On The Road: In The Zambian Bush

Here’s my latest monthly column as published on 14 October, 2019 on 3 Quarks Daily:

Late morning heat rises in waves over tall grass. It’s an hour and a half drive, sand flies buzzing, to Luwi bush camp, a seasonal camp with just four huts of thatch and grass on a still lagoon, far out into Zambia’s South Luangwa National Park, about 300 miles north of Lusaka.

Perched on a cliff above the Luwi River, today the little camp is empty, but for the permanent staff of six – permanent, that is, for the five months each year camp is open. When the rains come in November they tear down Luwi camp and in late April a work crew of twenty rebuilds it top to bottom in order to have it open by June first. We’re first in, a little early at the end of May.

No other guests, just the staff, our guide Aubrey and a European named Grete, who will manage Luwi camp this season. Six months a year Grete is a translator in Brussels (English, French, Dutch and Spanish) and she spends the other six in the bush. Aubrey has a literate streak himself, framing sentences conditionally, starting like “Whereas, with the puku….”

•••••

There’s a chill before dawn. We dress hurriedly in the dark and huddle close-in around a coffee pot over the mopane campfire kept burning since sunset. Our party musters under a creeping orange sky as the bush fills with whistled, warbled, clucked and chattered birdsong declarations that yes, I’ve made it another night; my territory remains mine, so you just stay away.

This morning, a walking safari. My wife Mirja and I will walk behind a rifle-toting scout and Aubrey, 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 scout.

The grass between camp and the river is taller than we are. At the riverbank Isaac and Aubrey part it, revealing crocodiles on the opposite bank. Standing in the shadows, before the sun, on a rise just above the water’s edge, I cannot think why crocs would only inhabit the far bank. Watch your feet.

In these first few minutes Aubrey has already 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 zone, but step gingerly onto a ledge a dozen meters above the river, and sit on a log to watch the sun establish sovereignty.

Water lettuce covers the lagoon. A pod of hippos stands noses just out of the water. The river stretches into a long, slow bend to the right, the near shore sandy cliffs. There is another hippo pod a few hundred meters beyond, just before the bend. Nature blossoms with sound. Nothing manmade is here to be heard or seen.

Below the bend on the opposite bank, Guinea fowl go grubbing the soil, the blue of their helmets indistinct in early light. A hippo breaches the brush, late getting back home, and scatters them.

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

“He is having a bad time with the oxpeckers,” Aubrey explains. Oxpeckers are opportunists. In Ngorongoro Crater, in Tanzania, these birds ride on giraffes’ backs and get a nice aerial view. Here in Zambia, these local oxpeckers have water taxis.

The pod rests, 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 for long moments until the morning shadows have crossed the river and sunlight reigns.

Rains from November to April flood the Luangwa watershed, then April until November are perfectly dry. Rivers and streams recede, forcing the animals into greater and greater concentrations, resulting in increased conflict and 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 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, the grass on either side too tall for us to see ahead or to either side. Isaac guides us toward a stand of mopane trees.

It’s one thing from a safari vehicle, but holding the attention of a hundred buffalo is an entirely different experience when all that’s between you and the herd is grass. They get our scent and turn with the precision of a murmuration of starlings, presenting a rather more solid wall, impenetrably long. They form up and stare intently. Aubrey’s “zone of awareness.” One steps forward and sniffs for the group.

•••••

The sand beneath our feet is a treasure of information. Just now, it holds hyena and leopard prints. 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 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 he can hoist his kill up and away into the tree.

We are walking through grass mostly over our heads, with little wildlife, but the spoor puts on quite a show. From Dutch through Afrikaans, spoor 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 categorizes spoor for tracking wildlife: 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.

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.

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

Isaac stares ahead all the time as if something is always about to happen. He scans above the grass with field glasses.

He’s retired from the park service and keen to pass on the oral tradition to the guides and tea boys. He’s strong on the medicinal uses of plants, from increasing lactation to ameliorating skin disorders to preventing miscarriage.

