This month’s column is up at 3QuarksDaily. It’s about the largest overland migration in the world, wildebeests and zebras crossing the Mara River in Kenya. Read it here on 3QD today, and I’ll publish it on CS&W later this week.
The second hurricane of 2018 will come calling across Georgia today. In the run-up, the trees are loud with wind, and clouds barrel in fast and low. It looks a lot like what started out innocently as a long weekend at pretty little Lake Atitlan in Guatemala a few years back (from ATL, this is a shorter flight than to SFO). By the time it was over we’d fled a tropical storm back to the capital, then had to evacuate to El Salvador after a volcanic eruption.
Tropical Storm Agatha crept up from behind, from the Pacific, while nobody was looking, and walloped Guatemala. This bridge collapsed a few hours after we crossed, trapping people on the wrong side of it for several days.
Meanwhile, and also unknown to us, it turns out that Volcan de Picaya erupted hours after we arrived on a Thursday closing the Guatemala City airport due to volcanic ash until the following Tuesday. Flights backed up and our first shot at leaving wasn’t for several days, so we arranged transportation to El Salvador and managed to fly home just three days late.
Here is wet volcanic ash and storm damage at a construction site adjacent to the hotel in Guatemala City.
It was supposed to be just a quiet weekend getaway at the lake.
A few weeks back I wrote an article about giraffes that was informed in part by the early work of Dr. Cynthia Moss from her 1982 book Portraits in the Wild: Animal Behavior in East Africa. Dr. Moss is the director and founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants.
I got their latest newsletter yesterday. It makes me want to urge you to read into issues facing elephant populations for yourself. African wildlife has never been under more strain and it is just heartwarming that there are people like Dr. Moss and her team who have made a life of thinking globally and acting locally (and in Dr. Moss’s case, having a global impact).
My wife and I had the pleasure of visiting Dr. Moss in Amboseli a couple of years back, and if you’re looking for a cause, we can’t think of any more worthwhile than hers. We can’t wait to get back under the shadow of Kilimanjaro, to Amboseli.
Consider signing up for the ATE newsletter (from the newsletter link above), and if you do Facebook, like ATE there. For that matter, why not consider a trip to see elephants yourself? Promise, it’ll change your life.
This photo from the EarthPhotos.com Kenya Gallery comes from Amboseli (Click it to enlarge it). Get yourself to Nairobi and there are straightforward connections out to Amboseli, and affordable lodging at the perfectly lovely Ol Tukai Lodge, as well as several other, higher-end options.
We all get caught up in our daily lives, but for those who give at least the occasional thought to our place on the planet, and how we fit in with the larger world of wildlife, a trip into the bush will be way more rewarding than a shiny new big screen TV for Christmas. Promise.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
Some time ago I posted video of the flight from Westray to Papa Westray in the Orkney Islands north of Scotland – the whole flight. In favorable conditions it can take all of 47 seconds.
Here is another, as presented on Vimeo,
“At just over one nautical mile between them, Kegata and Apowo airstrips in Papua, Indonesia are separated by a deep valley making aircraft an ideal mode of transport between the two villages.”
It’s a close second to the Scottish flight, coming in at 73 seconds. Take the whole flight here:
Nice article at ArcticToday.com about a new push for tourism to replace coal mining in Barentsburg, the Russian city on Svalbard, at 78 degrees north latitude.
Polynesia could swallow up the entire north Atlantic Ocean. It’s that big.
Only half of one per cent of Polynesia is land, and 92 per cent of that is New Zealand. Then there’s Tonga and Samoa, the Cook and Hawaiian islands, the French possessions, and back in its own lonely corner, Rapa Nui, the famous Easter Island. Four and a half hours flying time to South America and six hours to Tahiti, Rapa Nui is a mote, a tiny place that feels tiny, forlorn, a footnote.
How in the world did proto-Polynesians cast their civilization from Papua New Guinea all the way to Rapa Nui in canoes, with thousand year old tech, sailing against prevailing winds and all odds?
If you think about it at all, you might suppose Rapa Nui was an accidental discovery, storm-damaged canoes drifting off course, perhaps, or voyages of exile dashed upon obscure rocks. Who imagines resolute, purposeful voyages of discovery on stone-age ships no match for the vastness of the sea?
I do. I fancy single-minded voyages of exploration carried out by well-provisioned scouts sailing with, say, a month’s food, who set out in the more difficult direction, “close to the wind.” If no land were found in a fortnight, when half the food was gone, they could sail home downwind, faster.
By the time Europeans first explored open water, the farthest bits of Polynesia – more than seven times the size of the Roman Empire – had already been settled. Let us not sell the Polynesian navigator short.
