Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Elephant Day 2015

The African Elephant up close - almost posing for his photograph.
It is Elephant Day today. For quite some time now I have been banging on about the Elephant Crisis that is sweeping through Africa. Those damned Chinese ivory carvers and their clients combined with bad governance by African leaders are keeping the momentum going, fuelling poaching and illegal trade. The losers in this story are the elephants that are dying at a rate of 15 per day. It can’t go on.

So, besides Robert Mugabe and Jacob Zuma giggling and dismissing the frantic appeals by conservationists there is a large population whose concerns are more around filling their bellies and keeping starvation from their doors along with those who are filling their overfilled bellies and lining their pockets. And then there are those who, if they cared to listen, could perhaps be doing something more about this sad state of affairs.

Why should you care, I hear you say? Well, let me tell you a little story that took place only a few months ago. And maybe, after you have read this little story you will be motivated to care a little more, and care enough to add your voice to the growing numbers of objectors out there who are raising hell and together, maybe, we can stop this wave of destruction.

It is December, almost Christmas and it is hot in Limpopo, a northern province of South Africa. The air is thin and the little rain that is falling comes in short sharp spurts causing the paths and roads through the African bush to turn into mud traps just waiting for an unsuspecting vehicle to come on by so that it can suck its tyres deep into its folds and keep it there for at least a little while.

The Mapungubwe Reserve is a disappointment as far as wilderness experiences go. It is carved up out of bits of landscape that are disconnected and not easy to navigate. However, on a piece of the reserve there is a 4 x 4 trail that is given quite a lot of exposure in the media. It is to this trail that we head with our Jeep Rubicon that is a vehicle that defies bad terrain. In fact it eats up bad terrain for breakfast.
Breeding herds abound in this northern area of South Africa
Initial entry to the trail through an unlocked, unsupervised gate is relatively easy but it is not long before the rough terrain is evident. Navigation is slowed dramatically as signs are faded and have been pushed around by large animals that evidently don’t need any navigational help. The Jeep grinds along rolling over rocks and through little clearings. The sun is still fairly low on the horizon as we pass a lone bull elephant standing casually scooping up huge mouthfuls of long green grass. He is not near enough for a photograph and we move on.

We round a bend and in front of us we can see very definite evidence that the vehicle that had made its way on this track before us had fallen foul of one of those wonderful mud holes that suck you down and keep you tight within its grip. We get out of the vehicle to assess whether we can make it through the deep gashes that have been cut into the clay base. We decide that it would be advisable to gather some of the surrounding dead tree branches and to fill the previous vehicle’s tracks as it would give us a better chance at staying clear of disaster.

We start collecting bits of old branches and pressing them firmly into the soil when suddenly a deep rumble rolling out across the African bush reaches us. It is an elephant rumble, the kind that sets your senses alight and you realise that you are moving in someone else’s backyard. We exchange looks and decide that it must be the bull elephant we have just passed. By our estimation he was far enough away from us to give us time to work the trail and we carry on with our task. Throughout the fifteen odd minutes we labour the rumbles grow closer and closer. We jump back into the Jeep and start up the engine.

A bit of discussion, a bit of driving, a bit of sliding and we are through the mud hole safely. We smile in satisfaction that we have not got ourselves into trouble and we can progress knowing that we are conquerors of the bush. The track starts going up a small incline that is not much of a challenge for our vehicle and soon we are pushing the nose of the Jeep over the rise. However, it is only the nose of the vehicle that can go over the rise as in front of us, as far as the eye can see is a herd of around 100 elephants. It is a breeding herd with elephants of all ages and sizes and we are slap bang in the middle of the herd.
And here it is, the larges breeding herd I have ever seen.
Instantly, following the best advice we have had, we cut the engine and we sit tight. No sudden movements, no loud sounds and certainly no panic. The elephants glance our way and we note that they are watching us intently while they continue grazing. They lumber on slowly pulling up huge chunks of luscious green grass. It gives us time to start focussing on various individuals and I am lucky enough to be able to keep my camera in the window while getting fantastically close up shots. At no time do we see any indication from the behaviour of the herd that we are in any danger.
Surrounded by elephants one has to hunker down and not give rise for any alarm.
The matriarch comes ambling by with a tiny little elephant in tow, perhaps only a few days old. She is followed by what I assume is another one of her calves who is quite curious. A trunk is extended towards the open window of the car and we are “sniffed” for approval. The vehicle gets the same treatment all around the front bumper as the young sub-adult makes his way past us.
Just a few days old this little elephants ears are still very furry and pink. A privilege indeed to get so close to something so young and fragile.
At best this 4 x 4 trail we are following is judged to be a 5 - 7 hour drive and we are still at the start of it. We are worried we may not make it out off the trail before dark if we don’t get going. The elephants, however, are in charge of when we can make our move. We patiently wait for the larger part of the herd to move by before we start up the engine and reluctantly have to leave them behind.

