Wednesday, June 19, 2013

I Think I Saw an Impala

Yesterday we returned from a five-day trip to Kruger National Park and the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center in South Africa with over a thousand pictures and some new wildlife experiences.
This trip, we set out to see carnivores, so we headed to the north of the park where lions are less prevalent and cheetahs, leopards, and hyenas enjoy the lack of competition while rare antelopes such as Sable and Hartebeest enjoy the lack of lions eating them. We started in Skukuza camp, which is still in the south of the park and from there embarked on a game drive with a guide named Robert. 
The first thing we saw was a breeding pack of hyenas. Robert explained that hyenas separate their cubs into age-appropriate groups so that they don’t compete for food, and that a cub will be fed not only by its mother but also by other members of the pack, practices to which Robert attributed the very low infant mortality rate among hyenas. Sure enough, after we had watched and taken photos of this lady, we realized that there was another nursing mother on the other side of the road with two very young, all-black cubs who had yet to gain their characteristic spots.
Robert also noticed something in one of the trees as we passed by, and when he backed up to show it to us, it turned out to be one of the most impressive feats of safari-guidery that I have ever seen. In the dark and while driving, Robert spotted a flap-necked chameleon, a tiny little fellow who looked so much like the leaves around him that Robert had to point for ten minutes before everyone in the vehicle had seen it.
On the fifteenth, we left Skukuza and headed for Mopani camp, which is named for the famous Mopani tree (in which lives the Mopani worm, which is considered a delicacy) and is further north in the park. As we drove up to our camp, we saw teasing symbols—there was a dead impala in a tree, which can only mean one thing, but the leopard had left his kill and was likely afraid to return until the humans had stopped guarding his dinner.
It was a good day for other sightings, though. I have seen a lot of hippos, but always mostly submerged. On the fourteenth I saw my first hippos out of water (courtesy of the chilly weather) and the next day we looked out over the river from the safety of a hide to see a huge breeding herd basking on a little island that likely disappears during rainy season.

It was apparently the time of the breeding herds. This herd of elephant consisted of at least forty individuals, and when we reached a bridge at sunset to see two large herds crossing over the river, we stopped even though we were in a bit of a hurry to get to Mopani before five-thirty (if you arrive after the gates close, you must pay a fine) and enjoyed taking pictures of them and absorbing the moment when we saw 300 tons of elephantine beauties lumbering through the sunny water.
The next day, on a morning drive with a guide named Amos, we saw a serval and some black-backed jackals, each of which was too quick to photograph. We also came across this lone female hyena taking seriously the command of so many parents for their children to finish everything on their plates. She was gnawing on the last of the skin of an elephant carcass—the elephant was killed in January when it was struck by lightning, and while I never like to see an elephant in turmoil, it was amazing how the detrivores continually made use of the resources available to them.
It was also a good day for birds. We saw a group of six juvenile ostriches—I saw my first ostrich in the wild on Friday and couldn’t believe its size even after having seen them in zoos, and even the young ones were gigantic. But even more exciting than the ostriches were a smaller and less-known bird which we came across later. In a group of four, crossing over the road by foot, were the endangered Southern Ground Hornbills. These large, flighted but mostly ground-dwelling birds are quite rare, and in fact only 1500 individuals are estimated to exist in South Africa, so we were very lucky to have seen them.
            On the seventeenth, we woke up early to prepare to leave Kruger for the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center, and saw yet another hyena—this one was also nursing, but right in the middle of the road. She seemed very comfortable with the cars going by and also stopping for photos.
            So we had seen several hyenas, jackals, and even a serval but none of the majestic big cats. We had seen a leopard’s kill and also seen a spot in the ground where another leopard had dragged a kill across the road, and we had heard reports of lions and leopards and even caught a short glimpse of a leopard in a far-away tree, but sometimes it’s enough to except the little signs even if you can’t see the actual animal. As we neared the gate, I noticed a large herd of impala—and of course, why would impala just stand there, if a predator was nearby? Still, they looked alert, and right after we passed them I thought I saw something lying in the riverbed. I asked if we could back up, apologizing in case it was just an impala and I was making us stop for nothing.
            It was an impala. But a leopard was eating it.

            As I have mentioned, I used to dislike the idea of animals eating one another, but there are two sides to every story. Leopards have cubs to feed too. Hyenas separate into nurseries and apparently nurse their pups right in the middle of the road. So in the end, everybody’s just trying to survive. Sometimes an impala gets away, and sometimes a leopard gets to eat. I’m just glad he chose that riverbed to rest in after the hunt.

