And on The Other Side

And on The Other Side

Weather you kill me or not, the world is spinning out of control. 3 dead in South Africa from heavy snow and cold; more than 100 die in my Midwest from heat.

I’ve had a lot of fun in my career surprising people with the facts of weather in Africa. Most Americans grow up believing Africa is the hot jungle it isn’t.

Most of sub-Saharan Africa has a statistical climate far milder and much more pleasant than many parts of North America, especially by own Midwest: Less hot in summer, less cold in winter, and much less severity.

Global warming is an extreme phenomenon. That means it just doesn’t get warmer each moment, it ping pongs from warmest to coldest, driest to wettest. The graph line trend is up and wetter, but the ride is anything but smooth.

Johannesburg’s longitude is exactly reversed to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, or the tip of Texas. It’s in winter now, and snow is not unheard of. There’s even a single ski resort! However, it’s closed at the moment, because there’s too much snow.

Over the weekend, three people died from radical winter weather. National highways are gridlocked, the main and only highway between Johannesburg and the country’s third largest city, Durban, closed yesterday afternoon because of snow.

Record low temperatures and record amounts of snow has casued much of the country to shut down Monday and wait for the thaw predicted for tomorrow.

And while this version of winter is extremely rare in the Johannesburg area, in the interior of the country it’s virtually unheard of. The Cape, for example, sits above the planet’s warmest body of water, the Indian Ocean. But today, even The Cape is frozen by winter weather.

A lovely highland pass between Cape Town and the famous “Garden Route” that so many tourists drive is closed because of ice and snow.

Meanwhile back here in the balmy Midwest I sat outdoors yesterday evening with friends for a performance of Richard III in Spring Green, Wisconsin. We ended the evening feeling like we’d been hit by a truck.

It’s the heat to be sure, but the psychological effect of this relentless heat, driving past miles and miles of lost corn, seeing nothing but brown is enough to add ten degrees to the already scorched thermometer.

And today we in the Midwest begin three days of “hazardous weather” heat. The bland looking national weather warning uses industry jargon to describe the unusual and deadly situation as “headlines.”

Much of South Africa is no worse prepared for climate change than we are in the Midwest, which isn’t saying a lot. But of significantly more urgency is the fact that the vast majority of Africa is far less capable of dealing with this extreme weather.

Weather or not you kill me, you’ll likely first kill the Africans.

Derecho Doom

Derecho Doom

The heat, fire, floods and storms are not normal; we did not evolve to live in this. Finally it’s hitting us the way Africans have been clobbered for years.

Wake up! The Washington Post today had the courage to say it: This Is Global Warming.

The meekness with which we morphed “global warming” into “climate change” amazes me. Call a spade a spade! Kudus to the Post and everyone with the courage to speak the truth.

Our increased technology has shielded us from the suffering that undeveloped peoples have felt for decades. Natural disasters impact us less than undeveloped regions, for the obvious reasons that our shelters and rebuilding apparatus is so much better.

But maybe now the tens of thousands of disbelievers without a/c unable to watch the quarter finals at Wimbledon might now understand what the less fortunate in the world have been dealing with for decades.

Global Warming Causes Natural Disasters. Unlike increased levels of CO2 and the inevitable suffocation it might cause us in oh 200 years, earthquakes and landslides and derechos (what is a derecho?) are here and now.

Today in Sendai City, Japan, world leaders meet to figure out what to do about the increased level of natural disasters since 2000. It’s a fitting location because yesterday Japan restarted a nuclear reactor.

According to the UNDP, natural disasters since 2000 have killed more than a million people and affected over a quarter of the global population. And they’ve cost upwards of US$1 trillion.

Most of this suffering has been in Africa. And the UNDP is necessarily polite and unprovocative. The conference could not have been arranged if fingers pointed to those guilty, but there are those who are guilty:

(1) Carbon Emitters. Global warming is easily blamed for flooding: (ice melts). But melting leads to boiling, cracking and all sorts of other wanton destruction.

(2) Baby Makers. Mankind is growing faster than he’s learning to take care of himself. And yet we rile over China’s one-baby policy.

Africa has joined many prominent nations in trying hard to find remedies. Remarkably, the continent has cut its birth rate even while the developed world bellows it’s not enough. But when Africa points out how wasteful and dirty are the world’s principle carbon emitters, there is a deafening silence.

Africa and the developing world has suffered for a generation mostly because of nothing they’ve done or could have done. Global warming comes from development, from factories and cars and airplanes. It doesn’t come from subsistence farming.

Have you heard the TV guy say, “not in a generation”, “hottest on record”, “never before” more and more? It’s not a fluke, Joe. Hurricanes and sharks in Cape Cod. Snow storms in Mobile. It’s hotter than we can stand for very long. We’re using Spanish words to describe storms that alone can take down Twitter.

Maybe the blind eye is ready to open up.

Top Ten 2011 Africa Stories

Top Ten 2011 Africa Stories

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

1A: KENYA INVADES SOMALIA
On October 18 Kenya invaded Somalia, where 4-5,000 of its troops remain today. Provoked by several kidnapings and other fighting in and around the rapidly growing refugee camp of Dadaab, the impression given at the time was that Kenyans had “just had enough” of al-Shabaab, the al-Qaeda affiliated terrorism group in The Horn which at the time controlled approximately the southern third of Somalia. Later on, however, it became apparent that the invasion had been in the works for some time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

1B: TWEVOLUTION CHANGES EGYPT
The Egyptian uprising, unlike its Tunisian predecessor, ensured that no African government was immune to revolution, perhaps no government in the world. I called it Twevolution because especially in Egypt the moment-by-moment activities of the mass was definitely managed by Twitter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8: RHINO POACHING REACHES EXTREME LEVELS
For the first time in history, an animal product (ground rhino horn) became more expensive on illicit markets than gold.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bribed Enough To Die

Bribed Enough To Die

In the shorter runs Africa’s got a lot more to lose faster from global warming than us, but Africa leaders are hailing the specious agreement made in Durban this week. Why?

Because they get more money.

There’s nothing wrong with that, per se. As far as I’m concerned anything that redistributes global wealth is healthy and promising. But I’m afraid that’s about it for Durban. The veritable environmental can’s been kicked a long way down the global warming road.

