On The Road: Giraffe Spotting

Here is my complete second column in the On the Road series at Three Quarks Dailyas it appeared there Monday.

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It all started with zebras. 

Hard to believe, but sustained, hands-on field work in east Africa only has a sixty year history. Today Hans Klingel is an emeritus professor at the Braunschweig Zoological Institute, but when he arrived in Africa in 1962 Herr Klingel was one of only three scientists in the entire Serengeti.

Klingel and his wife made wildlife their career. Their first mission was to recognize individually and study ten percent of the 5500 zebras in the Ngorongoro Crater west of Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Zebra stripes are whole body fingerprints. The Klingels took photographs, taped the photos to file cards and carried them into the field. They came to recognize some 600 individuals.

Their file card technique caught on. In 1965 zoologist Bristol Foster studied giraffes at Nairobi National Park, photographing their left sides to memorize their unique patterns. He glued pictures onto file cards too. From 1969 a researcher named Carlos Mejia photographed and carried cards of giraffes in the Serengeti. Scientists swarmed into east Africa and the game was on.

On the open savanna, giraffes and zebras form a natural alliance. Zebras (and wildebeests, their fellow travelers) benefit from giraffes’ strong eyesight, elevated vantage point and superior field of view. Giraffes have the largest eyes among land animals and can see in color. Their peripheral vision allows them to just about see behind themselves. The next time your safari Land Cruiser rattles around the corner into view of a giraffe, you can bet the giraffe has already seen you.

In turn, giraffes appreciate zebras’ superior hearing and their awareness of the smell of predators. Perhaps because of their distance from the thick soup of ground smells, giraffes’ olfactory senses have fallen away.

A safari guide in Botswana’s Okavango Delta once described to me the most dramatic single wildlife event he ever saw; a fierce squall of giraffe anger led a long-necked posse to kill around ten lions before one giraffe finally went down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he explained, imagine the giraffe, whose foot is wide as a dinner plate. Having perfectly good sense, lions usually give giraffes wide berth. Except at the water hole.

Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey their surroundings at length and in great detail before they commit, for they will require time and effort to splay into the ungainly, legs-spread stance they need to get their mouths to the ground, and then more time to clamber back upright. Fortunately they needn’t drink more than every second or third day, because to counter the peril at the water hole, giraffes have learned which leaves yield the most moisture.

Nobody else except the largest elephant can reach twenty feet into the trees. There isn’t a great deal of feeding competition up there, so serene, heads in the clouds, giraffes can be discerning eaters.

If you weigh a ton and a half, you’ll need to eat a lot of leaves. You may spend three quarters of the day feeding. In Portraits in the Wild, Cynthia Moss writes that no more than five to thirty minutes of a giraffe’s day are spent sleeping.

Using your prehensile lips and half-meter prehensile, muscular tongue, you take a branch in your mouth, pull your head away and the leaves come with it. Your preferred leaves are thorny acacia, which contain some 74 per cent water. You grind the thorns between your molars.

Scientists like that word “prehensile” because it is obscure. It just means “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, with our opposable thumbs.

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At the border of the Luangwa Park in Zambia it is jarring to see people and giraffes sharing the road. The giraffes have eaten the leaves on the other side of the river inside the park, forming a browse line. The trees are bare of leaves below a line as distinct as the bottom of the clouds, while the other animals fight it out for food on the ground.

Giraffes aren’t out to hurt you, so workers, kids on their way to school, occasional automotive traffic and giraffes share the road, if gingerly. Most unusual.

You’ve seen squirrels, maybe rabbits, dart onto the road in front of you, become confused and run straight ahead instead of ducking off to the side. Once a giraffe did just that in front of our vehicle near a bush camp on the Luangwa River.

A laptop had disappeared from a rondavel in camp a few days before. We happened upon two boys in deep woods, a place they surely shouldn’t have been. Caught out, they dropped their backpack and crashed away into the bush. Inside the backpack, the laptop. In the ruckus a thoroughly alarmed giraffe stormed onto the road ahead of the LandCruiser.

If giraffes ran like most hoofstock their extra-long legs would get tangled up, so when they run they move both legs on one side and then the other. All four of a giraffe’s legs leave the ground at once.

This is called “pacing” and has the visual effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion. In fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” Arabic for “one who walks swiftly.”

Excited as we were to return the stolen laptop, we didn’t intend to alarm the giraffe, but it was long gone. In short bursts, giraffes can put up speeds of 35 miles per hour. This one surely did.

The giraffe’s front legs are longer and stronger than its hindquarters. At a gallop, the power stroke of each front leg sends the neck moving from side to side, leaning ahead, swinging opposite its stride. No other animal has such a neck and no other animal’s neck is so deeply involved in forward movement.

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Why such a striking neck in the first place?

