Wildlife Capture

UC Berkeley isn’t the only university with research presence here; the University of Queensland also has giraffe DNA studies going on – ironically also a University I’ve attended and fell in love with. Their research offices are located in the Etosha Ecological Institute, a small office building located in Okaukuejo shared with the Ministry of Environment and Tourism government staff and scientists. It’s fun to see the daily in and outs of the few people that work here; you get to rub shoulders with very important people in the Ministry and I’ve also taken to becoming friends with the resident vet and his girlfriend who are super nice, laid back, environmentally-minded folk – Michelle is currently researching and lobbying for real recycling programs to be put in place in Okaukuejo and she gets to go dumpster diving every week to sort recyclables from the trash. Its a smelly research project, that’s for sure.

The vet is probably one of the most important, well-paid positions with the coolest job, since his job basically licenses him to capture, drug, and/or handle wild animals. He gets to dissect animals if they die from an unknown, natural cause, and recently a black rhino with suspected enteritis drowned in a water hole and Ortwin had to drag it out before cutting it wide open for dissection. The thickness and roughness of rhino skin would almost make you believe it had an exoskeleton, but since it had already been gutted, made it very accessible to scavengers. We later went back to that mutated rhino carcass after dark and watched a pride of 11 lions feast on the find.

a very cooperative little jackal, waiting for his poking and prodding to be over

a very cooperative little jackal, waiting for his poking and prodding to be over

The funnest and most exciting thing we have to do is definitely jackal capture. The vet, Ortwin, came with us one day to dart a specific jackal whose collar needed to be removed, and it was a perfect situation since the scent of the opened rhino lured him right up to our car. Once shot with the drugs, it takes a few minutes for the animal to go down, but once it is, you just blindfold them before handling them like a puppy dog.

They’re tiny up close, usually scruffy to touch, and when they get woken up again, turn back into the growling, biting little jackals that they are. But then they have to sit in a cage, still half dazed, until they’re fully awake to release, and even when you think they’re ready to be released, they sort of hesitantly stumble away, still looking all drugged up. Steve also captures without drug administration; he uses a padded leg trap method and tricks the jackal with a scent trail of some bloody meat to get them to step where he wants. Recently we were using some guts that were a few weeks old , and I cant even begin to explain how foul meat smells after sitting in the heat of the day. *shiver* Its gross.

Steve and Jimmy man-handling a powerless jackal

Steve and Jimmy man-handling a powerless jackal

Anyway, then you have to grab them by the neck using a blanket for distraction, while they’re still totally awake and fiercely vicious, ear muff them, Velcro their mouth shut, blindfold them (with a stinky sock), and bind their legs together. By this point they’re totally obedient, and you can take your samples and measurements without too much trouble. One jackal we caught near Namutoni was seriously psychotic though, and after biting Steve on the leg, had to be released before she was fully sampled because she kept struggling and wiggling her blind fold off.

Even more entertaining than handling jackals is elephant capture. A week ago a caravan of 4 cars and one helicopter went up to the north-eastern edge of the park to collar 5 female elephants, and man oh man is that a mission and a half. The helicopter circles around a few hundred metres above the ground to spot an elephant breeding herd, then it swoops down close enough for Ortwin to shoot one with 2ml of drugs, we wait 8 minutes until it crumbles over, and then drive through thick, prickly bush on the back of an open flat bed truck to where its lying. Then we all run to the elephants side, pull it and poke it in all sorts of places for feces samples, ticks, blood, measurements, age, and finally, a collar fastened around its neck. Im not sure if you can imagine, but an elephant neck is very, very thick, and these collars must have weighed 20 kg each.

trying to get my arms around the tummy of a sleepy elephant

trying to get my arms around the tummy of a sleepy elephant

At the end of this flurry of activity, and after getting some great photos of each of us cuddling a sleeping elephant, the vet gives it 1ml of drug reversal, and we all get the heck out of there as quick as possible before it stands up, pissed no hell.

