Monday, October 24, 2011

Zebra - Its More than the Largest Size

Steve Erickson was one of the class clowns (if not the) class clown) in my seventh grade class. If ever there was a time when levity was needed Steve seemed to know instinctively what to say and how to say it to make everyone around him laugh. Steve and I were the acolytes for Faith Lutheran Church in the seventh grade. That responsibility meant that not only did we light the candles on the altar before a service started but we also extinguished the lights after the service. And, once a month, we were responsible for filling all of the little wine glasses used for communion. I remember one February Sunday morning in the seventh grade when we were filling the wine glasses and Steve said, straight faced, "You know Craig, wine can go bad. I think we need to test this wine to make sure its safe for everyone to drink." Not knowing any better I believed Steve and we tested the wine. We "tested" about one half of a bottle of red wine to confirm that it was safe and even broke into a second bottle of wine to make sure it was safe just in case. We had an uproariously good time bringing the wine glasses out to the altar for Pastor Vocke to distribute. And nobody came down ill that day. We had made sure they wouldn't.

On the day in September 2011 when I saw my first wild zebra I instantly thought of Steve Erickson (who, unfortunately, died of some form of cancer almost 3 years ago). There was a girl in our class (who will not be named but everyone from that class reading this knows who I am talking about) who was, let's say, at the front of the line when breast development was first handed out. Making matters worse, when boys are in the seventh grade our entire existence is controlled by raging hormones that seem to drip into our blood streams at the most inopportune time.

Like the day we found a crack in the window to the girls locker room where Steve, myself, and a couple of other classmates (who will not be named to protect the complicit) had staked ourselves out hoping to get a glimpse of not only her but of "them." As the tension grew to a crescendo Steve knew how to put everyone at ease when he asked "So, do you know what a zebra is?" Foolishly I said "Its kind of a horse that lives in Africa." Steve flashed his silver front tooth, snickered, and said "no you idiot, its what (she) wears. Its the largest size there is."

Plains zebra may not be the largest size there is but it is one of the species that upon seeing it you have no doubt in your mind that you are in Africa. My first wild plains zebra was a group of them foraging on a grassland near Polakwane, South Africa on September 9, 2011. They were the second large mammal I saw in that country and on my trip (Sable Antelope was first).

The discontinuous range of plains zebra in Africa
Plains zebra was fairly common throughout Kruger National Park and in other areas like Sani Pass, along the Indian Ocean from Durban to St. Lucia Wetlands National Park, at Addo Elephant National Park and on some private wildlife preserves near Cape Town. There is another species of zebra called Cape Mountain Zebra that is protected in an isolated national park that I never visited. I would have enjoyed seeing that species as well.

Like so many other savanna species, the coat of the plains zebra is perfect for helping the animal hide from predators. Look at these zebras photographed in Mozambique that are standing in a mopani forest that has yet to leaf out.

The black and white barring on the zebra coat blends nicely with the black and white background of this forest before it was completely leafed out. Predators would likely have to look twice to see a zebra standing still in this habitat. In fact, the most noticeable adaptation of plains zebras is its stripes. The stripes of the zebra may help to visually confuse its predators, mainly lions. There are other theories of why zebras have stripes; one being that the stripes may help regulate its body temperature.

One of the sources I read about zebras mentioned the propensity of young males to run around kicking their heels in the air for no other reason than they can. One morning at Satara Rest Camp I was stopped from traveling by a large herd of zebra who were crossing the road at their own speed. In the herd was at least two young males who were doing just that - kicking their heels and braying. This went on until an obviously older member of the herd walked over and bit one of the young males on the neck. The kicking stopped immediately.

Zebra are one of the principal prey items for lions and leopards. Their anti-predator defenses are simply to run (with their fingers crossed) and to kick or bite. Biting at lion that is hell bent on making you into lunch is definitely a career-limiting move but kicking a lion might send a message. Not only are the young zebra blowing off steam when they run around kicking the air I think they are also learning how to defend themselves from being lion fodder.

My most favorite plains zebra picture. This was taken at the St. Lucia Wetlands National Park north of Richard's Bay
As with so many other wildlife species in Africa it was refreshing to see plains zebra in as much apparent abundance as I did. I found them before I arrived in Kruger National Park and in many places outside of that huge park as well as other private areas. One day near Sani Pass when I was watching a herd grazing on the side of a mountain I had a fantasy that they were actually American bison and I was actually on the prairie in North Dakota and all around me was nothing but native grassland. The zebra-bison grazed from dawn to dusk in an almost endless parade across the prairie finally disappearing at sunset.

None of us will ever see that spectacle again on the great plains of North America because bison have been relegated to second class citizenship and are tucked away on national wildlife refuges and national parks and some private conservation areas. Now what they used to roam freely on has been converted to hard-red spring wheat, or sunflowers, or corn or soybeans.

However you can still get a feeling for what it was once like back before plows and European settlers spoiled everything by heading to southern Africa and finding herds of zebra and herds of impala and other species that still live sort of as it used to be. I hope they always do.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Giraffe - Evolution Run Amok

Have you ever sat around contemplating why a Giraffe has such a ridiculously long neck? Biologists will tell you that it gives them an evolutionary advantage to be able to eat leaves from the tops of trees that other species can't reach. That may be true however they also graze on grasslands that impala and kudu and a whole host of other antelope feed on. Some suggest that the long neck is an advantage in seeing predators in the distance. Yet there are a bazillion impala on the African savanna and they seem to survive just fine with all the predators out there and an impala is much shorter than a lion or a leopard.

And why is the giraffe built so off-center? Look at its front legs. They are several feet longer than their hind legs. Is that an adaptation for holding up their massive neck so they can eat those leaves at the top of the tree? And why are their hind legs so much shorter? Maybe that is an adaptation to balance out their gargantuan neck?

And what's up with those wimpy horns? They seem to serve no purpose at all. Certainly any marauding lion is going to laugh itself sick if a giraffe takes a swipe at it with those wimpy horns. And why is a Giraffe's tongue black? Do they think it will serve as camouflage while they eat those tall leaves at night?

