Monday, December 27, 2010

A little christmas irreverence

The short rains never truly arrived, so KP is nearly as dry as ever, much to the chagrin of the animals.  In fact, most of them have given up and gone in search of greener pastures, quite literally.  No more elephants stomping through camp, no more giraffe pruning our bushes.  The dirth of food has hit some harder than others, but that just gives us more opportunities to get closer to the wildlife. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Even the Selous has sad days

I've put off writing this post for more than a week.  The truth is that the subject is far too daunting and expanisve to properly tackle in just a blog post, but it's worth starting the conversation, which I truly hope this will become. 

About 10 days ago, our guides came across an elephant carcass.  With legs splayed beneath it and its head lying in the still waters of Lake Tagalala while lions lay atop it gorging themselves, the body had a cartoonish aspect...except for the fact that its face had been cut off.  The elephant had been killed by poachers and the ivory taken.  This is far from the first time this season that such an event has occured. 

There is no question that the Tanzania Wildlife Division, which administers the Selous, downplays the poaching.  But it would be unfair to say the WD deny the poaching.  In fact, the number two warden for the northern Selous came out to investigate the crime himself. 

But I think there is a tendency in the safari industry, as well as in government, to downplay poaching.  Afterall, no body wants guests to have their perfect holiday marred by acts of loxodonticidal killing sprees.  But it's a reality that I think we have an obligation not to hide from. 

A year ago I would have said that poaching was waning as tourism and revenue increased.  Then I started paying attention again and doubt began to grow.  Next I moved to the Selous, and all doubt vanished.  We had 7 WD-confirmed cases of elephant poaching in one week in September here in the Northern Selous.  And that's just about the most positive statistic I can present.  Even the seemingly positive news about busts and arrests really just demonstrates the scale of the carnage.   

But there is at least one very postive and constructive argument I will offer in conclusion.  The best thing you can do, if you want to put a stop to the poaching, is show up.  No one is stealing ivory from Ngorongoro crater.  Tourism is the best anti-poaching tactic available.    

Friday, December 10, 2010

Dreams and Reality

A few days ago, I had a dream that was fairly easy to interpret.  I dreamed that I was watching lions, hyenas, and wild dogs fight over a wildebeest carcass.  I have never seen a kill and I was still trying to get over the disappointment of just missing some wild dogs when they passed about a mile from camp the previous week; though I had rushed out to find them at my earliest opportunity, they had already moved on.  So clearly the dream was just a manifestation of deepest desires.

Fast forward to this morning when Vianney, one of our guides, radios me at 8:00 AM to say that he and his guests had found a pack of wild dogs.  Just 30 minutes from camp.  I dropped what I was doing, hopped in a vehicle, and went out on a "reconnaisance mission" (a manager always has to know what's going on out there!).  Sure enough, the guests led me to a pack of 15 dogs lying on the road.  Though they didn't quite let me crawl up to them, they were quite cooperative and when they did begin to wander off, they made sure to stick to the road. 

I followed them from a distance while they eyed some waterbuck but never seemed to fancy their chances.  They continued running up and over a hill...and then came tearing back down the other side barking and growling like mad!  I rushed up to the hill to see what had scared them and found a pair of mating lions. 

The lion, one of the two scarred, shaggy, territorial males in the area, couldn't even be bothered to get up from his shady lair.  The dogs, after retreating to the top of the hill, gave it a lot of bark before realizing they had no bite and ran off to lie in some shade themselves.

Compared to my dream, one might be inclined to say that the real-life version was a bit anti-climactic.  Fortunately for me, there's no such thing as an anti-climactic wild dog sighting, or lion sighting for that matter.  I'm just thankful that the Selous is so considerate of my dreams.  Since I missed my family's Thanksgiving tradition of saying what each of us is thankful for, I offer up the following picture as evidence of my 2010 submission. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Animal Farms

I had an engaging conversation with a South African guest last night who has worked on and off in the wildife conservation field, particularly with respect to poaching of endangered animals.  The question we got into was whether it is better to farm animals such as rhino and tigers in order to satisfy the demand, or whether it is better to try to eliminate the trade in these animals completely. 

One of the biggest controverseys surrounding farming is animal welfare and the poor treatment of tigers and especially bears.  But lets set that aside as, in theory, treatment of animals on a farm can always be improved.  Should we encourage animal farms to trade in endangered species' parts? 