The grass gives way to trees, larger the 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 we will help it eat them. (Almost like honeyguides, birds that collaborate with humans to find honey in Mozambique.)

Egyptian geese (Aubrey says) fly over as we sit at a not quite entirely dry lagoon. Aubrey hands around coffee and crouches alongside. Already it’s hot. I reach into my camera bag and I’m horrified to brush against a furry, live thing in there, 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, several inches across and I wonder how long I’ve been carrying it around. Frightening damned things, they 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 with their quills. It seems these hairs deter would be attackers by irritating their noses. The African variant does not have that capability. It is more likely that inquisitors, like my big fat fingers in my camera bag, will just get bit.

I shudder; Aubrey offers consolation: Another tarantula species called the Goliath Birdeater weighs in at five ounces, with a leg span of twelve inches.

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.

•••••

At first measure, Luwi bush camp was rustic, but after walking in the tall grass over leopard and hyena tracks, hiking along a river where crocs sunned on the opposite bank, and sharing coffee with a stowaway spider, it’s remarkable how lovely Luwi camp looks now, 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 chairs arrayed around the campfire, moving from one to the next to stay in shade, 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 riverbank, and heat shimmers at midday. Waterbucks wander in twos and threes. Tiny cumulus clouds daub at the horizon under cerulean sky. Alone in camp we sprawl out careless, camera here, camera bag there, a pile of Wildlife and Africa Birds and Birding magazines over there.

Later, 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. We find south with the Southern Cross. The Big Dipper is upside down, low in the northern sky. The lantern casts unsure light under a splayed out Milky Way.

Aubrey grows melancholy by the fire. Where once he had three sisters and three brothers, now he’s the head of the family. He has one sister, and matter-of-factly explains the others died of “natural causes.”

Motionless, he stares into the fire and into his past, and 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, head inside, on the farmer’s porch for his wife to find. She opens the bag, unsuspecting.

A father is taking his son to the doctor but his son dies en route. The man rolls his son up 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. It’s hard to understand it all, but in outline, in Zambian folk practice a 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. A log is set alight to burn for one month, and during that month a couple must conceive.

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.

•••••

Lions call out in the predawn while everybody gathers around 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 might consider Table Mountain in Cape Town. But for Aubrey, South Africa might as well be the moon.

On The Road: The Maneater Of Mfuwe

Here is my monthly column as it appeared Monday on 3QuarksDaily.

by Bill Murray

Just about everyone who visits the famous South Luangwa wildlife park drives through Mfuwe, Zambia. A mere wide spot in the road, a trifle to tourists, Mfuwe holds a fearsome, searing memory. It will forever be known for the Man-Eater of Mfuwe, a lion that killed six people over two months in 1991.

There are more famous man-eating tigers than lions in the literature. Tigers and people live in closer proximity in India than lions and people in Africa. I’ve seen an estimate of as many as 10,000 people killed by tigers in India in the nineteenth century.

The Champawat Tigress, the most infamous Panthera tigris, was said to have killed 436 people before she was killed in Nepal, then part of British colonial India, in 1911. After a spree of terror, hunters having failed to kill her, the authorities ultimately called in the Nepalese army. In Kenya’s Tsavo Park two lions killed perhaps two dozen Indian railroad construction workers in 1898, halting the colonizing Brits’ project to connect the port of Mombasa with the interior of British East Africa.

But the Mfuwe man-eater was no colonial-era killer. Its attacks occurred less than thirty years ago, thoroughly terrorizing an overgrown village of scarcely a thousand a spare 60 miles west of the border with Malawi, oriented toward the Malawian capital, Lilongwe. Lusaka, the Zambian capital, is 300 miles away.

The night of the first attack the killer struck two boys walking along a road at night. One escaped, but responding game rangers found only clothing and fragments of the other boy’s skull. A few days later a lion crashed through the door of a woman’s rondavel on the edge of the village. The second victim.

