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

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.

Ruaha Carnivore Project – Dr. Amy Dickman in DC, Take II

Ruaha Carnivore Project, Washington DC Invitation

Ruaha Carnivore Project, Washington DC Invitation

On Thursday, October 24th I hopped on Amtrak for what has become our “annual” trip to Washington, DC.  My friend, Laura Brown and her husband, Scott Satterfield, were hosting an evening to meet Dr. Amy Dickman, the founder of the Ruaha Carnivore Project in Tanzania.  You may recall that Evan and I met Dr. Dickman last year at this same time when we came down to spend the day at National Geographic.  (Amy was the 2011 recipient of the Rabinowitz-Kaplan Prize for Next Generation of Wild Cat Conservation and is also a National Geographic grantee.)  I was looking forward to seeing Amy again and getting an update on this important project.

So where is Ruaha and why is it important?  The Ruaha National Park is the second largest national park in all of Africa and the largest national park in Tanzania.  It covers an area of about 13,000 square kilometers (5,000 sq miles) in central Tanzania and is about 130 kilometers (81 miles) from Iringa.  The Park is part of a more extensive ecosystem, which includes Rungwa Game Reserve, Usangu Game Reserve, and several other protected areas.  The name of the Park is derived from the Great Ruaha River, which flows along its southeastern margin.  You can get to the Park by car via Iringa, as well as an airstrip at Msembe, Park headquarters. 

Now to Ruaha’s importance.  According to a recent study led by Duke University, there are only ten “strongholds” of lions left in the world where researchers believe that lions have a good long-term chance of survival.  The study goes on to point out that 40% of the world’s lions are found in Tanzania, with more than 10% living in southern Tanzania’s Ruaha landscape (the second largest lion population in the world).  Amy says the Ruaha landscape has a large, viable carnivore population because it is a vast, relatively untouched area with healthy prey populations.  Amazingly, until 2009 when the Ruaha Carnivore Project was launched, there were no research or conservation efforts focused on this important large carnivore stronghold – data that is necessary to help develop effective conservation strategies for the area.  The Ruaha Carnivore Project is part of Oxford University’s Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, WildCRU.  The Ruaha team focuses 30% of their efforts on ecological research/conservation data and 70% on mitigating human/carnivore conflict in this isolated landscape.  It is the only non-governmental organization working on the ground in the area to promote large carnivore conservation.  Its geographical area of focus includes Ruaha National Park, the surrounding Wildlife Management Areas and 21 neighboring villages. 

What are the challenges?   Despite its isolation, Ruaha has historically some of the highest rates of lion killings in east Africa.  Most key carnivore areas are close to village lands (approximately within 30 km) which is a key reason for the very high lion killing numbers found in/around Ruaha.  Over half of the lions killed were missing their right front paw when the carcasses were found and a significant number found poisoned were pregnant females.  The poisoning is probably the result of retaliation for livestock deaths.   

In Ruaha, wildlife wealth lives amongst human poverty: 90% of the people live on less than $2/day and life expectancy is less than 50 years.  Until the Ruaha Carnivore Project, villagers had little appreciation for the economic value of large carnivores, resulting in a severe conflict between the two (when polled, 93% of the villagers said that they derived no economic benefit from wildlife).  And what is behind the right foot “trophy”?… the Barabaig Tribe.  The Barabaigs are a local, very isolated and dangerous pastoral tribe.  They are known to be fierce warriors.  The Barabaigs keep goats, sheep, donkeys and chickens, but cattle are by far the most important domestic animal. It is tribal tradition that to “become a man” you must kill  “an enemy of the people” which could include a lion, an elephant or a non-Barabaig person!  As Amy pointed out, there aren’t many “non-Barabaig” people residing in the area…

Amy’s team had made concerted efforts since 2009 to reach out to the Barabaig, but to no avail.  It was not until the Project set up a solar charging station on village land (for the purpose of being able to charge their cell phones and computers) that the Barabaigs decided to meet the Project’s overtures – the Barabaigs wanted access to the charging station for their own cell phones! (thereby eliminating the 30km walk to the next town for charging access).   Even the Barabaigs recognized this technology convenience and were willing to start a mutually beneficial dialogue.  The Barabaigs have since invited the Ruaha team to their village meetings and presented them with a cow, one of their most prized possessions, so trust has ultimately resulted in dialogue and progress.  Amy and her team recognize that they need to provide the Barabaigs with tangible benefits related to living amongst the large carnivores in exchange for their cooperation.

What makes for effective conservation strategies?   Amy and her team know that accurate baseline data is necessary to be able to map one’s progress.  Their ecological work includes using camera traps which provide extremely valuable initial data, as well as also equipping ten National Park drivers with cameras to monitor the carnivores within the Park.   Counting large carnivores, dead or alive, only takes you so far.  The next step is developing creative solutions to the conflicts and challenges that arise when humans and large carnivores live in close proximity.

One way the Ruaha Carnivore Project, in concert with the villagers, is reducing the number of carnivore attacks on livestock is by reinforcing the livestock enclosures known as “bomas”.  The villagers’ bomas historically have been poorly constructed, consisting only of branches and sticks piled together – not much of a deterrent for a large carnivore, but when these bomas are reinforced with chain-link fencing they become 100% effective.  To date, 65 reinforced bomas have been constructed and they would like to build 100 more. 

