Jurassic Park

June 1, 2016

“It feels like Jurassic Park.”  That’s what John said, and I had thought it myself before.  Coming round a bend in the river, we met an elephant grazing in the flooded grasses.  We floated by, he grazed, winding his trunk around grasses to tug them from their roots.  Before each mouthful, the elephant swished the cut grass back and forth through the water, to wash it perhaps.  Then into his mouth it went.

Boro River elephant
Boro River elephant

According to the National Elephant Center (located in Florida of all places), elephants spend 12-18 hours a day feeding and eat 200 – 600 pounds of vegetation.  They also drink a bath tub sized volume of water every day.  It’s true that almost every elephant we saw was eating or drinking.

The day had started with an hour’s drive through deep sand.  Our research team had grown. In addition to our usual group of Mos, Rele, and me, we also had my husband, Brandon Moore, and our colleague John Brock.

Brandon is a crocodilian biologist.  He studies “the evolution and functional morphology of archosaur genitalia.”  That is a fancy way of saying that he studies crocs, alligators, and birds (all classified as “archosaurs”) to figure out how their reproductive parts work and why they are shaped the way they are.  I should get him a t-shirt that says “I study croc junk.”  Trust me, his research topic makes for great conversations with strangers on trains.

At this point, you might be wondering why a person would study archosaur genitalia.  It’s amazingly cool.  First of all, there is huge diversity in the shapes and sizes of archosaur penises and vaginas.  Consider the small stifftail duck from South America.  It has a penis that is almost half a meter long and shaped like a corkscrew.  You can read more about it here.  The male duck might need such an impressive appendage to attract females and outcompete other males.  The vagina of the female is similarly ornate, a characteristic that allows her to physically exclude unwanted males.

Compare ducks to little tweety birds, which have no penis at all.  When they mate, they do a “cloacal kiss”, which basically involves males and females rubbing bums together and hoping for some sperm transfer.  Obviously it works.  All this is interesting, but how does it fit into big science?

For all organisms, reproduction is key to the success of a species.  Therefore the parts that control reproduction (like genitalia) are also keys to success.  So why all the differences?  What shapes the diversity?  How successful are the different strategies?  Do males and females benefit equally?  These are the questions Brandon asks in his research.  Though for this trip (and perhaps to the relief of the crocodiles), he was along to help us and see my research sites.

Our fifth team member was John Brock, friend, collaborator, and environmental chemist from UNC-Asheville.  He was visiting for 10 days and a whirlwind tour of the Okavango to collect water and soil samples.  Since I study the effects of pollution on fish, it’s helpful to know what kinds of pollution are in the Delta, and that’s where John comes in.  His lab is equipped with the kinds of expensive and complicated equipment that either draw you in as a scientist, or make you grateful to have John as a collaborator.  I am in the latter group.  My short-lived experience with a large and persnickety machine adorned with flashing lights and inexplicable switches persuaded me to go for field biology instead of analytical chemistry.

But back to our story.  After the sandy morning drive from Maun, we arrived at the banks of the Boro River, which was not nearly as flooded as we had hoped.  The Boro runs down the southwestern side of Chief’s Island.  In drought years, it can run dry in its southern reaches.  But we were here in June, and the arrival of the annual Okavango flood to this part of the Boro had been reported at least three weeks ago.  Nonetheless, the boat launching area was crowded with safari guides and others, all trying to figure out how to launch or retrieve boats from 18 inches of water.  Residents from a nearby village were doing their laundry and watching the spectacle, heckling or shouting advice to drivers as wheels spun in the mud.

Before launching the boat
Before launching the boat

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Mos planning our launch
Mos planning our launch
A lady collects drinking water from the river.
A lady collects drinking water from the river.

We joined the fray, confidently backing our truck and trailer into the river.  Rele unhooked the boat from the trailer, at which point it should float free.  But the boat stayed put, like a block of cement, no doubt weighed down by our stacks of geer.  John and I hovered on the river bank.  Mos backed the truck further into the water.  Brandon waded in to give the boat a push.  Crocodiles eyed us hungrily from the opposite shore.

Just kidding, we didn’t see any crocs.  They were probably around, but all the noise and human presence really isn’t their scene.  I was much more worried about bilharzia (schistosomiasis), an insidious disease you get from freshwater parasitic worms that burrow into your skin, slide into your blood stream, and slither up to your liver where they siphon off nutrients and breed.  Months later, you’ll know you have bilharzia because your abdomen becomes distended with fluid and you start to pee blood.  It can be cured, thank goodness.

First attempts to stay dry and launch the boat.
First attempts to stay dry and launch the boat.

A local man took interest in our situation and joined Brandon and Rele in heaving the boat this way and that, trying to free it from the raised bars on the side of the trailer.  I eyed my equipment, stacked inside pelican cases at the front of the boat.  I calculated how floatable and watertight the cases would be if they were thrown into the river.  We also had tents, bedding, drinking water, a cooler of food.  All teetering with the fate of the boat.  In the meantime, we were joined by a herd of cattle, coming down to the river for daily libations.

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A cow joins the launch efforts
A cow joins the launch efforts

The day wore on, the sun rose in the sky.  By now, the local washing was hung to dry in festive garlands along fences.  We decided to detach the trailer from the truck, making space to push the boat forwards instead of backwards.  The nose of the trailer dropped to the river bottom, levering the rear of the boat out of the water with an alarming jolt.  Contents shifted.  I sucked in my breath and paced the shore.  Still the boat wouldn’t budge.  We formulated a game plan.  We considered unloading the boat.  It would require several trips in a borrowed canoe to free the boat from its weight.  There were plenty of canoes around, but the time involved made us reluctant.  We opted from one more round of “push like crazy and hope the boat stays upright”.

Detaching the trailer
Detaching the trailer

Amazingly it worked.  The guys made it happen.  At the moment of maximum teeter, the boat slid off the trailer, avoided a sharp nail protruding from the trailer head, and splashed onto the water.  Cooler and pelican cases slid to their resting spots.  Brandon, Rele, and our local man were fully soaked.  The recalcitrant boat floated free, probably giggling quietly at its triumph.  We pulled the trailer from the sand.

