Opinion and comments

Topical issues such as conservation, extinction of game, etc.

Rain bird

A few days back we have started hearing the by now familiar ‘wip-wip-weeu’ that the rain bird or red-chested cuckoo (Cuculus solitarius) make endlessly at the time the rains should start in Zimbabwe. But, where have they been since their appearance last year?

 

Before I knew much about bird movement and migration, I often asked myself this question. I recall watching in awe widowbirds displaying in Northern Kenya and asking my friend Paul about their whereabouts during the rest of the year. His reply, was that they would go to the Sudd[1], a huge swampy area located in Sudan.

Sudd_swamp Credit NASA (Public domain)

Sudd Swamp -a Flooded grasslands and savannas ecoregion in South Sudan. To the left the river/wetland Bahr al-Ghazal connecting to Lake No (top). This photograph was taken during the driest time of year—summer rains generally extend from July through September. Taken from space, May 1993. Credit: NASA (Public domain).

So, every time that someone asks me now where a particular bird is when it is not seen, I say that it is in the Sudd, a very convenient reply!

The truth about the rain bird is that they are intra-African migrants that breed in southern Africa between September and March, although most arrive in mid-October and the majority are gone by the end of April.

The rest of the year they reside in Sub-Saharan Africa, in countries of Central, East and West Africa, including the Sudd wetlands in South Sudan!

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Rainbird distribution map. Attribution: BirdLife International (2019) Species factsheet: Cuculus solitarius. Downloaded from http://www.birdlife.org on 02/11/2019.

Their preferred habitats are woodlands where they perch high up in the trees. The red-chested cuckoo is usually solitary and it takes on more than a single mate so it is polygamous. Every year they visit our garden where they are occasionally seen while they feed on caterpillars and other insects in the tall msasa trees.

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While in Southern Africa -including Zimbabwe- the rain birds practice brood parasitism by breeding through egg-laying in other bird species nests, some twenty-seven of them! The most common hosts are thrushes and robin-chats and the Cape robin-chat (Cossypha caffra), the Cape wagtail (Motacilla capensis) and the white-throated robin-chat (Cossypha humeralis) are the most popular hosts.

The cuckoo’s resemblance with a small bird of prey (like a sparrow hawk for example) scares the future parents from their nests and the cuckoo female lays the egg that, not always, resembles their hosts’. It is estimated that they lay about twenty eggs scattered in various nests every season. Then it is up to the surrogate family to raise the chick.

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A cape robin feeding an almost fully-grown rain bird. Attribution: Alandmanson [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D. https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f4/Piet-my-vrou_%26_cape_robin.jpg. Downloaded from Creative Commons on 2/11/19

A very interesting biological phenomenon helps the cuckoo chick to have a head start from the other chicks in the nest: the female cuckoo literally incubates the egg inside her for 24 hours before laying it! [1] This ensures that the chick will hatch first and eliminate the competition at the nest.

Cuckoos are great travellers, capable of flying enormous distances during their migration and, although the red-chested cuckoo covers less distances than others, it uses the same mechanisms to do so. These navigation skills are genetically passed on to their young. The latter stay behind to complete their development while their parents depart but the new generation are able to fly back north on their own to join their parents!

Now we only need good rains while we watch the cuckoos until they depart and then we wait for them to announce the rains in 2020.

 

[1] See: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-11401254

Breaking News: proof that unicorns exist!

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Noah’s Ark by Aurelio Luini.

In July 2015, after finding this beautiful painting of Noah’s ark in Milan, I produced a post on unicorns [1]. The following is a quote from it:

“… However, the most interesting feature is the pair of white unicorns joining the queue, just in front of the elephants. Why are they there if they did not exist? We will probably never know the reasons. But what if they existed and became extinct after checking in? There is a rumour that they got chewed up en route by the lions…”

I then mused on finding a scientific name for them and I concluded that Equus monocornis would be appropriate. I was really proud but, unfortunately, equally wrong!

Last October, while on safari to the Kalahari Trails in South Africa, without much hope of finding anything interesting, I placed the camera trap at the waterhole in front of our bungalow. What I found the next morning came as an unexpected shock: a live unicorn!

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Based on this initial picture, strenuous walks over the red (and sometimes white) dunes of the Kalahari followed in search of the beast that had eluded humankind for milennia. Finally I found it and, despite my sweaty hands (emotion or heat?), I managed to take the necessary picture that proves beyond any doubt that unicorns do roam our planet, though undetected because of their scarcity.

