Thursday, December 27, 2012

Elephants, Elephants, Elephants

Gonerazou National Park, November 7, 2012

Given the history of uncontrolled elephant hunting and poaching in Africa (the population has shrunk from 5 million in the 1930s to 500,000 today), it is amazing to find pockets where the animals are thriving. Do you see all the babies and youngsters in the picture below? Due to the lack of predators, the elephant population is exploding in some of Zimbabwe's national parks, and that is presenting a challenge.

Gonerazou National Park is home to 9000 elephants. The territory can support less than half that many. That means hungry elephants and other animals are deprived of their sustenance.

Not only do elephants eat a prodigous amount of food (they can clear an acre of small trees in two hours by knocking them over), but young males tend to take out their sexual frustration on trees, thrashing them with impunity. As Peter Allison says in his charming book, Whatever You Do, Don't Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide, if human male teenagers acted like adolescent elephants, global deforestation would be complete. 

The owner of Chilo Gorge Safari Camp tells us that controlling the population is a challenge. Culling herds is a logistics nightmare. They have found that the best way to cull is to take out an entire family. Hunters first shoot the matriarch. The other elephants gather around to protect her, making easy targets. Afterwards, there is the challenge of disposing of dozens of carcasses...and the emotional toil it takes on the hunters. Culling is an awful task and hunters hate it.

An alternative may be on the horizon. When we returned home, in my pile of mail was the On Wisconsin alumni magazine. In it was an article on birth control for elephants, An Elephant Never Begets.

A UW veterinary school graduate, Jeff Zuba of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, has founded the Elephant Population Management Project. It seems impossible, but Zuba and his team perform vasectomies in the wild. What????

It turns out that only the alpha bull needs the knife. He is the only one who gets access to the if his sperm is curtailed, the population should decline. A vasectomy doesn't change behavior or social status, so the bull will continue to dominate and prevent fertile males from mating with females. As Zuma says, "the big guy's back to normal, but shooting blanks."

We hope Zuba and his team will reach Gonerazou National Park soon.


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

In the Remote Bush

Chilo Gorge Camp, Gonerazou National Park, Zimbabwe, November 7, 2012

Gonerazou National Park is second only to Hwange National Park in size. It is tucked in the southeastern corner of Zimbabwe and is part of the Great Limpopo Transfrontier Park that encompasses Kruger National Park in South Africa and Limpopo National Park in Mozambique. This vast territory allows animals free range across the borders of all three countries.
Nancy on the veranda of our room at Chilo Gorge Camp overlooking the river

Gonerazou ("elephant tusk" in Shona) is off the beaten track so it doesn't get nearly as many visitors as Hwange. An  hour's hot, dusty ride on a pot-holed dirt road through the bush brought us to Chilo Gorge Camp. It is a gorgeous lodge perched above the Save River, where hippos loll the day away in the water...and snort and heave and make a racket during the night.

View of Save River and Gonarezhou National Park from our room at Chilo Gorge Camp
Chilo Gorge Camp is the most difficult to reach of the places we have stayed, but the pain is worth it. The accomodations and meals are exquisite. We would like to stay a whole week instead of just two nights. (Well, that goes for every place we have stayed!)

Hippos surfacing
The game drives feel different. When a Cape buffalo charges our Land Rover, it is clear that we are part of the food chain. The animals aren't used to vehicles or people, and they often bolt in fright. We feel uncomfortable at the disruption we are causing in their lives. They need their energy to run from real predators.

Warthogs scampering from our Land Rover
The birding here is supurb. There are 900 species of birds in Zimbabwe and 448 of them are found in the Southeast Lowlands. Pinched for time, we take a guided 45-minute 5:30 a.m. bird walk before we depart. We spot 18 birds, 11 new to us. Zimbabwe, like Costa Rica, is a birder's paradise!

A tree of bee-eaters

Broad-billed rollers in front of our balcony at Chilo Gorge Camp, Zimbabwe

Saturday, December 22, 2012

In the Misty Mountains

Bvumba (Misty) Mountains, Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, November 5, 2012

The Bvumba Mountains

The Eastern Highlands remind us of Costa Rica's Central Valley with its mountain vistas and lush vegetation. The green landscapes are a treat after two weeks of mostly bare trees and brown, drought-stricken lands at the end of a long dry season.