The third attack was nearly foiled by an edgy ranger, who fired his gun, but the victim, a young boy, was bitten and died of his wounds. Three more attacks were to come. People began to believe this was no ordinary lion, but a devil or a medicine man taking the shape of a lion.

•••••

Today the Mfuwe lion is stuffed and on display at the Field Museum in Chicago. 3.2 meters long, 1.2 meters at the shoulder and estimated at 249 kilos, it was male, and it was mane-less, similar in that way to the man-eating lions of Tsavo.

At first the lack of a mane led people to assume they were after a lioness. Early in the Mfuwe terror, people believed they’d got the man-eater, when a Japanese hunter brought down a lioness. But then the man-eater entered a woman’s hut and stole a bag of laundry, taking the bag into the village and roaring over it. This lion was clearly male.

•••••

Wayne Hosek wasn’t the first to try to kill the cursed thing. Other professionals, including the Japanese hunter, tried before Hosek.

Remarkably, as a child the man who ultimately brought down the Mfuwe man-eater studied the man-eaters of Tsavo, also on exhibit at the Field Museum. Wayne Allen Hosek was born in Chicago.

He says the Field Museum has always been one of his favorite places on earth. As a boy, Hosek spent days in front of the Tsavo lions, trying to imagine confronting the real thing, as he imagined it, with nothing but a few seconds separating him from their wrath.

Hosek’s battle with the Mfuwe man-eater stretched across the first nine days of September, 1991. First he met the hunter who had shot the lioness. Everyone hoped that solved the problem of this particularly evil Panthera leo but days later, two days before the hunter returned home to Japan, the sixth victim was attacked.

Hosek’s early description, a pdf in the Field Museum’s archives, is incomplete, reading as an early draft of an incomplete story (Hosek later wrote a book.). There’s even a place in the .pdf where his narrative reads “SECTION TO COME.”

In that section perhaps Hosek would have introduced us to his hunting companions, for later we are assumed to know “Charl” (Charl Beukes, another professional hunter), who was with Hosek the night the animal was killed.

Hosek visited villages where the lion had been spotted, talking to people, learning the cat’s behavior. The killer had dragged the last victim, a woman named Jesleen, from her rondavel in the Luangwa valley village of Ngozo.

The day after Jesleen was killed the lion walked into her home in the middle of the day and took a white bag with some of her clothing. People frantically beat on pots and pans to scare the lion away. It played with the bag like a cat with catnip. They found the bag in a dry river bed a mile from Jesleen’s house.

Village women used to wash their family’s clothes there by walking to the middle of the riverbed and digging down to water. Hosek writes, on this day “(e)ven the hornbills lounging in the riverbed seemed to be giving the bag a wide berth.”

Phillip Caputo, in Ghosts of Tsavo, writes that at this point Hosek’s trackers wouldn’t look him in the eye, two of them wouldn’t look at him at all, as if they resented his getting them into all this.

The elders decided Jesleen’s bag was bewitched and the lion was a sorcerer or a demon, “or at least demon possessed,” and villagers would not go near the bag. Authorities instituted a curfew at 5:00 over an area of some 65 square miles.

The hunters laid bait near the bag, hoping to keep the lion near, and retired to camp. Hosek’s companion Charl counseled, “Remember to follow-up HARD as soon as you make your first shot.” Hosek, a devout Christian, woke repeatedly that night, and each time he prayed.

The next day they built a blind using bamboo and elephant grass cut by villagers. Charl shot a small hippo and laid a haunch in the riverbed. They spent an uneventful night. The lion didn’t take the bait, but by day the hunters found its tracks a scant fifty feet from the blind.

The following day the hunters holed up in the blind around 3:30. Hosek describes “blind sleep” – “my eyes were closed, but my ears seemed to have acquired an ability to listen to each and every sound.”

Again they didn’t see the lion, but by now, “(t)he man-eater had become the center of my life’s purpose.”