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Before you point it out to me, I am aware that the animal strongly resembles a gemsbok or oryx (Oryx gazella) but the sole horn is clearly the defining factor…

The finding forced me to review my previously proposed classification of the unicorn. It now stands as follows:

Kingdom:        Animalia

Phylum:          Chordata

Class:              Mammalia

Order:            Artiodactyla Perissodactyla

Family:           Bovidae Gray, 1821 Equidae Gray, 1821

Genus:            Oryx de Blainville, 1816 Equus Linnaeus, 1758 

Species:          monocornis Bushsnob, 2018 monocornis Bushsnob, 2015

Pleased with my discovery I have chosen to ignore those people that have suggested that I should include the word “sundowner” as part of its name.

Below I present you with the best picture that shows the beast in its full glory:

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The perfect unicorn!!! I hope the issue has now been settled for good.

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/07/19/noahs-ark/

The water elephant

For hundreds of years humanity has discovered and classified the organisms that inhabit our planet. However, even today we continue to find new species. These are not tiny insects but fish, reptiles, birds and mammals, some even very large!

In 2004, while we were working there, United States scientists discovered a new species of monkey in the jungle of the Madidi National Park in Bolivia. The ape, of the group of the marmosets, was placed in the genus Callicebus. Following a novel initiative, its species naming was the result of a contest in Internet won by the Golden Palace Casino. This institution paid U$S 650,000[1] for the name Callicebus aureipalatii that -in Latin- means Golden Palace![2]

So far in 2016 several new species have been found. Some of them are small animals that can be considered difficult to see. However, this is not the case of the seven-metre long Black Whale defined as a new species this year. The finding is so recent that it still does not have its scientific name![3]

In addition, there is a new shark called Ninja lantern shark (Etmopterus benchleyi), found in the sea near Costa Rica in 2015.[4] Again, United States scientists studying aboard the Spanish research vessel Spanish B/O Miguel Oliver, discovered it. The species name refers to Peter Benchley, author of the novel Jaws.[5]

So far we have dealt with the amazing animals that have been discovered. But what about those animals suspected to exist but that we have not yet found? Cryptozoology is the study of animals -“cryptids”- that are believed to exist. The example that comes immediately to mind is “Nessie” the Loch Ness “monster” in Scotland that, despite a long search, continues to be the epitome of the elusive creature.

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However, other instances exist of other beasts that had been seen but never confirmed. One of them is supposed to dwell in the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo) and the information comes from a professional hunter called R.J. Cunninghame. This experienced hunter became world famous when he shot dead a hippo that attacked the then US President Theodore Roosevelt while on safari in East Africa in 1909.

A Frenchman named Le Petit told Cunninghame about Water Elephants that he saw in 1907 during his five-year stay in the Congo. Le Petit saw them for the first time while traveling through the river in the wetlands between Lake Leopold II (now Lake Mai-Ndombe) and Lake Tumba.

The first time he saw just a head and a neck that appeared on the water surface. His companions, natives of the place, told him that what he had just seen was a Water Elephant. Later he saw the animals again. This time they were five and he allegedly watched them for about a minute. He described them as between 180-240cm tall with relatively short legs and curved backs, elephant-like.

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The water elephant by artist and writer Philippe Coudray. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Their heads were ovoid and elongated with a short trunk of about 60cm in length (tapir-like), but no tusks were seen. Their skin reminded him of hippo skin but it was darker. They walked with an “elephantine” gait that left footprints in the sand with four separate toes. This was the last time they were seen as they quickly disappeared into deep water. His fellow local companions reaffirmed Le Petit that the animals were common in that area and that they spent much time in the water, like hippos.

Interestingly, in the same general area another animal is reputed to exist, known as the Mokele-Mbembe, a creature believed by cryptozoologists to have a prehistoric look similar to “Nessie”. Although several expeditions have searched this area of the Congo, none have found it or the Water Elephant.

However, the Water Elephant existence came to the fore again when in 2005 a pilot flying over Lake Tumba apparently spotted them again. The animals seen would fit the description of Le Petit!

