this “new road” would bring new speed to the country’s prosperity.

Junk aid is the controversy that surrounds specificity of aid, which is the practice of the Chinese and Americans. Many European countries that have developed real expertise in aid to the developing world, like the Netherlands and Norway, prefer to work through world bodies like the World Bank, or directly with country authorities as is the case with the GBS.

So while it may seem counter-intuitive that giving unspecified aid battles corruption, that’s exactly what this does, as evidenced yesterday by the sweeping indignation of the GBS and its threats to hold back some of what is being pledged.

It’s the same policy that the European Union applied to Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal. There was no specificity to the cash, other than you better get your house in order.

That’s what the GBS is doing in Tanzania, and from my point of view, it has a lot more effect than America and China’s grandiose claims that their aid avoids causing corruption.

An enormous percentage of USAid, for example goes to a handful of corporations, like Halliburton. (The exact percentages take institutions to figure out, and clearly are being intentionally made difficult to determine.)

Just as in Tanzania the Chinese road corporation, China Geo Engineering, received the funds to rebuild the Namanga/Arusha/Dodoma road.

These mega corporations then pay themselves and their country cronies for such things as equipment, and often for expertise and management as well. The Chinese actually are far more guilty of this than the Americans. It is hard to find a Chinese project with any locals above basic laborer.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t help the local economy, but advocates of the GBS form of aid argue it leads to much greater corruption.

And the corruption begins at home. Halliburton, like China Geo Engineering, is rife with nepotism, cronyism and just simple outright graft. Removed from many of the accounting restraints that would attend them for projects within their home country, they are essentially set free to work as they wish.

Bribing is par for the course.

And whether a Chinese or American capitalist monster, the bottom line is what counts. And that doesn’t seem to be effected by where the bottom of the road goes.

Don’t Walk on Safari

Don’t Walk on Safari

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t walk.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s changed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t walk.

On [Family] Safari: Kids Rule

On [Family] Safari: Kids Rule

TarangireLandscape.655.jun13It isn’t just the animals. Tarangire was fabulous as always, with hundreds and hundreds of elephants, but the picnics, the evenings at the lodges, the explorations inside the baobab … a lot goes into a wonderful family safari.

We’re hardly half way through the wonderful Felsenthal Family Safari and I’ve once again proved to myself that kids do better than grownups.

BushbabyAtBoy.655.June13So often parents are concerned that their children – particularly the younger children – will be bored or anxious. Each day at the behest of the parents I’ve offered to shorten the game drives, and each day the children insist I don’t!

We now have had several 10-hour days in a row. We leave camp after breakfast around 8 a.m. and go game viewing with a picnic lunch returning around 6 p.m.

The parents are pretty much a mess, and I fully understand that a lot of that has to do with keeping track of Johnny. But Johnny couldn’t be better!

Lucy at five years old is a bundle of unbelievable energy, and every once in a while she succumbs to exhaustion, curls up on the seat of a bouncing Landcruiser, and dives into a deep sleep.

Ryan at eleven years old never dozes, never grows tired, never loses his brilliant smile.

We saw more elephants than you can imagine during our two days at Tarangire. And one early morning encounter was with around 250. I had told the kids to be extremely quiet when we got close to elephants, not to move or make a sound, and that we’d then have a “close encounter of the pachyderm kind.”

And sure enough, 7-year old Nate got a picture of the eyelashes of an elephant. According to Nate, he could have touched the beast.
InsideABaobab.655.jun13
Released from the bondage of good game viewing the six Felsenthal kids (aged 5 – 11) make a presidential nominating rally seem like a dirge. But the amazing way they could turn off as animals got close was remarkable!

Tarangire is so pretty right now. The rains ended several weeks ago, although we’d occasionally get drizzled on and the skies were often heavily overcast. But from time to time when the sun broke out, the beauty of the green veld was stunning.

On to the crater! Stay tuned!

On Safari: Tarangire at its Best

On Safari: Tarangire at its Best

Tarangire proved as exciting as I expected, and we dodged the heavy rain, and as a result we achieved the optimum experience of the year for this wilderness.

You can go on safari virtually at any time of the year to East Africa and with good planning have the most memorable trip of your life. But if you’re willing to gamble a bit – which my clients don’t realize I’m always doing with their trip – then you can bingo out marvelously, and that’s what happened to us in Tarangire.

I like traveling during the rains, and I try to do so just before the heavy and debilitating rains start, and that’s the gamble. And in fact this year heavy rains have started .. early, and so stay tuned to see how the rest of the trip might unfold.