African Wild Dogs
At the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Center (HESC), the goal is to preserve endangered species such as ground hornbills, African wild dogs, caracals, and servals, but the focus is and has always been on cheetahs. 
The HESC includes breeding programs in which cheetahs born at the HESC are later released into the wild, as well as rescue programs for animals in undesirable situations. One such situation was that of two lions who were simply left on the side of the road in Portugal after the circus that owned them shut down. This lion is actually a male, but he was castrated at a young age and therefore lacked the hormones necessary to grow a mane. Unfortunately for these lions and two other adult males (with manes and other body parts intact) who were born at the HESC, lions, unlike cheetahs, cannot be released into the wild if they weren’t born there. For cheetahs, hunting is innate. They need some time to practice, but they have the skills they need. Lions have an instinct for hunting as well, but the tactics needed for stalking and bringing down prey are taught within the pride, so it’s a good thing they are doing well in the wild.
Maybe one day the little guy in the back will be released into the wild.
            And speaking of the wild, the HESC partners with Kapama Game Reserve, a wild and unregulated piece of land where animals are free to avoid us seeing them, to arrange game drives there and occasionally to release animals onto the reserve. We were on one such game drive and were seeing a lot of common duikers (a small antelope some may remember from a particularly uneventful night drive of two years ago) when we topped off our trip with one last huge sighting. In contrast to my unsure reports of something lying in the riverbed when I saw the leopard, Caleb drew attention to his find definitively.
            “Lion. Lion lion lion.”

This trip was certainly an eventful and lucky one.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

English and Natural History

 Today my dad and I taught an English lesson at the orphanage/boarding school. The lesson was about how to say things like where you are from and what nationality a person is, and my dad drew a map of the world on the chalkboard and asked the kids where Mozambique and some it’s bordering countries were. The students were shy, but many of them eager—especially Felicia, who did not attend our class because it was too elementary for her since she is the only twelfth-grader at the school. After class, though, we (and by we, I mean my dad) helped her with her homework and chatted a bit in English. One interesting thing about the orphanage is the relaxed attitude about the place. My dad and I showed up, one of our favorite nuns asked if we were going to teach a lesson, we said yes, she called the girls, and a group came. Also, both today and Tuesday another regular volunteer at the orphanage had told us she would meet us at ten, and both times she showed up after eleven, unapologetically. Although Felicia told us that one is expected to be at class on time, we have learned over the years that, when it comes to social commitments, being on time has a different meaning here.

            After lunch, Eduardo, Caleb and I went to the National Museum of Natural 
History, which included many interesting displays such as fetal elephants in the various stages of development; various preserved snakes, sea creatures, and insects; and a hippo skeleton. I hope this museum is able to gain revenue in the coming years as Mozambique continues to grow—it is tiny, but fun. And of course I was dazzled by a museum that allowed picture-taking.

Elephant Fetus at 10 Months
Hippo Skeleton
Tomorrow we'll be heading to the famous Kruger Park to check out some wildlife. Until I return, please think of me commiserating with this pretend shark.  

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Know Your Market

Ah, back in The 'Bique, where the fresh vegetables are cheap and the bananas practically jump out of their peeling and into your stomach. Although I have had some run-ins with mosquitoes and some misunderstandings due to my terrible Portuguese, it's been a nice few days over at Maputo Royale and I have a feeling it’s going to go by very fast, especially in the action-packed weeks to come.
            Today my dad, Caleb, Adozinda, Eduardo and I all piled into the car and went to the market together to get some fruit, and get some copies made for tomorrow’s English lesson. The copy-shop will make one copy for one Metical—that is, a thirtieth of a U.S. dollar, and they don’t only make copies but also sell things you might find in the non-medical sections of a pharmacy, like pens, erasers, and, okay, if I am to be totally honest, sanitary napkins. The latter of this list I happened to need, so I asked my dad to add them to our purchase. When the woman at the counter gave us the price for the copies, we put them on the counter and said:
            “E este também.” (This too.)
            “Você vende?” (Are you selling?) She asked. I was pretty confused by this response, but figured I had misheard or that I was unaware of all of the applications of the verb “vender.” Uncertain, my dad said yes. “Quanta custa?” (How much does it cost?), the woman asked.
            “Não sei,” (I don’t know), I said, a bit surprised that she didn’t know the price of her own product and wondering if she wanted me to make an offer. Finally, amid a few more comments from all of us, my dad and I realized the misunderstanding: she thought we were some sort of door-to-door maxi-pad salespeople! So much for me being discrete. I not only repeated the story to Caleb and then to John but now I’m posting it on the internet. It really does seem like some things can only happen in Maputo, though. Next time you go to Staples, try making some copies and then when you get to the counter say: “I don’t really have any money, but I’ll trade you these maxi-pads.”

            On a different note, though, we did visit the orphanage/boarding school yesterday where I taught one English lesson last year, and we visited the girls and sat in on their Portuguese lesson. Tomorrow we will teach a real lesson there and I will let you know what kind of shenanigans unfold. In the mean time, have a lovely day, and remember that the strongest currency is whatever people need.