Africa Vignette 4: It Takes a Long Time to Get to Zambia

Hippos in the Luangwa River, Zambia

Sure, the getting here was miserable. The long haul was more than thirteen thousand kilometers – leave shore over Charleston, South Carolina and don’t see land again until Cape Town. As if the continents were mountain peaks, you slid down the valley called the Atlantic on the flight map. That got us to Cape Town where it never dawned. The gray of winter just brightened up.

Nine more hours of airports, and these were the difficult ones, desynchronosis raging, hours 18 to 26 or so straight in a public place, no time to yourself. Now, finally, Lusaka. Here we are.

We hunt around the Lusaka airport and somehow find a woman who’s going the same place we are. She’s named Beatrice, from the copper belt up near Lubumbashi, Congo.  Up there, there are tons of ex-pats in the mining trade, so it’s a place that needs a travel agent, which Beatrice is. Next we find Ryan, the pilot from Durban, and finally Kitty and Maeva who are also lost and that’s all of us, so we load up the Cessna and head for a town on the Zambian border with Malawi called Mfuwe.

As we walk across the tarmac, Maeva, Kitty and my wife Mirja discover that they’re all three Finns, which is incredible. Three out of six random people in a Cessna from Finland, a country of just five million.

There is a lot of anticipation in this little Cessna.

See photos from Zambia in the Zambia Gallery at Earthphotos.com.

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

Africa Vignette 2: Wildebeest Crossing, Mara River

A little more than a vignette this week. A story.

•••••

We ride out to the Maasai Mara in a Cessna Caravan I, Model 280B, drawn theoretically in the safety material to transport twelve passengers in staggered rows of four each but in fact refitted with a bench seat for three behind the pilot then five seats staggered behind, one on each side of the aircraft.

•••••

We have come to watch what we can see of the annual wildebeest migration, perhaps the greatest periodic movement of biomass on earth. Specifically to watch a crossing of the Mara River, in which, if the herd is big enough, invariably a few of its members will fall victim to a crocodile. We are here in fact to watch the brutal murder-by-crocodile of a few wildebeests.

Our guide is Richard, and his approach to finding a crossing is simple enough in the fundamentals: You go to a herd and watch its behavior. If it begins to head to the river, race it to reach the general spot before the herd, but stay back. Wait and watch to see what develops. Approaching the water’s edge too soon is an error. Not only might you choose the wrong spot, but the presence of a big, mechanical thing looming on the cliff might dissuade the herd from approaching.

Richard goes to work without much theory, much book knowledge, but he has worked every day for twenty-five years on his home ground, these same plains.

•••••

Sweeping horizon to horizon vistas here. Showers play across the south end of the escarpment that serves as a western marker of the Maasai Mara. Its southern terminus, easily visible, is in Tanzania.

Each morning as our wake-up coffee comes at 6:00, factory sounds waft across the river, puzzling at first. A pole with a windsock rises from behind trees on the opposite bank. Shortly on the first morning comes the explanation as the shell of a balloon rises over the trees, inhaling hot air from its flame-thrower. It seems that they send up expensive balloon rides from the other side of the Mara River, from the adjacent camp.

In effect that wind sock shows the balloon pilot how long his passengers’ dream ride over the plains will be, for, if it reveals winds blowing straight along the escarpment the ride will be short, the pilots being required to put down before the Tanzanian border, to provide his passengers their wilderness champagne breakfast brought by Land Rovers madly chasing the balloon across the plains.

Richard started out as a balloon driver before he was a guide, all those years ago. Given his not so apparent school training for his driver job I don’t wish to speculate on the training required to lift early-morning clients across the way and carry them about in a fire-powered mylar envelope.

•••••

On these safari trips you spend the first three or four days getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, with which you establish the nature of your new relationship.

Richard, we find, is a man of few words. My wife asks a question ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews, sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

•••••

This morning from a distance we spot two lines of animals moving in the direction of water, and the chase is on. The smaller, closer line moves toward the main river crossing. We take the low road, nearer the river than the hills up on the plain.

Seeing the same movement we have seen, other jeeps early on the plain converge on the same area. We circle the herd on the low road and when they reemerge they are above us, and behind where we expect them to be. They have stopped to graze.

