Tag Archives: Great Plains Conservation

GuidePost: An Interview with Guide Extraordinaire, Dean Wraith

They say you always remember your first, well my “first” was Dean Wraith. I am, of course, talking about my first safari guide and our first trip to the Mala Mala Game Reserve in December 2009. Mala Mala is located in the northeast corner of South Africa in an area known as the Sabi Sands. It shares a 12 mile long unfenced border with the west side of the renowned Kruger National Park. Wildlife is abundant and Mala Mala is especially known for its healthy leopard population. The “Big Five” (Elephant, Lion, Leopard, Rhino and Cape Buffalo) are almost guaranteed to be seen. If you are fortunate, you may also get a chance to participate in a Wild Dog chase or see the more elusive Cheetah. So what makes the difference between a good safari and a great safari? I believe the answer is simple, your guide. This is the person who wakes you up in the morning and puts you to bed at night, just without the sleeping part.

Dean Wraith (left) and Hans van Heerden taking a break between jackal shots.

Dean Wraith (left) and Hans van Heerden taking a break between jackal shots.

I now consider us somewhat experienced “safarians” having traveled to the African continent three times with two trips to Mala Mala, two trips to Duba Plains (Botswana), two trips to Selinda Camp (Botswana)  , one trip to Zarafa Camp (Botswana) and one trip to Savute Safari Lodge in Chobe National Park (Botswana). The camps each offer their own unique experience with differences in flora and fauna, and the guides put their own twist on that experience. We have had three guides, in particular, whose passion and expertise made our safari experience with them extraordinary.

My first “Guide Post” is an interview with Dean Wraith. In addition to being a guide/ranger, he is a talented photographer who always angled our open air vehicle so that Evan could get the best shots possible. His keen sense of anticipating the animals’ moves and moods made all the difference. I give him extra kudos because we shared a vehicle with another serious wildlife photographer and her husband. We were always the first vehicle out in the morning and the last to return at night. The camaraderie was so good amongst the five of us that we returned the following year with this same Dutch couple to share another vehicle, again with Dean at the helm.

Dean and Hans taking a closer look at an elephant skull we discovered in a dry river bed.

Dean and Hans taking a closer look at an elephant skull we discovered in a dry river bed.

Lisa: A bit on your background; where did you grow up and did you get to spend time in the bush at an early age?
Dean: I grew up on the East Coast of South Africa in an area called Zululand. My earliest memories of the bush are visiting the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi Game Reserve with my family. I was lucky enough that it was only a couple hours from home and we would go on a regular basis.

Lisa: What inspired you to become a guide? Was there any particular person or experience that motivated you to move in this direction?
Dean: Guiding was never my first choice and to be honest I didn’t really have an idea what or how guiding worked. In my final year of studying we had a change in lecturer; Chris Galliers came in and changed my perspective on what was available out there. He suggested we think about guiding as a path after we finished and he helped me get an interview and ultimately my first guiding job at Mala Mala Private Game Reserve. Chris was a guide at Mala Mala himself.

Lisa: What kind of training/certification do you need to become a guide? What does it entail? Are there a lot of programs available in South Africa to accomplish this?
Dean: I did a Diploma in Game Ranging and Lodge Management. Within that we had the opportunity to complete a number of FGASA levels and qualifications. FGASA is the Field Guides Association of Southern Africa and they set the standards for guiding qualifications. I specifically went through a training provider called Eco-Training. There are more and more training providers popping up as the need for more guides increases. I think the most important thing it comes down to when choosing which provider you will go with is the instructors. They make all the difference, they give you the base to be able to build and develop.

Lisa: How did you come upon the Mala Mala opportunity? What is the most challenging aspect of the job? What do you love most about it?
Dean: Our lecturer at college helped me get the interview and recommended two of us for the job, both of us were hired and we started early November 2007. All in all I spent around 4 years at Mala Mala on and off. The most challenging part is finding a balance. What I love most about the job…THE JOB. I count myself incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to have worked at Mala Mala.

