Bird battle [1]

It was a Saturday afternoon in September 1989, I had just finished working and I was walking back to our bungalow when I saw about four Thick-billed ravens (Corvus crassirostris) flying about around an acacia tree that stood alone in the park of the laboratory.

These birds, usually noisy, were rather common but their behaviour was rather odd as it was obvious that they were more agitated than usual. So, I rushed home to tell Mabel and bring the binoculars and the camera, just in case.

As we returned, a Harrier Hawk (Polyboroides radiatus) flew off with two of the ravens pursuing it. They all disappeared from sight, but the ravens returned shortly after. To our increasing amazement, what appeared to be a Wahlberg’s Eagle (Aquila wahlbergi) also flew away from the tree with another couple of ravens in pursuit. It landed in a nearby dead tree, but the ravens soon forgot about it. This situation was clearly odd, and we could not believe that we had already seen two uncommon raptors!

But there was more to come.

Although two possible candidates for the commotion had been chased away, the ravens were still very agitated. The racket attracted a pair of rather vociferous Cape Rooks (Corvus capensis) that joined in. It was now obvious that there was some other cause for the mobbing behaviour of the ravens that was now focused deep inside the acacia.

It required a thorough search to detect the presence of a fully grown Verreaux’s Eagle Owl (Bubo lacteus) surrounded by the ravens while the Cape Rooks provided a more distant but very noisy support. The owl had chosen or it was driven by the ravens to a rather thick tangle of thorny twigs. These shielded the owl from the raven’s beaks which were only able to attempt to reach it one at a time through one opening among the branches. 

At this point one of the ravens (frustrated in its attempt to reach the owl?) began to deliberately break off the twigs with its beak in order to increase the size of the hole.

Corvids are regarded among the most intelligent of birds and they have brains with a similar number of neurons as some monkey species! So their “twig-removing” behaviour is not surprising [2].

After a few minutes, all four ravens adapted this activity, and soon made an opening large enough for them to enter and reach the owl from several directions. Despite their numbers, large size and powerful bills, the ravens were very wary of the owl, never facing it and always striking at it by jumping up and pecking at its rear.

The Verreaux eagle owl, at the back, being harried by one of the thick-billed ravens, just before the owl took off.

After a few minutes of being forced to fend off the four attackers simultaneously the owl took off still pursued by the ravens. It alighted again in a nearby tree but was almost immediately forced to fly again into another one where it remained until dark, continually mobbed by the ravens, clearly unhappy to see it in their neighbourhood. The following morning, there were no signs of the dispute of the day before and the ravens were back to their normal noisy life!

Of particular interest to us was to see the congregation of several birds of prey on the tree as well as the persistence and ferocity of the attacking ravens.

The late Leslie Brown in his book African Birds of Prey [3] has reported Verreaux Eagle Owls preying on the young of pied crows and buzzards, so that probably all the corvids and raptors involved in this incident were reacting to the owl as a potential predator of their young.

Note: during the subsequent years spent watching birds in Africa, we have observed the great respect aht most birds of prey have for large owls, clearly seeing them probably as dangerous to their young.

[1] This observation was published much later as: de Castro, J. & de Castro, M. (2013). Verreaux’s Eagle Owl Bubo lacteus attacked by Thick-billed Ravens Corvus crassirostris. Scopus 32: 51–52

Link to the published work: https://www.ajol.info/index.php/scopus/article/view/108343

[2] For a recent study on crowns see: https://www.statnews.com/2020/09/24/crows-possess-higher-intelligence-long-thought-primarily-human/

[3] Brown, L. (1970). African birds of prey. Collins.

The telephone rang once

Despite the limitations we found almost daily at a rather remote place such as Bedele, the work progressed. By mid 1989 we had already accumulated good information on tick population dynamics and distribution and trained a large number of veterinary people from the three provinces. We were quite pleased and then we even started looking into other work venues such as acaricide resistance, tickborne diseases and the possible use of local plants in tick control.

Our laboratory was basic but sufficient for our needs although communications were a severe weakness. We did not have access to telex or telegrams, the only means of communication at the time, together with land telephone lines. We did have a telephone set but it sat in my office noiselessly from the time of our arrival. We soon learnt to ignore it joking that it could be used to put some flowers in it to decorate our lab! This was the situation when, one day, it did ring.

Shocked we all stopped what we were doing to pay attention to this unusual event for which we were quite unprepared. One of the Ethiopian colleagues, rather weary, pick up the receiver and answered. Judging by the tone of the conversation rather than the words in Amharic, I could gather that something serious was happening. I got worried as it looked and sounded like bad news.

Once the conversation was over, we learnt that the head of our donor, the UNDP Representative, was coming to our laboratory to see the work that both FAO projects, the one on trypanosomiasis headed by Jan and ours were doing.

Quite excited, we informed our Director of the unexpected but important news. Used to visits of political nature, he immediately put in motion a number of activities to ensure that our important guests would get a good reception, including the necessary visits, lunch and other refreshments.

We also prepared and rehearsed our technical presentations trying to impress the visitor. I have already mentioned that, as far as UNDP was concerned, our project was regarded as a problem, a consequence of the unfortunate delays it had suffered because of the sickness of my predecesor and my delayed arrival.

The visit was our only chance to get some more funding to continue our work. We also arranged for a field visit to nearby farmer in case time allowed.

So, two days later, when the guests were meant to arrive the laboratory had been cleaned and a new Ethiopian flag was flying at the front of the building where all personnel was lined up for a rather long wait.

Finally the convoy arrived and the car carrying the Representative stopped at the front of the building. The Director of the Laboratory stepped forward to greet him. The solicitous driver opened the door and the man emerged but, before he could even shake hands with the Director, something as unexpected as unfortunate happened: a rather large wasp came from nowhere and stung our guest somewhere in the face!