An impressive amphibious vehicle, stuck in the mud
An impressive amphibious vehicle, also stuck in the mud

It was noon, basically lunch time and we had accomplished launch.  The good news was that a colleague from ORI had by now arrived with the boat battery, which we had forgotten to bring.  We parked the truck, checked our stuff, and began the 5 hour boat trip up river.

Grasses harvested for thatching
Grasses harvested for thatching

The early part of the trip meandered through grasslands that had recently been harvested for roofing thatch.  Some areas had also been burned.  It was not especially beautiful.  There were cows but no wildlife.  I felt sorry for the tourists on mokoro trips, who would probably turn around before they got to see the real Delta.

Recently burned grasses
Recently burned grasses

The river was shallow, forcing us to drive slowly to avoid sand banks and grass tangles.  We edged up the river at 8 km/hour.  My GPS estimated we would arrive at ORI’s Chief’s Island camp by 9pm, hours after the sun went down.  Normal people would probably turn around, but we continued.  I knew Mos would get us there.  And if he didn’t, we’d still be fine, camping on an island, watching the stars, cooking over a campfire, listening to bell frogs and hippos.  Either way, the trip was going to be wondrous.

Brandon, drying out in the sun.
Brandon, drying out in the sun.  His first views of the magnificent Okavango Delta.

Back to Pretoria – Impressions of South Africa

May 2016

The drive from Kruger to Pretoria, through Nelspruit passes flat banana plantations, boulder covered mountains, smoky factories, and shimmering towns.  There are signs of affluence in unexpected places.  For example, people who work in cities still own land in rural places where they were born.  On these rural homesteads, they construct large homes for weekend getaways and family reunions.  But, without home loans, people must build their houses as they earn the money, with the result that many homes remain under construction for years.  We passed one particularly sprawling community of luxury homes, mostly unfinished, and largely uninhabited, in the middle of nowhere.  It’s like a reverse ghost town – new, but no one lives there.  I guess the community fills up on holiday weekends.

Banana plantation near Kruger.
Banana plantation near Kruger.

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A sign promoting wetlands near Nelspruit
A sign promoting wetlands near Nelspruit

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The mountains were my favorite part, with their boulders and aloes and trees in yellows and greens.  But when I asked our friend Pete about hiking, he said it’s not as easy as you’d think.  Most of the land is privately owned and hikers are viewed as trespassers.  It’s an unfortunate paradox for the outdoor loving person.  There is nowhere to go for a simple walk in nature.  The National Parks have too much wildlife to make walking safe.  The rest of the options are not available unless you can afford to buy a mountain!

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Between Nelspruit and Pretoria, the land flattens and there are lots of factories, all filling the atmosphere with smoke, presumably from burning coal.  It made me think of The Lorax, by Dr. Seuss, a reminder of the environmental price we pay and will pay in the future for all that stuff we buy in stores.  South Africa produces the vast majority of manufactured goods consumed in southern Africa.  All the paper, coca cola, packaged cookies, shampoo, and electricity that I bought in Botswana came from South Africa.  In fact, on our drive to Pretoria, we passed paper mills and the planted forests that support them.  In that way, it felt a bit like Louisiana.

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Planted forests near paper mills.
Planted forests near paper mills.

The drive took a good six hours, maybe seven.  Our indulgent game drive in the morning meant we pulled into Pretoria after dark.  In Africa, dawn and dusk are the most magnificent parts of the day.  Evenings in particular have a characteristic feel and smell.  As the sun sets, its long rays are caught by the dusty air, amplified by cooking smoke that rises from the villages.  It’s a smell of coming home and the end of the day.  In Maun, the cows walk home at dusk.  They simply lift their heads from the grass and start walking, all together, towards home, wherever home is.  It’s a comfortable feeling as the stars begin to twinkle in the sky and the frogs take up their chorus as darkness descends.

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Smoke from cook fires is an ancient part of the African landscape, and a characteristic that I certainly love in the rural parts.  But near Pretoria, the density of humanity, the flat topography, and the lack of breezes combined with cook fires and factory emissions to create an oppressive atmosphere of low thick smoke.  Conditions changed from homey to a downright health hazard – the difference between a camp fire and a forest fire.  As we speeded past on the highway, I tried to imagine living with my family in a thick, acrid haze that recurred every night as we sat down to eat.  The thought was staggering.  I wonder about the respiratory diseases that must be spiking in these townships.  The asthma, the allergies, the lung cancer.  I don’t know the stats, but that’s what I’d expect.

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Pretoria at night is like any large city in the world.  Its multilane highways are well-lit conveyor belts connecting the city center with the outlying suburbs.  To me, it doesn’t feel particularly like Africa.  It’s too familiar.  On our way in, we stopped at a Macro to buy binoculars.  Macro is like Costco in the United States.  For a modest membership fee, you can have the privilege of buying pretty much anything you want for slightly less than normal retail and a lot less than boutique.  Thanks to Pete’s membership, we bought waterproof binoculars for $60 instead of the $120 we would have paid in the National Park.

And we learned something too.

When you leave South Africa as a tourist, you can get a refund on the VAT taxes you paid on retail goods.  As you might expect, actually receiving the refund is not as easy as you’d hope.  At the airport you must follow a circuitous route designed to deter all but the most determined or unsuspecting travelers.  We were probably both.

Before security, you must show your VAT-refund-eligible items to a sweaty and overworked officer who is the sole employee at the end of a long line.  In front of us was an Arab family, complete with ladies in burkas.  They had 4 carts loaded to capacity with suitcases and packages.  Balanced precariously atop one of these mounds was a pile of 4 dozen glazed donuts in boxes.  As we waited, this scene provided a modest amount of interest.  We wondered when they planned to eat the donuts – that would mean about nine donuts per person if the entire family was in the VAT line.  Alternatively, the donuts were a treat for family back home.  I admit that when I choose presents to take on airplanes, they are of the small, robust variety, unlikely to go stale, get smooshed, or lose their glistening luster.  But maybe the donuts are just that good.