But what it means for Tarangire is that the most beautiful landscapes in Africa have been created. The great sand rivers flow, the white tissue paper flowers explode in the beautiful grasses next to the yellow hibiscus and purple mini-dahlias and the landscapes in the sky are overwhelming: sculpted by a storm forming over there and giant cumulus over there.

And, most importantly, the animals are at their supreme. Everybody’s fat and sassy. So we saw the four grand lion brothers with big bellies and magnificently washed black manes. We watched a male leopard stretch out his own belly in the morning sun. And of course for Tarangire, we watched and watched and watched elephants playing and fighting and vying for position.

We’ve been here hardly a full day and our elephant count is approaching a thousand. At this time of the year when fewer tourists come and the veld is fulsome with food, there are many playful babies and many great bulls fighting to mate.

And Tarangire is anomalous, magnificently wonderful for its sheer numbers of ele but they become so dense particularly now that their normal behaviors begin to break down.

Families mix readily. Teenagers form gangs and often wander far from the family, and I often wonder how they matriculate properly. With normal behaviors young males are kicked out of the family between 10 – 12 years old, and they must immediately associate with an older male that teaches them how to behave.

This was discovered sadly several decades ago when authorities in the Pilanesberg reserve in South Africa imported a score of young male ele who hadn’t been matriculated by older males. They killed quite a few of the other animals before they were corralled in and scientists began to study what had happened.

And that was when it was learned how important the mentoring of a younger male by an older male is. But in Tarangire the groups are so dense and the age groups often segregate together that I just wonder if there’s been any science about mentoring in conditions like these.

The roughly 3700 ele in the “northern sector” of the park are mostly resident. And we saw nearly fifty hardly fifty yards from the park entrance as they were mingling about staff quarters. These are wholly habituated animals that rarely leave the park, much less this small area.

But as we moved south to our camp, we saw the truly wild and magnificent wilderness elephant. On two occasions (since we were using the same tracks) a tailless female stopped us and really threatened us.

My clients behaved wonderfully. Not a whisper was said, and when she asked us to back up, we did slowly. But we persisted within her area of irritation, and eventually each time she let us pass.

But altogether we’ve seen nearly a thousand, playing in relatively deep pools at the side of Silale swamp, wallowing in mud, mounting in courtship, trumpeting playfully and in the expected aggression that is generated by so many animals living so closely together.

As you’ve read in other blogs, I think there are too many elephant in East Africa. And the sad part of the story were all the dead forests growing further and further from the main transit passes in the south. Trees killed by elephants: forests turning into savannah.

And of course the growing human/elephant conflict, perhaps the single greatest issue in the natural history world of East Africa today.

But like any gamble, the gamble nature is presently taking sustaining so many elephants is exciting to behold. We only hope the outcome is not a loss, but a win. And frankly, I don’t know either how to call how it will be, or how it could come to be.

But we experienced it, because we gambled with the weather and so far won.

On Safari: Tarangire Cats

On Safari: Tarangire Cats

Four lion brothers together for life is not unheard of, but quite unusual and we watched them in Tarangire today after they had mastered a huge kill.

The childrens books’ rendition of lion or the incomplete TV documentaries make people believe that every lion belongs to a pride headed by a grand master who only occasionally does temporary work for MGM.

But that’s not really the case. Lion prides are composed of almost any permutation of males and females of almost any number up to and sometimes exceeding twenty. Females once together generally stay together their entire lives, unless something like a harassing male forces one away perhaps while attempting to eat the lioness’ cubs.

But take any number of lions, any combination of male and female, and you constitute a pride. And today in Tarangire we saw four brothers, fat and sassy from the night’s kill, drinking in the Silale swamp.

Their bellies were bulging, their manes grand and disheveled, and several faces bloodied by the battle of the kill. One limped. One was tailless, perhaps the result of losing a colossal fight to one of his brothers for the right to go into a pride and mate.

We had not too much earlier seen two male cheetah – all of this along the Silale swamp. The cheetah struck me as unusually anxious, and that seemed odd as they are among the friendliest of the cats. But discovering the lions right down the road explained that.

Hartebeest, dozens of birds, and the inimical landscapes of Tarangire at dawn and sunset and even during the day. It’s been raining hard and the white morning glories are covering the veld, altering the somber view of a misty morning with absolute radiance.

