OnSafari: Eles & Climate Change

OnSafari: Eles & Climate Change

Hans Wede in Tarangire.
Hans Wede in Tarangire.
Elephants up close but safely is what our Tarangire experience was all about!

I was in Tarangire two weeks ago as the drought broke, and it seems like the rains ever since have been especially hard.

I wouldn’t say “relentless,” but according to the folks there it was sure close to relentless. The 6-week drought was serious, and among the exploding grass and deep green of the park are sand straws and dead twigs.

Drought/flood/drought/flood seems to be the new normal here, and it was absolutely not normal in the old days.

Now staying in the farming community of Karatu it’s crazy to see all the vibrant almost luminescent green of the valleys and hillsides that frames corn fields of nearly failed crops.

A farmer in Illinois can handle climate change a lot better than a farmer in Karatu. The animals in Tarangire are handling it just fine … so far, as evidenced by the enormous numbers of very healthy elephant with many, many very young babies.

In fact a random family of elephant in Tarangire is likely to have a new-born, several 2- and 3-year olds, a 5-year old or two, and at least one 8-year old. That suggests a long streak of health.

Lucas Massimini bargaining at Mto-wa-Mbu.
Lucas Massimini bargaining at Mto-wa-Mbu.
The amount of water falling on the equatorial regions of the world is increasing. But it now comes in periods of unbelievable cloudbursts spaced by drought. The result is devastating for African farmers.

Erosion is unbelievable. Overgrazing which has been a problem for decades, is exacerbated and the stock gets sick quickly from feast and famine, something that a lion can do but a Guernsey cannot.

Our elephant encounters in Tarangire were terrific. I spaced our two vehicles among three families that were near the track not far from Silale, and we just sat there for nearly an hour.

We watched the babies slip and slide, the toddlers wrestle, the young males trumpet, random trees felled for seemingly little reason, and sadly, a very old and big female out of habit pull up grass and stuff it into her mouth but then drop it because she had no more teeth left for chewing.

Less than two months ago I was in Botswana which I often see reported as the world’s best elephant experience. It’s excellent for sure, but as I’ve been saying for at least ten years now, the best elephant experience is Tarangire!

Next: Manyara & the crater!

OnSafari: Terrific Tarangire!

OnSafari: Terrific Tarangire!

WildDogTarangireFirst game drive Tarangire: 7 lions, leopard, maybe 300 (?) elephant, tons of impala, waterbuck … oh, before I forget, 17 wild dog.

The top half of the picture above shows a portion of that family zonked out towards the end of the day. They’d killed that morning and were basically sleeping it off.

Several weeks ago Steve Taylor leading an earlier EWT safari spotted wild dog in the Serengeti!

I think this marks the turnaround point for wild dog, and the successful work that several American zoos have been doing to stabilize their populations.

Zoos like Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo have painstakingly convinced Maasai who live on the periphery of the park to get their dogs vaccinated … free. It’s no easy job. (See bottom half of picture above.)

But the hard work has paid off. By vaccinating the peripheral dogs, wild dogs are staging a bounce back more resilient than expected.

Our safari stayed in the center of Tanzania, which I do with some trepidation this late in March because of the rains. But this year it’s been unusually dry. It’s not yet a crisis, but the veld looks like October more than March.

The Silale Swamp was only half green. We experienced sprinkles and I kept looking at the sky’s growing clouds wondering if the much needed rains would return.

It was also unusually hot. Humid, hot and extended dry conditions means more tse-tse and it was really among my worst experiences. But my travelers were incredible, never complaining, spraying on the DEET and getting on with the business of game viewing.

Jane & Lyle Krug
Jane & Lyle Krug
It was fantastic. Tarangire rarely disappoints because of its enormous elephant population, but we had a gorgeous view of a nearly full grown male leopard in a tree right beside the road within about ten minutes of starting our game drive!

We’d flown into the Kuro airstrip so we were in the midst of the park. The leopard was in perfect view on a dead tree looking with aggravation at a nearby herd of impala. I say aggravation because he, too, had a giant belly and had no need to hunt.