Not many scientists believe that a beast of this size can still be unknown to science. However, the Congo region -like Bolivia and others- has surprised us earlier with the discovery of other interesting creatures. You may also think that what Le Petit saw were African Forest Elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), considered as pygmy elephants for quite some time but now as small specimens of L. cyclotis. This is unlikely for an experienced observer.

Le Petit’s description would fit that of the Moeritherium if the latter had been taller than its estimated one metre height.[6] Philippe Coudray, who I thank for his permission to use his picture of the Water Elephant, theorizes that elephants regarded as extinct -such as the Water Elephant- could still exist. He bases its reasoning on the finding of a tusk with a reverse curvature to normal elephants in 1904 in Ethiopia. The fact that the tusk was not fossilized would indicate that the animal did not live so long ago. The cryptid species postulated would be smaller than a prehistoric elephant known as the Deinotherium.

During our safaris we have seen elephants with weird-looking tusks.

THis year, while visiting the Kruger National Park, we spotted an elephant with one of its tusks pointing downwards so these tusks are still on live elephants! It reminded me of the Deinotherium-like cryptid!

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Did the Water Elephant ever exist or what Le Petit saw were the smaller forest elephants? The area of Congo where they could be is still difficult to access so a final solution to the mystery may yet take a long time. In the meantime we can only wait.

 

[1] Donated to the Madidi National Park.

[2] http://www.nbcnews.com/id/7493711/ns/technology_and_science-science/t/internet-casino-buys-monkey-naming-rights/#.V7brlZN97-Y

[3] http://www.livescience.com/55623-new-species-black-whale-in-pacific.html

[4] http://www.oceansciencefoundation.org/josf/josf17d.pdf

[5] https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etmopterus_benchleyi

[6] http://carnivoraforum.com/topic/9742488/2/

Note: This post is a translation and adaptation of an article published in the Spanish on-line Muy Interesante magazine. If interested see: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Nota: Este artículo es una traducción y adaptación de uno publicado en la revista Muy Interesante. Si tiene interés vea: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/el-elefante-de-agua-y-otros-animales-que-no-sabemos-si-existen-721474540407

Horn-borer moths

One of the advantages of being a “safari veteran” apart from a bushsnob is that I am now able to enjoy what I found, even the small things that were overlooked while seeking large game. The years of long game drives and walks, some of them starting very early and with freezing temperatures, are a thing of the past. Apart from seeing a pangolin in the wild, I have few wishes left about finding new beasts.

At Ngweshla Picnic site, Hwange National Park, you are allowed to camp and have the site for yourself from 18:00 to 06:00. During the day you share it with picnic site users but there is still plenty of room for everybody. Although rather unique, this is a good arrangement as most of the day you are game-watching away from the site and the camp attendants keep the camp tidy and the toilets sparkling at all times!

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The site has seen better days and, as a consequence, it has a rather “porous” fence that would, if the animals wished, allow them to mingle with the campers, a rare occurrence though. The site entrance has been “decorated” with many animal bones. Although it is debatable whether these are suitable for the purpose, I find the skulls, useful to explain various issues regarding wild animals to our visitors.

The more recent antelope and buffalo skulls on display still had their horns and, as it is common if Africa, most showed little brown tubes protruding from them. I had seen this phenomenon many times before but I never followed its origin in detail. A short search educated me that the Horn-borer moths (Ceratophaga vastella) were responsible.

The larva of this moth, related to the one that upsets us by eating our woolies, are able to digest keratin and, although there are reports of them entering the horns of live animals, it is generally accepted that they only penetrate the horns post-mortem.

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A nice and “mothless” Greater kudu bull.

The protuberances on the horns are the cases of the larvae that the latter built using their own faeces. The cases protect the soft insects from predators and the climate until they pupate and emerge as adults to fly away and colonize new horns.

Ceratophaga vastella, known as a detritivore[1], is widespread in the Afro-tropic ecozone[2]. Thus far there are 16 described species in the genus, with 12 found in Africa. The larvae are cream-coloured and bulky, with a brown head and tip of abdomen. The adult moth is a typical tineid[3], having a conspicuous tuft of yellow hair on the head.

Whenever an animal dies or is killed it will eventually be consumed by the killers and/or depredators including various mammals such as hyenas and jackals, birds such as vultures and others, fly maggots and ants until only bones, horns and hooves are left. The horn-borer moths are one of the last participants turning the carcasses to dust.