One of my favorite moments early this morning was not just coming upon a family of ground hornbill, but arriving while they were still piping their organs! The sound of the ground hornbill carries for miles, so I’ve often heard it, but not up close. It’s usually only in the very early morning.

But here they were piping away hardly 20 meters from us, the deep organ note sound resonating so loudly there was nearly a fizz after each note. The commotion we learned was prompted by an aging juvenile who wanted the giant bullfrog his mother was carrying, and mom had decided he was old enough to get one himself.

So we watched as he complained and complained then finally with the speed of a cheetah darted at his mom practically turning her over and tearing the frog out of her mouth!

The organ pipe stopped.

On Safari : Still Too Many Ele

On Safari : Still Too Many Ele

Tarangire National Park is the perfect place to demonstrate there are too many elephants in the wild right now, and it didn’t fail to confirm the theory this time! We had exceptional game viewing based from a new, luxury lodge called ChemChem.

Our day and a half of game viewing in Tarangire probably encountered 500 or more elephant, but it’s so difficult to estimate. In one panorama I challenged everyone in the group to count the elephants we saw, and the numbers ranged from 120 to 180.

Traditional elephant behavior breaks down in Tarangire because there are so many elephants. Families don’t separate themselves from one another but often travel, forage and frolic in the river together.

We saw week-old babies and octogenarians. We saw good tusks and many bad tusks or little tusks. We saw many babies and watching the rest of the family protect these little guys is absolutely wonderful.

And protecting them is so hard to do! Especially when they get down to the river and insist on rolling well beyond when mother thinks it’s time to leave.

We stayed at a new lodge outside the park for our first several days in Tarangire, before moving into the park and staying at a great place inside. The lodge is called ChemChem and it’s the dream of several French investors and old African hands.

Placed between Tarangire and Manyara, the ChemChem property extends all the way to the shores of Lake Manyara, and the activities my group enjoyed were really fantastic.

They included a walk where we got remarkably close to impala, giraffe and zebra. I don’t allow walking if there are predators or elephants around, and ChemChem assured me there weren’t.

A fabulous bush breakfast, Maasai sundowner chorus and sundowner along the lake are all a standard part of the ChemChem fare.

We’ve had some very heavy rains. According to the folks here, it’s just the rebeginning of the rainy season which starts in November/December and continues straight through May, with a noticeable letup in February. Well, the letup is over.

It was wonderfully exciting to go to sleep in ChemChem’s marvelous tents to the performance of lightning, thunder and tumultuous rain. I’m of course glad for this, because it means the migration in Serengeti (if the rain continues that far) will start to concentrate.

On our first game drive towards our second camp in Tarangire, Swala, we encountered again numerous elephant, lion mating, leopard, hartebeest and I’m sure I’m forgetting lots more. It’s been a wonderful two days so far, with another to go, in Tanzania’s elephant park, Tarangire.

To Poach Is/Or To Cull

To Poach Is/Or To Cull

Is the extraordinary almost unbelievable reproductive rate of elephants in Tarangire National Park driving poaching?

Elephant researcher Charles Foley, whose principal research camp is located inside Tarangire National Park, reported this year that elephants that principally use Tarangire as their habitat are reproducing at a 7% rate.

For a large mammal that is nearly inconceivable. Reproductive rates vary in the extreme in the wild. This is principally because the reproductive rate is impacted so seriously by climate which immediately impacts food source. Wild animals tend not to breed when their normal habitat is disrupted.

And for the last several decades in Africa, “normal habitat” hardly exists except in a few well managed large reserves like Kruger in South Africa. But Kruger is famous for sustainable culling of big game, including giraffe, driven not by reproductive rates but the carrying capacity of the environment.

A stable wild animal population in a stable wild animal environment generally means that the animals which die, naturally or otherwise, are equally replaced by new births. In the Tarangire area we can speculate with some evidence that such a “stable” rate would be about 2%, not 7%.

But that population of elephants reproducing at a 7% rate isn’t growing. Why?

The short answer is poaching. There have been numerous articles recently on the increase in elephant poaching in Tanzania. See my last blog Friday for a summary.

There’s no other reasonable explanation. Tanzanian elephant management has been poor at best despite having some of the finest big game field researchers in the world. The failure lies squarely with the Tanzanian government, although it’s hard to argue their failures in wildlife management are any greater than in government across the board.

So despite many efforts to create elephant corridors that would widen dispersal of various populations (which in turn would complicate attempts to use reproductive rates for effective management) few of these corridors have been successfully implemented.

