We never expected so many people!
Wrenched from our beds at Utengule Coffee Lodge before dawn, we boarded a bus and drove three hours east along the main highway from Mbeya, Tanzania. Turning north, we had continued several miles to Rujewa. This remote little village had been chosen for viewing the Annular Solar Eclipse on 1st September 2016.
A total eclipse of the sun happens when the moon passes in front of the sun, completely obscuring it for a few minutes. An annular eclipse means that a ring of sunlight would be visible surrounding the Moon’s disc. This happens when the Moon’s elliptical orbit takes it so far from Earth that its disc looks smaller than that of the Sun. There are slightly more annular than total eclipses because, on average, the Moon lies too far from Earth to cover the Sun completely. Total and annular eclipses are visible somewhere on Earth about 3 times every 2 years, but at any given spot you would only see one every 400 years. To see an annular eclipse was a very big deal for the people of Rujewa. Their village lay on the median of the path of totality, a strip 100km wide running across northern Madagascar, Mozambique, Tanzania, DRC and Gabon, within which viewers would see the sun and moon perfectly aligned.
The eclipse had been publicized in the national media, with reassurances that this was a natural phenomenon and the world would not end nor the Sun fall from the sky. Tanzania Tourist Board had also promoted it as a tourist attraction. So people came not only from Mbeya region but from far away to see this rare event, including 16 of us all the way from USA.
As the moon began to eat away at the sun, the murmur of the crowd swelled. Arms rose above the heads, shielding eyes, aiming cellphones or tablets or cameras at the sun. My group had brought tripods and filters and long lenses. Each photographer attracted a ring of spectators, eager to look at the image on the back of a digital camera, trying to photograph that with their phones, or merely taking selfies next to the aliens. A roving reporter interviewed some of us for the BBC World Service.
At least half the viewers were crisply uniformed school groups, whose teachers herded them into lines. Each student in turn had a few seconds of wonderment, viewing the sun through the communal eclipse specs. I wandered among the less organized school groups distributing spare eclipse viewers and anarchy.
Several people asked if I could pose for a photo with them. A raucous quartet of party girls sharing a beer can called, “Hey mzungu! Take our picture!” before trooping off in search of fresh excitement.
A young couple approached me, husband dragging pretty wife by her hand.
“My wife has a question for you, sir, but she is too shy to speak to a Mzungu!”
A small crowd gathered. I took her hand and said in Swahili,
“Hello, don’t be afraid. I’m just a human being, like you. What would you like to know?”
She giggled and looked embarrassed but eventually said,
“What is the cause of this thing, this eclipse?”
So I explained how the sun is far away, and how the moon was passing between us and the sun. She seemed to get it, and thanked me.
“You’re very welcome. And beautiful too!”
She dissolved into more giggles and was dragged away.
At 11:53 the eclipse reached its maximum. The day became a little darker and definitely colder, but even 95% obscured, the tropical midday sun was still too bright for us to see the ‘ring of fire’ with the naked eye or an unfiltered camera. I held my eclipse specs over my lens and got an image.
After three minutes the shadow passed. The sky brightened, the warmth returned. An eclipse is so transient, a brief crossing of heavenly bodies. I captured a bright ring in my photo but it could be anything, anywhere.
What I will remember more is the delight on the faces of children and adults alike, whether brown or pink, all united in our excitement and awe at this natural wonder.
Colorful, floating, flying, festive and fun. I love balloons. The little ones you blow up evoke happy images of celebrations and the hot air ones that lift you high to soar over landscapes can pull you physically into a higher realm. Today I saw a hot air balloon making its way across the Tucson valley, framed by our iconic saguaros. It reminded me of the thrill of seeing the land from on high.
Recently both of us had a chance to climb into the big baskets and fly over Serengeti. Jeannette got a ride over the kopjes and plains where animals collect around the Seronera river. David got to float over the southern plains covered with vast herds. It was a rare treat to view one of our favorite landscapes aloft. The bubbly champagne breakfast can lift your spirits even higher!
