Category Archives: Nature

A Worthy Cause – Rhinos Without Borders

The LEO Chronicles got its start talking about Big Cats conservation. Today I am broadening the conversation to bring awareness to an important African wildlife initiative currently underway where time is of the essence. Rhinos without Borders is an expansive project being undertaken by Great Plains Conservation and &Beyond, two extraordinary eco-tourism travel organizations who each operate safari camps in Botswana. Evan and I have been fortunate to visit Great Plains Conservation’s concessions at Zarafa, Selinda and Duba Plains. Great Plains also has concessions in Kenya, while &Beyond’s properties can be found in ten African countries as well as five countries in Asia. Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains, and Joss Kent, CEO of &Beyond, are leading by example and stand in solidarity to save the rhino from its current path towards extinction.

Speaking from our own experience, in our three trips to Southern Africa, which includes two visits to South Africa and two to Botswana, we only saw rhino while visiting the Mala Mala reserve in South Africa (which is in close proximity to Kruger National Park). We were incredibly fortunate on one morning to come across a mother rhino and her young calf, who our guide estimated to probably be about a month old. Needless to say, he had not yet grown that coveted horn…

Baby Rhino & Mother - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Rhino & Mother – Photography by Evan Schiller

Rhinos are dying at a rate of at least one every eight hours. News outlets are reporting the recurring atrocities of rhino poaching on the African continent, particularly in South Africa where the majority of rhino can be found, and sadly, easily killed. As of the end of July at least 622 rhino have been killed in Africa, with approximately 2/3’s of those deaths occurring in Kruger National Park.   The rhinos are killed solely for their horn, which Traditional Asian Medicine purports to provide certain healing qualities, including everything from reducing fever to curing cancer (this has been scientifically proven to be false). Asian demand for rhino horn, particularly in Vietnam, has fueled the black market (in this case “Black” market literally means “Death” for the rhino). Last year over 1,000 rhino were killed, so at the current rate of three rhino deaths per day, it can only be assumed that a similar number will be reached in 2014. More sobering is that professionals on the ground, like Les Carlisle, a long-time Group Conservation Manager at &Beyond, believe that the rhino death rate is probably UNDER-estimated by 20% because not all killings are reported or even discovered. Poachers are highly sophisticated, heavily armed and technologically savvy. Their job is made easier in South Africa where the animals are clustered in parks and private reserves located near more densely populated areas than exist in Botswana. As I researched this epic problem, I was also shocked by the accounting of the number of wildlife rangers who have died at the hands of poachers.  A National Geographic Daily News article that came out June 27, 2014 titled “For Rangers on the Front Lines of Anti-Poaching Wars, Daily Trauma” quotes Sean Willmore, the President of the International Ranger Federation and Founder of the Thin Green Line Foundation, as saying that worldwide, at least two rangers are killed every week in the line of duty. StopRhinoPoaching.com, which specifically tracks poaching in Africa, reports that a minimum of 54 poachers in South Africa were fatally wounded in shoot-outs with anti-poaching units in 2011 and 2012. This number increased to 50+ in 2013 with the majority occurring in Kruger and a smaller number in KwaZulu-Natal. A further 30 poachers have been shot and killed in shoot-outs so far this year. Bottom-line, rhino poaching is a dangerous and deadly business for everyone involved, but most deadly for the rhino and its ability to survive as a species.

Mala Mala Momma & Baby Rhino - Lisa Holzwarth

Mala Mala Momma & Baby Rhino – Lisa Holzwarth

Baby Rhino & Oxpecker - Photography by Evan Schiller

Baby Rhino & Oxpecker – Photography by Evan Schiller

Rhinos are at their Tipping Point: We are losing rhinos to poaching faster than the rate at which rhinos can reproduce. The white rhino gestation period is 16 months and a new calf birth usually occurs every 2 to 3 years, while the black rhino’s gestation is 15-16 months with a new calf being born every 2.5 to 4 years. It should be no surprise that given a rhino’s size (1800 to 2700 kgs for the white and 800 to 1350 kgs for the black) that their gestation period is one of the longest in the animal kingdom. (And by the way, white rhino and black rhino are both gray.)  Besides the size differential, the main difference between the two species is the shape of their mouths. White rhino have broad flat lips for grazing, while black rhino have pointed lips for eating foliage.  The IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group estimates that there are probably 20,000 white rhino left on the African continent, almost 19,000 of which can be found in South Africa. They estimate that the total African black rhino population is approximately 5,000 of which 2,000 are in South Africa and 1,750 are in Namibia (these population numbers were as of December 31, 2012).  Poaching has been growing 39% a year from 2008 to 2013. If this keeps up, the IUCN SSC’s African Rhino Specialist Group projects that the tipping point could be reached somewhere in the 2014 to 2016 period. Given that it is most likely that rhino kill rates are underestimated, we are probably already there. This chilling scenario is not hyperbole.

