Harare

News from Africa – Goats trouble

Although we are in Argentina at the moment, Stephen, our Zimbabwe housekeeper for the past 20 years, periodically keeps us up to date of the situation in the country, city and house. Like this we learnt that the rains in Harare have been good so far and that he is already starting to enjoy the first fresh mealies (corns) from his nearby field. Unfortunately this event, together with the ripening of the mangoes in the garden happens when we are away!

Through his message we learnt that he spotted a gravid chameleon laying eggs in the garden and we hope they will hatch next year. In our experience, chameleon eggs spend the entire dry season buried and only hatch during the rains the following year, probably when the earth gets soft and they can dig themselves out of the ground in a wise “delayed” development.

We also had an account of what happened to him recently that I believe is worth telling in his own words. The news came in a Whatsapp message we got on 18 February. I have only inserted clarifications in brackets.

“…I have been so busy since late Friday afternoon (15 February) running around to try and find my goats which I almost lost to thieves in the rural area (near Mukumbura in the border with Mozambique), if it wasn’t for my brother who quickly alerted me that they have gone missing the previous day. I agreed with the suspicion because there had been a truck seen loaded with goats in the area destined for sale in Harare where they fetch good prices.

After getting the news, I asked if there was anyone with the contacts of the driver or anyone amongst the people in the truck. When I got the driver’s number, I phoned him pretending to be someone who was in the business of buying and selling goats and wanted to know to which abattoir he had gone to sale the animals or if he had encountered any problem with police along the way.

He told me he was at one of the abattoirs along Seke road, close to the airport in Harare (about 25km from our house).

I quickly boarded a commuter omnibus to the abattoir. When I arrived I was shocked to discover and identify my six goats among the animals, which were about to be sold and slaughtered.

I managed to recover them and they arrived back home late evening yesterday. The same truck was asked to take them back. Unfortunately, with (the) difficulties people are facing, they are grabbing and selling anything they see can give them money to survive.

There was lots of celebration in my rural area.”

Later he gave more details:

“They were boys from my village and happen to be my relative even though not close, he raided them from the grazing area. In my area goats move freely and the owners only collect them in the evening and check if they are none missing to lock them in the kraal and open in the morning.

I had to make a report to the police to make it easy for them to facilitate the transportation of the goats back home (otherwise) it was not going to be easy for me to get them back home because I should have spent money to hire a truck, get a permit & explain to the police how the reason the goats end up in Harare.”

As you can see from the story, the “bush telegraph” is working more efficiently these days and I cannot but admire Stephen’s quick reaction that enabled him not only to recover the stolen goats but also to arrange for the culprits to return them to his home in the bush!

Thieves…

We have a few macadamia trees at home that have not yielded very much for luck of water. Last year we had very good rains so we were rewarded with a good harvest and we are busy drying them under the sun so that I can then proceed with the rather time-consuming exercise of opening them.

Macadamia’s shells are extremely hard and, after trying various methods, I have resorted to a vise in the workshop that so far is still working until its thread gives in!

Some time ago we have discovered hollowed out nuts in the garden and we could not believe that an animal could be so powerful as to gnaw such thick and hard shells! Eventually we found lots of empty nuts near a large hole and realized that we had a colony of Southern Giant Pouched Rats (Cricetomys ansorgei) [1].

After a while we stopped seeing them and they disappeared. Apparently they moved off our house one night in a group and entered under the gate of a neighbouring house but I was not a witness to this Pied-piper of Hamelin-like migration!

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The empty shells after the rats ate the tasty inside.

More recently, we noted that the nuts we were drying were being peeled from their green outer cover and taken away whole from the sunning box. We “smelled a rat”!

A search up and down the garden was organized and, eventually, a large hole was discovered at the farther corner of the garden. Suspecting that the giant rats were there I set up a camera trap pointing towards the suspected burrow and this is what I got:

We confirmed our fears as the various videos taken showed one rat at a time either entering or leaving the burrow. As I was curious to see how many there were, I decided to put some food hoping that they would gather to feed. Although I got over 180 ten-second videos, I still failed to get a rat gathering! However, I got a few that prompted me to write this post!

