Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Okavango Research for Newbies

In truth, the research methods, complications and so forth could really be applied almost anywhere in Africa, but since I am in the Okavango Delta region, I will try to be specific to this area. First and foremost, being here is incredible. The animals are considerably more present and visible and seemingly fearless than in other places I've been, but I can't really say that as a generalization and it may even be a bit of an illusion. It is just that certain individuals seem particularly comfortable with us humans around. This is true for a certain adult male elephant that frequents the camp as well as for some of the big cats. I knew that I would see leopards when I came here, but I never imagined that I would be fortunate enough to see so many individuals. We have seen four different leopards at this point, only one of which was skittish around the vehicle. The researcher here who is focused on leopards, Andrew, is trying to habituate this individual to the vehicle. It seems like a long, delicate process. We've also seen one male lion who did not seem concerned with out presence in the least. Most of these animals have radio collars, but two of the leopards do not so it was particularly striking that they tolerated us. They are quite distinct as individuals.

Before I jump ahead of myself, I am composing this offline while sitting on a small deck at the edge of Dog Camp, the BPCT's field camp at the eastern edge of the delta. I am looking out onto a very dry, grassy flood plain with short bushes and a few trees scattered about. Our tent opens up onto this plain and in the morning I usually see at least one species of ungulate grazing in the distance. Most mornings we see impala, and sometimes there are zebra and tsessebe. Gray termite mounds are visible every 100-200 meters or so. There is not much in the way of topsoil, rather it is gray silty sand. The grass is very tall and dry and is the color of hay, but it is matted down in most places where it hasn't been heavily grazed. Interspersed through the grass is sage brush, which is a pale green and is a fairly recent addition to the vegetation here. Apparently a river used to run through this area, hence the flood plain, but it stopped running 15-20 years ago and since then the sage has come in. There are acacia trees here but many other trees as well, and all sorts of plants that I cannot identify. In the background I hear at least three bird species chirping, calling, singing, and poking around in the brush. The birds are stunning and many of them hang around camp, especially the Burchell's starlings and the yellow-billed hornbills. The hornbills are virtually pets, or pests, depending on your perspective. Other camp regulars include squirrels, vervet monkeys, and dwarf mongooses. From what I can tell, only the mongooses and hornbills are actively, though not regularly, fed. The rest of the critters snag crumbs when we aren't looking. The squirrels get into the garbage through a hole at the top of the plastic container and scrounge around for lunch. I'd say they are the most resourceful. The vervets try but generally are too loud for their own good. As for that elephant I mentioned, well he comes and goes periodically. We've seen him twice. Once was at dusk right next to our tent. He stayed in camp all evening. Then we saw him the next day at lunch right next to the dining tent. Being only a few meters away from an adult elephant is both exciting and unnerving. You feel intensely how small and delicate we are as humans. But this elephant has been coming here for many years, probably before the camp was here, and is quite tolerant of humans. Not all of them are.

The other key aspect of this adventure has been driving. A vehicle is vital for any kind of movement around this area of the Okavango. Some areas of the delta require a mokoro (a kind of canoe) because there is so much water and little rivers, but here it is dry as a bone and we must drive a 4x4. My arrangement with BPCT includes the use of one of their Land Rovers. It's an old Defender. They are sturdy vehicles, almost like tanks, and I've already done a fair amount of off-roading, but getting used to driving them is a challenge. It is fun in many ways. They are actually pretty easy to drive, but I am still getting a feel for just how much "bashing" I can do. When I'm driving through a wooded area and have to go over many logs, how big is too big? The only way to find out is to try, but I am also probably a bit too cautious since it's not my vehicle. Maybe that's a good thing. Every time I drive I get a little bit better at knowing what the vehicle (nicknamed "mamba") can do.