Perhaps the impala knew!

We had a single encounter with truly wild elephant that are mostly transitory south of the Kuro airstrip. It was hilarious. We rather surprised a single family, and one female who was nibbling on a smaller acacia tree was so startled that she ripped the entire tree out of the ground and ran off!

The hundreds if not thousands of elephant we saw were mostly the sedentary group north of Kuro. They tend not to move in and out of the park, content with the space and habitat. More docile than very wild elephant, it allowed us numerous wonderful encounters.

I think everyone was particularly pleased as we watched three very young elephant rough house for nearly 15 minutes.

They “jumped” on one another, rolled each other, butted each other … I put quotes around jump because that’s virtually impossible for an elephant to do, but I really believe I saw that youngster fully airborn if for only a nano second.

I’ve noticed that most of the southern European and western Asian bird migrants haven’t yet left (like the Eurasian Roller and Steppe Eagle [buzzard]), whereas most of the central and northern European migrants have (Adim Stork, Eurasian bee-eater). Don’t know if that means anything – please leave a comment if you think you understand this.

We left Tarangire hurriedly so that we’d have enough time to see Manyara from top to bottom, entering from the remote southern gate. It’s a spectacular drive through rural Tanzanian countryside, including intense small farming of rice and corn.

Manyara, too, was dry but it was wonderful as we left late in the day to see the thunderstorms forming.

Now, onto the Crater!

On Safari: Too Close for Comfort

On Safari: Too Close for Comfort

TooCloseThree leopards, hundreds of elephant, five lion, dozens of giraffe and an unexpectedly large number of zebra featured the Kisiel Family’s first two days on safari.

Tarangire is usually the first game park I take my families to. It’s relatively close to Arusha, never fails to produce the best elephant viewing on the continent regardless of the time of year, and is simply a great introduction to game viewing.

That proved true, again, and it also lets me explain the complex situation that exists with elephant, today.

In my view there are too many elephant. That doesn’t mean there are more elephant than ever, or that there isn’t a serious problem of poaching, but it means that the habitat left to ele today is simply not large enough for them.

This seemed self-evident to me about a decade ago when normal elephant behaviors began to break down, and it was most demonstrable in Tarangire.

In the past elephant families rarely mixed. If there was a water hole or wallow of interest by multiple families, they each too their turn, giving wide berth to the other families.

Every day in Tarangire multiple families are seen together. And there is obvious agitation but ultimate acceptance that multiple families must at least temporarily merge. Although it’s hard to use anecdotal evidence and my observations are no means rigorous science, I definitely believe what I and my clients see every single time I come here is an indication there are too many ele.

And, of course, all you have to do is pull up some of the local chatter and blogs of farmers, clergymen and school teachers who live near ele reserves like Tarangire.

So this is a time throughout East Africa to be particularly cautious about ele.

So you can imagine how I felt when the manager and staff of Tarangire Sopa Lodge where we’re staying seemed incapable of keeping three ele from nearly entering reception, playing around with the lawn hose, and walking up and down the balconies of the rooms as if they were checking the serial numbers on the patio windows.

This is courting disaster. And it’s hard to explain this to my clients. The kids, especially, thought it was “cool” and they’re right, it was thrilling and clearly not something you’d expect.

But it’s also dangerous. One security man threw a few rocks at the ele, but no one turned off the water, no one seemed to have a elephant horn (a loud screaming high pressure device that sometimes works) and no one offered or perhaps was trained to shot a blank above their heads.

So they lingered throughout most of the afternoon, making it difficult for me to keep the kids out of their sight.

We had a great time in Tarangire, and I’m glad to say a safe one as well. We had wonderful ele encounters out on the game drives, getting remarkable close to those we judged safe.

But if lodges and camps can’t figure out a way to keep familiarity at bay, disaster is around the next corner.

As she walked past my verandah and over to the verandah where Ryan, Hadley, Sophie and Cam were watching her, I remembered a number of horrible stories about what elephants can do and have done to me and my clients.