It was a powerful sting that left our visitor motionless and not sure of what to do, apart from holding his face! He tried to ignore the sting but the swelling (and I am sure the pain also) increased rather fast despite the ice that was applied to try to stop it.

After a while, concerned for a possible allergic reaction to set in, the decision was taken for his return to Jimma and later Addis just in case. that he would need further medical attention tht was not available in Bedele.

To say that the rushed departure of such an important official created generalized consternation would be an understatement as all efforts made by all were rather wasted. We remained with his assistants -well known to us- but feeling a sense of anti-climax. The last chance to change the fate of our project through our planned presentations was gone and, of minor importance of course, our only telephone call was unfortunately for nothing!

Catalina

The deep eyes of the animal (that happened to be a female) reminded Mabel of those of an old friend from Uruguay and, therefore, the name was coined!

Large eyes and preorbital glands.

When it arrived it was an extremely young common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia), very likely to had been the survivor of a mother being a casualty of the bush meat consumption around Bedele. Duikers in general are well known to be an important part of the species hunted for food by the local people. A study in Liberia found that duikers and forest antelope constitute 57% of all meat traded [1] and the situation is likely to had been similar in Ethiopia at the time of our stay. 

In any case, Catalina entered our lives. To start with its condition did not look as it would be with us for too long. It had clearly suffered from lack of milk and it was wet, very dehydrated and not very active.

The recently arrived duiker. The red ribbon came with it.

It was immediately adopted by Mabel who placed it inside her jacket pocket for warmth while we heated up milk and sugar to feed it. Luckily, after several attempts we managed. As soon as the creature tasted the sweet milk it started drinking with a passion, head-butting the foster mother in an instinctive attempt at getting more milk.

Mabel bottle-feeding a young Catalina.

Milk-drinking had a positive effect and, by the next day, she was looking more lively although I still did not like its look, particularly her arched back. We then realized that she had urinated but not defecated and that she was probably uncomfortable, hence the position of her back. How do you get a young duiker to defecate was an issue -albeit not very academic- that took us thinking for a while!

Then we remembered having seen female Thomson’s gazelles licking the rear ends of their babies for them to defecate when newly born. We tried to mimic this using cotton wool wet with warm water and the effect was instantaneous with the resulting large harvest of very dry faeces. It looked as she was going to live after all.

Live she did and became an interesting pet with one main drawback: house training! It would not learn to do the necessary outside and she insisted in performing her functions in our sitting room. We got rather tired of collecting her droppings that would bounce and run all over the room, particularly under the armchairs, just like small brown marbles!

With Woletu.

Despite her drawbacks, Catalina became a youngster in a few months and started to eat grass around the house. She would follow you like a dog and enjoy playing with the cats, mainly outside the house where there was quite a large open space.

Catalina with Tigger.

She would tease the cats and mock charge them until the latter tried to catch her only to find that the duiker was much faster than them and she would even jump high above them and bounce off. Her gracility and speed of reaction were truly extraordinary and left the cats looking like sloths in comparison!

It all went well until one day Catalina disappeared. No amount of searching around the house and beyond yielded any results and we feared the worst. Consternation increased as the days passed but no one had seen it and we could not locate her. This went on for about a week until one evening Catalina entered our house through the front door!

We were happy to see her after fearing her dead and she stayed for a couple of days and then disappeared again. This behaviour became the norm until our departure from Bedele towards the end of 1989.

We realized that our departure would be a problem for a “semi-wild” duiker as it was not possible to get someone at the station to care for her. We could not leave her either as it would probably be killed so we started to think what best to do about something we had not planned when Catalina arrived.

The solution came from André, an FAO colleague who was wishing to have Catalina. So it was that we took her to Addis and left her with him. He had it for about a year and, eventually, Catalina ended up at the gardens of the British High Commission where we hope she had a good life coming to watch people drinking a cuppa in the gardens of the mission.

[1] See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/194008291400700103

Animals come

After being in the laboratory for a while, people from the area learnt that we liked animals and we started getting surprises as we were surrounded by interesting creatures.

The first arrival was a very young gosling that took us a while to identify although we knew that it could only belong to basically three species: Egyptian (Alopochen aegyptiaca), Spur-wing (Plectropterus gambensis) or the rarer Blue-winged geese (Cyanochen cyanoptera). After a detailed search we decided that we were the “owners” of an Egyptian goose and this was confirmed later on when it matured.

Our grown Egyptian goose.

To get a stressed animal is always a problem but luckily it adjusted to living in a heated carbon box where it grew until it became too large for it and we built an enclosure with reed mats and, eventually let it go around the house with the consequences that this produced that needed to be cleaned!

From the start the plan was not to get it attached to us so that we could release it.

The Egyptian goose entering its enclosure.

After a few months it started to beat its wings and run the length of the space between the houses trying to take off. Soon it managed to hop, and the latter became longer and higher. I started to watch it as it was great fun until one day, I saw it lifting off and disappear towards the hills! It was a great success as we never saw it again.

The absence of the goose was hardly noted as it was almost immediately replaced by a young kingfisher that did not look too good on arrival and could not yet fly. However, we placed it in the cats’ cage and supplied with water while we searched for suitable food.

It was easy to identify it as an African pygmy kingfisher (Ispidina picta), one of the very small kingfishers distributed widely in Africa south of the Sahara although it is not present in the whole of the horn of Africa. A woodland species, it is not bound to water and it is usually very secretive and mostly seen when it loses its nerve and flies off from its perch.