More or less the Tarangire population is contained. During the wet season a large portion of the herds move eastwards of the park. Individuals are reported traveling between Tarangire and Manyara (I’ve seen them myself on numerous occasions) but probably not in any sufficient numbers to validate dispersal theories.

A huge number of elephants are being poached.

But as I stated Friday and before, this is not a crisis that threatens the overall population, as was the case in the 1970s and 80s. In a weird and ironic way, one might postulate that poaching has become a current ecological component of a stable population.

That’s not a comfortable idea. And it doesn’t mean that poaching is good. But it does mean at least for the present that South African notions of management that aggressively embrace culling won’t work if poaching isn’t first contained.

But likewise, it means if poaching is contained, culling becomes immediately necessary.

It’s an extraordinary balancing act, and we all know that once poaching at this presumed level has become a part of a local culture, it’s near impossible to curtail. The likelihood that Tanzania could get it together in any reasonable period of time to actually limit poaching is as about as likely as finding a tiger in the Serengeti.

Poaching is not good for more reasons than breaking the specific laws against it. The sustained breaking of any laws leads to a lawless culture. The chain of sale of the ivory through the local middleman, corrupt politician and bribed cargo authority spreads anarchy through a social system. The pile of meat that’s left isn’t exactly inspected by local health officials before being dispersed through the community.

And the temper of the elephants being hunted down is exacerbated, and a calm elephant isn’t exactly a friendly beast to begin with.

So I’m not advocating allowing the status quo to continue. But I think it’s extremely important that everyone realize there are two very different sides to this management problem, and that dealing with one alone won’t work.

Poaching is no longer a separate issue from culling in Tanzania.

Dave’s Winning Video

Dave’s Winning Video

I am sent hundreds of hours of video and thousands of photos every year, and I love watching them all. But this takes the prize!

The prize winner is by one of the nicest guys I’ve ever guided on safari, Cleveland veterinarian, Dave Koncal. He is not a photographer or cinematographer by trade, but he has acquired a necessary skill that the vast majority of travelers don’t have: patience.

Dave doesn’t take 2-3 second clips then swerve the camera around. He’s not counting the megabytes clicking through his camera chip. He stays… focused and patient and I imagine he has hundreds of hours of video that he discards.

This is one clip that’s been passed around YouTube and throughout the universe of wildlife lovers. It’s definitely one that won’t be discarded!

We were in the crater at dawn. We’d just come down from Sopa Lodge and the sun was just rising. We had hardly reached the floor and had taken a right after the ranger’s hill before coming upon this night-time kill. The lions were gone, and the birds and hyaenas were having a heyday. Obviously, the lions had gone down to the Muigie River to drink, which they have to do after gorging themselves.

Nothing particularly unusual yet. This was a Cleveland Zoo safari, and by the end of the safari we would have seen nearly 120 lions and four kills.

But Dave was… patient! And as everyone else was starting to yawn:

Lions hate birds, hyaenas and everything else that disturbs their dominion over meat. But I had never seen, and probably never will again, a scene like this!

Here’s another fabulous Dave clip. It was around 8:30a and we’d been in Tarangire since dawn, traveling the east river road down from Sopa. We saw some lions along the river and a fabulous collection of elephant where the river swings out of the swamp near the broken bridge, and it had been pretty good game viewing all around.

We were hungry for breakfast, but had to get down to the south end of the swamp before turning up along the swamp edge to the picnic site at the north end, so we had a bit of a ways to go.

I don’t think I was alone in contemplating danishes, boiled eggs, bacon, sausage, cheeses, honey and marmalades, scrumptious Parker rolls, sizzling hot tea, coffee, hot chocolate, yoghurt, lots of fresh fruit… well, you get the picture.

We were in the lead car when our track was blocked by a humongous ele. I knew that if we didn’t do something, she’d just stay there all day proving her dominance. She was just not going to move. Her youngster had just moved in front of her into the bush, and she was a proud lady. Well, as you can see, we finally made a move:

It was one of the few times on safari that Dave stopped filming! So I guess I’ll finish the story:

We forgot about the danishes.

Tarangire Zebra?!

Tarangire Zebra?!

Our experience in Tarangire with elephants was nothing short of fantastic. But Tarangire is morphing: there’s much more, now, than just ele.

Our two days with the Cleveland Zoo safari in Tarangire probably encountered as many as 800 elephants. On our second day alone we counted upwards of 500, and it was extremely exciting. Ele in the northern end of the park are more accustomed to visitors, and so we were able to get quite close. But those we found in the center to the south, especially around the Silale swamp, have seen many fewer visitors, and they were very wild. Several times we left the track to give wide reign to these wild, southern ele in the road.