I started thinking about these things seven weeks ago today when I saw my first giraffe in the wild near Punda Maria Camp in Kruger National Park.

My first wild giraffe
Predictably it stood in the scrub forest with its neck and head towering over the trees beneath it. He/she was perfectly situated to gorge on as many tree-top leaves as it could swallow.

I sat and watched the giraffe for maybe 15 minutes as it poked around in the forest. Later in the day I found more giraffe including one that was splayed out across the savanna trying to get a drink of water. I almost felt sorry for it having to go through all of the contortions just to get its mouth close enough to the water to have a drink.

Giraffe drinking - or trying to drink - water

As with my elephant experiences looking at a giraffe made me feel like I was watching the movie "Jurassic Park" one more time. They simply defy logic when you see one loping along (and they can lope pretty fast) through the thorn forests. They do so very quietly as well. How something weighing 2000 pounds and standing up to 16 feet tall can be so quiet when it moves is another mystery of this animal.

I remember well the day when I was home from college during graduate school when a pair of Seventh Day Adventists showed up at our farm determined to save me from an eternity of fire and damnation. The topic that got them excited was evolution. I was taking a graduate course in evolution at the time and luckily I had my facts and figures down perfectly. They didn't stand a chance.

The bible thumpers were excited because I stated matter of factly that if you read Genesis 1:1-7 objectively it maps out the course of evolution from the simpler life forms to the more complex life forms ultimately resulting in humans. Of course you can interpret anything in the bible to suit any topic you might be discussing but I didn't mention that. All I heard from the bible thumpers was that "I did not evolve from an ape." Well, yes you did but what's so bad about that? George W. Bush is living proof that humans and chimpanzees are first cousins however Dubya wasn't an issue at the time.

I asked the thumpers to tell me some of the characteristics that all mammals have in common. Things like hair on their bodies, and mammary glands, giving live birth, a lower jaw made of simple bone, the ability to replace teeth at certain ages, the ability to regulate their body temperature, a four chambered heart, and seven cervical vertebrae. All mammals possess these characteristics and no group of animals other than mammals has all of these characteristics.

So I asked the thumpers how many chambers are in a human heart. They had no idea. Then I asked them how many chambers were in a chimpanzee's heart and how many in a giraffe's. They didn't know. (the answer is four). I asked them a number of other questions and then said "So, how many vertebrae do you have in your neck?" They didn't know that they had seven. I then asked "How many vertebrae are there in a mouse's neck?" They guessed three but the answer was seven. I then asked "And how many vertebrae are in a giraffe's neck?" They said 20 but the answer is seven just like there are seven in the neck of a chimpanzee.

After discussing these biological facts a bit more and pointing out that in the biological scheme of things we humans have a lot in common not only with our first cousin the chimpanzee but also with a mouse and with a giraffe the thumpers had had enough. We had been debating for three hours and despite all the facts in front of them they refused to believe them. Finally I was asked if I was concerned what would happen to me when I died. I smiled and said "I want to be buried on the plains of Africa next to a giraffe so his seven neck vertebrae can play pool with my seven neck vertebrae any time they want to." Clearly flustered the thumpers threw their hands in the air, yelled "there's no hope for you young man" and left. Some giraffe somewhere in Africa was probably smiling as the two thumpers stormed out of our back door and then drove away.

I saw giraffe every day I was in Kruger National Park and never once tired of looking at them. They are such a biological oddity it was impossible not to want to look at them. One day while watching one chewing its cud (giraffes are the largest ruminants on earth) it dawned on me. A giraffe is like a Jersey cow on a Barron County Wisconsin pasture chewing its cud and watching the day go by. The only difference is that a giraffe neck is about 80 times longer than a Jersey cow's neck.

The picture below is my most favorite one from the trip. I found a group of seven giraffe (the largest group I encountered) by the side of the road near the Letaba Rest Camp one day. Predictably they were just chilling out eating acacia leaves, chewing their respective cuds, and just being giraffes. The one in this picture had a flock of yellow-billed oxpeckers on its neck. There were probably 20 of those birds picking lice and ticks from the skin of the giraffe's enormous neck. Every so often the giraffe reached the limit of his tolerance and would shake his head and neck like a dog (but in much slower motion) sending the oxpeckers off in a frenzy of feathers only to land back on the giraffe a few seconds later.

If you look closely at the picture below you can see not only the intricacies of the giraffe's neck but you can also see several ticks by its ear and near its horn there is a yellow-billed oxpecker waiting patiently to dine on ticks.

Close up of a giraffe's head. Note the ticks by its ear and the yellow-billed oxpecker waiting for a chance to dine on them

Among the 49 species of mammal I saw on my South African journey, I have to say that its a toss up between African elephant and giraffe for my most favorite. And although neither could eat me (both could crush me like a bug however) I think I enjoyed them so much beause they both define evolution run amok.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Lions and Kudu and Impala, Oh My

(Photo by

During my recent trip to southern Africa I was lucky to be able to see 39 different lions in five widely scattered groups largely in central and southern Kruger National Park.
Each of the 12 main rest camps in Kruger National Park maintains a wildlife sighting board near the reception area for the camp. The wildlife sightings are updated almost instantaneously when new observations of high-priority species are made

The wildlife sightings board at Lower Sabie Rest Camp on September 16 2011

Each of the Big 5 mammals is on each board along with other species such as Cheetah, Wild Dog, and Spotted Hyena. Their location is plotted on a road map of each region of the park making the logistics of finding a species you seek much easier. If you are looking for a particular species simply stop in at the reception area, check the sightings board and make plans accordingly.

When I checked it one morning, the sightings board at Satara Rest Camp in the center of Kruger showed that lions had been seen in two relatively close areas off a dirt road just south of the camp. My arrival at 8:00 a.m. told me that the sightings on the board were very new.

