Africa

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

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.

SMS Königsberg’s gun

Apart from nature I am also interested in African history so this is the first post that I dwell on the issue to tell you about an interesting series of somehow related events that took place in East, Central and Southern Africa during World War I (WWI). I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did searching for information and writing it.

We spent last week in Pretoria, having a break from Zimbabwe, and doing some needed shopping. While there I took the opportunity to visit the Union Buildings not to meet the President of South Africa but to check on a piece of artillery that I once read it was there. Luckily, after checking the various guns placed there, I found it and it prompted me to write this post.

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Wrong gun. One of the guns at the Union Buildings in Pretoria.

Let’s go back in time to the 1900’s, most precisely 1906 when the SMS Königsberg was launched and became the lead ship of her class of light cruisers in the German Navy. It was named after the capital of the then East Prussia and it was armed with a main battery of ten 10.5-centimeter (4.1 in) as well as other smaller guns.

In April 1914, the Königsberg was sent to German East Africa to take over patrol duties along the Indian Ocean coast. Its crew prepared for a tropical spell and many brought hunting guns to enjoy this activity that was common at the time. It arrived in Dar es Salaam on 5 June and its size and impressive appearance gained it the nickname Manowari na bomba tatu, or “the man of war with three pipes” among the local people.

The arrival to the area of the HMS Astraea, Hyacinth, and Pegasus of the British Navy (probably related with the deterioration of the situation in Europe) created concern in the Germans who, suspecting that the intentions of such unexpected visitors were to blockade the Königsberg in the German East African capital, on 31 July 1914 it went out to sea as soon as it could. The Königsberg, being a faster vessel left the three slower British ships behind until it broke contact and continued to Aden where news of the start of WWI reached it.

Ordered to attack British merchant ships, the cruiser remained in the Indian Ocean and sunk the SS City of Winchester, a merchant ship and only civilian casualty. Coal availability soon became the Achilles’ heel of the cruiser but somehow it got enough of it to enable it to seek refuge into the Rufiji River delta, recently surveyed by the Germans, as its engines were in need of an overhaul.

Aware of the presence of HMS Pegasus in the area, the Königsberg left its hiding place in a sortie and surprised and sunk the Pegasus on 20 September 1914 in what is known as the Battle of Zanzibar. After this event both the Königsberg and its loyal supply ship the Somali entered the delta of the Rufiji River to wait for the needed repairs that were to be carried out in Dar es Salaam.

While the two German ships were camouflaged inside the delta, following the Pegasus defeat, three more British cruisers; HMS Chatham, Dartmouth, and Weymouth arrived to the area and located the Königsberg and the Somali. However, not knowing the way into the delta, they were unable to steam into the river to attack them so they decided to set up a blockade. The battle of the Rufiji River had started!

The British attempted by air and sea to destroy the German ships but failed, as they could not get close enough for their guns to be accurate and the planes brought in were not able to cope with the heat. Seeking a safer position, the German ships moved further into the delta. However, the situation was deteriorating as the Germans were experiencing, apart from shortages of coal, scarcity of ammunition, food, and medical supplies. To the impossibility of escaping from this tropical prison, diseases such as malaria started affecting the crew so the moral fell to an all time low.

A short-lived hope was brought about by a plan to re-supply the Königsberg through the arrival of a German merchant ship loaded with supplies and pretending to be Danish in the hope to get through the British blockade. As the freighter approached East Africa, Königsberg prepared to come out fighting to meet it. Sadly for the Germans, the ruse was discovered and the “Danish” ship forced aground. Although still safe from their enemies, the Königsberg and the Somali were trapped!

To break the stalemate the resourceful British brought two monitors, the Mersey and Severn. These large gunboats of shallow draft were built before the start of WWI for the Brazilian Navy and taken over by the British at the onset of the war. As their intended use was the Amazon River, they were considered suitable to enter the Rufiji River and their voyage from the UK justified!

On 11 July 1915, the two monitors got close enough to severely damage the Königsberg, forcing her crew to scuttle it. The guns were removed and converted into field artillery pieces and coastal guns and, together with the ship’s crew, joined Lieutenant Colonel Paul von Lettow-Vorbeck’s guerrilla campaign in East Africa. One of these guns remained with the German Navy as it was mounted on the SS Graf von Goetzen in the German fleet in Lake Tanganyika.

