The Cat who has been Loved to Death – An evening with Dr. Laurie Marker

Selinda Cheetah - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller

Cheetah Conservation Fund – Saving the Cheetah means Changing the World (and perhaps saving ourselves in the process…)

Let me start by saying, we have made three safari trips to Southern Africa in the past five and a half years (to South Africa and Botswana) and on only one of those trips were we fortunate enough to see a cheetah. We were visiting Great Plains Conservation’s Selinda Camp for three days (the last of three camps on our trip) when we got our first (and to date, only) glimpse of this magnificent creature. Our guide, Moses, sat down with us before we went out for our first game drive and asked us what we were most interested in seeing. We had been extremely fortunate at our first two camps (Mala Mala in the Sabi Sands of South Africa and Duba Plains in the Okavango Delta, Botswana) to see extraordinary action on the lion, leopard and wild dog front) so anything that Selinda could offer us was going to be icing on our Africa cake.  Without hesitation we replied, “a cheetah”. We then double-downed our request by telling Moses, “we don’t care if we see another living thing here, just find us one cheetah”. And that’s exactly what Moses did. Evan and I are forever grateful. Thank you Moses for your keen determination and incredible eyesight. As Evan likes to say, “Moses parted the grasses and led us to cheetah salvation”.

Lounging Cheetah - Lisa Holzwarth

Lounging Cheetah – Lisa Holzwarth

Fast forward to May 2014 at the Explorers Club in New York: Evan and I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Laurie Marker discuss her life’s work focused on saving the endangered cheetah, or as she describes the revered creature, “the cat who’s been loved to death”.  The cheetah is considered the oldest of the African big cats, having taken four million years to develop into the animal we know today. Unfortunately, it has taken mankind (perhaps we are more aptly described as “manUNkind”) only 100 years to bring the cheetah close to extinction – since only 10,000 are left in the wild today. Cheetah numbers have suffered a 90% decline in the past 100 years and the cat is now extinct in 20 countries. Cheetahs can still be found in East Africa, Namibia and Botswana. Namibia is estimated to be home to 4,000 of the 10,000 left in the world and this is where Dr. Marker put down her roots and founded the Cheetah Conservation Fund in 1990. Dr. Marker estimates that there are only ten reserves left in Africa that are viable and large enough to maintain healthy cheetah populations.   This makes sense when you understand that a female cheetah ‘s normal home range is 100 square miles and a male cheetah’s home range is 800 square miles (800 is NOT a typo!). Dr. Marker and her team know this to be true based on extensive radio collar data they have collected, as well as the daily mining of “black gold”, ie., scat. The team has also grown to learn that female cheetah will cover multiple home ranges for the purpose of (1) needing to relate to other females overlapping their home range and (2) needing to introduce their offspring to other males in surrounding territories. They have determined that viable cheetah density is approximately 4.1 cheetah per 1,000 square kilometers.

Protecting wild cheetah populations is CCF’s foremost goal.   Dr. Marker’s early research on the planet’s fastest land mammal began in Namibia, Africa in 1977 with her studies on how to reintroduce captive born cheetahs back into the wild. This work led to her appreciation for the complexities and conflicts that naturally exist between livestock farmers and the big cats that live amongst them. For close to 40 years, Dr. Marker has been conducting cutting-edge research on these big cats and is considered one of the foremost cheetah experts in the world. Her research and that of her team, has been all encompassing, including aspects of cheetah health, reproduction, mortality, evolution and genetics. The genetics lab is an extraordinary technological feat unto itself; Dr. Marker and her team have developed their own electricity source to safely protect the 2500 genetic samples procured from more than 900 cheetahs. The researchers have worked on over 1000 wild cheetahs collecting sperm samples and maintaining a sperm bank for these specimens.

The Cheetah Conservation Fund is located in the north central part of Namibia, a democratic country about 2.5x the size of California. While Namibia did not become independent until 1990, Dr. Marker had been working in/out of the country since the 1970’s. In those early days, Dr. Marker said 1000 cheetah each year were being caught and killed. Today, the CCF operation holds court over a 100,000 acre research and education center. It is a sanctuary for orphan cheetah cubs (there are 42 cheetahs at the center right now), as well as a vet clinic, genetics lab, training facility and research center.

The cheetahs’ penultimate adversary is man. The African population is growing exponentially and is expected to reach 2.4 billion people by 2050 (UNICEF estimates that in 2050, one of every third child born will be an African). Given their own dire living circumstances, most Africans see only limited benefits of wildlife conservation. As this human population grows, so does its need for food, and there lies the conflict between man and the general big cat population. There’s a bit of irony in the second reason why wild cheetah numbers are declining. Unlike the lion in Africa or the tiger in Asia who are being trophy hunted or killed for their parts, cheetahs are falling victim to a huge illegal exotic pet trading market in the Middle East where their docile nature lends them to be sold as status symbols to the extremely wealthy (cheetah cubs can fetch $10,000).  I had originally been surprised to hear about their docility, but as I watch more and more YouTube safari videos of cheetah jumping onto the hoods and roofs of safari vehicles, I can appreciate this potential aspect of their personality.

So how does CCF put into action what they have learned from their cheetah research?