Making a Difference for the Common Good. It is the intention of this joint venture, working with the support of Africa Foundation, to relocate at least 100 rhino (both black, Diceros bicornis, and white, Ceratotherium simum) from high density/high risk poaching areas of South Africa to Botswana where population densities are significantly lower and poaching is virtually non-existent. The translocation would also create breeding diversity, strengthening the rhino gene pool by creating new stock in a safer long-term environment with the intention that the Botswana national herd might reach 400 rhino by 2016 (it currently stands at approximately 75). This will not occur naturally, but only by taking immediate action like that envisioned by Rhinos without Borders.

Putting the Plan into Action. The Rhinos without Borders team of experts believes that to acquire and translocate 100 rhino to Botswana will cost approximately US$7 to $8 million. The absolute number is somewhat fluid and will depend on how many animals are freely given to the cause (this includes private landowners and/or national parks donating their animals with the intention to make them safer, versus purchasing rhino at the annual South African Wildlife auction). The general plan is to acquire young adults in the ratio of 1 male for every 4 females, but this will ultimately be determined by what is offered. Transportation of the animals is also a large factor in the financial equation and there is talk of the possibility of plane capacity being donated to help with the safe transport. If not by plane, the rhinos will be moved via truck. 40% of the funding is projected to be used for the capture, transport, bomas, quarantine and release of the animals. The balance, 60%, will go to continued conservation, protection and monitoring of the animals. The team will continue to work closely with Botswana’s Ministry of Environment, the Department of Wildlife and the Botswana Defense Force to ensure the safety of the animals in their new environs. It is the intention of Rhinos with Borders that after three years the translocated rhino and their offspring will become the responsibility of the people of Botswana to proudly protect and grow.

Mala Mala Rhino family - Lisa Holzwarth

Mala Mala Rhino family – Lisa Holzwarth

Opportunities to Donate!!!!

Rhinos with Borders is supported by, and donations can be made through the following organizations:

Great Plains Foundation, a US public charity contributions to which may be tax deductible for US federal income tax purposes under Section 501 (c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code. Visit: www.greatplainsfoundation.com

Africa Foundation, a separate independent organization registered with the South African Revenue Service as a Public Benefit Organization (PBO) and as a Nonprofit Organization (NPO). Visit: http://www.africafoundation.org.za

Africa Foundation (USA), a US public charity, contributions to which may be deductible for US federal income tax purposes under Section 501 (c) (3) of the US Internal Revenue Code. EIN 88-0461880. Visit: www.africafoundation.org

Africa Foundation (UK), a separate independent organization registered with the UK Charities Commission. UK registered Charity Number 1092616. Visit: www.africafoundation.org

Great Plains Conservation has also generously donated its green season beds (for travel between November 1, 2014 and May 31, 2015) under an initiative called Zeros for Rhinos. Guests can elect to stay at selected Great Plains Conservation Camps and donate the cost of that directly to the Foundation towards this rhino effort.

Please check out this link to Rhinos Without Borders which includes a special message from Dereck and Beverly Joubert discussing the importance of this very special project: http://eepurl.com/0bXWn

Evan and I firmly believe in Rhinos Without Borders and the people driving this effort and we are making a personal donation to support this important and worthy cause.

Take us to Botswana! - Lisa Holzwarth

Take us to Botswana! – Lisa Holzwarth

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.

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.

What does a Karate Class for 5 year olds and saving Africa’s leopards have in common? Luke Hunter speaks at the Explorers Club on Leopard Conservation.