I think this is how, from Papua New Guinea and the Bismarck and Solomon archipelagoes in Melanesia, the vastness of Polynesia was wound together, one island at a time, arteries from the heart.
When a voyage of discovery succeeded, the explorers would return to a heroes’ welcome and the king would set about settling the new land. How to provision the settlers? Ropes and reeds for the ships, patches for the sails, food for the journey, seeds and tubers for planting, domestic animals, pigs and chickens.
I imagine a royal council of elders gazing into a crackling fire, kava at hand, debating the necessary skills, selecting the best settlers. There must be canoe-builders, planters, stone masons. Wizened fishermen and promising apprentices. Daughters of child-bearing age. Tears would surely be shed.
A holy man privy to counsel from the gods, (a Tahitian tahu’a with special knowledge of navigation, perhaps), would be called to preside over ceremonies on both the home island and the new.
Today’s navigator consults his own oracles, the blinking, reckoning, chart-following machines on his bridge. And in Micronesia today, the art of navigation by the stars is still passed along orally, in the dark, on the sea, as it always has been.
In legend, Rapa Nui’s first colonizers arrived on two ships, one led by Hotu Matu’a, the other by Ava Reipua, Hotu Matu’a’s wife or sister, it’s unclear. Petroglyphs on a Rapa Nui cliff called Orango tell this tale. But how did they find this place?
In 1999, the Hawaiian historian Herb Kawainui Kāne and the Polynesian Voyaging Society set out to “discover” Rapa Nui using ancient methods and materials. Kāne and crew sailed from Hawaii via Mangareva to Rapa Nui in a canoe called Hōkūle‘a.
Polynesian canoes of exploration didn’t preserve well; scant evidence remains. Drawings from a 1773 British expedition that called at Rapa Nui show double-hulled canoes in the harbor. Excavated fragments of ancient canoes have turned up on New Zealand. A bog on Huahine near Tahiti yielded bits of a canoe. A petroglyph of a canoe at the Orongo cliffs suggests a possible ancient design.
Beyond these clues Kāne and the Voyaging Society found little hard evidence, so they guessed. They crafted a double-hulled canoe 62 feet four inches long, with a draft of two and a half feet and a sail area of 540 square feet.
Nainoa Thompson, the Hōkūle‘a’s navigator, devised a scheme for finding Rapa Nui at once straightforward and ambitious. Rather than hoping just to blunder onto a trifle of land, the Hōkūle‘a would approach from the west, targeting a box 300 miles by 240, two degrees on either side of 27 degrees south of the equator, the island’s latitude. It would sail the box top to bottom, zigzagging back and forth, hoping to pass within sight of Rapa Nui.
A crew member named Sam Low kept a dairy of the mission that glides through the stuff of a sailor’s days – sunrises, stacks of cumulus, sharks and sunsets. We thrill with the crew when just before dawn on October 8th, 1999, seventeen and a half days out of Mangareva, Max Yarawamai, the crewman standing lookout, spots a vague black line on the horizon and the crew celebrates with garlic eggs for breakfast.
Rapa Nui’s suzerain, Chile, is its own enigma. The Atacama Desert in Chile’s north is the driest place in the world. Places there have recorded no measurable rainfall for decades. Because of its altitude and aridity, the Atacama hosts the world’s most advanced telescope.
Though a Pacific nation, at the Strait of Magellan, its storm-hammered southern tip, Chile opens to the Atlantic. A settler described Tierra del Fuego as “65 unpleasant days per year along with 300 days of rain and storms.”
Between desert and strait, Chile’s skeletal finger points the distance from Reykjavik to Ankara, 2,675 miles, but is only 40 miles wide at its narrowest, barely the width of Israel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.
In the Andes to the east Mount Aconcagua towers over all the Americas, at 22,841 feet the western hemisphere’s highest peak. Off the western shore the Atacama trench plunges 26,460 feet beneath the Pacific ocean. From trench to peak: 49,301 feet. Mt. Everest: 29,029 feet.
The length of the country, conical peaks serve as picture-perfect tourist lures. They can also be agents of epic havoc.
The ire of the mountain gods rose with the sun on a Sunday morning in winter, 1960. A 7.5 Richter predawn earthquake chased coastal Conception’s faithful to church and that was good, providential even, as people fled houses fated to collapse.
Another 7.5 crumbled the walls of old Conception just past two o’clock, rolling and shaking for four minutes. Andean ridges skittered and slid. Survivors fled to high ground but the high ground plunged into lakes. Six old and three new volcanoes brewed up, and all this, incredibly, was just the opening act.
7:11 p.m: the strongest earthquake in the history of the earth shook the Pacific Ocean, at 9.5, beyond human experience. Waves rocked the Pacific basin for a week.
