Monday
Jun052017

African Elephant 

Elephant have disappeared from much of Africa today and their numbers are dwindling fast with the rising demands coming out of China for their ivory. Less than a 10th of their population remains today. Fortunately there are still a few areas wild enough and massive enough in Africa to support large and healthy elephant herds and all they need is to be left alone and given the space so their numbers can rebound. 

On Safari elephant are without question one of the most charismatic and endearing animals that we spend time with. What is it about this giant creatures that fascinates us humans? The great reserves of the Serengeti and Kalahari are filled with many incredible sights and experiences. These massive and remote tracks of land are a window into a past world filled with many different types of animals, massive herds of animals but few animals hold people’s attention and fascination like elephants. Is it just their shear size or immense strength - or is it something more? 

 

Elephant are large animals - weighing 200 pounds at birth, a males can grow to 15,000 pounds and can be 12 feet tall. I remember standing on the drivers seat of my land rover and putting my arm in the air and still not being able to reach higher than a large elephant bull. 

 

One of the challenges of being so large in a hot and dry environment is keeping cool. Their wrinkled appearance actually helps to increase the surface area of skin allowing them to radiate more heat from their bodies. Their flapping ears are radiators cooling down their blood by as much as 10°F. Even the most serious elephant drops her guard to swim and cool down in a waterhole followed by a mud bath. Their stomachs only digest about 40% of the the food that they eat, this makes them an essential link in the germination of many plants. Their trunks are unique. A combination of their top lip and nose the trunk in made up of over a 100,000 muscle units. They can use it to itch their eye or break a massive tree. We often see elephant putting their trunk into another’s mouth in an apparent greeting or gesture of comfort, kind of like putting your arm around a friend’s shoulder. 

 

An elephant is born after a 22 month gestation into a family of about 10 to 15 animals made up of siblings, first cousins, aunts, a grandmother and of course mom. Puberty only comes at about 12 years of age and calves are born about every 4 years so a mother might have 3 or 4 calves of different ages in attendance. Older sisters play an important role as baby sitters, not only does this allow mothers time to feed but it teaches the baby sitter valuable skills required for motherhood. 

 

This family unit will be members of a greater “bond group” made up of other extended family members of second cousins and grad aunts totaling over a hundred animals at times. It is not unusual to see these animals all come together at the end of the day. Elephants can talk to each other over great distances using low frequency sounds.

 

A male elephant’s life is quite different. They spend more and more time away from the family unit as they mature joining bull herds and living a seeming clear free live of no responsibility. Each year a mature bull comes into “musth” a periodic period that lengthens with age that is characterized by a rise in reproductive hormones with testosterone levels spiking to 60 times higher than normal levels. During this period they level their traditional home ranges traveling huge distance in pursuit of ovulating females. 

 

If you spend enough time with elephants one thing that stands out is their massive intellect! The old adage the elephants never forget is so true. I once worked on a private reserve that had been transformed from cattle ranch to wildlife property in the 60s. In the early days the rancher had adopted a group of orphan elephant. The elephant had free range of the range and as the ranch made the progression to a wildlife area the elephant population grew and they eventually formed the nucleus of a herd of about 300 wild elephant. I went out with the old rancher about 30 years later and he would make the same whistle that he use to make all those years ago and sure enough the remaining females (grandmother elephants by now) would walk right up to the car raising their trunks as if to try and smell him. 

 

A few months ago I was guiding a group of guess from New York city. We were driving along the Grumeti River. We found a herd of about 30 elephant just before they crossed the river that was in full flood at the time. They was a clear exit point on the opposite side of the river directly across from us. The matriarch took her herd about a hundred feet upstream from us before they started to cross. The strong current pushed them down stream perfectly timing their exit from the river on the other side where there was  gentle slope in the river bank. A group of stragglers followed behind (which is often the case when elephants are feeding). Seeing their family already across the river, these young animals attempted to cross the river directly, failing to go upstream first. The current pushed them about 100 feet downstream to a point where the bank was very steep and impossible for the now tired animals to climb up. The matriarch witnessed what was happening and very quickly ran over to above were they where on top of the river bank. She started to break down the river bank by collapsing it with her front legs. Slowly the steep incline started to lessen and she was able to pull the young animals up. Once the family was reunited they moved off quietly in to feed on the other side. 