Too many ineffectual cloistered hours led to a new strategy. They would build a new blind elsewhere, hang bait and leave the blind empty, in hopes the lion would get comfortable at the absence of its stalkers. They arranged for others to build the blind so the cat wouldn’t get the scent of the hunters.

Charl selected the site. He felt that the lion was clever enough never to let the hunters spy him standing still, and that it would be moving whenever it allowed them to see it. Gauging their being shut away in a blind against a lion on the prowl, he thought ultimately they would have no more than 2.5 to 3 seconds to take their shot.

When the hunters made their way to the new blind they saw that the man-eater had torn off part of the bait and eaten it in a footpath used by villagers. As Hosek tried to take a photo of the lion’s tracks, his camera broke.

As a Christian, he took it as “possibly a sign from the Lord.” The villagers saw the lion as a witch or a demon, after all. They had their spirituality. Hosek had his.

On the day of the lion’s death, the hunters entered the new blind, again about 3:30. In less than an hour Charl spotted movement in tall grass. The lion approached in line with the trunk of a tree, masking its visibility.

Hosek writes that he was “in a quick stride, almost trotting.” Hosek shot the lion below and behind its left shoulder, and it was dead. One of the trackers sang the Kunda tribal lion song and villagers converged on the place, spitting on the lion, beating it with sticks, and lit celebratory fires.

•••••

This is the story from Hosek’s memoirs, but I have found out a little more. Some time ago I asked Adrian Carr of the Norman Carr Safaris clan, about Hosek’s account. Carr figured in the man-eater story, but downplayed his role. He sat up on watch for the lion one night, saw it, but never managed to get a shot.

Here is Carr’s perspective:

“I had got involved because one of my workers insisted that I come and see something.

“He had got up in the night and gone outside for a wee. The lion had tried to catch him but somehow he got back in to his hut – the lion followed him in and he miraculously managed to get back out again – though the door. All this in the pitch black with all the terrifying growling. It was a small mud hut without windows and luckily he had been alone. The doors are on the inside opening inwards – so when he got back out he pulled the door closed and the lion was stuck inside. This is what he wanted me to see. It was like a bomb had gone off inside – the lion had totally destroyed everything including the roof from where he had eventually got out.

“I then put a bait up nearby (a hippo haunch) and the same lion fed on it that night – he had a big distinctive track.

“I decided to sit up for him the next night.

“My plan was to commandeer one of the cylindrical grain storage bins (kokwe) around the village as a blind or shelter. It was September (I think) and the grain storage bins were mostly empty. Traditionally they are made from split bamboo and woven together very tightly. They are quite heavy, very strong and I felt (in the daylight) impregnable. I would plonk myself down on the ground 30 yards from the bait – the basket, 6 feet in diameter and 8 feet high would be placed over me, I would cut a little window to shoot through and await developments….

“I was a bit late arriving that afternoon, – a small crowd gathered. I dispatched 5 strong men to go and collect a kokwe and received some quizzical looks…

“I watched as one guy sauntered up to the kokwe and effortlessly lifted it up above his head!

“Oh dear…. !! Made of millet stalks instead of bamboo! That’s like pith and balsa wood with no strength at all.

“Too late however to do anything else if I was to retain my casual demeanor and reputation of aloof imperturbability and disdain for the magical beliefs that are always associated with man-eating lions.

“Privately, of course, I was seriously doubting the wisdom of the whole enterprise!

“He came soon after midnight. Or at least that’s when I first became aware of him. I could hear his footfall circling my paper-bag fortress. My two heavy rifles, three flashlights and a handgun were little comfort. It went quiet for a bit and then I heard him feeding on the bait. I let him settle in to the feeding for 20 minutes and then put the light on him. I still have the mental image of him standing up on his hind legs, very big and tall, maneless and pale. I was ready to shoot but the instant the light hit him he dropped and was gone. He never came back and Charl and Wayne got him two nights later.”

•••••

Adrian Carr graciously shared his story by email, kindly arranged by Norman Carr Safaris, which is now a company called Time and Tide. My thanks to the Carr family and Adrian Carr. 