Its definitely an adrenaline pumper, and if it wasn’t the elephant who was going to kill someone, I thought for sure our off-road driving with 8 people squished and exposed on the back of the truck driving through thorny acacias certainly would… but we all escaped with minor scratches and ripped clothes.

Life as a Researcher in Okaukuejo

the Okaukuejo gates

the Okaukuejo gates

I live in the William Gasaway research camp, a small site within Okaukuejo camp gates but behind the staff housing, furthest away from the tourist area. There are a couple parked trailers and 3 tents; I live in one of those, a big, old-school, Army-type tent with zip up windows and a big canopy. Ive hung my hammock on the tree growing beside it, and there are anywhere between 2 and 8 other people in camp at once.

If you ever come to Africa for a long time, or even a short time but do a lot of camping, there are a few things and skills I highly suggest you bring. First of all, bring binoculars, a flashlight (preferably in the form of a head lamp), and a camera that has either a dust or water proof case. You should also bring your own sleeping bag, sleeping mat and tent since you can camp virtually anywhere and a lot of places won’t offer accommodation except for at ‘western’ prices which is surprisingly more expensive than one would think of budgeting for Africa (at least I grossly underestimated the expenses of being a tourist in southern Africa). Finally, make sure you know how to make a fire and how to barbeque, since these are two must-have assets for the braii culture so prominent here. Related to this point is a suggestion for vegetarians: its tough to avoid meat or meat products.

the tent i called home

Three Berkeley researchers have come to live in Etosha and after a few months here, all turned from vegetarians back to eating meat. Meat is one of the cheaper, most easily accessible food products, and is always offered in tourist meals and restaurants. Its also very healthy, with a lot more selection (lean game meats), and the food chain somehow seems ethically and environmentally enforced here better than it does in other parts of the world. The circle of life within the national park is also an interesting moral subject to deal with; before coming here I would always have thought a dead animal is a sad occasion, and that watching carnivores hunt and kill would be too sadistic, but it quickly becomes apparent how normal and necessary this circle is to the ecosystem. As much as I want to save a baby zebra being chased by a herd of lions, I also get really happy for the cute, furry little lion cubs that get to keep on living. I’ve noticed I eat a lot more meat and fish products in Iceland which seems environmentally justified on some grounds, but I eat sooo much meat in Namibia. The difficult thing is the closest town is almost 2 hrs away, so only getting to grocery shop once a week or every other week forces you to shop differently. Fresh fruits, veggies, milk, cheese, and bread are luxuries since they’re only fresh a few days later, but buying frozen meat, eggs, pastas, rice, and beer makes for a very high protein and carb diet. The beer here, called Windhoek Lager, is in weird 440ml size bottles and cans, and full strength at only 4%; however, funnily enough it was one of the most available, popular and cheap beers also in South Africa and Botswana. We are lucky enough to get freshly baked bread about twice a week; the Chief Science Warden’s wife makes it for the research camp and it’s delicious.

Steve basically works every day since there is nothing else to do here anyway. By work, I really mean we get to drive around in one of the Toyota’s with a big 6m pole and a bunch of stray antennas sticking out in all directions tracking jackals. The antenna on the top communicates to the collars put on some of the jackals Steve is using for his research, but we only ever get downloaded information once every other drive. So, we just get to enjoy the scenery and wildlife, until we see a carcass and then Steve has to swab it for anthrax and record all sorts of data. That’s strangely fun, not because of the poor, dead animal, but its really the only time we are allowed out of the car since you have to remain inside your vehicle anytime youre outside of a camp. Sundowners is a fun, routine thing to do; at sunset, you crack a drink and stop and enjoy the sun disappear behind a waterhole, and wait for something exciting to come to drink water like a rhino or a breeding herd of elephants. Me and Steve recently tried sun-uppers, having coffee and Amarula with the sunrise during a game drive we took with NWR (for research purposes, of course).

The days here are funny because it makes no difference if its Wednesday or Saturday, and I actually missed Canada Day since I had no idea when July 1st actually was. Although, with 2 other Americans we had a pathetic little July 4th party that just involved making a fire and sitting around it.

