20 September 2010

Cheetah Kingdom

Like millions of other TV viewers, I have been watching Cheetah Kingdom. I really enjoy this series, more so because I visited Okonjima in Namibia several years ago and wrote a feature on the work of the Africat Foundation. 

We knew the visit was going to be special as soon as the wheels of the light plane touched down on the Okonjima airstrip, for running alongside the plane were two cheetahs behind a fence. They were having fun, racing the plane as it sped along the strip.

For the next three days we learnt about the work of the Africat Foundation, including the rescue of cheetahs trapped, poisoned or shot by farmers, injured on the roads, and the rearing of kittens left to die when their mother had been shot. It was all very sad, but it was uplifting to see the cats enjoying their lives, albeit in huge enclosures. There was one character who only had three legs and until the guide pointed this fact out, I don't think any of us had noticed.

There is a big release programme too. First the animals considered suitable for release are prepared by being moved into huge pens where they have little human contact and then they are allowed into the reserve.  To-date Africat has released more than 1000 cats - cheetahs and leopards - a fantastic record.

Africat is keen to education the local people to the importance of protecting the cheetahs and leopards. Rather than simply tell farmers not to shoot the cats, they try to show farmers different ways of managing their cattle, so that the cattle are less vulnerable to cheetah attack. It was going to be an uphill struggle, especially with some of the 'die-hard' farmers who has always 'done it this way' but they were hopeful that once a few farms were converted the others would see the benefits.

It was a wonderful place to visit, not just because of the cheetahs and leopards, but because of the wealth of wildlife everywhere - the birds of prey on almost every post, caracals in the gardens, and yes the odd snake including one bushmaster that sprung up in front of us as we made our way by torchlight from our room to the main lodge. Now that really did get our hearts beating!

for more info visit their website http://www.africat.org/

13 September 2010

An Uneasy Spring

The first day of September is officially regarded as the first day of spring in South Africa. I was lucky and spent the night camping in my van in a National Park. The night was cold, the stars were bright and the bird calls in the morning almost ridiculously loud. In spring it seems that nature turns its thoughts and sounds to love, or at least courtship and the procreation of most of the species.

I managed to get into the reserve before the sun was up, an exciting bit of travel because the vehicle’s windows steamed up. My solution is to open all windows and travel in what becomes a chest freezer on wheels.It was dangerous because elephants are because of their size always assume they have right of way. Then of course my camera lenses decided to mist over and my breath caused condensation on the viewfinder and camera back – very frustrating sometimes.

Many animals give birth in spring and early summer. A surprise was to find two very young kudu with the remnants of their umbilical cords still attached. Quite what they were doing on their own was a mystery but there were no predators around and it was wonderful trying to capture them with the camera just as the sun started creeping over the hills. I wonder what the Black Backed Jackal was thinking when he sat near them – perhaps the foals were just passing through his turf as they would not tackle something so big. The jackals howled and all the other jackals around responded – a very Africa moment.

And then of course I discovered that spring is an illusion in Africa. Sure there is a season but the wildlife continues the cycle of life and death no matter what the season. There was a large and dead buffalo next to the road. The Black Backed Jackals were frantic in their efforts to remove scraps of meat from the carcass. I did not even know they were such scavengers and I had spent the previous day trying to photograph a jackal turning over elephant dung in its search for insects. The jackals scattered when a Spotted Hyena made its appearance. It is not an animal I am very familiar with and it made for interesting watching. They are as ugly as the cartoons make out and their table manners are absent. The crunching of bones was loud. Then a beautiful young male lion arrived and the Hyena scattered. The lion spent time extracting flesh from the carcass – most of the meat was gone. It was strange to see it pulling back the skin to give more access to the buffalo’s ribs. The lion only stopped eating to chase the Hyena away. There is really no love lost between the two species. To give other vehicles a chance of getting close I followed the Hyena.

It went to a waterhole where I noticed it was wearing a tracking collar, drank water and urinated in the water - don’t know why. It wandered around a while before it started rolling on the ground, not unlike a dog that has found something smelly and worthy of rolling on. It then got up and picked up the carcass of what could be either a young jackal or young hyena and carried it away.

On my way to the protected spot where one can get out of the car is a fairly steep incline and it is the one spot where I worry about elephants. The waterhole is at the bottom of the hill and elephants, being wise and sensible creatures, tend to walk down the road. Being big they pick up speed and gather momentum and it is a terrifying sight if you are parked at the bottom of the hill. This time I was able to watch someone in a fancy car reversing downhill at high speed to escape what he thought was a charging elephant. In any case elephants always have right of way and I am not sure if you will ever see a picture of one lumbering towards my car taken from that spot.

By then I had enough and needed time to think about the kill. The thinking went as follows. There was blood on the road and someone told me there had been 5 hyenas on the kill. It is possible that they made the kill although the text books don’t list buffalo as being regular prey. There was very little left of the buffalo and they are known for their tremendous ability to consume food quickly. They would easily have been able to drag the buffalo into the bushes as the single hyena was able to lift and turn the remains of the carcass. I think the lion had been opportunistic; the particular lion is well known and goes by the name of Nomad and is very much a loner. It is unlikely that he would tackle a buffalo on his own but there may have been other lions in the area – I realise that we will never know what animal made the kill. Hyenas have complicated social structure and I do not know why the lone hyena rolled on and carried away the small carcass. I do know that they like to litter bones and pieces of their prey about their dens.

I know that what I have written is unsatisfactory in that nothing I mention is conclusive and nor were my guidebooks when I got home. I just came away with the realization that I don’t know much about the fairly common wildlife and especially little about their behaviour. I also know that traditionally according to poetry and writing spring is about bird song and pretty flowers. In the wilds it is precarious and about survival and eating the weak and innocent. The flowers tend to get trampled. Your nerves will get shattered if you just park your car in the wrong place at the bottom of the hill.

9 September 2010

Towards a greener Cruise industry

Reducing your holiday carbon footprint by eco cruising is now being considered essential by more and more people. If cruising is the type of holiday you prefer, then there are ways and means of ensuring that your chosen company is doing its utmost to be green.

In one week the cruise industry creates millions of tons of wastewater, thousands of tons of sewage and some older vessels will have contaminated huge amounts of sea water from the oil seeping from their engines. Until fairly recently it was common practice for cruise liners to dump a large amount of untreated waste into the oceans, causing major destruction on the ecosystems and marine life.

The cruise companies have made tremendous strides forward in the past five years and have cut their waste in half. For example some are employing new gas turbines that drastically reduce nitrogen and sulphur emissions and others have installed seawater scrubbers to remove smokestack pollutants.

Many people now take smaller cruise ships  or even the sailing cruise lines as both are far smaller than the modern leviathans that sail the seas. If they don't do this then actively look for companies that are using the modern advances  from screw propulsion  technology to onboatd waste storing and recycling.
These advances however are not cheap and it’s going to get even more expensive as all vessels travelling within 200 nautical miles of the American and Canadian coasts will have to cut their fuel sulphur content by 98 percent. The rules approved by the International Maritime Organization will be phased in from 2012, and new ships will have to use advanced pollution-control technology beginning in 2016. The problem is that this fuel is twice as expensive so the knock on effects for the cruise industry are going to be huge.