Coastal villages simply disappeared under a ghastly eighty-two foot tsunami. Docks and coastal roads, desert to strait, fell into the sea.
Waves bent parking meters in Hilo, Hawaii, 6,600 miles away. Water drew back from the harbor seven feet below normal then bored back in in a flattening scowl.
Ten thousand miles from Concepcion tsunami waves destroyed the entire town of Shizugawa, now called Minamisanriku, and more than a hundred died elsewhere on Honshu, Japan.
Between Japan and Chile lay little Rapa Nui.
Rapa Nui’s famous statues are called moai, and the base on which a moai stands is an ahu. Ahus are holy places, ancestral graves. Likely as not you’ll hear admonitory shouts if you try to touch a moai or walk across an ahu. They are Rapa Nui’s patrimony.
The gods went bowling that day in 1960, scattering the moais at Tongariki two thousand feet inland and dashing their ahu to bits. The Tongariki moais are giants, the island’s greatest achievement, but the heavens’ pique cast them like matchsticks onto the plain.
Thirty years on from the earthquake, Chile’s President Patricio Aylwin sent a replica moai to the destroyed Japanese village of Minamisanriku. The Japanese crane manufacturer Tadano returned the gesture, sending heavy cranes to restore Ahu Tongariki. Until a quarter century ago, the massive Tongariki statues, the island’s iconic, unexplained, unforgettable images, still lay scattered.
We have saved Tongariki for the night of the full moonrise. Fabiola, in whose taxi we have come, is intent, no nonsense, a devoted smoker with one son at university in Santiago and her younger boy here on the island. Her university son will bring a telescopi from the mainland this year, her Christmas gift to her younger boy.
Fabiola demonstrates her expectations for the telescopi, cigarette between her fingers, arms apart and eyes wide, awed by what it will reveal. She must be right because you hardly need a telescopi. Just look to the heavens.
What a place to view the planets. Hardly a view-obscuring light for 2,300 miles. Just here, in a heartbeat, we follow where Fabi is pointing and find two fast-moving satellites.
Counterclockwise through the roundabout we catch the coast road. Children get dirty on the curb. Women on a veranda erupt into theatrical laughs. A slow rider clops by on horseback. We drive for half an hour at a leisurely pace because leisurely is the thing here.
The coast is close; the waves crash in. They’ve come a long way, got up a good head of steam.
Brine in the mist. Lick your lips and you taste it.
Horses graze on shore, unbound by fences. They’re not wild, exactly. They all belong to somebody, they’re branded. But since there’s nowhere for them to go, they go where they will. The surf pounding behind them frees you, too.
Horses and cows and a produce stand. This planted field and that on the inland side. We are running up the east road, sun casting shadows the length of the island, darkness creeping in from the sea.
Here, a moai has been toppled on the ahu where it once stood. Looks like they knocked it over in just such a way to add insult to injury, back broken at the neck in two pieces. Naked conflict, right here.
You read about violence in the late statue-building period and now you see it before you, its cruelty magnified by this smallest canvas. On Rapa Nui the most advanced instrument of war was the adze, a hand tool.
Stéphen-Charles Chauvet imagined it thus: “The attacking warriors set off before daybreak, followed by their women and children, who wailed or intoned ‘protective’ chants.” Women and children found seats along the neighboring slopes to watch the triumph or death of their fathers, husbands and brothers.
Arriving at Tongariki for the first time is hard to describe, an experience you can only have once. The Tongariki ahu aligns with a natural bay hundreds of yards wide, a moor gradually rising inland, a natural amphitheater.
The indifference of towering stones, far out in the Pacific, draws the three of us to quiet. The biggest moai of all is here. Eighty-six tons. Imagine.
The ancients got it and its siblings here somehow, rolled them on logs, rocked them side to side with ropes, somehow. It is just plausible because the quarry, on the slopes of the volcano Rano Raraku, is line of sight from here.
All the half-unearthed, nodding moais you’ve seen in pictures are up there, never finished, never extracted, never put into place, buried to the shoulders, never making their statement.
They say they built them bigger toward the end, perhaps growing more plaintive to the gods, perhaps making more desperate claims on immortality.
The moais’ obsidian pupils stare into the past. We assume a pilgrim’s pose at the base of the ahu. Isolated in the back corner of an obscure island, alone in the twilight, it’s a feeling unlike any other. It’s entirely unique.
A man taking pictures, one other man and a boy are leaving as we walk through one of the rusty turnstiles they’ve put up and long abandoned. Turnstiles?
Campers’ lanterns twinkle down along the shore and besides that there is no one. Only the full moon ascending through broken clouds, a crashing surf, the Rapa Nui moais and us.