 

[1]An organism that feeds on and breaks down dead plant or animal matter, returning essential nutrients to the ecosystem.

[2] One of Earth’s eight ecozones. It includes Africa south of the Sahara, the southern and eastern fringes of the Arabian Peninsula, Madagascar, southern Iran and extreme southwestern Pakistan, and the islands of the western Indian Ocean.

[3] Moths of the Tineidae family, also known as fungus moths includes more than 3,000 species, unusual among Lepidoptera as most feed on fungi, lichens, and detritus. Apart from the clothes moths, which have adapted to feeding on stored fabrics, others feed on carpets and the feathers in bird nests. 

 

Nature’s design fault?

Last year, we noted that one of our calves in Salta, Argentina, was grazing on its knees. So I -being a veterinarian- was asked what was wrong with it. I had no clue so I diagnosed it as suffering from the “Warthog Syndrome” as it reminded me of the African pigs. It was only a few days later that my wife realized the origin of the “condition”. The calf got used to kneel down to be able to graze further while tied to a stake! It soon recovered but by then the warthogs’ feeding technique had already sparked my curiosity.

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After some thought I decided that warthogs suffer from a rare Nature’s design fault: their neck is too short to reach the ground hence the need to genuflect to feed! As this was a rather strong conclusion, I decided to follow up and “Google” it.

I read that warthogs graze but also dig bulbs and tubers during the dry season. They do this on its calloused and padded knees using its snout and tusks. They have extremely short necks and their limbs are somewhat long so, assuming this position helps them root and graze more efficiently. However, warthogs are often more susceptible to predator attacks when they adopt these vulnerable feeding stances!

Still unconvinced I dug deeper and consulted the well known and knowledgeable zoologist Jonathan Kingdom[1]. He explains that warthogs have rather long legs that enables them to run faster than other pig species and this increased the distance of the mouth to the ground hence the need for kneeling to feed as it has not evolved an elongated snout! I quote: “Kneeling is an in-born behaviour pattern as even new-born piglets kneel to feed. However, it is not only the behaviour that is in-born, because the callosities characteristic of the carpal joints of the warthog’s forelegs are present on embryos”.

I was now confused as I could not understand the difference between having a short neck or longer than needed legs! Further, it appears that warthogs evolved longer legs to run fast but compromised their safety by feeding on their knees running the risk of not seeing their predators!

Desperate to find an explanation, I looked into the African wisdom and found a traditional Zulu story on the subject. It says that at some stage the warthog was inside its burrow when a lion approached it and, when the latter roared, the trembling warthog knelt down to beg the lion not to eat it! The lion had already fed and forgave the warthog. However, it told the pig to stay on its knees forever. That is the reason that it eats with its bottom up and its nose in the dust!

So, having checked general information, science and folklore I am still convinced that the warthog is the casualty of a design fault by Mother Nature!

 

[1] Kingdom, J. (1982). East African Mammals: An Atlas of Evolution in Africa, Vol. 3, Part B. The University of Chicago Press.

World Days

The post on the World Elephant Day happened to be the 200th contribution to my blog so I thought that, on reaching one thousand -if ever-, I will propose a “World Bushsnob Day” to commemorate the event, at least among its readers.

I thought that, before I got too carried away with the idea, I would investigate if there were still dates available for such a new World Day. Having a “blog post queue” from past history as well as more recent safaris, I decided to do a fast and dirty check in the web to ascertain what the chances were of having my own day.

Results were, to put it mildly, very discouraging!

Wikipedia[1] indicates the existence of 259 World Days with an average of 22 days per month! March, May and October are almost fully booked with 26 days each, being the highest months. I thought that a glimmer of hope still existed for new celebratory days in June and December with 15 and 16 days respectively. However, my hopes were dashed when I learnt that there are also 27 other World Days commemorated on moving dates and an additional ten listed as “other”.

As the information from this source had a strong influence from the USA, and thinking that I needed to get my day eventually approved by the UN (being a former employee!), I checked the UN World days. There are 130 International Days currently observed by the world body, an average of 11 days per month. As this gave me some hope, I looked at some examples of World Days that I could emulate.

I found that almost anything you could think of has its day and, to enrich your knowledge on commemorative days, I will mention a few notable ones.

21 January is National Hug Day or National Hugging Day, an annual event dedicated to hugging created by Kevin Zaborney (?).