Photos © the author from EarthPhotos.com.

On the Road: Wildebeest Crossing

My column at 3QuarksDaily as it ran on Monday:

On the Road: Wildebeest Crossing

The crocodiles know. They form pincers on either side of the crossing point. Richard says they feel the vibration of all those hooves along the riverbank above them.

Waves of animals surge toward the river then fall away. If they all go we’ll witness a frightful, deadly crush of beasts in motion, mad energy, herd hysteria, dust and confusion, the cries of mortally wounded beasts rising to the heavens, birds of prey gaggling and swooping and squawking, kinetic intensity unbound.

We have come to see the sprawling, real life spectacle of wildebeests crossing the Mara River. It is the largest overland migration in the world.

•••••

Before dawn odd factory sounds waft across the river from behind a stand of trees. The explanation rises as a fire-breathing, tourist-wielding hot air balloon.

Stiff northerly winds will make for a short flight because the pilot must put down before the Tanzanian border, and you can see Tanzania from here. Wherever they land, champagne breakfast will be served on a folding table covered by a Maasai blanket, delivered by Land Rovers even now in mad pursuit.

“Are you strong?”

It is our driver/guide Richard’s pre-dawn battle cry, out by the Land Rover.

We are.

You begin every safari getting to know the back of your driver/guide’s head, your little team finding its groove for twelve-hour days spent in close quarters. Richard wears an oversized green jacket and a standard issue ball cap with the camp logo, and he parcels out his words with care.

We ask questions ripe for elaboration:

“Do you drive around film crews sometimes?”

Richard replies, “Yes.”

“Odd tree there. Is it a type of baobab?”

“It’s a fig tree or something.”

Richard doesn’t care much about the botany that’s required knowledge for today’s tourism college graduates. His strength is twenty five years on home ground, ten thousand days driving these plains.

•••••

The Mara River flows fast and muddy brown, fed from the Mau escarpment that runs as high as 10,000 feet from Nakuru town in Kenya all the way down to Tanzania. Sometimes its banks slope up in sandy transition zones, but more often downcutting has created serrated edges. Grass along the cliffs is grazed tight, testimony to the herds’ frequent presence and repeated dalliances with crossing.

The gamut of plains antelopes falls in for morning inspection. Topi stand as topi do on termite mounds, itchy but seizing a meter’s worth of improved view, with plum flanks and black snouts, kin to the handsome Sassebees down south.

While the eland species found in Kenya is called the common eland, it is anything but, a huge thing, a sight to behold, its majestic horns spiraling over a dewlap, a bulge of skin under the jaw akin to the vocal sac of a bullfrog or the pelican’s fish-stash pouch. The eland’s stripes suggest white paint dropped from above and drizzled down its flanks.

Each dawn reveals the previous night’s kills. The plains brim with food just now, and after the principal predator has its fill – a lion, a pack of hyenas – avian beak and claw devour the remains. The corpse is beset by a horde of vultures, maribous and bustards. Among them, every prospective bite involves mortal combat.

A martial eagle protects its own kill, neck thick and pulsing, straddling raw meat. Not your most handsome bird, this one, more workmanlike than noble, with obvious physical prowess. Burly, rippling with muscle. And a cannibal. Even those huge storks that nest atop phone poles in the northern part of Europe “are recorded to have fallen prey to the martial eagle. Poor little guinea fowl are just snacks.

An impala calf? That’s a banquet. 

We drive and we drive from the river to hills and back, and we are forever in the midst of wildebeests. Richard stops the Land Rover and shakes his head. “One year we had the big number. But to me I think this is the biggest. This must be a million.” We are among so many bearded beests that there must be no more anywhere on earth. They are all here.

•••••

Yellow is the color of the savannah from here north to the Sahel. The classic plains vista, yellow under blue, lacks only the umbrella acacias found farther north. This time of year the grass across the Mara River really is greener on the other side, as the wildebeest migration follows the rains.