 

A researcher in Kenya has studied a herd of elephant for about 50 years allowing her to know the population intimately. She knows how ever animal is related to the other. One day an old female died of old age close to her tent. The carcass was quickly cleaned to the bone by hyena, jackal and vultures as is the case with these things.  Over the period of about a year the bones lay whitening in the sun and she was able to record passing elephant’s reactions to them. Elephant that were not closely related to her would stop for a few minutes before moving on. When her own family came by the would spend as much as an hour there. Her son would come by an spend all day ad night picking up the bones and putting them in this mouth as if trying to recall her. 

 

So I often wonder what it is about elephants that makes them so uniquely special to us as humans. For me it is without question a sense of great emotional wisdom and a family bond that at times appears to equal or even surpasses that of our own.

Saturday
May062017

Rhino

The Rhinoceros is what we call an odd toed ungulate (Perissodactyia) this means that they have an odd number of toes and simple stomachs. This group of animals includes members of the horse family (Equidae) Zebra, horses & donkeys and the Tapirs (Tapiridae). Even though they look very different they are recognized as related families. Their simple stomach is not very efficient and hence their intestine needs to be quite long (85 feet in horses) so the animals themselves have to be large. There are five surviving members of the Rhinoceros family (2 in Africa and 3 in Southern Asia) and they are one of the world’s few remaining Megafauna. The two African species are the Black (Hooked Lipped Rhino) and the White (Wide mouthed Rhino). They are the same color (the name white comes from the Dutch word Wijd for wide).
The White Rhino is a larger animal and has a wide mouth for eating grass - like a big lawn mower if you will. The Black Rhino has a hooked lip designed for feeding on leaves and branches. The White Rhino is less aggressive and lives in a more open habitat.
The Black Rhino lives in dense woodland, they have poor eye sight but good hearing and a very good sense of smell. They also have a reputation for being notoriously bad tempered and charge on the slightest provocation!!
In the mid 90s I worked at a safari lodge that specialized in Rhino tracking. We would wake up and have breakfast while waiting for news from the game scouts who where already out looking for fresh Rhino tracks. Once a good track was located we would drive out to join up with the tracking team that consisted of two Shangaan trackers. The Shangaan take their name from their first King Soshangana who was a famous general of Shaka Zulu. They live in a region that creates the borders of modern day Zimbabwe, Mozambique and South Africa. Today they are famous for their tracking and hunting skills. Once on the track of a Rhino, we would expect a walk of any where from one hour to four or five. Tracking a mega herbivore like a black rhino is a very special experience as all your senses are heightened with the anticipation of what lies ahead. 
One morning I was guiding two young couples from the UK. We were following the tracks of a male rhino that had drunk water from a water hole the night before and was moving back to his territory feeding as he went. It was a glorious warm and sunny August morning following a dry river bed lined with riverine trees. We came across a large herd of elephant which we were down wind of and we were able to easily avoid. After about 3 hours of hard walking we came across the rhino who was sleeping under a bush as they often do in the middle of the day. I could not have been happier! We had little cover where we were, so the trackers and I started moving the 4 guests across to a termite mound where they could still have a good view of the sleeping animal while being afforded the protection of the high ground. 
Now the most important thing to be aware of when you are close to a sleeping black rhino is the direction of the wind. We do this by shaking a cotton bag filled with the white ash from the burned wood of a lead wood tree. I did this a few times on arrival and was happy with the wind direction as it was blowing directly from the rhino to us - just what we wanted. I failed to pay attention to the time of day as the wind can swirl at midday in August and sure enough this happened as the last guest was moving to the termite mound. The wind carried our sent right to the sleeping Rhino who saw the movement of the young English lady who was under my care. Our tranquil sleeping Rhino exploded into a furry of dust as he erupted straight at my guest. 
Seeing what was happening I experienced something I had never experienced before and have never experienced again. As I shouted to distract the rhino from its target the whole world around me slowed down as if I was in a slow motion movie. I watched as the rhino adopted me as its new target, now only about 10 feet away, he was charging directly towards me leading with the sharp point of his 2 foot long horn aimed at my soft belly! I had to make a split second decision - do i shoot a black rhino, one of the world’s rarest animals (there were only about 2000 left in the whole of africa at the time) or do I break the cardinal rule of guiding ”never fire a warning shot” (we do not do this as if the warning shot fails you do not have time to reload and are left at the mercy of the enraged animal). I opted to fire the warning shot, which I did over the head of the Rhino, who by this time was only about 3 feet in front of me. I distinctly remember seeing the rhino’s eyes close and his head turn as he veered to my right and passed me by about 1 foot, so close that I could feel the rush of the wind as he charged past me, crashing away into the undergrowth. Time sped up as I felt a huge relief watching the southern end of a northern bound rhinoceros!!
I looked back to see the ashen white faces of my 4 guests and the grinning faces of the 2 Shangaan trackers who had seen it all before! 
Sadly most of the African bush has lost this ancient animal. We have lost over 6000 rhino since 2008 alone. The Black Rhino population today is 4% of what it was in 1970 and South Africa is losing about about 3 rhino a day. A Rhino horn is worth about $30 thousand for a pound and one horn can easily weigh 10 pounds. The horn is in demand in the for use as medicine, ornamental knife handles and aphrodisiacs in Asia. The demand for rhino horn as well as other wildlife products such as ivory has dramatically accelerated with the tremendous growth of the Chinese middle classes, as their economic wealth grows so does the demand for traditional animal medicines. 
Even rhino in zoos have been targeted as was recently reported in a French Zoo.
Many dedicated people are fighting today to protect animals such as rhino and elephant and in cases giving their own lives. If anyone would like more information or to learn how they can help we work with many reputable organizations and people on the ground putting their lives on the front line every day.