African pigmy kingfisher. Credit: Steve Garvie from Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)

We learnt that the diet of this kingfisher consists of spiders and various insects as well as geckos and lizards. We were pleased to know that, among the insects, grasshoppers were acceptable as well as praying mantis, worms, crickets, dragonflies, cockroaches and moths. We knew that there were hundreds of grasshoppers across the road in the fields and we soon collected a few. Later we got a couple of children to collect them for us and we never had any shortage of food.

My attempted clever picture! The actual bird flying as it had escaped from the bird book! Not too good.

At first the bird ignored our offerings of water and grasshoppers but, to our relief, it started catching a few and to smash them against the box before eating them. We soon learnt that it defecated at one corner of the box while it produced food pellets with insect chitin as owls do with hairs and bones in a separate corner.

A common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) casting a large white pellet. (Photograph by: Tan Gim Cheong). From L. K. Wang, M. Chan, Y. M. Chan, G. C. Tan and Y. C. Wee (2009). Pellet-casting by non-raptorial birds of Singapore. Nature in Singapore 2: 97–106.

It ate well and clearly matured under the attentive gaze of our cats that were rather frustrated as they could not get it! Interestingly, the bird totally ignored the cats.

Eventually, I opened the box and allowed to be free inside the room during the day and placed it back in the box for the night. After a few days it was clear that it could fly well and we took it to a forested area and released it.

Releasing the kingfisher.

One day, we started hearing howls that we first identified as coming from young dogs but soon we realized that they were more like the sounds we have heard earlier in Kenya whenever we came close to jackals!

A search in our backyard (a large open field that continued all the way to Ethiopia itself!) produced a family of jackals that we identified as side-striped jackals (Canis adustus) not without surprise. They were a pair of adults and two pups that had taken residence in one of the unused shacks that remained from the time of the building of the laboratory.

They were not bothered by our presence and continued to stay there, well-hidden during the day but becoming active in the late afternoon. Luckily, they went unnoticed by the chicken owners in the laboratory but not by other inhabitants…

It is beyond my knowledge of animal ethology why our two cats decided that they would befriend the jackals. When we discovered a meeting, in panic, we went to the rescue as we thought that our pets were about to be killed. We managed to call them away from the jackals and took them home unharmed.

We kept the cats locked for a few days but eventually they went out of the house and, lo and behold, they did a beeline to the jackals again. This time, we decided towait and watch, and we were quite surprised to see them engaged in a kind of hide and seek exercise with the wild jackals, both adults and pups! After that we relaxed and watched the unexpected interaction until the jackal family left not to be seen again.

Apart from the long-term visitors, we also had a number of day guests. Among these the least desirable were the grivet monkeys as they would do lots of damage to Mabel’s garden as opposed to the black and white colobus that were not only beautiful to watch but harmless to our garden. I will describe a few more interactions with birds later but there was one that was quite scary.

It happened while Paul and I were working on the document for the extension of the project. We were sitting at home next to the computer when, suddenly, a large bird entered the room through the open window and landed on our worktable, as confused as we were shocked!

Amazingly it was a black kite (Milvus migrans) a rather large bird to be in close quarters with considering that it has 150cm wingspan and we could see that it had a strong beak and talons! Luckily, it departed almost as soon as it arrived leaving us rather amazed and looking at each other in disbelief!

The last long-term guest to arrive was a Common duiker (Sylvicapra grimmia) but I will deal with this visitor on a separate post.

Video preferences

I have now published a number of videos at my channel in Youtube and, frankly, I am surprised and amused at the results. In other words, what I thought were the best videos had a cool reception while others that I did not think much of, were quite popular.

Here are the three less and the three most popular videos for you to watch and decide!

With 7 views (in 4 years!):

With 5 views in 1 year:

With 3 views in 1 year:

Here are the most popular:

With 8k views during 5 years:

Not a very active beast but attractive?

With 23k views in 4 years:

I think that this one is spectacular and perhaps the title helped it?

The winner, with 61k in five years:

I think this one is good and the title was not that attractive!

It is truly amazing how viewers choose what they watch! The following one is my favourite but it has been seen 274 times in 5 years!

This is the address to my video channel in YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCzdnf37ID0jrLIEFH3NhuOQ

Visiting Addis

As I mentioned earlier, we needed to travel to Addis roughly every month and, after the first twelve months I got promoted and that meant that we gained access to an expatriate shop known as the Victory shop. Although this impressively named shop could only be compared with a small supermarket in Kenya, to be able to enter it was a moral boost to our remoteness and complemented our food needs. It also offered the option of buying several things in one place and even find some imported stuff.

Despite our newly acquired privilege, we continued to visit the Mercato, attracted not just by the food but also in search of handicrafts. Ethiopia is well known for its rather unique jewellery. Various silver crosses of different sizes, shapes and materials as well as gold ornaments of different kinds, particularly the rather large rounded earrings and other items are sought after by both Ethiopians and visitors.

Although we bought a few crosses and other silver trinkets, we were more interested in other kinds of crafts such as textiles and baskets, the latter in particular we liked a lot. So, while I attended meetings and did project procurement and other official tasks, Mabel spent many hours shopping at Mercato.

She bought lovely lengths of cotton material known as “shammas”. These are light weight shawls worn by women and decorated with coloured borders. There are also plain and heavier ones worn by men and used as blankets and even as shrouds.

She also bought a number of baskets of which I only have a few where we are now for you to see.

Tequyes. Baskets made of bamboo in southern Ethiopia mostly Gurage zone .

Amazingly, she was not deterred by the amount of strongly smelling rubbish that was strewn all over the place that included lots of human excrement as there were no public toilets available. She solved this inconvenience by wearing her gumboots and spending quite a time cleaning them on return! She walked with our “beggar chaser bodyguard” and both came back loaded with various shopping items.