Human/Wildlife Conflict Resolution education is carried out through CCF’s Future Farmers of Africa program. Here, farmers are coached on “cheetah friendly” methods of livestock management. One very successful program has been the Livestock Guarding Dog program, which uses Anatolian Shepherds and Kangal dogs (both Turkish dog breeds which have been used for 6,000 years to protect sheep from wolves).   These are not herding dogs, rather, they are guard dogs who grow up amongst the livestock and because of their size can actually protect the grazing animals. They are trained to stand between the livestock and the predator. Their significant size and loud bark are usually enough to discourage a predator, but if not, the dog is also trained to attack. CCF has placed hundreds of these dogs on Namibian livestock farms where farmers have reported a significant decrease in livestock losses, in some cases up to an 80%. (I recall in a conversation with Laly Lichtenfeld, founder of African People & Wildlife Fund in Tanzania that they are also considering using these dogs).

Habitat Restoration is another key focus of CCF. Dr. Marker chairs the Conservancy Association of Namibia. Through education and collaboration with local farmers and landowners, conservancies have been formed to provide thousands of contiguous acres of land where cheetahs can roam safely. By encouraging groups of farmers to remove their separate game fences and instead manage their livestock and wildlife as a whole, the cheetahs’ large habitat ranges are being restored.

Another key focus of CCF’s habitat restoration is to harvest the fast-growing thorn bushes that quickly encroach and destroy the native grasslands. Cheetahs need open grasslands to safely run and bring down their prey. CCF has taken the “bush by the thorns” and is harvesting 3,000 tons a year of these thorn bushes to make “Bushbloks”, an ecologically friendly fuel log that burns very hot with low emissions.

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light – Photography by Evan Schiller

The Cheetah Conservation Fund today is run on an annual budget of $1.5 million with 90 staff members on a large ranch. The ranch houses 300 goats, 15 guard dogs, hundreds of cattle and right now about 42 cheetahs. The ranch is open to the public. Over 35,000 school children visit each year where they learn the importance of biodiversity and the possibility of living harmoniously with these big cats. Dr. Marker tells the Cheetah’s story every chance she gets. To learn more, please check out their website cheetah.organd please consider donating to this great organization.

National Geographic also ran a very informative article on the cheetah in November 2012 written by Roff Smith with photographs by Frans Lanting called “Cheetahs on the Edge”. The irony of the title is not lost on me – they are running the ultimate race of survival. I choose to support them, not stand by as an idle spectator.

Some Cheetah Facts to make you sound smart around the Big Cat Water Cooler

  • Belongs to its own genus – Acinonyx
  • Only cat that can’t roar
  • Mortality rate is 95% amongst cheetah cubs raised in the wild
  • Cheetahs are much more delicately built than lions and so can be “bullied into the margins” by lions who are larger in both stature and numbers – Where you have a big lion population, it is unlikely you will find many cheetahs
  • Fight vs. Flight – the cheetah has neither sharp claws nor big teeth
  • Semi-retractable claw, no other cat has this – it is designed to act like a sprinter’s spikes
  • Built for speed – Can do 0-70mph in under 3 seconds and can reach 45mph in its first couple of strides.
  • Flying machine? Almost. At top speed a cheetah’s stride is 21 feet and their feet only touch the ground twice in one stride
  • Females live a solitary life while adult males live in coalitions
One with the Cheetah - Photography by Evan Schiller

One with the Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller

My Favorite Four-Letter Word – Nkwe

November 24, 2012 – Chobe National Park

 

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In a Tree – Photography by Evan Schiller

You know the old saying, “When given lemons, make lemonade”. My corollary in Botswana: On a rainy day in Chobe, when the leopards don’t want to play, make the best of things and learn how to say “Leopard” in Setswanese.

We continued our routine of leaving camp at 5:30am and not returning until 7pm. We definitely kept Gwist busy. No rest for our weary guide. I can only imagine if Gwist has a blog out there and what he could be writing about us… If you want to read some funny stories from a guide’s perspective, pick up “Whatever You Do, Don’t Run: True Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide” by Peter Allison. It is full of guest/guide anecdotes and from what other guides have told me, it is all too true.

 

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Standing Her Ground – Photography by Lisa Holzwarth

We chose to start our day where we left the Leopard family the night before. Fresh tracks in the road alerted us to another Leopard/Hyena encounter. Who needs video cameras when the tracks can easily tell the story – the cubs were with their Mother when confronted by the Hyena. The Mother Leopard’s nails were firmly imprinted in the ground – she was definitely taking a stand for herself and the two cubs. We also noticed that yesterday’s kill (a young adult male impala), which had previously been deep in the bush, was now high up in a nearby tree.

We didn’t see any of the cats so decided to do one of our loops and look for more tracks along the way. Their kill was safely in the tree so we were confident the trio was relatively close. We returned about 30 minutes later to find the leopards out and another vehicle watching the action. We stayed here for the balance of the day, only taking a break for lunch at President’s Camp.

 

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Battling the Kill – Photography by Evan Schiller

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Dinner in a Tree – Photography by Evan Schiller

Given that we technically could not go off-road for closer viewing and photography, we were fortunate that the leopards had decided to pull this impala up a tall tree located at a crossroads of sorts, so we had two different angles from which we could potentially shoot. Most visitors take time midday for a siesta of sorts (which is also a quiet time for the big cats given the heat of the day), but we stayed put and took the opportunity to “abandon the law” and move a little closer to our subjects (even the Park Rangers take a siesta). Unfortunately, the leopards weren’t particularly cooperative, choosing to stay deep in the shade of the bush or up in the tree.