Everyone’s putting on happy faces about Durban, not just the organizers.

We as high and mighty liberals champion transparency and truth. Then we need to tell it like it is: the torturous so-called end game for a climate change agreement just negotiated in Durban is like a doctor telling a dying man to keep fighting. We might discover new medicines before you gasp your last breath.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. Never give up! But let’s call a spade a spade. The Durban agreement does nothing to slow much less reverse global warming.

Kyoto was saved .. sort of by an agreement insisting it be renegotiated within five years. Countries like Kenya and Tanzania heaved huge sighs of relief that a fund was created (or will be after national legislative processes) to underwrite their low-carbon development. And lacking any force of law, now or as I see it in the foreseeable future, the U.S. promised the sky because China promised to curb smoking.

China, the U.S. and India are the world’s greatest polluters in that order. India got on board only when the English language proved it could mean something completely different from what it spelled out in words.

Is this confusing?

It’s unbelievably confusing. Grown men and women did this! Nature magazine’s Jeff Tollefson did the best in his blog posted immediately after the early morning agreement was made. So if you want to begin the herculean task of understanding the details, read Tollefson.

My take? It’s absurd. Everyone agrees on the science. Everyone agrees that if the world doesn’t halt the increase in average temperature of 2 degrees C from preindustrial levels by 2020, that catastrophe will result. All stipulated, counselor, without caveats or objections.

But the current agreement doesn’t get anywhere near that. It’s like Betty buying a size 8 dress for the wedding when she’s a size 12 and promising to get to a size 10 before the ceremony.

And before the deal was finally signed sealed and delivered the media, between agreement at 4 a.m. and South African sunrise at 7:21a, scientists said the deal would not accomplish any of the stated temperature goals.

And even as Canada agreed to sign its sovereignty away with the rest of the world, it was simultaneously announcing withdrawal from the previous (Kyoto) agreement, which by the way, the current agreement intends to keep on life support. Is this insane?

No, according to Friends of the Earth, just “feeble”.

OK, so Africa’s on board because the new fund promised by the developed countries to help them buy wind turbines, etc., is now doubled. But why should we developed nations be on board for something so feeble, particularly if we believe the science that doomsday approaches?

I guess the first point is that Armageddon has been predicted so many times in our lives that we don’t believe in it. Population growth, DDT use, nuclear proliferation, even fluoride in the water all had credentialed critics certain of a date-specific apocalypse as a result.

And of course there were exponentially more spurious predictions by religious crazies, and I suppose ultimately we started to think Armageddon was just an unreal totally impossible thing.

Probably the most germane bad prediction came from the United Nations itself. In 2005, the U.N. Environment Program (UNEP) predicted there would be 50 million climate refugees by 2010.

There weren’t and still aren’t.

But worse than these infractions of science coupled with our subconscious belief in eternity are the many who use them as certain evidence global warming will not inevitably create a mess of global proportions that we’re unlikely to be able to deal with in any currently conceivable way. And soon.

I can’t imagine anyone living anywhere today who has not experienced truly unusually severe weather. That’s stage one.

In Africa as here statistics back anecdotal experience. Floods are more severe. Droughts are more severe. Extremes are more extreme. Don’t be misled by weirdos finding one or two items that buck the trend.

Just go to our own master weather geek, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) on any random day and watch the headlines flashing up on the left side of the screen.

Stage two is crisis management. We’re already doing that with earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, melting ice caps .. you name it.

But stage three is when we’re overcome with those crises to the point we have to triage with our own vital and immediate needs. That’s the mess I mean. And I believe that’s in the next 15 years.

So build up that 401K, Joe, but trigger liquidation before the ice caps do.

Storms Move The Serengeti

Storms Move The Serengeti

Photo by Sarah Vieth, Ndutu, November 2011
Climate change is slowly, steadily changing the ecology of the world’s most spectacular big game wilderness, the Serengeti. For a visitor, it’s nothing short of fantastic. For animals it’s terrifying. For the planet it’s just too complicated yet to say.

The roughly 7000 sq. miles of the Serengeti/Mara/Ngorongoro wilderness is the greatest wildlife area on earth. Said with bias. And the necessary qualifiers are many, of course. But this is classic Africa that seems to get better to the casual visitor year after year.

Historically northern Tanzania’s rains begin towards the end of the year and last (with a noticeable but incomplete interruption in February) for 5-6 months. This year, and last year, they began much much earlier and ended a little earlier.

And, predictably, this sent the wildebeest circling faster. And all of us “experts” are thrilled and surprised. The wilde now seem to spend less time in the Mara in the northern reaches of the migratory route, and more time in the Serengeti. They don’t follow the rains, but they follow the grass the rain grows.

Rain patterns are critical to the great migration, as well as practically everything else in this ecosystem from fields of yellow bidens flowers to the nesting habits of pink-eyelided eagle owls. For all my life until now all of this explosion of life was pretty predictable. Getting harder, now.

I was astounded this morning, for example, to read a blog posted by Bill and Sarah Vieth from Evansville, Indiana, celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary in the Serengeti. They probably had no idea how remarkable was the photo Sarah took when they were in the Ndutu area, which I’ve taken the great liberty of reposting atop this blog.

So what’s so unusual about a lioness bringing back a wildebeest baby to its pride for a slightly late Thanksgiving?

There shouldn’t be baby wildebeest, now. Wildebeest are the predictors of the veld’s health and sustainability because their migration and foaling is … well, at least until now, predictable. Wildebeest babies in Ndutu are born in February. That’s what the books say. That’s what I saw for 35-36 of the last 40 years. This birth, following 8 months of gestation, is maybe two months early.

But alas, it all starts to match if you’re willing to believe that the rain clock in Equatorial Africa is changing. It syncs beautifully with last year’s early end to the rains.

Wildebeest rutting historically occurs as the rains end, and last year they ended early. In fact the news blog posted by the owner of Ndutu last May read: “Lake Ndutu was completely dry by the end of May! It’s the first time in all her years of being here that Aadje has seen the lake dry so soon after the end of the ‘wet season.”

Early December minus eight months equals early April. Remarkable, a shift of 6 weeks to 2 months.

Now, was this just a fluke?