My first lion
I dashed down this road (as fast as you can dash down a washboard surfaced gravel road) and about 12 km from Satara found two lions (probably young males) snoozing in the shade of an acacia tree. As I watched them, a small group of greater kudu stood nearby grazing as if there was no danger.

A greater kudu male munching on savanna grasses less than 100 meters from a pair of sleeping ions

Something I had read somewhere said that prey species seem to "know" when a predator is hunting. Likewise they seem to "know" when they are not. This morning the greater kudu, blue wildebeast and impala actively foraging 100 meters from the sleeping lions must have known that they had nothing to fear - then.

I watched this first pair for maybe 10 minutes then tired of watching tired lions snooze and moved on. Another 10 km further east I encountered a T- intersection and as I studied a map trying to decide where to go next a Land Rover driven by a Belgian guy pulled up and the driver informed me that a pride of lions was sleeping by the side of the road just 3 km south.

Snoozing lions

And that is exactly what I found when I drove up to the spot. Nine lions of various shapes and ages lay in the shade of acacia trees sleeping off last night's feast of impala or whatever other snack the lioness was able to kill. I watched these lions for maybe 30 minutes and simply marveled at the massive neck and chest muscles of the female. Given the chance female lions will kill African buffalo, young elephants and giraffes on top of all the smaller creatures they consume. To pull down something as massive as an elephant they have to have some fantastic muscle development.

The best part of the 30 minutes spent with this group of lions was watching the lone cub sleeping maybe 30 feet from me. I hate sounding anthropomorphic but cute is the only word that describes the cub. I have since printed out an 8x10 of the sleeping lion and it now adorns my living room wall.

Lions were another example of the adage about when it rains it pours. For three days I saw none and half an hour I had seen eleven - with more to come.

Driving south from Satara about 30 km I encountered a pride of 18 lions sleeping by the side of the road. This group included a fully-maned male not unlike the male in the first picture of this post. Like the others this group just chilled out snoozing in the shade of acacia trees. Unfortunately they were too far away to get decent pictures with my meager lens. Next time.

Still further down the road I encountered another group of 9 lions. Each was slowly and methodically crossing the road in front of me.

Note how perfectly the color of the lion blends with the color of the savanna grasses behind it - the perfect killing combination.

Thirty-eight lions in a morning was one of the other highlights of the trip. The next day I saw one more lion (again snoozing) by the side of the road not long after my encounter with the leopards. In all I was lucky enough to see 39 lions in a 24 hour period. This was the third of the Big 5 I saw on the trip.

Granted my observations were very limited in duration and scope but there is one thing I learned about lions from watching them and reading about them. They sleep a lot. About the only time they are moving around is when they are hunting and then its the lioness who does the hunting. The males hang out and let her do all the work. However when they are not hunting or eating the spoils of their hunt, lions just lay around.

This is another animal I fantasized about shooting when I was a child and a young adult. It was those pictures in the Weatherby rifle catalog that got me pumped up to go to Africa to shoot one. While waiting for my luggage after my arrival in Johannesburg I talked with a man from Midland Texas who had come to South Africa to hunt lions on a private game reserve. He became quite animated telling me about how he wanted to stalk a "trophy" male and shoot it.

Ernest Hemingway was a big time lion hunter who once boasted that you aren't really a man unless you shoot a charging lion.

One guy wants to "stalk" lions and Hemingway saw them "charging"? WTF? What sport is there in stalking a sleeping lion? I guess you have to worry about not stepping on a twig or something? And as far as a "charging" lion is concerned I think the only way you could get one to charge you is to disrupt its sleep and piss it off. The last group of nine lions I saw crossing the road bolted for cover when I said, in a normal voice, "hello brother lion." They charged alright - charged off into the grassland at a high rate of speed to get the hell away from whatever had scared them.

Given my early history and my retired-from profession I'm certainly not anti-hunting. However hunting should involve a fair chase and it should pit the hunter against his quarry. At least when a lion bolts from cover and snatches up an impala the impala has a better than 50 percent chance of escaping with its hide. With a sleeping lion the odds are much more in favor of the hunter than the prey.

Populations of predators like the lion are self-regulating. When there are lots of prey animals there are lots of predators. When prey populations are low so are the numbers of predators. Its a nearly perfect system. Accordingly predators like the lion are never going to become overly abundant and their population in need of culling. They seem to be too busy sleeping to be worried about these things.

I think they should just be left alone.

Friday, October 21, 2011

An Enormity of Elephants

The first elephant I ever saw in person was tethered to a chain at the Barron County Fair in Rice Lake Wisconsin when I was about 10 years old. I have never forgotten that ridiculously huge creature standing there with a forlorn look on its face as it contemplated how many more humans were going to crawl up on its back and make stupid noises.

I was one of those humans and I climbed up on the elephant with much excitement. I swear that from up there I could see all the way to Cumberland but actually I just saw as far as the Frostop root beer stand. True to my fledgling wanderlust I remember thinking about how cool it would be to ride through a "jungle" on the back of an elephant. I'd be a reincarnated Tarzan if I could do that - all I needed to do was learn how to swing from a vine and I would be ripe for the role.

At about the same time I remember looking through my dad's catalog for Weatherby hunting rifles and marveling at the "trophy" African elephants that people had shot with a .458 Weatherby Magnum, marketed at the time as "the" elephant gun. According to Roy Weatherby, owner of Weatherby rifles in Santa Monica California, no person in his right mind would go anywhere near a charging bull elephant with a rifle any smaller or with more killing power than a .458 Weatherby. I remember wishing I could afford to own a .458 Weatherby Magnum on the off chance that an elephant would show up in Barron County and I could shoot it.

Other than other animals tethered at circuses or those in abysmal conditions in a zoo, I never saw another elephant in person until October 2005. While walking through a forest in southern Thailand, searching unsuccessfully for ultra-rare Gurney's Pitta, I heard what sounded like a small tornado rumbling through the forest. Trees snapped off like match sticks and the ground trembled as I stood still. I had no idea what was going on until a pair of Asian elephants (much smaller versions of the African elephant - the elephant in the movie "Water for Elephants" was an Asian elephant) barreled through the forest not 20 meters from me. Despite their being much smaller than their African cousins I remained in awe at the enormity of these beasts. And as they raced by me, no doubt just playing rather than trying to escape anything, I wondered how on earth anyone, Roy Weatherby included, could ever shoot such a noble beast just to festoon a wall with its head.