7 February is Rose Day, the start of Valentine Week that ends with Valentine’s Day on February 14.

13 February and 21 November are World Radio Day and World TV Day respectively. As I am a radio lover, I find the former amply justified!

22 February. World Thinking Day is celebrated by all Girl Guides, Girl Scouts when they think about their “sisters” (and “brothers”) in all the countries of the world, the meaning of Guiding, and its global impact. (I think this should be an important day for all humanity, particularly politicians!).

14 March. Pi (π) Day. Pi Day is observed on this date as it is 3/14 in the month/day date format. Pies are eaten and π issues discussed! Closely related to this day is “π Approximation Day”, again as 22/7 was the fraction used by Archimedes to calculate the constant.

The World Sleep Day (Friday of the second week of March) aims to celebrate the benefits of good and healthy sleep among other issues. As a siesta lover, I also wholeheartedly endorse it.

20 March is World Sparrow Day and it is devoted -you guessed correctly- to raise awareness of the house sparrow and other common birds to urban environments and the threats to their populations.

World Laughter Day takes place on the first Sunday of May and I also support this day as I am convinced of the benefits of a hearty laugh!

4 May is Star Wars Day, observed by the film fans. The date was chosen for the easy pun on the catchphrase “May the Force be with you” (May the Fourth be with you).

25 May. Towel Day is celebrated as a tribute to the author Douglas Adams by his fans that openly carry a towel with them, as described in Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I had not read!

24 June and 2 July are two dates that World UFO Day is celebrated depending whether you go for the date that aviator Kenneth Arnold reported what is generally considered to be the first widely reported unidentified flying object sighting in the United States while or the supposed UFO crash in the 1947 Roswell UFO Incident.

20 August. World Mosquito Day is a commemoration of Indian doctor Sir Ronald Ross’s discovery in 1897 that female mosquitoes transmit malaria between humans.

15 October is, suitably, Global Hand-washing Day, a campaign to improve this routine event. A well-chosen date as the following day (16 October) is World Food Day, commemorated by FAO of the UN!

5 July is World Toilet Day, a campaign to motivate and mobilize millions around the world on issues of sanitation. It was originally established by the World Toilet Organization(!) in 2001 and later -in 2013- the United Nations made it one of its international days.

Finally, as I drink both, I am pleased to see that International Tea Day is observed on 15 December and 1 October is International Coffee Day!

While on the issue of hygiene, food and drinks, I looked for possible related days and I was further amazed by what I found. I will only give you some selected examples that are observed worldwide and/or some countries[2].

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Seeing the humongous number of World Days currently on offer and the little I -and I guess many of us- knew about them made me thing twice about proposing my own. Further, it emphasized that, because of this celebratory overkill we forget the important issues that we should remember, not just one day per year but every day!

I have decided that the impact and relevance of a new World Day would be really negligible so I will need to think on something else to commemorate my 1,000th post, that is if I get to 1,000 posts in a condition to celebrate…

 

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_commemorative_days

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_food_days#cite_note-14

[3] Interestingly, in 2014 Uruguay was second in per capita whisky consumption with 1.77lt after France (2.15 lt). Higher than the cradle of the drink, the UK!!!

 

 

A question of stripes

One of my greatest skills is what could be defined as “attention to (silly) detail”. I mean this in the sense that I am able to, for example, pick up a spelling mistake in any kind of text almost without reading it! This “talent” of mine also extends to noting other oddities such as a missing row on a plane seat arrangement or, more relevant to this post, identifying an animal showing certain “unexpected” characteristics.

Although I could probably boast about this in a way befitting the Bushsnob I refrain from doing so as, unfortunately it has yielded no useful results as of yet, apart from noticing odd things and -sometimes- making people’s lives a misery. I am still to find a profitable use to this “special” trait of mine!

In the “Hippos from Hell” post I described one such observation whereby I quickly noticed that the hippos in question were not trying to “protect” an impala from crocodiles but rather to snatch it from them and enjoy a protein-rich meal! It was as a result of this odd behavior that I ended up watching a number of videos on YouTube of crocodiles preying on various animals to see if I could detect a repeat of my first hand observations.

One of the many videos I watched was called “Blood River”[1] which had good photography (if a bit on the gory side) combined with a terribly soppy story about a mother zebra and its foal during their migration in the Serengeti-Mara area. I had selected this particular video for viewing as hippos are present in large numbers in the Mara River, and I believed the video had the potential to provide some useful information.