I called Bill. Bill was kind enough to give me permission to post his wife’s photo, and went on at great lengths about what a great trip they just had. And he proved that photo wasn’t a fluke.

When Sarah and he were descending into Ngorongoro crater first thing one morning, they watched one, then two wildebeest births. He excitedly described to me the lurking hyaena and how one of the younguns didn’t make it. But proof positive how early the births are occurring!

Now it isn’t so hunky dory and simply just a shift in the clock. I saw a young wildebeest being born in April this year around Ndutu. In September in the far north of the Serengeti I saw baby wildebeest that couldn’t have been more than three months old. So clearly mother nature’s change of habit is causing some confusion with the wildebeest.

Like men, wilde may be resisting the idea of climate change. I excuse them. Their brains are smaller.

Rains began in the northern Serengeti with a vengeance this August, and while they’ve abated a bit right now, the center and southern part of the ecosystem is near flooded. What I think we’re experiencing is not just a shift to earlier rains, but an extension of the entire rainy season. I think we’ll soon all agree that it rains more and more than half the year on the Serengeti.

Or as one blog puts it, “Short Rains Aren’t so Short!”

That jives with rain patterns all around the planet near the equator. With global warming there is more moisture in the atmosphere. We’ve all heard about the 90-mile wide icebergs calving from the Antarctic. It floats towards Cape Town and melts. Seas rise, yes, but so does the atmosphere which in a warmer state can hold more and more water.

And it dumps conveniently on the equator. The Serengeti.

Wish it were just all that simple, but equatorial meteorology is far more complex than my Chicago television weatherman suggests. We have discernible seasons in the north and south of the world, but the equator doesn’t. Rains in equatorial northern Peru were devastating in the last few years, but hard to predict.

One week is a series of torrential storms; the next week seems like a drought. That’s the basic pattern as you move away from the equator, away from the Serengeti. That’s why the Somali refugee camp at Dadaab had thousands of refugees fleeing a drought 4 months ago, and thousands now fleeing floods.

But closer to the equator the complexity is less stark. Basically, it just rains more; it’s wetter.

So what does this mean to the animals?

Having lived there and visited constantly throughout my adult life, I can say with care that the animal populations are bigger, the viewing more dramatic as tension among predators and competition for food sources increases, but my worry is that it will all come crushing down some day.

You might call it the Animal Bubble.

Things are good for the animals, now. Probably will be for a few years, but just as wildebeest sex lives are getting screwed up (pun intended), massive ecological systems don’t like quick change. The response to quick change is usually to crash.

But right now, a month or more early, the wildebeest have massed at Ndutu and it’s pouring. And for now, they couldn’t do it better at DreamWorks.

Climate Changes Road

Climate Changes Road

When something goes wrong, those with greater resources cope better. So it’s no surprise that Africans are the furious ones and the developed world’s citizens are the most complacent about climate change. Too bad rich tourists heading on safari: you’re about to experience it square on.

I think practically everyone in the world will agree on one climate change outcome: weather is more extreme. Summers are hotter, winters are colder, winds are stronger, rains are heavier, and periods of beautiful calm are often longer. Extremes.

Idiots argue that man has little to do with this, and non-idiot poorly informed believe even if man has little to do with this, there’s little he can do to abate it. Wrong. Wrong, of course. And this dog-headed refusal to accept simple science is found mostly in the developed world, where hotter summers and heavier snows are annoying, but not catastrophic. Yet.

In Tanzania last weekend heavy rains fell once again in the north over the important safari circuit. Three bridges were destroyed, the beautiful Manyara escarpment lost much in a landslide, Serena Manyara Lodge was partially destroyed, a half dozen people were killed and hundreds hurt, and right now you can’t drive normally into the Serengeti from any airport in northern Tanzania.

The rains have laid waste a beautiful paved road – the only one – that links Tanzania’s Manyara, Ngorongoro and Serengeti national parks with the main metropolis of Arusha and Tanzania’s main northern airport. The road was built with Japanese aid money in 2007, completing an already improved gravel road built in 2003.

Before then overland safaris into the Serengeti were much different than they were post last weekend. Either you flew, missing so many beautiful sights along the way, or added a day or two to your itinerary to make sure you could get over the Manyara escarpment.

It’s unclear if Tanzania has the wherewithal today to repair the current mess, which is massive. The very important December holiday season is extremely heavily booked, and I doubt seriously that the roads can be repaired by then. And the greater question looms: you repair it at phenomenal cost, now, and then what about the next heavy rains?

This is happening as the Durban Conference on Climate Change goes on, and on, and on, and on. This is the conference that created the Kyoto Protocol, the nearest and now decaying world treaty to deal with climate change. For the first time in the conference’s 20-year history, no U.S. lawmakers are present.

And the all but dead Kyoto Protocol, which the world’s top polluters the U.S. and China never signed, may get its nail-in-the-coffin as reports circulate that Canada will celebrate the current conference by withdrawing from the treaty.

This particular road is important to tourists, but it’s more important to local commerce, students going to school, farmers preparing fields. It’s not just tourism, of course, that suffers from climate change. Droughts are more frequent and so famine is more frequent. Floods are more frequent, so development is drowned, diseases spread.

Africa can’t cope. And when Africa doesn’t cope big time, the developed world is pulled into the mess as rescuer of last resort at great expense. This is getting boring, it’s happening so often, and nobody seems to have a long enough vision to realize ultimately that the world as a whole – that means us – is hurt by climate change as much if not more than Wall Street banks and housing bubbles.

Try to spin this one, Mr. T. Party.

Our Most Brilliant Traveler

Our Most Brilliant Traveler

I sit here watching a miserable cold rainy day waiting for snow. Birds (and “sunbirds”) living here in the Midwest have all but gone. But one remarkable bird in southern Africa defies this classic “going and coming” in a most spectacular way!

The southern carmine bee-eater is not only one of the grandest and most beautiful birds in existence, but it defies all notions about what bird migration means. Right now it’s heading south, but in hardly a few months it will head north further than where it started from! Then a few later, west, and finally, east! It zig-zags in a definite way, but why?

Conservationists tend to think of bird migrations as one-way reversibles. In other words, at one season they travel thata-way, and on the other season, they go thata-way backwards! Well that’s mostly true, and it seems to us that the birds are following the weather. We think, for example, that cardinals own fur coats but that little warblers would just freeze to death if they stayed.