On Safari: A Real Work of Art

On Safari: A Real Work of Art

typical tarangireTarangire is the best elephant wilderness in all of Africa, but it carries the burden of enormous controversy.

Last year I was trapped inside Tarangire with my group and had to go suffer the logistical and financial horror of chartering two aircraft for a 9-minute flight from the central Tarangire airstrip to the Manyara airstrip.

It began to look like a decision had to be made: the best possible migration experience (which is now) and therefore, no Tarangire. We were trapped because the park’s bridges are not designed to work in the middle of the rainy season, which is when the migration is at its best.

But it kept gnawing at me that here we would be, in northern Tanzania, yes poised to experience the most dramatic wildlife spectacle on earth (the great wildebeest migration), right next door to Africa’s best elephant wilderness.

So I decided to arrange a “tentative day.”

I hired two sets of vehicles for Monday morning. My set went the night before to Tarangire to scope out the situation, to try to cross the problematic river and to let me know the next day if it was safe to come.

The second set took us all to the West Kilimanjaro airstrip near our beautiful Ndarakwai Ranch where we’d begun our trip.

And I would tell the pilot where to fly us!

It worked!

Tarangire was open, the river was down, and we flew into the center of the park on a short 35-minute flight. The rest of the day we spent exploring the northern half of the park.

Needless to say, we saw elephants. I estimated at least five hundred, but if we included the ones we could see in the distances, it could have been twice that.

There are too many elephant in East Africa, and there are too many elephant in Tarangire. But what a beautiful sight!

The scene and the fundamental problem causing it are as disjunct as any spectacular art work from the value a collector will pay for it.

We knew there were too many elephant as we left the park and saw the pitiful attempts by local farmers to discourage elephant from destroying their land and crops. “Scarecrows” that could hardly keep out an ostrich much less an elephant.

As I’ve often written, the “elephant problem” when seen from the point of view of a Tanzanian is quite different than the poaching problem perceived by the outsider.

While there is a poaching problem, there is also the problem of there being too many elephant, and that to the local Tanzanian, is the main problem. No one wants to discourage tourists and scientists who are helping to save their fragile environment.

But you’ve got to consider the kids walking to school, the farmer who depends year to year on a good crop, and the village counselor trying to connect his borehole to the citizen homes.

So the “scene” is today almost indescribably beautiful. But there is a problem that scene portends, and it’s a very serious one.

We saw much more in Tarangire, of course, than just the spectacular elephant. Hundreds of impala, dozens of giraffe, hundreds of baboon, zebra, wildebeest, mating lion … all in one of East Africa’s most expansive landscapes.

And at the end of the day we left the park before the rivers kept us in! It was a beautiful, color rich day. On to Manyara!

Let the Safari Begin!

Let the Safari Begin!

The safari calendar in East Africa resets each year at the end of November, and the news that has poured in from our safaris just keeps getting better and better. 2014 may be an exceptionally outstanding year for safaris!

The latest bit came from safari traveler Loren Smith traveling on a safari EWT arranged for the Cleveland Zoological Society. You can see Loren’s fabulous video above.

The first is the only disturbing one: there continue to be too many elephants, but let me get that single negative out quickly. I’ve been warning of a growing elephant conflict for more than a decade in East Africa. My blogs are replete with the problems and endless attempts at solutions.

The “elephant problem” has become a political problem in East Africa. Candidates for political office in both Kenya and Tanzania now often have planks in their platform regarding what to do about elephants.

My concern is that there will be overreach. And as I’ve often written, the exaggeration and bad analysis of the elephant poaching problem in the west isn’t helping.

But I can assure you that on safari the effect is nothing less than exhilarating as you can tell from Loren’s video. I show minute:second time points below in the video corresponding to my remarks:

Loren traveled in the last half of February, which over the last forty years of good climate statistics suggests should be much drier than shown in his first shots in Arusha National Park.

Typically the entire first half of the year is a wet season in northern Tanzania, but in February the precipitation abates at times almost completely. If you were planning your trip strictly by statistics, Loren’s video would have had little green in it.