 

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“Chameleon” – Photography by Lisa Holzwarth

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Siesta Perspective – Photography by Lisa Holzwarth

We passed the time in the rain learning the Setswana names for the all the animals we had been fortunate to see and photograph. Anyone who looks at my journal will get a laugh out of the phonetic spelling that I also included for each name so that I would remember how to correctly pronounce the names of so many of these magnificent creatures. My friend Alison Nicholls, the wildlife artist who lived in Botswana for a number of years, may correct me on some of these, but this is what my ear heard at the time…

Lion – Tau (sounds like “tao ooh”)

Leopard – Nkwe (sounds like “uun kway” – with a long A)

Hyena – Phiri (sounds like “peer re” – with a long E on the second syllable)

Elephant – Tlou (sounds like either “toe” or proper name “cloow” with long o)

Giraffe – Thutwa (sounds like “two twa” with soft a)

Warthog – Kolobe (sounds like “koo lou bay” with a long a)

Baboon – Tshwene (sounds like “sTwen nee” with a long e on second syllable)

Hippo- Kubu (sounds like “koo boo”)

Porcupine – Noko (sounds like “no koo” with a long o on first syllable)

Zebra – Pitse ya naga (sounds like “peek e ahnaha” with soft e on second syllable)

Wildebeest – Kgokong (sounds like “co co nay”)

Wild Dog – Matlharelwa (sounds like “ma tah less wah”)

The afternoon brought a different sort of Phiri, of the “four-wheeled” variety, into our life. It felt like all the vehicles in Chobe were stopping to see “our” leopards. We got a very heavy downpour that afternoon which ultimately cleared out all the Phiri. I was happy for the Tlou and the other grazers.

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Sunsetting Flock – Photography by Lisa Holzwarth

 

 

I Spy with My Little Eye… Our search for Chobe Leopards Continues

Safe in the Bush - Evan Schiller Photography

Safe in the Bush – Evan Schiller Photography

November 23, 2012 – Chobe National Park

When you think about the vastness of the Chobe National Park and the small number of wild leopards and lions actually living there, it feels like nothing short of a miracle that we see them at all. That’s a key reason to use an experienced guide with deep-rooted knowledge of the area and the specific territories of the big cats living within it. The guides should be good trackers who can read a lot into a paw print. If you are doing a “self-drive” and don’t know the area, you would be well-served to pack lots of good luck charms in your knapsack.

Mother Leopard Paw Print - Lisa Holzwarth

Mother Leopard Paw Print – Lisa Holzwarth

We spent the morning “in the hills” tracking the Mother Leopard. No sign of her or the cubs but we did have a decent amount of tracks to decipher. Gwist noticed that the mother’s tracks included some drag marks – it appeared she had made another kill. As I have mentioned before, being in the National Park prevented us from going off-road to follow her trail, so our tracking sometimes only gets us so far. Then other factors come into play, those being intention, persistence and of course, maybe a bit of our own luck. Gary Player once said, “the more I practice, the luckier I get”.   So for the last two weeks we have been intensely practicing/training our eyes to pick up the slightest movement or flicker of color on a pale yellow landscape which is only beginning to green-up for spring. We felt like we were literally on the Mother’s tail, despite not yet seeing it, or her.

I've Only Got Eyes for You - Lisa Holzwarth

“I’ve Only Got Eyes for You” – Lisa Holzwarth

We crossed paths with “our” two male lions that morning on their own marking/scouting mission. Whenever there is a bit of rain, the big cats need to remark their territories. That means a lot of peeing. Lions also use their loud echoing roars as a way to audibly mark their territory. You can hear a lion’s roar from over five miles away (and that’s with the human ear, I am assuming the other cats probably can hear it from further away).

Up Close and Personal - Lisa Holzwarth

Up Close and Personal – Lisa Holzwarth

 

Lion Print - Lisa Holzwarth

Lion Paw Perspective – Lisa Holzwarth

After a break for lunch, Gwist decided we should circle back to the area where we had found the Mother Leopard’s drag marks. We were driving very slowly, six eyeballs scanning the trees, the bushes and the road. All of a sudden I yelled “STOP, back-up!”. I surprised myself at my own assertiveness given that Evan and I had been fooled countless numbers of times by stumps, termite mounds and tree branches that we swore were big cats in disguise. I felt certain that I had seen a flicker of white in the bushes. I had, in fact, caught the white underside of a leopard cub tail jumping in the heavy brush. Low and behold, we had found the Mother Leopard and her TWO cubs! This was the same mother and young female that we had seen yesterday, now joined by the shy male. They were deep in a thicket with their kill. Our hard work had finally paid off in multiple LEOPARDS. We spent the balance of the afternoon with the family. It was a bit frustrating that we couldn’t get closer but there were times when the cubs ventured out of the thicket and played. In these rare moments, I wished they were a month or two older than the 5-6 months that they were, just so that they would be a tad bit taller than the yellow grass they played in.