After about 35 minutes, we were invited to show our binoculars and our new tent, also purchased at Macro with the help of my cousin and her membership, to the sweaty employee.  This fellow was remarkably helpful given the tedium and endlessness of customers and the gray, industrial surroundings.  He validated our receipts with official looking stamps and sent us on our way to the VAT refund office on the other side of security.

There we waited in another line.  This time our view encompassed various shopping options where we could spend our VAT refund.  We busied ourselves imagining the various African crafts we could buy.  Another 15 minutes floated by.  Finally a lady waved us forward.  Our passports were checked, our receipts noted, and our refund declined.  I mean what country really wants to return sales tax to its visitors?  I think they must furnish their VAT-refund staff with a list of ways to prevent refunds.  In our case, the reason for the decline was that our macro receipts bore the names of the people who had let us use their memberships.  Even though we paid for the items, which we could prove by producing the credit card used for the purchases, the lady was immovable on this point.  Not being one to keep other customers waiting, she waved us on with a firm hand.

Well that was a useful way to spend an hour at the airport.  Next time, I think we should just have a beer and enjoy a nice view of the runway.

It was a pleasant flight back to Botswana and a bit like coming home.

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Kalahari from the air
Kalahari from the air

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Double lines of veterinary fences criss-cross Botswana in bid to control foot-and-mouth, a disease that destroyed the cattle industry in the 1990s. The fences may help cattle, but now they destroy wildlife and the migration paths on which they depend.
Double lines of veterinary fences criss-cross Botswana in a bid to control foot-and-mouth, a disease that destroyed the cattle industry in the 1990s. The fences may help cattle, but now they destroy wildlife and the migration paths on which they depend.

Nine San Bushmen Violently Prevented from Feeding Their Families

August 30, 2016

This article by John Vidal appeared two days ago in The Guardian, a British newspaper.

It’s about how indigenous people are violently evicted from their land in the name of conservation.

I spent 7 months earlier this year working on conservation research in the wilderness of Botswana.  Most of the local people I met had a much lower impact on the environment than I did.

I drove a truck and a gas powered boat.  They walk and pole mokoro canoes by hand.

I carried my water in from afar.  That water was filtered using power-hungry RO technology and packaged in manufactured plastic bottles.  They drink from the river.

I purchased food at a grocery store.  That food was produced in a factory or faraway farm, refrigerated, transported, and stored.  The packaging went to the landfill.  All this requires burning petroleum and consumes environmental resources.  The local people gathered from their local environment.  Their fuel use is limited to wood that they gather.  They do not make trash.

I agree with the article’s premise that indigenous people should be given full legal rights to their land to manage as they have for hundreds of years already.  They know what they are doing.  They protect it with the same commitment we give our homes.

Some of the people I met were probably hunting and fishing illegally.  But what else are they supposed to do?  They were raised on the land.  They live incredibly sustainably.  They are not the threat we should worry about.

It is ourselves in developed countries that pose the greatest risk as we siphon resources, demand convenience and comfortable lifestyles, and fund the evictions and abuse of native peoples when we ourselves would be horrified (and litigious) if our government demanded we leave our house and live on the street.  Most of the poaching in Africa is to bring her resources to the Developed World.

Kruger Wildlife

May 2016

While at Kruger, we did as much wildlife viewing as we could.  We got up at 5am.  We went on night drives.  We squeaked game drives in between conference sessions and dinner.

The park is remarkable for its vistas and game.  Though in May, it was also very dry.  To me, the landscape looked munched down, despite the rainy season having ended just weeks ago.  The park staff are predicting a tough year for wildlife as drought conditions persist.

Rhino, the first animal we saw as we entered Kruger!
Rhino, the first animal we saw as we entered Kruger!

But the reason wildlife die during droughts is not usually because they are thirsty.  In fact many meet their moisture needs from plant foods and don’t need regular access to water in pools.  What kills wildlife during droughts is starvation.  Sparse rain means a lean year for plants, and low plant growth means a scant year for herbivores.  Everyone from impala to zebra to buffalo to elephants will be hungry.

Remains of an elephant: some scattered bones and a gray hide.
Remains of an elephant: some scattered bones and a gray hide.

But drought years are good for carnivores.  Lots of weak antelope makes catching easy.  Lions, leopards, hyenas, wild dogs, cheetahs, vultures, and other carnivores live like kings when the landscape is dry.  Some of these carnivores can go weeks without water, slaking their thirst on nothing more than the body fluids of their prey.

Vultures, members of Africa's vital disease management and clean-up crew.
Vultures, members of Africa’s vital disease management and clean-up crew.

With that cheery thought, we obviously stayed inside our vehicle when driving around the park.  Though we did open the windows.  It was too hot to keep them closed, and besides much of the experience is wrapped up in the smells and sounds of the park.

At Kruger, animals have the right of way. These vervet monkeys were enjoying the warmth of the tar road.
At Kruger, animals have the right of way. These baboons were enjoying the warmth of the tar road.

Most driving in Kruger is on tar roads – a change from Botswana sand.  In some ways the tar is nice because it’s smooth and doesn’t choke you with dust.  But it makes Kruger feel developed, managed, and fully documented.  There is almost no chance your car will break down beyond the reach of help.  You don’t need to carry your own toilet paper – it’s there in public toilets.  There are public toilets!  You can buy water at convenience stores.  You can eat in restaurants.  You can pitch your tent on grassy campgrounds.  Basically, you can show up to the park with almost no preparation.  And the park sets curfews that require all visitors to be safely tucked up in fenced camps at night.

The Skukuza Camp gate.
The Skukuza Camp gate.

In a nutshell, Kruger is a great place to see game, but, because of all the safety and comfort, it’s a stretch to call it adventure.

A dry river bed in Kruger.
A dry river bed in Kruger.
A kruger river with it stones and grasses.
A Kruger river with it stones and grasses.

One of our night drives (which you can do with park staff) was particularly fruitful for seeing nocturnal beasts that would never come out in the light of day.  We saw a civet, a genet, a honey badger, spotted hyena, baboons, rhino, a giant rain spider, and (of course) impala.

