Thursday, August 27, 2009

We camped less than 20 meters from this thing one night. Cooking from the roof of our landy, we watched a dozen pairs of glowing hyena eyes dancing impatiently around this prize that the lions had secured. It was fine until about 3 am, when the wind died and the SMELL grew so strong that we woke up and retreated.

August 9, 2009

Things I have learned:

1) Billy, you got NOTHING on baboon farts.
2) Machetes sound like windchimes as the whistle through the tall grass.
3) Anywhere else in the world, what we call “tall grass” would be called just “grass,” our “medium grass” would be called “short grass,” and our “short grass” would be called “no grass.”
4) Your eyes play tricks on you out here. Is that a rock or a lion? The chimneys of a termite mount or the pricked ears of a crouched hyena? It’s really hard to tell.
5) Lions have REALLY big feet.
6) There is something living in our drop toilet. Perhaps many “somethings.” I learned the other day that these “somethings” include bats, one of which flew UP from the drop while I was responding to nature’s call.
7) Baby hyenas are really cute. The adults, tragically enough, are not.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

In the Dark of the Night


As we hurtled along the gutted road, we came face to face with a herd of elephants paying their respects to a fallen buffalo. At first, in the murk of night, we thought they huddled around one of their own, and concerned silence fell upon us. Ellies, for as aggressive as they can sometimes be, have earned our admiration and careful respect. They seem to me intelligent and emotional creatures; where they are not persecuted, they tolerate the roar of our passing engine with a casual glance. But they nearsighted to the point of legal blindness – in heavily hunted areas we are sometimes charged by a protective female, but as we hold our breaths and brace for impact, they stop their charge short and listen…but give up and turn away. If we remain downwind in silence we are invisible.

The elephants tonight are agitated as they mill around the buffalo. Philipp tells us that ellies often investigate death in the forests where he’s worked. In an eerie display of some sort of cognizance, they seem to recognize that something is not right and come to look at fallen creatures. When they come across the bones of one of their own, they pick them up and carry them away. It is sad and scary and moving and beyond my comprehension, what must be going on in the heads of these big, gray, lumbering beasts.

The two tour vehicles that are blocking the watering hole eventually pull away, and the ellies step forward to drink. They cluster close, pressing together side by side. Hesitant lions slowly creep back to reclaim their half-eaten kill, and the matriarch whirls around, her ears flaring, watching the lions in a silent stand-off. The air is still. It is thick with tension and heavy with the severity of the moment. One ill-timed thud against the car window or a frightened squeal from any of us, and we would incited a rampage. Silence is imperative and we hold our breaths as the ellies file past within inches of our landrover. We can almost feel their fear and my heart twists as I wonder what it must be like to stumble blindly through a darkened world, sensing death and its bearers all around you lurking in the hazy shadows and around every corner. As they disappear into the acacias, we hear a long, lumpy-sounding elephant fart and giggle nervously. We can breathe again.

We drive closer to the buffalo carcass and watch the lions return. In the faint starlight, we see that an adult female has already resumed her demolition; her whole head disappears inside the opened belly to rip solid tracts of muscle from the ribcage. We fumble for our headlamps and cameras; I look around optimitistically for an onslaught of hyenas. I have yet to see them challenge a lion kill, and begin to question the feasibility of my research plans. The subadult males pad around our car, their massive paws falling silently in the sandy soil. They are full, and are now studying us. Our windows are open, as always, and we glance around with slight unease – where did the two subadult males go? Suddenly we hear a loud chomp from the back of our vehicle. Fearing that they’ve gone of one of our tires, and hardly in any position to fix a flat, we frantically turn the car ignition and pull a few meters forward. In the sideview mirror, we see a lion trot into the darkness with our plastic tire cover dangling from his teeth. Candida’s jaw drops. We are not quite sure what inspired them to steal such an inedible adornment, but it is late and we have company coming that night. So we chalk the loss up to a casualty of the field…and as we drive home along the corrugated dirt road, we remind ourselves that at least we are better off than the buffalo.

An Ode to Ants.

I keep flinching and slapping at the invisible bugs that land and leap away so fast I can’t tell sometimes if they are real or merely a figment of my imagination. By the time I slap my arm, they are gone, and all that lingers is that faint distant tickle on my skin. Craig peers up at me over his little wire glasses. We are wading through 25 years of radio-collaring lion data and I am playing the dusty, bugbitten, in-desperate-need-of-beer secretary. He gives me a withering stare as I twitch murderously at the bugs that seem to molest only me. “It’s all in you’re imagination,” he says with a playfully dismissive wave of his hand as he hunches back over the dusty files. Sreeching in indignation, I am finally successful in my arthropod assassination attempts and throw my tiny offender at my academic advisor. “I don’t want your pickings!” he squawks. Merciless, I catch another and drop it in his lap. It quickly disappears into his ridiculous leg hair. Satisfied, I resume recording.