Crack! As I bite down on some tough meat, I feel an expensive crunch and something hard rattles against my teeth. Damn, there goes that front crown! It’s the eve of a new safari and I must go to the airport to meet a new group. I only get this one chance to make a good first impression. “Hi, I’m Zavid your zure-leazer. Welcome to Zanzania!” – Wanna come with this gap-toothed lisping troll into darkest Africa? No, I need a quick fix. The crown is intact and hollow. It fits over a peg anchored in the tooth’s root. I just need some dental cement, but I won’t find it in Arusha on a Sunday night, and tomorrow I have to brief the group after breakfast, then we hit the road to adventure. So, what have I got that’s sticky and indestructible and kind to the mouth? Chewing gum! Well, it won’t set hard, but its stickiness is legendary, and I have plenty. I start chewing and pack the crown with gum and push it into place. It sits well and feels good. This can work – as long as I don’t bite hard on it.
And it does work. For almost a week, I confidently grin and eat, and begin to take my flexible tooth for granted. Mistake. Nibbling some meat off a bone, I feel the loose crown roll to the back of my throat, then it’s GONE. I could bolt out of the dining-tent into the Serengeti night and throw up – but why waste such a good dinner? There’s another alternative, but it’s not pleasant. It involves some waiting, a can of water, a stick, a flat rock, and a hole in the ground.
24 hours later, preparing to “go through the motions” for the third time, I step out of my tent into the moonlight. By my outside lamp, a giant emperor moth flutters. So does my heart, as I sense a large presence.
Buffalo. He stands on my path, ruminating. Two more chomp at grass ten yards from the tent. To hell with buffalos – I have a mission. I stay close to the tent, and they don’t care. This time, I hit pay-dirt, a little white tooth amid the brown. I boil and disinfect it, then chew up some gum and presto! I have my smile again. Maybe next week, I’ll get some dental cement.
The phrase “sh*t-eating grin” has a totally new meaning for me now.
Looking a gorilla or chimp in the eyes is – for most humans – a profound experience. Ape eyes are so enigmatic and it’s obvious that we have much in common in the way of facial expressions and behavior.
Do you like being stared at? Probably not. In most primates a direct stare is a threat, while looking down or away is submissive. Being able to read the eye movements of others is very important in social communication. This is easier to do if the color of the iris contrasts with that of the sclera – in our case, the sclera is the “white of the eye”. In other members of the hominid family (apes and us) the sclera is usually darker, but occasional mutants show a white sclera too. Why might it be an advantage to have a white sclera? Why do some people dye their sclera black?
Here is a fun quiz for all of you who think you know how to tell about a person or animal from the eyes. See if you can guess the owners of the eyes at left. (Answers below)
answers: orang, bonobo, human, chimp, gorilla
I just led a Great Ape safari through Uganda and Rwanda to see chimps, gorillas and many other primates. It was a thrill to look into the feisty eyes or a chimp and the calm brown eyes of a gorilla and feel the connection – kin – but not quite. I was especially aware of our differences because one of my guests had said at the beginning of the safari:
“I came on this trip in order to see our closest ancestors.”
“No.” I had to reply. “None of the great apes alive today are our ancestors. Our ape ancestors have been dead for over 6 million years.”
He looked puzzled but eager to understand. So let’s try to make it clear how we are related. First, we humans and all the monkeys and apes are primates. Primates are an order of mammals with binocular and color vision and grasping hands. Primates split off from the ancestral mammals about 60 million years ago and diverged into various kinds. Through fossils and DNA we can trace the ape line back about 25 to 30 million years. The “ancestral ape” had no tail and was larger and longer-lived than other primates.
The apes continued to split; gibbons and orangutans went their own special ways and the other ape line kept evolving too. By about 9 million years ago a gorilla line was established and the rest of the ape-like beings evolved into two major types: chimps and hominins. Today we have two living representatives of the chimp line – chimpanzees and bonobos. Since Neanderthals died out relatively recently, that leaves only humans as representatives of our hominin line – the upright walking apes. So apes are our relatives but NOT our ancestors.