My first African elephant was a massive male standing in the Luvulu River at the northern edge of Kruger National Park in South Africa. I had parked on a bridge over the river and got out to look at the swarm of swifts flying around in front of me. Almost as an after thought I looked at the river itself and there was this massive beast standing knee deep in the river splashing water all over himself as he gave himself a shower. Although he was too far away to photograph sufficiently the image of my first African elephant was etched in my mind's eye.

A few hours later, closer to the Punda Maria Rest Camp where I spent the night I noticed the elephants shown above standing in a Mopani forest just chilling out and being elephants. I stopped my rental car and watched them. From earlier reading I knew that if an elephant starts swaying after laying its ears back against its body that was a sign that it was getting annoyed and the wisest thing to do was to move on. I moved on.

A few hundred meters further down the road I came on to more elephants just chilling out in the forest.

An African elephant chilling out in the forest in northern Kruger National Park, South Africa
A bit further down the road I encountered more elephants. Seeing them against a backdrop of primordial African savanna and forest they didn't seem real. I remember saying to myself at the time that looking at them was more like watching the movie "Jurassic Park" than actually viewing wildlife. They were just too big and too bizarre to be real.

There is an estimated 16,000 African elephants in Kruger National Park where, according to biologists who do research on them, there is sufficient habitat for about 6,000 elephants. And like any other animal population when there are too many for a certain area the habitat becomes degraded, competition for available resources becomes more acute, disease sets in, and Mom Nature sets back the population in ways that watchers of Animal Planet do not like. However Mother Nature always bats last and always has the final say.

Overgrazed African elephant habitat in northern Kruger National Park, South Africa
The day I saw my first elephants but before actually seeing one, I noticed how so many of the mopani trees had been hacked to bits with limbs laying helter skelter on the ground and huge gashes to the body of the trees where giant limbs were once attached. Having lived in tornado country for a number of years my initial thought was that there had been a bunch of tornadoes there because what else could cause that sort of damage. Then it dawned on me - elephants.

Several years ago the collective world population of environmentally concerned people (they number about 35 now) was exorcised by the fact that elephants (primarily African elephants) were being poached for their ivory. International meetings were held and international treaties were ratified all in the name of protecting elephants and keeping them from going the same route as the passenger pigeon. Once the market for ivory dried up populations of elephants began to rebound. And they keep rebounding to the point of what is occurring in Kruger National Park.

Well meaning but uninformed people will instantly say that rather than shooting the excess they can simply be moved to other places. But what if there are no other places that can handle such gargantuan beasts? The excellent book "The Elephant Whisperer" discusses the pitfalls of moving elephants (even a small number of them) to places where efforts are being made to conserve them.

My second full day in Kruger I saw more and more elephants everywhere I went. The more of them I saw the more each one of them still seemed surreal and again I felt like I was in the movie Jurassic Park again.

One afternoon I was along a river at the Shingwedzi Rest Camp where I saw my first hippopotamuses. They were lolling around in the river farting and belching and coughing and just being hippos. As I watched them I noticed a small family group of elephants at the edge of the river that included a relatively new baby.

A family group of African elephants at Shingwedzi Rest Camp, Kruger National Park
As I watched the elephants clowning around in the water, out of the corner of my eye I noticed that the entire western sky had turned a strange mud-covered gray color. Twisting my head to take in what was happening I saw a massive male elephant not 20 feet from me.

Three pictures of the bull elephant that walked 20 feet from me without me seeing it at first
I remain amazed that a 5 ton animal could move as swiftly and stealthily as this guy did and not be detected. I simply did not hear him until he was that close to me. I guess that is just one more reason why there are restrictions on exiting your vehicle in Kruger.

I spent one night at the Olifants Rest Camp along the Olifants River along the border with Mozambique. The word "Olifant" is Afrikaans (and I guess German) for "elephant." I had hoped that if I had not seen an elephant earlier in the trip I would certainly see one in a river named after them. And I did. Lots of elephants.

The Olifants River Valley on the Mozambique border
One of the many highlights of the trip was the morning I sat where this picture above was taken and watched family groups of elephants milling around in the river below me. With them were hippopotamus and the occasional giraffe. They all made for an unforgettable breakfast.

As my time in Kruger continued I started to realize that not only do elephants tear down tree limbs to get at the succulent leaves and bark they also do it for recreation. I think they just get a rush out of ripping the stuffing out of anything and everything they feel like tearing apart. And who is going to stop them?

An African elephant ripping a tree to shreds I think just because it could
On my last day in Kruger, just a kilometer or so north of Crocodile Bridge Gate, I encountered a traffic jam. This one was caused by a group of nine elephants who just decided that they wanted to block the road. So they did. One of the nine, pictured above, was mutilating a tree just for the hell of it. He would reach up, coil his trunk around a branch, and give his head a small twist. A sound reminiscent of a rifle firing would be heard next as the limb broke off like a twig. This was followed by a tumultuous crashing as the limb tumbled to the ground. The elephant looked at the downed limb for a bit, probably snickered under his breath, then reached up with his trunk and ripped another limb to shreds.

One day near Satara Rest Camp I came onto a watering hole along the side of the road. In it was a group of seven elephants. They were taking their leisurely time soaking up water, splashing it on their back, hosing down others in the family group, and just generally being elephants. The temperature had to be close to 100 degrees F and there was not a cloud in the sky. It was blistering hot for me and I was in the shade of a rental car. For the critters of the savanna it had to be miserable. As the elephants took up space near the water, a circle of plains zebras stood patiently waiting for the elephants to leave. Behind the zebras was a massive flock of impala also waiting for their turn at the water, each with its tongue hanging out as they panted in the searing heat. Behind the impala was a lone spotted hyena who, apparently, was the lowest member in the waiting-for-water pecking order. He stood there covered in mud and dirt panting like crazy and looking miserable. However nobody budged. Not one animal was foolish enough to consider challenging an elephant. The elephants seemed to know this and took their good natured time getting their drink. I passed by this same watering hole at dawn the next morning and all of the mammals from the afternoon before were gone. Eventually, I guess, everyone had their turn at the water and moved on - but not before waiting what must have seemed like an eternity for the elephants to move along.