Lisa: Provide some detail about “a day in the life” of a Mala Mala guide.
Dean: I think what makes Mala Mala such a unique safari experience is the freedom to spend as much time in the bush as you want and that means that no 2 days are the same. But on your average day most rangers will wake up between 5h00 and 5h15. Then it’s a quick shower and shave and wake-up calls before heading down to make sure the vehicle is prepped and ready to go before having a few cups of coffee on the deck. After the caffeine fix you head out on game drive which normally lasts anywhere from 3 to 4 hours. Then it’s time for a bite to eat with your guests, breakfast is a great opportunity to chat about the drive and gives the guests a chance to elaborate on some of their questions from early or get a little more information on some of their favourite topics. After breakfast is normally a bit of a walk with the guests just to stretch the legs and help get the digestive process on the go. Then there is an opportunity to get some down time before lunch, normally this is a good opportunity to go through some photos or get in some exercise or just relax and watch a series or 2. Lunch is next and this is normally a very relaxed affair with either it being your first meal with new guests or a chance to get to know your stay over guests a little more. After lunch is a good time to sneak in a quick power nap. After catching up on your much needed beauty sleep it’s time for a little afternoon tea and then back out into the bush. Evening game drives again vary anywhere between 3 and 4 hours again. Getting back from drive there is normally time for a quick shower then down to the bar for a pre-dinner drink and a chance to start unwinding. Dinner is normally more of an event with singing and 5 courses and good wine so it ends up being the most festive meal. After walking the guests back to their room after dinner it’s time for some good shut eye and the day is done.

Lisa: So you are basically “on” about 18 hours a day for weeks on end. How many weeks do you work before you have a break in your schedule?
Dean: We worked a standard 8 weeks on and 2 weeks off. Now it has moved to 6 weeks on and 2 weeks off.

Lisa: You mention “striking the right balance” – how easy or difficult is it to move from living six to eight weeks in the bush to an urban environment? Is one transition more difficult to make than the other?
Dean: It was definitely more difficult to transition back to normal life in the city. Just trying to get back into a normal routine was tough, but then dealing with everything that comes with city life is tough.

Lisa: So here’s my big question, what makes a good guide?
Dean: I think passion is really important, having a deep love for what you do is key. Otherwise I think the routine and constant dealings with people can become overwhelming. Then things like a good all-round knowledge base, good bush skills, people skills, humility and professionalism are all important.

Lisa: I can think of a couple of experiences with you that were particularly memorable for Evan and me and gave us some insight into good guiding qualities.  On one of our morning drives we were just about to stop for coffee and stretch our legs when we heard a monkey screeching somewhere in the trees above us.  You explained that he was sounding a predator alarm call. The first thing you told us to do was to find the monkey in the trees and see if we can tell which way he was facing – that would tell us which direction to look for the predator. The tree canopy was quite large and dense and we never got a fix on the monkey or the predator, despite making a couple of wide circles around the general area. After about 30 minutes we stopped in a wide open field for our long-awaited coffee break (“wide open” being key as we wanted to avoid anything surprising us). We had just packed up breakfast and were back in the vehicle, when Hennie van Heerden spotted a large male leopard drinking down by a water hole. The big cat was probably about 400 yards away from us. We surmised this was the guy that the monkey had probably been sounding the alarm on. New alarm bells were now going off in the form of a large herd of impala who had also just noticed the leopard. The impalas were all snorting loudly and stomping their feet in unison. I was surprised to learn from you that rather than try to run, the herd was signalling to the leopard that they were very much aware of his presence. A couple of hundred yards separated the leopard from the herd. Each stood their ground. We were able to great some great shots of the leopard before he casually moved on by.

Scratching Post - Lisa Holzwarth

Scratching Post – Lisa Holzwarth

Another leopard story with you that led to one of Evan’s all-time favorite shots (and the cover shot for The LEO Chronicles) is the afternoon we followed the Tamboti female as she headed towards the Sand riverbank, densely packed with eight foot tall reeds. The other vehicle that had also been following her gave up and turned around. You looked at us and we gave the nod to head into the reeds after her. It was tough traveling but you were able to keep up enough for Evan to catch this shot just before she slipped away. This was a bit of a costly reward, at least for you. The vehicle’s tow hitch got stuck in the unevenness of the river bed’s edge and you needed to do some serious digging to get us out. I asked what we could do to help. You were covered in sweat from all the shoveling. You said, “Stay in the vehicle but keep your eyes open for anything that might want to eat me”. That was the fastest we have ever gotten out of jam. Not only did you remain calm, but you maintained your sense of humor throughout. And I took your request very seriously about keeping my eyes open!

