Saturday, April 27, 2013

All Things New: Babies of Tanzania

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                                   Baby Animals.

 A response to cuteness is built into our natures by biology. Mammal babies release the AWWWW response in adult mammals by having big round heads, little ears, big eyes, little mouths. It helps that they are small, soft,  rounded and clumsy.

 In some species males will kill infants of their own group, but usually infant status buys babies some slack, and adults protect them.

Mother animals often will protect their infants even with their lives.

Hungry predators certainly eat other guy's babies,  but even so there are numerous stories of cross-species mothering. Dogs raising squirrels, cats raising rats. Dogs nurturing  fawns. A tiger nursing baby pigs.

 In captivity many apes have cared for kittens and puppy pets.  A baby is a baby, and a mammal is preset to care for the young.

 Infants are seriously cute, and apparently not just to humans. Lets hear it now for baby critters. AWWWW!

Here are a bakers dozen baby animals we managed to photograph.

Are they all cute? I’ll vote, and you see if you agree with me.

                                        Baby lions. My vote:  Seriously cute!

                                       Baby Jackals.  Oh yeah.  Cute.

                          Baby leopards are almost too elegant to call cute.
                                 Exquisite is a better word.                                     


           Hyena baby.  Mommy is in the grass next to it.  Ears are cute!


                            Mama Hippo may disagree, but I vote not so cute.

                 Disney's Dumbo.  Oh yes, this strange little guy is cute.



                                        Young "boys" being boys

                                      I didn't find the baboons babies very cute.  

                                Interesting to see the family groups.  Not cute.

                                                       Monkey, cute.  


                Cape Buffalo.  Not cute.  Not at all.  But certainly Mommy thinks so. 

                                 The herd took a defensive position around the young ones.  

                          A guinea pig sized baby rock hyrax  

The parents are groundhog size. The weird thing is, they are more closely related to elephants than groundhogs or rodents of any sort.          

                                                Cute, in the fur.

        Giraffes didn't ring the cute bell for me.  Too exactly like adult Giraffes,                                Oh, I don't know.  Pretty at least.  Maybe cute.


                                               Well, sure fawns are cute.  


                                             Domestic Maasai animals

The kid was brand new.  I mean hours.  It was cute practicing jumping around, and getting tangled up. The calf was just a skinny little calf.  I felt sorry for the cow, who seemed to be doing her best for the little thing.

                                         cute                                                                              not

I have conducted a serious study here and found that I vote baby animals cute, maybe adorable, 76 percent of the time.  Did you agree?  Post your results in the comments section!

Sunday, April 21, 2013

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Olduvai Gorge            Author's tip. This is part two of the Ngorongoro trip.  Check out Ngorongoro, which I think was more interesting than this.  

Olduvai Gorge This is part of the sign in the small museum.

This sign uses a common spelling for this gorge. But Our guide Sultan informed us it is spelled Oldupei, from the Massai word for the wild sisal plant growing around it. The Massai use this plant as an antiseptic bandage, or simply as an antiseptic, and for rope, baskets, clothing and in making roofs for bomas. (Bomas are a word meaning home, referring to both the individual huts and to the little compound containing the huts.) Misspellings are common, but Oldupei was made the official name in 2005. Our travel company also used the Oldupei spelling, so I did also. It is pronounced Ol-doo-pae.

We stopped by this world famous site on our way from Ngorongora to our lodging.

We arrived at the little administration compound located above the Gorge, containing an small open air auditorium, a small museum, offices and lodging for the several scientists in residence. The 3:00 o’clock heat was oppressive.

We were greeted by one of the anthropologists working at the site as we climbed from our vehicle. The scientist, a wiry man of thirty five or so, dressed in khaki shorts and shirt, appeared cool and collected standing in the heat in the partial shade of a scruffy tree.. He led us to the shade of the roofed auditorium, and offered cokes or tea from bottles from a electric refrigerator!  My tea was tangy and ice cold, and tingled and chilled down my throat like a blessing from God.

Are there any questions about the Gorge?” He began.

“Is this where Lucy was found?” By asking this question I was showing I was no student of human evolution.

The fossilized skeleton of Lucy was actually found in Ethiopia, so no cigar on that one.