Could that gun been the one seen at the Union Buildings at Pretoria? It may be but it is unlikely, as it is believed that it was taken to the Belgian Congo (now Democratic Republic of Congo). It is also believed that the gun at Pretoria is a hybrid of pieces coming from several different guns. Further, the plaque stating it to have been captured by South African forces at Kahe, East Africa on 21st March is also almost certainly inaccurate as the “Kahe gun” was blown up and severely damaged by the Germans before being captured.

The story of the Pretoria gun ends here. However there is a follow up that started with the mounting of the gun on the SS Graf von Goetzen, a participant in the Battle of Lake Tanganyika. However, this is the subject for the next post!

 

Note: The fate of the ten guns of the Königsberg have been thoroughly investigated and an outstanding report can be found @ http://s400910952.websitehome.co.uk/germancolonialuniforms/militaria/koenigsberggun.htm. I acknowledge this site for some of the information contained in this post.

 

 

 

 

 

Fire down below

After a few months after our arrival in Kenya in the 80’s[1] we eventually left the Muguga House hostel for Tigoni where we rented a large house belonging to the Harvey family. Tigoni is about 40km northwest of Nairobi, on the eastern side of the Rift Valley at over two thousand metres of altitude. Indigenous forest islands still remained then, among the large tea plantations. Several animal species still inhabited the area, the most notable being the conspicuous Black-and-white Colobus monkeys during the day and the bush babies at night, with their loud and somehow scary calls.

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The land at the back of the house had no fence or wall (imagine that today!) and therefore we were able to walk towards the nearby stream located about two thousand metres down hill.

A Sunday that we were not camping in the bush, we invited our friend Ranjini for lunch and,  afterwards, we decided that going down to the river was a good idea to help digest our food. So, armed with our binoculars and wearing long trousers to protect ourselves from thorns and ticks, we set off. About half way down the red and slippery hill our “private” path joined a “public” wider lane where the local inhabitants went about their business rather than fun walking like us.

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We soon arrived to the stream and, after walking about the area for a while; we found a shady spot where we decided to have a small walkers consultation to decide our next steps. The ideas put forward were whether to continue up the other side of the ravine or to return the way we came and enjoy a cup of tea at home. The latter was gaining consensus when, without warning, a fire started in my ankles and started spreading up my legs. I saw no smoke but noticed that I was standing in the middle of a colony of siafu![2]

The nasty meat-eaters, amazed by their lucky find, were not wasting any time in processing it! Without wasting a second and forgetting about being normally shy (?), I downed my trousers in a flash (excuse the pun) and checked my hurting parts. What I found was not encouraging: a few dozen soldier ants had climbed up the inside of my trousers. While some had already locked their jaws on my pink flesh, others were still going “upwards”…

Yelling “siafu!!!” to alert my companions, I started to grab and remove those still trying to reach tender places and, only when I smashed them all, I focused on removing those that had already bitten me and were going nowhere. This is easier said than done! Pulling them in a hurry (what else can you do?) only makes their bodies detach, leaving their heads with their rather outsized jaws still embedded in you! While this was going on, my companions, luckily looking the other way, moved off fast and left me alone to deal with the aggressors. Before they moved off, I caught a glimpse of their expressions that did not help. Instead of seeing sympathetic concern or at least indifference towards my predicament, they were amused! I am still trying to forgive them for this!

It was in the middle of my painful struggle when I became aware that I was still being watched. I turned around and saw that my antics had gathered some public! A growing bunch of Kikuyu kids were carefully watching me. Once discovered, they started to make comments, pointing at my nakedness and, worse of all, they laughed loud! I was clearly a “first” for them but that failed to amuse me. I told them -mainly with gestures aided by my basic Swahili- to go away. They only moved back a couple of paces, unwilling to stop watching the sight of their childhood: how a half-naked muzungu[3] “danced with ants”.

(Almost) embarrassed and in a desperate effort at damage control I immediately lifted up my trousers. Although this calmed down the young Kikuyu crowd, it did nothing to placate my traitorous companions’ enjoyment of the scene of my distress! So, ignoring everybody, with a great effort I put on my best neutral face, and started walking back to the house, still bringing with me a considerable number of large ant jaws for later extraction.