Tamboti Female along the Sand River, Photography by Evan Schiller

Tamboti Female along the Sand River, Photography by Evan Schiller

Late Afternoon Tamboti Female - Lisa Holzwarth

Late Afternoon Tamboti Female – Lisa Holzwarth

Lisa: What’s your favorite time of the year at Mala Mala and why?
Dean: All the time☺ sorry for the smiley face but needed to do it. Any time in the bush is good time. But if I had to pick a specific time then it would have to be spring/early summer, September to early December. It’s the first rains and the colour is starting to come back to the bush. It’s the baby boom and the bush is crawling with young antelope. The bush is still “thin” enough to make viewing good and easy for photography.

Lisa: Share your most memorable experience in the bush. What made it so special?
Dean: The most memorable experience was probably my first game drive. Just the experience and mixed feelings of excitement and nervousness. Seeing the animals at such close proximity and not having a driver’s side door is something that takes a lot of getting used to. Then all the added stresses of remembering the roads and keeping track of what is happening on the radio, it all makes for an extreme adventure.

Lisa: Please share your most memorable guest stories – funny, outrageous, stupid, whatever suits you.
Dean: Guests are as interesting as the animals, different cultures and nationalities, different beliefs and point of views always makes for interesting interactions.
Lisa: You are being way too circumspect, but you make a good point. I was hoping for a good laugh, even if it was going to be at my own expense. I did follow-up on your suggestion a couple of years ago and read Peter Allison’s “Whatever You Do, Don’t Run – Tales of a Botswana Safari Guide”. Absolutely hysterical and apparently quite true.

Lisa: You’re a great photographer. When did you get started and how have you learned the craft?
Dean: I have enjoyed photography for as long as I can remember. Taking photos at Mala Mala was a no-brainer. With the amount of time and quality of game viewing the opportunities are endless. I am mostly self-taught, reading, listening and talking to other photographers and then trying all the different techniques.

Lisa: What kind of equipment are you using today? What size lenses do you use most often?
Dean: I am still using Canon and have upgraded to a 70D and a 70 – 300mm f4 – 5.6 L lens.
Lisa: Glad to hear we are still all part of the same extended Canon family.

Lisa: What’s your favorite animal to photograph and what is its personal draw to you?
Dean: Predators are great to photograph and probably top most people’s list. Elephants are my favourite; anytime you find them they will be doing something. The texture of their skin and interactions between each other make them a fun species to photograph.

Lisa: This makes perfect sense now. I can think of a couple of elephant interactions that we had with you that were really special. There was that one afternoon drive where we found ourselves in an open field near Rattray’s Camp at dusk. The field was full of a large herd of grazing elephants. It was getting too dark to get any photographs, even at the lowest f-stop but we sat quietly as the elephants, including some of the babies, came close to check us out. You said we were very safe because it was elephants coming to us, not us inserting ourselves in their space.

I also remember a late morning drive near the bridge where a particularly inquisitive young male came very close to us, ie., he could have reached into the vehicle with his trunk. We were basically taking pictures of his eye, he was that close. It was cool to see how long an elephant’s eyelashes can be. You were focusing on his ears to gauge his mood. His ears were telling you that he was very relaxed.

Elephant Eye - Lisa Holzwarth

Elephant Eye – Lisa Holzwarth

Lisa: So please share three of YOUR favorite photos and the stories behind each of them.
Dean: This photo of a Black Rhino in full flight is one of my favourite, mainly because seeing a Black Rhino is just so special. This sighting didn’t last more than 4 or 5 minutes. We came up over a blind rise with a corner so as we crested the rise this rhino was not more than 20m from us. She jogged off behind a tree and turned around to look at us. She huffed and puffed and trotted around a little before deciding to have a go at us. She stormed us and stopped about 6 or 7m away from us and charged off into the bush.