We are so close to the border that we can see Mozambique in the distance.

We are staying two nights at the Leopard Rock Hotel, a castle-like French chateau. The walls of the inner corridors are lined with pictures of the famous who have stayed here, including Princess Di. The Queen Mother loved this spot and called it the most beautiful place in Africa.

Nancy in the pool at Leopard Rock Hotel
The world-class golf course has drawn the likes of Tiger Woods. Many international tournaments have been held here. As the country rebuilds from its economic collapse in 2008 and 2009, Zimbabwe hopes to draw world-class golfers once again.

In the distance, Leopard Rock rises above the golf course

Adjoining coffee fields have been converted to an animal preserve where Nancy and I ambled one afternoon amidst giraffes, elands, zebras, impalas, and wildebeests.


Giraffe and Eland up close at Leopard Rock
In a place so serene and beautiful, we had difficulty imagining the revolution in the 1970s when Robert Mugabe (now president/dictator) and his followers were encamped at the Mozambique border and bombarded this area. The hotel itself took a direct hit. Gary Clegg, our trip leader, remembers the nearby Zimbabwean city of Mutare's advertizing campaign to lure hard-core partiers during this time: "If you want to get bombed this weekend, come to Mutare!"

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Sacred Baobab Tree (and Animals, Too!)

Mana Pools, Zimbabwe, November 1, 2012

The early morning at Mana Pools National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, breaks grey and threatening. The clouds provide a welcome relief from the heat of the past several days. As we clamor aboard the Land Rover for a game drive, our guide Robert tells us that the animals may be on the move in anticipation of rain. It's true, we do not see the wealth of animals that are typically here.

We do spot an occasional animal but not the herds we have seen in other parks.

A lone kudu, Mana Pools National Park
One elephant mother and child, Mana Pools

A small lion family resting in the sparse shade, Mana Pools

Small group of zebras at Mana Pools
But there other things besides wild life to interest us here.
Our guide parks near a huge baobab tree. "This tree," he says, "is 2600 years old. It is sacred to the tribal people."

2600-year-old baobab tree and 66-year-old Nancy, Mana Pools National Park
Robert describes the visit from the chief of the local Tonga tribe the previous day. He had walked many kilometers to visit the park (once his tribe's land) and this tree. The country has been suffering from a drought, and he came to ask the gods to forgive the transgressions responsible for it.

And today the clouds have come. No rain, yet, just the gray promise of rain. The parched earth and hungry animals await.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Big Game and Rare Painted Dogs

Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe, October 26, 2012

African elephant with giraffe
Our little group was returning to Ivory Lodge after a game drive. Hwange National Park, the largest national park in Zimbabwe, is home to huge numbers of wildlife. We had seen giraffes, elephants, cape buffalos, impalas, and a herd of zebras, apparently unconcerned about a black-backed jackal lurking nearby.

Burchell's zebra with jackal
Cape buffalo
Male impala
Female lion and cup feeding on young elephant
In Hwange we also had the amazing luck of seeing a pride of lions with the young elephant it had killed a few hours before. Our guide said that lions normally didn't hunt elephants, but Hwange is so overpopulated with elephants, it is just as well this pride has developed the skill necessary to bring down a huge pachyderm. Even a youngster is much larger than the largest lion.

         "I wish we could see a painted dog," I said, on our way back to lodge after a 5:30-8:30 a.m. game drive in Hwange. I had noticed a small sign that said "Painted Dog Conservation Area." 
        "Very unlikely," our guide Peter replied.
          We had heard about this rare, elusive, endangered carnivore, one of the best hunters in Africa, unrelated to domesticated dogs.
            Two minutes later, Peter suddenly braked the land rover. Twenty yards away were five painted dogs. They were larger than I had expected, beautifully multi-colored, with big round ears. Some were asleep, some were lolling on the ground. Each one had distinctive black, tan, and white markings. Four of the dogs wore a collar with a tracking antenna, part of the effort to save them from extinction.
Painted dogs near Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe
            Peter said they must have just made a kill and eaten their fill. Their bellies were bulging, and they stood to change positions occasionally and then flopped down again.  They didn't seem bothered by our presence or Peter's soft voice.