It used to be that Tarangire was just an “elephant park.” But as we would learn on the second day that the Cleveland Zoo spent in Tarangire from the eminent researcher, Charles Foley, the 6% elephant population growth over the last decade or so is transforming its landscape.

We saw thousands of zebra. The number of zebra rivaled some of the congregations I’ve seen during the Serengeti migration. And they, too, were healthy, enjoying the mostly dead but considerable grass that was found throughout the area.

And… yes, hundreds maybe a thousand, wildebeest. So Tarangire is morphing: from what I remember as a dense forest to a mixed ecosystem. And for us that means the excitement of the world’s best elephant sanctuary is being complemented by a growing diversity of plains game.

Zoo director, Steve Taylor, had arranged a visit during our time in Tarangire with the eminent elephant researcher, Charles Foley, at his research camp in the park. Foley explained that the forests are being leveled by an increasing elephant population, and that has opened up large areas of savannah grasslands for other animals like zebra and wildebeest.

I’ve heard Foley explain this before, and although he expresses a noninterventionist conservation policy, I’m not sure whether he thinks this is good or bad. But for us in tourism, and at least for now, it seems to be good.

True to our expectations, by the way, Tarangire was dry but not in a drought. In fact, as we left, there were raindrops on our windshield. The park was a quilt of some very dry areas with some green areas, and the swamp was much dryer than in year’s past, but the river was running well and the animals were mostly healthy. Only once or twice did we encounter elephant families that were physically stressed. And even the buffalo populations – which are often the first to show food deprivation – were grand and healthy.

Wild Intervention

Wild Intervention

The Cleveland Zoo supports an important elephant researcher in Tarangire, Charles Foley, and we visited him in his camp in Tarangire.

Foley is an independent researcher who has worked in Tarangire for 16 years. He is among a handful of north-of-southern-Africa researchers with an impressive knowledge of how elephants effect and interact with their ecosystem.

In southern Africa there are more, and more organized and interacting, animal researchers, but in our dear East Africa it’s still pretty much a free-for-all. There are a number of often competing big name research organizations like AWF and WWF that vie for funding. The advantage of more cooperation would probably result in a better efficiency of research funding.

But at the same time this independent spirit has – I believe – contributed to the noninterventionist philosophy that I personally embrace. There is a more homogenous attitude towards the wild in the south, and it often revolves around “carrying capacity” notions of managing the wild.

But here in the east, there is strong support for noninterventionism.

During our visit Foley once again expressed his own view of not intervening in the wild. He spoke about the current drought and past droughts as cycles that will ultimately correct themselves without any interference.

Much of this comes from his Ph.D research that identified elephant populations that were old enough to transmit how to survive in a drought to their offspring. And those that survived, of course, would prosper in the subsequent populations and be better able to survive the next drought as well.

While Foley and I seem to embrace the same general hands-off attitude to the wild, there is a contradiction that appears when he discusses one of his current projects.

Foley is working hard to organize the communities just east of Tarangire to allow for animal migrations to and fro from the park. He has determined that the grasslands east of the park are actually more nutritious for most animal populations, but that the reason they must gravitate to the park especially in the dry season is because of the Tarangire sand river and important minerals that aren’t found to the east.

His projects pay the Maasai communities for not developing the land east of the park, and for allowing the animals to seasonally roam on them (as they have done naturally for generations). As with many Community Based Tourism (CBT) projects throughout East Africa, he is arguing that the community’s wild land can be as profitable by not developing agriculture as by doing so. Instead of getting money for your potatoes at the market, you get money from the tourists who want to photograph wild animals.

Well and good. I have often written about CBT projects, and everything we can do to support this I believe is the right thing to do.

But it abuts the noninterventionist philosophy.

Take the current situation in Amboseli, for example, where a savage drought has seen as much as 90% of the resident elephant population leave. (This according to researchers in the Cynthia Moss camp, there, speaking to participants on my July safari. Click here for Moss’ own account. )

Moss is appealing for funds to set up more research camps and assist further with anti-poaching activities. Some would argue this is interventionism.

But there can be no question that what Kenya’s Wildlife Service is now doing is interventionism: KWS feels it must counter the effect of the drought. Click here for current details.

Without reaction of the sort KWS is now employing to a crisis situation, a drought could decimate animal populations, and possibly for a long time. Ergo, no tourists or tourist revenue for anything, much less a project to increase dispersal areas.

