Wednesday, December 14, 2011

10 Lions Versus 1 Monitor Lizard

What do you get when you cross ten lions with one monitor? Well nine times out of ten you'd expect one sore and sorry lizard - but not on this occasion!

Played out over an hour in the Lemai Wedge in northern Serengeti, this unusual exchange ended after an hour with the monitor walking away unharmed and the lions seemingly nursing bruised egos!

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Snake Wrangling 101

I've had a passion for snakes that started when I was toddler in Zambia. Around that time my father caught my first pet snake - a species of unknown, presumably non venomous origins. My first serious foray into the world of snake handling occurred a short time later at the age of 3 while on holiday in Singapore with my parents. By all accounts, we were at a reptile show and the handler asked for a volunteer from the audience to come down to the front and have a rather large python placed around their neck. Before my parents could blink I was on my way down the isle to gasps from the crowd and well on my way to a life never too far from these much reviled, legless reptiles.

Despite the reputation of Australia as the land of all things serpent it wasn't until I returned to Zambia age 22 that I really got my hands dirty, so to speak. Working as a trainee safari guide, and subsequently as a qualified guide, in Zambia's Sth Luangwa NP I soon gained a reputation as the crazy guy who loved snakes and every time any of the staff at the lodge where I was working spotted a snake I was summoned immediately. I even had one young man, who very unusually for a Zambian, actually shared my passion for catching snakes. He would would put any snakes he found in a pillow case and place that on my bed if I wasn't around. The lady who cleaned my room learned very quickly not to go near anything left writhing on my mattress and it wasn't long before I was left to clean my own room on a daily basis.

It was around this time that I became good friends with a fellow guide from South Africa, Craig Doria,  who had published the first book on the snakes of the region; the aptly titled "A guide to the snakes of Luangwa Valley". I immediately set about helping him document as many species on film as we could get our hands on in order to republish his book with colour photos. This often involved placing newly acquired specimens in the camp cold room in order to render them easier to handle and photograph. Over time we refined and perfected our snake wrangling routine that as you can see from the video below shot some 10 years later in Tanzania, is still a work in progress.

Please don't try this at home - or anywhere else for that matter!


Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The White Curse Revisited

About a decade ago I published an article in Australasian Science entitled "The White Curse" In the article I looked at the reasons why so few albino animals survive to maturity in the wild. There are a number of factors that contribute to the high mortality rate  of these 1 in 10,000 anomalies including poor eyesight and higher incidence of skin cancer however it would seem there is one thing that above all others prevents these animals from living a long and productive life - their colour!

Many species of animal rely on camouflage to survive in their natural habitats. - take the kudu pictured below that I photographed in Zambia's South Luangwa in the late 1990's for example. It's easy to see from this image that the albino individual is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to trying to blend into its surroundings. This was confirmed barely two weeks after this photo was taken when a pack of wild dogs singled out this white kudu from the rest of the herd thus confining another albino to an early death.

Albino Kudu - Sth Luangwa National Park, Zambia.

Over the years guiding in Zambia and Tanzania I have only seen a few  more albino or partially albino animals including a young baboon and a hyrax. One thing that they all had in common was they were all juveniles, further strengthening my belief that most wild born albinos don't survive to maturity. There has however been one exception to this rule that I was lucky enough to see and photograph early in 2009 on the plains of the southern Serengeti.

Late in the afternoon on a game drive out of Kusini campsite, I spotted an unusually coloured animal off in the distance. On closer inspection through my binoculars I had to do a double take as what appeared to be a pure white Honey Badger ambled  through the grass. On closer inspection my suspicions were confirmed as there staring us down in typical badger style was an all white adult complete with a large black scorpion protruding from its mouth. It paused just long enough for a few photos before disappearing into some low brush. Given their fearsome reputation it makes sense that if any albino animal is going to survive to maturity then its going to be this one!

Albino Honey Badger - Serengeti National Park, Tanzania.

Partial Albino Hyrax - Serengeti National Park

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fish & Chimps

There are few places on earth as unique as the Mahale Mountains National Park (NP) in western Tanzania. This protected area on the shores of Lake Tanganyika (the world's second deepest lake) is home to the largest surviving wild population of the eastern subspecies of common chimpanzees (numbering between 700 & 1000) and is among the best places in Africa to view mans closest relative in their natural habitat.

Often overshadowed by the much smaller Gombe Stream NP to the north due to the famous association of that park with Jane Goodall, Mahale is perhaps the best kept secret in a country rich in wilderness areas including Mt Kilimanjaro, the Serengeti NP and Ngorongoro Crater to name but a few. Unlike these parks and their accessibility on Tanzania's so called "northern safari circuit", access to Mahale requires a two and a half hour flight in a small plane to the far west of the country and a further hours transfer by boat.