On the one hand, it perpetuates the demand and by extension, the market for poached animal parts.  On the other hand, by providing a stable supply, we can lower the price to a point where poachers can't compete.  In addition, legally farming animals such as tigers is much easier than finding, killing, and smuggling wild specimens.  With rhinos, farming offers particular benefits as rhino horns can be trimmed and still re-grow.  One need not excessively harm the rhino in order to harvest its horn. 

This guest also offered an economics argument for why efforts to eliminate the trade in endangered animals will never succeed: The demand for animal parts is inelastic, meaning that as the price climbs, consumers are willing to pay more rather than reduce their demand.  This means that the more rare animal parts are, the more economic incentive poachers have to harvest them.  In other words, as anti-poaching efforts succeed the incentive to absorb the risk and costs of poaching increases as well.  Anti-poaching is fighting an uphill battle on a hill that just keeps growing.

Does this argument sound convincing, or do you think that farms merely offer a backdoor for poachers to access a legitimate market?

Monday, November 8, 2010

palm frond feast

One can't help but feel for the elephants.  Everyday we see them wandering through the leafless bush, spines jutting up from their backs as they strip bark off climbers for the bulk of their low-nutrition dry season diet. 

But that doesn't mean they can't be pests.  We have closed down Kiba Point in order to build a children's room adjacent to Room #1, and we just received a shipment of 450 bundles of makuti, palm fronds needed to thatch the new roof.  The newly cut, bright green makuti piled six feet high must look like a once-in-a-century feast to the elephants at the moment.  Family groups started converging from all directions to partake. 

Fortunately, we were able to organize a rescue mission for most of the makuti, but the elephants still made off with several bundles in the night.  But last night they were still hanging around, cleaning up the scraps.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Out of the bush

Two weeks ago, after more than two months, it was finally time.  I got to take a break and go on vacation.  Enough of the ants, the bush babies, the elephants, enough the bush.  What, I am sure you are wondering, would I do with my vacation time?  Easy.  Get out of camp as quickly as possible so that I could go straight on a safari.

I followed my American nose out west and chased the sun along Nomad's beast retreat.  First stop was Chada in Katavi National Park, and then I continued to Greystoke Mahale in Mahale Mountains National Park. 

Mahale was great.  I reunited with Claus and Jill (former Sand Rivers managers) and met a wonderful group of people including quite a few Tanzanian residents.  The chimps were a blast and the weather was, er, adventurous.  There is definitely something to be said for jungle hikes in torrential rain.  I also have to say that as much as I love my spot on the rufiji, I think Mahale ranks as the most beautiful all around camp in the Nomad portfolio.

But it is Chada that I will return to the first chance I get.  Managers Kristen and Mark were wonderful and the wildlife is equal to the Serengeti without any of the tourist masses; on every game drive save one over four days, I saw at least two different prides of lions.  I'm thrilled that it has flown under the radar for so long but I fear that it is a secret that can't be kept for much longer.  The park is an ideal blend of miombo and open plains and wetlands, a spectacular setting for safaris. 

I really have to tip my hat to Mark, Kristen, and all of the Chada staff because while I complain about elephants, theirs put mine to shame.  To truly understand it, check out Mark and Kristen's latest diary entry.  I had my own encounters with Katavi elephants, one of which resulted in a layer of dust over every inch of my tent after a couple of calves and their mothers played in the sand outside.  You can't get less than a meter away from elephant calves without it being a memorable occasion.

I hope to get back out there when it turns green, and maybe persuade Mark to organize an expedition into the deep south of the park, but for now I'm thrilled to be back in the Selous.  Mark likes to tease the Selous team about us not having any animals, but after one of the best weeks of wildlife viewing since I arrived in the selous, I would like to know how many leopards, wild dogs, and buffalo-lion battles his guests have seen in the last seven days.

Oh, and by the way, when I came back from my vacation the ants were still in by shower and bats had taken up residence under my bed.  Feels good to be home.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The elephants are at it again

After a few quiet weeks with just the errant elephant or two passing through camp, the big boys are back in force.  The last couple of days at least 10 separate family groups have passed through, and the poor vegetation clearly documents their passing.  With few leaves to chew on, the elephants are absolutely tearing apart the trees and making a mess of camp.

