Dr David Livingstone’s Bi-centenary 2013

Front Cover Spectrum Magazine 3.2.13. Photo Credit: Claire Foottit

Front Cover Spectrum Magazine 3.2.13. Photo Credit: Claire Foottit

It is hugely exciting that my article on the Missionary explorer, Dr David Livingstone was the cover story for Scotland on Sunday’s Spectrum magazine this week.  You can read it here: Malawi SOS Spectrum feature

My travel to Malawi, with a short excursion to Mozambique, was arranged through The Independent Traveller, the Malawi Tourist Office and Kenya Airways.  I am immensely grateful for their assistance.  Special thanks too to those who guided me and helped me in my quest to discover more about David Livingstone.  He was a complex man, but I am in awe of his achievements.

The Independent Traveller can tailor-make fabulous safaris to your requirements. (tel: 01628 522 772) or find them on facebook.  A 10 day holiday in Malawi costs from £2,050 per person sharing, exclusive of international flights.

Kenya Airways operates daily services from T4 London-Heathrow to Nairobi with daily connections to Lilongwe in Malawi. Prices for an economy return from GBP674.99 including tax. Contact reservations on tel: 020 8283 1818 or visit the website.

Malawi Tourism Information Office  provides a comprehensive guide to travelling in the country. Contact them via the website or on tel: 0115 9727250.

Events Marking David Livingstone’s Bi-centenary

A number of events will be taking place in Scotland, London and Africa during this bi-centenary year.  You can find more information on David Livingstone 200.  More details to follow later.

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Olympics 2012

This Kenyan video, shot in Nairobi, shows the wonderful creativity and vibrancy that I associate with Africa.  The sentiments expressed ring true to every nation participating in the Olympic Games.

Olympic Heritage

Kenya, along with other African nations, has long had a heritage of doing well at the Olympic games.  The dynamic force of the Kenyan, Kip Keino, and the vintage Ethiopian runner Haile Gebre Selassie spring to mind.

Racing for Gold Medals

In events won by African nations in the 2012 Olympic Games, two people in particular stand out.

First up was the South African swimmer, Chad le Clos.  His shocked look of incredulity when he beat his hero, Michael Phelps (the most successful Olympian in history with 22 medals), in the 200m butterfly, said it all.  We all gain inspiration from heroes, and dreams can come true!

Second, and a highlight of the Athletics events (except perhaps the legendary Lightning Bolt and Magic Mo) was undoubtedly the Kenyan Maasai runner, David Rutisha.  Performing an outstanding run, Rutisha powered his way with ease to set a new World Record in the 800m in 1:40.91.

Masai Mara Marathon

It’s not in the same league as the Olympics – but, if you were born to run, entries are now being taken for the Masai Mara Marathon , sponsored by Kenya Airways, which takes place in the Lemek Conservancy adjacent to Kenya’s Masai Mara National Reserve on 22nd September 2012.  The final date for entries is 10 September.  The monies raised will go to building schools in the vicinity.

Wildlife Marathon – the annual Wildebeest Migration

A 26 mile run pales into insignificance when compared to the distances travelled by some 1.3 million wildebeest, 200,000 zebra and 300,000 Thomson’s gazelle on their annual migration from the breeding grounds of Tanzania’s Serengeti National Park to the rich grasslands of Kenya’s Masai Mara.   The Migration is currently in full swing in Kenya. Now is the best time to see the Mara and Talek river crossings. Wildebeest gather on the banks, milling around and grunting, making a deafening noise. Then, suddenly, one makes a move and the whole herd takes a collective plunge into the river, chancing their luck with the crocodiles lurking in the water.  Lions too capitalise on this frenzy, gaining plenty of opportunities for easy kills.