But at least I’d heard of Lucy, the 3.2 million year old Australopithecus afarensis who is believed to be a very early human ancestor, and this knowledge earned me an approving smile and a detailed lecture from the scientist. Oldupai does boast a skull of an Australopithecus boisei, which at 1.8 million years old is still pretty ancient.

Note: Do not ask an enthusiastic man a dumb question concerning his chosen field unless you really are interested. He told me a great deal, and eventually lost me somewhere among the numerous hominids (early human like species) who had left a few of their bones in the rocks of the Gorge. 

It was clear from his presentation that Oldupai Gorge is a wonderful natural museum in which layer on layer of volcanic deposits have been laid down in orderly tiers over a period of at least two million years. Geologists studying volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, biologists studying fossils, and chemists studying changes in soil chemistry and water compositions all use these layers as a time line. 

We drove to the bottom of the Gorge itself, and the scientist pointed out layers and fossils. Even I could see different colored and textured layers with fossil remains stuck throughout, and we examined the little collection of fossils the scientist showed us with interest.

In my case my interest waned. I've never found scientist's speculations concerning two teeth and a toe bone deeply convincing, and so my fascination with past eons has always been tepid. The air was very hot, and I wandered into the shade of the gorge wall.

Sharing my shade I discovered a band of Massai boys waiting to ask for bottles of water. They took a 12 ounce bottle each, and went away apparently pleased. How do they exist out here alone in this arid, hot landscape? What do they eat? Drink?

I found these boys, living now in the 21st century, familiar with motorcycles, cellphones, and TV, while still able to survive much as their human ancestors and pre-human ancestors did alone here in this harsh environment, more than my mind wanted to grapple with. Will this way of life continue? For these boys, for their children? For the still abundant but substantially diminished remnant of the animals that once roamed these planes in unimaginable teeming numbers? Or was I witnessing the end of something harsh, brutal, and wonderful?

It was hot. I was tired. I was glad when we climbed into the vehicles and drove on to our lodge with its electric fan cooled bug-less screened rooms and abundant free running water.

Saturday, April 20, 2013


Ngorongoro Crater:  The Big Five?       Hit the red g+ to comment               

            “Ok my friends.  Today we visit the Ngorongoro crater, ” stated

Sultan, our Tanzania safari guide. 

 “Where did you say?” everyone called out. He carefully pronounced the location again and explained there are no silent letters in the Massai language.  Ngorongoro is pronounced N-Goron-goro.
 We would visit only the Ngorongoro crater, as the entire Ngorongoro conservation area is very large. The crater alone, the largest caldera in the world that is not flooded, is big enough.  Two thousand feet deep, and twelve miles in diameter, Ngorongoro is a volcano which built itself into a mountain, and then collapsed, making it a caldera. 
Ngorongoro crater is a sheer sided round hole in the ground, with a flat bottom holding year round water and grass, allowing a concentration of animals to stay in the crater all year, and not migrate. The crater beasts are among a privileged minority, the 2% of Tanzanian animals.  Most of the vast herds of grazing animals must follow the rains in a circular migration that covers over 1500 miles every year.
 The crater also contains many of Tanzania’s remaining black rhinos, which we hoped to see.

 The Big Five

Back in the day, gun shooting enthusiasts felt they proved their worth as hunters if they shot the BIG FIVE.  Lion, African elephant, Cape buffalo, leopard, and rhinoceros. We modern day photo hunters had bagged four, but rhinos are rare. We all wanted to get our big five.
                                                    Here's our big four.

Cape Buffalo




Sultan said this elephant had a fifth leg.  Gives a whole new meaning to big five
Five legged elephant

We drove up a dirt road through fog and dust to the edge of the crater, where the fog lifted. The far red rim of the caldera’s steep walls, visible below a cobalt sky, enclosed a greenish brown plane crawling with ant like specks which binoculars revealed as minute zebras, elephants and wildebeests.

There are only two tracks, one on either end of the crater, by which a car maneuvers down the two thousand feet to the floor of the caldera. The car- wide red dirt track into the crater,  edge falling a sheer half mile to the far away ground below,  cliff all but scraping the car as the vehicle hugs the inside of the road, is daunting.  Daunting doesn't cover it  climbing up from the crater floor, skirting the crater drop on the edge of  the crumbly  ground.  Scraping past a vehicle coming down moved the experience into pants-wetting appalling.
 Cars coming up and cattle have right of way. What cattle?  Didn’t I mention our vehicles shared the road with Massai and their cattle trudging down the long winding road to drink, and graze?  They are not allowed to remain in on the bottom at night, so after a few hours the poor beasts and their herders must climb out again. The presence of these herds adds challenge to the drive. Thankfully, although bends in the road prevent seeing very far in advance, dust signals traffic ahead in time to pull over and wait in the pull outs provided for precarious passing.

