Spot the beast 77

While I work on my Zambia posts, I take the opportunity to challenge you to find this beast:

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In fact, I took the picture as an excuse to present you with this small mammal, the apereá (Cavia aperea) or Brazilian guinea pig.

As you can gather, it is a relative of the well known domestic variety, the guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) a more colourful and better known around the world. Its name is confusing as it is not related to pigs and it did not come from Guinea but from the region we are now: the Andes where they are an important and sought after food item.

Credit: Photograph taken with a digital camera by Kazulanth of a pregnant guinea pig (Cavia porcellus) 1 week before delivering 3 pups. Via Wikimedia Commons.

The apereá is a diurnal and grass-eating mammal, pale grey-brown on its dorsal area and greyish-white ventrally. It is almost tailess with an adult length of about 25 to 30 cm and a top weight of about 600 g,

The apereá is found in Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela where it is a rather common mammal, often spotted on the roads, running away from cars, seeking shelter in their thick superficial grass burrows. They breed throughout the year and females can have up to five litters of one to five young each time.

The plague

I thought that my earlier post on Ethiopia was the last but I was wrong.

Something that happened two days ago at our farm in Salta reminded me of an incident at Bedele worth mentioning and that somehow seeped through the cracks of my memory (oh surprise!).

While de-weeding one of the fields I saw a swarm of immature locusts. These were nymphs of the soldier locusts (Chromacris speciosa), unmistakable with the shiny black and red markings. They are widely distributed in Brazil and Northern and Central Argentina.

Nymphs of Chromacris speciosa, rather striking insects.
Adult of Chromacris speciosa.

The first memory that came to mind was of my father, an Agronomist in charge of pest control in Uruguay, who told me about locusts for the first time. He described the enormous clouds that would obscure the sun and that his Jeep (Willys) would skid on the mass of insects and needed to engage 4WD to be able to move!

Then I remembered the day in Bedele when, although it dawned with a clear sky, suddenly, as it happens during the sun eclipses, light faded for no apparent reason. This lasted for a few minutes until the locust swarm arrived and landed on us! They covered the ground and landed on trees stressing branches to the point of breaking. Most of the green matter available was consumed within hours and they moved on as a wave, leaving scorched earth behind.

A desert locust swarm. Credit: FAO (http://www.fao.org/locusts/resources/photos/en/).

The invasion only lasted for a couple of days until they moved off. During this time we were the target of a very unpleasant experience when, without warning they would land on your back and prick you with their spiny legs!

We were suffering the impact of a periodic swarm of the desert locust (Schistocerca gregaria), found mainly in Africa. Interestingly, this insect can change its body in response to changes in the environment. Although this takes several generations, a solitary, shorter-winged (non-migratory form) can turn into a social locust that, because of being long-winged can travel really long distances in search of food.

When this happens, they can cause severe and extensive damage to food crops and fodder as a classic swarm can be as numerous as 150 million individuals, capable of covering hundreds of km in one day when on the go. Because of their transboundary nature, its spread must be monitored in various countries to control them while they are still not able to fly, usually in dry areas. This activity requires collaboration between countries through specialized bodies such as FAO and the Desert Locust Control Organization for Eastern Africa (DLCO-EA).

Finally, the rather nice grasshoppers we get in our gardens in Zimbabwe, known as Green Milkweed Locust or African Bush Grasshopper (Phymateus viridipes), are also capable of long migrations but they are not a pest although, to our annoyance, they are capable of eating our flowering plants.

Spot the beast 76

A different “Spot” provided by my son. The find took place while he was SCUBA diving in Tenerife. See if you can spot it.

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The video clearly shows that it is a sole that lost its nerve and swam away rather fast. A nice sight.

Leaving Ethiopia

As all things come to an end, the same happened with our stay at Bedele. Although we completed the study despite the difficulties we faced, as expected, the UNDP would not release further funding to expand the activities countrywide as we proposed. However, we managed to get some funding from the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) to continue the search for theileriosis in refugee cattle. This did not include international personnel, so I was no longer employed and I needed another job somewhere else. We will see about that later.

Although I have described a number of events that merited a separate description, there were a few others that, although minor, I believe are worth revealing. I will end this post with details of our departure from Ethiopia in December 1989, hence the title.

I have mentioned earlier that it rained lots at Bedele and that its dirt roads became a quagmire at that time to the point that to reach the butchery we needed to engage 4WD! Hygiene was not an issue in the place as, before you could get to the open window behind which the dark meat was hanged, you needed to tread carefully to avoid the cow bits and pieces that were strewn around the adjacent field as I have already described. However, there was a time when we did not need to make this journey.

Sheep and red-billed oxpecker walking through the laboratory compound.

Livestock grazed everyday inside our laboratory enclosure as the front gate was always open. The animals often walked between our houses and a clever goat used to climb on one of our project cars to get to the bananas that grew across the road from our house. I remember that I made the mistake of chasing it off and the brute jumped from the roof to the bonnet and left a nice dent that remained for posterity!

The clever goat browsing on bananas before it jumped!