I have selected a few that I find interesting and/or funny. Please note that one is eating a few carrot pieces on the ground while the others are chewing a chunk of (delicious for humans at least) butternut hanging from a bush, the idea being that they would not drag it into their nest!

This giant rats are widely distributed in mainly tropical regions of southern Africa, notably Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. I first saw them in Monze, Zambia while driving on the main road and I had difficulties stopping my Zambian workers from jumping from the moving vehicle to catch them as they consider them a delicacy!

Later, also in Zambia, Bruno, a colleague from Belgium, invited me with a surprise roast that happened to be delicious and it was a giant rat -as tasty as a piglet- with baked potatoes (tasting like potatoes!)! Giant rats were very abundant in that area at the time and I am sure contributed to food security of the village where the project was based.

Giant pouched rats are named after their large cheek pouches and they are only distantly related to the true rats. Recent studies place them in the family Nesomyidae and not in the Muridae as they used to be [2].

They are able to produce up to 10 litters of one to five young per annum and they are nocturnal and omnivorous with special taste for palm nuts and, as we have experienced, also for macadamia nuts. Interestingly, they are hind gut fermenters and coprophagous, producing pellets of semi-digested food that are consumed.

They are not only easily tamed as pets but useful for detecting land mines as they have an excellent sense of smell, particularly sniffing TNT while being too light to detonate the mines! But this is not all. They are also being trained to detect tuberculosis by smelling sputum samples. This procedure is faster than the normal diagnostic test and remarkably increases the sample processing. [3]

So a few disappeared nuts ended up producing an interesting story and  I am now positive that we  have a colony of rats (being fed on expensive macadamia nuts) that could potentially be bred to remove mines and improve human lives!

I regret now having eaten one (and liked it!) and I will not do it again!

 

[1] I am not a rat taxonomist so I base my identification more on distribution and abundance than on their morphology. The other possible species in Zimbabwe would be C. gambianus but the whole pouched rat taxonomy is under review. See: Olayemi, A. et. al. (2012). Taxonomy of the African giant pouched rats (Nesomyidae: Cricetomys): molecular and craniometric evidence support an unexpected high species diversity. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 165, 700–719.

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Giant_pouched_rat#cite_note-MetH-1. Seen on 6/12/18.

[3] https://www.apopo.org/en. Seen on 6/12/18.

 

Purple rain

Prince explained the meaning of “Purple Rain” as follows: “When there’s blood in the sky – red and blue = purple… purple rain pertains to the end of the world and being with the one you love and letting your faith/god guide you through the purple rain.” [1]

I frankly have no idea if the late Prince ever saw the Harare jacarandas in October but I am sure that they could have inspired him to some lyric description that I am not able to do.

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However, I do not get tired to travel through purple lined avenues and to watch the jacaranda tree in our garden. It is not only the colour and the flower rain that takes place but its perfume and the bees that visit the falling flowers in search of their nectar wealth. So much so that you should not wear flipflops when you wade the stagnant purple rain.

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Looking forward to next year’s purple October…

 

[1] NME.COM. “20 Things You Didn’t Know About Purple Rain”NME.COM. Retrieved 3 May 2016.

 

 

Spot the beast 47

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Today, while walking in the garden, we spotted this beast. It is not easy to see as it was already late when I took the pictures…

If you do not see it, follow the telephone wire…

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In any case, here it is. What I believe to be one of our rat control team: a Spotted Eagle-Owl (Bubo africanus). We did have years back a lady tenant that used to rehabilitate injured owls so perhaps this is one of their offspring? Whatever, it is amazing to have them in the garden!

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Regret that the image is a bit blurred but these are crepuscular birds and pictures are  challenge!

Spot the beast 45

After a few weeks of silence, I return to blogging for one day to let you have this beast for you to search for.

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I am sure it was not that hard. It is the first chameleon we find this year in our Harare garden. I think it came out a bit early as it is still quite cold and it was in good condition but moving slowly like the bushsnob in cold weather!

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From the rather prolific garden in Harare for you to find:

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A young praying mantis doing its job in insect control.