What awaits the intrepid traveler is a global biodiversity hot spot (there are only 34 recognised worldwide) almost untouched by trappings of modern life with no road access or human settlements - an area rich in plant and animal life offering up unique experiences that are the highlight of any safari to Tanzania. And so it was on my 6th and most recent trip to this magical destination with 11 guests from the States.

On arrival at Nkungwe Lodge we were informed by Mahale's premier chimpanzee guide, Sixtus, that part of "M Group" - Mahale's long studied and only habituated group of chimps - were a short boat ride away and easily accessible from the shore. And so we set out with high expectations of getting our first look at these amazing apes! Barely 20 minutes into our walk along along a well worn path away from the lake, we were greeted by the first of many chimpanzees that we would have the good fortune of seeing over the next three days.

Each morning, the expert tracker from camp would leave before the group in order to locate the group or part thereof. The position is then relayed back to camp and the adventure begins, with groups limited to six people plus one guide. Depending on the distance of the group from camp, the hike can take anywhere from 30 minutes to four hours one way. We were lucky on this occasion as over the three days we never had to walk for more than one and a half hours. The ease at which Sixtus and the other guides and rangers not only located but identified each individual was astounding and added to what was already an awe inspiring experience. 

In addition to the extraordinary chimpanzee viewing on offer in Mahale, visitors also have the opportunity to fish for their supper, either from the shore or aboard the camp long boat. Tanganyika Perch and Yellow Belly Cichlids are just two of the many species on offer. As with the chimpanzee trekking, fishing is carefully regulated by the parks authorities and a daily license is required.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ultimate Cheetah Sighting: Southern Serengeti, January 2009

Cheetah sightings are often the highlight of a safari. On average, you could expect to have one or two good sightings of these magnificent spotted cats on a 4 day visit to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, particularly on the short grass plains to the south. This particular occurrence is not only extraordinary in that it was the fifth cheetah sighting for the Keith family and their friends on their safari in January 2009, but more so because of the number of cheetahs we saw. At one stage there were 9 cheetahs in close proximity to our vehicle when on average you could expect to see 2 or perhaps 5 of them if you are really lucky!
It all started with our last game drive out of our private camp in the Kusini woodlands. Heading south east towards the Ndutu woodland, on the border with the Ngorongoro Conservation Area, it wasn't long before we had our first significant sighting for the drive - 3 young male cheetahs. It became apparent that they weren't going to be moving any time soon so we decided to carry on with our game drive - planning to return later in the day.

When we returned to the 3 males on the drive back to camp  we found them in the same state of mind as when we left them and decided to call it a day. Not long after we had driven away, something caught my eye off in the distance. What at first glance appeared to be a safari vehicle parked on the plains with people sitting on the roof. The view through my binoculars told a very different story! There was indeed a safari vehicle parked out on the plains, but instead of people on the roof there were 4 young cheetahs! This wasn't the first time that I had seen cheetahs on the roof of a car, my own included, however this was the first time I had seen 4 cheetahs on the roof of a car!

The driver had obviously reacted quickly to the cheetahs climbing onto his bonnet and decided to shut his roof. He had what was the sighting of a lifetime taking place on top of his vehicle with no way for for him or his clients to see what was going on. Luckily I was able to film this remarkable occurrence and send them a video of the fun and games taking place above them.

After about 10 minutes, with a little encouragement from the driver, the youngsters decided to vacate their temporary vantage point and join their sister and mother who were resting in the grass about a hundred meters to our left. Along the way one of the young males decided he liked the look of our vehicle and soon we had our own hitchhiker. After a few curious glances through the window, he decided he wanted a higher vantage point and before we knew it, or could close the roof, we were looking up at the underside of the fastest animal on four legs!

Despite some nervous moments, when it looked as though we were going to get an even closer view of our new friend, both animal and humans came out of this amazing experience no worse off than an increased heart rate. Turns out his mother had caught a baby gazelle for him and his siblings to practice hunting on and he didn't want to miss out on the experience. We then watched as the 5 reunited siblings took it in turn chasing the startled antelope before knocking it down with a gentle swipe of their front paw. This happened over and over again and each time when the foal was brought down the inexperienced hunters would stand there seemingly unable to carry out the inevitable next step.

Just as it looked as though their mother would finally take over, panic ensued and before we knew what was going on, the 3 male cheetahs we had observed earlier were hot on the heals of one of the young males. Thankfully they too seemed to be inexperienced, as it is not unheard  of for cheetah coalitions to chase and kill rival males. In this case, the young males seemed more interested in the reproductive state of the females. Pretty soon all 9 cheetahs became tired of all the excitement and sat themselves down to rest only meters from our car. That is how we left them as we headed back towards camp, everyone in quiet contemplation of the extraordinary sighting we had just witnessed.

Oh, and the baby gazelle miraculously survived - ironically saved by the 3 male cheetahs timely entrance.