A day that was bucketing down I was returning to our house after negotiating for fuel for the next study trip with the political authorities, not an easy job. I entered our compound and saw a herd of sheep and goats lying down on the road, resisting the heavy downpour as well as their woolly coats allowed. I reduced my speed to the minimum to allow them to move off as one usually does in these occasions.

That day maybe this sheep was sleep or the bad visibility affected both of us. Whatever the reason(s) I noted that the left front wheel suddenly went over a bump. Fearing the worst, after it came down, I stopped and got out of the car to investigate. I had indeed driven over the head of the sheep killing it instantly, a most unfortunate incident!  Before a minute had passed the upset owner came and started talking to me in Oromo language that I did not understand but it was clear that he was demanding compensation for his loss.

I tried to explain that it was an unfortunate accident caused by his animals parking in the middle of the road but I could see that we were not getting anywhere! Luckily, one of the laboratory workers was also returning on foot and I asked him to interpret what he was saying. As expected, the herder was demanding a very high price for his sheep and, to stop getting soaked, I offered to buy a “new” sheep the next day as compensation. He would not have it so, the discussion continued and it was only after a few offers and counter offers that we reached a reasonable settlement as I was considered the guilty party.

After getting the money, the owner picked up the sheep and started to move off with it. Seeing this, through my interpreter I told him that I had paid for it and that it was now my dead sheep! He abandoned his attempt so I collected my forced purchase and, after giving a lift to the accidental interpreter, I arrived home, wet and with a dead sheep that I proceeded to skin and quarter, still under the relentless rain.

Slaughtering the unfortunate sheep under the rain.

While I was working on the sheep I could not help recalling that in the past in some areas of Ethiopia people would cut chunks of beef to eat from their live animals, a rather dreadful procedure, that I believe I learnt while reading the late Richard Pankhurst’s book “Ethiopia Engraved”, a beautiful work by the main historian of the country.

Unfortunately, the sheep was a fit animal, used to long distance running and rather thin and tough. For a few days we consumed expensive meat but its ex owner (that still grazed the animals inside the compound) greeted me warmly!

Mabel’s garden included most of the common vegetables that, because of the combination of good temperature and abundant rain grew at an astonishing rate. Unfortunately, the garden was a temptation that a few animals could not resist.

We kept lots of insects at bay by home-made control methods such as planting marigolds around the garden, spraying with water and pepper and others, but these would do nothing to deter the monkeys.

Although the lovely black and white colobus just watched enjoying their tree leaves diet, the grivets were always lurking somewhere close to jump at the opportunity to snatch a tomato or uproot a carrot. This was a challenge that, after a while, was cleverly resolved by Mabel by sharing the produce of the garden with our neighbours who assisted gratefully in chasing the monkeys away!

Although we produced vegetables, fruits were a different story. Although we had banana and mango trees in the compound, the monkeys would always get at them before us and we could only get them at the Bedele market on Saturdays. Something of a breakthrough was the discovery that cooked green mangoes were a great substitute for apples and from then on, we collected them green, before the monkeys, boiled them and froze them to be used as filling for pies. Mabel’s green mango strudel became well known in the compound!

Although at home we could “control” what we ate, the situation was different when traveling or when invited to a restaurant by our Ethiopian colleagues as the food needed some getting used to because it was rather different from what we were used to. I can only remember eating out at only one place in Bedele and this was only on special occasions. It was a family house with red velvet-like armchairs surrounding a low table where the food was served.

A very popular dish in Ethiopia is Doro Wat, chicken stewed with plenty of chilli and one egg. In Bedele the chicken (too rare and expensive) was replaced by mutton, but most of the time the egg stayed. This was known as “Doro Fänta” that meant “instead of chicken”! The latter is what we mostly ate. [1]

Attempts at changing our eating place were not successful and I cannot forget one particular eating house we went where we were offered the usual Doro Fänta but, when we asked to see the cooking, we were confronted with a pot where among the boiling bit and pieces of mutton, there were a couple of eyes coming now and then to the surface! We moved on and ended up in the place of the red velvet armchairs.

I mentioned that we bought honey from a farmer near Bedele. What I forgot was that the first time we went to purchase honey (that eventually came inside a sewn goat skin) we were invited to taste the product before purchasing it. We sat with the farmer around a polished concave stool where the honey was poured for us to taste it. It looked and tasted very good, except for the white grubs that were in it and that we were offered as a delicacy! I must confess that I thanked the farmer profusely but refused to eat them while Mabel, being a beekeeper herself, tasted a few and declared that they had a rather pleasant “nutty flavour”. Luckily, at least for me, the goat held enough honey to last us for a long while and we did not need to visit the farmer very often.

Driving from Addis to Bedele, the revolution propaganda weakened as the distance from the former increased. The arches that spanned the road were hefty and colourful near Addis and Marx, Engels and Mengistu depicted in them with the ubiquitous AK47s and revolutionary slogans written in Amharic. After Jimma, the propaganda disappeared almost completely except at the entrance/exit from the major towns. In Gambela, I only saw one rather insignificant sign by the road leading to the hotel that said: “We move forward with the revolution”.