Rumble in the Jungle - Lisa Holzwarth

Rumble in the Jungle – Lisa Holzwarth

Cameo Camo - Lisa Holzwarth

Camo Cameo – Lisa Holzwarth

 

Opposites Attract - Lisa Holzwarth

Opposites Attract – Lisa Holzwarth

I Don't See You - Lisa Holzwarth

I Don’t See You – Lisa Holzwarth

All of a sudden, Gwist yells out “HYENA!”. From the far side of the thicket a healthy adult hyena was fast approaching. The cubs took off in opposite directions – the male up a very small tree and the female across the road towards a much larger tree. We couldn’t see the mother in the dense brush but heard her snarling. The next sound coming out of the brush was the crunching of bones…

The hyena had found the leopards’ kill. The Mother Leopard was now up in one of the big trees – there was nothing more she could do until the hyena decided to move on. The hyena ate in the thicket for a bit and then rested in the tall grass, though ever vigilant. Never completely relaxing, it continued to pick up its head and look for other predators moving into the area. You start to appreciate how the survival mechanism of “fight or flight” gets imprinted on one’s DNA.

We felt very fortunate to be able to stay in one place for long periods of time. It allowed us to observe the larger dynamic occurring in the bush. This might have proven more challenging if there were other guests in our vehicle.

Coming Down - Lisa Holzwarth

Gravity Drop – Lisa Holzwarth

The hyena eventually lumbered off and the three cats came down out of their respective trees and reconnected as a family. In the meantime we had lots of other vehicles stopping to check out our scene. We finished the day basically where we started it and enjoyed a beautiful sunset before heading out of the Park.

Chobe Sunset - Lisa Holzwarth

Chobe Sunset – Lisa Holzwarth

 

 

Winners at the “Rosette” Wheel

November 22, 2012 – Chobe National Park

Up close and Personal - Lisa Holzwarth

Up close and Personal – Lisa Holzwarth

Today I get to share a photograph that still brings a smile to my face.   I vividly recall  the connectedness that comes with being face to face with this young leopard cub.  I found her deep chestnut eyes mesmerizing.

We were now three days into our Chobe trip without a single leopard sighting and I was beginning to wonder if our luck at the “rosette” wheel had finally run out.   We left camp again at 5:30am and headed first to Harvey’s Pans with the hope of seeing the lions and cubs that we had missed the afternoon before.  Unfortunately for us, the Pans were void of lions, though we did see some vultures and hyenas feeding on another dead baby elephant.  I don’t know when or how it died.

We continued to explore some new Pans and were through Warthog Valley when Gwist got a call on the radio that a mother leopard and cub had just been sighted – in the exact spot we had passed early in the morning!  Gwist dropped his head in his hands – I think his frustration equaled ours.  Evan asked if we were far from the leopards.  While the answer was “Yes”, Gwist said it was reported they were calm, though on the move.  He then threw the vehicle in reverse and floored it, “abandoning the law” and going 60 kilometers per hour (speed limit in the Park is 40).  We arrived at our destination to find three vehicles already viewing the leopards.  The leopards were about 50 to 60 yards away from us and still moving.  I have to admit that I didn’t think we had a chance in hell of seeing them up close – fortunately for us, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  The cub decided to pose on a termite mound and it only got better from there.

Savute Cub on Termite Mound - Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Cub on Termite Mound – Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Cub on the Move - Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Cub on the Move – Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Mother and Cub - Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Mother and Cub – Photography by Evan Schiller

Question: Why did the Mother Leopard cross the road?

Answer: I have absolutely no idea, but I’m glad she decided to do it in front of OUR vehicle.

Savute Synchronicity- Lisa Holzwarth

Savute Synchronicity – Lisa Holzwarth

Question: When is “bigger” not better?

Answer: When a leopard cub is so darn close to your vehicle you can (theoretically) touch it AND take its picture!

Evan was getting some great shots with his 400mm lens, despite our distance from the mother and cub.  I was struggling with my 200mm to get anything that I thought worthwhile, but then my luck changed and it became abundantly clear to me that “bigger is not always better”…   In the midst of jockeying for vehicular position, we found ourselves in the exact spot where the mother leopard decided to cross the road.  The mother crossed first.  I think the young female cub was somewhat afraid of all the cameras firing away so she hesitated.  We found ourselves face to face with this little one who appeared to be 5-6 months old.  Evan had stopped shooting because she was too close for his lens!  I, selfishly, took three more shots and then decided I was being unfair to the little one.  It was only a minute or two at most after I stopped shooting that she joined her mother on the other side of the road.  In those quiet moments we breathed in her wild beauty and innocence and rejoiced at our good fortune.

Can't get any closer than this - Lisa Holzwarth

Can’t get any closer than this – Lisa Holzwarth

Gwist told us that this mother was approximately 8 years old and that in addition to the female cub there was also a male sibling from the same litter who was quite shy.  Gwist guessed that he was probably still back at the family’s hideout.  The female cub was now about 50 yards ahead of the mother when we saw a hyena approaching.  We thought the hyena was close to where we estimated the cub to be, though we couldn’t see her.  Evan and I worried that the cub was in imminent danger.  Gwist assured us that our fears were unfounded and that even a cub of this size was not in serious danger… with only one hyena…  Fortunately for all involved, he was right.  We were then treated to some mother/daughter poses on a weathered tree trunk.  Soon thereafter, the mother and daughter split up – we assumed the mother was planning to hunt and she was sending the young one home.  We waited to see if we would see the mother again, but did not.