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Tamboti Female, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Evan and I created our own adventure when we decided to make a trip into Manhattan to hear Dr. Luke Hunter, the President of Panthera, speak at the Explorers Club on Thursday evening, October 17, 2013.  Driving into NYC never is as easy as it should be, given that we live a mere 60 miles from Midtown.  Road closures, accidents and construction, in any combination and in multiple combinations, make for added challenges and the need to adapt to anything and everything thrown at you.  I was excited that we had carved out some time to watch our buddies, “the Twins” at their 4:30 karate class prior to the 6pm Explorers Club event.  I thought our attendance would be a nice surprise for the boys and would create a little momentary peace for us in the midst of the City’s chaos.  Well, even Karate Class had something to throw at us that day.  The teacher opened the class with the suggestion that the young “Grasshoppers” invite their friends in the audience, previously known as the “Observers”, to join the class.  The boys came running over to us with huge expectant smiles on their faces – there was only one possible answer to their request – participate (!) – which on that day was a version of “Insanity 60” for five year olds, combined with some World Wide Wrestling Federation moves…  The boys were primed to take us down.  We found ourselves lying flat on our backs, feet to feet with our “opponent”.  The room was silent, the tension in the air, electric.  At the word “GO” we jumped to our knees, grabbed our opponents’ shoulders and made every attempt to wrestle him to the ground where, if we held him in that position for 3 seconds, we would be deemed the winner.  The boys, filled with a child’s unerring belief that anything is possible, combined with an absolute intention to succeed, took us on, and down!  Needless to say, we arrived at the Explorer’s Club a bit worse for wear – given that we had just completed 30 minutes of an “Insanity” and “Smackdown” program in our dinner clothes…

From karate class, we moved uptown to the tree-lined streets of the Upper East Side and home of the Explorers Club where Dr. Hunter was the guest speaker on the topic, “The Leopard in Africa: Conserving the World’s Most Persecuted Big Cat”.  Luke presented the audience with a question – do leopards need conservation?  When the fact is shared that they have lost over 40% of their African range, the answer is a resounding, Yes!

Bicycle Crossing Male, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Bicycle Crossing Male, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke referenced the 2005 study by Ray, Hunter & Zigouris, called “Setting Conservation and Research Priorities for Larger African Carnivores”.  Leopards, despite being one of the more adaptable of the big cats, are contending with four major threats: (1) Loss of Habitat (the greater the number of humans, the greater the potential for human/cat conflict and ultimately the loss of range), (2) Loss of Prey (the “Empty Forest Syndrome” – again, more human interference, in this case prey numbers decline within a declining range, (3) Illegal Killing and (4) Legal Hunting.  Hmm, I’m no scientist, but do you see the common thread winding its way through these immediate threats?

Now any reasonable person will also appreciate the villager/farmers’ perspective on the potential scenario at hand.  If a farmer suddenly finds that his prized goat or cow is dead, presumably at the jaws of the leopard found nibbling at the scene, that the cat might be deemed the source of the problem.  And sometimes it is the leopard, and sometimes, it’s not.  When you rush to judgment and immediately kill the leopard, you don’t necessarily get to the truth.

And then there is the debate on legal hunting… Luke was quick to point out that he, personally, is against hunting, but he posed a very compelling question.  If you abolish hunting and the substantial income that it brings into these impoverished areas – what do you replace it with?  It needs to be something that monetarily contributes at least what the hunting licenses previously provided.  The quick answer is perhaps high-end, eco-friendly safari camps where customers can “shoot” big cats over and over again, with a telephoto lens, rather than a rifle.  But not all current hunting areas are conducive to this transformation.  Botswana just recently outlawed trophy hunting in the country.   If there is one country where this has the potential to be successful, it is probably Botswana because it has an active and well-established network of eco-friendly safari camp projects in place.  Only time will tell how this plays out and we watch with intense interest and hope.

Leopard on a Limb, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Leopard on a Limb, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

I was really amazed by the number of legal trophy hunting license quotas that were allowed by a couple of countries in particular: Tanzania (500), Zimbabwe (500), Ethiopia (500), and Namibia (250), to name a few. But what the scientific and conservation community is now debating is that trophy hunting may be the lesser of two evils…  If hunting is abolished, the land might be turned over to farming – not a viable alternative, if the ultimate goal is greater and improved cat conservation.

Tamboti Leopard Logging It, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Tamboti Leopard Logging It, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke took us through a series of slides summarizing a leopard study done at the Phinda-Mkhuze ecosystem in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa during the period 2002 to 2009.  The question the researchers posed was “What are the effects of anthropogenic activities on leopards?”.  They were interested in checking out survival & reproduction, as well as density.  And , just to be clear for those less scientifically inclined or who missed taking Latin in high school, anthropogenic means “caused or produced by humans”.