Apart from the rather newly installed revolutionary signs, we could not fail to notice the existence of the abundant yellow Meskel flowers (Bidens macroptera) that were very abundant along the road and had been there since time immemorial. These flowers, known as Adey Abeba, bloom in September, after the rains. Their appearance coincides with the Meskel festival, one of the main Ethiopian festivals, that takes place on 27th September and commemorates the finding of the true cross. The festival, celebrated with abundant food and drink, has been going for over 1600 years.

Meskel flowers surround teff fields on the way to Addis.

Life in Bedele was rather quiet but there were a few good moments. One of the highlights was the arrival of the mail from Addis that was brought to the laboratory by anyone traveling there. Apart from the shortwave radio tuned to the BBC World Service, this was our lifeline with the world and to open the mail was always a treat as we got news from home as well as books and developed films, to name a few items.

A great moment. Mabel opening the mail.

One day, while opening our letters I hatched a plan for a Christmas joke to our neighbour Jan. While he was in one of his extended bush stays I needed to go to Addis and be back just before Christmas. I knew that he would be alone as his wife was in The Netherlands and the idea was to lighten his time in Bedele.

When in Addis, we did our shopping and I took the opportunity to buy a few items for my plan such as Christmas crackers from the Victory duty free shop, chocolates and other usual Christmas presents, including stockings and nougat as well as a suitable box, the right wrapping papers and ribbons. Once back in Bedele I prepared a parcel where I put all these goodies and addressed it to Jan as if it had come by the FAO’s pouch. I put our organization’s Director General as the sender and I faked an appropriate card to add credibility to a most unbelievable and silly joke!

I now needed to wait for Jan to get back to hand him the parcel at Christmas. I waited for Christmas Eve when I knew he would be missing his wife to hand over to him all the genuine correspondence I had brought to him from Addis as well as my fake parcel, thinking that he would immediately discover the ruse. When the time came, rather naively, he showed surprise when saw the parcel, and he proceeded to open it. He was as delighted as incredulous that our Director General had remembered the loyal field staff and equally happy to receive the goodies that the parcel contained. He asked me, of course, if I also got one and I replied “yes, of course”. I could not believe that he had taken my joke seriously and, later on, it took some talking to convince him that it was just an innocent joke to brighten his Christmas!

As our departure became imminent, a number of activities took place. Again, a lorry came to collect our personal effects and we remained for about a week only with the basic stuff (most borrowed from the laboratory and/or neighbours) and the two cats. During that time the arrangement for our farewell “celebrations” started.

Our belongings being loaded.

We were taken almost daily to the Bedele tailor where our measurements were taken so that our “ceremonial” garments could be made so that we would be sent off properly. The latter were fortunately ready for the day of the farewell ceremony and we were both dressed for the occasion in the Ethiopian traditional clothing.

The official ceremony was a rather formal affair where speeches were given by the Director of the laboratory and project colleagues to which we both replied, mainly thanking them all for our time spent there. Then we exchanged presents and we had a traditional lunch. Things were going well up to this point but then the much feared dancing was announced!

I must say that we were (and still are) not dancers, not even tango! Even if we would have been, it would not had helped us much when confronted with the Eskista. Wikipedia [2] defines it as “… a traditional Ethiopian Amhara cultural dance performed by both men and women even children, that is known for its unique emphasis on intense shoulder movement. The dance is characterized by rolling the shoulder blades, bouncing the shoulders, and jilting the chest… The complex nature of Eskista makes it one of the most highly technical forms of traditional dance”.

A short video to show the movements involved in the Eskista dance.

We had failed at dancing Eskista a few times earlier and we knew we could not do it but we gave it our best try nevertheless, but still without any improvement. Luckily, soon enough, other colleagues that new what to do joined in and we managed to hide within the shaking crowd and, in this way, saved our joints from collapse.

After such a nice but demanding party we rested while organizing our own farewell party at our now empty house to take place a couple of days later, the day before departure. We invited everybody in the laboratory. A few invitees from outside the campus were also included, the Director of the Bedele clinic, the political administrator and the recently arrived Czech engineer that was building the beer factory (that today makes the Bedele beer).

We calculated that we would have about sixty people attending so we borrowed most of the needed items from the laboratory, including plates, glasses and cutlery. We also managed to get tables but there were not enough chairs, so we got the long benches used for the Wednesday political meetings! We arranged them against the wall where we were to accommodate most of our guests. The ladies took care of the cooking and a few close colleagues and I organized the drinks that mainly consisted of soft drinks and beer.

The party was extremely well attended and after about an hour, nothing had happened, despite the guests having eaten and drank well. Something was missing and then we decided to enliven things by serving some clericot (a punch in English) that we prepared by mixing a few of the spirits that I was going to leave behind. The effect was amazing and the party really came to life and then it would not stop! Eventually, at about 3 am people started to leave gradually and we were able to retire to bed. The following morning I found a few people sleeping on the grass around the house. Clearly we had overdone it in the clericot department!

So it was that a day later we drove to Addis where, after formally closing the project and spendng a few days in a friends’ house, we departed Ethiopia.

Luckily, before we left I had already offered a job to continue working on ticks and tickborne diseases in Zambia and we headed there after stopping in Nairobi for some shopping and a few days rest (including the camel safari I had mentioned) with our very good friend Susan that we knew from our Kenya days.