On an night drive. Elephant dung - it smells like cut grass.
On an night drive. Elephant dung – it smells like cut grass.

Poor impala – they are so numerous that the frequent game tourist actually gets tired of seeing them – the way people in Texas get tired of seeing cows.  Maybe “tired” is the wrong word – because impala are very beautiful.  It’s just that you see them so often, day and night, that the excitement wears off.   But I love impala and am grateful for their abundance in a landscape where many species struggle.

Impala - delicate and tawny.
Impala – delicate and tawny, easily identified from their black ankle socks.
Beautiful impala
Affectionate impala.

I want to point out that the night drive was only fruitful because one of the guests (sadly not me) was extremely good at seeing wildlife hiding in the trees.  The guide was not helpful.  He drove at a speed not compatible with identifying glowing eyes in the beam of our spotlight.  As we zoomed by, we strained to catch glimpses of nighttime fauna as they flashed across our vision.  Most of the time it was hard to tell if we’d seen something, or was it a product of wishful imagination?

Spotlight seeking wildlife.
Spotlight seeking wildlife.

Only the most obvious sights were pointed out by the guide.  The troupe of 100 baboons climbing a rock face.  A scrub hare bounding across the road.  The pack of hyenas cavorting at a watering hole.  The stoic pair of rhinos sipping water by moonlight.  Even the hyena loping along the side of the road would have been missed if not for a watchful tourist.

Cavorting hyenas.
Cavorting hyenas.

During the day we saw giraffe, lone buffalo, water buck, Egyptian geese, wildebeest, monkeys, warthogs, kudu, guinea fowl, franklins (quail-like birds), hippo, crocodiles, baboons, lilac breasted rollers (a beautiful iridescent bird), rhino, jackal, elephant, hornbills (also a bird), dung beetles, old tilapia nests, a goliath heron, marabou storks, jacanas (lilly trotters), black crakes (another type of water bird) and tree squirrels.

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Wildebeest
Wildebeest
A lone wildebeest. Likely a male who lost his bid to lead the breeding herd.
A lone wildebeest. Likely a male who lost his bid to lead the breeding herd.

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Buffalo.
Buffalo.
Lone buffalo.
Lone buffalo.
Curious baboon.
Curious baboon.
Grooming baboons enjoying warmth of the road.
Grooming baboons enjoying warmth of the road.
Kudu female.
Kudu female.
A loping hyena.
A loping hyena.
Old tilapia nests form circular depressions in the sand.
Old tilapia nests form circular depressions in the sand.
Young crocodile
Young crocodile
Black backed jackal.
Black backed jackal.
Jacana lillytrotter.
Jacana lillytrotter.

The video above shows a black crake foraging for lunch.

Goliath heron.
Goliath heron.
Hippo.
Hippo.
Maribou stork - the "old man" of southern Africa.
Marabou stork – the “old man” of southern Africa.

 

The elephants were surprisingly elusive.  Our friend, Pete, who has worked in the park for several field seasons, assured us we would see so many elephants that only impala would beat them in frequency.  But not so.  Not a single elephant in five days.  On our last day, as we departed Kruger, Pete took us on one of his favorite drives.  “We’ll find elephants”, he promised.

And at the edge of the park, in the nick of time, we found them.  A herd of about 12.  These were the first elephants my husband Brandon saw in Africa.  The elephants crossed the river below us, playing and tussling, drinking, and splashing.  There were calves and young adults and matriarchs.  The big male stood off a little way.  Further down river was another lone male.  After about 15 minutes, the family group moved out of the water and made their way up the bank into the trees.  They passed by our parked car, following the contour of the hill in front of us.  We held our breath.  Despite their enormous size, they walked almost silently.  The only sound was the swishing of trunks and the tearing of leaves as they fed.  They melted into the woodlands and vanished.

Kruger elephants.
Kruger elephants.
Kruger elephant family.
Kruger elephant family.

We dragged ourselves away from Kruger, reluctant to leave this wild place to return to highways and factories, vast farms, and towns.  As you leave Kruger, the scenery change is immediate.  You leave the scrubby shrubby native landscape and enter a world of green banana plantations, cultivated fields, burgeoning suburbs, and people.  Lots of people.  It’s a bit of a shock.

Water lily.
Water lily.
Kruger hippo.
Kruger hippo.
Kruger river with its stony shore.
Kruger river with its stony shore.
Kruger landscape.
Kruger landscape.
Banana plantation near Kruger.
Banana plantation near Kruger.
Where your bananas might come from.
Where your bananas might come from.

Kruger National Park: Economics of a Wilderness

May 2016

The Crocodile Specialists always meet where crocodiles are, which is why we found ourselves at Kruger National Park in South Africa.  Naturally we used our free time to get away from the dark and windowless conference room to go outside and look around.

Kruger Croc
Kruger Croc

Kruger Park is 7,523 square miles, about the same size as the Okavango Delta.  Accommodation in the park is set up in a series of lodges and camps, each with its own character and price range.  The Croc conference was hosted by Skukuza Rest Camp, which is the largest camp in Kruger and has add-on facilities like a restaurant, fuel station, and gift shop.

If you continue to read my blog, you will find that I am a biltong addict. The Skukuza gift shop offers a sumptuous array of beef and game biltong and I bought as much as I thought I could eat before having to cross the border back into Botswana (where Customs restricts meat imports).
If you continue to read my blog, you will find that I am a biltong addict. The Skukuza gift shop offers a sumptuous array of beef and game biltong and I bought as much as I thought I could eat before having to cross the border back into Botswana (where Customs restricts meat imports).
Our bungalow in Kruger. Inside this tiny hut was a double bed, a full bathroom, a fridge, a couple small tables, and a closet with lockable doors to keep the monkeys out.
Our bungalow in Kruger. Inside this tiny hut was a double bed, a full bathroom, a fridge, a couple small tables, and a closet with lockable doors to keep the monkeys out.