In Search of a  Greater Perspective - Lisa Holzwarth

In Search of a Greater Perspective – Lisa Holzwarth

When things had quieted down, Gwist shared an incredible story – it’s too bad there were no filmmakers in Chobe eight years ago to capture this tale for the big screen.  This same mother leopard had been orphaned along with two siblings (a male and female, all at six months of age) when their mother was killed by a lion.  Despite the odds, these three cubs survived to adulthood and are alive today in the Park, living in contiguous territories.

Quiet please - Lisa Holzwarth

Quiet please – Lisa Holzwarth

With the leopards no longer in view, we headed to President’s Camp for brunch.  We had gotten in the habit of staying out all day – so always brought a midday meal with us.   President’s Camp is named in honor of Botswana’s first President, Sir Seretse Khama who served in that role from 1966 (the year in which Botswana gained complete independence from England) until his death in 1980.  President’s Camp is no more than a cleared area along the river, but apparently it was a favorite camping spot for Sir Seretse Khama during his visits to the Park, which he nationalized in 1968.  Today, Ian Khama, Sir Seretse’s son, is the 4th President of the country and it’s my understanding that he is a strong supporter of Botswana wildlife and the big cats.  Our brunches at President’s Camp were generally pretty quiet, plenty of time to eat and caffeinate, “check the tires”, and catch an occasional fish eagle fly-by.

Fish Eagle at President's Camp - Photography by Evan Schiller

Fish Eagle at President’s Camp – Photography by Evan Schiller

We spent our afternoon back in search of the mother leopard.  While we saw leopard tracks just past the 2000 year old Baobab tree and close to another dead elephant, we did not see the leopard.  At one point we came upon a lone baby impala bleating for its mother.  The sight was heart-wrenching because the louder the baby cried, the more attention he was calling to himself.  For all practical purposes, we should have stayed with the impala but instead Gwist chose to circle the Ridge.  At one point Evan heard an adult impala snorting – usually the sign that it is calling attention to an intruder.  Gwist did not believe Evan’s ears.  We then caught sight of a tail – we think the white of a leopard’s tail.  While we couldn’t be certain given the thick brush amongst the rock outcroppings, we believe the leopard had made an impala kill.  It was now close to 7pm and we needed to be leaving the Park for the night but feeling like the Rosette Wheel was back in our favor.  Tomorrow we will be putting all our money on the number #3 – hoping to find the Leopard Trio of mother, daughter AND son.

A Slow Day Makes Me Wonder How Many Cows I am Worth?

Fish Eagle - Savute Marsh, Photography by Evan Schiller

Fish Eagle – Savute Marsh, Photography by Evan Schiller

Morning Game Drive, Chobe National Park – November 21, 2012

We left the Lodge at 5:30am, the earliest you can leave to get into the Park.  We were on the lookout for leopards.  We did see a couple of sets of lion tracks but they went into the bush.  We also saw from afar four lionesses out in the Marsh with their eyes and noses set on a large herd of grazing buffalo with some wildebeest on the fringe, but it was still cool so the big cats weren’t in a hurry to seek shade.  While we could easily see them, getting to them was another story.  Everyone was also intrigued (and a bit envious) of the filming vehicle which was doing a documentary on Chobe’s lion and elephant dynamics and could get as close to the action as they wanted.  This filming team had a permit which allowed them to overnight and off-road in the Park.  This sometimes complicated matters when other visitors could see them in the distance and then try to join them in places the rest of us were not permitted to go.  While this picture technically incriminates us, it does give you some perspective on how big these lions really are – the filming vehicle was just a “regular” sized SUV.

It's all Relative - Lisa Holzwarth

It’s all Relative – Lisa Holzwarth

Gwist decided to travel down the “Elephant Highway”, a “road” formed from the tracks of thousands of elephants and one that had not been traveled on since 2010.  It was still so dry that while, technically, it was open, the going was rough at best.  Remember, you can’t travel off-road, so if you choose to take the “Elephant Highway” you are supposed to stay on it, even though it really looks like one big open marshy plain.  Gwist finally threw up his hands in utter frustration with our lack of progress and decided to follow a couple of other vehicles “off-road” to avoid some of the extreme terrain.  The plan backfired as a park ranger vehicle appeared in the savannah’s distance and everyone veered back onto the Elephant Highway.

Lions and Wildebeest in Savute Marsh, Photography by Evan Schiller

Lions and Wildebeest in Savute Marsh, Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Giraffe, Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Giraffe, Photography by Evan Schiller

 We ultimately made our way over to Jackal “Island” where the four lionesses had headed – “Island” is really metaphoric here – no water in the near vicinity, more of an outcropping of slightly higher land than what surrounds it.  The day had warmed up quickly and the lionesses were now in the shade, deep under some bushes and not a very camera-worthy shot.

We heard from some campers we had passed that a leopard had made a kill right outside their tent that morning, but when we went to investigate we could not find any remains.

Afternoon Game Drive – November 21, 2012

I am beginning to think we were meant to come here.  Not all safaris are filled with full days of big cat sightings and overflowing memory cards.   Days like this give me perspective.   I always want to be learning.  We have counted 30 or 31 dead elephants to date, and these are only the ones we can see who die close to the roads we happen to be on.