[1] I was surprised to see that this was the subject of a study (that I have not read)! If interested, see: McCann, J.C. (2006). A response: Doro Fänta: Creativity vs. Adaptation in the Ethiopian Diaspora. Diaspora 15, 381-388.

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eskista

Pirpintos

A short post to share with you a special situation that we have been going through at the farm for the last week or so. White butterflies that usually fly past on a migration somewhere they only know, have arrived. Unlike previous years, they have decided to stay.

Ascia monuste, the great southern white or pirpinto in Argentina is the only species in the genus Ascia. It is found from the United States to Argentina where they migrate yearly but only in one direction and without return. Despite their English name, they are rather small with a wingspan of 63 to 86 mm.

Pirpinto feeding on a Lantana flower.

Their main aim is to find plants of the Brassicaceae family (Cabbage, Kale, etc.) to lay their eggs for their larvae to feed on them. However, as there are several sub-species, they can also feed on other plants such as Lettuce, Alfalfa, Cotton, Rice, Potato, Chicory, Cassava, Passion Fruit, Corn, Mustard, Radish, Rocket and Soybeans to name a few.

The larvae will develop in 4 to 5 days and the adults will be appearing a fortnight later and they will feed on the nectar of plants such as saltwort, lantana and verbena while laying their eggs on some of the target species mentioned above.

We were enjoying their visit as they staged a great show that reminds us that Nature is able to create amazing sights.

Unfortunately, Mabel noted that the winged visitors had discovered her treasured rocket plants and they were busy laying their eggs on them so our focus has recently and urgently moved from contemplation to biological control to save our veggies!

Spot the beast 75

The advent of the rains in our farm in Salta brings, like every year, an explosion of life. Today’s beast is not very common but rather spectacular (if you can find it…). At the bottom I include more pictures and videos of it for you to appreciate its beauty.

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It was an Imperial moth (Eacles imperialis) first described by Drury in 1773, clearly being too obvious to be missed!

This moth is one of the largest and most stunning of the Imperial moths. It is found from Canada to Argentina. Both larvae and adults are highly variable in coloration. They have a wingspan ranging from of 80 to 174 mm, the females being larger than the males.

Their immature instars feed on pines, oaks, maples, sweetgam and sassafras trees. Adults emerge before sunrise and mate after midnight and the females lay eggs singly or in small groups on both sides of leaves. Both sexes do not feed and are short-lived.

Some more pictures and videos below:

I found these moths a couple of years back and observed that they responded in this way to the touch. I filmed them as I found the behaviour interesting. I imagine that this behaviour could be useful the moths to survive while mating and laying eggs?

A naive vet

In 1988-89 Sudan, the same as Ethiopia, was undergoing a civil war between the predominantly black south (now South Sudan) and the mainly Arab north (now Sudan). That was the environment in which I was running a development project dealing with ticks and tickborne diseases!

I will briefly refresh your memories on the situation in Sudan at the time.

During the First Sudanese Civil War (1955-1972) [1] Gambela received many refugees but it was when the Second Sudanese Civil War began in 1983 that the number of refugees increased dramatically, and it was then that several refugee camps were established.

The Second Civil War, between the central Sudanese government and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) lasted until 2005. It was basically an extension of the First Sudanese Civil War and it lasted for twenty-two long years with a human live cost estimated at two million! It is believed that war was basically over the oil fields located in the border between Sudan and South Sudan and eventually the latter became an independent country.

After three years of conflict, the Sudan government started negotiating peace with the SPLA, led by Col. John Garang [2]. There was eventually a constitutional conference and in 1988, a peace plan was developed. It called for the ending of military pacts with Egypt and Libya, the freezing of Sharia law and an end to the state of emergency among other issues. A cease-fire was reached but, unfortunately, the then ruler of Sudan, Sadiq al-Mahdi refused to approve it. He was soon deposed by Omar Hassan al-Bashir and the war re-started. This was the time we were there.

As usual, a number of refugee camps were established in Ethiopia to hold the people displaced by the war and Itang, the main camp, grew in size to reach officially 200,000 people displaced in 1988 although later, in 1991 the official estimate came to 280,000 making it the largest refugee camp in the world.

In mid 1988 we were informed that there was a significant movement of Dinka and Nuer refugees and their livestock mainly from the Upper Nile and the provinces of Bahr and Ghazal and that they were crossing into Ethiopia. It was also possible that some refugees would also be coming from further South, nearer to Uganda. This would not have been relevant for our tick and tickborne disease project except that it was just possible that the cattle could be carriers of theileriosis, a deadly disease caused by a protozoan parasite of the Theileria spp., transmitted by Rhipicephalus appendiculatus, the Brown ear tick.

Theileria schizonts inside white blood cells and “bursting” into the lymph/blood.

Ethiopia’s geography and the fighting spirit of their inhabitants kept the country unconquered throughout the colonization of Africa. This, and the absence of the Brown ear tick, also helped to stop theileriosis from establishing there although the environmental conditions were suitable for it. As usual, Nature filled the Brown ear tick’s niche with a very similar tick species (R. bergeoni) that was not able to transmit theileriosis because of its different life cycle.

Heavy infestation with Rhipicephalus appendiculatus in a heifer.