The cycle underpinning Foley’s CBT project in eastern Tarangire is that hoteliers in the park will pay Maasai outside the park to support the animal population in the park that draws tourists. But the absence of a dispersal area is no greater a threat to healthy animal populations than a drought.

One circumstance is wholly natural, the other less so. But making this distinction as to when interventionism is justified is a daunting task, and possible only if you believe that the weather is more capricious than development schemes for the Maasai.

Fabulous Tarangire

Fabulous Tarangire

While much of the rest of East Africa is suffering in the midst of a serious drought, Tarangire though dry is still fabulous.

We entered the national park in the late afternoon at the northern gate, and we’d traveled hardly three minutes before we encountered the Watermelon Club.

The watermelon club is composed of 20 or so magnificent and giant elephant bulls that in a truly wild situation would not be hanging out, together. Now mind you, I think Tarangire is one of the wildest parks in Africa, but inevitably the park ends and civilization begins.

Tarangire’s civilization is composed of a lot of watermelon farms. We know from the elephant dung that a lot of these watermelons are ending up in the bellies of 6-ton tuskers. During the day the hang around the northern edge of the park and don’t seem to mind the thousands of photographs that ensue. They sleep, meander a bit, knock down a few trees, and wait for sunset.

Then, they raid the area’s watermelon farms. It may seem comical to us visitors, but it’s anything but funny to the farmers. It’s become a serious regional issue. Researchers like Anna Estes are trying to document the incidents and figure out what to do.

Everyone loved the encounter and we headed a bit more quickly than we intended to down to the river. Like all the freshwater rivers I’ve seen in East Africa this year, it’s flowing well. This one is born in the Silale Swamp, which the next day we would find appearing dry. Yet it’s flowing well. Similar to Mzima Springs and later, the streams that run into a now nearly completely dry lake in Ngorongoro Crater. Is this late rain? Or more ominously, the slow desertification of East Africa?

We continued along the river and encountered huge numbers of zebra, beautiful light, many giraffe, more ele and buffalo. The park was fabulous for both our days, here. It was also, VERY COLD. People don’t think of Africa as cold, no matter what our preparatory literature might tell them, and the truth is that it isn’t snowing. It’s more like the upper 50s. But without the air-conditioning and heating that we’re all accustomed to at home, the upper 50s feels like it’s snowing!

Pulled into Sopa at 7 p.m. Gathered at just before 8 p.m. and had a wonderful debriefing and then a pretty simple if awful dinner. Afterwards, Conor wanted to talk, so I did, including learning about his proposed bike trip across Mauritania. Didn’t get to bed until 10:30p and slept like a log.

Our second morning we were out at 6 a.m. in the BITTER COLD. But what a reward we had at the Silale swamp. Before we returned around 1 p.m. we’d seen about 200 elephant and as many buffalo. I was with Carl, Tim, Marley and Conor, and the others really empowered Carl and I to bird, so we found chinspot batis, red-faced crombec, crowned hornbill and all sorts of other things.

For “team mammal” we saw honey badger, not an easy find.

In the afternoon we were going to take it casually and end up on Tarangire Hill for the sunset, but as I was riding along in Tumaini’s car, we got word that a leopard was on display at Silale – exactly where we’d been that afternoon. We raced over the Boundary Hill Ridge and sure enough, a beautiful big female leopard was on display in classic pose on a lower branch of an acacia. It was stupendous. Charles raced back then again to the lodge to retrieve Hayley, who had stayed behind, so that everyone finally got a view of this most elusive of the cats.

We then completed our plan, perhaps faster than we should have, but there was time for everyone to stick their head into the hollow trunk of the Poacher’s Baobab, and to click quite a few pictures of a beautiful landscape and sunset from Tarangire Hill. That should have been it, but it wasn’t.

The road off the hill is tangled in high now leafless bush. It’s a narrow road, and we found that dusk was a time that the elephants used the road to climb the hill for the night. We waited in my car a long time before coasting silently down the road, but it didn’t work. One large female trumpeted and charged, stopping just meters from our car.

Tarangire’s wooded landscapes are beautiful. Its elephants are unbelievable and exciting, and the terrain including Silale Swamp one of the most magnificent on the circuit.

Bingo at Tarangire

Bingo at Tarangire

Yes, it’s dry, and that’s when Tarangire really performs. And boy, how it did on this safari!