Chobe Elephant, Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Elephant, Photography by Evan Schiller

We left camp around 3pm in the heat of the day.   It was hot for us as well as the animals, so not much activity.  We went back to Jackal Island where Gwist again “abandoned the law’ to drive a whole 30 feet off the dirt road so that we could get the angle Evan wanted to capture the reflection of a lioness drinking at a water hole.  We also got a few shots of a young male who was about a year old and was just starting to grow a mane.  The picture reminds me of so many teenage boys I know and their scraggly facial hair.

The Making of a Mane - Lisa Holzwarth

The Making of a Mane – Lisa Holzwarth

We heard there was a leopard down by the Marsh where we had photographed the dead elephant with the two male lions yesterday afternoon.  Unfortunately, no leopards when we arrived.

We did see the two big males of the Coalition of Five lying near the Savute Channel.  Evan was training Gwist on what it takes to position the vehicle to maximize the photographic opportunity.  We soon found ourselves surrounded by lots of other vehicles.  Gwist heard over the radio that six lions were spotted over by Harvey’s Pans.  We debated on whether to make our way to Harvey’s and decided that two adult males “in hand” were better than “maybe” six lions down the road.   It was only later that we learned the six lionesses also had brought their cubs to the Pan (a key piece of information and a missed opportunity, but this is one magnificent shot of a truly magnificent creature!)

The King of Savute, Photography by Evan Schiller

The King of Savute, Photography by Evan Schiller

Gwist – Gives us a lesson in Botswana Culture & Marriage 101

Because we were seriously focused on finding leopards, we sometimes found that it was smarter to sit and wait for them, rather than hoping to randomly happen upon them in our travels.  This meant we had lots of quiet time with Gwist and learned a lot about him, his family and the language.

First thing, his name – all he would share is that this was not his given name but one that he had received in school and that it had a bit of a crude connotation, but that is the name he chooses to go by today.

Gwist is the youngest of six children and the only son.  He only knows the age of one of his sisters, the fifth child in the family – and she is seven years his senior.  Gwist did not give much detail about his parents and in fact never mentioned his father.  I know he lived with his grandmother in the Delta until he was about four years old and then moved to Maun to live with his family.  He went to school in Maun and when he was in his last year of high school got his girlfriend pregnant.  When you get a girl pregnant (the first time), Botswana law requires you to pay the family 3500 Pula and support the child (today’s conversion rate is 1 Pula equals approximately 12 US cents, so your fine is approximately US$400, plus child support).  It seems like the law relaxes a bit after that if you have more than one child with the same unmarried woman.  Gwist and his girlfriend, Michelle, now have two children together and want to get married.  We learned that it takes a lot of effort, persistence and savings to actually be allowed to get married, and it doesn’t hurt to have some good negotiating skills.   For Gwist and Michelle the process started in October 2011 when Gwist’s uncle, acting on Gwist’s behalf, wrote a letter to Michelle’s family making known Gwist’s intention of wanting to marry Michelle.  It took until February of 2012 for the two families to reach a mutual agreement.  I discovered that the maximum a woman’s family could be paid for their daughter’s hand in marriage is twelve cows.  The final negotiations, which lasted over two or three days, finally settled on eight cows.  Gwist said his future mother-in-law was willing to take less than the twelve because she likes his good manners and believes him to be a good man.  (I apologize, I never did find out the conversion rate of 1 Botswana Cow to the US dollar).  We were Gwist’s last guests at Savute before he would be going back to the Delta and his Grandmother’s home for the wedding on December 21, 2012.  He expected over 150 people to attend the celebration – and that’s not including the people who just invite themselves!   And with regard to Gwist getting back to the Delta – while we accomplished that feat in 30 minutes via a Cessna, it can take people close to 24 hours to make the trip when they are limited to public transportation of cars, buses and boats.

Without many cats to focus on, my mind wandered to cows as we took in Gwist’s story and I began to wonder how many cows my parents would have demanded from Evan and how many he would have been willing to pay…

Chobe Yawn, Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Yawn, Photography by Evan Schiller

Safari adventures continue – On to Chobe National Park and Praying for Pula

Originally posted on The LEO Chronicles:

November 20, 2012

Counting Cats

“As I was going to St. Ives

I met a man with seven wives

Each wife had seven sacks

Each sack had seven cats

East cat had seven kits

Kits, cats, sacks, wives

How many were going to St. Ives?”

As we gathered up our cameras and gear in anticipation of visiting Chobe, we took note of the number of cats we had encountered to date and the St. Ives nursery rhyme came to mind.   We found that we could be much more definitive about the number of cats we encountered than the oft debated children’s rhyme.  Between, Zarafa, Selinda and Duba, we counted 40 different lions.  And at Selinda we were rewarded with seven sightings of five different leopards.  The five leopards were all female, three of which were adults.  Leopard #1 was approximately 8 years old and had a five-month old cub with…

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Safari adventures continue – On to Chobe National Park and Praying for Pula

November 20, 2012

Counting Cats

“As I was going to St. Ives

I met a man with seven wives

Each wife had seven sacks

Each sack had seven cats

East cat had seven kits

Kits, cats, sacks, wives

How many were going to St. Ives?”