After leaving Kruger I didn't see another elephant for 9 days until I arrived at Addo Elephant National Park north of Port Elizabeth not far from the Indian Ocean.

Lone elephant foraging on grassland at Addo Elephant National Park
Here the elephants were in a much different habitat type than in Kruger. At least what I saw of Addo was largely grassland reminiscent of those in Kidder County, North Dakota. There were no mopani forests to exploit. Instead the elephants foraged on the abundance of grasses available for them to eat. The elephant in this picture was the last one I saw in the wild in South Africa.

In places like Kruger National Park something has to be done to reduce the numbers of elephants before the habitat is completely trashed. As I watched elephants standing around looking stupid I could not imagine how anyone and especially someone calling themselves a "sportsman" could get off on killing one. There is no sport in shooting something that doesn't want to move. At least with grouse or duck hunting you flush the animal and give it a chance to avoid getting hit. When that animal is as big as a barn the sportsman quotient is reduced substantially. Roy Weatherby can stick his .458 "sporting" rifle directly up his anal pore.

Still something needs to be done in places where there are too many elephants before they eat themselves out of house and home. Wildlife biologists are trained to come up with solutions to issues like this. However after spending as many enjoyable minutes as I did getting to know African elephants I am glad its not me who has to make the final decisions.

Every elephant I saw in Africa made me think back to that day at the Barron County fair when I rode on the back of an elephant. They made me think of old Tarzan movies and they made me glad to be able to see one. I hope some workable solution can be developed so that elephants will forever be inside Kruger National Park and I hope there's just enough of them so there is food enough for all and so my grand children can one day go to Kruger National Park and experience the same bone chilling rush I experienced each time I saw the enormity of elephants.

The Day I Saw A Leopard

(Photo by Maclaren Safaris)

The word "safari" is overused and misused by almost everyone other than the people who speak Swahili because in Swahili "safari" means "journey." As far as speakers of Swahili are concerned going to the grocery store is a safari. It has nothing to do with bouncing around in the back of a truck peering over endless miles of African savanna grasslands looking for fantastic mammals. However it sounds cool when you say safari just the same.

So, on my safari to southern Africa I spent the first seven days or so in the incomparable Kruger National Park in northeastern South Africa. Kruger borders on Zimbabwe and Mozambique and extends south for about 350 km. At about 2 million hectares it is the largest and most visited national park in South Africa. 2 million hectares converts to about 7,000 square miles or slightly smaller than the state of New Jersey. Its a huge patch of habitat and being there makes you feel like you are in an endless lab experiment for Steve Goddard's Wildlife Biology 440 class in college.

While in Kruger as in any other natural area in South Africa one of the objectives is to see "The Big 5", namely African Elephant, African Buffalo, Wide-lipped (White) Rhinoceros, Lion, and Leopard. Some people call them "The Big 5" because they are dangerous. However if that was the case then Hippopotamus should be added to the list as should Great White Shark. And while watching a Spotted Hyena one day I had the chilling fear come over me of it snarling as it ripped my testicles off so maybe Spotted Hyena should be included. And for that matter, as far as dangerous is concerned the Puff Adder and the Black Mamba certainly need to be on the list. Maybe to be more accurate "the Big 5" should be renamed "African Animals to Never Piss Off" and leave the number out of it.

On my first day in Kruger I easily saw African elephant which was almost everywhere in northern Kruger (and the subject of a later post). Because of an anthrax outbreak the population of African buffalo had been substantially knocked back however I saw them on my second day. On the fourth day I found both Lion (38 of them!) and one Wide-lipped Rhinoceros. I had four of the Big Five under my belt.

I spent my last night at the Skukuza Rest Camp in Kruger. As with all rest camps it is surrounded by a fence and the top of the fence is heavily electrified to keep out dangerous animals. The front gate to each of the camps is closed and locked at 6:00 p.m. and remains closed and locked until 6:00 a.m. This is another precaution to keep people safe from the Big Five. That proposal works most of the time however a couple of years ago a woman who was staying at Skukuza went for an early morning run near the Lower Sabie River. As she passed near the boundary fence a Leopard leaped over the fence, attacked and killed her, and then bounded back over the fence and disappeared. I was told this story after I stayed at Skukuza.

On my last full day in Kruger I left camp early and drove along the Sabie River looking for whatever mammals and birds I could find. By now I wasn't even paying attention to Impala any longer and I had developed a "ho-hum" attitude about African elephants. Savanna baboons where out along the road and a group of four Southern Ground Hornbills put in an appearance. Other than that there was nothing exciting to see.

Until I was four kilometers north of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp. There, at about 9:00 in the morning, I encountered a traffic jam - at least by Kruger standards it was a traffic jam. I stopped my car and jockeyed for position trying to see whatever all the others were seeing. I noticed that all eyes were trained on the branches of a massive sycamore fig tree so I knew it wasn't another elephant observation.

Finally after peering around for several minutes I saw what everyone else was seeing. A leopard. It was sleeping on a lower branch of the sycamore fig. A British woman in the car next to me had herself parked in a way that blocked my view. As I swore at her under my breath for blocking my view, I rolled down the windows in my rental car on the off-chance that I was able to get a clear picture of the Leopard. As I looked at it, one head suddenly became two as a second leopard stuck its head up. I guess the old adage about when it rains it pours holds true. I hadn't seen any leopards and now on my last day, my last chance, I saw two of them.