The full, unfiltered sun beats down now, three hours past sunrise. We go to height. This close to the herd we find we need some distance to discern movement.

The herd masses, the rear still a line but the front collecting into a grazing mass. The Serena Lodge perches ungainly on the opposite overlook, a row of prefab chalets not exactly aligned along the ridge.

They come for forty-five minutes, continuously massing, and for all their substance, they seem to whisper. They pronounce the sound of the letter ö but the wind in the trees and bird chatter drown out all but the most fervent.

We shed our morning wraps. The herd grazes. We take a forward position along the river’s edge to eat breakfast in a protected place. Although we cannot see the wildebeests they are close enough above us that if a mass movement starts we will hear (feel) the movement of all those hooves.

The herd moves beyond us.

How does it know where it will cross? There are no individual decision makers, but collectively, it seems to know where it is going. Today’s herd is bigger than yesterdays and a line from the opposite direction moves to join up with them. They seek clarity of mission and they have a destination in mind.

Richard stops the Land Cruiser to raise his field glasses. He sees a “huge group” on a cliff beyond. We have been following our own smaller group all morning but now we abandon them for the chase. We stop, as drivers do, to confer with one another. “Thousands and thousands” ahead, he says.

We speed on.

This is the biggest crossing of the season.

We are surrounded. We are in its midst. A group crowds the water here and another behind us dives, energy and a frenzy of dust and mud and movement, each body splayed out, hooves wide-spread, over and off a cliff many times their height, diving blind into the river. The herd marches ahead. Crocodile jaws, open and evil, claim their due. The herd marches ahead and reconstitutes of the far side, and the whole thing takes half of an hour.

The aftermath continues for an hour or more. Mothers have been rent from offspring. They return to the far bank and look this way, searching for their young. Will they cross back?

A few do recross the river, individuals, at considerable peril. Most do not.

Zebras venture close to the water to drink in the aftermath, even a very small baby. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Must be still sated from yesterday’s crossing. A pair of giraffes approach the water but we do not see them drink.

A line of more zebras comes back.

How many do you think have crossed, five thousand, six? Richard thinks so.

•••••

More photos from Kenya in the Kenya Gallery at EarthPhotos.com. Another Africa vignette next Monday.

Even Hyenas Are Cute When They’re Babies

Hard to believe, but true. Consider:

The littlest guy pokes his head up from the nest. Staying close to mom.

 

This guy’s brave enough to stand up all by himself.

 

And the whole clan.

From the Mara North Conservancy, Kenya, just at dusk one afternoon. Click ’em to make ’em bigger. And there are lots more wildlife photos at Earthphotos.com.

Luangwa River, Zambia Bush Notes

Late in the morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a camp with just four huts of thatch and grass, far out into the South Luangwa park on a still lagoon.

First staked out by company founder Norman Carr in the 1980’s, today Luwi is empty, no guests. AIt is not officially open for the season yet, so we have the pick of the camp and we pick the largest chalet, the “honeymoon suite.” Besides us, the only people here are our new guide named Aubrey and Greta, who will be running the Luwi camp this season. 

Six months of the year Greta’s a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in bush.

Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”

There’s a permanent staff of six in camp – permanent, that is, for the five months each year it’s open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and each year they rebuild it top to bottom in late April, with a work crew of twenty, in order to have it open by June 1st.

We’re first in, just at the end of May.

There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark. Last night’s clothes. We enjoy coffee close in around the mopane campfire, kept burning since sunset, while our party musters.

This morning will be a new experience – a walking safari. We shall walk between a rifle-toting guide in the lead, and a tracker, the four of us trailed by a young apprentice carrying coffee and biscuits, the “tea boy.”    

Isaac, a stoic, leathery bush veteran with a beret and a .357 caliber Brno rifle, will be our scout. Aubrey is tracker/guide. As we all assemble around the fire, the first bird calls begin under an orange sky, and the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you stay away.

(In a camp in the Okavango, the proprietress once translated the nightjar’s call as “Good Lord deliver us.” The Aussie management here is entirely less reverent. They assert the turtle dove’s call, “da DAHHH da, Da DAHHH da,” is “Work harder, drink lager.”)