Wrong. Temperature has absolutely nothing to do with where a bird wants to be. Birds follow their food. Reductions in temperatures reduce the food supply for many birds, like warblers eating bugs. But cardinals don’t eat bugs; they eat seeds and berries, and they’ve adapted to finding them even in the snow.

The carmine bee-eater’s there-again, back-again migration is linked in the same way. The bird is a specialist: it eats bees and other flying insects, and in southern Africa flying insects – particularly bees – are very much linked to when it rains. And the rain pattern in the southern part of the continent as I often explained is very complex.

And to make matters more extreme, the carmine nests in burrows of sand often on flat sand banks, digging a tunnel up to 6-feet long in which to lay its eggs. You can imagine this would not be an ideal strategy if it were raining.

So breeding occurs at the driest of times, along the great southern rivers like the Zambezi and Kavango, in August and September. There’s no drier time anywhere in southern Africa.

Eggs hatch, chicks emerge, rain comes, bees flourish all up and down the Zambezi as the ground bushes and native flowers in particular bloom presaging honey. But this doesn’t last long, because the rains grow intense, the temperatures rises, and many of the species of plant flower for a very short time and then just blossom out in bushels of thick green foliage.

So now in November the carmines move south. It’s probably started to rain south in South Africa by now, but down there many of the flowering trees like the jacaranda bloom before heavy rains, unlike the bushes along the Zambezi, and this attracts billions of bees.

One of the most beautiful sites on earth is the carmine bee-eater flying around a purple jacaranda tree! Its mostly crimson body blends into a deep teal head and underside, and with a sea-faring like deep black bill more normally associated with terns.

OK, so it’s spectacularly beautiful, but that’s not all. Its flight is magical. It’s in the class of birds that, true to name, eat bees and other flying insects. It plucks its prey right out of the air, nabbing that darn honeybee while it’s in flight.

This leads to all sorts of gymnastic swoops and backups, sometimes seeming to turn 180-degrees in midflight. And it seems to use its wings very little, a sort of effortless soaring that with a few facile flaps turns it upside and backwards, or sends it in exactly the opposite direction.

But one of the most amazing things about this bird is its migration. So right now it’s in South Africa with its new fledglings doing a job on the jacaranda. That only lasts a few months, and heavier rains and other factors bring much of South Africa out of bloom by February.

The fledglings are then fully grown. The birds actually maintain social groups even while migrating, and the young boy carmines have stayed with their mom and dad, and the girls have gone off to another group. And they get ready for the big migration as the flowers fall in South Africa.

They now travel long distances, sometimes right up to the equator. That’s nearly 2500 miles. I’ve seen them around Lake Victoria in February and March.

February is the lull in the single rainy season throughout most of East Africa. It’s actually more than a lull in Kenya, where it becomes completely dry, but I’ve only once seen a carmine north of Nairobi, and that was a single so obviously errant bird.

The lull in the heavy rains allows so many plants to bloom! In East Africa it isn’t just bushes but trees as well, and sometimes the many varieties of acacia will actually bloom a second time (most acacia bloom just before the rains begin in December and January).

So, lots of bees.

The rains end earlier in southern Africa than East Africa, so the carmines stick around in East Africa until like the wildebeest they’re forced to move because it gets bone dry. Wildebeest move north; carmines move south.

The carmines have 2-3 months now of little pickings, but there’s enough. Flying insects other than bees become their main diet, and there’s enough to build a new home and have new chicks.

In the end, the carmine has traveled as far as many of the longest distance warblers. It’s just not up and down, but a zig-zag through the remarkable ecology of this magical continent.

Back to Life Time!

Back to Life Time!

Photo by John Sullivan in the Maasai Mara
Rains in Africa bring rebirth unlike anywhere else on earth. I don’t mean things just start to grow again. I mean dead things come back to life!

Admittedly, most of these creatures are just fooling us to believe they’ve returned from the dark side. They aren’t really the same thing, but the children of things that died when the rains last ended. But there are a few true miracle creatures that defy all sorts of normal zoological physiologies.

They’re called “mudfish” and … well, for obvious reasons. See the main picture above, although that was taken at the end rather than beginning of the rains. It’s easier to find them like this, captured in wiggling pods as they tried to avoid the marabou stork’s gullet, but before they’ve hibernated for the dry season.

The narrow picture to the right is one of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s several priceless ancient African sculptures praising mudfish. This one is titled, “Rattle Staff: Hand Holding Mudfish (Ukhurhe)” and can be found in gallery 352. And it’s now — at this time of the year — that they reemerge.

They’re an important but small family of earth’s creatures widely referred to as lungfish. Up to 6′ long, they’re mean predators: They can bite off your finger. They breathe with lungs, not gills. They can walk on land. They’ve been on earth for 100 million years and are the direct descendents of the 450 million year old fossil creatures that first walked fish out of the sea.

AND they can live 100 years BUT they regularly die just as many years as they live.

Say what?

At the end of every dry season, they wallow as in the picture above, frantically trying to discourage predators as their home evaporates. Then one night, they wrap themselves in a self-made mucous cocoon and become desiccated with the mud. Almost all their bodily functions cease.

Unlike bears or caterpillars changing or a 17-year grubbly little cicada in a shell under my oak tree, these creatures actually come to a near complete halt.

Until the rains return.

Those of us who know where to look after the first big rains … we’ll find them! They don’t emerge necessarily altogether like they are above. Usually the water has to be a bit deeper to break their hard cocoon and release them, and at that point they’re wholly under water.

A whole bunch of things in Africa actually behaves like mudfish: Toads, true frogs, salamanders, and dozens of insects and smaller carp-like fish are born, live their cycle, mate and die in a single pool of water.

That’s the difference: those creatures die leaving eggs to carry on their species. But mudfish don’t die, exactly. They, well, come back!

This rebirthing quality gave mudfish a divine character with early Africans. Particularly in the more developed early west African societies mudfish was often considered sacred and often the guardian or guide for a royal personage from this world to the next.

In Benin it was associated with Oba, the king, who had achieved the power of life and death of his subjects because of his divine association with the mudfish. In later more modern times, mudfish were prayed to, and petitioned especially for acts of healing.