In order to get the ball rolling I will quote here the words of the narrator, that will hopefully help to set the scene for you:

“This is Zulu Echo 5, an adult female zebra with a simple mission: to steer a young fowl, Foxtrot 1, through his first migration”.

Ultimately, I was not there as a critic of National Geographic but as a researcher attempting to find material for my work. The video lasts for about 45 minutes and, I was almost finished with it when my “attention to detail” sense tingled! An oddity in the film had caught my attention, causing me to rewind it and confirm my suspicion.

Now let me explain what I found: the zebra present in the Mara river area belong to the Grant’s subspecies (Equus quagga boehmi). These were the ones present throughout the majority of the documentary. However, in the final sequences where the reunion of Foxtrot 1 and Zulu Echo 5 is being portrayed, the animals shown appear to belong to a sub-species found in Southern Africa, i.e. Burchell’s (Equus quagga burchelli), the diagnostic brown “shadow” stripes between the black and white coloring clearly visible in the film.

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Grant’s subspecies (Equus quagga boehmi) without the shadow stripes pictured in the Maasai Mara.

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“Derrières” of Burchell’s (Equus quagga burchelli), the diagnostic brown “shadow” stripes obvious between the black and white coloring (Photo by Leonor Fernandez Huerga)

More recently, on a second viewing I also noted that the video starts with a close up of a Grant’s zebra, presumably in the Mara river and then, a couple of minutes later it shows a Burchell’s female and foal! “That is some migration!” I thought to myself, from East to Southern Africa in a few minutes. “The magic of making wildlife documentaries for distant and unprepared audiences” was my final reflection!

As this was too much for the Bushsnob’s mind, I quickly wrote to National Geographic, critically pointing out my first observation (I had not yet detected the one at the beginning). An exchange of emails followed where I was promised that an investigation would take place in order to gauge the validity of my observations and, if proven correct, provide an explanation for it.

It took National Geographic a few months to investigate my observations after which they sent me the following message that I have copied below for you:

We followed up with the production company that made this program, and they acknowledged that you are correct in flagging this as a sub-species mis-identification, and explained that this was a mistake that occurred during the editing process. Apparently, both Burchell’s and Grant’s zebras fall under the category of “Plains Zebra” (in quotes in the original message) in their stock footage library, and they have been basing their identification on an outdated publication (Estes’s “The Behaviour Guide to African Mammals”). They have promised to update their zebra sub-species identification following Groves and Bell’s 2004 taxonomic findings.

Thank you for your vigilance on this matter, and for bringing it to our attention. We, and the filmmakers we work with, will continue to make every effort to avoid errors of this nature in the future.”

Although I have not heard of either of these references, the explanation provided does not appear to me to hold much water as my loyal and worn out African mammals field guide[2] already highlighted the difference between these zebra species! Furthermore, you do not need to be a rocket scientist (or in this case a taxonomist) to observe the obvious differences between these two sub-species!

Having said this you can all rest in peace knowing that the Bushsnob’s power for observing silly details will remain in use and any other important developments reported here!

Note: Today (11 April 2016) I tried to watch the video at the link mentioned in the footnote 1 to see if it was corrected but I got a message on the screen saying: “This video is no longer available because the YouTube account associated with this video has been closed. Sorry about that”. I was hopeful that it had been removed. Not so. I did find the video as “Africa’s Blood Rivers” (Nat Geo Wild) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0I83s5AFo44&nohtml5=False) so, again, my attention to detail has been noted but the video is still there! Watching it again, I saw other places in the video where the two zebra species are swapped.

 

[1] See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-_DB-899hzU‏

[2] Dorst, J. and Dandelot, P. (1972). A field Guide to the Larger Mammals of Africa. Collins St. James’s Place, London; 2nd edition.

A “new” hippo

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Those of you who have read this blog on 22 February 2015 (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/) and watched the videos I posted later (https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/) would remember the extraordinary observations that the hippos present at Masuma dam at Hwange National Park were actually eating Impala meat. A reminder below:

This observation was so incredible to us –seeing it happening in front of our eyes without previous knowledge- that it was almost the sole topic of conversation for the rest of the trip! It was only after we returned and I found an earlier record of a similar event also observed at Masuma almost 20 years earlier[1] that my mind relaxed, but only for a short while. What we thought that happened it was what actually took place! I believed that the observations were of great importance and that they merited further follow up!