Showers play over the Tanzania end of the escarpment. Called the Maasai Mara in Kenya and the Serengeti in Tanzania, this ecosystem is all the same place, and the escarpment is its western marker.

Storms throw the herd into confusion as auditory cues go missing. A tempest brews out of forbidding darkness, a furious squall, and the wildebeests move toward the rain. Before long it is hard to tell if the tracks on which Richard drives are roads or rivers.

The rain is the reason the herds are here. It brings the grasses back to life. A biologist named Richard Bell determined the process: zebras lead and the wildebeests follow, trailed by gazelles.

Zebras strip away the tops of tall, coarse grasses which those who follow find hard to digest. Wildebeests ruminate on the shorter, revealed grasses, their broad muzzle and loose lips adapted to bulk feeding. Gazelles follow to eat the most protein-rich shoots and sprouts. A rather more scientific explanation, “Grazing Succession of Ungulates in Western Serengeti,” won Bell his PhD in the 1960s.

•••••

Watch the herd’s behavior. If it moves toward the river, Richard says follow, but stay back. To approach the water’s edge too soon is hubris. You don’t know where they will cross, they don’t know, and a noisy machine on the cliff might put them off entirely.

Look for the beests to form up into a line. It doesn’t presage a crossing but it is a first indication. Zebras, even just a pair, will start the move toward water. Again and again queues will form, swaying one way and then the other, farragos of tentative intent drawn to the precipice.

Knots of animals gather and disperse a dozen times, but it is scarcely eight o’clock in the morning. Warmth hasn’t taken full hold; the beests won’t yet be thirsty, won’t be inclined to come down to the water for a drink.

A crossing will take a while. Patience.

•••••

The other day a train drove 60 miles across Australia with no one aboard, and it’s not clear if anyone is engineering this river crossing either. Whenever the beests cross, some will wind up crushed between the jaws of crocodiles. Does the herd know that crossing a river seeded with predators is mortal business?

Bees wouldn’t. Ants wouldn’t. Their tiny brains don’t do complex decision-making, but individual bees and ants, genetically predisposed to carry out duties associated with a few jobs – ‘guards,’ ‘workers,’ ‘scouts’ – collaborate to create colonies. Termites form mounds the same way. Collectively, they get things done.

After the space shuttle Challenger’s explosion “(t)he stock market did not pause to mourn.” Stocks of four contractors suffered losses but Morton Thiokol’s was the hardest hit, down four times as much as the others’. There was no immediate evidence Thiokol was to blame but six months later a presidential commission fingered the O-rings made by Thiokol. The market had it right in the first half hour.

Will the herd make the most efficient choice? Once an individual jumps into the water the rest will follow. All it takes is one. A single match will start a conflagration, and the instigator can be anybody, even a youngster. One act begets the next. Like the wave performed at ball games, a determined few can incite the crowd.

Could it be that the general movement of a herd (or a school of fish or a murmuration of starlings) is comparable to the way a brain thinks? An individual neuron doesn’t generate an opinion, but the collection of neurons called the brain, eventually does.

•••••

The sun is back by mid-morning. A group of beests congregates near the edge. Ours and other vehicles draw back from the crossing point called Double Cross where a tributary debouches into the Mara.

The pace quickens; animals bunch up. A thousand wildebeests pull away and the herd is diminished by half. Some vehicles leave but Richard won’t budge and he is right. After a time the animals (trailed by the vehicles) come back to stand on high ground at the precipice.

One zebra climbs down. More. The herd grows frantic and … pandemonium, dashing, mad splashing, and in the end we reckon 2000 animals cross, and it is all over fifteen minutes past noon.

We’ve seen a crossing our first morning. There’s nothing to this.

Self-satisfied, we break out a cooler full of Tuskers, but before the first beer is open a bit of a challenge raises its hooded head over the cliff and commands our rapt attention. A spitting cobra moves onto the ground along the Land Rover’s passenger side. This evil thing is longer than I am tall. Truth be told, other than its considerable length it looks about like the next snake.