 

Friday
Jul102015

Hadzabe people of Tanzania

 

I have just returned from The Serengeti in Tanzania, from what was and always is a productive and game rich safari. It is remarkable how this unique ecosystem never seems to fail in producing a huge volume of quality wildlife sightings - between Singita Mara and Singita. Sasakwa we found 39 different lions in just 5 nights! All of these animals aside, what resinated the most were the people that we met along the way.

There are 125 spoken different languages (nearly 10% of the spoken languages in Africa) in Tanzania today. Tanzanians all speak Swahili and most speak english as well as their mother tongues, making them, what in my mind must be, one of the most multi-lingual nations in the world. It is quite remarkable that a country with so much diversity amongst its people, is blessed with a conflict free and peaceful history. 

I was able to fulfill  a personal aspiration on this safari, walking with the Hadzabe people. Africa is home to 3 of the world’s oldest people who are slowly being forced into the modern ages from their current peaceful existence as hunter gathers. I have had the opportunity to spend time with both the Bushmen of the Kalahari in Southern Africa and the Batwa from the impenetrable forests of Central Africa. For millennia, these people have lived in synchronicity with Africa’s wildlife, never using more than they needed. They have always had a remarkable approach to their societies, no chiefs, just respected elders, little or no difference in the position of women, who are accepted as equals in their communities and no ownership of possessions. 

 

Men are the hunters, using arrows with poison strong enough to bring down a giraffe and the women gather a multitude of wild vegetables, tubers and fruit that makes up the bulk of their diets. The reason that these ancient communities have survived largely in tact is because they have been the only people who can survive in some of the world’s harshest environments where farming and the keeping of livestock are not a viable enterprise.

It was thrilling to watch 3 Hadzabe men walking through the bush with 3 kids from New York City. The Hadzabe had no idea of english and the kids certainly had no concept of their ancient clicking language but they got on so well together and understood one another perfectly. It made me reflect on what we as modern people, might have lost along our 70 thousand year head long march out of the stone age into today’s iphone age!

Tuesday
Nov182014

Ebola in West Africa

Over the last few months Maria and I have watched the progression of this terrible Ebola outbreak affecting countries in West Africa. It has been a relief to see countries like Nigeria, Spain and Senegal bringing the situation in their countries under control to the point where the World Health organization has declared them Ebola free. Mali and the United States are classified with local transmissions and Guinea, Liberia and Sierra leone of course sadly are suffering the full affects of this outbreak. 