Luckily, establishing contact with Joseph Dudley (Joe), the responsible of the observations and publication, was straight forward and he replied to my message telling him of our experience within 24 hours! The possibility of some collaboration to write our observations was considered from the start. Later on Joe realized that there were a few reports and that it was worthwhile attempting a joint paper. On 20 October 2014 he wrote: ” I think that it would be good to connect the dots between these three recent observations ………..”[2] This was the start of Joe’s efforts to put together the people that have had experience on hippo carnivory and although he asserted to me recently (2 December 2015) that ” It was your contacting me after your experience in Hwange that pushed me to made this paper happen…” the idea of the joint paper and the effort of writing and coordinating it was his! My contribution to the exercise was minimal and I could safely say that I was only the straw that broke the camel’s back!

Civilities aside, Joe managed to put together a group of people with complementary expertise and steered it to the publication of a paper that I believe will change the way we look at hippos in the future[3].

In brief the paper postulates that hippos, an essential species within their ecosystem, should be considered not as obligate herbivores as at present but rather as facultative carnivores able to consume carcasses from other animals. Carnivory is not an aberrant behaviour confined to certain instances but a behavioral trait that takes place throughout the hippo’s distribution.

The accelerated rate of transmission of the deadly zoonotic disease anthrax recorded among hippos as compared with other animals is attributed to their habit of consuming meat from various animals, including the hippos themselves. This fact can have important implications for a better understanding and better management of future anthrax outbreaks not just in wildlife populations but, much more critically, in humans. The publication is receiving a rather wide coverage by the world press that I include on a separate page for reference. See: Hippo carnivory press coverage.

Just today (10 December 2015) Joe sent me a video from YouTube that I think is very timely as it rather eloquently shows hippos consuming a zebra and fending off crocodiles while doing so. You can watch the video below although it may be a bit too strong for some. Please accept my apologies but I think it is within the very interesting subject of this post.

I end this post with a picture of a hippo taken on the Kavango river during our recent trip to Namibia that I will cover soon. Does it not look too fierce to be a herbivore?

DSCN9972 9.11.44 PM copy

 

[1] Dudley, J.P. (1998). Report of carnivory in the common hippo Hippopotamus amphibious. South African Journal of Wildlife Research 28, 58-59.

[2] At the time he had additional information on the subject from other colleagues.

[3] Dudley, J. P., Hang’Ombe, B. M., Leendertz, F. H., Dorward, L. J., de Castro, J., Subalusky, A. L. and Clauss, M. (2015), Carnivory in the common hippopotamus Hippopotamus amphibius: implications for the ecology and epidemiology of anthrax in African landscapes. Mammal Review. doi: 10.1111/mam.12056. The paper can be downloaded free from the following link for the next couple of weeks: http://wileyonlinelibrary.com/journal/mam ffollhttp://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/mam.12056/abstract for the next two weeks and then the Abstract will remain there.

 

On Plane Travel

As announced, the Bushsnob has moved continent (if not hemisphere) and is now in Latin America, more precisely in Uruguay. This feels like an achievement considering the rather grueling plane trip endured to get here. Nothing wrong with the flying itself but a lot to be desired on the issue of room on board!

I was taught at school -and confirmed later through various reliable sources- that slaves were packed and transported in ships in the most atrocious of conditions and I fully support the end of the slave trade.* I do believe in racial equality but surely that does not mean that to show it, individuals of all races should be packed tightly together on a plane!

The amount of personal space available on board is so small that it is becoming almost inexistent! The real issue, however, is where does this stop? I am sure that engineers are currently busy trying to find ways of packing more passengers per cubic metre! Are profits so small that stuffing 20 more passengers makes such a difference? Or is it greed?

Whatever the reason, it seems that human air transportation is moving towards modern slavery so perhaps “Ecoslave” could be an appropriate name for the lowest air travel variety? It brings in the “Eco” for ecology and economy as well as the egalitarian tight human packaging.

I am aware that plane configuration varies between airlines and that my comment may not apply to all. However, there seem to be some general rules: (i) the further south you travel, the poorer the service and, (ii) the larger the plane, the less individual space available. Although our flight to Africa last April was acceptable on a smaller Airbus A330, the return on a much larger A340 was very uncomfortable.