Sixty years before Charles Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck proposed that evolution proceeded from the accumulation of small, gradual, acquired characteristics. He wrote that the giraffe “is obliged to browse on the leaves of trees and to make constant efforts to reach them. From this habit … it has resulted that the animal’s forelegs have become longer than its hind-legs, and that its neck is lengthened….”

Had giraffes cried out for another explanation (and they didn’t, they just kept chewing acacia leaves), Darwin came along to give it a try. “The individuals which were the highest browsers and were able … to reach even an inch or two above the others, will often have been preserved. … These will have intercrossed and left offspring…. By this process long-continued … it seems to me almost certain that an ordinary hoofed quadruped might be converted into a giraffe.”

Lamarck’s and Darwin’s adherents still battle it out. Lamarck is lately staging a bit of a comeback.

Allow psychology professor David Barash to enter the debate and posit that they’re all wrong. To Barash it’s all about sex.

Younger males’ neck musculature grows visible in maturity, signaling their readiness to challenge for mating privileges. With females in estrus, male giraffes stand shoulder to shoulder and wield their necks as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

They hammer each other neck-to-neck in turn until one cedes dominance. Barash speculates that longer necks lead to dominance, more mating opportunities, and so are passed along genetically. He calls it “necks for sex.”

Beyond the grand debate, there are simple enough ways to circumvent any generations-long path to giraffehood. Craig Holdrege, director of the Nature Institute, points out that to eat leaves, goats simply climb trees.

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Baby giraffes are almost entirely vulnerable. At least half are killed before they reach their first birthday. Once in the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we came upon a newborn calf that only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. Mom kept it tight to her side and never took her eyes off us.

But protective maternal instincts can’t cover up the brutality of a baby giraffe’s birth. The calf drops head first some five and a half feet from the womb to the ground.  Vulnerable as they are, calves get right to their feet, in as little as five minutes.

And they grow so fast! Cynthia Moss writes that they can grow nine inches in a single week. Oxford zoologist Dr. Jonathan Kingdon suggests this was “an early evolutionary strategy whereby very large, but relatively defenseless, animals were able to mitigate predation by growing too large for predators to overpower.”

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Giraffes present as above it all, and not just physically. The biologist Richard Estes reckoned that of all the animals, giraffes give the least back to the curious viewer. Implacable, delphic stoicism, maintaining a stance, chewing and looking back at you. 

I think Edith Wharton unknowingly spoke for giraffes: “Make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity – to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”

These are the sentiments of any giraffe.

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Giraffes are a safari favorite because of their utter evolutionary strangeness, but they have a little-known cousin that is stranger still – the okapi, the last large animal discovered by western science.

Further confined than the giraffe, to a single refuge in the Ituri forest in northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, the okapi is the national symbol of the DRC, but you will likely never see one except on the Congo’s 1000 Franc note.

An animal seemingly built by committee, this forest giraffe is donkeylike and tall-shouldered with a thick, elongated neck and chestnut black, glistening coat. Like the giraffe, it paces, and splays its legs while drinking. But the giraffe’s closest relative displays startling zebra-like stripes wrapping around its back end. Inexplicable.

The giraffe’s habitat has fragmented catastrophically (already extinct in seven countries, there are now less than 98,000 individuals left in the world). The okapi’s circumstance is more dire still. The Okapi Conservation Project’s John Lukas estimates there are only 3,000 to 3,500 okapi in the Ituri forest reserve. Lukas says okapi are so secretive and solitary that a ranger may walk 500 kilometers before sighting an okapi in the wild.

Henry Morton Stanley wrote of the okapi in 1887, prompting the British High Commissioner for Uganda to organize a search that failed to find a single animal. 100 years later, Lukas set up his facility at Epulu in Mbuti pygmy territory in the DRC in hopes of breeding okapi.

To get an idea how isolated opaki are, Lukas told me by email, “For the first 10 years we had to fly from Kinshasa to Goma and drive 5 days to get to our field station…. We built (an) airstrip in the middle 90’s but still drove from Goma getting supplies along the way. … In 2003 we started coming in from Uganda to Bunia and either driving or chartering a plane depending on the security along the road.”

For a time, fourteen okapi lived at the project reserve, but in 2012 all of the okapi – and six people – were killed in a two-day siege of the project, the bad guys apparently exacting retribution for a crackdown on the illegal ivory trade and illicit mining.

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One afternoon near Naivasha, Kenya we bounded outside our LandCruiser, excited to behold the largest group of giraffes I have ever seen. We counted 23 on one side of the road and five on the other. 

This was a crowning, exhilarating moment, but as exuberant as the humans may have been the giraffes declined comment, silently cud-chewing, mild-mannered, staring you down, sizing you up, batting an eyelash, inscrutable. Their long curly eyelashes suggested a certain sensitivity.