Here is a family tree with the living apes that shows the very approximate times when we left the other primates. A family tree is like an African flat-topped acacia, whose gnarled branches separated long ago and all the little twigs of the canopy have been on earth for the same amount of time. We humans are not at the top of a tree like a pine, with all other creatures down below us. I think it is very important to realize that all living beings are at the same level, we are all survivors through time. Gorillas and chimps are definitely our surviving relatives, but not ancestors.
Here in Tanzania I am reminded of peoples’ different tolerance of noise. Back in Tucson, our close neighborhood has firm rules about noise pollution. No power tools or loud music between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. One new resident complained angrily to the community about a loud rattly power tool being used on a metal roof at dawn – the culprit was a Gila woodpecker, who had found this to be a much more effective territorial display than drumming on a dead tree!
In our gardens, leafblowers are banned. However, we dispose of our tree prunings on site with a rather noisy chipper that converts them into mulch. Recently I was running it late in the evening and next day we received a complaint from a neighbor about 300 yards away. We worked it out amicably, that I wouldn’t chip after dark. So there are layers of noise prevention – mutually accepted constraints, policing by neighbors, and if that fails, policing by the police.
In the suburb of Arusha where we’ve been staying (picture), it’s a different story. Moshono Juu is about as densely populated as our Tucson suburb, but people are either more tolerant, less organized or both. A lot of the noise is due to religion, particularly evangelical preachers. They get behind a powerful amplifier and pour hellfire on the whole neighborhood. Last night it woke us up about 2:30 a.m. An insane bellowing in Kiswahili, the same phrases repeated over and over, definitely channeling a god of hate and vengeance rather than love. I wondered what sleepless cult attended this harangue. Would they be stoked on drugs or booze to endure such cacophony? And would our PC friend Dave call it “entitlement” if I, a mzungu (paleface), were to walk into an African village and demand a good night’s sleep? But then, what if other neighbors also wanted to sleep, yet didn’t dare make a fuss? This must be a powerful cult indeed. Would a wild-eyed enraged congregation fall on me with rocks and cudgels for interrupting their religious ecstasy?
Eventually, insomnia and curiosity won. I took a big maglite that could double as a club, and slipped out into the moonlight into unscripted territory. The gravel road down the hill was treacherous, like walking on ball bearings. The demonic sound grew ever louder. Half a mile away, its source was a low barn of poles and tarps with a tin roof. A simple church. Easy to burn down – but I had no matches. A long white power cable connected it to a nearby hut – easy to cut, if only I had a panga. OK, I get cranky when sleep-deprived; those are last resorts. Let’s first assess the strength of the enemy and try a polite request. The doors were shut so I peered through a window opening and was amazed. The benches were empty! There was a makeshift altar and a table full of sound equipment. Taped hymns were playing, and a lone young man in a shabby Tshirt was pacing to and fro, yelling into his microphone. I leaned in through the window and he turned down the sound and came over. He looked sheepish.
“Please can you make less noise?” I asked. “It’s 4 a.m. and we can’t sleep!”
“Where you from?”he asked.
“Up the hill. It doesn’t matter. Can’t you let us sleep?”
I wished him goodnight and left him leaning on the sill, his head bowed, perhaps seeking divine inspiration. All was quiet as I trudged up the hill. Then a short final outburst, slightly less loud, barely enough to blister paint or singe nearby trees, and he was done for the night. It was nearly 5 a.m.
We have been privileged to share years of our lives with both baobabs and saguaros, giant plants that dominate their dry landscapes. The baobab tree (Adansonia digitata) is one of the icons of Africa, with its vast swollen trunk and smooth bark. To St-Exupery’s Little Prince, baobabs were a metaphor for something bad which must be nipped in the bud before it takes over your little planet. In reality, they are magnificent beings which offer bountiful gifts. Their trunks, often hollow, can house bees, barn owls or even people. Their tender leaves are good to eat. Their fleshy white flowers bloom at dusk and offer rich nectar to the bats that pollinate them. Their fruits are useful woody gourds containing nutritious nuts wrapped in a frothy packing rich in Vitamin C, a popular snack for people and wild animals. Their fibrous juicy trunks are used to make string, but are useless as timber. More useful alive than dead, over much of their range they are the only native trees left standing, and they may live for over a thousand years. They are respected and revered; the Tanzanians say “Kila shetani ana mbuyu yake” – every spirit has its own baobab tree.