Despite this apparent long-term stability, a mathematical model had just been developed that indicated that the Brown ear tick (and Theileria) could get established in parts of Ethiopia if they were introduced. This was of concern to the animal health authorities of the country. Up to that point, the possible entry point was through imported cattle flown to Addis but now the refugee influx opened up another possibility.

The results of the prediction model that indicated good suitability for R. appendiculatus in Ethiopia.

Because we were working on the subject in South-west Ethiopia, we were asked to do some “detective” work to see if the disease and/or the vector were indeed moving in. That is how I found myself traveling to the Sudan border in the Gambela area in search for theileriosis and its vector.

After studying our options, we decided that the large refugee camp at Itang could be a good place to start our work, provided that we would be allowed to get to the incoming refugees and their cattle and to bleed them and check them for ticks. We would then send the serum samples collected to International Livestock Research for Animal Diseases (ILRAD), now the International Livestock Research Institute, where they would be tested (free of charge) for antibodies against theileriosis.

We planned our trip as well as we could. Luckily, we managed to get the needed supplies for blood collection and I found a couple of large United Nations car stickers that I placed on the doors of our Land Rover as to be easily identified, just in case. We were not so lucky with the trip arrangements, always the bottleneck of our work, but this was expected with civil wars in both countries!

The trip, we were told, was difficult and even dangerous and a special travel permit from the Political Chief was required to leave Bedele and this took some justification, particularly to go to work at a refugee camp. After a couple of days, the permit was eventually granted and the negotiation for the acquisition of the necessary fuel, although protracted as usual, was also successfully and we were ready to go. A team of technicians would accompany me, including one that was the political delegate of the ruling party in our project. This was very good –I thought- as I would get the Government support if needed.

To get to Gambela, we followed the “food relief route” that I already described and needed to go through a large number of movement control barriers that existed along the way while swallowing the dust of the lorry convoys loaded with food and supplies for the refugees.

Dusty and tired we arrived at Gambela where we spent the night. The following morning, we spent a long time getting the next travel permits. Traveling from Gambela to Itang required a special safe-conduct as it was regarded as a politically sensitive area. In addition there was a need of a local delegate of the Communist Party to accompany us as well as a military escort in the form of a couple of soldiers who joined us in a now full Land Rover. Things were shaping up and I was happy not to have come in a smaller vehicle.

We started the journey later than I wished as we needed to wait for the various members of the group that now numbered six and I was getting rather anxious to get going. So it was that while reversing after collecting the Government’s political delegate, I hit a tree and bent the back door in with the consequence that the large window literally exploded. While cleaning the glass shards that were still attached to the door, a large one got embedded in the back of my leg and this needed some first aid but it was soon under control and we managed to clear all the glass.

There was no hope of panel beating the door in Gambela within the short time available so we needed an emergency repair to keep going until we could do it once we could take the car to Addis. The trip was off for now and we started to consider ways of repairing it. Eventually we found a carpenter that cut a plywood “glass” that, after a few tests, perfectly covered the hole and it was secured well. After sending a message to the camp for the cattle to be released, it was back to our hotel. After a wash I did an inspection of my leg and noticed that the glass had buried quite deeply into my calf but I could see or feel no glass inside. So, I washed the wound as well as I could and left it at that.

Next morning, we managed to gather all members of the party in time and we departed much earlier and arrived at the camp an hour later after driving the 47 km non-stop but swallowing lots of dust from a great number of relief lorries. I was happy to see that, although opaque, that the “back plywood window” held most of the dust out. More importantly, our soldier escort was not needed…

The camp was much larger than I had imagined and looked like a town with lots of people moving about. Although there were rows of tents, I noticed that there were also buildings that seemed to have been there for a long time. We drove to one of those to meet the Camp Director and discuss our work. Meanwhile, the soldiers parted company to get back to Gambela on another escort job.

The Director was pleased to receive us, and he listened to our brief attentively. He had clearly been informed of our arrival, and we were soon taken to a makeshift enclosure full of cattle. Clearly, it was going to be quite a job to bleed animals with no crush pen, but we would not let the opportunity pass. The cattle pen was rather chaotic. In a cloud of dust, apart from the rather tame cattle, there were the usual retinue of herders and other people attracted by the animals and their mooing.

We decided that before the work could start, we needed a meeting with the owners to explain the purpose of what we were doing and also for them to leave their AK47s under a tree so that they could work more freely with the animals. In fact, their guns were almost an extension of their bodies so leaving them aside was mainly for our own safety! They agreed and we soon had gun stacks all over the place! I was somehow surprised to see that almost all of the cattle owners had guns but did not think much about it and focused on the work.

We worked hard as the animals needed to be roped and held by the owners while we recorded their origin, took blood samples, numbered them and collected any ticks we saw on their ears. The work progressed well as there were many willing cattle owners. At some stage I noted that my leg was bleeding again but I decided to ignore it and continue with the work.

At some stage I felt my shirt being pulled from behind. When I turned around, I found myself looking up to a young, leggy and half-naked Dinka boy grey with dust that was pointing at my leg. I looked at it and I saw dry blood that has gone down from my wound to the sock and shoe and, I must admit, looked quite dramatic. I looked again at the boy and shrug my shoulders, but he extended his hand and then I saw that he was pointing at my leg and offering me a plaster to cover my wound! I looked at him and he was smiling at me.