Despite the 3 AM wake-up as an elephant started nosing through the thatch on my house, I did enjoy my 6:30 wake-up that gave me a chance to step outside and watch an adolescent from 7 or 8 yards away.  Then I took a step too far and big mama matriarch got angry and started tossing her head and flapping her ears, so I had to hurry back inside. 

Sunday, October 3, 2010

On ants, take 2

I stand by my earlier comments about ants being fascinating...but they've got to go.  The big thing at the moment is their endless search for water.  Any hint of moisture and they rally the troops and invade.  And we're talking efficient, all-out invasions, none of this minimum troop requirements nonsense. 

They go after the faucets in the kitchens, the drainage pipes, puddles, cracks, whatever they can get to.  One day soldier ants even created an elaborate ladder with their bodies for the worker ants to climb down to the main swimming pool to fetch water.  They stayed far about 36 hours, and then moved on.  The biggest problem is when they go after the pool filters and clog them.  Or when they decide to terraform our pipes and fill them with dirt.  Sometimes, I think just for kicks, they send expeditionary forces into our electrical outlets for bit of pillaging and maurading, wreaking havoc on the wires.  But worst of all, from my perspective, are the ants that coming raining out of my shower head to latch onto my shoulders, my ears, whatever part of me they happen to land on.  I mean, it's funny at first taking a proper bush shower with siafu (swahili for army ants), but it wears on you.  And I think the ants are responsible for a blockage that prevents me from getting hot water. 

The plumbing concerns are bad enough, but the siafu go out of their way to tease me.  Half a dozen times guests have come to me to say that the ants are moving into their rooms.  By the time I or the staff get to the room, the ants have disappeared.  But they always make sure to present themselves as soon as the guests return. 

Therefore, while the ants' success and prevalence used to be part of their charm, it is now my biggest source of frustration.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Final shot

Poor Noemie, the thing she most wanted to see was a Leopard but she was shut away in camp, deftly touching up my shocking farmer's tan that threatened to ruin so many great photos, when I spotted my own favorite African animal.  Lounging on a broad branch of a baobab, a pretty-boy leopard surveyed his surroundings.

I'll end my discussion of the photo shoot with, finally, an actual photo, courtesy of Jo.  But it is probably worth noting that the consensus between her and Noemie was "eh, it's just a picture of a leopard in a baobab.  Nothing really special about it."  Works for me if I get to keep the picture.

Thanks Jo and Noemie, it was a real pleasure, can't wait to see all the pictures on the new website.

Friday, September 24, 2010

It's more about the feeling, really

The photo shoot is over and unfortunately, I no longer have my excuse for going out on walks and game drives every day.  It ended well when we went in search of good photos of pristine sand in the the dry riverbed.  Jo quickly found the scene she wanted but kumbe, the lions had beaten us to it.  14 Lions from our main sand rivers pride were laying about in the sand not far from a baby elephant on which they spent the morning gorging themselves.  There was nothing left for us to do but spend an hour with the lions, how tiresome that was!, and then continue on in search of a different scene to photograph.
For Richard and myself, the photo shoot was a lesson in, shall we say, perceptions of reality.  A few days ago, we peacefully watched the sun setting from Lizzie’s hill with Mike and Carol, the managers at Sand Rivers Selous, while Jo took pictures in the background.  All of a sudden, she stood up straight and said “this isn’t working.  It’s all too real.  These colors are just too realistic, I don’t do realistic.”  Apparently the image of friends chatting in the foreground, wine glasses in hand, with a gorgeous sunset in the background was just too much.  Eventually, the sun dipped below a cloud and cast more illumination on the scene, so Jo crouched back down and her lens started clicking away like mad, but the whole experience is causing me considerable concern about the world I live in and whether, perhaps, it is just a bit too surreal. 
Shortly before that, we paused the vehicle for Jo to take pictures of a small herd of wildebeest.  Our jaws dropped when she asked if one of us could be so kind as to remove the white piece of rubbish from in front of the herd.  That white piece of rubbish was in fact a beautiful cattle egret whose pure white feathers reflected back the harsh afternoon sun.
Another shoe dropped that night when Richard and I started excitedly talking about our plans for the next couple of days.  We couldn’t wait to go fly camping on Lake Tagalala and then turn around, head upriver by boat, and spend the next evening on the banks of the Rufiji at a place called Kogota.  Jo really dampened our spirits when she jumped in to say it didn’t make sense to do two fly camps because, obviously, “once you take the picture you can’t really tell if it’s a lake or a river.  And it doesn’t really matter cause it’s more about the feeling.”  For Richard and me, it’s all about the places, the animals, the little details and subjects of the drama that is the Selous ecosystem.  For us, the only feelings are the surge of adrenaline as you make the final approach to a herd of elephants from behind a bush, or catch the brilliant red underside of a Purple-crested Turaco’s wing out of the corner of your eye.  For the Wordsworthian Jo, a sunset is just a sunset, but it’s so much more when you can capture the pleasure, the surge of powerful emotions it invokes in, say, a group of safari managers who chase these moments across a continent.     

