Bush stories and anecdotes

The heart of the blog, where I present observations, accounts, funny stories, etc.

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.

Spot the beast 73

While working on my next Ethiopian post that I promise will be interesting, I present you with this beast to see if you can find it. I must confess that it was difficult even for me to see it a few days after taking the shot!

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More pictures to give you a better idea of this moth:

Nuer’s oxytocin

As I mentioned earlier in this blog, the Nuer people are strongly linked to cattle in complex ways that are not always understandable to us. What I will describe here is part of this people-cattle interaction that ensures the survival of both in rather harsh conditions.

As with most cattle belonging to African pastoralists, they are of a placid nature and used to constant handling from an early age and milk is probably the most important commodity they produce although sales of oxen are also practiced by the Nuer.

As it is common practice the world over, Nuer cattle are milked after the milk let-down have been stimulated by allowing the calf to suckle briefly and then withdrawn. This action stimulates nerve receptors in the cow teats which induce oxytocin release within a few minutes. This compound, a, hormone causes the cells around the milk-producing alveoli to contract and squeeze out the milk, pushing it down the ducts towards the teat as well as dilating the milk ducts making it easier for the milk to flow down them.

On a visit to a Nuer cattle kraal we came across a very unusual sight, even for a veterinarian that had worked with cattle most of the time. A Nuer woman was blowing strongly, rhythmically and repeatedly into the vagina of a cow for about five minutes, taking rests in between as the effort needed was evidently great.

After the operation, she proceeded to milk the animal, obtaining about one litre of milk. After a while, the process was repeated an more milk obtained.

Enquiries about the practice revealed that the cow had aborted recently but that it was also performed on those cows which have lost their calves or are giving poor milk yields. I took pictures to document the practice and these are presented in a slideshow at the bottom as they are strong pictures that show the operation in great detail.

Later, at the laboratory I checked the literature for this phenomenon and did not find any records of it among the books I had at my disposal. However, I learnt that stretching of the cervix induces oxytocin secretion, increasing uterine motility and probably it also induces milk let-down, probably explaining how the curious practice works.

Years later, in 2010, checking through old papers and pictures I found the notes and prints of the oxytocin observation in Gambela and looked for it on the internet. I found several interesting references to the practice, including one by Wilfred Thesiger during his travels through Sudan [1] and several references to the practice of “cow blowing” in Wikipedia [2] where I learnt that it was quite an ancient and widespread practice throughout the world and that Gandhi stopped drinking cow milk after he came to know about the process known as “phooka” or “doom dev” in India that he considered cruel.

It was the comprehensive work of LeQuellec [3] on the evidence of the practice in ancient cultures that called my attention and prompted me to get in touch with him to discuss my observation. He was interested and encouraged me to publish the observations and so I did [4].

Although the physiological aspects of the practice can be explained, it still leaves unclear in my mind how early “milkers” linked the insufflations with milk let down and started to use it to their advantage. Is it that they have seen milk dripping at calving time? Or is it that they believed the udder to be the end of a continuous system which starts in the vagina and blowing through it will expel the milk? I still do not know.

[1] Thesiger, W. (1983). Arabian Sands. Collins. p.48.

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

[3] Le Quellec, Jean-Loic (2011). Provoking lactation by the insufflation technique as documented by the rock images of the Sahara. Anthropozoologica 46, 65-125. See: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/232693395_Provoking_lactation_by_the_insufflation_technique_as_documented_by_the_rock_images_of_the_Sahara

[4] de Castro, J. J. (2011). Nuer’s oxytocin. Cahiers de l’AARS — N° 15, 27-28.

Spot the beast 72

On the road and without time to write the few final posts on Ethiopia, I present you with my last contribution for 2020 (although for some of you may be already the first of 2021) with my best wishes for the New Year during which I expect we will all avoid Covid!

Anyway, I found this at the garden and here it is. It seems straight forward but…

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Clearly, the ladybird was too obvious and a distraction! The real hidden beast is this small bluish-gren moth, a real delicate creature, well camouflaged among the leaves.

Gold rush

I am not very sure of how we got the idea of travelling to Yubdo to get some gold. The fact is that we decided that it was a good idea and my colleagues recommended it as “the place” to get “cheap” gold in Ethiopia.

Abera (not his real name), one of the workers at the laboratory, was somehow volunteered as he had worked at Dembi Dolo prior to coming to Bedele and he knew the area well. So it was that we took one day off, and we left for Yubdo.

A rather dry waterhole on the way to Nekempte

We took the road to Arjo town that we knew well up to there and then proceeded to Nekempte to spend the night before continuing to Yubdo the following day. It was a dirt road and the 108km took a while to drive and we got there in the afternoon. We were delayed as we stopped to watch a religious ceremony that was taking place near the road. It was rather colourful and we were welcome and also allowed to take pictures.