I walk between camp and the office, past the senior staff housing, and many of the people here are called Owambo, who speak a cool language called Ochiwambo where almost everything, especially place names and animal names, begins in O. There are these elderly Herero women who wear their traditional clothing around camp, and they look like busty dolls in big, beautiful dresses that are made of layers of colourful material with a matching cloth hat that kind of resembles a hammerhead shark. When I was driving into town for our weekly grocery shop, two women were sitting curbside by the entry gate and hitchiked a lift into town. We didnt speak much, but listening to them laugh and talk whiles their dresses overflowed in the back seat certainly made the 2 hr drive more entertaining than my ipod music.

More on Etosha

I won’t criticise NWR any longer but Etosha is the most heavily visited National Park in Namibia and most tourists that visit the country make it here so I would still highly recommend it. However, there are a few different entry points to the Park and if you go through Anderson Gate, the gateway to Okaukeujo, there are a handful of lodges for you to choose from to stay in just outside the gate. I spent some time at Etosha Safari Camp, and even though I didn’t see any others, can give it my highest recommendation. It’s a cozy, quirky camp with luscious grass camp sites, with braii stands, lights and trees and you only pay $10US per night per person to stay (instead of $100/night at Okaukejo NWR). There are also hotel rooms, and the communal area is a big, open space with an elevated pool, an outdoor bar, a fire lit everynight with live music, a sports bar with a pool table and big screen TV, and a restaurant that is scattered throughout an alleyway of covered rooms and shack huts that they’ve decorated into a maze of brick walls with windows made out of vintage car doors. A lot of political posters and decorations display thought-provoking messages, and also an interesting insight to the history of colonial Africa. There’s an old train cart inside acting as the food storage room, and all the other old, wooden furniture almost makes it seem like a Wild Wild West Disney Park setting. The food is served buffet style, and coffee and tea sit out all day with cake for guests. And then with their tour guides, you can take day drives to visit the park and still have a great experience of Etosha without giving your money to NWR or paying too much for very little.

We spent a couple nights at Etosha Safari Camp to watch world cup games at their sports bar. The first was a great success; me and 4 German-Namibians cheered our hearts out and blew German-coloured vuvuzelas as loud as we could to watch Germany beat Argentina 4 – 0. The second game, Germany’s semi-final against Spain, was a bit more grim, and the Germans were much more quiet with their vuvuzelas. Oh well, it was a good run for Germany, and now we got to watch Netherlands and Spain contend for the World cup, two teams who have never previously won. Good for them 

All the reindeer, ahem, i mean pretty hooved animals drinking at Okaukejo waterhole

All the reindeer, ahem, i mean pretty hooved animals drinking at Okaukejo waterhole

The great thing about Etosha National Park is that it is absolutely full of animals and it doesn’t really make a difference if you see it by day or night since you can’t leave camp at night anyway. However, there is one waterhole at each camp that is spotlighted so that would be the only thing you miss out not staying overnight within the camp.

During the day you still have a pretty good chance of seeing all the animals in Etosha, especially early morning or late afternoon. You have access to one of the healthiest population of Black Rhino, a species brought back from the brink of extinction against all poaching odds for its very valuable horn. There are soooo many different types of ungulates in the park, what my cousin Sara might call all reindeer, but they’re mostly different types of antelopes. There are tens-of-thousands of zebra and springbok, thousands of gemsbok, wildebeest, eland, impala, hartebeest, ostrich, jackals, vultures, mongooses, giraffe, and elephant, a few hundred kudu, bat-eared fox, wild cats, lions, hyena, white rhinos, and who knows how many cheetah and leopard, but there are some although spotting them is a stroke of luck. You can drive up to around 40 waterholes, and the bird-life here is a haven for bird-watchers, especially since it’s so flat and theres never a cloud in the sky during the dry season. After 3 weeks here, only going on drives about every other day, I’ve seen all of the above numerous times except white rhino, cheetah and leopards. Ive also seen a lot of spiders, skinks, other lizard things, and a dead puffader snake – all less exciting events. One evening I almost stepped on the cutest, tiny spotted owl that was camoflauged perfectly into the grey stone ground, and once we knowingly scared a wild cat out of its hole in the ground we saw it dart into, but then got more of a freight watching it jump out in lightning speed even though we knew full right that would happen. There are no mosquitos this time of year, but there are so many barbed bushes and spiky trees that you almost always have burrs or thorns on your clothes.

