Botswana has her claws in me

There was a moment the other day when I felt discouraged. I questioned whether this was the right place to come for my dissertation. I think it was really just a slip in confidence. Luckily, it was fleeting. That afternoon we (actually, Ciprian) succeeded in making the GPS data collection device communicate with one of the computers. We were then able to pinpoint some probable feeding sites for one of the male leopards. Once we acquired the data points we went out to find bones. We visited three out of four sites before the sun went down and found recent bones at one of them. The other two were not as productive, but that is bound to happen now and then and we were short on search time. In addition, some of the points were from over three weeks ago.

If I come back here in a year for my dissertation research, I could track at least one leopard, if not several, on a regular basis, increasing my chances of finding prey bones and possibly even finding a baboon carcass. However, I have come to the conclusion that even if I don’t find baboons, and I may not, it will be an interesting, worthwhile, and very productive actualistic study that would contribute to our understanding of leopard feeding behaviors and the marks they leave on bones. I really cannot ask for more. The tricky part will be figuring out what are leopard tooth marks and what comes from hyaenas and lions. Hyaenas in particular will snag the remains of leopard meals and crunch them to splintery bits. How do I know what is caused by leopard teeth? My potential solution to this, apart from following them like a hawk, is camera traps. With those two methods, hopefully I can do one or two things: see which parts the leopards are eating or steal carcasses away before hyaenas get a chance to make permanent alterations. It’s hard to know what is the best solution. Probably I will try a little of both and figure out which is best in practice. Because I must tell you, snatching a carcass is daunting. You may not know the leopard is standing guard nearby.

Baboons live near camp, and it is possible that I will at least find a scavenged carcass or two. They are chacma baboons, larger than all other baboon subspecies (or species, depending on who you ask). They come around camp and try to get into things, like any good primate. I watched them for awhile from the dining area but then one or two individuals would get a little too bold and I’d have to chase them away. A couple of times, Ciprian helped by banging pots and pans together and finally by chasing them with the gun. He didn’t shoot them of course.

Our last full day in Botswana we went back to the giraffe carcass that we’d found that first full day. It was pretty well consumed at least in terms of soft tissue. Three out of four limbs were gone. One hind limb had been completely severed in half at the midshaft of the femur. Think of your thigh bone being broken clean in two at the midpoint. Now try that with a giraffe femur. The only thing that can do that is a spotted hyaena. Impressive. The carcass had been broken into two major portions somewhere along the spine so that the hindquarters were dragged about seven meters from the forequarters. Probably this was the result of multiple individuals feeding at the same time. One hyaena says to the other, “hey man, I called it first” and proceeds to haul it to the nearest acacia bush just for good measure. I suspect the missing limbs were reduced to pieces somewhere within a kilometer radius or so. Finding the bones would probably be almost impossible.

The take home message here is that I think I can work in Botswana. In fact, I think that it will be a very good fit. It will not be cheap, but that is another story, one I will take up with various funding organizations.

Next stop…Johannesburg.

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Okavango Research for Newbies

In truth, the research methods, complications and so forth could really be applied almost anywhere in Africa, but since I am in the Okavango Delta region, I will try to be specific to this area. First and foremost, being here is incredible. The animals are considerably more present and visible and seemingly fearless than in other places I’ve been, but I can’t really say that as a generalization and it may even be a bit of an illusion. It is just that certain individuals seem particularly comfortable with us humans around. This is true for a certain adult male elephant that frequents the camp as well as for some of the big cats. I knew that I would see leopards when I came here, but I never imagined that I would be fortunate enough to see so many individuals. We have seen four different leopards at this point, only one of which was skittish around the vehicle. The researcher here who is focused on leopards, Andrew, is trying to habituate this individual to the vehicle. It seems like a long, delicate process. We’ve also seen one male lion who did not seem concerned with out presence in the least. Most of these animals have radio collars, but two of the leopards do not so it was particularly striking that they tolerated us. They are quite distinct as individuals.