In the northern west we often chastise equatorial and sunbird people for not appreciating the “change of seasons.” Well, there’s no snow on the equator, but in the wildernesses still preserved where dams, irrigation and boreholes have not disrupted the normal seasons of rain, change here can be much more dramatic than a leaf turning red.

The meaning of water falling from the sky is much more profound. Things come back to life!

The Rains Have Come

The Rains Have Come

"Storm over the Serengeti" by William Melville.
Inset: yesterday in Nairobi.
The dry season is definitely over in all of East Africa, the rains have been heavier than usual almost everywhere, the plains are spectacularly green and even here half a world away I can hear the veld sighing relief.

From Nairobi to Dar, the Serengeti to the Mara, Samburu to Tsavo, rain is falling and sometimes although not surprisingly now with the vengeance of global warming.

An incredible 2″ of rain fell in only 3 hours recently on what may be my favorite lodge in all of Africa, Ndutu in the Serengeti! The torrent was just reported by the owner, Aadje Geertsema, and bodes extremely well for upcoming Serengeti safaris.

The start of the rains, the certainty that they will continue and aren’t just a flash in the pan, is one of the most important moments of the entire year in East Africa. Yes, relief, but a certain kind of relief, the kind that unstops all the energies and ideas that you were holding back for fear of a drought.

“After about the third downpour a few weeks ago, the trees, bushes, and grasses shed their thick layers of brown dust and showed their true lush green beauty,” writes a missionary working on Mt. Kilimanjaro.

“The rains have come to the desert!” a volunteer nurse in Kenya’s north writes recently. “Rain brings life. Camels can drink, produce milk, and move again.”

I remember my first year in Africa, 1972. We arrived at the start of Kenya’s mini dry season, the end of its “short rains.”

Note most of East Africa has only a single, long rainy season the first half of the year, but in areas north and east of Nairobi where it rains less, the “February lull” in the long rainy season becomes distinctly a dry season that splits the first half of the year into two seasons: The Short Rains (Nov-Jan) and the Long Rains (Mar-Jun).

So, naturally, I thought this was how Africa was supposed to be: hot, dry and dusty! We hadn’t been working too long before the “Long Rains” came, so the contrast hadn’t much time to rivet my soul one way or the other.

But then the Long Rains stopped, as they do throughout all of East Africa, in June sometime, and at first you don’t think much about it. In fact, it’s so welcomed that you don’t have to continually wipe mud off your shoes before stepping inside and that the trek into the market isn’t a slipslide affair.

Moreover, the end of the Short Rains prompts the sea of grasses and gargantuan bushes to flower and seed, so it’s a strikingly beautiful time. In many places in the Serengeti the bright yellow bidens bidens – a smaller, thinner version of the American dandelion that is more like an aster – covers the plains for miles and miles.

But the welcome end to the mud season and the fields of beautiful flowers doesn’t last very long, and by the end of June the veld is brown, dry and dusty … everywhere. It’s cool in June, cold in July but then by August Mother Nature starts to fidget and grumble. The heat grows quickly. Anything in the road ditches that had found bits of water to grow beautiful wilts and dies.

In the great plains game parks predation reaches its peak and the predators grow fat and sassy. But the rest of the game begins what seems like an interminable struggle to live. Wildebeest like chickadees here at home in late fall foraging the last of the thistle before the frost, race useless from place to place, a glint of green grass in their peripheral version prompting some hope.

Many of the ungulates grow so thin you can see their ribs. Forest creatures do better, because the forest never totally browns out. It’s on the great plains, like the Serengeti, where the bitter reality of no rain cuts so harsh.

And over time, as the game increased and man increased next to it, new struggles developed.

“Eventually the grazing pressures increases,” Aadje explains. Maasai herders and their cows and cattle “clash with lions.” Lions kill their stock; they kill lions. “I suppose these incidents have taken place over many years in the past.” Aadje reflects, “and I am always much relieved for all parties when the first rains arrive.”

As Aadje waits anxiously at the end of the dry season for the rain clouds to form and the Maasai and their herds to leave, I would rest on a termite mound behind our house staring at the sky as if that would create clouds out of a blazeningly pale blue wash bereft of a single speck of anything but the underside of a relentless sun.

Even the birds it seemed had stopped flying. No wind, no breeze, just hot. And then, just when you were about to give up any hope and were certain a drought had begun, I would wake in the mornings to the surprisingly melodious cursing of farmers as they whipped their oxen to pull old plows through rock-hardened soil. They knew.

And then, “The rains have come, anyone got a spare ark?” writes British volunteer Dan Jones of the torrents that fell as if on cue onto Nairobi last week. And Nairobi’s “horrendous traffic gets worse,” power outages increase, football stadiums become swimming pools.

Oh, those poor city folk!

But on the veld, the Maasai return to their traditional grazing grounds, the great herds come into Ndutu and the lions feed on them. Baby impala and wildebeest and gazelle and zebra appear and frolic in the puddles.

The rains have come. Nature is reset.

Umbrellas in the Dry Season

Umbrellas in the Dry Season

At home whether it’s raining or not doesn’t mean much. On safari it means a lot to me as the guide. What we do, when we do it, planned months ahead, is predicated on where and when it’s going to rain. That’s now near impossible with global warming.

We were all having drinks tonight before dinner at Swala Camp in Tarangire when the thunderstorms began. Chris Benchetler left the room to try to get photos, and in fact the heaviest rain seemed over. Everyone was scrambling for umbrellas which the manager was fetching from some far away storehouse.

This is supposed to be the driest time of the year. We flew into the Serengeti through a terrible thunderstorm. Where we landed was so dry that your lips cracked even before getting out of the plane. Yet we could see some of the heaviest rain imaginable less than 5 miles away.

And today in Tarangire, in what’s supposed to be the driest time of the year, we got nearly 3 inches of rain in less than two hours. We ate dinner in Swala’s beautiful open-air dining hall with the moisture of heavy rain filling the veld.

I watched black paradise flycatchers doing their mating dance as if it were March! What’s going on? Global warming, and while it may make my job more difficult, I dare not imagine how it’s screwed up Tanzanian farmers.