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In the Tracks of Giants – following Elephant migration routes across Southern Africa

It’s an expedition with a mission – and a very worthwhile mission at that.  Following the migration routes of African elephants – the giants – it crosses southern Africa from Namibia’s Skeleton Coast on the west to Kwa Zulu, Natal in South Africa in the east.  Set to last five months, the route also ventures into Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.  The Tracks of Giants expedition, supported by the Wilderness Foundation, started on 1st May. It has now traversed a third of the route and is in Botswana.

The expedition team is connecting with conservationists and meeting local people along the way. Walking these ancient trails, they aim:

  • to promote a greater awareness of corridor and transfrontier park conservation
  • to advocate a greater understanding of the human-animal interface
  • to highlight sustainable human-animal relationships across Southern Africa
  • to encourage a review of education and research perceptions concerning current environmental issues
  • to provide an ongoing platform to feature southern African conservation challenges, potential long term solutions, and the ecological leadership required to address them.

Why elephants?

As a key species, conserving the habitat for elephants also helps to conserve less well known flora and fauna…right down to the tiny dung beetle.  Elephants do cause damage, knocking down trees and destroying vegetation.  However, this results in areas having more ‘open‘ woodland.  Put simply, if the elephants were not there, the habitat would be different and consequently different species would be supported. Elephants need space, so it is vital that migration corridors link wildlife areas.

Human Wildlife Conflict – is that an elephant in my garden?

Although the expedition traverses southern Africa, conflict between people and wildlife is a huge problem across the continent.  People have settled in areas where they were previously nomadic. At the same time, the human population in Africa has grown exponentially. Inevitably, conflict with wildlife has arisen.

One of my first experiences of this was on a commercial maize farm in the lea of Mount Kenya in the late 1970s.  A herd of some 300 elephants was milling around on farmland, and not able to progress further as their migration route had been cut off to the mountain.  They were causing terrible crop damage.  In desperation some people were putting down broken glass, mixed with salt to try and get rid of them. On that occasion, Kenya Wildlife Service were eventually called in and a cow elephant shot.  Her frightened calf, penned up in a stockade while people poked it with sticks, died soon afterwards.

Thankfully, due to the research work of Save the Elephants and other similar organisations, much more is understood about elephant behaviour and ecology today.  And, in Kenya, when a baby elephant is orphaned it is often rescued by Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage.

But more often, conflict with elephants has been with local people, whose very livelihoods have been destroyed overnight by a rogue elephant.  And people have been killed in the process.  To them, the elephant is a pest, and often they get little or no compensation for their losses. I have seen Maasai in the land adjacent to Amboseli National Park shouting and brandishing their spears at elephants getting too near to their onion plots.

Three solutions to keep elephants at bay

Over the years, different methods have been tried – among these are:

  • electric fences with deep ditches on either side – a costly exercise and often prone to going wrong
  • planting chillies around compounds, or roping off area with ropes soaked in chilli oil – elephants don’t like chilli
  • bees are a natural deterrent with the added bonus that local communities can develop a cottage industry from collecting the honey – this is proving particularly successful;  elephants will change direction when they hear the hum of bees.

The role of responsible tourism

With tourism being a vital foreign exchange earner for African countries, there have been incidents of local people complaining that wildlife is given preference to their welfare.  Again, times are changing. Responsible tourism plays an important role in securing a viable income from wildlife for local people through employment, education bursaries, conservation fees and the like. Today much work is being done with local communities to ensure that they do not pay the price of living with wildlife.  Being on the frontline, in many cases the future of wildlife is in their hands.

Invaluable research

The Tracks of Giants expedition will certainly highlight different ways for wildlife conservationists to work with local communities.  Not only will it give a greater understanding about the needs of elephants and people, but also all other species of wildlife.  Gathering information at grass roots’ level, their research will be invaluable to all those involved in wildlife conservation throughout Africa.

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Coral: Rekindling Venus

Today marks the transit of Venus in front of the sun – it’s an unique occurrence which will not take place again until 2117.  The Australian artist, Lynette Wallworth, has created this amazing film for planetariums.  She likens the experience to lying down and looking up at stars in the universe – but in this case, it’s as if one’s on the sea bottom, looking up at the vibrant marine life, with the stars replaced by coral.