Before I jump ahead of myself, I am composing this offline while sitting on a small deck at the edge of Dog Camp, the BPCT’s field camp at the eastern edge of the delta. I am looking out onto a very dry, grassy flood plain with short bushes and a few trees scattered about. Our tent opens up onto this plain and in the morning I usually see at least one species of ungulate grazing in the distance. Most mornings we see impala, and sometimes there are zebra and tsessebe. Gray termite mounds are visible every 100-200 meters or so. There is not much in the way of topsoil, rather it is gray silty sand. The grass is very tall and dry and is the color of hay, but it is matted down in most places where it hasn’t been heavily grazed. Interspersed through the grass is sage brush, which is a pale green and is a fairly recent addition to the vegetation here. Apparently a river used to run through this area, hence the flood plain, but it stopped running 15-20 years ago and since then the sage has come in. There are acacia trees here but many other trees as well, and all sorts of plants that I cannot identify. In the background I hear at least three bird species chirping, calling, singing, and poking around in the brush. The birds are stunning and many of them hang around camp, especially the Burchell’s starlings and the yellow-billed hornbills. The hornbills are virtually pets, or pests, depending on your perspective. Other camp regulars include squirrels, vervet monkeys, and dwarf mongooses. From what I can tell, only the mongooses and hornbills are actively, though not regularly, fed. The rest of the critters snag crumbs when we aren’t looking. The squirrels get into the garbage through a hole at the top of the plastic container and scrounge around for lunch. I’d say they are the most resourceful. The vervets try but generally are too loud for their own good. As for that elephant I mentioned, well he comes and goes periodically. We’ve seen him twice. Once was at dusk right next to our tent. He stayed in camp all evening. Then we saw him the next day at lunch right next to the dining tent. Being only a few meters away from an adult elephant is both exciting and unnerving. You feel intensely how small and delicate we are as humans. But this elephant has been coming here for many years, probably before the camp was here, and is quite tolerant of humans. Not all of them are.

The other key aspect of this adventure has been driving. A vehicle is vital for any kind of movement around this area of the Okavango. Some areas of the delta require a mokoro (a kind of canoe) because there is so much water and little rivers, but here it is dry as a bone and we must drive a 4×4. My arrangement with BPCT includes the use of one of their Land Rovers. It’s an old Defender. They are sturdy vehicles, almost like tanks, and I’ve already done a fair amount of off-roading, but getting used to driving them is a challenge. It is fun in many ways. They are actually pretty easy to drive, but I am still getting a feel for just how much “bashing” I can do. When I’m driving through a wooded area and have to go over many logs, how big is too big? The only way to find out is to try, but I am also probably a bit too cautious since it’s not my vehicle. Maybe that’s a good thing. Every time I drive I get a little bit better at knowing what the vehicle (nicknamed “mamba”) can do.

And like doing research in any African country, things never go as planned and they take longer to do than they would elsewhere. In this case, mamba has been a handful. It’s a solid Land Rover, but it has problems. In other words, it breaks down a lot. So far it hasn’t done so while we’re out in the field. Thank goodness! But for example, this morning Ciprian and I were going to go check email at a place a few kilometers away and were thwarted when mamba decided not to start. We checked the things we knew how to check, but once that was exhausted we resigned ourselves to being in camp all morning. Andrew, the leopard guy, is also the person we go to when such things occur, but he left this morning for Maun and won’t be back until after lunch. So there you go. We stay here, we write, we read, we do other things and try to be productive. As far as being stuck goes, it’s rather a nice place to be.

I mentioned that we are in a very dry area, without any flooding, so we don’t have to worry about mud or water at this time of year, but the delta is flooded. In fact, it is flooded more than it has been in recent history. We drove northwest of Dog Camp yesterday afternoon with Andrew to try and track a collared lioness and made our way across the cutline road that is the border with Moremi National Park, what you might call the heart of the delta. Once we got a kilometer or two into Moremi, we started seeing water. This was the delta. We even saw a hippo from a distance, and lots of birds. I’d always heard that the birdlife in the Okavango was incredible, but seeing it is another story. We never managed to find the lioness, but we did stumble upon one of those uncollared leopards I mentioned above. He was standing on a tree branch, alert, and clearing interested in something off in the distance, something which we could not see. We drove closer to try and get photos, but still keeping a fair distance. He jumped down from the tree and made his way toward us, many 10 meters away, and walked casually by us in search of whatever it was he was after. We stayed with him, following as closely as we could for about 15 minutes and watched as he stalked some unseen thing. Then he stopped and walked slowly on into the setting sun. It was at that point that we had car troubles. It is one thing to have car trouble in the bush, and another to have it at sunset. We were about an hour’s drive from camp. Luckily, Andrew managed to get the car started after messing with the battery a bit. We got back after dark. I took a hot shower and we all sat down to a dinner of pasta with meatballs and a bit of wine.

