Opinion and comments

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

Bird battle [1]

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

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

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

But there was more to come.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humanitarian rats

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

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

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

The PDSA medal. Credit: Andrew69. Public domain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mine-clearing process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

Screenshot 2019-11-02 at 10.22.38

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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.


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!

Noah's ark copy

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!

STC_0020 1

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.

DSC_0156 copy 2

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:

DSC_0155 copy 3

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.


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.


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!


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!


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.


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.


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].


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?

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[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.