I stopped the work and walked with the boy to a water tap where I washed my leg and applied the plaster while the tall boy, only wearing a pair of green shorts, watched me attentively. Once I applied the plaster, he made a thumb up sign and departed. Maybe I am making too much of this gesture, but it became one of the most memorable moments of my vet career!

By early afternoon we had examined well over one hundred animals and we called it “a day” as we were planning to return for more in a few weeks. We packed and went to thank the Camp Director and to get our army escort. While driving towards the Director’s office we stopped for a drink and a bite in the more established area of Itang. Then, I saw a small group of truly beautiful cattle walking past and I took a couple of pictures of them.

An example of a zebu animal like the ones I photographed at Itang.

Unfortunately, my picture-taking was a bad move! Instantly, four armed men in green uniform surrounded the car and asked for my camera that I handed over to one of them. He knew how to open it to remove the film ignoring my protests! My Ethiopian companions, including the Gambela political delegate, looked as confused as I and they kept quiet. I imitated them expecting that my camera would be returned, and this would end the incident.

I was wrong! The door of the car was opened, and, in sign language, they told me to go with them, together with one of my technicians as an interpreter. A large wooden gate was opened, and we entered into the first army base I have ever visited. Apart from lots of armed soldiers carrying the ubiquitous AK47s there were also other heavier military hardware such as trucks and large guns to name what I could see walking past.

The moment I saw where I was, I knew I was in trouble. I was correct!

In the centre of the compound stood a very large tent that had been white when new and it was clear that there it was where we were being taken by our captors. We were roughly and thoroughly searched at the entrance and told to wait outside while some entered and others stayed with us, looking rather serious. I could see the face of my technician/interpreter and that did not improve my moral! We did not talk and waited for a few minutes until we were brought inside.

The large tent was very well lit and carpeted, with chairs on both sides of the entrance. There were people already seated there and we were also told to sit down and wait. To the right there were some desks or tables where what looked like clerks sat. At the back, towards the other end of the tent my eyes fell on an imposing seated figure, probably in his forties, dressed in a white robe with a leopard skin swung on his shoulders and clearly the Commander of the place. He was busy listening to some people discussing something in a rather agitated way that were dismissed shortly.

When our time came, the Commander was given an account of our incident by one of the soldiers that captured us. I could tell that it was my case because they were brandishing my camera and pointing towards us. My concerned augmented and I could now feel the sweat starting to trickle down through my back and it was not because of the heat! My leg was also throbbing but that was the least of my worries.

The talking continued and then the strip of film was produced and shown trophy-like to the Commander who still sat impassive. Then, looking at me, he said “You are being accused of espionage by my soldiers” and then added “they saw you taking pictures of our compound”. “This is forbidden, and you should have known that!” he added. I waited until he finished and requested to be allowed to explain what had happened.

I told him that we were a team from the United Nations, but this failed to make an impression. I then explained our mission in great detail, informing him of the risk of the cattle disease we were searching for and, suddenly, his expression softened when I said that I was a veterinarian. Clearly, he was a pastoralist as well as a Commander!

He became more interested and asked a few questions on the disease and its impact on cattle and then he spoke to his people for a while. Afterwards he told us that we could go and that we were welcome to come back to continue with the work. My camera was returned to me, we shook hands, and we were out of there much faster than when we came in!

Once in the safety of the car and when we were all more relaxed, my technician/interpreter said “do you know who this man was?” As I did not know, he went on “he was William Nyuon, the SPLA Field Commander, only second to John Garang! Although I did not know his biographical information at the time, I was aware that I had been in a tight spot and that I was lucky to had got off so lightly.

William Nyuon. Credit: Taken from https://paanluelwel.com/2014/10/31/thankful-to-cdr-william-nyuoon-bany-a-eulogy/ (No credit for the picture given).

Years later I learnt that Itang was the site of the founding of the SPLA in 1983 by Garang, a graduate in economics from the University of Iowa. Other founders of the SPLA were Salva Kiir Mayardit, Kerubino Kuanyin Bol and William Nyuon. The regime of Mengistu allowed the SPLA the management of refugee camps and gave them logistical support. In fact, it is believed that without the support of Mengistu and supplies for refugees, the SPLA could not have maintained the war with northern Sudan.

The refugee camps in Ethiopia stopped functioning as SPLA camps in 1991 after the fall of Mengistu and William Nyuon, the commander of the SPLA in the field continued to fight against the Government of Sudan and was finally killed in 1996 -ironically- by the army of South Sudan Independence, a dissident branch of the SPLA.

After our return to Gambela, the following day we drove back to Bedele without any further problems and our conversation throughout the journey focused on the incident at Itang although the throbbing in my leg reminded me of the kindness of the herdboy.

Regarding the blood samples, we found a small percentage of animals positive for T. parva but we did not find the vector neither during that trip, our first, nor in the ones that we did afterwards.

Unfortunately, the infection in my leg deteriorated in such a way that I need to spend a week in bed in Bedele undergoing antibiotic treatment until it finally healed.