The grass between camp and the Luwi River is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocs on the bank opposite. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a cliff above the water’s edge, I can find no reason to assume that crocs only inhabit the far side.

Aubrey is a young man who takes his job seriously and means to do well. Coffee hasn’t quite got me roused by the time he has explained the three territorial zones of animals: the zone of awareness, the warning zone and the zone in which instinct takes over and the animal attacks.

We don’t think we’re in anybody’s anything zone, but we still step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch as the sun asserts sovereignty.

Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches out and makes a long, slow bend to the right. The near shore is sandy cliffs. There’s another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond.

The sounds of nature. Nothing manmade, seen or heard.

Below the bend on the opposite bank stretches an expanse of low grassland and a bit of shoreline. Guinea fowl get busy grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets still indistinguishable in the early light. A massive hippo breaches the brush and scatters them.

Hippos don’t eat fish. They graze outside the water after dark, eating around 40 kilos of grass a night, and that takes a lot of grazing. At the water’s edge the hippo jerks up his head, snarls and snaps ineffectually, and plunges into the river.

“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. In other places oxpeckers ride on giraffes’ backs, getting a nice aerial view. These oxpeckers have water taxis.

The pod rests lazy as a dog and still as autumn leaves the day before they fall. Only their heads and backs are visible, the rest of them covered with water lettuce.

If this were a painting you’d scoff. Too elaborate to be real. But it is real, and we stay put for a long time watching, until the shadows have crossed all the way over the river and sunlight reigns.

Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November it’s perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede and force the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in more conflict and more danger from predators. 

For now, in May, there is peace. Crocodiles eat catfish in the lagoon. The grass is green and tall and thick. Hippos gorge in the fields and live in the river.

Aubrey shows us the way hippos change the landscape as they come and go from the river, creating indentations on the water’s edge that grow when it rains, collapsing the soil into gullies and washing it into the river. Other animals use and widen the trampled paths, which extend far up onto land. Eventually hippo trails may even evolve into rivers.

We set out away from the river on a sandy-bottomed hippo trail a meter wide with grass on either side. The grass is too tall to see ahead or to either side, and Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.

•••••

“Spoor” means evidence. It comes to English from Dutch through Afrikaans, and means ‘track’ in two senses – first, the scent or track an animal leaves, and second, railroad tracks (A map of the Dutch rail network is a spoorkaart).

Aubrey describes three types of spoor for tracking wildlife. There’s aerial spoor, like branches or grass pushed back by passing game, ground spoor, like footprints and sign, and other evidence like droppings or dislodged stones, or the water lettuce we see far from the river, which has been carried up on hippos’ backs.

The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard footprints. Aubrey and Isaac study them and judge they’re from last night or earlier this morning because they’re still largely undisturbed. If one had overlapped the other, we could judge whether the leopard followed the hyena or, more likely, the opposite.

Aubrey brings us to the trunk of a tree to examine puku (a medium-sized antelope) fur (very soft) and explains that this puku fell victim to a leopard. We know that leopards take the fur off, he says, and this fur is clearly not digested. And, under a mopane with its strong, nearly horizontal branches is a good place for a leopard to take a meal, since at any danger it can hoist its kill up and away into the tree.

Tracking is subtlety itself, made practical.

“The shadows cast by ridges in spoor show up best if the spoor is kept between the tracker and the sun. When the sun is ahead of the spoor, the shadows cast by the spoor will be more easily visible. If the sun is behind the tracker, the shadows will be hidden by the ridges that cast them. So tracking is easier early in the morning and late in the afternoon than at midday, when the shadows cast are greater… “

– from The Art of Tracking, the Origin of Science by Louis Liebenberg (free link)

•••••

The grass gives way to larger trees farther from the river. A particular bird flaps and cries and flies out in front of us. Aubrey says it’s trying to lead us to a bees’ nest, because if we disturb the nest, that will help him eat them.

Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite fully dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and then crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. We shed our sweaters long ago. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against one very large arachnid. Aubrey laughs and gently picks him up by a leg and puts him on the ground in front of us.

It’s a baboon spider, he says, a type of tarantula. It’s hairy, three inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. The damned things, from the family Theraphosidae, are big and robust enough to loosen soil and excavate burrows with their jaws and fangs.