While in Addis we also got to know the various restaurants as the food at the Harambe Hotel was truly poor. We sampled a few with various results. Eventually we narrowed them down to the great Italian Castelli where the antipasti, the spaghetti with gorgonzola and the tiramisu were truly excellent. Sometimes we also dined at the Greek-Armenian Club where we had a weak spot for the cold mint and yogurt soup and other delicacies of both cuisines. We also liked some of the local restaurants such as the Habesha and the Finfine but, because we ate local food in Bedele, we wished to change to other kind of food.

Regrettably, almost towards the end of our stay we were taken to a non-descript place by a friend who claimed that he had eaten the best chicken in Addis! We followed him and arrived to what looked as a family house. We were accommodated at one of the few tables available and ordered the only dish on offer: fried chicken and chips and waited and then waited a bit more. Eventually the food arrived but when it did, it was really delicious. As we could not remember its name, we started calling it the “Chicken Embassy” and returned to it whenever we felt like having a good chicken!

During one of the trips to Addis our car (a project Land Rover) died about 200km from Addis. After trying everything we knew to find what was wrong, we finally realized that the petrol was not reaching the engine. I recalled that, sometimes, I needed to punch the front panel of my Land Rover Series I in Uruguay to get it going again to the amusement of my companions that did not know that the electrical fuel pump was screwed on the other side of the panel!

So, we looked for the pump not only behind the front panel but all over the place and failed to find it. After that we thought it had fallen off during the journey, but we could not find where it should have been either!

Eventually, we gave up trying to do a DIY repair and stopped a lorry that towed us to the next mechanic we found while we speculated where the pump could be. The mechanic announced that these cars had the pump inside the petrol tank (a clever idea!) and that he needed to siphon the petrol out, remove the tank, open it and check the condition of the elusive pump!

After a few hours spent putting things apart, a loose wire was reconnected and the car re-assembled. Later on, I needed to take it to Addis to fit a new pump outside the tank! Anyway, we got the car going again but only for a few km before nightfall. Luckily, we reached the town of Wolisso and found a hotel to spend the night. The place, built in Italian style, clearly belonged to a gone era when travellers would find there all necessary luxuries. However, it was obvious that the revolution did not have room for frills and the place was clearly state-run and rather dilapidated.

We were tired so we dined on spaghetti and tomato sauce while we were “over served” by all the waiters of the establishment that did not have any other customers to look after!

The following morning, we were woken up by birds calling and the sound of what appeared to be monkeys screaming! We went out to look and realized that our hotel was immersed in a patch of green forest and that there were lots of birds and monkeys around us! The latter were the grivets Chlorocebus aethiops, the horn of Africa equivalent to the more common vervets (C. pygerythrus).

Walking in the park we soon discovered a large derelict steaming open air swimming pool rather overgrown with vegetation and, further on, another one inside a large hall that had also seen better days. We had just stayed at the Ethiopia Hotel (earlier known as the Ghion Hotel and today known as the Negash Lodge) that had been built in the 1930’s and that it was famous because it had been used as a holiday home by Emperor Haile Selassie, because of its natural hot springs which many believe has curative properties.

Although we continued with our journey the following morning, we made a note to return to spend more time in this hotel during our journeys to and from Bedele. We returned again and again to the point that we became rather well known to the staff that was always welcoming! We soon discovered that the hotel had a speciality, the so-called “Emperor’s Suite” that was room number one, near the entrance, in the internal patio, on the way to a closed pool that was functioning and popular with day visitors. We asked for it and, paying a small surcharge, we could have it!

When we entered, we could see that it had been a luxurious suite, with a sitting area with windows that opened to the surrounding lush vegetation, a large bedroom with a large bed and a truly oversized toilet. We felt like the former Emperor, if we ignored the neglect and smell of damp!

Once we entered the toilet, it had another surprise for us: the largest bathtub we had ever seen, almost the size of a small swimming pool! I opened the only and rather humongous tap and hot water -clearly coming from underground- gushed out. Clearly the tap was in accordance with the size of the recipient!

So, to enjoy our private pool, we hatched the plan of opening the tap to fill it up while having dinner. Immediately we hit a snag, the drain hole was also humongous and there was no plug! As the reception did not have one, we improvised one with an ashtray and a hand towel and went for dinner thinking that surely Haile Selassie had a proper stopper, but it had long gone.

To our surprise, when we came back the tub was still empty although the water was still running. Although the ashtray, being of hard plastic, was still there, the towel had gone “down the drain” leaving no trace as the suction power of the outlet was stronger than anything I had seen before. A look in the drain showed no signs of the towel! Luckily, our initial concern of having blocked the pipe forever were unfounded as the water was still running but we could not have our bath! This we managed the following night by using a small dessert plate and a stone that, although was not hermetic, it worked quite well! We paid for the “lost” towel and, fortunately, no questions were asked.

The bath was very soothing, and we slept well, probably partly the consequence of the sub lethal toxaphene fumes inhaled, product of Mabel’s bug control efforts prior to entering her sleeping bag. She steadfastly refused to get between the sheets! We were up early because of the loud bird calls and the screaming of the numerous grivets.

After breakfast we usually continued our journey either west towards Bedele or east to Addis. Either way we could not fail to admire the beautiful round Gurage houses along the road.

House being built.
Detail of a Gurage house. Credit: Pic of house: Cutaway Design from P. LeBel, “On Gurage Architecture”, Journal of Ethiopian Studies, Fall 1969.

These were not the usual straw huts, but proper large structures known as “sauer bét”. They are built with eucalyptus, bamboo, vine, and thatch. Red eucalyptus wood is resistant to termites, so the basic structure of a house can last for several years. Although without plumbing or electricity, the houses are meant to be cool during sunny days and can be warmed up with a fire in the centre of the house during the cold months.