The environmental message

Key to this work of Art is a strong environmental message: Science must transcend politics. Global communities must work together to conserve our oceans.

  • Will short term political goals give way to longer term perspectives?

Interestingly, there is a precedent for this.  When the astrologer Edmund Halley was working in the 17th century, countries like France and England put aside their differences in the pursuit of scientific knowledge. Halley had predicted that Venus in transit could be used to determine the distance between the earth and the sun when measured from specific locations around the world.  Good will made this scientific observation possible.

Global Warming and Coral

Corals are an early warning signal for temperatures rising in the ocean – already in my lifetime, coral gardens have been severely damaged when water temperatures increased by around three degrees C.  I witnessed this after the El Niño of 1997/8 . On the Kenyan coast alone some 80% of live corals died off and suffered severe bleaching.   East African corals have also been severely effected by dynamite fishing – bottles filled with potassium nitrate (fertilizer) are exploded, killing the fish which float to the surface and are collected by fishermen.  It makes a quick buck but the damage to the reef is irrevocable.

However, all around the Indian Ocean overfishing, pollution and tourism are taking their toll.  Factory ships hoover shoals of tuna off-shore. Untreated effluent pollutes the water, giving rise to algae blooms.  There are miles of empty beaches in northern Kenya littered with old thermos flasks, rubber flip-flops and toothbrushes.  Where they came from in such numbers, one can only guess.  And the tropical seas are only part of the big picture – what of the polar bears and diminishing ice floes?

Tourism and the coral seas

Snorkelling in coral gardens with a myriad fish is a big magnet for tourists on tropical shores.  Glass-bottomed boats regularly motor out to the reef, but the sheer number of visitors can create problems.

Minimise your impact:

  • when snorkelling and diving, DO NOT stand on coral – it is a living organism
  • do not buy shells or collect them from the beach – many shells like Tiger cowries used to be regularly seen in rock pools – but not any more
  • when fishing, practice ‘tag and release’
  • eat seafood caught locally

The Blue Gauntlet

Wallworth’s film gives a brief insight into the magnificence of the oceans.  She has thrown down the gauntlet:  when Venus is next in transit in the 22nd century will coral gardens still be in existence?

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An African Love Story – Daphne Sheldrick’s autobiography published

This long-awaited memoir by Dame Daphne Sheldrick was published in March. Beginning with her childhood on a Kenyan farm, it leads on to her role in the Tsavo story, where her late husband was a game warden in Tsavo East National Park. This paved the way for her lifelong work in conservation to becoming a world authority on raising elephant and rhino orphans.  It’s an enchanting story with excellent reviews. If buying this book directly from the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, the proceeds go towards conservation projects in Kenya.

Daphne has successfully reared numerous baby elephants, and you can read about it in her book, ‘Orphans of Tsavo’.  She has a team of dedicated keepers who have endless patience with the baby pachyderms – feeding them, and even sleeping with their charges in a stable to ensure they feel safe at night.

Daphne Sheldrick’s Elephant Orphanage

This is a wonderful morning’s outing in Nairobi National Park to see the baby elephants and rhinos which have been rescued by the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust (set up by Daphne in memory of her husband). Once the elephants have become reasonably self-sufficient, they are translocated to Tsavo East National Park where they join the older orphans.

Emily the elephant

It so happened that I fostered one of the more famous orphans, Emily, for my nephew when he was seven. He often used to ask me if I was going to see ‘his elephant’. At 15 he visited Kenya for the first time.  First we visited the Elephant Orphanage in Nairobi, which caused great intrigue and much hilarity as the babies wallowed in muddy puddles. But by this stage Emily had been translocated to Tsavo East National Park.  Here the elephants are out during the day and come into a boma (coral) at night. We subsequently made a special detour when visiting Tsavo. Driving through the park on red dusty tracks, we just made it in time to see the elephant orphans in the evening.  It was well worth the effort to see the astonishment on Alex’s face when he discovered Emily was considerably larger than he’d envisaged, standing 2 metres at the shoulder.  Since then, Emily has joined the wild elephants and had a baby of her own.