Like elephants, giraffes and okapi communicate with infrasound, low frequency tones inaudible to humans (and in the case of okapi, inaudible to their main predator, the leopard). Perhaps infrasound accounts for some of the giraffe’s aloof silence. After sixty years of field work, there is still a lot we don’t know.

From afar, giraffes stand out as masts on a dusty sea, triangles on the plain. Watch at distance their stately traverse, waves of heat rising from the savanna. In Karen Blixen’s words, “When cruising, with its gaze on the horizon and high center of gravity, the giraffe hardly seems in contact with the earth.”

China Moves Its Cities Abroad

Beijing is not only buying Africa, now it’s building its own cities in other countries. Here, in Cambodia,

“Union Development Group (UDG), the Chinese developer behind Koh Kong province’s $3.8 billion tourism project called Dara Sakor, has unveiled plans for yet another project called “Tourism Vacation Town,”

an investment of an additional $1.2 billion dollars, while in Malaysia, a proposed new city of 700,000, the $100 billion Forest City project looks a lot like mainland China’s Shenzen, which is perched on the border with Hong Kong. Forest City would sit just across the Johor Strait from Singapore. It’s running into resistance from the Malaysian leadership, though. 93-year-old leader Mahathir Mohamad said this week

“that no foreigners would be allowed to live there even as crews rushed to complete some residential towers before buyers move in later this year.”

Naipaul

Goma, DRC, across Lake Kivu

Difficult man? Probably. Pretty much nobody says not. But whether or not you’d enjoy his company at your next ice cream social, V. S. Naipaul’s fictional Kisangani in A Bend in the River sticks with you.

Congo will just not stop being a compelling place. Kabila’s reign in Congo is drawing to a bitter close, even as Kivu provinces totter close to armed conflict – again – and  the Latest Ebola Outbreak Is Centered in a War Zone. All in Congo.

Remind me to post a Congo reading list. Just now though, on the occasion of Naipaul’s death, let’s all pull out A Bend in the River or A House for Mr. Biswas and reread.

Quotes: On Being a Slave

“My people, you unnerstand me, dey ain’ got no ivory by de door. When it ivory from de elephant stand by de door, den dat a king, a ruler, you unnerstand me. My father neither his father don’t rule nobody.””

This is a quote from Kossula, aka Cudjo Lewis, born around 1841, and sold into slavery. Kossula sailed as a captive on the Clotilda, the last known slave ship to the US from Africa, arriving in 1859. He sailed from the then kingdom of Dahomey, now Benin.

The book is Barracoon, The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” by Zora Neale Hurston, who visited Kossula in and around 1927 in Plateau, Alabama.

Africa Vignette #12: Gorilla Trek

For this week’s vignette, a mostly previously-published review of two day-long gorilla treks in Rwanda’s Parc National des Volcans, including some photography tips:

A silverback

The first day we visited the 12-strong Hirwu (“Good Luck”) group, the second the 18 member Amahoro (“Peace”) group. Here’s a little about how the treks work, and some things we learned about taking gorilla pictures.

Both days started the same way, as all the trekkers mustered at the park headquarters in the 7:00 hour. There were pots of coffee and tea, and it was one of those mildly awkward moments, when a few dozen strangers speaking different languages attempt to mingle, with nothing really to say.

Out front on the grass, a display measured off seven meters, with a pair of boots on one end and a painting of a gorilla on the other, graphically illustrating that we were to go no closer to the gorillas than that. The reality, both days, wasn’t so simple.

ORTPN, the Rwandan tourism body, put on a thoroughly professional operation, and for good reason. From the Kampala Monitor:

“Revenue receipts collected from the tourism industry have increased by 15 per cent with a collection of $80m in just six months. According to officials in Kigali this figure has surpassed the $68m target that was envisaged for the year 2008.

Office Rwandais du Tourisme et des Parcs Nationaux (ORTPN), Rwanda’s agency that regulates the tourism industry and the country’s national parks said last week that the collected revenue now officially makes the tourism industry the number one foreign exchange earner contributing about 3.7 per cent to Rwanda’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

Also from the Kampala Monitor: “Gorilla tourism alone – that has seen vast numbers of tourists heading to northern Rwanda for a view of the rare mountain gorillas – brought in $7million.”

Everyone’s guides/drivers took their permits to meet with the administrators, who put individuals in groups of eight. We all divided into these groups for a brief orientation talk with our respective trackers, then adjourned to our vehicles to ride maybe forty minutes to our respective trek starting points.

The rules mandated that we would have one hour with the gorillas. Once we got to them we would stop a hundred meters or so shy and drop everything except what we could carry, which meant, realistically, a camera and/or a water bottle.

Our first-day tracker, Eugene, explained this is principally for the gorillas’ benefit. One of the reasons was that we weren’t to put anything down, so that the gorillas wouldn’t be tempted to come over and pick it up and potentially get human germs.