Charging Black Rhino - Dean Wraith Photography

Charging Black Rhino – Dean Wraith Photography

This next photo was taken at Mala Mala last year. A giraffe had died in the south of the reserve and 3 lions had laid claim to it. We decided to make the long drive south and on the way down bumped into 2 male lions having a bit of stand-off. We couldn’t really see them in the thick bush. We decided to carry on to the giraffe carcass and see what was going on there. We arrived and 2 lions were busy feeding with quite a few hyenas hanging around. After about 15 minutes one of the other rangers came across the 2 males having a stand-off moving towards the giraffe. The 2 lions picked up and ran off and the 2 males arrived on the scene. Then chaos broke out, the 2 males who were from different coalitions started climbing into each other and it was a real fight. Most times it is quite a bit of vocalising and posturing, but these 2 decided to throw down properly.

Mala Mala Lion Fight - Dean Wraith Photography

Mala Mala Throw Down – Dean Wraith Photography

At one stage we had a coalition of 4 male cheetah that started moving onto Mala Mala from the north and this was the first time I had seen them active. We had a great afternoon with them mostly because there were very few vehicles out and that meant we had all the time we wanted with these four. Just as the light was getting good all 4 of these boys started getting active and were eyeing out a small herd of blue wildebeest with a few youngsters in the group. We moved ahead of the cheetahs to try and get the stalk and movement towards the herd and then hopefully a chase. These 3 sat down and it all just fell into place. The whole time they were sitting there I was trying to get the right settings and just waiting for them to get up and move. They didn’t and the subsequent shot turned out to be quite a unique composition.

Cheetah Formation - Dean Wraith Photography

Cheetah Formation – Dean Wraith Photography

Lisa: When was the Cheetah(s) photo taken? (I showed it to Evan and he was blown away). Is that coalition still around? Where was their territory? I remember you and Hennie talking about them in 2010.
Dean: It was actually taken with Hennie just a few days before you and Evan arrived. They were mainly in the north eastern section close to Kruger and then the northern parts of the Sabi Sands. From what I understand the guys haven’t seen them since early 2012. There were actually quite a few different cheetah around. Several small male coalitions and then a few females too.

Lisa: You mention the rare sighting of the black rhino and why that photo is special. From all that I have read, poaching continues to be a real threat at Kruger, so how does Mala Mala and the other contiguous reserves protect themselves against poachers? I have to say that I always felt completely safe while at Mala Mala, are the animals equally safe?
Dean: Poaching is a real threat everywhere. Rhinos are being hammered in the Kruger and it comes down to not enough man power to cover the whole area. Mala Mala and the Sabi Sands have to rely on private security companies to patrol and police the area. The biggest risk for Sabi Sands is the open boundary with the Kruger which does give quite a vast thoroughfare for poachers. From what I have read and understand rhinos are going to be moved from Kruger.
Lisa: Evan and I have gotten to know some of the individuals at Great Plains Conservation who are behind the “Rhinos without Borders” project to move rhinos from South Africa to Botswana. I got the impression that some of those expected to be moved would be from Kruger. That is definitely a good thing.

Lisa: On the topic of feeling safe, a lot of people ask me if I ever felt scared while out on a game drive, especially given that we are in open air vehicles and some of the animals come extremely close. I have always had the same response, “Never”. I think a big reason for that is the vibe we got from you. You were always paying attention to the big picture including the animals’ mood, what their ears may be communicating, were there young ones in the vicinity to protect, our ability to back-up the vehicle, etc.. This is my segue into the pro’s and con’s of carrying a rifle. At Mala Mala it is standard to have a rifle anchored to where the windshield would be. I specifically remember asking you why you only loaded three of those extremely long bullets into the rifle each morning when the barrel could, in fact, hold at least six . You responded, “if we ever have to use more than three bullets, we’ve got bigger problems to deal with…” So, have you ever had to use your rifle at Mala Mala?
Dean: I have never had to use a rifle ever, whether it be on one of my walking trails or game drives. At Mala Mala the rifles were more for when we left the vehicle to track and even then I think every ranger would agree with me that if they ever had to shoot an animal it would be the worst day of their career. I have worked at reserves since Mala Mala where we didn’t take rifles out on drive. I personally prefer not having a rifle on drive purely because you probably behave in a safer manner because you don’t have that safety net.
Lisa: That’s good to hear and makes perfect sense. In Botswana, rifles are not allowed and the guides there echoed your response – without a rifle you act smarter to avoid potential animal conflicts.