I think the bugs are the only thing I dislike more than the baboons that crap on our veranda. The ants recently invaded our drop toilet (the only one in town where you still have to squat, milling about on the concrete slab in typical ant frenzy. African ants seem to be generally unstoppable. They swarm across our kitchen countertop so thick that the white laminate is completely obscured. Yesterday I saw them dragging a dead tsetse fly across our windowsill. They are tiny pinprick ants, so ghostly as they crawl across your skin that you’re never quite sure if you’ve merely imagined them. But we don’t imagine them in our food. They are baked into our bread, spooned into our leftovers, drowned in our drinking water…They even invaded my canister of refrigerated Lindt chocolates. They flail hopelessly in our wash water and get stuck in the little holes of our makeshift shower bucket. I think sometimes they bite - the backs of my legs are covered with little red itchy bumps, and if they aren’t ant bites then they might be tick larvae, which is even more disgusting.

As much as I would prefer not to share my shower with a thousand tiny freeriders, I have this strange love/hate/admiration/disgust relationship with the colonial creatures. Philipp tells me how some ants raise aphid “livestock,” carrying their little aphids around to leaves and then milking them of their leaf-juice. Some ants live in little black balls on one of the countless acacia species and attack hungry ungulates that dare to browse on their branches. One day while scouring game trails for fresh carnivore sign, I discovered a series of 4-inch wide paths that wove between the trees. I turned to the camera trapping guru by my side, the funny German who’s spent the last decade in the remote west-African bush. Ants! Philipp says. Yes, the ants move in such volume that they create barren little tracks through the woodland grass. Sometimes we can see the ant army marching in rigid formation outside the Lion House. They appear out of nowhere against our cinderblock corners and trudge across the dirt. I don’t know where they are going, but they look like they’re on a mission. Perhaps they heard that there was something in the outhouse.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

We get close to big cats.


I have been in the Serengeti for precisely one week now, yet I still hardly know where to begin.

The house is nicer than I could possibly have imagined. For starters, it’s a house. All of my previous fieldwork was conducted from the luxury of my Northface Tadpole. Here at the Lion House we have a veranda that looks out at the dense woodlands of Seronera – the city at the heart of the Serengeti. Furnished with wobbly table and cushioned chairs, the veranda is occasionally decorated by an especially adventurous hyrax or an especially annoying baboon. The lions steal the cushions from the Cheetah House next door, but leave ours alone. It might be because (we’re pretty sure) there’s something (that bites) living in our cushions. The house is encircled by half a dozen 3000 liter tanks that catch the rainwater that runs off the roof – even though it’s fairly clean, we boil and filter it before drinking because, as Ingela says, “you never know what poops on the roof!” Well, we know at least it’s hyraxes, possibly a leopard, maybe baboons, and almost certainly bats. So boil we do. In the wet season, the tanks are full enough that water flows to the taps, but right now we go back and forth with buckets. Lots and lots of buckets.

Our electricity shuts off at 10 pm, so I am curled up on the veranda, writing by the light of my kerosene lantern. The bats are echolocating above my head, but I wonder if they have faulty sonar. Every now and then I hear a soft thwack against the wooden beams, and the other day one brushed through my knotty hair. (My hair is like 3 inches long. I haven’t had knotty hair since I was 12 years old and had long hair. This is what the dust of Serengeti plus days of not showering does to a person.) Candida, one of the field researchers, pulls down her crunchy laundry by headlamp. I’m not sure why our laundry is crunchy, but I don’t ask. As long as there are no ants in my pants, I’ll be happy. (The ants are a story in and of themselves.)

A buffalo goes crashing awkwardly through the thick grass and shrubs in our front yards. We have a 20 meter radius of mowed grass out front, but the back yard grows tall and dangerous. When braving the nighttime visit to the outhouse I scan for eyeshine at each step forward. The other day Craig came running back inside the house panting. “Don’t worry,” he said, when I nervously peered out to pay my own visit to the loo, “you can outrun him.” I usually take most of what my advisor tells me with no small pinch of salt, and this was no exception – stared down by the African water buffalo, I decided that perhaps nature calling could be allowed to ring for a while.

Fortunately, the veranda seems to create some invisible barrier to the bigger animals with dangerous things like hooves and claws. The buffalo stay in the tall unmowed grass and poop on our path to the outhouse. Occasionally we hear hyenas whooping in the distance, or lions roaring past the house next door, but nobody ever ventures up onto the concrete stoop. So I get to sit here with my half liter of Kilimanjaro beer and stare into the night, immune to the dangers of east African wildlife…well, that is, aside from mosquitos, biting ants, ticks, and tsetses….and the occasional bat that buzzes my head. At least this place is creative.