Since the park is fenced, migratory animals like elephants and wildebeest instead become resident, and even though the occasional animal digs itself out (lions), jumps the fence (eland, kudu) or bulldozes it over (elephants), animal populations seem to stabilize at very high densities. As much as it locks the animals into an area, it also locks out people from hunting or illegally poaching, so many animal populations are flourishing at much greater successes than they would without the fence. But, there are many problems and arguments against fencing, and the few stories I’ve heard of animals escaping from a fence but not being able to get back in (ie. Due to fence repairs) are grim – lions end up getting shot since they wander onto farmers private land and that’s their right, and one lonely hartebeest I saw on the wrong side of the fence beside the road will probably thirst to death since all the water is inside the park fence.

a tiny steenbok, looking like a deer in headlights - but don't worry, we stopped in time

a tiny steenbok, looking like a deer in headlights – but don’t worry, we stopped in time

Even though a place like Chobe National Park operates without any fencing at all and I thought it was just great that way, there are convincing arguments that fencing has its pros and may be necessary for the park. However, the road infrastructure in Etosha seems very unnecessary. First of all, the roads marked on the map that’s given to tourists show a lot fewer roads than there actually are. There are a bunch of staff only roads, gravel pit roads, and old blocked roads that have become undrivable from flooding, fine dust or simply not being maintained. You can easily spot the 60 or 80 gravel pits dug all around the park to make these roads, which have been contemplated sources of anthrax spores, and sometimes the main roads are wide enough for 4 lane traffic. The speed limit is 60km/h, way too fast to avoid daily roadkill, and there’s something wrong about seeing a BMW sedan taking a speedy ‘safari-drive’ through the park whose roads cater easily to any type of car – even 60-passenger coach buses. Strangely enough, the most common roadkill are birds in flight – the silly things fly right under your wheel, or in my personal experience, into the side of the car or into the car antenna poles.

After becoming intimately connected to Kubublanco, it was comforting to see that the majority of all trucks both in and outside the park are Toyota Hiluxes, with the occasional Land Cruiser or Isuzu in the mix. At the research camp in Okaukuejo, UC Berkeley has 3 hiluxes, all with 400,000km+ on them, but still trucking, although very unreliable in an early-morning, cold start.

Links: http://www.namibiareservations.com/etoshasafaricampe.html

Namibia so far…

wildebeest on the etosha salt pan

wildebeest on the Etosha salt pan

I never thought southern Africa would have such a strong American or European presence, but South Africa was definitely heavily European influenced, and the installment of English as the national language in all 4 of the countries I visited was also strange, but quite useful. However, Namibia was even more complicated, with their recent independence from South Africa still leaving a bunch of Afrikaans speakers, and their prior colonial ties to Germany allowing German to be even more common, yet English declared the official language. Deutsch, Flemish and German tourists benefited greatly in both South Africa and Namibia, often understanding bits of all three languages. The English or American presence was more noticeable in South Africa and Botswana, with a lot of ex-Peace Corps, researchers/scientists, and African-born British citizens working in tourism, government, or as doctors/vets.

