Friday, March 25, 2011



It would not be a trip to TZ without some sort of drama. With 15 minutes before boarding, I was kneeling on my hockey-bruised knees on the cold blue tiles in front of the Delta desk. Around me were scattered camouflage steel cases, calcium supplements, lacy pink underwear.

I had exactly 221 lbs of luggage. Exactly 11 lbs over what I could fit in 3 bags. And even though the Delta rep claimed that Delta would happily of let me go overweight with a nudge and a wink, the rest of the world does not allow bags >70lbs on board. I think she was lying.

The vast majority of these 221 lbs was camera traps – steel and camo, they looked suspicious and malicious, and I painstakingly wrapped them in delicate undergarments and feminine products, hoping that shy Tanzanian customs agents wouldn’t push past the embarrassing intimate items if they did check me on that side…

Of course, all of this painstaking packing was quickly undone. I watched in dismay as TSA dismembered every single artfully packed checked bag. I wonder what went through their mind, these camo colored explosive looking boxes, nestled next to kitten heels and a strapless dress; veterinary darts cuddled up to pink tissue-paper wrapped valentine’s day presents…One of them worked up the nerve to ask me what I was doing. “Studying lions,” I explained, with the briefest of explanations about Lion Project and Serengeti. My plane was boarding and I had yet to make it through security… The TSA agent nodded knowingly…”So you’re a missionary?” I squashed the urge to stare at him like he was a moron. Pissing of security agents is not typically advised.

So I smiled. And eventually the agents packed my bags, rolling their eyes at my incessant cries of “please put the pink fluffy things on top of the cameras!” And by feigning first class tinged with authentic desperation, I was allowed to the front of the security line and made it through in a matter of single-digit minutes. Deep breath. Now I just had to make it to Arusha with all 221lbs of luggage intact…

It begins again: Wet Season Survey 2011

As I leave Minnesota, winter seems to be already breaking. Amidst the national mid-winter heatwave, mountains of snow are melting, turning the roads into rivers and the hockey rinks back into lakes. For the third time, I am watching cheesy movies across the atlantic, fast forwarding through day and night, racing the sun eastward across the ocean and winning by 30 lengths like Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes.

Except this doesn’t feel spectacular anymore. I am on my way to Tanzania, once again, with 240 lbs of luggage catapulting around the belly of the plane. My back feels thrown and the plane feels cramped, and the woman sitting next to me snorts and sniffles like some Sesame Street character.

After three weeks of delays, I’m finally heading…home? I’m dreading – just a bit – the madness that awaits me in Serengeti. A solid three weeks behind, I have 200 traps to place in the next 10 days….which happens to be humanly impossible.

See, my research relies primarily on camera traps – remote, automatic cameras that are triggered by heat and motion, attached to trees so that they take pictures of wildlife night and day. On the street they’re known as “hyena bait.” On my street anyway.

Yeah, that’s right. I’ve discovered that hyenas are like big ugly puppies – the world is their chew toy. However, unlike your neighbor’s cute, squirmy blue heeler, hyenas have no responsible owner to say “No! No demolishing the $200 camera trap!” Last year alone, hyenas ate nearly $10,000 in cameras. I would arrive at my excruciatingly selected camera site to find bits and pieces of plastic, the stray LED, a fragment of circuit board…just no camera. Elephants took down about $5,000 in cameras, but with minimal destruction. They typically ripped the offending trap from the tree and flung it out of site. Those cameras usually worked, with some minor case modifications. But the hyena victims? Beyond repair.

Given the abysmal loss rates from the first year of this ambitious (crazy?) camera trapping study, I am now returning to the Serengeti with replacement cameras and heavy duty steel protective cases…which happen to way about 1.35 tons apiece. That might be an exaggeration, but the point is that they are very, very heavy. And hopefully hyena-proof.

It is dark outside, though the fancy seat-back TV map says we are smack dab over the Atlantic. I feel like my mind should be racing with plans for my research, or meandering down memory lane – but mostly I am thinking about how good the red wine tastes, and how tired my eyes feel. The night outside seems endless, the world feels far away and frozen in time – like Zach used to do on “Saved by the Bell” – and in my alternate reality I slip guiltlessly into mass-market movies, into staring blankly out the window, the wine wrapping its velvet fingers around my fraying neurons.

I have a million things to do by…yesterday, but my brain is tired and does not want to work. I do not want to think about where on earth I put my hard drive, or the fact that I have not yet filed my taxes despite my imminent disappearance into the bush. I want to fade into the bright, apoplectic flashes of the action movie’s runaway trains or the feel-good underdog story of the horse that could. When I get to Serengeti, it will be a flat-out race against the rains. I want to get my cameras set before the rains keep me hamstrung for days at a time. Today is Feb 19; the rains start at the beginning of March. Can it be done? I guess we’ll see when I get there.