It is not.

“Aggressive and poisonous,” Richard, our man of clipped vocabulary, remarks.

These cobras track their prey’s head movement, predicting where its eyes will be 200 milliseconds ahead of time and rotate their heads prior to ejecting venom “to cover a plane of probability.”

This particular cobra has immediate command over the humans in the Land Rover. As it makes its way over the bank ahead of us, along the side of the vehicle and into a hole in the dirt behind us, we scrunch over in the middle of the Land Rover away from the doors. As soon as the thing disappears head first into its lair, Richard starts the Land Rover and we flee.

•••••

The infantry soldier in the Great War’s trenches spent “months of boredom punctuated by moments of terror.” The terror side of the analogy works with the cobra, but the boredom part breaks down, for it is impossible to be bored watching tens of thousands of animals on an African plain.

During the afternoon, while we wait, Richard talks about life. Friends of his have been attacked by hippo or buffalo, some killed. He just lost his father two months ago and at this we stiffen and wince; he is still grieving and we had no idea. Richard’s father was only sick a few weeks and they don’t know why he died. So many African tragedies.

•••••

An hour before sunset the hunt is on again. A distant line of wildebeests is on the move, covering ground, driving, attracting adherents, surging to become a single feral statement. Vehicles move parallel until the herd stampedes itself into precarity, storming a peninsula, thundering to an abrupt halt.

Crocodiles wait below, unmoving, dinosaurs poised for dinner.

The to and fro, the collective heartbeat, resumes. Richard fancies they are seeking consensus. If the caprice of one callow gnu can set off mass death, might wizened elders be conjuring undetectable hindering tricks? Perhaps the wisdom of crowds manifests too in mass group restraint.

Thousands of wildebeests paw the soil, driven to the edge, nervous, twitching. In fast-fading light the beests’ faces take on spectral shadow, the whole heaving mass willing itself, just one of itself, to hurl its body into the water, for all the rest to follow.

Not one of them does. The herd plays with fire but no one lights the match.

•••••

Gray light and a chill morning wind yield to midday sun. Richard raises his field glasses and sees a “huge group” ahead. “Thousands and thousands,” he says, and steers us toward a hilltop, seeking enough distance to discern direction of movement.

Far back along the savannah, an endless queue moves in mostly orderly pilgrimage. The vanguard collects into a grazing mass at the riverbank. A camp called Serena looks like haphazard prefab houses along the opposite ridge.

This herd is assertive from the start, muscular, not tentative like before, determined to cross, with strength in its numbers. Congregations merge and the entire mass moves toward a spot with easy-sloping banks, but all these beests spread well wide of the chosen point. 

We are surrounded, swallowed up. The spearhead turns the riverbank to a seething, febrile froth, and in an instant, mayhem! Thundering and diving and rending noises, splashing and motion, bedlam you have never seen. Waves of beests hurl themselves over cliffs up and down the river. They press ahead. A half hour, a herd in motion, and then still more, no rear guard, ranks replenished over and over and then again.

The biggest crossing of the season.

On the far bank the herd emerges at a sprint. Individuals do not reconstitute into a group until far up onto the plain. A few emerge hobbled, limbs broken by the jump from the cliff or the crush of bodies. Some wildebeests are taken by crocodiles.

The aftermath continues an hour, and more. Mothers and offspring separated by the frenzy search for one another. Some mothers come to the far bank and look this way, imploring their young to appear. Will they cross back this way?

A few do. Most do not.

In time, zebras venture back to the far bank to drink. They were the cocky ones in the first place; they still have the swagger. Crocodiles lay at the water’s edge and do not attack. Are they sated from yesterday or rattled by what just happened, the movement and tumult and noise? A pair of giraffes approach the water but do not drink.

What do you think, was it five thousand, six?

More, Richard replies. Many more.

•••••

My other 3QuarksDaily columns are here.

Elephants, and Our Place in the World

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.

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.

•••••

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.”