Young Gurage coming to greet us.

Each Gurage house was surrounded by the ubiquitous false banana trees (ensete) from where the “kocho”, typical Gurage food comes from. Ensete is a drought resistant staple crop and we also saw some coffee probably for cash or domestic consumption.

We never failed to admire these houses whenever we travelled to or from Bedele.

Spot the beast 63

I have not been able to continue with “Spots” as we are not travelling and we had gone through our winter in our farm in Salta where we focussed on looking after ourselves in isolation.

The arrival of the spring brought nicer temperatures and things started to change and liven up. Plants and trees started to flower and, because it is dry now, lots of birds have arrived to drink at our water baths.

So, while doing general maintenance preparing for the summer that it seems we would need to spend here, I found this object that, although it is not a usual “beast” it is somehow challenging. Would you guess what it is and what happened here?

I am aware that it is not straight forward… but it gets better if we remove the white cover.

Just in case you did not get what had happened I will explain.

I use the tins of preserve to build bird nests. To this particular one I added the white foam for warmth and used the same material to close it, leaving the round hole for the birds to get in (see first picture, above). They did and you can see their nest at the bottom of the tin. That happened during year one.

The following year a colony of wasps found the tin suitable for their purposes and decided to build their nest inside, on top of the birds’ nest. The birds did not come back again for obvious reasons as these are large and aggressive wasps.

So, removing the wasp’s nest you can actually see the bird’s nest and a few wasp bodies.

Two more pictures to show you the removed wasp’s nest.

The removed wasp comb .
Another view of the wasp comb.









Life in Bedele

As you have probably realized, we were not following the Bedele social scene for several reasons that you can also guess, language and cultural differences, isolation at the laboratory and the feeling that not much was happening.

The weekends that we did not go out exploring the surrounds, we visited the farmers market and bought what we could find there while having a look at the various activities that went on there, in particular the livestock sales as there was a lot of loud haggling and discussion going on that was quite entertaining for a veterinarian. It was also new to us that farmers would arrive to the fair riding a mule or a horse but we soon learnt that for many villages this was the only way to move around.

One time, while leaving Bedele in one of our weekend escapades, we noticed an aid lorry parked a few kilometres outside the town that we thought was being offloaded there “unofficially” and, as expected, when we were spotted, all activity ceased. However, we suspected that some of the relief food was siphoned out for other “beneficiaries” although we did not know who!

Following on the above, with the passing of time we discovered a second market. One that did not function in the open air but under a roof and that offered numerous food and food-related items, clearly coming from what we had seen earlier on the road. There was flour from origins as different as Canada, Italy and Argentina and cooking oil of different kinds, including olive oil from Europe. We also saw bags and bags of chocolates and high energy biscuits of the type that are consumed while on a climbing expedition and literally hundreds of humanitarian eating and drinking kits still in their original plastic wrappings showing their unsuitability for the recipients.

Although the large food items were likely to be those diverted from lorries, the other stuff was most likely traded by the refugees themselves that did not need them or did not know what to do with them! This market, until it burnt down a while later, was an important source of food for the Bedele inhabitants that were able to get some stuff that was otherwise unavailable. So not everything was lost!

Most of our news were related to life in the laboratory and our neighbourhood. Among these, the birth of Jan and Janni’s son Winand in The Netherlands was great news and their arrival to the laboratory was a motive of great joy. He was the object of attention of everybody, in particularly of the resident ladies, including Mabel, that took turns to look after him.

Entertaining Janni with the recently arrived Winand
Mabel and Winand after a few months.

We did have a number of visitors from abroad. The first one arriving was Giuseppe, an Italian veterinarian with an interest on tsetse and trypanosomiasis that came to work with Jan for a while. Although we saw him briefly, our meeting was the start of a friendship that lasts until today. Later, our friends and safari companions from Kenya François and Genèvieve also came and with them we did a bit of sightseeing, mainly around Bedele that we all enjoyed.

With Geneviève and François enjoying the Didessa valley.
Geneviève and Mabel sharing a mate in the bush. Mate is a traditional drink of southern Latin America. For details see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mate_(drink)

Finally, towards the end of the project Paul, my FAO backstopping officer came to see the work and to assist me with the writing of a project extension to continue the work although we knew that UNDP had no intention of continue funding it as I explained earlier. However, we did write a new project and, eventually, we got some funds from the Danish Government to continue the activities, particularly on tick-borne diseases.

Although mostly unknown to us, some events that took place in Bedele were rather dramatic.

There was a great commotion at the laboratory when a serious accident took place on the Metu road just outside Bedele and, of course, we all went to see what had happened. As, while we were getting there all was said in Amharic I was not entirely clear of what had happened, so I went fearing to find lots of casualties.

Although there were fatalities, luckily, there were not humans! A bus full of passengers had hit a cattle herd and it had killed eight of the animals and their bodies were strewn along the road. It was a sad incident but with a note of humour as well. We spotted our butcher already negotiating with the owner of the animals to buy them cheap! Of course, we made sure that we did not buy meat for a few days afterwards as its toughness would have been more than the usual chewy nature!

The cattle massacre! The culprit bus is ahead, ahead of the green lorry.

Although far away from Bedele, the civil war permanently influenced our lives beyond the travel restrictions and shortage of fuel that I described earlier.

One day we drove through Bedele and there was hardly anyone in town. Surprised I asked what was the reason, but I did not get a clear reply. I was told that people were at some religious ceremony at another town and other stories. Unconvinced, I went back to the laboratory and discreetly asked one of my trusted colleagues at the project. “Bedele people had learnt that the military are coming soon to recruit soldiers and the young men are hiding in the forest” he said and then added “they do not wish to go to fight in the north!”. This event was repeated a couple of more times and I do not know how many people were really recruited. However, there must have been some success as the army training camp near Jimma was always busy!