The reason for being here of course is to find bones. I’ve seen very few so far, but the few that I have seen have been pretty satisfying. Unfortunately, none of them have been primate bones. It’s slightly disheartening, but then that is why I am here, so see what there is lying about out there, and if there are no primates then I either have to re-think my dissertation project or choose a different location. Not an easy choice. Tracking the carnivores is a part of the bone search since we want to know where they’ve been, and particularly where they’ve fed but that has not worked out exactly. There is a cord that is required to download the GPS information from the handheld data receiver to a computer. That cord is missing. So, one of the primary goals of this pilot study is probably not going to be accomplished. Obviously this stinks, but it’s not the end of the world. I have managed, really by chance, to see a leopard feeding, which was quite exciting. A collared male, in fact the only leopard with a GPS collar (as opposed to a strictly radio collar), fed on the neck flesh of a giraffe carcass that we found a few days ago. We took photos and even managed to get some of it on video. Many carnivores have been feeding on that carcass for the past few days. The individual was a young female giraffe and appeared to have died of sickness or something. We saw the carcass when it was untouched apart for some access through the anus which was probably the handiwork of vultures. In other words, there was no sign of predation. I’m hoping to see the carcass at least once more before we leave to see what kind of condition it’s in.

Today we may not get much done because of the vehicle situation, but that’s okay because we have more full days here than I’d originally planned. Camp is only a two hour drive from Maun, so there was no need for us to stay in Maun at all, something that I’d thought we’d have to do. We fly out of Maun on the 27th. Today is the 24th. We have gotten four full days here so far and should get two more. I think we’re doing okay.

I doubt I will write again from Botswana. The next entry will probably be from Johannesburg. I have no idea where we are staying in Jo’burg, but I’m trying to work it out. This is challenging with only intermittent cell and email use, but we’ll manage. In the meantime Ciprian and I are both enjoying being here. Yes, the flies buzzing around my head are a nuisance, but then I smell the air, look out onto the plain and hear the birds and life is good.

How to Camp in South Africa

There may be campgrounds in South Africa where people bring their own tents and pitch them on the edges of streams like we do in upstate New York and New Jersey, but that is not the type of camping we did at Shongweni Dam. The dam was originally built in 1927 and went under the name of the Vernon Hooper Dam. I don’t know the history of why it was created, only that it was mostly the Brits who were involved. Kwa-Zulu Natal was a British area back in the colonial days, so this is not unusual. It’s not a huge dam, but it’s sizable spanning about 200 meters or so and creating a good sized lake. If you canoe around the perimeter of the lake, which we did, it’s probably about 5 km.

The Shongweni Dam area is also a nature reserve. There is a game drive one can take, but the game is strictly ungulates (hoofed critters), including rhino and giraffe, and some reptiles (no predators). We didn’t have time for the game drive, but we did see animals. We had a pleasantly close encounter with a small group of zebra who are tame from years of grazing in the camp areas. They like to graze at the edge of the lake. We were able to get out of the vehicle and stand only feet away from them for photos. Zebra, like most animals with an instinct for self-preservation, tend to run away if you get too close. And there were monkeys…vervets. Vervets are small to medium sized monkeys that live in fairly large troops. They are capable of being pretty omnivorous, much like baboons. So it’s no surprise that they have taken on a somewhat commensal role in South Africa. In other words, they will steal any food you leave outside your tent and they will rummage through your trash. They’ll take just about anything you leave lying about because they are, after all, primates and therefore curious little buggers.

We got into camp around 5pm and settled in. The four of us stayed in a tented cabin on a raised wooden platform. The tents are large, heavy canvas that provide a lovely camping space. There was even a refrigerator in the tent and a microwave-hotplate contraption. We grilled meat outside and ate our dinner on the deck looking over the lake and drank a cheap liquor called Old Brown’s. It’s a sherry of some sort. Dinner was excellent and we all slept well. The next morning the monkeys arrived. I stood guard out on the deck to make sure they didn’t snag anything. They are smart and have a system where one or two individuals divert your attention while the other sneaks in and takes stuff from you. Clever, but luckily I am not that gullible. I did manage to get some video of the monkeys. I’ll try to put it online when I get back. I doubt I’ll manage to do it while I’m here.

After we got packed we rented canoes so we could take a row around the lake. We rented two canoes at only ZAR 120 (maybe $16) each. Neither Ciprian nor I have much experience with rowing. I have a bit of rowboat experience from when I was a kid, but precious little. Luckily they were flat-bottomed canoes and not too hard to control. Still, Ciprian and I managed to splash around a lot and lag behind the considerably more experienced Justin and Daniela.

Our last full day in Durban was spent accompanying Daniela to her job at Hillcrest AIDS Centre. It is an impressive operation. They have a respite unit, a shop to sell the goods made by the beaders and other craftspeople, a plant nursery, and a used clothing shop. The grounds are beautiful and everyone we met was warm and welcoming. Ciprian helped Daniela with some work while I took care of some business of my own. It was a relaxing day and I drove home. I got a fair amount of driving experience and now that I’m in Botswana I’ve gotten even more.