The leopard closest to me had a massive neck. I guess it needs that if its going to take down and kill an African buffalo. A chill settled over me as I realized how close I was (30 meters) from the cat and how easily it could turn me into a snack if it wanted. Still, the windows remained down just the same.

After maybe 10 minutes of watching the cats, one of them decided it was time to get up, stretch its legs, and go for a stroll to work off some of last night's dinner. As it leaped down from the tree the second leopard followed. Although not as massive as the first one it was still a heart-stopper to see.

The leopards walked maybe 10 meters north of their resting spot in the tree and then turned west and walked straight at me.

This is the larger of the two leopards - walking directly toward me

My heart was racing as I tried to decide if I should roll up the window and protect myself from being leopard lunch or take the chance on keeping the window rolled down so I could have a clear view if the leopard decided to come closer. I kept the window down and the leopard walked closer.

At this point the leopard is 5 feet (1.7 meters) from me

I remember once in Churchill Manitoba looking at beluga whales from a boat in the mouth of the Churchill River. With my then 3 year old oldest daughter on my right knee we took pictures of belugas from so close that one picture is just of a whale eye. Later, after looking at this picture, I through back to that frigid day in the Canadian Arctic and remembered that I was much safer five feet from a whale!

The leopard is walking away from me now

It crossed directly in front of the hood of my rental car and then passed over the road toward the veld on the other side. The picture above was taken as it was walking just to my right.

Leopard disappearing into the veld

I snapped the picture above and one other as the leopards disappeared into the scrub forest on the other side of the road. It wasn't until now that it finally sunk into my head just how dangerous it was (and how stupid I was) to sit there with my windows down hoping that the cats would put on a show. Now, safely inside the walls of my home, however, I can reflect back and I'm glad I did it - for the story I could tell if nothing else.

My heart was still racing a mile a second as the leopards disappeared and the thrill of what I had just seen sunk in. As the adrenalin rush subsided I also realized that I needed to get to the bathroom fast! However in Kruger you don't get out of your car for fear of a 800 Rand ($110 US) fine. I just waited.

Leaving the leopard tree I drove south about 1 km and came onto another traffic jam. This was for a lion snoozing on a rock next to the road. After the leopard sighting a minute ago I took on a snobbish view of "just" a lion and continued my drive south.

I continued south 3 km to the entrance of the Lower Sabie Rest Camp where I stopped for breakfast and to use the facilities. While munching on breakfast and watching hippopotamuses in the Sabie River, a couple from Canada I met my first night in South Africa strolled into the open air restaurant. I had not seen them since the morning I was driven to the Johannesburg airport to pick up my Avis rental car. We chatted briefly and compared notes on what we had seen. The topic quickly turned to the leopards just 4 km up the road. The husband of this pair asked me "did you see that lucky son-of-a-bitch in the red car who had the leopard walk right in front of him?"

I just smiled, pulled my camera out of my day pack, turned it on and showed them the pictures. "You mean the leopard that was this close to him," I asked.

It was a huge rush getting to see the Big 5 and not everyone gets to. However later at Crocodile Bridge gate, the sothernmost entrance gate to the park, I met a couple from Komatipoort who were trying to see the Big 5 in a day for the FIFTH time that month! Still for me it was a superb way to end my time in Kruger and among the Five I now think that leopard is the biggest of them all.

Crocodile Bridge Gate - the southernmost entrance gate to Kruger National Park

The instant you leave Kruger National Park at Crocodile Bridge Gate reality sets in as the wildlife-filled habitat is quickly and permanently converted to endless sugar cane and way too many people.

Many people I talked to in and out of Kruger told me that the best mammal watching is in the southern quarter of the park. And, with the exception of the one Wide-lipped Rhinoceros I saw, all of the Big 5 were seen in the southern quarter of the park. In fact the last large mammal I saw in Kruger was a group of four African elephants ripped the stuffing out of a massive tree along the road just 1 km north of Crocodile Bridge gate.

Birding and mammal watching in Kruger was one of the high points of my biological life and seeing the Big 5 was at the pinnacle of that high point. However the rush I got from being eye to eye with a leopard is something that I will never ever forget.

South African Gulls

Kelp Gull was very common along the coast from Port Elizabeth to Namibia

During my recent jaunt to Southern Africa I was able to reacquaint myself with two gull species I'd seen several times before plus add a new one to my life list. The most prominent among these was Kelp Gull (Larus dominicanus). Its range extends from the west coast of South America through the subantarctic islands to southern Africa to Australia. There are several extralimital records from the United States. A quick check of my records revealed observations from Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil (Sao Paulo State), Tasmania and South Africa within its usual range. The first one I ever saw was on the coast of Texas in 1985 and several years ago one spent a considerable amount of time on the lower Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. Last winter there was one in Pasco County, Florida. To be sure this bird gets around.

Given its large size this gull could easily be mistaken for either Lesser Black-backed Gull or Great Black-backed Gull. However except for the extralimital birds the ranges of these three species do not overlap. In Southern Africa this species is also referred to as the "Cape Gull" which is the subspecies vetula. Maybe some day some enterprising taxonomist will decide that Cape Gull and Kelp Gull are two different species. They certainly look and sound and behave the same in my eyes.

The only Gray-hooded Gulls I found were near the St. Lucia wetlands northeast of Durban
Another gull with which I was able to reacquaint myself was Gray-hooded Gull
(Chroicocephalus cirrocephalus) which is patchily distributed in South America and in Africa south of the Sahara. The first one I ever saw was on the coast of Peru in October 1996 and then later I found several along the edge of the Rio de la Plata in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Those were my only observations until the one group of Gray-hooded Gulls I saw in South Africa. As recently as the summer of 2011 one was observed on Coney Island in New York City and before it the only North American record was of a bird here in Florida.

Hartlaub's Gull seemed fairly common along the coast from Cape Agulhas to the Namibia border
The only new species of gull I added to my life list was Hartlaub's Gull (Chroicocephalus hartlaubii). This diminutive species, in the same genus as Gray-hooded Gull, is largely restricted to the coast of South Africa and Namibia. In many ways this bird reminded me of both Mediterranean Gull and Slender-billed Gull from Europe and the Middle East.