According to their website, Skukuza is “in the heart of Big Five territory”.  In Africa, the “Big Five” are lion, elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros.  These five species are apparently the most difficult and dangerous animals to hunt on foot, all the more reason to view them from a land cruiser armed only with a camera.

Skukuza is a fenced camp.  The fence is pretty good for keeping the big five out, but there were still plenty of warthogs and vervet monkeys foraging around our bungalow.  Our bungalow door was adorned with a photograph of a toothy monkey and dire warnings about the consequences of leaving windows open or food on the patio.  I didn’t feed the monkeys but I can understand why people do.  They are so appealing.

Vervet monkey
Vervet monkey
Foraging warthogs.  (Sorry to say but warthogs are both cute and delicious)
Foraging warthogs.

Being in the heart of “Big Five” territory, we were pretty optimistic about seeing all five.  After six days, we managed to see the “Big Two” – rhino and elephants.  But I am not complaining.  Kruger was the only place I saw rhino and their amazingness defies description.  Rhinos are excruciatingly endangered and not for the usual reasons I spend my time thinking about (pollution, habitat destruction).

No – rhinos are killed for their horns, which are considered a pharmaceutical necessity and status symbol, particularly in some Asian communities.  But the US is not immune, and there is enough American trafficking of rhino horn that several states have outlawed it specifically.

Rhino
Rhino

Rhino horn is made mainly of keratin, like fingernails and hair.  So, instead of paying $60,000 to $100,000 per kilogram for rhino horn, enthusiasts could derive the same medical benefits from biting their fingernails (toenails also work) or eating their hair.  It’s not medically supported that rhino horn prevents hangovers, stops fevers, or assists recovery from anti-cancer therapies, but the placebo effect is powerful too and sometimes it’s enough.

Personally, I find aspirin quite useful, but I’m a cheap-skate that way.

I asked a friend in Maun how much money is made by poachers when they kill a rhino and sell its horn.

While pondering this question, consider the life of a poacher.

Poachers must walk or drive through the African bush, often at night, with heavy guns on their shoulders and possibly no shoes on their feet.  I guess those guns are useful when they come across a stalking lion.  Too bad if they step on a venomous puff adder instead.

At all times, poachers must avoid detection by anti-poaching units who are allowed, even encouraged to shoot poachers, possibly before their poaching activities are confirmed.  Poachers run the very real risk of landing in harsh prisons with poor living conditions.  If they can’t pay their fines, they might be subjected to caning and other forms of corporal punishment.  I read this in a March 2016 article published in the Mail and Guardian.

For the danger, poachers make, according to my friend in Maun, $200-$500 per rhino horn – and presumably they need to split this money with their friends – poachers rarely work alone.  From there, the horn passes through the black box of the black market and emerges as a commodity worth more than gold and cocaine.

I do not know how reliable the $200-$500 value per rhino horn is.  This is word of mouth from a person who is not a poacher, but well connected in a community that cares deeply about conservation of African wildlife and includes people who work in anti-poaching units.  If you have more confirmed information about rhino horn prices received by poachers, send me a comment in the field below.

The thing I don’t understand about rhino genocide is why the poachers make so little when the commodity is worth so much.  Don’t get me wrong – I do not support killing rhinos at all.  But I also don’t support colonial style natural resource extraction where the local people doing the (dangerous) labor get paid a pittance to irreversibly ravage their landscape while some well-dressed person in a foreign country reaps the real economic rewards.  Let’s face it.  $500 for a horn that will later sell for $120,000 – $300,000 (horns weigh 2-3 kg) is not equitable, no matter how you justify it.

And no one is paying for the economic losses associated with one less grazer shaping the southern African ecosystem.

A mother rhino with her calf.
A mother rhino with her calf.

That cost will emerge vaguely over time as lost tourism dollars and changes in ecosystem function that we can’t predict, due to lack of knowledge.  The only guarantee is there will be change.  How much it matters will depend on Africa’s ability to plan for and manage a sustainable and self-sufficient future.

During our Kruger conference, we learned about anti-poaching efforts in the park from Kruger head veterinarian, Markus Hofmeyr.  Despite a major effort, the park struggles to contain poaching.  They continue to lose hundreds of rhino and elephant in a year.  As Hofmeyr says, the problems of poaching in the park can only be solved by addressing problems outside the park – by which I expect he means poverty, corruption, greed, desperation.

A friend asked me if you can de-horn rhino.  Yes – that’s been done. It’s like trimming your fingernails as much as you can – and like fingernails, the horn grows back.  But, enough horn remains at the base that it’s still worth poaching so desperate poachers still kill de-horned rhinos.  Also a rhino needs its horn to defend itself and its babies against predators, so dehorning is not a great solution.

It’s taken me three days to write this post because I can’t figure out a solution that will save the rhino.  Obviously I’m not alone, or it would have been done already.

That said, I can suggest three things that could be helpful.

  1. A commitment to saving the rhino. The world needs to be serious with a “just say no” attitude to all things rhino (except conservation).  A lot of stuff goes on behind closed doors and people turn a blind eye when they shouldn’t.
  2. A major change in attitude and awareness among those who buy rhino horn. These people are funding the trade and they need to find a new obsession.
  3. A refusal by poachers to let the black market steal their wealth, which comes in the form of a rhino horn. If all the wealth of selling rhino horn went back to the African communities that produce it, wouldn’t that help relieve the poverty and desperation that drives poaching in the first place?  They have to cut out all the black market middlemen.

There is a 4th idea brewing as well.

An entrepreneur named Matthew Markus is developing a bio-identical substitute for real rhino horn that can be shaped using a 3D printer.  The synthetic horn has four major advantages – no animals are killed, rhinos are conserved, the cost is lower, and the synthetic version is free of contaminants.  Synthetic horn does not contain traces of industrial chemicals, pesticides, or radioactivity, which are found in natural rhino horn (and our hair and fingernails).

The plan to print synthetic horn is not supported by many conservationists, who believe the wild market will only be encouraged by adding fake horn to the mix.  I have no market expertise on this, but I think it’s worth trying alternative approaches because current conservation efforts are only partially successful.