Painted dog
            He said that painted dogs hunt collaboratively and efficiently, and they share the meat. If some dogs don't get enough to eat, the others will feed the still-hungry pack mates by regurgitating food. If a dog is too old or sick to hunt or is caught in a trap, they will return from a kill to feed it.
            Painted dogs don't fight for dominance. One pair breeds, and the rest of the pack helps raise the pups. If dogs reach sexual maturity and want to breed, they leave the pack, often with siblings, and look for other singles. Of those, just one pair will mate, and the aunts and uncles help take care of the puppies.

Male kudu
            Painted dogs are intelligent. In fact they may be capable of expressing gratitude. Peter told us about a man walking in the bush who came across a painted dog with its paw caught in a trap. Instead of snapping and snarling, the dog put its head on the ground and closed its eyes, allowing the man to release its foot.
            Freed, the dog sprang away but then circled back and trailed the man home. A few days later, a pack of dogs chased a kudu, a large antelope with spiraling horns, to this man's home, killed it in the yard, and then left...apparently, a thank-you gift!           


Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Victoria Falls, Out in Africa, part 2

Victoria Falls, October 28, 2012

Our little group arrives at the colonial Stanley and Livingstone.  As usual at Zimbabwean hotels, we are greeted with a cool washcloth and a glass of chilled fruit juice.The clerk sits at an enormous wooden desk with depictions of the famous 1871 meeting between the two explorers -- "Dr, Livingstone, I presume?" -- adorning the walls.
As Becky and I sign the guest book, the clerk says, "Are you sisters?"
My heart lodges in my throat. Homosexual acts are punishable by death in Zimbabwe. But the clerk looks nice, and I hope she will not create trouble for us.
"No." I make eye contact with her. "We're married."
She looked baffled.
"To each other," I add.
"Oh, that is good," she nods. "It is important to find someone you are compatible with."
All right then.
The next morning our group drives several miles to one of the seven wonders of the world, Victoria Falls. In the native Lozi language, it is called Mosi Oa Tunya, "Smoke That Thunders." It is spectacular, a mile across with a 100-meter vertical plunge, the largest sheet of falling water in the world.
We are here at the end of the long, hot dry season, so some sections of the falls are dry. In the rainy season, there is so much spray from the cataract that visitors may not see much. An early thunderstorm 5 days ago has swollen the Zambezi River, giving us an ideal experience. Plumes of spray shoot up into the sky, creating rainbows. As we stroll along a path toward the loudest thunder, mist blows into our faces and rains down on us. We're told that this is the only place on earth where it "rains" 24/7/365.

Instead of the parched, drought-stricken African scrub we've been seeing during our whole first week in Zimbabwe, we are breathing in the humid air of a lush tropical mini-rain forest. Giant split leaf philodendrons, palm trees, and monkey vines twist through dense vegetation, reminding us of the Costa Rican rain forest.

Gary, our leader,  originally from Zimbabwe, wants to take all three couples' pictures in front of the "kissing tree." John and Louise kiss in front of the tree. Then Becky and I take their place. My heart is pounding. Is a same-sex kiss a capital crime? Are we crazy to risk this? I glance around. There are no officials in sight. Remembering the friendly clerk at the Stanley and Livingstone and with our travel buddies present, I put my arms around Becky. She puts her arms around me, and we kiss. 
The big smoke and thunder are over at Victoria Falls, 100 yards away, but that kiss feels huge, our own personal Mosi Oa Tunya.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Africa is for the Birds

Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe, October 31, 2012

Nancy on houseboat, writing this update

Becky and I are sitting on a house boat on Lake Kariba, the largest human-made lake in Africa The river that goes over Victoria Falls upstream was dammed here 5 decades ago to create hydroelectric power. Our group is on a 2-day cruise, a good respite from the intense highway and safari driving of our first 9 days in Zimbabwe, and a chance to write.