My first Hartlaub's Gulls were in a small flock hunkered down in a howling gale at Cape Recife Nature Reserve near Port Elizabeth. They were in a mixed species flock that included Antarctic Terns and Roseate Terns. On arrival in Cape Town I found them almost equal in abundance to Kelp Gull and that level of abundance seemed constant along the coast north to Alexander Bay on the Namibia border. The birds in this picture were photographed (do you take photographs with a digital camera when there is no film?) at the Paarl Waterbird Sanctuary (a euphemism for the city of Paarl sewage treatment lagoons) about 100 km northeast of Cape Town. I was actually surprised to see them that far inland because everything I had read before the trip suggested they were tightly associated with coastal habitats.

Despite the abundance of habitat that seemed perfect for gulls only these three species were found along all of the coast of South Africa that I searched. There are extralimital records of other gull species (including several from North America) in South Africa. However for some reason the diversity of gulls in southern Africa is quite small. I guess that is another ornithological "why" question I'll have to obsess on until I figure out the reason.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Business Class on South African Airways

"My" South African Airways A340 waiting for departure at Cape Town International Airport.
On Sunday October 9, 2011, the day the Australia Wallaby's defeated South Africa's Springboks in World Cup Rugby, I flew from Cape Town to Johannesburg on South African Airways flight 236. Despite South African Airways having almost hourly service between Cape Town and Johannesburg using 737 equipment, I chose flight 236 because it was an Airbus A340 aircraft and I had never flown on that aircraft before. I have now :)

Despite the flight being only 2 hours long I opted for a Business Class seat because 1) I am spoiled and 2) I wanted to get a glimpse of what Business Class is like on another International carrier. If I am not mistaken I have now been in Business Class on international flights operated by British Airways, Braathens (Norway) Airlines, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, Air France, TAP Air Portugal, Singapore Airlines, Thai Airways, Malaysia Airlines, Quantas, plus Delta, Northwest, US Airways, United, Continental, American Airlines, and Hawaiian Airlines. I wanted to see if South African Airways met or exceeded expectations I had from any of the earlier Business Class experiences.

The check in area of Cape Town International Airport

Check in for Business Class in Cape Town was rather confusing. Despite there being clearly marked lines to follow to get to a check in person, it seemed that pandemonium reigned. While standing in at least two different "lines" I was informed by someone in another line that I wasn't in "the" line. It was beginning to feel like I was in a Monty Python skit. All the while we were going through the torturous process of Business Class check in I could hear screams of excitement and despair from people in airport pubs who were watching the World Cup Rugby game that the damned Aussies eventually won 11-9.

Upon finally reaching the check in agent (after standing behind a woman with a New Yawk accent who packed and re-packed her bag three times before finally giving it to the check in agent) the process went smoothly and I received my boarding pass. I was seated in Seat 1A as I try to be on every flight I take. There is just something about the bulkhead window that I enjoy.

Because I was in Business Class I was allowed access to South African Airways' "Baobab Club" departure lounge. The lounge was well stocked with some great South African wines and there was enough food available to feed a horse.

When boarding time came we were crammed into some buses and transported to the edge of the massive jet. Luckily there was a separate entrance for Business Class passengers.

The Business Class section of a South African Airways A340 aircraft
Seating was in the standard 2/2/2 alignment that is common on most large jets. Space on the plane seemed spacious and there was ample overhead storage where I could place my carry on bag.

"My" Seat on South African Airways flight 236
My seat was a standard Business Class seat that reclined about 3/4 of the way and that had all the bells and whistles one expects on an international flight. This flight was going to Johannesburg and from there to Frankfurt, Germany. I'm sure it was more than adequate for the 11 hour nonstop to Europe once it left Jo'Burg.

We left the gate a bit early and took our position for take off to the south on runway 19. Unfortunately for me I was seated next to one of the most arrogant assholes (in my opinion and I'm sure in the opinion of anyone else who has ever met him) that I have ever met. "I teach Economics, Political Science and Law at Columbia University in New York" he started, "what is is that you do?" That was how he greeted me.

While we waited for departure this nitwit bitched about everything around him. The plane was too hot and then it was too cold. The in flight information was inadequate however the in flight magazine contained too many pages. As we trundled down the runway he informed me that we were taking off to the west "we should see Table Mountain beneath us" he told me. When I pointed out that we were on runway 19 and that meant we were taking off at 190 degrees or almost due south he didn't believe me. I told him "We will quickly see False Bay below us" and he told me I didn't know what I was talking about. About 2 minutes after take off we could see False Bay off the starboard side of the plane. The arrogant law professor said "you must be Robinson Curusoe. I'm taking you on every trip with me from now on."

After take off the flight crew came through and offered everyone their drink(s) of choice. I went for a South African red wine vinted in Stellenbosh. My arrogant seat partner wanted tomato juice. However when it was presented to him he complained that it was V8 and not "real" tomato juice. My wine was perfect however. Then the flight crew came through with a mid-afternoon "snack" that would have been a dinner entree on any US based airline. I ordered the vegetarian meal and my seat partner snickered and said "I would have never guessed that."

He had ordered a special meal (no doubt coated in gold) but it was not loaded on the plane. He asked about options and was told he could have the vegetarian meal or the beef sandwich. His immediate response was to look at my meal and quip "well that vegetarian meal doesn't look very inviting to me" (It tasted great), "I think I'll have the beef sandwich." However when presented with the beef sandwich he said there was too much fat in it (looked lean as hell to me) and ordered it returned. He then said to the flight attendant "You people (South African code for "blacks") should be ashamed of yourselves passing this off as Business Class service."

It all seemed pretty nice to me!

As we flew east to Johannesburg this horses ass continued to bitch about everything. Still the plane was too cold or too hot (you'd think he was going through menopause) and the in-cabin noise was too great causing him to be unable to concentrate on what he was reading. It seemed that no matter what it was this person found something negative about it. He would, as we used to say in northern Wisconsin, "bitch if he was hung with a new rope."