The leopard to left was photographed by Sue MacDonald, today, in Tarangire near the Silale swamp. Before the morning was over, we had seen five leopards, including two 2-month old cubs. Now that was a bonus. Leopard don’t usually like their cubs seen by a dragonfly much less a tourist, although admittedly we were several hundred yards away.

Sue by the way celebrated her 24th birthday with us on our safari (or was it 25?) We had a riproaring evening at Gibb’s Farm with the staff singing Happy Birthday to her. Lynn and David Heiman are joining the chorus!

Gibb’s as always is one of the most favorite stops on safari. The rooms are spectacular by East African standards, more like a fisherman’s cottage in Nantucket than a safari room. The setting in the Ngorongoro highlands reminds many of Tuscany, and the organic food on the farm is stupendous.

Tarangire is known for its ele, and we were certainly not disappointed. I have a long history with ele as you readers of my blog know, and I’m not exaggerating to say that the numbers we saw in Tarangire this time surprised even me.

In the Silale swamp alone we probably saw a thousand. Now by Charles Foley’s latest count, that would mean a quarter of all the ele in Tarangire, and I suppose that’s possible. But it was absolutely magnificent. I wish I could show you a picture, but really no one in our group — including some rather accomplished photographers like Roger Gelfenbein — were capable of giving me a photo that worked.

So you’ll have to let your imaginations soar with this little snapshot I took of Sue, Roger and Ellen Sirlin watching just one jumbo yesterday.

Where is The Hand of God?

Where is The Hand of God?

Texas droughts, Vermont floods, Manhattan hurricanes. Dadaab famine, Ewaso floods, Zanzibar typhoons. In America I expect we’ll muddle through and with luck and no feckless economy, we’ll figure it out. I’m not so certain about Africa.

The effects of global warming on East Africa have been severe for the last 5-10 years. The weird way the wildebeest migration is behaving this year in the Serengeti/Mara ecosystem is today’s news (more below) but the intensity of droughts in ridiculously localized areas, often surrounded by floods, has now become so common it hardly makes news, anymore.

And there’s a big difference between the Africans’ outlook on disasters and ours.

Africans don’t get quite as excited as we do. Although malevolent “Acts of God” are increasing it seems to me at an even pace worldwide, they’ve been much more a part of African history than American history. We in the west tended to denigrate the African psyche as fatalistic for shrugging off one famine after another.

But you know, you can grieve for that covered wooden bridge for only so long. So … who to help?

Animals are helping themselves. The huge wildebeest herd moved out of the grassland plains this year right on schedule at the end of May. This was because the weather in the area was right on schedule. The rains which begin with the new year had finally begun to subside.

The pattern over the last century has been like a wet spot on your cement floor drying up: in this case the center of the wet spot is Lake Victoria, and the rains and humidity recede into the lake as the dry season progresses. The wildebeest migration follows this drying spot.

But subside became abrupt in the western part of the ecosystem, in the area known as the western corridor. Before June was out, residents there were calling it another drought.

I’ve noticed in the last decade that the increase in human development which has stressed available resources like potable water exacerbates negative events. Perhaps it was a drought; perhaps it was just there wasn’t enough water to go around, or that domestic stock had nibbled into the park reserve, or that previous logging and erosion had lost a final defense.

A large portion of the original grassland plains herds normally moves into the western corridor in June, and as they did there were wide reports that they were surprised there was no grass, became confused, and began to scatter.

That’s a normal reaction to an abnormal obstacle on their trip.

As the herd sort of regrouped and moved north quicker than it would, many of them were crossing into the Mara by the beginning of July. Then, it started to pour rain, but mostly south of the border, south of the Sand River.

So, the wildebeest turned around and went back into Tanzania. The rains were good for about ten days. By mid-July there were appearances of it being a rainy season in the dry season.

This would never have happened in the normal days of the past so many decades. There would not be this extreme difference between areas which are so close to one another. If the western corridor was in a drought, the northern Serengeti shouldn’t flood. Yet that was almost what happened.

Today the wilde are mostly back in the Mara, and in fact many have moved into the private reserves north of the Mara proper. This is normal. Or at least, what used to be normal. The animals helped themselves; nobody gave them a handout or sign telling them where to travel. Perhaps a tenth of the herd was lost, but that’s life, and mothers don’t even linger over their dead babies.

If somebody’s home was floated away by Irene, do we just take pictures and leave? If millions are dying in Somali, do we just sell tickets to another pop concert?

Earlier this month the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS) announced it was starting a number of initiatives to combat climate change. Last week was the first of many scheduled workshops. There’s a lot of sincere interest in doing something, but it’s nearly impossible to imagine if anything at all can be done.

Human populations are increasing and stock grazing comes with that. Oil and other natural resource potentials are drawing Chinese and others with little regards for the environment. There are fewer traditional farmers and herders. I see more Maasai wearing Docker Polo shirts than shukas. Life is changing, and even more noticeable is the veld itself. It’s crusting.

The actual Mara reserves and the great Serengeti grasslands further south seem to be OK for right now. The last several years in particular have been kind to the Serengeti.

But things are changing. Climate change is pounding the earth. Some will be able to move to the new drumbeat. Some won’t.

Rain No Gain Only Pain

Rain No Gain Only Pain

Folks, it is drizzling near Dadaab. And it shouldn’t be. This is normally a dry season. We’ve got to understand again and again that this terrible famine is man made. It is not the work of God.

Yesterday I listened and watched to report after report, including from Kenya itself, decrying the “60-year drought.”

There is no 60-year drought in Kenya. What there is, by the way, is more important: a famine of extreme proportions. But it is not caused by drought. And all the western journalists flying into the dusty desert for the first time aren’t checking facts.

Even if we hadn’t missed a rainy season in March, even if the rains had been normal, I dare say even if the rains had been above normal, we would have had this famine.

The Dadaab refugee camp is not overflowing with starving people because there was no rain. There is no drought that caused this.

Here is NOAA’s report of rainfall in the area for the month of July just past. This is the area to which all the foreign correspondents are flying in northeast Kenya, southern Somali. In a normal year, these areas would be completely white. From about the end of May to the middle of November, for the last hundred years, not a drop of rain falls.

And now, it seems at least for the moment, it’s raining. Study the picture above. It was taken by Agence France Presse yesterday near the Kenyan town of Liboi, which according to GoogleEarth is about 27 miles northeast of the misery center of Dadaab.