Lisa: What reserve is your own personal favorite and what makes it so?
Dean: Mala Mala is a special place and I appreciate having had the opportunity to have worked there. I love any reserve or protected area because each one offers something different, but Mala Mala would definitely top my list.

Lisa: Any particular countries or regions on your own “wish list” to visit?
Dean: My list grows and grows each and every day. Namibia is such a unique destination and the exploration opportunities are endless. The rest of the places on my list are specific to a mammal species that interests me, Gorillas in Uganda, Grizzly Bears in North America, Tigers in India, Polar Bears in Svalbard. To be terribly honest, I just love traveling and anywhere in the world I get to go would be a dream come true.

Lisa: What do you do when you’re not in the bush? What do you miss when you’re in the bush? When you are out of the bush?
Dean: I have always loved the ocean so I spend quite a bit of time fishing and just enjoying the beach. I mostly miss sport while I am in the bush. I love any sport really whether it be watching or playing. When I am not in the bush I really miss the sounds and freedom the bush gives you.

Lisa: Tell me more about the travel consultancy/agency that you have started with Victoria. Do you lead your own trips? What kind of trips do you offer?
Dean: The company is called Southern African Destinations. The idea is to lead trips all over Southern Africa (South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Mozambique and Malawi). The main focus is to tailor itineraries to what the clients’ interests are. Ideally we will travel with most clients but it is entirely up to them. Our main focus initially will be Scandinavian countries because Victoria is Swedish so she has the ability to translate and communicate with the clients.

Lisa: Share with me details about your most recent organized travel trip – how many guests and where did you go?
Dean: It was 15 people which turned out to be quite an interesting challenge in its own right. We started in Cape Town where we climbed Table Mountain, visited Robben Island and Cape Point, dived with Great White Sharks, got sea sick and did a few tours around the city. After that we drove the Garden Route and stopped off in Mossel Bay and then in Jeffrey’s Bay. Along the way we visited Cape Agulhas (most Southern tip of Africa), Storm’s River Canyon where we did some ocean kayaking and Jeffery’s Bay was an opportunity for some surfing. After that we flew to Durban and spent a few days in Salt Rock (Victoria and I live here and thought it was the perfect quiet beach/city break for the group). We did a lot of time at the beach, some deep sea fishing and went to watch a rugby game. The last few days were on safari at a place called Thanda Private Game Reserve which was great, we got the Big 5 plus Black Rhino and cheetah. All in all it was a great trip.

Lisa: Please share with us your contact information for SAND – Southern African Destinations?
Dean: My work email is dean@sandtravel.co.za and Victoria’s is victoria@sandtravel.co.za and our website is www.sandtravel.co.za and we also on Facebook at Sand – Southern AfricaN Destinations and Instagram at sandtravel.

Lisa: Thanks so much for sharing your stories, your time and your ongoing friendship. I am really excited about the creation of SAND. I know the two of you will make it a big success while enjoying some extreme adventure in the process!

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

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

Selinda Cheetah - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller

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

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

Lounging Cheetah - Lisa Holzwarth

Lounging Cheetah – Lisa Holzwarth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light - Photography by Evan Schiller

Selinda Cheetah in Afternoon Light – Photography by Evan Schiller

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

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

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

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

One with the Cheetah – Photography by Evan Schiller

Living in the Moment

November 14 – Morning Game Drive – Selinda

Before I start reliving November 14th (which was the penultimate day of the entire trip for us) I hope you will allow me a bit of a retrospective.  It has been just over a month since I last posted, and I came up with a ton of excuses for myself behind the delay.  In the last few weeks I have been grappling with some challenging news concerning two of my dearest friends and I am trying to get my arms around it all.  I went for a long walk in the “tundra” which is what Connecticut feels like in the winter when compared to summer in Botswana.  I saw a beautiful red-tail hawk soaring, a very confused blue bird who appeared as frustrated with the cold as I was, and three white-tailed deer loping through the snow.  In the midst of all this I found some coyote tracks and had a bit of fun determining that they were at least a day old because last night’s dusting of snow lay on top of the original tracks.  Anyway, I laughed that my training with Isaac in the sands of Africa can even be applied in frozen Connecticut.  At the end of my walk I wasn’t any closer to overcoming the sadness that I started my walk with, but I know that I had become that much more appreciative of life’s beauty, in all its forms and that includes its fragility… Ironically, our morning game drive on November 14th left me with the same message…

And fyi, there will be no more excuses.