All I recall from Nekempte was that we stayed at one of the Ethiopia hotels and that the room walls were so thin that we could hear the conversations of several rooms around us!

The next morning, after a non-eventful journey, we got to Yubdo and went to the main hotel (another Government Ethiopia Hotel!) to see if they would have accommodation for us while Abera went for a walk to get an idea of gold prices as well as getting in touch with the contacts he knew from his time at Nekempte.

Yubdo has been the centre of gold and platinum mining in Ethiopia and when the Italians invaded the country, these metals were extracted commercially as the Italians recognized the potential of mining there. We were not aware of the history of the place until much later.

While we were finishing our hotel check-in, Abera returned and we discussed our next move. “We now go to a certain coffee shop where we will meet the seller and we look at the gold” he said. When I asked when, he replied that he had set up an appointment for 16 hs, about half an hour later.

We drove to the shop and followed Abera inside. It was crowded and rather dark. We sat at one of the small tables and ordered a cup of coffee and waited. After a few minutes, someone came and sat with us, after greeting Abera warmly. A conversation in Amharic followed and a small newspaper parcel was produced that contained a pinch of unimpressive yellow powder. We were told that were looking at gold!

Negotiations followed and, eventually, we reached a price that I have now forgotten but that was not the cheap bargain I expected! When I made moves to pay, the man stopped me and Abera explained that we needed to go outside the town and meet “privately”. It was then that I realized that what we were doing was not a normal transaction but something that looked a rather dodgy affair.

When I expressed my doubts about the issue, Abera reassured me that this was the way you dealt with these issues in Ethiopia and that there was no problem. I knew him as a responsible man so I decided to go ahead and drive to the spot of our rendezvous with the seller and parked the car just outside the town and we saw him coming towards us crossing the fields between us and the town.

As soon as we could, we exchanged money for gold and departed to avoid any problems as I was feeling slightly concerned, something that Abera found funny and enjoyed! I thne realized with some concern that we now had some powder that was still a distance away from a gold nugget or farther still from a gold ring, the purpose of the purchase!

“Abera” I said, “what do we do now, we need to smelt the gold”. “Yes”, he replied, ‘we now drive to a certain Woreda [1] that specializes in smelting gold”. My amazement (and concern) grew as we started driving there. The place was not too far, we entered and parked near some huts and Abera and the yellow powder went to have a talk with the Head of the place while we waited.

Getting to the Woreda. Note the yellow Meskel flowers in the foreground.

A few minutes later Abera came back and told us that we could go with him as this was the right place to do the smelting. We followed him and met the blacksmith, an old man that seemed very happy to see us and who directed us to a fireplace that looked as it had been used for many years, black walls, black floor and smoke coming out of a kind of open oven.

The man poured charcoal on the smoking embers and started to pump the bellows that were made with the hindquarters of a goat. Very soon the right temperature was apparently reached so the gold was placed in a small crucible and the blacksmith continued to pump while we waited, eager to see the results.

The smelting going on. The yellowish artefact on the left, near the man’s hand is the bellow and the gold was where the fire was. At the bottom left are a few other crucibles and near the kettle the green leaves can also be seen.
A look at our gold being smelted.

A few minutes later the man removed the crucible and cooled the melted metal down and showed it to us. There were two nuggets, a golden one and a much smaller silver one.The blacksmith announced that we needed to boil the gold nugget with some herbs for it to acquire the right colour, so he placed it in a small saucepan and added boiling water from his kettle and some green leaves. The gold was boiled in this kind of tea for about ten minutes.

While our nugget boiled, I remembered the tiny silver nugget and, through Abera, I asked what happened with it. I learnt that it was the platinum and that was the pay for the blacksmith’s work. I did not argue and focussed again on my nugget that was now outside the water and looking beautiful, but I thought rather small for its cost. I weighed 16 grams.

Without further ado, the blacksmith started hammering the nugget until he got a wire of about 25 cm long. He hammered both ends over a file to give it a reticulated finish. He then asked my wife to produce her ring finger and compared with a rounded stick he produced from among his tools. He decided on the size of the finger and twisted the wire four times until a simple but rather nice ring was born, made of pure gold, quite soft!

Rather relieved that we had our gold ring we left the Woreda and eventually departed back to Bedele truly pleased with the result. My wife kept it on from that day and did not remove it until the gold got so thin that it broke! She was clearly shedding Au molecules from that they on until the breakage occurred and, of course, it was no longer 16 grammes.

Mabel is now keeping it for our son’s wedding rings (if he ever needs them!).

A bad picture of a silver copy (of three twists) of the
original gold ring that had four.

Later, she had several admirers of the ring among jewellers she visited in Italy and some wished to buy it at all cost but she resisted selling it despite my strong encouragement to recover the investment!

[1] Woreda are the Districts in Ethiopia. They are composed of several Kebele or neighbourhood associations. Several Woreda make a Zone and several Zones a Region or State such as Oromia.