As we gathered up our cameras and gear in anticipation of visiting Chobe, we took note of the number of cats we had encountered to date and the St. Ives nursery rhyme came to mind.   We found that we could be much more definitive about the number of cats we encountered than the oft debated children’s rhyme.  Between, Zarafa, Selinda and Duba, we counted 40 different lions.  And at Selinda we were rewarded with seven sightings of five different leopards.  The five leopards were all female, three of which were adults.  Leopard #1 was approximately 8 years old and had a five-month old cub with her.  The next adult female we saw was about 4 years old and the daughter of Leopard #1.  The last adult female we came across was approximately 9 years old and she was also with a cub of approximately 7-8 months old.  Unfortunately no cheetahs were in the mix, though we knew not to expect them at Duba (nor leopards for that matter), given the watery terrain of the Delta and the lions’ dominance.  We wondered what Chobe would offer up to us, sightings of all three were certainly a possibility.

We also were very cognizant that we were visiting an area of Africa and in particular, Botswana, where the cats are relatively plentiful.  We were not blind to the fact that healthy numbers here did not necessarily correspond to healthy numbers elsewhere.  Unfortunately, many safari guests do not make this connection.  The reality is that lions have lost 80% of their historical range in Africa and recent surveys estimate that there may be fewer than 30,000 left in the wild, compared to 200,000 less than a century ago.  Leopards, while the most adaptable of the big cats, have disappeared from almost 40% of their historic range in Africa and 50% of their historic range in Asia and the cheetah has vanished from over 77% of its historic range in Africa.  It is estimated that there are fewer than 10,000 adult cheetahs left in the wild today (my statistics are coming from Panthera).  More camps and guides need to make their guests aware of this crucial situation.  Awareness is the first step in making a difference.

November 20, 2012 Flight to Savute Safari Lodge – Chobe National Park

We left Duba in the heat of the day.  Extreme heat does not make for pleasant flying on these single engine, five-seater light aircraft planes.  The Cessna 206, built in the US and known for the past forty years as the ”Land Rover of the Skies”, is as rugged as it’s four-wheeled cousin.  Anyone who has spent time in a real Land Rover knows that while you can probably get yourself out of pretty much any jam, it is sans luxury (do not confuse a real African Land Rover with the ones driven in Fairfield County, CT or Orange County, CA).   Bottom-line, there is no “climate control” on the Cessna 206, rather, the climate controls you.  Add a bit of bumpiness and someone with a weak stomach to the mix and you are just asking for trouble.  Unfortunately, one of the other two passengers (who already had been flying for an extra 20 minutes before picking us up) had eaten a big lunch before he got on the plane – big mistake for all of us.   The guy was already looking pretty green when they touched down to get us – his Grinch-like shading quickly intensified as we began to ride the warm air currents towards Chobe.  I am one of those people who is highly susceptible to the gag reflect – so I covered my ears and focused my attention on counting the elephants below us.  I quickly lost count to the multitude growing along the Delta’s meandering waterways as they guided us back to the northeast corner of Botswana.

Chobe National Park covers almost 12,000 square kilometers of the northern Kalahari and has four different areas to explore, each with its own unique ecosystem.  It is an area that has long attracted explorers – David Livingstone is known to have spent time in the area in the 1850’s.  Chobe was first designated a game reserve in 1961 and then in 1968 it was named a National Park.  Chobe is known for its large concentration of elephants – some estimate the number to be around 50,000, which would make it one of the largest concentrations of elephants in Africa, if not the largest.  Our guide, Gwist, said the number was probably closer to 70,000 or 80,000.  The herd has grown from a few thousand in the early 1990’s to its current numbers today.  What makes the area so intriguing is the dynamic of the animal migrations that flow through this Park.  The flow stems from long held traditions the animals have come to follow based on rain flow and the resultant availability of food.  In the Setswana language, “Pula” translates to “rain”.  Rain is the ultimate key to the region and life, so there’s good reason that Botswana’s currency is called the “Pula” and that when people raise their glasses to toast they say “Pula”.    We soon found that we were praying for Pula like everyone else.

Why Savute?  Our South African friend, Gordon Turner who runs Capescout, had recommended that we stay at the Savute Safari Lodge located near the Savute Marsh and covering the western stretch of the National Park.  FYI, we had spent the early part of our trip at the Zarafa and Selinda camps which lie to the west of the Savute Marsh.  Despite the relative proximity to Zarafa and Selinda, I was surprised at how different the topography and animal dynamics could be.  Zarafa and Selinda consist of riverine woodlands, open woodlands and floodplains while the Savute Marsh consists more of savannahs and grasslands.  The Marsh is what remains of an inland lake that dried up long ago with the shift of tectonic plates.  Today it is fed by the erratic Savuti Channel, whose water supply mysteriously turns on and off for long periods of time with various plate shifts.  Dereck and Beverly Joubert shot a National Geographic film many years ago called “The Stolen River”, which begins in 1982 and documents over the course of seven years the water’s disappearance from the Channel.  The water returned to the Channel in 2010, once again supplying the Marsh with the necessary elixir to feed the nutritious grasses the animals so readily seek.  Even in the dry season, the animals are attracted to the Marsh for nutrition.  The Lodge was constructed on the banks of the Savuti Channel and offered us some absolutely amazing elephant views.  Evan got some incredible shots minutes upon our arrival and just yards from our front porch.  He easily captured over 150 shots before we had unpacked our bags.  These two shots are absolutely adorable of an extremely young baby – perhaps just days old.