My version of C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” is called “The Leopard, the Hyenas, the Baboons and the Lionesses” and while this was not Narnia, I found it just as magical.

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Great way to start the morning – Lisa Holzwarth

We were the first vehicle out, again, at 5:40am.  We headed right back to Leopard #3 that we had seen late yesterday.  She was only five minutes from camp and we discovered that she had made yet another kill – this time a reedbok.  No sooner had we spent some time photographing her, we saw two hyenas racing in our direction (really in the direction of the dead reedbok – they had no interest in us).   The leopard took cover in a nearby tree as the hyenas feasted on her fresh kill.  I have to admit that I am not an adoring fan of the hyena and have never found them particularly attractive, but I am quite pleased with these head-shots and think I may have captured a bit of their wild beauty.

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Hyena Headshots – Lisa Holzwarth

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No really, this is my best side – Lisa Holzwarth

We spent a bit of time with the hyenas as they devoured the reedbok and then turned our attention once again on the leopard in the dead tree.  In the midst of watching her we were surprised by her sudden decision to leave the tree and dive for deep cover.  We were a bit disappointed that she was now out of camera range but Isaac told us to keep our eyes open, as she must have seen something that scared her enough to move from the safety of her tree.  Remember, she was in a dead tree, so anyone or anything could easily see her from a distance.  From our vantage point, this still didn’t make a lot of sense – the leopard is the only big cat who climbs, and leopards usually find safety in trees… but then we heard the baboons!  There was a troop of 30-40 baboons heading in our general direction making a lot of noise (and fyi, baboons and leopards are deadly enemies – I have heard guides talk about adult male baboons and adult male leopards each fighting to the death).  The baboons settled on another “island” of trees a safe distance from the leopard.  Then the baboons started screaming – again, we had no idea the reason, but from their elevated position in the trees they had a much better vantage point to take in the overall surroundings.  Isaac quickly drove us to the troop and said again, keep your eyes open, they are sounding the predator alarm.

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Up a tree with no place to go – Lisa Holzwarth

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Waiting at the bottom of the same tree, with all the time in the world – Lisa Holzwarth

No sooner had he said this, two lionesses came out of the tall grass and rushed the baboons in the trees, only to be joined by two more lionesses.   Between the baboons shrieking and the lionesses communicating with deep guttural roars, it was a mad scene.  The baboons were safe in the trees but still were anxious about the lions clawing on the trunks.  Evan and Isaac felt certain that with all the bedlam, someone was going to lose their cool and do something stupid and it wasn’t long before three of the baboons decided to “make a run for it”.   The three were focused on another set of trees a few hundred yards away.  As soon as the lionesses noticed the escapees, a chase pursued and we followed close behind.  Two of the three found the nearby treetops, but the third was grabbed as it tried scaling the tree.  Did I say three baboons – my mistake, as the third baboon lay dying on the ground, we noticed a little baby (less than a month old) slowly disengaging from its mother’s dying body.  Despite its young age, I was amazed to see how instinct so quickly kicked in that it immediately tried to find safety in a tree.  Unfortunately it did not know how to do this quickly or quietly.  While its instinct was good, it hadn’t yet mastered speed or agility.  At this point the lionesses noticed the “little guy”.  They were obviously intrigued, but did not go for the “kill” which would have taken less than a nano-second if they had been so inclined.  The baby and one of the lionesses engaged in the African version of BIG cat and mouse game which we have watched countless numbers of times with our own domestic cats and their catches of mice, moles and chipmunks.  The baby was jumping up and down screaming and hitting the lioness on her nose.  The lioness was gently knocking the baby off the trunk of the tree every time it seemed to make a little bit of progress in its vertical attempt of escape.  Finally the lioness carried the baby in its mouth (really at that moment she could have swallowed it whole without a blink of an eye) and put it down on the ground in front of her.  What happened next blew our minds – the baby, in another instinctual moment, held onto the lioness’ chest and tries to suckle… Evan’s pictures say it all.  (As for my pictures, I had pulled a typical amateur move and had forgotten to recheck my settings when this whirlwind of action occurred so a lot of my pics are overexposed until I had a moment of clarity and made the appropriate adjustments.)