Despite my rather unpleasant experience, siafu are not a bad thing as they control a number of otherwise harmful pests for crops and their storage. They also take care of other undesired beasts such as ants, roaches, spiders, and everything else that crawls or creeps. Later, while busy un-plucking mandibles my thoughts did focussed of their beneficial side but, although I could somehow see it, it did nothing to relieve the consequences of my encounter!

 

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/06/30/life-and-work-in-kenya-muguga1/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/10/kenya-muguga1/

[2] Siafu (in Swahili) are members of the Dorylus genus, also known as driver or safari ants. They are army ants between 1-15 mm in length found primarily in central and east Africa in large colonies (up to several million individuals). They move in columns as they travel from their lair to the hunting field or they spread when actively hunting by sensing the carbon dioxide that insects and animals breath out. Aggressive soldiers protect the colonies.

[3] A common term used to refer to “white” people.

Naughty hippo, again…

On our final day, after watching lions and birds, we planned a “sundowner” drink at Nyamandlovu pan to end our safari in style. Before it was time for drinks, we got busy watching the many migratory birds present at the pan. These were a large flock of Abdim Storks and Amur falcons that provided us with much entertainment while they fed on beetles and other insects found in the grass.

A family of five jackals, probably residents of the pan, were also around. While four of them were gnawing at an old elephant carcass, a fifth came close to the viewing platform for a look. As I was on the ground at the time I saw it coming and prepared for pictures. Despite the warnings shouted from above by fellow game watchers for me to be careful, I remained motionless and was rewarded with the closest encounter I have had with a black-backed jackal!

While watching the jackal I heard loud splashing noises coming from the pan and I saw a large crocodile (one of the three present) coming out of the water holding a very large chunk of carcass. I left the jackal to its business and rushed up the platform for a better look. The beast, at the left end of the pan, was violently shaking the carcass and scattering pieces in the water while it swam off with the remains to the opposite end.

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The crocodile feeding on the submerged carcass.

The slow approach of a hippo to the area where the carcass had been shaken apart came as no surprise to my family and I, all well aware by now of our earlier observations on meat-eating hippos at Masuma dam![1] We watched while the hippo approached and searched the area with its head submerged. Suddenly it lifted its head and chewed on what appeared to be a piece of the carcass that it had found! This was a very interesting observation, as we had not seen any of the three resident hippos engage in this activity before, despite having spent many hours there!

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The hippo starts approaching…

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Eating a chunk of the carcass that the crocodile left.

After munching on its find, the hippo left the area jumping in the water in a rather funny display that probably expressed approval at what it had just eaten! Fortunately I managed to take a picture of the crocodile (regrettably only after the carcass shaking took place…) and of the hippo finishing its snack and merrily moving off!

 

 

[1] See https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/02/22/hippos-from-hell/ and https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/03/23/hippos-from-hell-the-videos/ Muy Interesante also covered this issue: http://www.muyinteresante.es/naturaleza/articulo/los-hipopotamos-pueden-comer-carne-921450193942

A dozen eggs

Luckily it is raining well in Harare. More than we expected so our pool -turned into a water reservoir for a few years now- spilled over and the area became a true wetland! Water was also running from the top of the garden in large rivulets that avoided our dikes and continued unstoppably to the bottom of the garden washing our scarce topsoil. The consequence was that we needed to perform some emergency repairs to our contention dikes.

While digging from the sand the pile that we keep for this kind of work we found a cluster of twelve small eggs! Their shells were flexible so they clearly belonged to a reptile, probably a chameleon.

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Stephen (our caretaker) and I were very excited to find them and went to communicate the good news to my wife as we were sure she would also be happy as I was quite sure them to be chameleon eggs. The news was received only with lukewarm enthusiasm and I was both disappointed and surprised!

It was after a few minutes of thinking that the penny finally dropped so I declared: “I am sure that they are not snake eggs”, trying to convince myself that there were not! “Why not?” was her immediate and rather expected reply. I could not argue so I decided to find out what they were!

I performed a rather thorough check in the Internet and could almost confirm that they were in fact what I thought. However, to keep the peace I agreed to leave them where they were found so that they will continue with their normal development.