There's a hippopotamus on shore, a rare sighting since they usually emerge from the water to feed only at night. The boat captain says that on a previous trip, he saw several lions on the shore feasting on a hippo they had just killed.

In front of us a dozen elephants deftly twist grass out of the ground and pop it into their mouths.

African elephants on Lake Kariba, Zimbabwe
lilac-breasted roller
These wild creatures take our breath away. So do the birds. They are all new to us,. Lilac-breasted rollers appear everywhere we went in Zimbabwe. A cozy pair of cinnamon-colored broad-billed rollers perch in front of our room at Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge. A southern ground-hornbill jumps up on a rock and displays its red throat and blue throat patch. A yellow-billed stork's scarlet face and bright pink legs are reflected in the water.


           At the elegant colonial Stanley and Livingstone Hotel near Victoria Falls, we wander through lush gardens, watching hundreds of southern masked weavers build nests from palm and papyrus fibers, weaving an entrance tube at the bottom of each structure.

Southern masked weaver entering its nest from the bottom
Becky's favorite bird so far is the long-tailed carmine bee-eater, spotted this morning from the houseboat. Africa is famous for its bee-eaters, and this is the first one we have seen.
Carmine bee-eater
One bird does something odd. From its perch on a branch over the lake, this long-necked cormorant-type bird spreads its wings and jumps webbed feet first into the lake! "What is that?" I ask our guide.

Another African darter (or "snakebird")
African darter
"That one is the African dah-tah." Becky writes it down in our notebook. African dah-tah. No stranger than the boubous, bulbuls, hamerkops, and tit-babblers we've already seen in Zimbabwe.

Back on the houseboat, as the sun sets flaming orange over Lake Kariba, we check our Birds of Southern Africa. Ahhh . . . African Darter! We should have guessed at our guide's British-Zimbabwean accent. After all, that isn't the fest bed (first bird) we've seen on the chahhed (charred) remains of a bent (burned) tree!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Out in Africa, Part One

Zimabwe, October 23, 2012

"Cecil John Rhodes and Leander Starr Jameson were partners. They were both gay," says Howard, our black Zimbabwean guide. Our assistant group leader Kelly crouches down to read the inscription.

Howard has led us on a steep, windy climb in Matopo Hills National Park to "View of the World," which the founder of Rhodesia, now called Zimbabwe, chose as his final resting place.

The view is impressive. Granite outcroppings with huge circular rocks and upright rectangular blocks perched precariously on top stretch to the horizon in all directions. No one has a good explanation of how these balancing rocks came to be, and they are one reason the Matopo Hills have been declared a  UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Despite Howard's nonchalance about his nation’s founder being gay, Becky and I are careful not to be too out in Africa. Homosexual acts in Zimbabwe are a criminal offence punishable by death.

 Within minutes of arriving in Africa a week earlier, however, we presented our passports to a South African immigration officer, who asked, "Are you two sisters?" Since South Africa’s constitution bans discrimination based on sexual orientation and since same-sex marriage has been legal in South Africa for six years, we took a deep breath and said, "No, we are married. To each other."

"Really?" she smiled. She knocked on the glass partition and called to the next immigration officer, "THESE LADIES ARE MARRIED TO EACH OTHER!" He nodded and flashed a smile.

“Welcome to South Africa!" she said, stamping our passports. "Next!"

Four days later, when we entered Zimbabwe, the immigration officer did not ask if we were sisters. Thank goodness.

Now, standing beside the grave of Cecil Rhodes, I reflect on the irony of a homosexual having founded a country with such violently homophobic laws. Why does Zimbabwe have such a different approach than South Africa? Is it their leadership? Charismatic Nelson Mandela, the first black president of South Africa, was committed to equality, non-violence, and forgiveness. Tyrannical Robert Mugabe, the first (and current) black president of Zimbabwe, seems committed to self-aggrandizement, ruthless power, and retaliation.

My musings are interrupted by the discovery of a grasshopper next to Rhode's grave. Here in Africa, even insects seem more colorful, like the birds!

Nancy Manahan