[1] The war lasted seventeen years (1955 to 1972) and about half a million people perished. It demanded regional autonomy for the South that the British decolonization failed to implement. One of its consequences was the appearance of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the political wing of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA).

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Garang

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Nyuon_Bany

Spot the beast 74

Checking my files I found this beast, one of my favourites. I am sure you will find as it is rather obvious.

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This “Spot” was just an excuse to show you how well this beautiful Greater Kudu male blended in the extremely dry environment of Mana Pools National Park in Zimbabwe.

Condors!

At the end of the year, taking advantage of a relaxation of the Covid control measures in Salta, we left our quarantine and travelled to the Calchaquí valley [1] for a well-deserved break from the routine of the farm where we had been since March 2020.

We travelled to a small town called Payogasta where we spend three nights exploring the Los Cardones National Park [2] and then continued to Molinos, travelling on the well-known national route 40 (RN40) that goes from North to South of Argentina traversing almost 5200 km and crossing eleven provinces [3] through the most amazing and changing landscapes.

The cardones (Echinopsis atacamensis) give the name to the National Park.

While in Molinos we visited the Brealito lagoon, a natural water reservoir, and the Acsibi caves, both near the small town of Seclantás. I will deal with these visits in due course.

We enjoyed our stay at the Hacienda de Molinos hotel and when we were due to depart, decided to enjoy an extra night and explore Angastaco, another small village 50 km further on on the RN40 towards Cafayate, the wine-producing area, towards the South.

The entrance of the Hacienda de Molinos hotel.
The patio of the hotel with a very old molle tree (Schinus molle)

We traveled to Angastaco with the expectation of visiting the “Quebrada de las Flechas” (the Arrow’s gorge), meant to be a spectacular sight. This northern section of the RN40 is a rather twisted murram road crossing mountainous terrain and we drove with care following the Calchaquí river on our left. Although along the river there is a green valley where agriculture is practiced (including vineyards), the dominating landscape is one of dramatic dry rocky hills of different colours that change with the light and where one hopes (against hope) to see condors after turning each corner.

Because of the Covid 19 situation, we were among the very few people moving through so our journey was very relaxed until, as usual, I heard Mabel saying “these are Condors!”. As usual, without seeing anything but the rather twisted road ahead, I stopped to look and I could see some tiny objects against the horizon on one of the hills that I took for rocks, until one of them moved and we got excited! There were indeed Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) [4]

The condors as spotted by Mabel (they are on top of the hills!).
A close-up of our first view of the condors.

We stopped to watch them with the binoculars and to take a few pictures. There were about ten birds along the edge of a cliff and then she started spotting more flying above us until we realize that there were many.

Condors flying.

We advanced slowly to get a better angle on the birds on the cliff and then saw a large number of smaller birds on the ground and on a tree. These were Black Vultures (Coragyps atratus). We also saw a few Southern crested caracara (Caracara plancus) and other smaller birds of prey that I could not identify as they were quite far. Among the Vultures there were a few more condors and more were discovered by Mabel all around the area. So, we had hit a “condor jackpot”!

To give you an idea of what we saw, below I include a slide show.

We saw the remains of a carcass under the tree and decided to have a good look. We found a number of dead cattle, probably disposed off there by farmers as a consequence of the dry conditions in the area and this “cattle cemetery” attracted all the birds we saw.

We watched the birds for a long while while feeding until it was time for them to take off. The condors started first, followed by the Black vultures. The latter are super flyiers and gliders but they are no match for the truly majestic condors that, after the first few wingbeats they can go for long distances without the need of flapping their wings.

We enjoyed observing both vultures and condors after they had taken off while they glided up until they disappeared and then we decided to continue to Angastaco and have a look at the Quebrada de las Flechas. This did not disappoint us. The road snakes through a very dry gorge made of large pointed rock formations that extends for several kilometres. As I am not good with descriptions, the following slide show hopefully will reflect what we saw.

Despite the drama of the gorge and the beauty of the landscape that we traversed, nothing will make us forget our first close encounter with the magnificent condors.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Calchaqu%C3%AD_Valleys

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Los_Cardones_National_Park

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Route_40_(Argentina)

[4] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Condor

A short video to show you more “action”.

A dot in a map

As I have already mentioned the Didessa valley, between Bedele and Arjo, was one of our favourite exploring spots over the weekends. After a few visits, during one of our walks along one of the smaller tributaries of the Didessa river, the Legedema, we saw a kingfisher flying fast as usual along the semi-dry riverbed.

Curious, we followed it and watched it for a few seconds before it flew away to an area where we could not find it. We thought it to be one of the tree species belonging to the Halcyon genus, probably the Woodland kingfisher (H. senegalensis). However, we believed that we caught a shade of blue on its breast and we kept our options open for it to be a Blue-breasted kingfisher (H. malimbica). We had watched both species while in Kenya, so we had some idea about kingfishers.

Once at home in Bedele, as usual, we checked the birds we had seen with the Checklist of the birds of Ethiopia [1]. We noted that, although the Woodland kingfisher was included, the Blue-breasted was absent. So, things started to look interesting and the situation required follow-up and we decided to go back at the next opportunity to have another look.