There are pools of water. There is green grass. There is an automobile, although the AFP caption for the picture reads “Somali immigrants repair a tyre 2km inside Kenya enroute to Liboi. There are few who can afford to pay up to $150 to travel from the capital Mogadishu.”

Here is NOA’s prediction of expected rain for next week. Good news, of course. White overlaid by brown and even green shades showing pretty intense drizzle for the desert in a dry season.

What seems to be happening this year is a shift due to climate change of the rainy season that usually occurs March – May, to now. The March-May period was dry.

But understand this, please: A single missed rainy season cannot possibly cause such misery. Unless..

…there’s a vicious war just now getting worse… there’s a world recession that has so increased food prices that normal development aid is collapsed into fractions of its worth… there is political tension in the area so that bumper harvests (in Tanzania) are being prevented from shipment to the areas in need.

All the above are true. Add the real stress caused subsistence farmers who are disconnected from their normal planting routines by climate change, and you have … famine.

There is real, significant, terrible famine. We are approaching a half million people starving in the area of Dadaab … where it may be raining.

Uniquely as always, Jeffrey Gettleman of the New York Times, is reporting the truer story. And he is located exactly where the famine is really being caused. And that is not Dadaab. It’s in the heart of the battle for Somalia.

Gettleman makes the same mistake everyone seems to be making: calling a huge area “the worst drought in 60 years” which, sorry to have to repeat, it isn’t. But this is buried deep in his story which is otherwise right on. He explains the catastrophe as a political one, not a climate-made one.

A number of you have emailed me asking me for advice regarding how you can personally contribute best. I’m not the one to ask. Click here for better recommendations than I will give you.

My recommendation is one you probably won’t expect.

Become political and support leaders who understand a world order. Spend significant resources to defeat T-Party like mentalities that refuse to ameliorate world suffering with even a penny of the rich.

This famine is man made. I’m not for an instant suggesting that American conservatives have caused the war which caused the famine. Quite to the contrary, if anyone caused it, it was Bill Clinton.

His sheepish retreat from dealing with the mess in Somali because of the political flack he got from BlackHawk Down is the main reason for the problems, now. Almost 20 years ago, we now see the damage of short-term political gain.

This isn’t a left or right issue. It’s an issue of simple long-term compassion. Unless we get our heads screwed on right and steadfastly so, there’s going to be famine at Thanksgiving in the rain forest.

Stuck in the Blah Days in Tanzania

Stuck in the Blah Days in Tanzania

Northern Tanzania seems the epitome of everything that’s wrong with East Africa right now: economic recession, bad weather, a disgruntled population, and all in the context of a government that refuses to reform itself. Ho-hum.

There really is good news in East Africa, now, but at a little distance it just seems like silver linings rather than good news: to wit, the canceling of the Serengeti highway, and last week’s announcement that no new lodges will be built on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater.

Last month the Tanzanian government accepted international demands (especially from UNESCO) that the Serengeti highway not be built, while at the same time assuring Maasai just outside the park that they would get a new road at least up to the park boundary.

Brilliant move. We were ecstatic. Although I had expected by now that the donor funds to build this road and an alternative southern route would have been announced, I still think that’s what will happen.

And last week, after many more years of wrangling than the Serengeti highway issue, the government officially nixed plans by at least three companies for new lodges at Ngorongoro.

Again, brilliant move by a weak government drowning in the blahs. The point is that tourism is down, perhaps way down. Existing lodges are functioning at dangerously low capacities. It would be foolhardy to add any supply, now.

But of course the tourism minister, Ezekiel Maige, said “the area needed to remain natural and free from human pressures.” Right. And good of course, but that’s a sarcastic “right” coming from a government with little real interest in anything but oil rigs and mine shafts.

The lodge controversy at Ngorongoro began in 2005 and 2006, the hay days of safari travel. That’s when the super luxurious and ultra modern Kempinski Bilila Lodge attracted a principal investor named Jakaya Kikwete, Tanzania’s president. Reports indicate that the lodge is now putsing along at a less than 20% capacity.

When things are a bit bad, but not at crisis or catastrophic levels, news tries to push them through that threshhold to a point of gathering wider interest. What a wrong approach! We don’t want to get that point!

Unlike Kenya, Tanzania’s efforts at government reform have stalled. (btw Uganda’s are all but dead to the world.) A newly elected legislature last November, infused with new young blood and maverick politicians, was the greatest hope. They started the gears rolling for a new constitution, a necessary step.

But that’s over. Obese blahs cover the land, and nowhere within Tanzania more so than its important touristic north. It’s a do-nothing time.

The weather is bad but not terrible (March-May rains were well below normal, but rains for the year look OK). Scandals persist as always, with the token official here and there scheduled to be sacked. Climate change gets worse and worse and Ngorongoro Maasai are demonstrating that famine and drought is destroying their lives (while sitting on freshly grown green grass).

What does this mean?

Nothing. That’s the point. We ought not presume that reforms will not take off when things improve, nor be less vigilant that a sneaky government won’t reallocate rim land to developers. Keep your eye on the weather; if it persists through another poor rainy season, then it’s time to worry for sure.

At home, we call these the Dog Days of summer, when it’s just too hot to do anything. In Northern Tanzania I call it the Blah Days, not too hot, not too cold, just not too anything.

No Drought News is Not

No Drought News is Not

It’s raining in the Mara; it should be: That’s not news. It’s not raining in northern Kenya; it shouldn’t be: That’s news. Go figure.

In between truly cataclysmic reports of America’s political constipation last week, many news sources were reporting on the “calamitous” drought in “East Africa.” One concerned consumer emailed me:

“My husband and I are scheduled to go on safari to [East Africa] in 3 weeks and are very concerned since hearing stories of devastation and the death of wildlife due to the drought. We are insured for the trip. Do you recommend we cancel and visit another time when conditions are improved? We have spent an awful lot of money and don’t want to spend 2 weeks in a dustbowl viewing dead and dying animals.”

My office explained it was raining in the Mara. The excellent Governor’s Camp there reported 85.5 mm of rain in June (3.37 inches), a little less than normal, but nothing to write home about.

There are three important issues here.