Monday, September 20, 2010

Caught between an elephant and Jo

The photoshoot has continued, and as fun as sunsets, pools and booze are, it wasn’t until yesterday evening that we got to what it’s all about.  Noemie's hair got an evening off as Jo and I were joined on a walk by the indomitable Richard Knocker, head of guide training for Nomad, he showcased the (almost) textbook way to get close to elephants on foot.   We approached from downwind under the cover of dense thickets to within twenty meters, where we crouched down behind a bush.  The elephants never even knew we were there until we started to pull back and even then, they never saw us or identified us as humans.  In fact, they were so oblivious that the only reason we withdrew was because as they calmly fed on grasses at the edge of the garden, they were aimlessly wandering closer and closer to our position.
I will give a great deal of credit to Jo for capturing a wonderful picture of Richard and me crouched behind the bush with the elephants just beyond, but no way does a photograph fully capture the whole experience, beginning with spotting the herd from afar and culminating in moving away with only nominal disturbance to the elephants.  Though I have to say there was one particularly odd aspect to the moment.  If I thought modelling in a pool while drinking a beer was tough, you should have seen Jo trying to position us behind the bush so that she could properly capture it all.  Hands jabbing left and right, lips hissing indecipherable commands, eyes narrowed, Jo was a frightening enough site that Richard and I began to think that safety lay towards the elephants rather than back towards her.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Meet the new face of the Selous

The last few days I’ve had the pleasure of touring the Selous with Jo, a photographer helping Nomad launch its new website, and her assistant, Noemie.  Inevitably, this has put a bit of a strain on my modelling acumen, not to mention my physical attributes, but Jo hasn’t complained too much about my fashion senselessness so it will hopefully turn out just fine.  I’m pretty sure that when you’re looking for me in the pictures, I’ll generally be the big blurry blob in the foreground of the stunning shot of sunset from Lizzie’s hill or the dawn light breaking over the rooms at Kiba Point.   
The first evening Jo arrived, I escorted her around the camp, and she demanded that I be her model the whole time.  I must say that it was rather hard work.  That evening I had to swim in the pool, drink a beer, and watch the sunset.  Can you imagine doing all of that?  I practically crawled to dinner I was so worn out.
I shouldn’t really complain, as Noemie has it far worse.  She has to model for three weeks as she accompanies Jo to all of Nomad's camps and she appears in so many photos with her gorgeous blond hair that Jo has resorted to masking it with an absolutely criminal black wig.  As tough as taking a swim and drinking beer can be, I have to hand it to Noemie for even donning said wig while taking a dip in the hottest of the natural hot springs.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

And the dry season continues...

Elephants are starting to get grumpy.  Although there is still plenty of delicious water in the Rufiji and just beneath the surface of the dry river beds, the elephants resent the food rationing that accompanies the end of the dry season.   Even the fig tree in camp, which has been supplying more food than a McDonald’s the last few months, has stopped fruiting.   The elephants seem to be taking their frustration out on the vegetation as they have yanked off branches, shorn off bark, and even toppled a few trees around camp.  

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Fair Fortune

We have been experiencing incredible fortune here in the Selous. For three consecutive days, wild dogs have graced us with their presence. KP guide Godlisten won the honors the second day as he was the first to spot them on an impala kill. It’s times like this that I wish I could just be a guest.