The Ruaha team is also working with the Lion Guardians, young men who are employed to track the lions’ whereabouts and keep the livestock away from the lions.   The Guardians are incentivized to keep the lions safe because they are paid in cattle (practically a currency unto itself), IF no carnivore is killed.  The Lion Guardians have had a real impact on the reduction of retaliatory killings as a result of their work.  They are now appreciating that protecting the lion is a means to earning a good livelihood.  At the request of the young Guardians, a “Warrior School” has been created which teaches the young men to read and write.

The Project also recognized the need to engage the women of the tribe and asked what was important to them.  The women requested that a village clinic be created to address maternal and infant health needs.  The women also requested veterinary care and medicine for their livestock protected by the reinforced bomas.  There seems to be a good quid pro quo established, all based on what is important to the villagers and their needs.  So, if you are making the effort to build reinforced bomas to house your cattle or goats, you can now receive veterinary care for those same animals.  The local schools are also severely undersourced so the Ruaha Project is teaming with US primary schools through National Geographic and their “Kids4Cats” program. 

The Team is also going to experiment with introducing large guard dogs to help protect the livestock – I believe they plan to use Anatolian Shepherds (like those used in the Cheetah Conservation Project). The dog grows up with the livestock and becomes part of the herd where its instinct is to protect (and these dogs grow to be huge – hard to believe that it is a real match for a lion, but perhaps a deterrent).  Check out the Cheetah Conservation Fund’s website for more detail on how they use the Anatolian Shepherd and the Kangal – it’s really interesting. http://www.cheetah.org/?nd=guarding_dog_program

Lastly, the Ruaha Team recognizes the need for the villagers to develop an appreciation of the large carnivores’ value – this can only be done with education and increased understanding.  Despite their close proximity to the Park, the villagers had not experienced the Park as “tourists”.  The Project now brings groups of villagers into the Park to experience it as a guest and to see the animals the way visitors see the animals.  Apparently the villagers are most excited to see the planes coming and going from the airstrip and know now that the planes are bringing guests to see their special and very valuable large carnivores.  The Project also hosts “movie nights” for the villagers – a large white sheet serves as the movie screen.  Most of the movies are wildlife features.  Amy is working hard to get the movies translated into Swahili, the native language of Tanzania.  Some of this sounds so straightforward and practical – but it is simple things like these that are instilling an air of cooperation in and around the Park. 

Trending Positive.  To date the Project can point to positive trends on the large carnivore front.   Attacks have been reduced and the villagers are beginning to see the benefits of living with large carnivores.  In 2011 there were 39 large carnivore deaths, this fell to 12 in 2012, and year to date in 2013 the death count stands at 3.  Thank you, Amy.  This work is very important.  http://ruahacarnivoreproject.com

Visiting Ruaha National Park. If you are thinking about visiting the Park, it was recommended to me to stay at Mwagusi Camp.  I haven’t done the research yet but here is their website for anyone who is as intrigued as I am.  http://www.mwagusicamp.com

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.


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!


Chobe Lion - Photography by Evan Schiller

Chobe Lion – Photography by Evan Schiller

Save the Date: Big Cats II takes Manhattan – October 2, 2013


Evan and I are extraordinarily excited about creating Big Cats II scheduled for Wednesday, October 2, 2013 at 6pm at Panthera’s Midtown Manhattan headquarters across from Bryant Park on West 40th Street.  This year’s beneficiary, Panthera, is the largest dedicated funder of wild cat conservation in the world.  The evening will include a Silent Auction with some unique items.  If you did not receive an invitation last year and would like to attend, or at the very least, contribute, please respond to this post or send us an email at savebigcats@bigcatshots.com with your address and we will include you on our physical mailing list which will be going out in the next few weeks.  There is limited room, so we are looking forward to hearing back from you as soon as possible.

Why Panthera?  We were fortunate to meet Dr. Luke Hunter, Panthera’s President, last December.  The chemistry was there from the start and and with each additional phone call and meeting, Evan and I felt both comfortable and confident that Panthera’s pedigree, research and process was the right way for us to move forward in our efforts to help save the Big Cats around the world who are threatened with extinction.  Panthera has not only surrounded itself with the foremost experts in the Big Cat space but they have been thoughtful about how and where the precious dollars they receive should be spent to have the best chance of making a real difference for these iconic creatures.  Panthera’s mission is to ensure the future of wild cats through scientific leadership and global conservation action.  They are directing and implementing effective conservation strategies for the world’s largest and most endangered cats – the tigers, lions, jaguars and snow leopards.  But their work goes beyond the most critically endangered to also include programs for the cheetah, the leopard and the cougar, all of whom need help to ensure their long-term survival.   Ultimately, Panthera seeks a future in which the world’s 37 wild cat species have the necessary and ongoing protection from human and environmental threats to not only persist, but also to thrive in the wild.

Andrea Heydlauff, VP at Panthera, uses the great analogy that the Big Cats are the “keystones” for our environment and our planet.  A keystone is that all-important architectural piece used in the construction of an arch that, without it, the arch can not bear weight and ultimately collapses… It’s really that simple, if We the People make an effort to save the Big Cats, we will be putting in the place the remedies to save our planet.  One of the greatest problems facing the wild cats is the growth of the human population and the ultimate conflict created by the scarcity of land, so many of the programs implemented are to the benefit of the local people AND the wild cats that live among them.

In addition to Luke Hunter and Andrea Heydlauff, we will also be fortunate to have Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, the co-Founder and CEO of Panthera with us on October 2nd.  Alan is passionate beyond belief – and has devoted his life to ensuring the safety and future of wild cats.  I am including a three minute video on Alan – prepare to be inspired!


For more information on Panthera, please visit their website, www.panthera.org.

We look forward to your help and seeing as many of you as possible on October 2nd!