First, “East Africa” is a big place. When you include all of Somalia, as NPR did in its weekend reporting, the area is nearly the size of half the continental U.S.

There’s a drought in America. There are devastating tornadoes in America. Floods are killing people in America. Wild fires are forcing people out of their homes in America.

Dare you visit the Blues Festival in Brattleboro, Vermont?

Columbia University’s excellent climate reporting website shows the actual precipitation over the last twelve months. (To get the “loop” actually looping, you may have to click on “Precip Loop” in the left-hand blue panel.)

When corroborated with many other similar data sources, what we know is that overall “East Africa” has a pretty normal rain pattern for this year. Somalia and northern Kenya less than “normal” and much of the prime game viewing areas of Kenya and Tanzania normal or just slightly below.

That’s the first issue’s facts. I know in today in America facts seems to matter less and less, but I can’t seem to drop the habit of referring to them.

Second. Climate change is deeply effecting all the tropical regions of the world, including East Africa, more quickly and more extremely than in much of the world including America. This is because of the highly complex way that weather works at the equator. Even when you look up from the equator at the sky, clouds rarely move at all, the confluence of multiple jet streams and mixed up “corioloses” is one of the most complicated swirling and twirling air patterns on earth.

In a nutshell the result has been to make dry drier, and wet wetter. It’s the reason we do have “drought conditions” in northern Kenya almost constantly, interrupted by a season of devastating floods.

Three. And probably most important. The human catastrophe occurring in Somalia, northern Kenya and Ethiopia is hardly new. And the fact that it’s being reported as news is a sorry indication that we don’t care as much as we should.

Do you remember “Live Aid”? That was nearly 30 years ago. Things haven’t changed much since. Admittedly, dry is drier, and there are more people to feed, so famine is more likely and will now occur more often.

Do you remember “Blackhawk Down”? That was nearly 20 years ago. That’s when Bill Clinton let Somalia implode. It’s never come back together.

The human catastrophe in a part of East Africa is human made, not weather made. True, the desert has been growing literally for millennia from north to south on the continent, and East Africa is near the dividing line moving south. But desertification in Africa is not news, happens at a relatively slow pace and can be adequately dealt with by proper human development.

And fresh, good, potable water has been a growing catastrophe in Africa for decades. This, too, has been known for 20-30 years and there are ways to deal with it.

It is the politics of fear, egocentrism, greed and lack of compassion that has been growing at too fast a pace.

It’s raining in the Mara. You can proceed nicely on your safari.

Which One-in-Three are Dying?

Which One-in-Three are Dying?

Global warming is slamming East Africa faster than expected even as One-in-Three Americans insist it doesn’t exist.

Never mind that Romney, a likely Republican presidential candidate, agrees that global warming is a man-made phenomenon. Never mind that Americans are asked to pay more and more for food aid in East Africa. Never mind that in our own communities we are feeling weather in ways it’s never been seen before.

One-in-Three Americans doesn’t believe in global warming.

One-in-HowMany believe in the rapture? One-in-HowMany believes David Vitter should remain a Senator but Anthony Weiner should resign as a Congressman? One-in-HowMany still believes Obama was born Where? One-in-HowMany believes a god created the earth in How Many Days?

Look at this map prepared by America’s NOA’s Climate Prediction Center of East Africa. (Then go back and fiddle with the linked map of the U.S.)

Now on the one hand I have no idea why I’m using facts, since facts don’t seem to matter much, anymore. On the other hand, if we bloggers didn’t try to use facts all we would be doing is telling jokes. Problem is, One-in-Three Americans thinks facts are jokes.

The East African map is NOA’s satellite data for the percentage of normal rain that fell in East Africa this May. Although even the normal pattern of East African rain is complicated, because of its position on the equator and between a huge lake (Victoria) and a huge ocean (Indian), this map really tells it all.

May is one of the few months in the year in East Africa when a regular, generally continuous rain falls all over this map. In a normal year, this map would be all white, white being no change from normal.

Instead we see deep light brown to red areas of severely little rain to drought, bordered by areas of extreme rain and flooding conditions (green to blue).

The radical demarcations between areas of drought and flood is a symptom of global warming, and we see that in our own country as well. The Mississippi basin is flooding. Arizona is burning away.

This is new. Historically the areas between radical climates were not so close together. This is Global Warming.

The people living in Tucson and Dallas will still be able to buy tomatoes and beans, even though their land is a desiccated mess. The people in Nairobi and Dar-es-Salaam will be able to, too, for the same reason. These developed urban centers receive food distribution from wide areas around the world.

But for the still nearly 70% of Africa’s poorest countries’ populations that remain subsistence farmers, this is an epidemic far greater than AIDS could ever have become.

Countries like Kenya which are pulling out of extreme poverty find themselves conflicted now when creating social policies, because a significant portion of their population remains subsistence farmers but a rapidly larger portion is not.

This rapidly larger portion is learning how to eat and prosper even in times of drought. But they must still stand on the sidelines watching their Tucsons and Dallases starve to death, because their choice is between their own marginal threshold of prosperity or crisis policies to try to save the dying that likely could sink them all.

The Kenyan government recently dispatched a few million shillings to its northern drought areas, enough to buy food for starving people for a few weeks or so. The country’s elite was outraged at the pitiful effort, but the fact is that Kenya unlike America is not choosing between fighting a war abroad or a single payer health system. Kenya must choose between providing electricity to its new factories or feeding its starving millions.

And in countries like Niger and Mali, Eritrea and Ethiopia, where development hasn’t really got off its bump, whole societies are literally being wiped out by Global Warming.

I’m not really sure even if our own Tucsons and Dallases were starving to death that the One-in-Three Americans would care, or that they would even believe it might be true.

But just as the Rapture did not take us away, Global Warming is taking away whole junks of African peoples. And even though One-in-Three Americans might refuse to believe this, two out of three of us know the truth and it’s time to muster our majority.

Compromise with the ignorant and crazy is not compromise, it’s just giving in for nothing in return. Our responsibilities even extend to our own ignorant and crazy, not just far away Africa. It’s for the good of our own ignorant and crazy that we dare not invite them to any table of discussion.

It’s time to make a stand and force action. Don’t be bullied by the One-in-Three. We are the Two-in-Three.