The second day one man brought a huge backpack full of both video and SLR camera gear, really way more than he needed, and argued strenuously to be allowed to bring it to the gorillas, but the guides stood absolutely firm. They explained (another reason) that such a big pack made this man, to the gorillas, not the shape of a human to whom they had been habituated.

At the start point, porters were available for ten dollars. They would take in your day pack, water bottle, lunch, anything you might have, and watch your things while you were actually with the gorillas.

Apart from the fact that that was useful, we also felt like it was a good way to leave behind just a little something in the local community, and we hired two porters each day and gave them each $15. You’ve paid to come all this way and then paid $500 for your permit. This is no time to go frugal.

Each group of eight trekkers and their guide and porters was led and trailed by Rwandan soldiers with rifles. They mainly remained discreetly out ahead and back behind the group.

Each gorilla family in Rwanda is tracked dawn to dusk. Trackers, who know the gorillas individually, go in each morning and find their family based on the previous night’s position. As we set out each day, our tracker/guide talked by cell phone with the trackers who were already with the gorillas, and learned where to take us.

The first day’s trek in was as hard as anything I’ve done in maybe ten years. The second day was opposite in every way, and we were in, had our hour and out by 11:30 a.m.

The group adjusts its pace to the slowest person. The first day a substantially unfit woman slowed the group so much that by the time we arrived where the trackers expected us to see them, the gorillas had moved. Unfortunately, they had moved straight down a sheer ravine and back up the opposite size.

Forced to create our own path, one of the trackers walked ahead of us with a panga, a curved, two-sided machete, literally hacking the jungle footstep by footstep, straight down then back up the far side of a ravine. There was nowhere amid the dense vines, really, to put your feet. We let ourselves down and moved upward more by grasping vines hand over hand, and each handful was packed with stinging nettles.

The less fit lady never made it any closer to the gorillas.

But we did, we finally found them, and in doing so saw how the seven meter rule back at the ranger station is really more of a theory than a rule. We came over a small rise and there we were. The gorillas were arrayed before us, some not two feet away, and it wasn’t as if we could assemble in a neat semi-circle around them. Over the course of our hour several gorillas, including the huge 36 year old silverback, walked by within touching distance.

Over the course of the hour each day, members of the group largely ignored the humans. They’d eat, climb trees, get up and walk a short distance and plop back down to eat some more. Once in a while a youngster would jump up and just go rolling and tumbling down the hill. They ate most of the time.

Kids

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African Vignette 11: Crossing Lake Malawi

Here is a bit from my first book, for which this web site is named, about a trip on the MV Ilala, sailing across Lake Malawi from Monkey Bay, Malawi, in the south, up toward Tanzania:

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Get Dirty for God. Go Lay a Brick with Team Mission. Thirty or forty kids wearing missionary T-shirts with those slogans came aboard to tour the Ilala at the first stop, Chipoka, from about 3:00 to 4:30.

A boy drew a crowd on the dock putting on a show with two bobble head monkeys on a table. Some people wore lime green sandals and others sold them.

If you ever sail the MV Ilala, choose the rattan seats to port, just above the gangplank, for live theatre immediately below you at port calls. The same seats are great when the port of call doesn’t have a big enough dock for the Ilala to tie up. In that case an incredibly colorful, and incredibly crowded scrum scrambles onto and out of the tenders dispatched to shore. Just below you.

You learn to stake out your deck space. After that first stop, if you didn’t, you’d lose it. The Ilala was vastly more crowded as soon as we left Chipoka.

Immanuel, deck hand, remarked on the Indian owners. I spoke later with Malcolm, the Indian commercial officer, who described Byzantine smuggling ruses he has seen.

In the evening a loud, rollicking, mostly European time broke out around the bar. We joined Richard, a kitchen outfitter, and his girlfriend from New York, the Aussie from Queensland who Mirja always thought was called John but who was named Peter, Martin the Dutch banker with a hankering for a posting to Southeast Asia, his girlfriend the park volunteer who was beginning to feel ill, and Steph and Tom.

We laid back in our cabin late in the morning, until the horn blew us standing and we were in Mozambique. That was at 9:00 and we didn’t set sail again until after 11:00 because officials were involved, and procedures had to be followed.

We couldn’t dock but instead anchored offshore and a flotilla of small craft commenced shuttling over and back to Ngoo, Mozambique.

We heard a splash, turned to see a body fly by the porthole and looked to see it was Tom and Peter the Aussie boy out for a swim. Good idea because it was hot hot hot in Mozambique, early in the morning.

Some Ilala crew predicted that the Mozambican customs men would try to charge Peter and Tom some money – make them buy an “entrance visa” for jumping into Mozambican water – but they never did.

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See more photos from Malawi in the Malawi Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

Africa Vignettes is a weekly series most Mondays this summer on CS&W.