This fellow’s North and South American cousins have barbed hairs on their abdomens which they can fire defensively like porcupines do with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would-be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant, however, does not have that capability, so it is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.

Though I continue to shudder, there is some consolation: A South American tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.

But still.

•••••

Grizzled old Isaac stares ahead all the time, like there’s always something about to happen, scanning back and forth above the grass with field glasses. He’s retired from the park service, and here Isaac can pass on the oral tradition to the trackers and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.

Aubrey distinguishes between hippo dung (darker) and elephant dung, and explains the useful role dung beetles play in breaking it down before it attracts flies, which would spread disease.

Here is evidence of a lion kill. Unlike the leopard, lions eat the whole unfortunate animal, and in this dung are fur and bone fragments.

A different kind of spider has built a funnel-shaped web in a tree trunk with what Aubrey calls “telephone lines” extending upward from it to the side of the trunk. Aubrey explains how the spider lives safely below and can tell by the vibration of his phone lines when something flies into his funnel. He is thus called up to dinner.

•••••

When we first arrived from the luxury of the main camp at Kapani I thought Luwi bush camp was, well, rustic. But after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the other bank, and having coffee with my stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks, with its thatch cottages and en-suite facilities, its pot of coffee and wildlife magazines.

They’ve put on omelettes and sausages. Mirja retires to a hammock to read Surviving in the African Wild while I sit in the chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in the shade with the movement of the sun, and we listen to the hippos in the river and the wild array of birds.

The grass in front of camp extends several hundred meters to the Luangwa riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander around in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds dot the horizon. It’s brilliant blue overhead. Alone in camp we sprawl out with our things, camera here, camera bag there, piri piri sauce over there, a pile of Africa Environment and Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.

Coming early in the season has benefits beyond beating the crowd. Later in the day, high broken clouds provide escape from the full sun. Now, in May, Aubrey thinks these look like October skies, in the month before the rains. The dry season doesn’t yet hold full sway.

•••••

The night sky is simply magnificent. Abraham shows us how to find south with the Southern Cross. Down here, south of the equator, the Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky.

Aubrey grows melancholy by the campfire. The lantern casts an unsure light and a rich Milky Way splays out overhead. Aubrey once had three sisters and three brothers. Now he’s the head of the family.

He has one sister, and more matter-of-factly than I think I would, he says the others died of “natural causes.” He sits motionless, staring into the fire and his past, and then he turns to us.

His mother’s brother was ill south of Lusaka. She went to care for him. While she was gone, one of her sons, younger than Aubrey, took ill. They sent word and she boarded a bus home. A few kilometers south of Chipata, the nearest proper town, the bus blew a tire and his mother was killed. Aubrey’s father was already ill, so Aubrey went to get the body and they buried her the next day. His father lost the will to live, Aubrey says, and died four months later.

“This is African life.”

•••••

HIV? He just shakes his head.

He has grown concave with gloom.

•••••

The price of maize skyrocketed between the end of last year’s store and this year’s harvest. Aubrey tells two horrifying stories he has heard, about maize and making ends meet:

A farmer protecting crops surprises a thief carrying a stolen bag of maize. The thief decapitates the farmer and leaves the bag of maize, with head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag unsuspecting, thinking it’s part of the harvest.

A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up son in cloth and begins the sad return to his village, but has car trouble. A farmer finds the bundle where the car is broken down, suspects theft of his maize, flies into a rage and kills the bereaved father.

Aubrey looks tired. This is all heartbreak and woe. 

He tells another story, though, and gradually brightens as he does. It’s hard to understand it all, but the outline is that, according to a Zambian folk practice, a log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.

The prospective groom’s uncle on his mother’s side goes to his desired bride’s family to negotiate a bride price – cows, for example, or maybe even simply that they can visit their daughter as often as they want. Once the bride price is settled, an elaborate ritual takes place to get her to the wedding bed. 

The groom-to-be arrives alone at the young girl’s village and the mother of the bride leads him to their house. It starts with the young man inside alone. The young girl’s mother brings her to the house. She won’t come in. There is cajoling. Now the door is open. He throws coins; She steps closer.