Further reading educated me that it takes up to 300 days for chameleon eggs to hatch and the breeders of these animals in captivity start checking for hatching from day 220! So, if you had any hope of learning what came out of the eggs, you will need to wait until next year, if we are lucky to see the newly born emerging from the sand!

Spot the beasts (easy!)

While in Mana Pools last October most game were by the river. During one of our rare inland sorties we came across this sight. It looked rather battered and suffering from the heat as much as we were!

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We also found this little beast at Hippo Pools, also in October.

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And here are the beasts “revealed”:

A fox.

A fox.

 

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A tree frog.

The fox was after this fellow:

An African hare.

An African hare.

And this fellow was after the tree frog!

A green grass snake.

A green grass snake.

The ways of nature!

 

Harare, 15 October 2015.

 

Butterflies

During our previous visit to Mana Pools in September[1] we stayed at Gwaya camp. In one of the walks around camp I found a rather derelict water tower that still supplied us with this important liquid. A leaking water tank sat over a square and now door less room. The latter and the surrounding area were very damp on account of the long-term water leakages that run down its walls ending up feeding a number of puddles where animals came for a drink. The area was a green blotch on an otherwise bone dry landscape.

The water tower.

The water tower.

It was near to this spot that my hidden camera trap almost remained secret for good as buffalo and lions moved in[2]. At that time, with my attention focused on recovering the camera I had a brief look inside the base of the tower expecting to find bats. I found butterflies instead but did not spend time there, as I was more concerned about avoiding lions and/or buffaloes!

During the last visit in October 2015, we noted that Gwaya was deserted from both campers and dangerous animals, so we went back to the water tower to have a better look, hoping that the butterflies were still there. There were! This time I managed to enter the room although its floor was waterlogged as water was also filtering in the inside of the tower. The combination of intense heat and abundant water had created a tropical microhabitat that was still home to hundreds of small butterflies, settled on the walls.

The view from the door.

The view from the door.

A closer view of the butterflies.

A closer view of the butterflies.

My entrance disturbed them and they took off all at once. As they did not wish to leave the dark damp area, a large cloud of them formed and flew around my head. For a while I felt like Mauricio Babilonia of Macondo[3] with the difference that these butterflies were brown and not yellow! Eventually they settled down again and I managed to take the pictures that illustrate this post.

They took off when I entered.

They took off when I entered.

I believe that they were Elfin Skippers (Sarangesa motozi) that Migdoll’s Field Guide to the Butterflies of Southern Africa describes as an uncommon species found mainly in rain-forests in the region where it feeds on Barleria, Justicia and Perithrophe, members of the Acanthaceae flowering plants.

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A lone and rather bloated gecko also resided in the room, his condition revealing that it did not know what hunger is!

I am sure that this resident colony of butterflies would offer a thrilling study to a lepidopterist! Not being one, I left them thinking on how much I enjoyed reading García Marquez’s magic realism and that I should revisit his work.

Muchichiri lodge, Mana Pools, October 2015.

[1] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/09/23/mana1-pools-safari/

[2] See: https://bushsnobinafrica.wordpress.com/2015/10/06/camera-recovered/

[3] Interestingly, to get to Mana Pools you cross the Makonde District!!!

Javelin throwing (almost Olympic games)

The view of the Mara triangle on the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

The view of the Mara triangle in the Maasai Mara from the Oloololo escarpment on the way to Intona ranch.

Despite our busy work schedule we did not work on Sundays. We took the morning to explore Intona and its surrounds as there were always interesting sightings, particularly in the area towards the Migori river forest.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A flooded Migori river at the back of Intona ranch.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

A notable tree in the Migori river forest.

After lunch and seeing that there was not much to do I hatched the idea of a spear-throwing contest and mentioned it to Ernest. “What about an international spear throwing competition this afternoon?” “We can have participants from Africa, América and Europe, almost like the Olympic games”, I added. Ernest happily agreed and I got on with the organizing.