Baby Elephant in the Savute Channel - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Elephant in the Savute Channel – Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Elephant II in the Savute Channel - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Elephant II in the Savute Channel – Photography by Evan Schiller

National Park versus Private Reserve?  Some of the previous camps were repeat visits for us.  We definitely wanted to add one last segment that would offer us a different terrain and potentially different animal dynamic.  That’s how Gordon decided upon Savute Safari Lodge on the edge of Chobe.   In addition to the large number of elephants, Chobe is also known for its elephant/lion relationship.  In addition to the lions, it is also home to a number of leopards, many who live in and around the rocky kopjies.  Gordon knew the Savute Safari Lodge owners well and thought the camp would be a good fit for us.  The only disconnect for us was that the three previous camps we had visited were all private reserves which meant that there were no hard and fast rules about how early you can go out for your morning drive or how late you return and whether you follow a road or go off-road.  Private reserves are all about your guide using his experience and discretion to avoid a problem before one is created – the intention being to observe the animals without creating disruption, as well as overall safety for everyone and thing involved.  With national parks come specific rules – which in retrospect is understandable given that there is much greater foot traffic coming through a national park than a private reserve, but rules can also be frustrating, especially for a photographer, when they tell you how early you can enter the park, how late you can stay and most frustrating of all, that you can’t go off road to track!  For the past ten days we had derived incredible joy and satisfaction by following cat tracks off-road for hours on end, many times to be rewarded with finding the cat who belonged to those tracks.  We soon discovered that in a national park, you can track a cat only until it goes off-road.  From that point on you technically have reached a dead-end unless your guide circles round to another road on the other side to determine if the cat continued on in that direction.  Sometimes you get lucky, but not always.   Gwist was a particular stickler to the rules – his phrase for going off-road was “abandoning the law”.  Again, I appreciated his concern – if a guide is caught “abandoning the law” for any number of infractions, he could lose his guiding license and face financial fines.  We grinned and beared it as best we could, but it was not without an occasional grumble on our end.  As I reflect back on this segment of the trip, it all worked out in the end.  We captured some great shots.  I think a lot of those shots were the result of our persistence and patience while others were derived from a little bit of luck.  All things being equal, we probably would opt for private reserves, but I feel there will still be some very special national parks in our travel future.

What happens when the “Rainy Season” is missing the Rain?

First Afternoon Game Drive – November 20, 2012

No surprise, we were the first out at 3:30pm for the afternoon game drive.  The rainy season was extremely overdue, and the ramifications of the delay soon became sadly evident.

Gwist took us into the Marsh and introduced us to two of the five male lions in this particular coalition whose territory we were now in the midst of.  These guys were both between 5 or 6 years old and Evan and I think they are actually larger than the Skimmer Male at Duba (who, to date, was the biggest guy in our eyes).  As we learned, while the Duba lions eat buffalo, the Chobe lions aren’t afraid to take down elephants.

King of Savute - Photography by Evan Schiller

King of Savute – Photography by Evan Schiller

Savute Profile - Lisa Holzwarth

Savute Profile – Lisa Holzwarth

Marsh Patrol - Lisa Holzwarth

Marsh Patrol – Lisa Holzwarth

The afternoon proved to be a difficult one.  The elephants had descended upon the Marsh for sustenance.  Some had managed to bring their young.

Got Milk? - Lisa Holzwarth

Got Milk? – Lisa Holzwarth

Follow the Leader - Lisa Holzwarth

Follow the Leader – Lisa Holzwarth

But it was the first time we were faced with watching elephants literally dying of starvation.  We wondered if the young ones we were watching today would make it.  The delay of the rain by over a month was limiting the growth of the grasses and other vegetation necessary to sustain life.  The elephants were depleting their stores of body fat and were not getting enough nutrients from the sparse vegetation left in the area.   A lot of the mopane trees had been stripped bare – what a difference to what we had experienced with the mopane and overall vegetation near Selinda and Zarafa.

It was sobering to see elephants, who had dropped to their knees without the strength to get up, dying in that position.  That afternoon we counted six among the dead in our travels.  Imagine the stench of multi-ton corpses.  The sight and smell lingers.  Gwist says there are probably about 20,000 elephant living in this general area of the Park.  This was certainly a time when the predators had easy pickings.  And for all of you who are wondering what happens with the tusks given the world’s (and especially Asia’s) demand for ivory, the Park Rangers make note of the fallen elephants and ultimately remove the tusks so that they are not a temptation for others.  We were told that they are stored by the government so that they do not end up on the world market.

Harsh Reality - Lisa Holzwarth

Harsh Reality – Lisa Holzwarth

In addition to the two 5 or 6 year old males, we also got to see two younger male lions (probably around the age of 2.5 years old).  The younger males are in the midst of being pushed out of the pride by their mother who has now apparently finally begun to accept this Group of Five coalition as the dominant males in the area.  The younger males are no match for the coalition and are of the age where they will now need to strike out on their own.

As I lay in my bed that night I listened to the elephants down on the riverbank splashing in the little bit of water running through it and prayed for Pula.