Since we all made it safely, it was well worth the drive.

Views going down, and in the crater.

We saw many animals on the bottom, lions, cheetahs,  wildebeests, water buffalo, antelope of various kind, and big bull elephants. 

Rhino sighting!  Finally.  Ahhh.

You have your big five.  We have been very lucky on this trek.” Sultan exulted. He seemed genuinely pleased to show us his country. Besides, I suppose more sightings mean satisfied tourists, which mean more tips, and he had a family to feed.  His master’s degree in ecology and degree in hospitality were impressive credentials and perhaps should have been better paid.
  Rhino’s in the wild are a thrilling concept.  There they were.They moved ponderously across the plain, and lay down. Right in front of, well right in front of our binoculars.
In the interests of full disclosure, they were very far away, and I’m not sure should have counted for a whole big fifth.  Maybe we need to say saw the big four and a half, since without binoculars our rhinos looked like rocks moving slowly across the plane,  and in the binoculars like rhino-shaped mice.   I was thrilled by them, while wishing they were closer.

              Can you see the Black Rhino? The rhinos are the two in front.  Really.

Rhino  The fifth of the Big Five.   
Rhinos  not ants.  Trust me.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Bubbles over the Plane



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                                  Bubbles Over the Planes    

What was that noise? The sound came again. Something rattled on the table right outside the safari tent. Suddenly the Serengeti seemed very wild and our canvas walls very flimsy. We certainly knew there were wild creatures all about our transient camp inside Serengeti Park in Tanzania, Africa. Giraffes browsed thorn trees across the dirt road during dinner. Elephant dung provided mute evidence that the giant creatures had passed in front of our tent within two days. As Sultan, our guide, escorted us safely to our lodging tents after dinner, he’d shown his powerful flashlight into the thicket off the path and a hundred glowing white Christmas bulbs flashed in the darkness. “Impala eyes.” Sultan said.

A guide and a spear-toting guard escorted us the sixty yards to our tent every night after dinner, and always peeked inside the shelter to be sure the heavy alarm whistle hung on it’s peg by the door. “You must not leave the tents alone. It is very dangerous after dark. If you need something, blow your alarm whistle.” Sultan admonished, his normally cheerful brown face very serious in the tent’s lantern light.

I knew there were wild animals Out There, but this sound was almost In Here, and it scared me. Maybe we should have opted for a tent closer to the dinner tent where the guards sat between patrols.

I groped for my flash light under the cot. The absolute blackness was unnerving. What if the sound had been inside the tent? Were those stealthy foot steps actually padding next to my bed in the tiny enclosure?

“Charlie,” I whispered.

“Snarff, orr.” He was deeply asleep.

I found the light, switched it around the tent. No crouching wild beasts, not even a mouse. Outside the tent a scrambling sound, accompanied by a huff, attested to a startled retreat.

I was exhausted by the long day, and despite my fear my eye lids grew heavy. Leaving the dim light wasting
my scarce batteries as a protective talisman next to my pillow, I slept.

I was awakened by the coughing roar of the king of
beasts. Somewhere not too far, lions were abroad. Their roars were answered by the wailing yelp of hyenas. 

My  flashlight had gone out, but dawn was breaking and light framed the zipped canvas window shutters and 
door. I slept again.

In the full morning light we rose to find large muddy prints on the canvas floor of the tent porch, an overturned glass, and a missing toothbrush, tube of toothpaste and soap. “Hyenas,” said Sultan. “They will eat anything, even soap.”

“Why don’t they come into the tents?” I asked.

“They are a very cautious animal and fear humans. The animals do not come in the tents.”

“I am a very cautious human, and fear the animals.”

“Don’t leave edibles outside. You know that toothpaste and soap should have been in the lock box in the dinner area.” Sultan said, shaking his finger. And so we learned. 

But my dreams are haunted by a large hyena loping across the plane, very bright white teeth bared in a hyena grin, trailing iridescent bubbles floating from under his tail.