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Photography by Evan Schiller

 

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Photography by Evan Schiller

Photography by Evan Schiller

Photography by Evan Schiller

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Photography by Evan Schiller

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Photography by Evan Schiller

I should clarify that while I said the lioness was being “gentle”, she was being as gentle as a 350 pound cat can be with a 3 or 4 pound baby baboon.  The baby was showing signs of physical harm and fatigue from the whole ordeal.  After allowing the baby to “suckle” for a bit, the lioness again picked the baby up in her mouth – I was in agony watching the baby’s ordeal – and kept on turning off the video option on my camera because I it was hard to record.

Saved by the bell (of sorts)…  just at that moment when we thought the baby’s odds were dwindling, the lioness was distracted – this time by two male lions.  Enter stage right the two brothers we had photographed the previous morning.  We initially thought (as did the lionesses) that the boys were interested in the dead baboon (which no one had paid much attention to since its killing).  The big boys made a half-hearted attempt to check out the dead baboon, but we ultimately figured out that they were much more interested in “checking-out” the ladies themselves.  Evan caught a couple of great shots where the lionesses made it very clear how they felt about the boys – NOT.

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Photography by Evan Schiller

Back to the baby baboon – with the lionesses busy trying to ward off the amorous advances of the brothers, the Big Male Baboon, which had been trying to no avail to rescue the baby all the while, was now able to climb down the tree, grab the baby and then head back up for safety.  Unfortunately, he chose a dead tree, so while that was good for our photography, he soon felt the heat of the sun.  I was touched by how gently the Father Baboon held this little baby who was in tough shape after its ordeal.  The baby’s body appeared limp and we thought it had succumbed.  Isaac told us that if that was the case, the Father would most likely still hold the baby for a few days before finally letting go.  After watching these human-like emotions and actions, it’s pretty hard to doubt Mr. Darwin and his theories.

Photography by Evan Schiler

Photography by Evan Schiler

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Loving Arms – Lisa Holzwarth

With the heat of the morning sun getting stronger by the minute, the Father Baboon had to make a move.  Holding the baby, in all sorts of contorted positions, he tried numerous times to climb down the tree.  He tested the lionesses’ interest with each descent.  Finally, the combination of daring courage and the lionesses own desire to take cover in some shade allowed him to find safety and a little peace in the shade of a neighboring tree.

And what happened to the baby?  I like to think that the little guy survived with the help of his troop.  He was alive and safe in his father’s arms when we left and that’s how I like to remember it.  No matter what, he remains an inspiration to me – and a reminder, that life is fragile and no matter how much I fight to control its outcome, I am at the mercy of the universe.  All we can do is live in the moment.

And all of this happened in two and a half hours….

“The Power of One”, a retrospective

The Power of One - Selinda Cheetah

Photography by Evan Schiller

Bryce Courtenay wrote this “coming of age” story in 1989 and yet I only came across it a few years ago.   Ironic, in a sense, as I feel in some ways I am only just now “coming of age” myself.  Better late than never… The novel, written in the first person, takes place in South Africa during the 1930’s and 1940’s and tells the story of a young English-speaking boy, Peekay, as he grows up during World War II and apartheid South Africa.  Okay, at first blush it seems like I may be reaching a bit, the only obvious connection to this blog and The Power of One being the continent of Africa, but hear me out, and besides, when Evan caught this particular shot of a Cheetah tail, the first thing that popped into my head was The Power of One.

Sometimes the slightest things change the direction of our lives, a random moment that connects like a meteorite striking the earth”. Peekay.