 

It has been quite widely stated that Ebola is transmitted from direct contact with infected blood or body fluids, contaminated objects like needles or by handling what is known as “bushmeat” from fruit bats and primates (this can be a source of food in West Africa). Ebola is not an airborne virus and from what we understand it would take something of a genetic miracle for the virus to evolve into an airborne virus. 

 

The areas of West Africa that are infected with Ebola are actually closer to Europe than they are to destinations like Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana and South Africa and they also have a much greater flow of people and air traffic with Europe than they do these areas. Countries all over Africa are very aware of the potential threats of Ebola and they are taking precautions to prevent the virus from traveling to their countries. 

 

It has surprised me how much the news of this out break has affected the safari industries of East African and Southern Africa countries who ironically have never had cases of Ebola since the virus first raised its ugly head in 1976 (barring one case in Johannesburg 1996 - a doctor who was treating patients in Gabon). I was in Tanzania when the first case was found in Spain and lodges and camps in the Serengeti had massive cancellations of people who were due to arrive in a few days! Africa is a big place with 55 countries and over 2000 spoken languages that have played various roles in global politics for hundreds of years, yet it amazes me how little the world outside of Africa knows about the birth place of the human species!

 

How land is used in Africa is a big deal, little can be afforded to be left under utilized - tourism is the best hope for wildlife areas that have little to offer agriculture and tourism gives animals great value to the people who seek to improve their quality of life in these remote places. As the son of a farming family we lived with the constant threat of drought - it seems to me that the fickle nature of tourism is a man made equivalent.

 

Please do Africa a favor and correct someone when they place the vastness of this massive continent’s diversity in a single box!  I will be in Tanzania on safari this Christmas and while I fear the wrath of Maria for missing another holiday - I do not fear Ebola!!

Wednesday
Nov052014

6 Nights - 1 million animals - The Serengeti and Grumeti - October 2014 

 

This past October, I was fortunate to spend 6 nights in the Serengeti NP & Singita Grumeti Reserves. Never in the past 23 years as a guide have I been so privileged to see such quantities of wildlife. It was a remarkable experience shared with a wonderful couple whose enthusiasm and interest made the safari a resounding success.

The safari started in the remote reaches North of Tanzania on the banks of the Mara river. Unseasonably heavy rains in Tanzania drew the bulk of the wildebeest migration out of the Maasai Mara across the river into the Serengeti National Park. In 2 days we estimated 750 thousand animals crossed this crocodile infested river. It is very difficult, if not nearly impossible to capture on film or in words the enormity of the spectacle of so many animals in one place.

 

We were superbly cared for by the team at Legendary Serengeti Camp. This is an exclusive use mobile camp that captures the true romance and traditions of camping in the Serengeti as it moves with the migration. 

Moving on to our next camp, I was a little concerned that the experiences of the past 2 days would be hard to equal, but the wildlife in the Singita Grumeti Reserves has never failed us and certainly did not this time. Everything that we missed in the Serengeti we saw at Grumeti. 

 

This area has come such a long way since we first visited the reserve in its early days of 2004 and we are very proud of our association with Grumeti and all the amazing people who have shaped this area into arguably Africa’s finest wildlife viewing area that it is today. If you only ever get to visit Africa once, then this destination must surely be at the top of the list! 

 

We spent our days based out of Singita’s unique Faru Faru Lodge which is based on a small hill over-looking the Grumeti River. From here we spent most of our days out in the field traveling through one of Africa’s most beautiful landscapes. It is such a rewarding pleasure to guide people through Singita’s Grumeti Reserves, as it is such a vast area that produces amazing wildlife experiences in spectacular landscapes with so few other vehicles. At times we felt like we were the only people in the 350 thousand acre reserve. 

 

We watched lions playing in the early morning light, a mother cheetah and cubs hunting on the short grass plains and a leopard resting in an acacia tree in the heat of the day. A pair of Crowned Cranes in the evening light and a pair of serenading rock Agamas.

With a “super-moon” rising over the Serengeti on our last sundowners I was reminded how privileged we are to live in such a unique world. Thanks to all the great people who made this and every safari into such life changing experiences.