Global warming has been changing this steadily for almost a decade, and as you can see by the green bushes, it’s not dry.

It’s hard for animals to be affected negatively by too much rain. But it definitely affects people, and that’s been one of the continuing stories in the equatorial regions of the planet as global warming progresses.

Tarangire is bit drier, which is always the case. Arusha is the wilderness around Africa’s 5th highest mountain and when it’s wet, it’s always wetter there. Tarangire is actually an ecosystem more similar to southern Africa than East Africa and is the only northern Tanzanian wilderness defined by a sand river ecology.

This lady has just eaten and washed herself off, which is why she is so close to the water in Silale Swamp. We can speculate about the three new lacerations on her hide. Two are just above her left hip and if you watch closely you’ll actually see a larger one on the far backside, middle of her left hip.

Lions gorge themselves when eating. Their very inferior molars are almost useless. They don’t chew much. They tear and swallow huge hunks of meat. A 400-pound male lion can easily chow down 70 pounds in a sitting. That extends the belly and makes it droop and is often confused in females as being pregnant.

So what caused the problem? We can only speculate but I think she was in a tussle with hyaenas, and the lacerations are the hyaena nips. In this area of the Silale Swamp there are four very grand males and for some reason they aren’t very welcoming of females. It could also have been a fight with the males.

Tarangire is actually where I think the best elephant experiences should be had, but Loren obviously had a fabulous one at nearby Lake Manyara National Park!

Notice the small tusks on this elephant, the legacy of the horrible years of elephant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s. As the video progresses we’ll see some better and longer tusks, because the elephant population is definitely on the increase and growing healthier.

Manyara was where the very first substantial elephant research was carried out in the 1950s by the famous Ian Douglas Hamilton. In those days there was no place on earth with as many and as healthy elephants as Manyara.

Junior here has a short branch in the back of his mouth. Elephant get a new set of molars about every ten years and like all good kids, he’s got to massage those tender gums!

What we see in Loren’s video is a large mass of transitory elephants: they’re moving through Manyara. They don’t live here as Hamilton’s elephants did in the last century. You can tell this by the way many multiple families are grouped together.

In a totally calm and balanced system, elephant families tend not to group. But when they’re on the move they do.

Tarangire provides a massive corridor to elephants south into central Tanzania’s great wildernesses of Ruaha and Rukwa. They move northwest from Tarangire into Manyara, and from Manyara they moved in very narrow corridors into Ngorongoro where they can then spread out widely into the Serengeti and Mara.

It isn’t that elephant are breeding so rapidly that their numbers are bulging. Poaching has been on the increase and the growth rate of the population is not high. But human encroachment is on a rapid increase, so their habitat is shrinking.

And more than ever, they have to move. Loren’s video is a magnificent documentary of this.

Until recently Ngorongoro Crater had the highest density of lion in Africa, but we need new studies since the rapid decline in lion was documented a few years ago. Even so, it is probably still one of the best places on earth to see lion.

These are two juvenile males, and despite their bravado they’re having a hard time. Look at their bellies and then look at their muddy feet. Lion like cats all over hate water.

Something was in the marsh that seemed like easy pickings, but they even missed that.

In a balanced population in the wild there are many fewer males than female lions. This is because so many young juveniles like these die of starvation. Unlike the sisters in their litter, they aren’t taught to hunt by the mothers.

But also unlike their sisters who usually remain with the mothers, the males are kicked out before they’re fully mature. A fully mature male is 50% bigger than a female, and nature’s way among lions to avoid inbreeding is to kick out the teenage males before they get as big as mom.

They have to teach themselves to hunt. Obviously enough learn, but these kids don’t seem to be doing so well. You might think what a pretty mane the one has. What I notice is their ribs and boney haunches. When the one starts to call, I think that’s a real hunger pain or possibly a pointless message to Mom for help.

The video ends in the central Serengeti and notice how wet the track is. Good for the critters to be sure. Not so good for the farmers.

Thanks Loren for an outstanding quick story of Tanzania’s wilderness in 2014!

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.
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.