By now I was enjoying the hell out of Business Class on South African Airways if for no other reason that it likely upset this jerk next to me because someone wasn't as miserable as him.

About halfway through the flight, when we were at 41,000 feet above sea level, he turned to me and asked if I had ever seen the curvature of the earth. Yes, several times, including once from the top of a 16,000 foot mountain in Peru, and again that day as I looked out my window over South Africa. "No, you can only see it from 58,000 feet in the Concorde. I know this because I've flown the Concorde."

I guess the curvature I was looking at through the cobalt blue sky was a mirage.

On approach to Johannesburg, flight attendants came through and re-filled my wine glass and asked this arrogant prick if everything was ok. He instantly began bitching about how horrible the service was on South African Airways and how it was such a waste of money to fly on them and how he never wanted to fly on SAA again. Unfortunately he forgot to mention to the flight attendant what he told me before departure in Cape Town, namely, that the University where he was teaching in Cape Town purchased the roundtrip airfare for him from New York to Cape Town. In other words he didn't "waste" a penny on the flight. It was all paid for him. Many years ago on a flight from Miami to Detroit on Republic Airlines an old colleague named Paul Sykes bitched to the flight attendant on our flight claiming that "this is the worst food I've ever had on a plane. I can't believe I paid for this." After his tirade I had the pleasure of informing Paul that his plane ticket was paid for by the tax payers of the United States and it didn't cost him a penny.

On arrival in Johannesburg (early arrival) we were taken to the International terminal but not allowed to disembark through the walkway because it was a domestic flight. Instead we all walked off the plane and boarded buses for a short ride to the domestic terminal. As predicted my arrogant seat mate bitched about that.

In the terminal as we walked to baggage claim a woman who had sat in the row behind us was walking behind my seat mate. He, predictably, was bitching about her walking so close to him. He finally turned around and said to her "Why don't you just pass me if you 're in such a hurry?" Dumbfounded, the woman just smiled at him and stayed where she was behind him. A few more steps and he turned again and told her to pass him. She kept her distance. Finally he turned around and said "you must be a South African." She smiled and said "no, I'm an American like you only I'm not a fucking asshole like you." Several people around us stopped and began applauding.

I hope this jerk had a miserable flight home.

Other than my patently arrogant seat mate Business Class on South African Airways was a treat. It would be fun to see what service would be like in Business Class on a long haul flight like from Washington DC to Johannesburg. Maybe some time I will have to check it out.

Business Class on Delta Airlines

I left for South Africa on September 7, 2011 and returned home on October 10. My routing was Sarasota-Atlanta-Johannesburg (and reverse). The long-haul segment (15 hours 46 minutes from wheels up to touch down going over and 16 hours 5 minutes coming back) was aboard a glistening new Boeing 777-200LR jet.

For this trip I used miles in my Delta Airlines account and went to South Africa in Business/First Class. The 15 hour 15 minute nonstop I did on Qantas between Los Angeles and Melbourne Australia in October 2004 convinced me that Business Class is the only way to go on long-haul flights.

I regularly complain about and make jokes about Delta Airlines saying, not so incorrectly, that their airline motto should be "Delta - we'll get you there when we get you there." Many times that is the truth. And when you fly First Class domestically on Delta the only real advantage is boarding early and getting a "free" glass of wine. Generally you are so packed in together in First Class on domestic flights that its not worth the effort to go up front.

Business Elite Class on Delta's international flights is an entirely different and enjoyable story.

The Business Elite Section on Delta's 777-200LR series jet from Atlanta to Johannesburg

For international Business Class on the 777, Delta has the seats configured in a herringbone pattern. All seats are aisle seats including the window seats because there are only 4 seats across each row up front. Privacy walls are perched between each of the seats so you don't have to deal with a "seat mate".

This is Seat 1A on Delta's International Business Elite section on the 777-200LR
Even though it is a treat to not have some gabby person seated next to you up front, the best part of Business Elite on the 777-200LR series is the individual seat. I forgot what its name is in the industry but this seat reclines 180 degrees into a completely flat bed. There are more dials and knobs for the movement of the seat than I think there are dials and knobs on the space shuttle. Its a hell of an experience just trying to figure out how to move the seat (which comes complete with a built-in massager for your lumbar region).

Each Business Class seat has a spacious tray table that is easily hidden when not in use. Each seat also has an individual video screen (about 12 inches across) for entertainment including a bounty of movies, and there are individual reading lamps that are built into the wall of the entertainment section. Being completely anal I only used the screen for the "my flight" selection and tracked our position going over and coming back on a moving map of the northern and southern hemisphere.

The food served in Business Elite was superb in both directions and the wines were either French, Napa Valley or Spanish. I was surprised they didn't have South African wines but who am I to complain.

From Atlanta to Johannesburg I slept for about 7 hours (after taking an Ambien) from about Puerto Rico to St. Helena Island in the south Atlantic (the island to which Napoleon was exiled). On the return I stayed awake until we reached the Atlantic coast of Angola and zonked out there until we reached a point north of Puerto Rico. Again this was another 7 hours of good hard sleep. The flat bed was remarkably comfortable as was the oversized pillow.

Had I paid for the trip rather than used frequent flier miles I could have purchased a round trip from Sarasota to Johannesburg for about $5,000 if I had purchased it 10 months before departure. Just a few days before departure the fare had risen to about $9,000 round trip. The nonstop distance from Atlanta to Johannesburg is 8,440 miles each way.

Flying International Business Class on Delta has renewed my hope for the airline. On arrival in Jo'burg I told the lead flight attendant that I had once flown Business Class on Singapore Airlines (regularly voted the best airline in the world) and I could say without equivocation that Delta's Business Elite section and its service was on par with Singapore Airlines. Maybe with some luck they will pass that level of service onto domestic flights even in cattle class. It would be nice to see Delta be an excellent airline again.