The war also complicated the lives of the Ethiopians working at the laboratory, so they needed to be extremely careful when voicing any political opinion. We accepted an invitation to eat spaghetti at a neighbour house one day. Dinner was a pleasant affair but, as the evening advanced, tension arose between the host and one of the commensals over the political situation. To our dismay the discussion got hotter and the host got rather vehement on his attack to the Government to the open (quite rare I must say) dislike of the visitor.

Aware of the situation we retreated as soon as we deemed it to be polite and the meeting ended without much more ado but clearly on a wrong note. Although we talked about this for a few days, we soon forgot it.

However, after a few weeks we learnt that our host -that happened to be a nurse- was mobilized by the army and sent to the war front! Luckily, he survived the time he was there, and we saw him again before we left the country although it was apparent that he had suffered, both physically and mentally, the time spent at the war front.

The other time when I felt the difficult situation of the Ethiopians that did not agree with the regime was when one of my counterparts from the project and myself were traveling to Rome for a meeting. My colleague managed to get the innumerable clearances needed in time and, finally we found ourselves on board of the Ethiopian Airways plane to Rome.

Aware of his concerns, once we entered the plane and found our seats I said casually “Now you can relax”, “Not until I see Addis from above” was the reply I got. I thought that he was exaggerating but, as if by some kind of magic act, two people looking like plane clothes police or secret service boarded the plane and walked down the aisle towards us.

I noticed that my colleague became very quiet and quite pale but, luckily, it was not him they were after! So, when the plane took off, he regained his usual cheerful ways and only then he looked relaxed. I must confess that I thought that, once out of the country, he would not return with me to Ethiopia but I was wrong and we continued working together until the end of the project.

Sometime in 1989, the construction of the Bedele beer factory started and we had the arrival of a Czech engineer that was in charge of the building. He became “forengi” number six (counting baby Winand of course) in Bedele and we saw him sometimes although we left a good while before the now well known “Bedele Beer” started to come out of the production line.

The first label. I like the Black and white Colobus displayed in it as it was very common around Bedele.

Humanitarian rats

I was convinced that I had written this post about one year ago when I published the original article in the Spanish magazine Muy Interesante [1]. After a thorough check through my blog I realized that I did not!

Luckily, yesterday Mabel sent me a link of an article published by the BBC mentioning that Magawa was awarded the PDSA Gold Medal [2]. I will explain…

Magawa is a Southern giant pouched rat and the award given to it by the UK charity People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals (PDSA). The medal says “For animal gallantry or devotion to duty”. Of the many animal recipients of the award, Magawa is the first rat.

The PDSA medal. Credit: Andrew69. Public domain.

So, prompted by the news, here goes a post based on the above-mentioned article, adjusted to the present time.

WordReference.com defines a phobia as “a continuous irrational fear of something that leads to an overwhelming desire to avoid it”. The word comes from the Greek phobía (fear) as an exaggerated aversion to someone or something. The fear to rats and mice or musophobia (from Greek μῦς “mouse”) is one of the most common ones.

So, you would think that an encounter with a giant rat would lead to a terrible fear attack. However, this is not the case with these large rodents which are actually quite friendly and that I hope will be regarded even in a better light after you read these lines.

Although the taxonomy of the genus Cricetomys to which these African rats belong needs further revision, it is now accepted that there are four species: the Gambian pouched rat (C. gambianus), the Emin pouched rat (C. emini), the Kivu giant pouched rat (C. kivuensis) and the Southern giant pouched rat (C. ansorgei). The latter is the protagonist of this piece.

The Southern giant pouched rats can measure from 25 to 45cm with tails of up to 46cm and weigh up to 2kg. They are only distantly related to the real rats that are found in the Muridae family. Recent molecular studies place the Giant rats in the family Nesomyidae, part of an ancient radiation of African and Malagasy murids. The name “pouched rat” refers to the large pouches in their cheeks where they store food.

Pic 2. Adult rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These rats are omnivorous and feed on vegetation and small animals, especially insects.  They are very fond of filling their burrows with nuts, particularly palm nuts but also other nuts such as macadamias. Although they cannot apply the 21kg per cm2 needed to break them open, they do chew up their hard shells to devour the delicious and valuable nuts to our annoyance!

Pic 3. Macadamia nuts gnawed by the rats in Harare. Copyright: Bushsnob.

Like many other rodents such as hamsters, rabbits and guinea pigs, these rats are coprophagous as they ferment food in their distal intestines and produce soft faecal pellets containing still semi-digested food that they eat again to complete their assimilation.

Giant rats are capable of reproducing up to ten times a year with a gestation period of 27 to 36 days. One to five young are born at the same time as they are fed by the eight mammary glands that the females have.

Pic 4. Baby rats. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Giant rats are predominantly nocturnal [3] and they are an important food source in many parts of Africa where their meat is highly prized. In addition, although it may seem surprising, the giant rats do humanitarian work in several countries around the world!

APOPO [4] is a global, non-profit NGO registered in Belgium that uses Giant southern pouched rats for the removal of anti-personnel mines from past war theatres. To do this, they use the great sense of smell that these animals possess to detect trinitrotoluene (TNT).

APOPO has and is supporting mine clearance in Angola, Mozambique and Cambodia and plans are underway to start supporting Zimbabwe and possibly Colombia with mine clearance.

In order to work reliably, the rats must be trained for an average of nine months at an estimated cost of 6,000 Euros each. At the end of the process they must pass the accreditation tests before being “employed”. Once accredited, they are able to work for 4-5 years before retirement.