Apart from Ernest and myself there were also a Ugandan veterinarian and Kikuyu and Maasai assistants, admittedly both Kenyans but from different ethnic groups. “After all, we are in Maasailand” I thought and we should find a suitable javelin” “Let’s find a good spear and get the throwing field organized,” I said as I was already walking towards the herdsmen camp to arrange the details. “Tommi, I need to find a good spear” I said before I said good morning, and added, “I have an idea”.

He and the other herdsmen knew me by now and they smiled in anticipation. Tommi assured me that he could easily find the right tool as there were Maasai nearby that he knew. Good news!

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

A similar spear to the one used in our competition.

While Tommi strolled through the bush in search for the spear we walked about to find a suitable field where the competition could take place. We found a good site and placed some distance marks while we waited for Tommi’s return. I also went around the farm inviting participants to the event. I managed to engage Joseph (Kikuyu, Kenyan) and Kiza (Ugandan) in addition to Tommi (Maasai, Kenyan), Ernest (Swiss) and myself (Uruguay). We had an international field!

By the time Tommi returned after lunch we were all ready and waiting. He brought a sturdy looking spear that we judged suitable for the task although it was rather long and heavy. It had a long metal blade, a wooden middle part and along steel rod at the end. It was time to start to get done before the daily 17:00 hours shower!

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks.

Ernest and helpers examining an animal for ticks. The herdsmen tent can be seen in the background.

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A heavy Bont tick infestation on a heifer at Intona ranch.

All participants agreed at the onset that measurements would be done in paces. It was thought that equal throws were unlikely and the need for laser-aided technology[1] was thought not to be required. No bets were allowed, as just by looking at the competitors, an inexperienced observer should have been able to guess who the favourites were! This did not come to our minds while we warmed-up.

As the start of the competition approached, the tension increased and, by the time we drew our throwing terms, it was almost unbearable… For some reason Uruguay went first, followed by Joseph the Kikuyu representative, Switzerland was third, Kiza, the Ugandan fourth and, a fitting finale, the last to throw was Tommi, Maasai. It may as well as he was the “host country”.

Aware that I would not win I argued in favour of some try throws to get the right balance of both body and javelin but, regrettably for me, the other competitors (unkindly in my opinion) refused arguing that this was not in the rules (?). So, resigned to my fate I grabbed the spear and got ready to do my best. It felt heavy and rigid. I threw it and, the second it left me I knew that there were problems with both direction and distance. It was a rather poor show that landed a long way from the cattle boma and far from my possible personal best. “I have never had any strength in my arms” I said, trying to feel better. “about 20 paces is not too bad for my age”.

Joseph was quite fit although he was from a relatively well off Kikuyu family and this was beginning to show around his midriff. His throw was better than mine but stopped at 26 paces. Ernest, the Swiss researcher turned athlete improved my mark by a couple of paces and Kiza, the man from Uganda, despite his relatively small size, did much better than all at about 30 paces. A big smile lit his face, as usual and a lesson to us all that size is not that important but good technique is!

It was the turn of the Maasailand representative, the final competitor. He was perhaps the most relaxed participant and the one that was enjoying the tournament the most! From the moment he picked the spear we all new that the competition was over! We exchanged resigned glances and head shakes and got ready for an Olympic humiliation! We tried our best to disrupt his throw by talking to him but, he just smiled and replied to our remarks without losing his composure.

He held the spear naturally, balancing its weight by instinct. Almost without running and with a fast and wide arm movement he threw it, almost unexpectedly and even casually. The spear flew high vibrating with a “swiiiiiiisshhhh”. It went beyond our throwing field and over the cattle boma. We lost sight of it but run in the general direction where we last saw it to see how far it had gone. Behind the cattle boma it was the herdsmen camp so, when we fail to find it inside the boma we got more worried and started looking around the camp. There was no trace of the spear anywhere and the camp looked normal. For this we were reassured as at least there were no casualties!

We looked around the tent, near the fireplace, chairs, table, up the trees and all over: no spear! Nothing stuck on the ground, nothing visible up the trees or stuck anywhere. “Another mystery of the African bush”, I thought, or some Maasai magic I was not aware of?

As there was no point in arguing in favour of declaring the throw void on account of it having gone beyond the throwing field or even worse, on account of the disappearance of the instrument, we declared our Maasai warrior the undisputed winner. The absence of the spear meant that there was no possible revenge. This came as a relief as a change of the result would have been unlikely!