Adopt an elephant

Fostering an orphan elephant is a wonderful way to involve children in the conservation story. A special bonus for foster parents is to visit the orphanage in the evening. Here you can help with the last bottle of the day, before the orphans settle down for the night. We watched a little rhino carefully getting underneath his mattress to go to sleep. A tiny elephant was soon fast asleep in the straw, her head on a mattress. And her keeper covered her with a blanket, as if she were a child.  With the current upsurge in poaching, the work of the orphanage is stretched to capacity.

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AFRICAN CATS – Disney Nature’s New Movie

Filmed in Kenya’s Masai Mara, Disney Nature’s new film opens in UK cinemas on 27 April.  It tells the stories of Fang, the leader of a lion pride, Mara, an endearing lion cub and Sita, a fearless cheetah with five cubs.  Set to be an epic, the film has been described as ‘bringing The Lion King to life on the big screen’.  This true story gives an insight into the strong family bonds of the big cats in their savannah environment.  Many will be familiar with the area from the BBC TV series, Big Cat Diary.

The Masai Mara

The Masai Mara National Reserve is a wildlife Mecca. It encapsulates the epitome of how you imagine Africa’s wildlife to be – large herds roaming bleached plains, with rolling hills, endless vistas and dramatic skies. With two rainy seasons annually, it supports higher numbers of wildlife than the parks of southern Africa.  Living alongside the wildlife are colourful, Maasai pastoralists. They still pursue a traditional lifestyle, herding their cattle on the open plains.

The Mara-Serengeti Eco-system

The Masai Mara forms the northern section of a vast eco-system which stretches south into Tanzania, incorporating the Serengeti National Reserve, and north to the Loita plains, an area of some 25,000km². ‘Mara’ means ‘dappled’ in the Maa language. It’s an apt description: the savannah is bisected by the dark green of riverine forest, interspersed with quartz outcrops. Rich grasslands, dominated by red oat grass, Themeda triandra, are the feeding grounds for numerous migrating zebra, wildebeest and Thomson’s gazelle, as well as Grant’s gazelle, topi, eland, impala and buffalo. Clumps of gardenia bushes form petticoats around Euphorbia candelabrum trees, a favourite haunt for lion. Lone Balanites trees are a popular roost for secretary birds, vultures and raptors on the open plains.

Giraffes prefer the savannah woodland, dominated by numerous Acacia species, such as the whistling thorn with its large ant galls, A. drepanolobium, and the wait-a-bit thorn, A. brevispica.  Elephant enjoy the marshland and forested areas, also preferred by waterbuck and bushbuck. The tiny dik dik and black rhino inhabit acacia thickets. Riverine forest is at its best along the Mara river and its tributaries the Talek, Olare Orok and Ntiakitiak, whose headwaters lie in the Mau forest to the north. There are magnificent stands of African greenheart, Warburgia ugandensis, African olive, Olea africana and various fig trees, which attract troops of monkeys and olive baboons and a variety of birds such as green pigeons and casqued hornbills when in fruit. Within the rivers are numerous pods of hippo and large crocodiles –  particularly at Hippo Pools south of Mara bridge and in the Mara river near Governor’s Camp.

Home to the Great Migration, the most spectacular wildebeest crossings are during August and September on the Mara and Talek rivers in the northern section of the reserve. Predators are never far away from the plains game. Lion and cheetah are commonly seen on the savannah, while leopard prefer the riverine forest. There are numerous clans of spotted hyena, seen in the woodland areas in the northern section of the reserve, but they are more often heard, their eerie howls lingering on the night air. Of the smaller mammals, jackal, bat-eared foxes and mongooses are often seen around termite mounds.