In the end they spend the night and don’t come out until the next day, and the next day they are married. It’s a festive day, with food offerings from both sides of family, and the dowry is delivered. The catch is, if the bride isn’t pregnant by the time that log goes out, in a month, the bride’s family can give the boy back.

“I am fighting that log,” he smiles. Aubrey is a newlywed.

•••••

There is a bat inside the mosquito net over our bed. Aubrey removes it, like he removed the baboon spider from the camera bag.

•••••

Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers to wait for the pot of coffee. Tropical boubou shrikes sing in duet, so much at the same instant that you think it’s one, with a curious detail at the end of the call that sounds like a cross between a snare drum and plucking a guitar string.

Aubrey’s spirits are bright again. He wants to know about where we live and when he learns Mirja is from Finland he’s apologetic, but he can’t understand how anyone can live where it’s cold.

“The coldest I’ve ever been is at Bangola. It’s over the escarpment,” he says.

The mist was so thick you couldn’t see ten meters, he marvels. He does allow, though, that he’d really like to see snow before he dies and I offer that he consider Cape Town, but for Aubrey it might as well be as far away as the moon.

•••••

Aubrey puts things in categories. We have learned animals’ three territorial zones and the three types of spoor. Now we learn the four types of termites – king, queen, worker and soldier. The soldiers and the queen are fed by the workers. If attacked, say, by an anteater, the workers set out to repair the mound so fast that soldiers may find themselves sealed outside. At the first sign the mound is under siege, soldiers signal the queen, who lays massive amounts of eggs to recover from the loss of the troops.

Back in Botswana, termite mounds could be tall as three people; I guessed up to sixteen feet high. Now we learn that the mound can reach underground all the way down to the water table.

•••••

We are walking through grass mostly over your head, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. Isaac and his 357 Brno lead us down into the riverbed itself, where there is more than a month of footprint history since the last time it rained: elephant prints with lion prints inside, hippos, every bird and no humans tracks except ours since the end of the rains, and thus since the rains began last November. It’s May.

•••••

We ride to Kakuli, a seasonal bush camp back on the Luangwa River, at its confluence with the Luwi. Buffaloes peer at the Land Cruiser from deep in the bush. Our zip-in zip-out tent sits twenty feet above the river on a sandy point with a hippo pod immediately below. There is a bed with fresh linens, two bedside tables, two tables for our bags and a solar-powered lantern. We scare up two director’s chairs for the “veranda” in front of the tent.

Thatch surrounds the toilet, sink and shower behind the tent for propriety, but a strategic dip in the top allows a view from the shower. In Kakuli camp you can shower with a hippo view. 

Hippos are never quiet. Maybe it’s something about the moving water at the meeting of the rivers. They rend the air with huge rolling rows.

They open their mouths wide, lock themselves jaw to jaw and push and splash and I don’t know what the strategy is with the open mouth thing. It’s all big and wet and mean and for real, with groans and howls and obvious pain.

In a fierce battle one hippo is ultimately forced upstream.

This is how it happens. After a protracted battle the dominant male is replaced. We may have witnessed a revolution.

•••••

We booked these camps direct through Norman Carr Safaris.

There are 687 photos of wildlife from Africa and elsewhere in the Animals and Wildlife Gallery at EarthPhotos.com.

 

Friday Treat – Wildlife Photos from Africa

Anytime is a good time for wildlife photos. Enjoy these photos from our last two visits to Kenya. They’re a lot better when they’re bigger. Click to enlarge them.

Have some fun this weekend.

Cheetah at sunrise

 

Elephant friends

 

Fresh kill

 

Wildebeest crossing

 

Lion cubs

 

Elephant family

 

Rhinoceros

 

Hippo fight

 

Wildebeest crossing. Note the giraffe way in the back checking out what’s coming.

 

Hyena on a kill

 

Silly kids

 

Death of a wildebeest in two photos

 

Look at the size of that guy’s tail!

 

Singing giraffe

 

Cheetah family on the lookout

 

I wouldn’t go in there right now if I were you

 

Elephant family with Mt. Kilimanjaro in the background

These photos came from two trips to Kenya, in 2015 and 2016. Most of them came from our stays in Tortilis Camp or Ol Tukai Lodge in Amobesli, or in the Masaai Mara, Kicheche Mara Camp in the North Mara Conservancy or Governor’s Il Moran Camp. If you ever plan a trip to Amboseli please be in touch. I’ve got a great guide for you.