I apologized to Tommi for having had the idea that has led to the losing of his borrowed spear and offered financial compensation for his loss. He said that he had thrown it and lost it so I did not need to worry. He will eventually find it he said. I expressed serious doubts but gave him the benefit of the doubt and, as the rain was starting, I moved to our tent.

That night, while we were having our dinner we herd loud talking and laughing at the workers camp next door and went to have a look. The spear had been found! In its wild trajectory it had gone through both the flysheet and the tent and it was embedded in one of the herdsmen’s camp beds, luckily empty at the time of the event! I felt great relief that nothing had happened and a lesser one that the spear could now be returned to its owner!

I cannot remember how I explained the tent holes to my senior managers. Maybe I did not and it just remained as normal “wear and tear”!

Transmara, Kenya circa 1986.

[1] I do not think it was available at the time, anyway!

Hyenas and planet-gazing

The morning after the Maasai chicken dinner a good breakfast was in order! We prepared bacon and eggs to compensate for our austere meal of the night before. In an attempt at avoiding another fasting episode I offered to take over the next dinner and to roast the beef we had brought from Nairobi.

Camping at Intona ranch.

Camping at Intona ranch.

After breakfast, another day of routine field trials followed, as we needed to do many replicates of our tests in order to confirm the results. We worked without stopping until late afternoon when we decided that we had done enough and it was time for a shower and to prepare dinner. As a South American I am ashamed to confess that I am fearful of horses and prefer to keep a good distance from them. That is not all, I am a real disaster at barbequing! Therefore, on the occasion I struggled through and I made sure that the food was abundant and we ate our fill.

The night was truly spectacular. The relative short distance of Intona ranch from Lake Victoria meant that it rained very often. It poured in late afternoon and then the sky cleared at dusk. The consequence was that the rains cleaned the air and the night sky was always very sharp.

Ernest and I stayed awake until late talking and contemplating the pristine sky. We talked about many issues, occasionally stopping to listen to the night sounds, in particular the spotted hyena calls getting closer to our camp. Getting gradually bolder they moved close to the periphery of the light of our camp fire. I reassured Ernest that this was a normal event when camping at Intona and that “normally” hyenas would not be aggressive.

Despite the good time we were having, we have had a long day and we felt very tired so soon we went to bed. As soon as we were inside the tent we heard something sniffing all around our tent. A white-tailed mongoose was seen scurrying away when we shined our torches. That small mystery solved, it was back to bed, hoping that sleep would come soon.

Not so. This time it was a loud crush outside the tent that also merited investigation. This time a hyena was the culprit! The beast had grabbed a dirty pan and had taken off at speed. We run after the beast but it was a futile effort and came back to bed thinking on resuming the search for the pot in the morning.

mmara hyena 2

A Brown hyena with wildebeest carcass in the Maasai Mara. Its cousins visited us nightly at Intona.

While thinking and hoping that normality would return, I finally fell sleep. Again, it did not last long. It may have been 03:00 hs when I heard Ernest opening the tent door zip. My first thought was that his gut had finally lost the fight against the filtered water drunk on the way in! In addition, aware of the hyenas I remained awake although without moving, hoping to go back to sleep immediately. No chance! Ernest came back and started to shake me up shouting “Wake up, the sky is perfect to look for planets!” I felt like slaying him but, remembering his partial deafness and on account of his contagious enthusiasm, I made the mistake of getting up!

By the time I managed to go out of the tent, Ernest was already looking through the binoculars, identifying the various noteworthy celestial bodies, accompanying his successive discoveries with shouts of joy! Although I had enjoyed contemplating the night sky both in Uruguay and in Kenya, I have never been that interested in astronomy. However, he convinced me to look at Jupiter (a small orange sphere) and even managed to see Saturn and what I though were its rings! Finally Ernest’s excitement subsided and we managed to hit the camp beds again, this time until the sun was up!

The large ball of crunched aluminium that we found about one hundred metres from our tent was not the remains of a recent asteroid that had narrowly missed us but all that remained from our cooking pan after the hyenas had squished it to get its juice.

Although our cooking options suffered another severe setback we still managed to produce some pan-less and chicken-less dinners during the following days!