My heart always beats much faster when I get so close to these magnificent beasts, their little rumbles fill the air around you and if you are allowed to sit in such close proximity to them you too feel a lot more special. It is a feeling that surpasses our normal senses, a feeling that is difficult to describe but it is a feeling that only Africa can give to you. With respect comes acceptance and if you respect these glorious sentient beings they will give you the room to be a part of Africa too.

So, on Elephant Day 2015 let us raise our voices in unison and let us ensure that this, our African heritage, does not fade out and disappear in the sands of time.

Do you want to learn some Elephant-Speak. Follow this link to National Geographic and get your headphones on!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sabi Sands Reserve - Lions on the African Plains Forever

The magnificence of a Male Lion with his mane in full flow
In the wake of the what has to be termed a Paradigm Shift for lions in the wild and on Lion Day I am reminded of the many experiences I have had with lions on the plains of Africa.

Getting close to lions ranks right up there with being some of the most exciting experiences that any one person can hope to see today. It is the one factor that I think has galvanised the world into action post Cecil the Lion. However, it is one thing seeing a single lion strutting his stuff out there in the African bush and an entirely different experience when one is privy to the might of the pride.

In areas where lions are pressurised by other pack animals such as hyenas, the pride becomes paramount to survival and as such even male lions that can be solitary will form their own prides which we call coalitions.

Happening on a coalition of male lions in the bush is a heart stopping event. The sheer power that a male lion demonstrates just by its presence is magnified a hundred times by the appearance of four or five male lions together moving in unison through the tall grass their thick manes swinging through the air as they gracefully pick their way forward.
African animals do not pass water without drinking.
It is late afternoon and the sky is stormy and grey. Not ideal weather for photography but as a diehard Safari-er with a camera in hand there is no question as to whether I will be on a ready vehicle or not. Not far from the Lodge we encounter our first pair of lions who appear to be mating. They are nervously watching the surrounding bush. Suddenly, it becomes evident why they are nervous. As they beat a hasty retreat heading off into the East four magnificent male lions emerge from the brush. Their intent becomes evident as they head for the river we have just crossed.

An ideal photographic opportunity is in the offing. A river filled with water will impede the progress of the lions, however, they are moving across the plains and a river crossing by lions is not an everyday event.
Cats do not like water. Neither do lions, even if they are the mightiest Kings of Africa.
Soon we are positioned on the opposite side of the river and I have a prime position. The nose of the vehicle is just at the waters edge and is turned ever so slightly  downriver. I am able to get my lens low and I can wait for the shot.
Warily moving through the water, lions feel very vulnerable in situations that they can't control.
The lions approach the water and stop at the edge to slake their thirst. No African animal will pass a water source without quenching their thirst. But, unfortunately, the water is moving too fast for a reflection shot. However, the first lion scans the opposite bank of the river a gingerly dunks his paw into the water. The paw seems to have a life of its own and shoots back out spraying water into the air. Determination wins the day and inexorably he puts his paw back into the water. Soon he is up to his knees and the displeasure of the experience is written all over his face.
Up to his belly in water this lion is not comfortable
Wide eyed he keeps scanning the horizon and soon the other males have joined him in the crossing. It is a heart stopping moment. He completely ignores me and moves right past me so that I can almost reach out and touch him as he goes by. One by one the four males move past each one intent on scanning the horizon.
The demise of an arch enemy, the hyena is despatched without ceremony.
Soon they are on the other bank and the exciting moment has passed only to be followed by an almighty roaring and screeching. A lone young hyena has strayed across the path of these mighty beasts. Within seconds the hyena has been despatched his life ended far too soon.

As the sun sets we are privy to the call of the lion as it rolls across the plains. It reverberates right through my body as if I don’t exist. It is a call that I yearn to hear and that keeps me wandering through the African plains. It is the call that lets me know I am home.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Hwange Game Reserve - How could I not write about Cecil ....