There are a number of interesting points that need to be factored into the equation of this study.   The two reserves share a common border.  Phinda is a private game reserve lying just south of Mkhuze, a state owned game reserve.  Phinda is also located on the “edge” of a large human and herd animal population, while Mkhuze is better protected given its more isolated surroundings, so it considered to have a “core”.   The animals at the two reserves were monitored with GPS and VHF telemetry as well as camera traps.  The baseline study showed that the mortality rate of Phinda leopards was at a ratio of 3:1 as compared to those in Mkhuze, despite the fact that Phinda was the private reserve.  The ratio was the same for deaths caused by humans as well as for natural deaths.

Luke went on to point out that more deaths, leads to an elevated turnover in males, which can lead to (1) increased infanticide and (2) reduced reproductive rates among females.  Like the male lion who takes over a pride and kills off the young offspring of his predecessor, leopards are also territorial and the triumphant male leopard will also kill off leopard cubs he has not sired.  This behavior also leads to uncertainty amongst young females of reproductive age who will delay having their first litter until they feel that there is some stability in the male hierarchy of the territory.  The 2002 leopard baseline study showed higher mortality and lower reproductive output was resulting in a population decline.

Hangin out at Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Hangin out at Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

So here is where things get interesting and inspiring.  What kind of conservation interventions affected positive change?  With regard to trophy hunting – the arbitrary quota of ten leopards per year in KwaZulu-Natal which included uneven quota distributions and permitted the hunting of females was changed to include the more even distribution of CITES tags across the province with the likelihood of obtaining a tag dependent on the size of the property where the hunt would take place.  Importantly, it also restricted trophy hunting to adult males, since fewer males are required to maintain the same levels of reproduction and you avoid dependent cubs dying as the result of their mother being shot.  With regard to human/leopard conflict, permits were no longer rewarded automatically for the depredation of wild prey; rather, any kill needed to be inspected within 24 hours so that there would be a thoughtful evaluation of the responsible species and the identification of the true culprit.  The addition of a “three strikes” rule also eliminated a rush to judgment and the killing of innocent leopards.

So when the scientific team went back to review the effects of these interventions by remeasuring the leopard densities – what did they find?  Leopard densities in the Phinda Game Reserve continued to increase such that by 2009 the leopards per 100 square kilometers were similar (actually slightly higher but statistically pretty similar, to what the baseline study found in 2005. Specifically, in 2005 the study found there were 11.11 leopards per 100 square Km’s in Mkhuze vs. 7.17 leopards in Phinda.  In 2007 the number was 10.76 in Mkhuze vs. 9.42 in Phinda and in 2009 the population density was 10.7 leopards in Mkhuze vs. 11.21 in Phinda (all based on per 100 square kilometers).  These very pragmatic solutions made a real difference towards improved leopard conservation.

Mama "Van Gogh", Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Mama “Van Gogh”, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

Luke finished his presentation talking about an incredibly innovative solution that Panthera has put into motion on behalf of African leopard conservation – the creation of faux leopard capes worn by the ever-growing male population of the Shembe religion.  Many Zulu community members practice the Shembe religion which was founded by Isaiah Shembe in 1910 and is a combination of Christianity and Zula traditions and is also known as the Nazareth Baptist Church.  Male Shembe elders wear leopard skins in their ceremonies, and with an estimated 2 million male followers and a total following that could number 5 to 11 million believers, this adds up to too many leopards losing their lives to become a cape.  Panthera took their plan to China where they worked with a company to design and manufacture faux leopard “skins”.  The faux skins are then transported back to South Africa (free of charge by DHL) where they are sewn by traditional Shembe tailors into the religious capes (ie., the Shembe tailors are not losing out to cheap Chinese labor).  And what a deal!  The traditional leopard cape can cost anywhere from $350 to $600.  The faux cape, still sewn by the Shembe tailor, costs about $16.  While the discerning eye can definitely tell the difference, the faux capes are catching on and Panthera expects to have about 4500 in circulation by year-end 2013.  There is still work to be done but this is where thinking outside the box makes a real difference.