Tips on game viewing:

  • take a guide – you will see and learn a lot more about the animals and their environment
  • the best time to see the wildlife is early morning and late afternoon – midday game drives are hot and tiring when the animals are less active
  • have realistic expectations – wildlife documentaries take hours of patience to film, so do not expect to see constant action between predators and prey.
  • in busy periods, the Mara gets very crowded.  Have consideration for the animals and do not surround them with vehicles.  Cheetah especially suffer from this as their preferred hunting times are during peak viewing periods.
  • take a good pair of  binoculars

Places to stay

The Mara has fantastic places to stay. There are numerous options, from lodges to luxury camping.  Consider, Elephant Pepper Camp with its gold eco-rating,  Porini Lion Camp with a silver eco-rating, Kicheche Mara Camp with a bronze eco-rating, Rekero Camp – a partnership with an unique Maasai guide and Big Cat Diary presenter, Jackson Ole Looseyia, and Mara Intrepids.

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An Ostrich Egg Omelette

It is said that an ostrich egg is the equivalent of 26 hens eggs and that it will feed 18 people at a time.  The opportunity to taste one came about while staying at Malewa River Lodge near Naivasha in Kenya.  It takes about an hour to boil an ostrich egg, so we opted for an omelette. The verdict: it has a rubbery texture, but otherwise tastes of, well, not surprisingly, egg.  In fact it’s not dissimilar to  seagull’s egg, which I tried once on a Hebridean island.  But, novelty value apart, I still prefer chickens’ eggs.

Ostrich eggs and the San Bushmen

The San (Bushmen) are hunter gatherers who were driven into the harsh regions of the Kalahari Desert.  Their desert survival skills have ensured their existence over centuries. They know where to find sources of water, digging through sand and drawing water through reed straws. And ostrich eggs were used as storage containers.   The shells are tough and not easily broken. A leather sling was made to carry the egg like a water bottle.

In time, the ostrich eggshells broke; these were then fashioned by the women into bead necklaces.  Nowadays, ostrich shell necklaces are made to sell to tourists, bringing in some revenue to impoverished groups in the Kalahari.

Seven facts about the ostrich

  • it is the largest living bird, standing at 2metres
  • it cannot fly
  • there are four recognised subspecies of ostrich in Africa
  • it lays its eggs in a hollow in the ground
  • it has a vicious kick – it kicks forwards with a force to break a man’s leg
  • it is farmed for meat, feathers, skin and eggs
  • Ostrich racing is popular in the Western Cape

Somali Ostrich in Laikipia, Kenya

Ostriches on Safari

Wild ostriches are mostly found in the savannah and desert regions of Africa. The Southern and Masai ostrich are readily seen in Southern and Eastern Africa respectively.  With large feathered bodies, resembling big bustles, they are a comical sight when in full sprint, especially when there’s an entourage of chicks in tow.  Male ostriches have a black and white plumage, whereas the females are a dowdy brown.  Interestingly, both birds sit on the nest – the females during the day and the males at night, when their colouring makes for a perfect camouflage.  The chicks look similar to a korhaan.   The Somali ostrich is found in northern Kenya, with its distinctly blue/grey (as opposed to red) legs.  Among ornithologists, there is debate as to whether this ostrich should be considered a separate species.  Most rare is the Red-necked ostrich which is only found in North Africa.

Farmed Ostriches

Ostrich farms are predominantly found in South Africa, particularly in the Oudtshoorn area of the Western Cape.  Many farms, such as Cango Ostrich Show Farm  provide an interesting farm tour – from the rearing pens to riding an ostrich.  Fashionable ostrich skin bags and feather boas (and feather dusters which are the main use of ostrich feathers) together with decorated eggs are for are for sale in the shop.  While in the restaurant ostrich steaks and paté are on the menu.

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