Pic 5. A technician with a giant rat. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

Rats, being relatively light, can walk around in minefields sniffing out mines without the danger of being blown up. Their role is to find them and then have them removed or detonated by personnel specialized in this dangerous activity.

Pic 6. Rat detecting mines. Copyright: Aaron Gekoski, APOPO.

The advantage of using these rats is their ability to detect mines more quickly than traditional methods and without the danger of accidental explosions. A rat can search for mines in an area the size of a tennis court in half an hour. It would take an operator about four days to cover the same area.

The mine-clearing process

One of the severe consequences of conflicts are the unexploded mines that remainand cause terrible accidents to the population of the area. They stop them returningto their homes and work the land to survive after the conflict.

Mine removal starts with planning the work reviewing existing knowledge beforeproceeding with the work. The rats are a component of the process.

The use of the rats speeds up mine cleaning and allow the inhabitantsto return to their homes in less time than if only the conventional removalmethods would be used. Images by Art work by APOPO, modified by the Bushsnob

As if their support for the important humanitarian work of mine clearance would not be enough, rats are also capable of detecting human tuberculosis and APOPO is working on the diagnosis of the disease together with more than 140 public clinics in Tanzania, Mozambique and Ethiopia.

Pic 7. Rat checking samples of human tuberculosis. Copyright Caterina Caneva Saccardo/APOPO

These incredible rodents are capable of finding the disease in sputum samples declared negative by the APOPO’s associated clinics. As part of the existing collaboration APOPO confirms the findings of the rats in its laboratory [5] and then notifies the clinics. A rat can examine one hundred samples in less than twenty minutes, a task that would take a clinic technician four days to complete.

Despite the work done, there are still 60 countries suffering from the threat of mines that constitute a real structural barrier to development and economic growth in post-conflict situations. Thousands of innocent children and adults are injured or killed by mines. Detecting mines is difficult, dangerous, costly and time consuming.

Tuberculosis leads the world in causes of death from infectious diseases and there are ten million new cases per year and about 1.6 million people die from this disease every year.

It is clear then that there is still a long way to go and that rats have a very important role to play so support for organizations such as APOPO is essential.

The fine sense of smell of giant rats can offer other possibilities and APOPO is working on a project to use them to detect pangolin scales and African hardwoods. It can also be thought that rats could be useful in detecting rhinoceros’ horn and ivory as well as drugs and other forbidden substances.

So, back to Magawa the gold medal winner mine-detecting African giant pouched rat. It has sniffed out 39 landmines and 28 unexploded munitions in his career and placed itself in the PDSA “Hall of Fame”.

The award brings to our attention the silent and valuable work that humanitarian organizations are doing in clearing mines, However, we must not forget that new mines are still being produced and will be used and that there are still an estimated six million mines still buried in Cambodia alone!

[1] See: https://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/ratas-gigantes-para-detectar-minas-antipersona-731567530868

[2] BBC: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54284952 and https://www.pdsa.org.uk/what-we-do/animal-awards-programme/pdsa-gold-medal/magawa#vid

[3] See: https://bushsnob.com/2018/12/06/thieves/ in this blog.

[4] APOPO stands for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling.

[5] With tests approved by the World Health Organisation.

Tick hunting

Our tick (and later tick-borne disease) studies took us to different places of south-western Ethiopia “officially”, so we took advantage of these trips to get to know the area we were living. In our selected sites (Arjo, Bedele, Metu, Gambela and Fincha’a) the project had purchased some cattle from the local farmers, and they were keeping them for us to assess tick numbers at monthly intervals.

Fincha’a was located 295km north of Bedele, after driving through Arjo. This was a long drive that we did a couple of times. At 2300m Fincha’a was a rather cold and also damp place.

Working at damp Fincha’a.

The latter was probably explained by the existence of a dam that, for a while after its inauguration in 1973, was the largest hydro-electric project in the country. The visit I recall took place during the rains and it rained all the time we were there! This did not help our work nor our potential sightseeing!

A shy boy under a reed “raincoat”.

Despite the bad weather, along the road leading to the town we started seeing tall structures built with very long wooden poles and erected by the side of the road. On the top they had a little house and we were very puzzled by them, guessing that they had some religious significance but unsure of their real meaning.

The structures near Fincha’a.

We got to Fincha’a under rain and, while we checked in our rather basic hotel, my colleagues went to arrange for the tick work to be carried out the following day. The hotel was a basic affair to put it mildly with walls that enabled the sounds from the three rooms on each side of us to be heard! However, aware that that was the best hotel (and probably the only one?), we decided to make the best of it.

The hotel did not offer dinner so that we had to venture on the street to find an eating place and we ended up at a small restaurant where we were the only customers! Luckily it was a really warm place both because of the welcome we got from the family that owned it and thanks to the cooking that was taking place inside. Soon, after chasing the chickens away from the room, we joined in the kitchen activities and learnt a few things.

Mabel trying their hand at cooking under supervision.
Dinner arrived.
Mabel grinding the coffee after dinner.

Apart from food-related information, the lady informed us that the tall wooden structures we had seen were erected by local hunters that would travel east towards the Nile to hunt and, on return, they would build these “shrines” where the buffalo skulls would be placed on display to show their ability. I haste to add that I have not been able to confirm this information beyond what I was told at Fincha’a.

We ate hot (both temperature and taste) local food and had a reasonable night sleep. The following morning, we did our work under rain (not a very pleasant activity as the water runs down your back…) and we were soon on our way back to Bedele, looking forward to our warm and dry bungalow.