zebra drinking at Okaukuejo Waterhole

zebra drinking at Okaukuejo Waterhole

I barely spent any time in Windhoek before making the 5 hr journey north to Etosha National Park, where Im staying. June and July are considered winter in Namibia, but according to my familiarity with Canadian and Icelandic winters, I can tell you its certainly more like summer time. Winter here really just means the days are a little shorter and the nights get cold. One night it did drop to 3 degrees celsius, which I agree is cold, but the day highs are still 20 or 25, and its been sunny every single day without a cloud in the sky. Sometimes its windy, which can either be a refreshing breeze or actually cool you, but damn is it dry here. Its also super flat and dusty so when a car drives along a road throughout the park, you can see the cloud of dust it kicks up from miles away. Etosha Salt Pan is a dried out lake bed that is so dry it is one of the biggest sources of dust in Africa. Add a little bit of wind and you can try to imagine what the air is like here. EVERYTHING is covered in grayish dust, and my skin is so dry that the baby oil I smother on it after showering is completely absorbed within minutes. My hair is fried, but Ive got enough to spare so that’s ok, but the dust is no good for cameras, changing lenses, changing film, or typing outside. It kind of reminds me of burning man conditions, and when you look over the vast expanse of the salt pan, hundreds of wildebeest, zebra, springbok, oryx (antelope that look like Samurais), and the occasional jackal or lion trying to create havoc look like their having their own Burning Man festival, Wildlife themed. When they’re far away, they look like floating black dots in the mirage, and then I feel like Im experiencing some artistic, optical illusion they’ve planned perfectly.

My allergies aren’t bad here, since all the vegetation is totally dried up, but I maybe sneeze ten times per day on average with all the dust. It gets annoying, and everyone must think I have a persistent cold. But, the dry season is great for animal spotting, since all the herbivores and therefore carnivores start to concentrate around the few remaining water sources. Many water holes in Etosha National Park aren’t natural, for different reasons. Some water holes fill naturally during the wet season, but are only created because of the gravel pits dug by park management for creating roads. Some water holes are natural but pumped articially to keep the water levels high enough to drink out of, and this is probably because the resident population of Etosha National park takes water for itself. There are 3 main camps inside the park (which is a huge 22,000km2), and I am staying in Okaukuejo but there’s also Halali and Namutoni. All three are inhabited with permanent staff from the Ministry of Tourism and Environment, lodging facilities for tourists, and all the tourism staff from NWR, the para-statal Namibian Wildlife Resort organization that monopolizes all camping in the park. Other operators can only enter during the day and drive around with their tourists for a while and then must exit before sunset. For it to be partly privatized but still 51% owned by the government means there is a lot of corruption in the higher rankings, with ridiculous salaries paid out to a certain few funded by the exuberant prices tourists must pay for the monopolized industry. However, NWR still quotes annual losses, so the government ends up bailing them out, and thus tax dollars are actually being used to pay for national park management where elsewhere, and in more typical situations, national parks are supposed to be a source of revenue for both local people and the government. NWR staff are all local Namibians, which I support fully, but there is little job accountability since being fired is almost impossible and even though tourists pay between $100-$300US per night for indoor accomodation, the quality of service is poor. The indoor accommodation is perfectly clean and somewhat luxurious, but rooms are small and the landscaping around the camp is almost non-existent. The only green, relaxing part of the camp is around the pool, while the camp site is comprised of square plots side by side on a big, dusty gravel lot. The game drives that go three times a day are 3 hrs long, with sometimes unqualified tour guides, so you may be lucky and see something exciting, but you learn very little and the snack time offered half way through the drive seems like a way of prolonging the tour and making you feel like the $80US you’ve spent is well spent.

a guilty looking jackal, who probably ate some leftovers and plastic from camp

a guilty looking jackal, who probably ate some leftovers and plastic from camp

The staff all live here, in housing given to them which varies from a tent to a trailer, or an actual house to a tourist-hut meant for the $150US/night paying guest. Clearly the organisation is a bit skewed, but the most horrifying thing is that NWR promotes themselves as a green resort, advertising their attempts to recycle at the recent centenary birthday of Etosha, and is meant to follow the rule that no trash can be dumped in the park; the reality is there are huge refuge dumps within the park gates, that burn trash right there, and another, unburnt pile of all the sorted recyclables sits separately, rusting away. They still manage to complain about jackals and ground squirrels getting into their trash and becoming a pest problem, but maybe if there wasn’t trash everywhere, those animals wouldn’t be snooping around so close to camp pestering tourists.