Evan and I made our first trip to Africa together in 2009 (Evan had actually lived in South Africa for two winters in the 1980’s playing on the South African Sunshine Tour, ie., professional golf, so he had a bit of an opportunity to explore the country and had talked for years about going back).  Our trip in 2009 was a combination of safari, golf photography and general exploration. We only spent four nights in the bush (Mala Mala – Rattray’s Camp – a private reserve sandwiched between Kruger National Park to the east and the Sabi Sands Wildtuin).  Those four days were life-changing.  To date, my attempts to articulate this experience have fallen woefully short.  There were no near-death experiences (on our part anyway) despite our many physically close encounters with lions, leopards, elephants, rhinos and hippos.  I never felt afraid, instead, I had the most amazing adrenaline rush for four days running.  I just felt incredibly ALIVE, really a heightened sense of awareness on so many levels, and so appreciative of this opportunity to witness life and connect with it on such a simple, beautiful level.  On the day we left, I cried.  I cried all the way from the camp, to the tarmac and onto the plane – and all the way back to Johannesburg.  Evan and I promised each other we would return.  I still am not sure why I was crying, I think I was touched to the core of my being.  Africa hit me like a meteorite.

Sometimes in life doing what we shouldn’t is the emergency…” – Hoppie Groenewald.

I am the oldest of four kids (displaying most of the typical traits of the first born, ie., high achiever, responsible, rule keeper, people pleaser, perfectionist, and controlling).  None of these characteristics are necessarily good or bad, but they have played a role in who I have been.  The question is, will they play a role in who I will be?  I think the trait that bugs me the most, because it still has me more than I have it, is the “people pleaser”.  An adjunct to this is that I always seem to “play it safe”.  I am intent on altering this personal dynamic as I become more of aware of how it has a tendency to silently run me.

Anyway, back to Hoppie Groenewald’s advice… in the story, Peekay is given a shilling by his Grandfather with the specific instruction that it is only to be used in an emergency.  Hoppie Groenewald is the train conductor who befriends Peekay.  He is also a renowned boxer and he suggests to Peekay to bet on his fight that night.  Peekay ultimately decides “not to play it safe” and puts all of Grandpa’s money on Hoppie…. (and, FYI, he ultimately wins big).

Where is this all going?? Still reeling from the effects of the “African meteorite”, we returned home and immediately began researching Africa Safari Trip #2 for 2010.  I threw all my fiscal caution to the wind and told myself we would figure out a way to afford a two-week safari – at the time I felt incredibly irresponsible… but exploring Africa’s wildlife became “my emergency”.  Thank goodness for Evan who has an amazing way of looking at the world and its boundless possibilities.  Evan plays the role of “Hoppie Groenewald” perfectly.

Evan at Duba doing what he loves

Evan at Duba doing what he loves

He had given me the power of one, one idea, one heart, one mind, one plan, one determination”. – Peekay.

On our second trip we returned to Mala Mala  for a week with our guide, Dean Wraith.  The following week marked our first foray into Botswana and the Okavango Delta.  We traveled first to Duba Plains (owned by Great Plains Conservation and Dereck and Beverly Joubert).  We had the camp to ourselves for the first three nights but on the fourth night shared it with a group of South Africans.  The next morning we went out in two game vehicles, Evan and I in one and the South Africans in another.  Evan took a picture of a large male lion, the leader of two prides, standing next to the truck filled with the South African guests.  Known as “the Prime Minister”, he was towering and mighty.  We followed him that morning until he single-handedly made a kill of a female Cape Buffalo (no small feat).  The reason for all this background is that picture of the Prime Minister was what got the wheels in motion for everything that we are doing today.

Photography by Evan Schiller

The Prime Minister of Duba
Photography by Evan Schiller

Fast-forwarding through the details, Evan had the opportunity to meet Dereck and Beverly Joubert a few months later at the La Jolla, California premier of their movie, The Last Lions, shot, not coincidentally at Duba Plains.  It was at this meeting he learned about the dire situation faced by the African Big Cats and the real threat of extinction.  He vowed to make a difference with his photography.  He enrolled me in his plan and we have been moving forward ever since – his photography, my writing and our voices taking a stand for the Big Cats.

“PS, Say always to yourself, first with the head and then with the heart, that’s how a man stays ahead from the start”. – Hoppie Groenewald

Read the book, get inspired, take a stand, and help us save the planet.

The majestic Prime Minister
Photography by Evan Schiller