Although work postponed the visit, we eventually made it and looked for the bird, now alert to detect the salient features of the different species. We found it but it was not easy to approach because of the terrain. Despite this, after watching it for a while, we both agreed that we were looking at the unlisted, Blue-breasted kingfisher, its bright blue breast unmistakable.

Aware of the importance of a new species for the country, the next time we were in Addis, I contacted the Ethiopian Wildlife and Natural History Society (EWNHS) to inform them of our find and to confirm that there was no other record of the bird that we did not know. They did not know of any other observation and they suggested that I should bring the bird to be examined, something I explained I would not do! I realized that I needed to break through their scepticism, and we returned to Bedele determined to get pictures that would prove our “discovery” without the need of collecting the bird.

At the next opportunity, we travelled to the Legedema river area and we spent hours following the bird from one end to the other of the riverbed, often crawling through sand, rocks, water and vegetation, only to find that it was either too far for my zoom lens or watching it taking off to the other end of the river before being able to take its picture. Then it was back to crawling towards the place it had flown to!

After a couple of days of walking/crawling along the river, under the amused watch of Mabel, I managed to take a few pictures that I thought could be decent enough to prove the identity of the bird and eventually convince the EWNHS that the bird was what I said.

A few “mates” to regain energy during the tough bird chase!

Although I had taken pictures the films still needed to be developed as in 1989 there were no electronic cameras. Because of the kind of film I used, the rolls needed to go outside Ethiopia to get developed and printed so I was not yet sure of the fruits of my work!

In comes our good friend Ranjini (from our Kenya days) that kindly agreed to receive the film in the UK, get it developed and choose what she considered as the best shots to get them enlarged to show the bird as clearly as possible.

A few weeks passed until we got a large envelope that contained the print negatives and a few enlargements that, although very bad from a photographer’s viewpoint, showed beyond doubt that the bird had indeed enough blue in its breast to qualify for a kingfisher of the Blue-breasted kind, a new record for Ethiopia!

I immediately sent the pictures to the EWNHS and they accepted the find. They also invited us to one of their meetings to present our finding. The latter was well attended by an interested crowd and they gave me a nice green tie with the EWNHS logo to recognize the find!

We wrote a Short Communication that was accepted for publication by Scopus in September 1989, a couple of months before leaving Ethiopia. It was published in May 1990 [2]. In it we explained the circumstances of our find and gave details of its approximate location, speculating that it could be also present in the Didessa river itself and/or its tributaries.

Our move to Zambia towards the end of 1989 took all our efforts and we soon forgot the kingfisher to focus on more important issues related to our new posting and the arrival of our children that left very little time for birdwatching or even thinking about it! Then, in October 1991 we received a letter from the late John S. Ash [3] that referred to our publication. I quote:

“…After living in Ethiopia for 8 1/2 years … It was … extremely interested to see your very interesting observations of Blue-breasted Kingfishers. I have to admit that at first I was sceptical but on looking into it further was able to convince myself that I had also come across the species not far from your locality, and then re-found an even older Italian record [4] which I had relegated to an “improbable” file many years ago.”

“… In commiserating with you on your loss of an addition to the Ethiopian list I congratulate you on rediscovering it and being instrumental in putting it on the map… I enclose a draft of a note I have prepared for Scopus and shall be most grateful for any comments you have on it…”

So it was that our belief of having “discovered” a new bird species for Ethiopia was dashed and it became a “re-discovery” of a bird that had been seen first in 1959 and subsequently misidentified as the Woodland kingfisher by Mr. Ash.

However, in the light of our finding, in his paper [5] Mr. Ash revised his earlier observations and, luckily, he was able to contact Professor C.H. Fry that accepted our record for inclusion in a monograph of the kingfishers where a small green dot in Ethiopia is all we achieved after all our efforts! [6]

A dot in the map! The Blue-breasted kingfisher in Ethiopia. Credit: Print screen from BirdLife.org (Accessed on 6 January 2021). http://datazone.birdlife.org/species/factsheet/blue-breasted-kingfisher-halcyon-malimbica?gclid=Cj0KCQiA3NX_BRDQARIsALA3fIJHYxNCgl8BCtJoFkA4Z6wvIrYQS6M4Vhm_2CNWE_gSzcX48yh8stoaAvHFEALw_wcB

[1] Urban K. and Brown, L.H. (1971). A Checklist of the Birds of Ethiopia. Haile Sellassie I University Press. pp. 143.

[2] de Castro, J.J. and de Castro, M. (1990). The Blue-breasted Kingfisher (Alcyon malimbica) in South-West Ethiopia. Scopus 14: 22.

[3] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Ash_(ornithologist) and https://www.theguardian.com/theguardian/2014/feb/09/john-ash-obituary

[4] Toschi, A. (1959). Contributo alla Ornitofauna d’Etiopia. Ricerche di Zoologia Applicata alla Caccia 2: 301-412.

[5] Ash, J.S. (1992). An apparently isolated population of blue-breasted kingfishers Halcyon malimbica in Ethiopia. Scopus 16: 14-17.

[6] Fry, C. H.; Fry, K.; Harris, A. (1992). Kingfishers Bee-Eaters and Rollers. Editorial: Russel Friedman Books CC, Halfway House, South Africa Editors.