We also often travelled East, following the B50 road that, at the time, I did not know it had a name! After about 115km from Bedele we arrived at Metu where we did not stop until we discovered that there were some Cuban doctors working at the Metu hospital.

Passing through Metu.
Spices at Metu market.
Assorted goodies.

They were part of the well-known contingent of doctors from the island that are found in many places in Africa, often in areas that no one else wishes to be! We learnt that among them many specialities were covered and this boosted our confidence in case of a health problem as the facilities that existed in Bedele were rather limited. Luckily, we only visited them socially and we did not need their services.

Their presence was clearly justified judging by the number of people suffering from serious diseases that we found on the road. Apart from the blind being led by holding sticks by young relatives, many young boys and girls showed cases of tinea (ringworm) and scabies. These were mostly treated with Gentian violet with the consequence of lots of purple-stained heads around! Goitre was rather common and even severe cases of elephantiasis could also be seen.

Following the road to the south-east we would come to Gore, a larger town that became known as it was the capital of Ethiopia for a short while. It happened during the Italo-Ethiopian war fought between 1935-1937. In 1935, the Italians attacked from their colonies of Eritrea and Somalia without declaring the war. After conquering Aduwa, they seized Aksum [1] and then moved on Addis forcing Emperor Haile Selassie to leave the country (taking the gold of the Ethiopian Central Bank with him!).

Before leaving he ordered that the capital of Ethiopia to be moved to Gore and appointed his cousin Ras Imru Haile Selassie as Prince Regent during his absence. The latter fell back to Gore to reorganise and continue to resist the Italians but his efforts were fruitless and Gore was occupied at the end of 1936. Ras Imru, with his forces trapped between the Italians and the Sudan border surrendered and he was flown to Italy and imprisoned on the Island of Ponza. So that was Gore’s claim to fame although the town did not have much to show for its history.

Leaving Gore behind, we would drive another 150km west on a wide, dusty and mostly downhill road full of curves following the course of the Baro river towards the Sudan border. The road offered magnificent scenery where we often stopped to stretch our legs and have a look a the rather clean waters of the river.

The heavy relief lorry traffic aiming for the refugee camps in the border with Sudan did not help our progress. Going towards the refugee camps in the Gambela area loaded, they would come back with the trailers “piggy-backed” on the same tracks, the first time I saw this really clever saving technique.

Eventually, full of dust and rather edgy with the road and its traffic, after crossing a large bridge over the Baro river, we would arrive to the town of Gambela, a completely different seen when compared with where we were coming from as Gambela, at 526m was a tropical area, particularly when arriving from Bedele located at almost four times that height!

The bridge over the Baro river in Gambela. Credit: T U R K A I R O / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Gambela, located at the confluence of the Baro river and its tributary the Jajjabe was founded because of its location on the Baro river, a tributary of the Nile, which was seen by both the British and Ethiopia as an excellent highway for exporting coffee and other goods from the fertile Ethiopian Highlands to Sudan and Egypt.

Already while crossing the river it was apparent that everything was different but most of all the people that inhabited the area. Although there were some from the highlands, most of them as a result of the ruthless resettlement schemes, this was the territory of the Anuak and the Nuer, people that we had not seen before in the country.

The Anuak belong to the Luo Nilotic ethnic group. They are primarily found in villages situated along the banks and rivers of southeastern South Sudan as well as southwestern Ethiopia, especially the Gambela Region. Group members number between 250,000 and 300,000 people worldwide, many of them following Christianity. The Anuak are an agricultural people, although most families keep some livestock. They are keen on fishing and they set up temporary fishing villages in times of fish abundance.

Anuak fishing in the Baro river.

The Nuer are also of Nilotic origin and inhabit a similar area than the Anuak. Their language belongs to the Nilotic language family and they are closely related to the better known Dinka ethnic group. They are pastoralists who herd cattle and the cattle define their way of living.

Both races are very tall [2] and we often watched them in amazement playing basketball at night (too hot during the day) in the local open courts in Gambela thinking that they would be sought after by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and not knowing that they had done so. Manute Bol, a Dinka of 2.30m (one of the tallest players in the history of the NBA), had been playing for the Washington Bullets since 1985!

About to start working. The picture shows a rather tall gentleman on the right!

The Nuer receive facial markings (called “gaar”) as part of their initiation into adulthood. These consist of scarification that varies within their subgroups, the most common among men being six parallel horizontal lines cut across the forehead although dotted patterns are also common. The scarifications helped me to distinguish people from the two groups and enabled me to greet them properly in their language, “male” to the Anuak and “derejote” to the Nuer.

I will come back with more experiences from Gambela in future posts.

[1] Italian soldiers found one of the Axum obelisks (stelae) (King Ezana’s) fallen and broken in three sections, one of about fifty obelisks in the city of Axum at the time of the discovery. In 1937, it was taken as war booty and moved to Italy after being cut into five pieces and transported by truck to Massawa from where it was shipped to Naples. It was then taken to Rome, where it was restored and erected in front of the Ministry of Italian Africa (later the headquarters of the FAO) where I saw it (pic is already in Media and I found it looking for Rome). It was eventually returned to Ethiopia in 2005.

[2] See: Chali, D. (1995).  Anthropometric measurements of the Nilotic tribes in a refugee camp. Ethiopian Medical Journal 33: 211-7. Among other things, the study concludes that “…The mean height of Dinka men (176.4 +/- 9 cm) and Nuer men (175.7 +/- 9 cm) were significantly higher than that of Anuak men (171.7 +/- 8 cm) and Shilluk men (172.6 +/- 6.1 cm). This study confirms that the Nilotics in Southern Sudan have slender bodies and are amongst the tallest in the world and may attain greater height if privileged with favourable environmental conditions during early childhood and adolescence, allowing full expression of the genetic material…”