I do know that I love the faux fur trim on my winter coat and I love it especially because it did not come from an animal.  So faux can be better.

Kruger National Park – the Crocodile Specialist Group

May 2016

In May, I spent six days in South Africa’s Kruger National Park, participating in a meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group.

IMG_5927

The “Crocodile Specialists” are an eclectic group of scientists, managers, veterinarians, community organizers, adventurers, and industry people who meet every two years to talk all things croc.  This is my second time attending the CSG, and I’ve noticed on both occasions a slight element of crazy, conferring a certain zest that is missing from more mainstream conferences.

Consider my colleague, Dr. Matt Shirley.  Imagine hiking through tropical jungle for two days, rappelling into a dark crevasse with a headlamp, wading waist-deep in bat guano through an unexplored (until now) bat cave in equatorial Africa, all in search of an orange crocodile that is new to science.  You then proceed to capture said crocodile and many of her friends to find out what they eat, take tiny skin samples for DNA, and document that their color is completely different to their cousins living in the forest near the cave.  From this, you determine that the cave crocs are an isolated lineage, evolving independently from the outside forest community.

That’s just one of the stories.

Presenting in the same session as me was Dr. Larissa McLeod, who had surveyed the Crocodile Specialists to ask what diseases we encounter most often.  She showed a slide with a lengthy list that included predictable worthies like malaria and schistosomiasis, but also a bunch of diseases with long names and horrible pictures that are (happily) less familiar.  She showed range maps for each of the ten diseases she decided to highlight, and I was pleased to note that Botswana generally (though not always) was not a hotbed of infectious incubation.

Dr. McLeod’s advice at the end of her talk was excellent – get vaccinated for the things you can vaccinate for, avoid getting bitten by disease vectors (like mosquitoes), get medical attention immediately if you develop remarkable symptoms like high fever, and carry basic first aid, including rehydration salts, antibiotics (ointments, oral), and something for pain and fever – like aspirin or Tylenol.  I would add to that – do your research, know where you are going and what you are getting into when you choose to work in the tropical watery places of the world.

My presentation at the meeting went well.  It lacked the shock-value of elephantiasis and the ick-quality of waist-deep guano, but I finished on time and my message was solid.  We had tested if drinking water contaminated with nitrate increases the risk that alligators will develop type 1 diabetes.

Croc talk 1

“Whoa” you might say!  Alligators can get diabetes?  What’s nitrate?  And how does that affect me?

It seems like everyone can get diabetes these days.  Though I should point out that type 1 and type 2 diabetes are quite different and follow different progression pathways, although both result in the same outcome of increased blood sugar levels.

Type 1 diabetes tends to affect children and young people and happens when a person’s pancreas starts losing insulin-producing beta cells.  People with type 1 have to take insulin.  Type 1 was rapidly fatal until the 1920’s when pharmaceutical insulin first became available.

We don’t know if alligators can get diabetes – that’s partly why we did the experiment.  After 5 months of drinking water with 100 mg/L nitrate-nitrogen, the alligators in our study had lost about 13% of their beta cells and their blood glucose levels were elevated, though not above the normal range for gators. For comparison, by the time people are diagnosed with T1D, they’ve lost 70-80% of their beta cells.  Our alligators had other signs of early stage type 1 diabetes as well.  A longer study is needed to find out if nitrate can cause full blown diabetes in alligators.

So how did we come up with this experiment?

The larger problem is this:  Nitrate comes from fertilizers and sewage. It’s been called the “other global pollutant” second only to carbon dioxide in the vast global problems it’s causing.  When you see ponds at golf courses that are full of algae – it’s because the water has high nitrate.  Nitrate from farms and sewage facilities gets into rivers and ground water, and then into wells where it becomes part of the drinking water supply.

Croc talk 2

Mmmmm – yum.

Something like 13% of wells in the United States have nitrate levels higher than government mandated standards.   What people have noticed is there are hotspots of type 1 diabetes incidence in places where drinking water nitrate is high.  This association could be a total coincidence and doesn’t hold true in all situations, but we decided to check it out.  This is why we did our alligator experiment.

And why alligators?  Because we’ve worked with them for a long time and know a lot about their development.  Also, they live a long time (like people) and inhabit watery places that get contaminated with nitrate.  So, like tilapia, they are a good environmental sentinel species.

This affects you, me, our families because it’s more evidence that human-made pollutants are causing health problems that affect quality of life, longevity, prosperity, and most importantly our children.

We might need fertilizers to grow crops and we definitely can’t avoid the production of sewage, so nitrate sources are not likely to go away.  But there are lots of ways to improve.  We can increase our awareness, be more efficient, contain and treat our waste better, and value clean water for the wonder that it is.  Heck, if we’d stop adding so many pharmaceuticals to our sewage*, we could use it to fertilize our fields and simply close the loop.

*When a person takes medication(s), they get metabolized and leave the person’s body in urine or feces.  One of the biggest challenges for modern day sewage treatment is to remove metabolized pharmaceuticals from waste water before it is redistributed to rivers or aquifers.

Pulp Fishin’

July 22, 2016

I have never seen “Pulp Fiction”, but my husband has many times.  So he says, the story is presented out of chronological order.  In this way (and possibly this way alone) my blog going forward will be Tarantino-esque.

Spoiler alert – at the end of my stay in Botswana, the contents of the briefcase will be revealed to be pieces of salted fish – in true Botswana fashion (more on this later).

I am way behind on my posts, which are currently stored on my hard drive in rough form, having languished due to poor internet access, a feverish focus on data collection, and distraction caused by vigilant hippos.

The poor internet access has increased precipitously in the last two months.  I have no idea why this is, but here’s how it goes.  Wherever I am (home, a lodge or camp doing field work, the airport), the signal looks promising.  I click “connect” with a hopeful heart.  Ten minutes later there is nothing.  Obviously I re-connect several times, shake my computer, look out the window, but still … nothing.  Internet is there but not there at the same time.  It’s an ethereal wish that flitters in the air, vanishing when you reach out to grasp it.  If you wait until 2 in the morning, it sometimes improves.