The next blog will be about Botswana…in a few days. There is a lot to say!

A belly full of Durban

I arrived in Durban late on the evening of August 12th. Instead of resting, I dove into my mini-vacation here with Ciprian, his sister Daniela and her husband Justin. We are staying in the Durban metro area, but we are located in the suburb of Kloof. It feels like a separate town, but then Durban is a huge metro area.

Daniela, Ciprian and I spent the first day in downtown Durban. Few white South Africans go there. It’s a strange dynamic. I’m so used to African cities like Nairobi where everyone intermingles, although I guess even Nairobi has its stuffy white neighborhoods. Downtown Durban is quite lovely. It’s clear that it used to be even more glamorous in a western cosmopolitan sense, but I was quite impressed by it regardless. It has some features in common with other African cities like Nairobi and Accra, in terms of agriculture and street life, but it’s considerably cleaner, with more sidewalks and old European buildings. As I understand it, the clean streets that we saw are a recent phenomenon due to the World Cup, but I’m not sure what the difference would be. It looked cleaner than many areas of NYC in my opinion.

We went to City Hall which, in addition to being a government building, serves as a museum. There is a small art museum and a natural history museum with a decent African animal display. Much of the art is quite good and there is a gallery room where there are many large format photos of different people sitting in an old chair that was refurbished with elaborate beadwork. The people in the photos were asked about their dreams for Africa. Some of the people were famous figures and some were local community members and crafts people. Hundreds of women worked on beading the chair. The project, called Dreams for Africa, is the brain child of Woza Moya an income-generating craft group headed by Hillcrest AIDS Centre Trust. Dreams for Africa is a collaborative art project that is meant to encourage dreaming among Africans and to raise funds for training programs. The links describe the project and Hillcrest in more detail and have links to the photos that we saw at the gallery.

After our museum excursion we grabbed some food at an outdoor market next to City Hall. I believe it is a daily market. There are stalls with clothes and various other useful odds and ends, and there are a couple of food stands. I had a chicken curry with roti – basically chicken (on the bone) curry, no veggies to speak of, sitting in a roti (i.e. a tortilla-like flat bread, but sweeter than a tortilla) and packaged in a long styrofoam box. It was fantastic and only cost me about $2.50 (about ZAR17). ZAR is the South African Rand. The dollar goes pretty far here, almost as far as in Kenya. We walked around Durban a bit more and ended with a drink at the Royal Hotel, which was formerly a big colonial hot spot. It’s a very nice hotel, and has that old colonial air about it with hints of Africa here and there in the decor. The clientele appear to be almost exclusively black South Africans, not white. As I said, white South Africans don’t spend much time in downtown Durban, that is unless they work there or own a boat in the harbor. Of course this is only one foreigner’s observation, but I don’t think I’m far off.

On Saturday the four of us went on a hike in the nearby Krantzkloof Nature Reserve. A “kloof” is the Afrikaans word for a gorge and this is indeed a massive gorge, like a more heavily vegetated version of Olduvai Gorge. We hiked a couple of very short trails, having our breakfast at an area with a beautiful view of the gorge and then making our way down to a small waterfall. It’s winter here which is also the dry season so the waterfall wasn’t heavy, but it was still lovely. There is some wildlife there but mostly we saw zebra scat and a few birds including an eagle of some sort. Probably either a fish eagle, a martial eagle or a crowned hawk eagle.

I got my first taste of driving on the left side of the road on Saturday. Justin let me drive his truck a bit. Driving stick with my left hand is not as hard as I thought it would be, but as a whole driving on the opposite side is definitely a challenge. It threw me for a loop several times particularly when turning and when at complex intersections with other cars. I’ll drive once or twice more before we head to Botswana just to gain more confidence.

Today, Sunday, we did something a bit different. We went to a Hare Krishna temple. The Temple of Understanding is in a suburb called Chatsworth. It’s the largest of its kind in Africa. It’s not huge inside but the building definitely stands out. It’s quite tall compared to other buildings in the area and is shaped like a lotus flower. We listened to some afternoon chanting, which is really more like singing with drums and bells. It was actually very beautiful. Then we went downstairs to their restaurant where we each ordered the buffet and ate some of the best Indian food I’ve ever had. We all took seconds and stuffed ourselves silly. We barely ate dinner later in the evening, although Ciprian did manage to consume an entire 1/8 kg of kudu biltong. Biltong is like beef jerky except you can get it made out of game animals like kudu and eland. I’m not a fan, but Ciprian loves it.

Tomorrow we’re going camping nearby. I’ll write more before we move on to Botswana on Thursday. Cheers!