And like doing research in any African country, things never go as planned and they take longer to do than they would elsewhere. In this case, mamba has been a handful. It's a solid Land Rover, but it has problems. In other words, it breaks down a lot. So far it hasn't done so while we're out in the field. Thank goodness! But for example, this morning Ciprian and I were going to go check email at a place a few kilometers away and were thwarted when mamba decided not to start. We checked the things we knew how to check, but once that was exhausted we resigned ourselves to being in camp all morning. Andrew, the leopard guy, is also the person we go to when such things occur, but he left this morning for Maun and won't be back until after lunch. So there you go. We stay here, we write, we read, we do other things and try to be productive. As far as being stuck goes, it's rather a nice place to be.

I mentioned that we are in a very dry area, without any flooding, so we don't have to worry about mud or water at this time of year, but the delta is flooded. In fact, it is flooded more than it has been in recent history. We drove northwest of Dog Camp yesterday afternoon with Andrew to try and track a collared lioness and made our way across the cutline road that is the border with Moremi National Park, what you might call the heart of the delta. Once we got a kilometer or two into Moremi, we started seeing water. This was the delta. We even saw a hippo from a distance, and lots of birds. I'd always heard that the birdlife in the Okavango was incredible, but seeing it is another story. We never managed to find the lioness, but we did stumble upon one of those uncollared leopards I mentioned above. He was standing on a tree branch, alert, and clearing interested in something off in the distance, something which we could not see. We drove closer to try and get photos, but still keeping a fair distance. He jumped down from the tree and made his way toward us, many 10 meters away, and walked casually by us in search of whatever it was he was after. We stayed with him, following as closely as we could for about 15 minutes and watched as he stalked some unseen thing. Then he stopped and walked slowly on into the setting sun. It was at that point that we had car troubles. It is one thing to have car trouble in the bush, and another to have it at sunset. We were about an hour's drive from camp. Luckily, Andrew managed to get the car started after messing with the battery a bit. We got back after dark. I took a hot shower and we all sat down to a dinner of pasta with meatballs and a bit of wine.

The reason for being here of course is to find bones. I've seen very few so far, but the few that I have seen have been pretty satisfying. Unfortunately, none of them have been primate bones. It's slightly disheartening, but then that is why I am here, so see what there is lying about out there, and if there are no primates then I either have to re-think my dissertation project or choose a different location. Not an easy choice. Tracking the carnivores is a part of the bone search since we want to know where they've been, and particularly where they've fed but that has not worked out exactly. There is a cord that is required to download the GPS information from the handheld data receiver to a computer. That cord is missing. So, one of the primary goals of this pilot study is probably not going to be accomplished. Obviously this stinks, but it's not the end of the world. I have managed, really by chance, to see a leopard feeding, which was quite exciting. A collared male, in fact the only leopard with a GPS collar (as opposed to a strictly radio collar), fed on the neck flesh of a giraffe carcass that we found a few days ago. We took photos and even managed to get some of it on video. Many carnivores have been feeding on that carcass for the past few days. The individual was a young female giraffe and appeared to have died of sickness or something. We saw the carcass when it was untouched apart for some access through the anus which was probably the handiwork of vultures. In other words, there was no sign of predation. I'm hoping to see the carcass at least once more before we leave to see what kind of condition it's in.

Today we may not get much done because of the vehicle situation, but that's okay because we have more full days here than I'd originally planned. Camp is only a two hour drive from Maun, so there was no need for us to stay in Maun at all, something that I'd thought we'd have to do. We fly out of Maun on the 27th. Today is the 24th. We have gotten four full days here so far and should get two more. I think we're doing okay.

I doubt I will write again from Botswana. The next entry will probably be from Johannesburg. I have no idea where we are staying in Jo'burg, but I'm trying to work it out. This is challenging with only intermittent cell and email use, but we'll manage. In the meantime Ciprian and I are both enjoying being here. Yes, the flies buzzing around my head are a nuisance, but then I smell the air, look out onto the plain and hear the birds and life is good.

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