And there are more photos from Kenya at EarthPhotos.com. Next week we’ll try to post some Africa travel writing.

Got time to buy me a cup of coffee?

What About Giraffes!?

They’re fascinating animals, that’s what.

Consider:

You may not be able to talk while breathing through your nose, but a poor giraffe cannot even have a drink of water without putting itself in mortal peril. Watch giraffes before they drink. They survey the waterhole at length and in great detail before they commit, because once they do it takes effort, and precious seconds, to splay themselves into their ungainly, legs-spread stance, and just as much time to clamber back upright.

Valves in giraffes’ necks close when they put their heads down to drink, to keep all their blood from flowing to their heads. That’s why they spread their legs wide apart because they’re apt to get a little light-headed. And that is when the big cats might strike.

Rumbling along a safari track once upon a time, B. (short for Bonnetswe, our guide in the Okavango Delta) told us the single most dramatic thing he had ever seen; it was the time he watched a giraffe kill about ten lions before finally going down to the final five.

If a horse’s kick can seriously injure a man, he grinned, “Imagine the giraffe,” whose foot is as wide as a dinner plate. And so lions usually leave giraffes alone. Except when they’re drinking.

As it happens, and thankfully (if you’re the giraffe) they needn’t drink more than every second or third day. To minimize the time they have to spend in that vulnerable stance they manage to get most of the moisture they require from the leaves they eat (For this same reason they need not migrate).

Consider the browsing life of a giraffe. While other animals compete for food on the ground, up in the trees, up there, if you’re a giraffe, it’s mine, all mine. Which means giraffes can afford to be discerning eaters.

Using half meter long prehensile black tongues, they take branches in their mouths and pull their heads away, leaves along with them. Their preferred leaves are thorny acacia. They grind the thorns between their molars (In the Okavango the acacia is known as the toothpick tree. They also use their thorns as sewing needles.)

Now, every bit of explanatory science I have ever seen notes the giraffe’s tongue is prehensile, and then goes on as if everybody knows what that means. What prehensile means is “adapted for holding,” from the Latin prehendere, “to grasp.” Unlike a giraffe’s hoof or a dog’s paw, our hands are prehensile, in the sense that we have opposable thumbs.

The giraffe uses his up to eighteen-inch tongue to slide up a branch and grab a bunch of twigs and leaves (They prefer acacia, which are important sources of calcium and protein. Plus, tender acacia twigs may contain 74 percent water.). Nobody except maybe the largest elephant can reach twenty feet from the ground to eat, and you can see this at work in areas rife with giraffes, as they create a “browse line” along the trees.

But if eating is a walk in the wildlife park, with the pick of only the very best leaves in the tree, it takes a lot of leaves – and a lot of time – for a giraffe to get his fill. A 3000-pound bull needs around 75 pounds of food a day, and it may take him three-quarters of the day to get it.

•••••

Charles Darwin developed a theory of natural selection but he didn’t claim it was efficient. To the contrary, he called it clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Clumsy or not, evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology David P. Barash points out that natural selection has to work with what it has got.

In the giraffe, he writes, “natural selection has produced a creature that on the one hand is spectacularly adapted to its peculiar ecological niche” and on the other is a poster child for Darwin’s clumsy, wasteful and blundering.

Barash points out that to pump blood to the head, seven feet over its heart, giraffes require “exceptionally high” blood pressure. To keep blood from remaining in their feet they have “evolved the equivalent of compression stockings” (which would also be useful for visiting Americans on the long plane ride to Africa to see them).

Barash notes “giraffes are fully six feet taller than other competing browsers, which would seem to argue that competitive foraging as such hasn’t been the main driving pressure behind their altitudinal evolution.” And thus he coyly presents a peculiar practice of male giraffes that he suggests could have furthered positive evolutionary selection for those long necks.

During the rut, male giraffes will stand shoulder to shoulder, parallel with one another and use their necks, as Barash puts it, “roughly like a medieval ball-and-chain weapon, or flail.”