Trapped in a narrow seat made of materials with sharp ends, you are completely dependent of the passenger in front of you. The moment he/she decides to recline the seat (as is their right as a flyer) this will not only change the angle of your video screen but also spill whatever plastic food and drink you had been given! In addition, gone are the 2 cm of knee room you cherished to keep the blood in your ageing arteries from clotting and the normal leg ageing process accelerates for the hours you have to endure the trip.

As if restraint by folding seat would not be enough, your plastic table also aids in keeping you clasped-in until the remains of your meal are withdrawn. As a rule, turbulence starts at the time when drinks and food are served, so clasped-in time can be rather long (sometimes as long as the time your food takes to be digested!).. I sometimes believe that pilots have a “Turb” knob that they turn with relish to keep passengers from moving too much!

After the turbulence subsides, you eat your meal and, while waiting for freedom from the clinching table to arrive in the form of the withdrawal of your tray, a fleeting thought that says “toilet” appears in your pressurized brain. While still waiting for your corset to be removed, this thought becomes a more urgent “TOILET” until your stewardess, aware of your agonic look, finally removes your tray. She does this with the same smile that she would have when telling you to remove your shoes before using the slide in a sea landing!

What comes next is a challenge to your physical and mental strength. You need a toilet but your legs are numb so a waiting period accompanied by vigorous massage to re-establish blood circulation is required. Once you regain the feeling in your legs it is time for the next step: the exit from your seat. To achieve it, you move sideways keeping your legs on the floor and your torso behind the seat in front of you, avoiding hitting your head against the bottom of the overhead luggage compartment and also to annoy the occupant in front of you. A contortionist act worthy of Houdini!

Once in the passageway you try to walk naturally towards your target while counting the minutes you can still hold on! Your innards freeze when you see the queue and this actually helps you wait, at least for a short while. Then, to distract your mind from your urges, you look around. What you see if the final blow to your already impoverished situation: while your plane section (seats 41 to 60) is packed chock a block, passengers in the other ones are comfortably sleeping across three seats! You swear at the stupidity of being clever while choosing your seat and promise yourself -knowing that you will never dare to do it- that next time you will go to the airport and get your seat allocated there.

Your angry thoughts are briskly interrupted as the toilet door opens and it is your turn! The relief that follows is so great that -like I am told happens during childbirth- all is forgotten afterwards and you face the return to your clamp with renewed enthusiasm. After all, you only have another eight hours to go!

 

* Disclaimer: I am in no way making light of the slave trade or the circumstances endured by slaves, but rather over dramatising an event that I experienced (in true Bushsnob fashion!)

Christine, the booking wizard!

The booking office of the ...

The booking office of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority in Harare.

More important than the right preparations, adequate bookings are the key to a successful safari. There is nothing worse than arriving at your favourite place and finding that you are double booked or that you “are not on our list”.

Worse still is dealing with a booking office with staff that just do a routine job and are completely indifferent to the client across the counter and their expectations. Unfortunately, this occurs more frequently than necessary, and even efficiency does not compensate for it.

Luckily, people booking at the office of the Parks and Wildlife Management Authority (PWMA) in Harare, Zimbabwe need not worry!

Christine is officially called a “Reservation Agent” but I would rename her as a “Reservation Friend”! With her team (Audrey, Peter and Catherin) she is always ready to assist and look -in the renowned large green accommodation books- for the place you wish, always with a smile, even when her telephone is constantly ringing and she is dealing with several issues at the same time.

This is the best campsite. I recommend it!

This is the best campsite. I recommend it!

She knows about the facilities offered, condition of the roads and best times to visit. She also acts as a guide, recommending the best places available and not hesitating to tell you their drawbacks and or advantages.

This is not too good...

This is not too good…

... a solution is found!

… a solution is found!

Married, a mother of two (boy of 28 and girl of 25) and recently a grandmother, Christina has been helping guests to get bookings to the wonderful places in Zimbabwe for the last 26 years. I would go as far as saying that she is the “face and voice” of the PWMA to the outside world.

Christine at work.

Christine at work.

Today I was there booking several places for both 2014 and 2015 and had a chance to enjoy her sense of humour and efficiency so I thought I would document my experience in the blog for all to know that here you will find a service like no other!

Thank you Christine and, please, do not scare me by talking about retirement again!