Tamboti Stretch, Mala Mala - Photography by Evan Schiller

Tamboti Stretch, Mala Mala – Photography by Evan Schiller

So what does African Leopard Conservation and Karate for five year-olds have in common?  What I took away from the day is that anything is possible if you believe in yourself and your cause AND are smart about how you approach a situation.  The twins didn’t throw up their hands when given the opportunity to wrestle grown-ups.  They took the opportunity on with passion and a belief that anything is possible.  Panthera is doing the same thing with the Big Cats – they are being smart, thoughtful, innovative and tireless in their pursuit for change and making a positive difference in Big Cat conservation – and the results are there to prove it.

Just an FYI – all of the photographs that I have included were taken by Evan Schiller at the private Mala Mala Game Reserve which is located in the Mpumalanga province of South Africa.  Mpumalanga lies just north of KwaZulu-Natal.

Success!! Big Cats II wins big for Panthera – Finally, the Story

Dr. Luke Hunter, Lisa Holzwarth, Alison Nicholls, Evan Schiller

Dr. Luke Hunter, Lisa Holzwarth, Alison Nicholls, Evan Schiller

All the planning, organizing, phones calls, emails, arm-twisting and finger-crossing worked – we had a great turnout for our Big Cats II event in Manhattan on October 2nd benefiting Panthera.   The weather cooperated this year, and while Metro-North did not, our dedicated friends and colleagues pulled out all the stops and made the evening a huge success – raising over $31,000 for the Big Cats.   Dr. Luke Hunter, President of Panthera and Andrea Heydlauff, Panthera’s Vice President , joined us in welcoming our friends from Connecticut, Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester, New Jersey, Washington DC and California (!) to a wonderful evening at Panthera’s headquarters.  Some of our special guests included Alison Nichols, my absolute favorite wildlife and conservation artist http://www.nichollswildlifeart.com, and Dr. Laly Lichtenfeld and Charles Trout, co-founders of the African People & Wildlife Fund whose work focuses on Eastern Africa, particularly in Tanzania in the Maasai Steppe and in/around Tarangire National Park http://afrpw.org.

When I look back at the evening and the days and weeks leading up to Big Cats II, I am forever appreciative of all the people who made the event such a success.  Every dollar made a difference.  To be honest, some of the dollars that meant the most to me were not necessarily the largest, they were the ones where I know the person was sacrificing to make the contribution – and ironically, these were the dollars that came unsolicited.

Our Auction items were extraordinary and unique.  We included two of Evan’s large photographic archival pigment prints on canvas including the  “Chobe Lion” and “Tamboti Leopard”, Panthera Media Director, Steve Winter’s chromogenic color print that is the cover shot on his new book coming out in November called “Tigers Forever”, handcrafted jewelry, Alison Nicholl’s original acrylic “Lines of a Lioness”, as well as great rounds of golf at US Open courses and a catered Day Sail on a Morris Yacht.   Panthera had also offered two amazing trips – one to the Pantanal to track jaguars and another to the Tetons to track cougars, each to be accompanied by Panthera experts.  Unfortunately we did not have any takers on these very big ticket items, though Evan and I were caught drooling over both of these amazing opportunities.  If you know of anyone with a keen interest, please let me know and I will put you in touch with the Panthera development team.

At the end of the day I think our friends and family really appreciate our passion for the Big Cats and are willing to take a stand with us on behalf of these amazing creatures.  The evening was light, fun, and informative, and I believe the Big Cats message rang true.   Luke Hunter spent a few minutes giving the group some background on how Panthera got started and their philosophy.   One of the things that really resonates with me is Panthera’s inclusiveness and thoughtfulness.  A Panthera board member recently described Panthera as the “venture capitalist” for the Big Cats movement.  Panthera is always asking itself what are the best possible investments to be made on behalf of the Big Cats.  They have no intention of re-creating the wheel or adding unnecessary bricks and mortar.   They stretch their dollars as far as they can out in the field and since their founding in 2006 have conducted over 155 wild cat conservation projects in 59 countries.   The organization is fortunate that its budget is funded by Panthera’s co-founder, Tom Kaplan, and the Board, so that all dollars raised can go directly to field projects.  Tom is currently featured in Forbes.  It is a great article on who Tom is, his passion for wildlife and what he and his wife are doing to make a HUGE difference, especially for the Big Cats (and snakes).

Evan and I offer our most sincere thanks and appreciation for all who participated and donated to our Big Cats II event.  We couldn’t have done it without you!

http://www.forbes.com/sites/ashleaebeling/2013/10/08/tom-kaplan-billionaire-king-of-cats/

Chobe Lion - Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Lion – Photography by Evan Schiller