And this can hurt. Giraffe horns, called “ossicones,” are harder than the keratin of cattle horns. They are skin-covered cartilage, actually fused to the animal’s skull, that over time hardens into bone. Only the giraffe and okapi [which deserves its own article] have ossicones.

Giraffes hammer each other with their heads until one of the opponents gives up and cedes dominance. Barash speculates that since the longer the neck, the more force behind each blow, females may prefer long-necked giraffes, and this preference may be passed along genetically. This is the “necks for sex” hypothesis.

At least that is one idea. Cynthia Moss’s 1973 Portraits in the Wild precedes Barash’s work, and back then she was having none of it. To Moss, “A necking match is a lovely sight.” She calls it “gentle sparring,” punctuated by pauses to stare into the distance for some time, affecting “a slight air of superiority.”

Moss notes too that giraffes are different in different places. She cites different researchers’ variable findings.

Giraffes may be found “singly, in twos and threes, and in herds of up to fifty.” One of the researchers she cites, Carlos Mejia, says “They are gregarious but they don’t interact.” Mejia, she says, can’t figure out why they come together at all.

She found researchers agreed that giraffes’ social structures are loose, open, “with giraffes coming and going as they please.”

On the one hand, in Mejia’s study in Tanzania herds may be made up of “males, females, and young, all males or all females, or any combination….” and a “herd rarely comprises the same individuals for more than a few consecutive days.”

On the other, “the sexes in Nairobi park show distinct preferences for different areas. The females and young stay on the plains, whereas the males tend to stay in the forested area.”

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In the Thula Thula Royal Zulu Game Reserve in Kwa-Zulu Natal, we once saw a very baby calf, so newborn that it only just reached its mother’s knees, far below her body. She kept her calf tight to her side and remained most attentive to us, but that after-the-fact tenderness doesn’t cover up for the brutality of birth.

The giraffe calf receives a jarring first wake up call, being dropped head first some 5-1/2 feet from the womb to the ground, but it is soon standing, close to six feet tall and weighing 150 pounds.

And they grow so fast! In their first year some four feet, and Cynthia Moss cites reports that they can grow nine inches in a single week.

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As a ruminant, the giraffe swallows its food, which must then be rechewed. Ruminants have a four-chambered stomach. Received by the reticulum, the vegetation forms into fist-sized balls and is regurgitated, chewed, swallowed and then passed into the other chambers, the rumen, omasum and abomasum, all in the process of digestion.

This is a three, four, five hour a day process that we call “chewing the cud” in the farm animals back home. All the ruminant are mammals, including yaks and goats and sheep, deer and antelopes and cows.

All that eating takes up most of a giraffes’ day. Moss tells us that in a giraffe’s day no more than five to thirty minutes at a time are spent sleeping. And even then, giraffes, especially moms with young babies, may sleep with one eye open, a practice they share with flying things like bats, ducks and chickens and, it is said, dolphins too.

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If giraffes ran like most other hoofstock, their extra-long legs would be liable to get tangled up, so they move both their legs on one side and then the other, alternating sides. This is called “pacing” and has the effect of making the giraffe seem to run in slow motion when in fact those long legs cover prodigious ground. The giraffe can flee a pursuer at 55 kilometers per hour, though not for sustained periods.

In fact, the word giraffe comes from “zafarah,” for “one who walks swiftly.” Zafarah is Arabic, from the land of camels, and the camel runs like the giraffe; it also “paces.” Perhaps that similarity half accounts for the giraffes’ Latin species name, camelopardalis. The “leopardalis” part? There was an archaic belief that the giraffe was part leopard – because of those spots.

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As with other animals on the African plain in general, Moss writes that “It is rare for a giraffe to die of old age; when it becomes very old and weak, it is usually taken by a predator.” Back in the 90’s, when I was very new at this, I remember a visit to Ngorongoro Crater, when a wildlife guide named Godfrey showed us a zebra with a broken leg on the edge of a herd, and said it wouldn’t make it until morning. This horrified me, and I lay in the dark and thought about it that night.

The system in the African wild is efficient, and it is surely ruthless, too. If we humans (some of us) have the good fortune to die in bed, pain-mitigated, that surely is not true on the African plains.

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Got a minute to buy me a cup of coffee?