My new title for my blog Travelling Light has a multilayered meaning and travelling light certainly also has something to do with how lightly we tread on the earth. It is my personal aim to make my own footprint as light as possible and to do as little harm as possible to my environment and the earth around me and it is in this light that I felt I should reflect a little on the past week's momentous reaction.
This lion is not Cecil but a magnificent specimen who roams the plains of the Serengeti in Tanzania
It is indeed strange what galvanises the human being into action. This last week we have seen momentum growing around the barbaric and senseless killing of a lion called Cecil. Before last week very few of us knew who Cecil was and probably most didn’t care. And then we can add that some still do not care. But then along came a crossbow hunter (Walter Palmer) from the great USA who decided that it was great sport to kill a lion in a most inhumane manner. 

The shocking part was that the lion was wounded and the very (un)professional hunter guide decided not to follow it up immediately, because you see, they had lured the lion from a National Park (Hwange in Zimbabwe), by dragging a dead carcass behind a vehicle, then turned a spotlight on the lion so that it couldn’t see a thing in the dark, and then allowed the “hunter” to shoot. With all those odds, he still missed the right spot and so the lion went bounding off. Forty long hours later they ended his misery with a bullet.

This story of extreme pain and suffering has set the world on fire. Every social media platform has been inundated with this story and now its also hit mainstream press with Jimmy Kimmel leading the way in television.
Cubs like these ones photographed at Phinda in South Africa are the next ones who will die because of one mans greed and bloodlust.
The question I have today is why does it take a story of a lion dying to get the armchair conservationists to become so incensed that they have managed to close this man’s business down and send him into hiding.

I want to look at the poaching statistics for a minute here, as I think despite the fact that this hunter paid the princely sum of US$55 000 (converted to the funny money ZAR715000 - more than what most average South Africans or Africans for that matter will see in their lifetimes) this so-called hunt ranks up there with the poaching incidents of the world.

Hot topics on this issue are elephants, rhinos and then one that doesn’t get enough press coverage, the lowly little pangolin.

Shocking statistics have been revealed in the past few months about the decimation of the elephant population of Africa being led by the poachers and hunters in Tanzania. Statistics have it that between 30 000 and 50 000 elephants are being slaughtered each year. To put this into perspective between 1979 and 1989 the elephant population crashed from 1.3 million to 600 000 or as in another report 100 000 elephants killed in 3 years in Tanzania.

Then we move onto the not so official statistics of the rhino poaching crisis in South Africa where the Minister Edna Molewa has decided not to reveal the statistics about current rhino deaths. Last year we lost 1 215 rhinos and there is no reason to think that they have got on top of this yet. However, in a spectacular ostrich-like move the Minister seems to think the problem will go away if she buries it.

And then, let us look at the pangolin debacle that is not getting the news coverage it should. According to the statistics at least 10 000 pangolins are being slaughtered, trafficked and eaten each year.  If you want to follow this then you only have to follow this link to read some more about the precarious existence of the worlds pangolins.  

And lastly, the sizzling hot topic of the moment that has fired up the world. Cecil the Lion and the fortuitous release of the documentary Blood Lions that I did not want to watch but which I now will have to watch, if not just to keep myself updated on this sad and at the same time infuriating state of affairs.  
Cubs photographed in the Serengeti, Tanzania. Cubs of this age are killed by rival males when the pride male is "taken" out. 
These specific issues do not highlight all of the issues and we only have to look at the issues around the Arctic and the polar bear, the seals that are slaughtered for skins and body parts, the dolphins that are murdered each year, the sharks that are being decimated for their fins so that some moron can have some soup and the list goes on. And these atrocities are not limited to the animal kingdom as it has long been known that poaching is fuelling wars that are causing untold human misery.

My question today is for the world. If we can shut down Walter Palmer’s dental practice in a week of intense objection, why aren’t we objecting on a daily basis about the other issues that are even greater than that of Cecil the lion? Why aren’t there daily tweet storms going out and why aren’t we naming and shaming those responsible for these atrocities.

A rather disturbing report that emerged through the media storm is that the hunting fraternity is donating very heavily into keeping their little sport going. To the tune of US$750 000. Here’s a small reference to their work (Safari Club International) However, it would appear that only 3% of the huge amounts of money spent actually reach the communities and people on the ground.

So now that we have been galvanised out of our armchairs and into the streets we need to keep the momentum going and we need to spread not only the word (in insults and comments), we need to take action and make the world sit up and wonder why Cecil the Lion is so important, important enough to make the headlines on mainstream news.

Someone else has the same thinking … read more here…