Okay, I’m exaggerating a little, but it’s true that internet in Botswana is often slow and sometimes simply not available.  As with other parts of life here, you have the feeling you are waiting in line and you can’t see the window or person that is your target.

For instance, earlier this week, at a camp in northern Botswana, I went to the reception area to check email.  I had exactly the experience of seeing 5 bars of connection that facilitated exactly zero bytes of data transfer.  Meanwhile, the motorcycling Spaniard who trailed us for days (more on this later) placed a skype call home.  Yes – skype, and all the bandwidth that entails.  Apparently there was enough band width for just one skype connection – so the rest of us waited our turn.

As I contemplate my return to the Western World in just over a week, I note with gratitude that access to internet is likely to improve.  My foray into the far reaches of southern Africa has shown me just how internet dependent I am.

But on to more exciting things – my feverish focus on data collection.  While in Botswana, I have collected samples from 363 fish!  I have traveled the length and breadth of 8000 square miles of Delta to test for antibiotic resistance.  I have measured oxygen, pH, conductivity, temperature, and nitrate so many times that we take bets now on what the measurement will be and usually get it right – even in this changeable and charismatic landscape.  I have mentored students and worked with colleagues and collaborators from North Carolina, South Carolina, Oregon, South Africa, and of course, Botswana.  In terms of data collection and building friendships, this expedition has exceeded expectations.

And finally we have the vigilant hippos.  They are everywhere.  Near every net we put out, along every river bank we explore.  They pretend to be dead only to leap up when we are close to send us fleeing for our lives.  They fill the night with grunts and gurgles, roars and snorts.  Their charactistic “hah-hah-hah-hah” rumbles through the darkness, giving the unsettling impression they are right outside the tent (and sometimes they are).

These hippos look relaxed and sleepy, but they absolutely knew we were there.
These hippos look relaxed and sleepy, but they absolutely knew we were there.

If you say the word “hippo” to anyone in southern Africa, tourist and local alike, they will nod sagely and pronounce with a doomsday tone that hippos are known to be the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for more human mortalities that any other.  They beat out fearsome creatures like crocodiles, black mambas, and lions.  The danger lies in the suddenness of their assault.  Like my son woken untimely from a nap, they attack without warning.  Hippos have a distinct “zero tolerance” attitude towards those who venture too much into their personal space.  Of all the animals I routinely encounter, hippos are the only ones that still make me uneasy.  I respect all the animals I meet, but hippos get the widest berth.

We will leave Botswana in 9 days with a week-long detour through Wales before going home to Tennessee.   Over the next weeks, I will post the rest of my Botswana story, filling in the adventures that have happened since the pace heated up in May.  I intend to carry Africa forward with me, into my other life.

The road to data, adventure, new friends.
The road to data, adventure, new friends.

Night Sounds of the

Okavango

Outside my house, the frogs are calling on the Thamalakane River.  Bell frogs, bull frogs, and many I can’t identify.  They are most active from sunset until dinner time.  By bedtime (about 10 pm), they’ve closed shop for the night.  It gets pretty cold these days, and no doubt the dipping temperatures send the frogs off to bed.

These wonderful frog calls were recorded from the patio of my house in Maun, Botswana on July 22, 2016 at 7:30 pm.  The video is focused on lights in Maun on the other side of the river.  The image at the top of the post is moonrise over the Okavango River at Ngepi Camp in the Caprivi Strip of Namibia!  Caprivi is at the northern end of the Okavango Delta and Maun is at the southern end.

Baobab Yogurt

July 12, 2016

While camping at Xakanaxa in the northeastern part of the Okavango Delta, my colleague, Ronald Mothobi, showed me how to make baobab yogurt.

Like many traditional foods, baobab yogurt is delicious, simple to make, takes a bit of time, and should be eaten as soon as it’s ready.

The ingredients are:

  • Ripe baobab fruit
  • Milk
  • Honey or sugar (optional)

Baobab trees are fantastic ancient beings that can live for over four thousand (!) years in the sandy southern African landscape.  The trees shed their leaves in winter, giving them the characteristic “upside down tree” appearance familiar to armchair safari goers and watchers of the “Lion King”.

My children in front of a 4000 year old baobab tree at Planet Baobab Lodge in Botswana.
My children in front of a 4000 year old baobab tree at Planet Baobab Lodge in Botswana.

Baobabs begin making fruit when they are about 200 years old.  Yes – 200!  So a fruiting baobab tree is an incredible investment of time.  This is one reason it is illegal to cut down a baobab tree in Botswana.  They are totally protected.

Sign announcing baobab protection at Planet Baobab.
Sign announcing baobab protection at Planet Baobab.

Like the trees, the fruits are remarkable in form and would give you a good bonk on the head if you happened to pass under one as it dropped.

Baobab fruits have a hard shell covered in soft, velvet-like fuzz.
Baobab fruits have a hard shell covered in soft, velvet-like fuzz.

Baobab fruits are ready to eat when you find them on the ground.  So they are easy to get and a large tree will produce hundreds of fruit.  They are ripe when the inside is dry and chalky.  If that doesn’t sound tasty, read on.

The inside of a ripe baobab fruit.
The inside of a ripe baobab fruit.

Breaking open baobab fruits is great fun, particularly for my two sons, who were delighted to whack and crack baobab fruits against rocks.  The trick is to extract the cracked fruit from your child’s eager hands before he smashes it beyond all recognition.

Scooping out dry baobab pulp to make baobab yogurt.
Scooping out dry baobab pulp to make baobab yogurt.

Once you crack open the fruit, scoop out the chunks of dry pulp powder.  These encase heavy black seeds, so don’t bite down hard if you want your teeth to stay intact.

Ready to make baobab yogurt.
Ready to make baobab yogurt.

In a bowl, combine the chunks with enough milk that they are generously covered.  You can also use water, but milk tastes more creamy.  Wait for an hour or two and add more milk if the concoction gets too thick.