We flew into the Kuro airstrip after several event less flights from Samburu, arriving in mid-afternoon with my Tanzanian crew waiting patiently. When we were flying in, I noticed a huge number of elephant at the Silale swamp, so about half of us went straight there.

No disappointment doing so. We saw about 250 elephant, and on the way back to Sopa Lodge there were a few charges, a couple hundred buffalo, untold numbers of impala, and in the fading light of the day, a mother lion with two cubs!

Tarangire is becoming a better and better park. Once thought to be extremely seasonal, good only when the dry season attracted the large number of elephant, it’s really matured into an all-year park.

Despite the guidebook remarks that it remains seasonal, I’ve seen hundreds of elephant here in the middle of the rainy season. But yes, in the dry season it’s unbelievable! We saw perhaps a total of a thousand elephant during our two days, here.

Ellery, Zancy and their mother, Joannie, and I were with my driver, Winston, for the next morning when we explored the northern half of the park. I can’t say a lot for the quality of Sopa Tarangire, but its location is the best of any lodge or tented camp in the park. It allows us to explore both the southern (Silalae) and northern halves in two days. It really isn’t possible to do so at any other lodge or tented camp.

We left at 630a with a box breakfast and headed along the eastern river road. Later, when the group visited the famous elephant researcher, Charles Foley, at his camp in the north, we’d learn that there is really a division between the elephants in the north and south, and that they rarely intermingle.

We had seen quite a few elephant before turning down the Lemiyon circuit onto the black cotton soil plains in the northeast sector. There we encountered large numbers of zebra and wildebeest, and then, 19 lion! Tarangire has only recently begun to support such large prides.

We then headed down a gully road and I saw a massive bull elephant coming down the road towards us at the top of the hill. We stopped under a tree, fully shaded. The wind was with us, off the ele. Ellery, Zancy and Joannie were terrific. There wasn’t a peep or a movement.

The ele came lumbering towards us unaware of our presence and stopped only about ten feet away. After a moment’s hesitation he drew nearer.

Zancy was standing up through the open top of the Landcruiser opposite the driver, Winston, and I was right behind him. The ele came up to the rover and put his trunk on the hood. I could no longer see the sky. All I could see was elephant.

Zancy didn’t move or utter a sound, but his eyes popped out of his head and his jaw dropped to his already very low Bermuda shorts. None of us moved. The ele scraped around the right side of the car and snorted. Ellery’s massive curls got a moment’s unexpected spa-like blow dry. Then, he went away.

Old bull elephants are always easier to encounter like this than younger ones, or females, or any in a group. But it’s not something you do casually, and it’s not something to be done without the utter discipline that my wonderful clients exuded on this terrific morning with the ele!

Tarangire Elephants

Tarangire Elephants

Tarangire’s elephant game viewing is excellent year-round. It simply can no longer be considered a seasonal destination.

It was drier than when I visited the park only 12 days ago. Then there were many pools of standing water and a lush green veneer covered everything. For our visit this time it was still green, but much less water and dust followed every vehicle.

We left Tarangire Treetops before dawn with our picnic lunch. The drive to the gate is about an hour and was pretty uneventful, although the morning sunrise was spectacular. After we entered the park, Blair Devermont spotted a leopard.

She was gesturing to us wildly as we approached from behind, but the leopard slid away into the tall grass before we got a chance to see it. Leopard are skittish everywhere, but especially in Tarangire. This was a hunting reserve less than 20 years ago, and it takes multiple generations of leopard to become accustomed to game viewing vehicles.

We continued around the Silale Swamp road and enjoyed our picnic lunch at one of the finest picnic sites in all of Tanzania’s parks. New bathrooms, a beautiful area on a hillside overlooking the great swamp, and all shaded by magnificent trees. It’s the perfect spot for my lecture on Stanley and Livingstone, since all the great explorers coming from Zanzibar had to cross swamps like this.

We then proceeded up the track on the east side of the Tarangire sand river. It wasn’t long before we saw elephants. Similar to most game viewing, successful elephant viewing requires absolute quiet. I’m convinced of all these magnificent animals’ special senses, hearing is the most acute. They tolerate the whole gamut of car noises, but the variety of human voices is infinitely greater and disturbs them.

This doesn’t always mean angers them, although it can. But more often, it means that the game viewing experience will just not be as good. The matriarch will simply lead her family away from you.

Our group behaved magnificently! The first group of two families of 17 included a number of very young babies that performed as if in a school play! And we then saw a group of 50 coming from a mud bath towards the river. We positioned the vehicles carefully, maintained absolutely silence, and had one of the finest encounters I’ve ever experienced!