I did find considerable consolation this morning, however, when I went out on a brief game drive to watch some lions on a buffalo carcass. It was the large Sand Rivers pride and they greeted me with a surround-sound chorus of roars that seemed to be a response to some other lions we were hearing off in the distance. The females opened, some adolescent males joined the melody, and then one of the territorial males came in with a terrifying crescendo. It’s one thing to be just a few meters away from a roaring lion, it’s quite another to have lions roaring a few meters away in all directions.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Government-orchestrated mosquito swarms

An interesting rumor is floating around the streets of Dar Es Salaam this week.  Apparently, if one is a believer, 'the government' has released millions of mosquitoes to outcompete, outbreed, or out-whatever the more dangerous malaria-carrying species.  Supposedly it all began at a hospital and spread from there.  Perhaps the mosquito outbreak is the result of recent rains, or other ecological factors, but ingenious government plans are a far more interesting topic of conversation.

Though breeding mosquitoes to outcompete dangerous species is an intriguing idea, it doesn't quite compare to the innovative method heralded in The Economist last year--a laser defense system that rings villages and literally zaps mosquitoes out of the air.

Monday, September 6, 2010

On Ants

I think ants are the most underrated animal in East Africa. Think about all the characteristics that draw us to the great mammals of Africa; you will find many of them in ants.  They are highly gregarious, immensely strong, active throughout the day, seen in larger groups than wildebeest, more efficient hunters than wild dogs, and hunt animals larger to their relative size than even lions. And above all, they are very easy to find.

When I first read Henry David Thoreau’s account of battling ants in Walden, I fell asleep. Eight years later, I too find myself endlessly watching the behaviour of ants, even when they seem to be doing nothing. I find the sight of a single ant struggling to drag an immense load back to its nest often worth a laugh. Not too long ago, I witnessed a group of soldier and warrior ants work together to bring down a spider at least ten times their individual size. For a moment I thought the ants couldn’t possibly overcome the spider’s eight massive (by ant standards anyway) legs, but within about 15 seconds, it was clear who the winner would be.

We have a lot to admire in ants. They work together, they stay in line and wait their turn, they work hard, and they are truly courageous; they always risk their own safety for the greater good. More than that, they are useful to humans. Most visitors to the East Africa savannah learn how the Maasai use certain types of ants as stitches by allowing the ants to bite the skin over the wound and then pinching the ants' heads off. But fewer visitors are familiar with the East African Cleaning Service. A 100% free-of-charge service to homeowners and renters alike, the EACS will come periodically and unexpectedly to clean out your home. Upon arrival, residents need only vacate the premises for a couple of days and when they return, their home will be spotlessly clean. What's not to love about house cleaning ants?

Friday, September 3, 2010

Clever Animals

The wildlife knows the difference between a full camp and a quiet one. As a private camp, Kiba Point often has a few days between groups of guests, and some of the animals take full advantage, while others seem to lose interest in Kiba altogether. The monkeys move out of camp, perhaps no longer attracted to lavish lunch buffets and three-course dinners that they eye greedily. For a mama elephant and her calf, however, an empty camp is a perfect home. The pathways and vehicle track offer nice thoroughfares and the two of them experience minimal competition or danger from other animals. The question, however, is how do they know when it’s time to stay away?

During the last gap between guests, this elephant and her calf appeared in camp every evening. As Mother elephants with young can be aggressive, I was apprehensive about possible encounters between guests and two-ton (she’s pretty small by elephant standards) overprotective mothers. But the guests arrived and the elephants were nowhere to be found. The guests take off three days later...and the next evening the elephants are back with mama flapping her ears at us, but generally acting well-behaved. What tipped her off? The best explanation is that when we have guests, we line the pathways with lanterns, and the unfamiliar lights are a warning to stay away. But normally the elephants appear in camp before sundown. Is it the lack of vehicles that lets her know the camp is safe and quiet? I, for one, am generally happy with this system, though I didn’t feel that way at 1:00 in the morning last night when the two of them started knocking over trees and breaking branches close enough to my room that I could clearly see them in the moonlight.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Arrival in paradise

I've had a wonderful first three weeks here at Kiba Point. The Selous is such a magical place, with excitement around every corner.

To read in detail about life at Kiba Point, check out my diary at