You can refrigerate or not – obviously in the bush, we just left the bowl on a table in the shade.  In this case you may have to protect from monkeys.

Milk mixed with dry baobab pulp, in the process of making baobab yogurt.
Milk mixed with dry baobab pulp, in the process of making baobab yogurt.
Moremi monkeys are playful and opportunistic robbers of all things edible.
Moremi monkeys are playful and opportunistic robbers of all things edible.

When most of the white baobab powder is hydrated with milk, the yogurt is ready to eat.  Probably you should spit out the seeds – rather like eating watermelon.

I don’t sweeten baobab yogurt though (I suspect) my children would prefer it that way. You can also eat the dry baobab pulp straight out of the husk.  It’s tangy and smooth.  My 3 year-old nephew commented that is was “the most delicious thing he’d ever had”.  Personally, I think mango is better, but I appreciated his enthusiasm.

Baobabs are considered “super fruits” due to all the goodies they contain – antioxidants etc.  They are also used in the same way as cream of tartar, as a thickener for example.

On that note, I would warn against eating too much of the straight dry pulp.  I did that once… I ate about ¾ of a large fruit and gave myself a most uncomfortable bout of gas and indigestion that made all sharing a tent with me regret the choice.  The idea of “all things in moderation” apparently applies to raw baobab fruits.  The yogurt however, was fine.

Baobab trees punctuating the African savannah.
A baobab watches over the African savannah.

What’s impetigo and how can I get my very own?

May 21, 2016

When you’re a kid, you hear about diseases like lumbago and gout and angina – and you have no idea what they are! Another of these is impetigo. I’ve heard of it, but, until it showed up on my children, had no idea what it was!

The short story is that impetigo is a common skin infection, picked up from bacteria in sand and soil. It’s caused by strains for Staphylococci and Streptococci bacteria and more commonly affects children – particularly ones like mine who play outside a lot and don’t like taking baths. It’s easily treated by antibiotic ointment, but there are resistant strains – that’s where MRSA skin infections come from. If left untreated, a course of oral antibiotics may be required.

Impetigo on shoulder
Impetigo on shoulder

So that sounds pretty easy, right? But that’s in retrospect. At the beginning, I didn’t know what we were dealing with.

It all started on an innocent Saturday morning. At breakfast, I happened to glance at my son’s knee, propped against the edge of the dining table in a manner that would not be considered polite by my mother. Erupting from his knee was a bulging and layered wound the size of an inflamed 2 pula coin. It oozed and dripped and appeared to be expanding before my eyes.  I wish I’d taken a photo, but I was distracted at the time.

“What is that?” I demanded, as a slight panic rose in my chest.

“I dunno”, shrugged my son.

“Does it hurt?”

“No”.

“When did it start?”

“I dunno”.

“Did you injure your knee?”

“I dunno”

“What happened to your knee?” I repeated

“I dunno”

This conversation was obviously not yielding the desired explanation. My son was remarkably unconcerned about the HUGE, bulging, gross, inflamed, nonhealing-wound looking thing on his knee. He helpfully pointed out that, actually, he had several such wounds, all over his knees, and a nice one brewing on his middle finger, which he delighted in showing me.

We’ve been living in Africa for 4 months and every three weeks or so, there is a new health challenge. We’ve had diarrhea of course and vomiting. We’ve had dehydration induced headaches. We’ve had bloody stools that turned out to be not-bloody-stools, but rather poor water quality in the toilet. We’ve had high fever that sent us running for malaria tests (were negative). We’ve had horrible itchy rashes induced by stinging caterpillars. So giant oozing wounds out of nowhere seemed like a reasonable next step. All part of the experience.

Despite my offspring’s lack of concern for the constant dribble of serum leaking from his knee, I obviously decided we needed medical attention and pronto. I considered my options, which are well developed, given all our previous health challenges.

Even being a Saturday, Maun actually has excellent medical options.

First, there is Dr. Max, who I met on the occasion of the bloody stools (don’t ask about that one). Dr. Max is wonderful. He is attentive, energetic, and knowledgeable. I liked him the moment I met him. He’s also highly recommended by several of my friends and has weekend hours – even on Sundays. His office, amusingly called Dr.’s Inn, is in the same thatched complex as the Indian restaurant Tandurei, near the airport. Incidentally, a straight-forward visit to Dr. Max, without bells and whistles, will cost you 200 pula, or about $20. Never have I had such competent health care for such a low price. The same visit in the United States would be $100, and that’s if you have insurance.

Second, there are the pharmacies, which, in Botswana are called “chemists”. From repeated observations, I have found Maun pharmacists to be exceptionally good. They give solid medical advice and do their best to assist, even in disease diagnosis. The convenience of pharmacists is that you can see them quickly (no lines, no appointments) and pick up your meds, all in one visit. Also, you can get a greater variety of medications over the counter that you can in the U.S. Many antibiotics are available without a prescription.

Although I like Dr. Max, I decided on this occasion to try the chemists first. I also looked online for likely explanations. Now, if you want to gross yourself out and give yourself a good scare, all in one day, you should go online and type in “skin infections”, sorted as images. You’ll find all sorts of interesting things you never knew you could contract.

That said, I narrowed down the options, and decided that my son probably had impetigo, a diagnosis that was confirmed by the chemist, who gave us antibiotic ointment called Fucidin and he recommended that we wash the wounds 2-3 times a day with Savlon, a medicine-y smelling antiseptic soap that stains everything orange.

Naturally when we got home, my younger son reported that he also had some nice spots of impetigo brewing. And so we began the 10 day assault on impetigo.

It all worked out fine, though impetigo leaves scars that are fine on knees, but would not be nice on faces. The scars might fade.  I learned at least two things.  First, small infections are much faster to treat than larger ones (obvious), so bring antibiotic ointment with you when you visit Africa – so you are armed and ready.  Second, I’m immensely grateful that the strain we had was curable with simple antibiotics. It makes me think about the development of antibiotic resistance in bacterial communities worldwide.

I’m actually measuring antibiotic resistance in water bacteria in the Okavango. I’ve already found some, which I will report on when I get the data together.