Closely related to cockroaches and termites, there are over 2,400 species of mantises -both flying and flightless- worldwide. They feed on other insects but not necessarily all of them damaging to agriculture!. Larger species can even hunt small reptiles and birds and about 30% of wild males get cannibalized by their sexual partners.

They have flexible necks that enables them to turn their heads 180 degrees, a feat that no other insect can do and, although they have two large and bulging eyes, they only have one “ear” located in their abdomen so their hearing is limited.

 

Live Cham 4

A short update of the situation with the gravid chameleon.

We saw the female again in the early hours of the 28 Jan and it was moving in the poinsettia bush. IMG_3156 copy

An hour later it had disappeared and despite our thorough search in the original poinsettia and surrounding bushes, we could not find it! We checked on the ground as we were convinced that it would not walk more than a few metres around the bush. Still nothing!

We got concerned about its fate as we know that pied crows are around and that they are capable of killing chameleons. However, there was not much else we could do. Stephen would have found it but it was his day off so there was no hope there.

There was lots of hope in other parts of the garden though. The female we saw digging the nest during the night of the 26 Jan (Live Cham 3) had finished its job as described and then it left quietly. The nest area is now fenced and protected.

In addition, a third female was spotted at a passion fruit plant and she was also gravid and very active.

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Yesterday (28 Jan) it changed position to a lemon tree, walking about 10m to get to it.

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The female moving through the grass.

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Searching for a suitable spot.

It climbed on the tree through a stick and remained on the tree for rest of the day.

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It eventually decided to climb up a lemon tree. The eggs bulging through the skin can be seen in its ventral part.

Luckily yesterday (28 Jan) Stephen returned home by mid afternoon and immediately located the missing female that we had lost earlier during the morning! It had moved 33m! to another area of soft earth and it was busy digging, despite its rather bulgy belly. By the time we left it last night, it could go in its totality inside the hole but it was already dark for pictures. We protected her again to avoid dog interference and left.

This morning, as with the previous female, it had finished and covered the hole, looking dark and rather quiet. I am sure it will soon recover and move away.

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So we are now left with the third female that has now climbed down from the lemon tree and it is -again- walking in the garden, looking for the right spot to lay her eggs.

As we are traveling to Uruguay before dawn tomorrow, this is the last post from Zimbabwe but I will resume once I touch down at the other end.

In any case, I am beginning to think that next year we will have a “chameleon population explosion”!

 

 

Live Cham 3

After the last post we have observed the gravid female until this morning (27 Jan) and she has hardly moved from the poinsettia bush. She is clearly waiting for her time to come. So, not a lot of news there, I am afraid. Only a few pictures of her.

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She spent most of the 26 Jan on top of this bush.

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Still there this morning (27 Jan)

However, lo and behold, three (yes, 3) more suspected females were found  in different places, looking in various degrees of gestation! The situation became almost out of control! But things got really bad when my post-siesta time was interrupted with calls of “it is digging, it is digging!” proffered by Stephen and my wife that were watching at the time.

After my first -sluggish- reaction I joined them to watch chameleon 2 effectively digging her egg nest project next to the bayleaf bush! I took a video (26/ Jan, late afternoon) of the action:

As the process was not done before dusk, we protected the site from our dogs and came back this morning.

The chameleon had finished laying, covered the hole and it is there, probably resting after such an effort!

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The female after the effort!

One done, three to go… More info coming soon…

Live Cham 2

As promised, I had followed the evolution of the gravid chameleon throughout the day. These are the observations so far from this morning:

09:00 Still in the same bush but its colour changed.

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12:00 Started to rain quite heavily. Cham still in the same bush when rain started.

12:30 Rain stopped. Found again. I had moved to another smaller flower bush about 1m apart:

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12:30 to 1515 Observer’s lunch and siesta. No data!

15:35 Moved another metre to a Poinsettia bush (Euphorbia pulcherrima) and climbed about 150cm high. Colour changed again. It appears that coloration is more a reflection of the animal condition than its surroundings!

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1600 to 16:20 hs Shower.

1627 The chameleon is still a the same spot but head down and green in colour.

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It is now 17:10 hs and I will have a last look before night fall.

Hope to find it tomorrow…