We returned to Treetops via the Boundary Hill track, one of the most beautiful little cuts through park woodlands in Tanzania. On the way back outside the park we stopped for pictures of everyone’s head through a hole in a baobab. The baobabs are magnificent in Tarangire, like the sunsets and sunrises, natural dynamic sculptures incapable of being plated on a photograph or painting.

My nephew, Tim Heck, smiles a lot, but I began to worry that he had some physical disease. He is a Blue Man in Chicago, capable at the end of each performance of standing in front of throngs of taunting people expressionless as directed. But he simply can’t do that here. Every time I see him, he’s smiling!

That evening we had sundowners overlooking Tarangire from a bluff near the lodge. To our north was the great Rift Valley escarpment with shimmering Lake Manyara at its base. To the east were the formidable hills of Monduli, and to our south, the beginning of the extensive Maasai steppe. The sun settled through the clouds like a curtain being drawn over the evening mist. This is a raucous and boisterous crowd, but I think I remember a moment or two of complete silence as the three-quarters moon appeared.

Yr-Round Tarangire

Yr-Round Tarangire

Don’t consider Tarangire only a seasonal park any longer.

For several years, now, I’ve been writing how wonderful Tarangire National Park is at any time of the year. So many guide books claim otherwise. They’re wrong.

Until the early 1980s, Tarangire was a hunting preserve. The 2200 sq. miles is the best elephant habitat in all of northern Tanzania and Kenya. It’s even better than Amboseli, which is famous for elephants.

One of my clients, Hans Wede, a successful “numbers” businessman from Denmark, estimated that we saw 500 elephants during our three game drives in the park. We saw fights, got charged, saw a half dozen newborns, watched a family for 40 minutes taking a mud bath and generally had one of the finest elephant viewing experiences I’ve myself had in 37 years!

And this is supposed to be the time you don’t go to Tarangire, because the elephants aren’t here.

In many regards, Tarangire is more like a southern than East African wilderness. It is heavily wooded and defined by its great Tarangire sand river and a number of other smaller sand rivers that flow into the Tarangire.

We spent the last two days in Tarangire avoiding elephants. We saw a lot more than just elephants, by the way, including a magnificent male lion (and several more females), lots of bat-eared fox and jackal, giraffe, lots of impala, zebra, buffalo, klipspringer and Tarangire’s outstanding birdlife. At the campfire during sundowners, my clients watched a leopard walk by. But elephants were the feature.

This is the wet season. Now admittedly there are some disadvantages to coming now: very hot, very humid, wet with great thunderstorms, and all this means more and more tse-tse fly. But it also means it’s a beautiful time. The veld is lush and green, the sand river is flowing and drawing all the migrant shore birds, and the forests are abloom with the earliest orchids.

And, contrary to virtually all the popular guide books, there are lots and lots of elephants!

Like so much in East African tourism, the notion that Tarangire is a seasonal park is based in early fact that was never revised as conditions changed. A half century ago when safari tourism began we were confronted with the catastrophic slaughter of elephants. Ninety-five percent of Kenya’s elephants were wiped out; probably 60% of Tanzania’s.

Those that remained were understandably skittish. Their behavior kept them away from people as much as possible. Sand rivers, like Tarangire, were their only source for water in the dry season, so they had to come to the sand rivers, then, even if tourists were waiting to watch them. Water flows nearly continuously under the sand, even in the driest times, and elephants then dig for it.

(My safari group this time even noticed that the elephants preferred to dig for water, even when it was flowing not far from their holes! We were at Samburu earlier, and that area is very dry right now in contrast to Tarangire. There were areas of streaming water in the Ewaso Nyiro sand river, but on one game drive we noticed that the elephants actually preferred to dig holes further down stream where no surface water was streaming. The filtered water through the sand is cleaner and sweeter than surface water.)

When the wet season came and water was everywhere, the elephants abandoned the sand rivers for locations with fewer people.

That’s no longer necessary. The elephant population has rebounded and elephant poaching is well under control. And Tarangire’s ecosystem beyond its sand river is great for elephant. So while there may, indeed, be even a more spectacular elephant experience in the dry season (July – November), you’d find that difficult to explain to my client, Joyce Hassell, who had a 5-ton bull’s ears practically wrapped around her Landrover. Or to my other client, Jodi Eckenhoff, who figures she took about as many pictures of elephant as we decided we’d seen: 500!