Half a world away, in the Sonoran Desert of Arizona and northern Mexico, tall saguaro cacti (Carnegiea gigantea) raise massive spiny arms to the sky. A mature saguaro may stand 40-60ft tall with more than 25 arms, and may weigh more than two tons, somehow supported on a base only a foot wide. Inside each stem or arm, a cylinder of vertical woody ribs provides support. The desert people, Tohono O’odham, venerate saguaros and see them as partly human. In spring the saguaros wear beautiful crowns of white flowers, also pollinated by bats. Just before the summer rains, the O’odham and the desert birds harvest their fruits, filled with tiny black seeds in sweet crimson pulp. When we moved to Arizona, one of our O’odham neighbors showed us how to make a long pole from the ribs of a dead saguaro, and knock down the abundant fruits from 30 feet above our heads.
Saguaros grow slowly, usually germinating in the shade of a paloverde or other ‘nurse tree’ where a bird dropped the seed. They may take 10 years to grow 1.5″ high, and can live for up to 200 years. Baobab seeds must be brutalized by passage through an elephant’s jaws and gut in order to germinate. Their seedlings seem to grow best amid dense thickets of other species, where browsing animals can’t reach their tender leaves.
Both saguaros and baobabs have extensive shallow roots, spreading sideways at least as far as the plant is high, and may have a deep tap-root too. When it rains, both plants can rapidly absorb water, then store it for a long time. To conserve water, their leaves are reduced. Saguaros have no leaves at all, photosynthesizing with their waxy green pleated stems. Baobabs produce leaves only during the rains, standing bare for much of the year – but if you scratch that gray or pinkish bark, you will find bright green chlorophyll just beneath it, proving that the “upside-down tree” is not as dead as it looks.
Hug a baobab’s vast trunk – it may take 20 of you to encircle it – and you may feel or hear the wind thrumming through its bare branches. But don’t try hugging the saguaro, just admire it from a distance.
Everyone loves flamingos, those bundles of pink plumes on stilts. People on our safaris always want to find and photograph them. Here in Tanzania, at Arusha National Park near Mt. Meru, there are soda lakes where flamingos cluster. Flamingos are beautiful, yes, and are also highly evolved to exploit their unique habitats – lakes full of algae and small crustaceans. They feed with beaks upside down, straining this food from greenish looking water. The chlorophyll of the algae contains carotenoids, pink or orange compounds which are deposited in flamingos’ plumage. Lesser flamingos, who feed directly on algae, are pinker than greater flamingos who eat brine shrimps. The quality of their shallow watery ‘pastures’ constantly changes, so they flap from lake to lake in the rift valley seeking the best food. We used to live on a flyway between Lake Eyasi and Lake Manyara, and often at night we’d see and hear their honking V’s passing over. These strange birds do amazing group parades, chorusing while marching, and they build crusty crater-like mud nests in the middle of desolate caustic lakes.
Here I want to share a fact about these fascinating birds. Researchers in 20 nations spent four years on a project to sequence the entire genomes of 48 species of birds. One of the results is that flamingos are closer relatives to pigeons and grebes than to look-alikes such as egrets and storks. Another surprise was that the chicken seems to be way back there in the genome line, closer to the original bird stock than anything except ostriches. Studies on bird evolution continue to evolve!
The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos is a wonderful film produced in 2008 by Disney. If you missed the TV presentation maybe your library has it. This link tells you more about the film.
This is a fun extension to Safarizona territory – prompted by our November visit to Kaua’i Island in Hawaii. Chickens weren’t on my to-see list but as we drove out of the airport, there they were, freely roaming the roadsides. During the next week, we met handsome, colourful, confident chickens everywhere – from beach to mountaintops, from suburbs to national parks. Why so many? Who owns them? Who eats them? Their story led us into the much bigger picture of island colonization.
The Hawaiian archipelago was born of fire. As the great Pacific tectonic plate drifted northwest over a ‘hot spot’ or convection plume in Earth’s molten magma, successive volcanoes erupted out of the sea and formed a long chain of islands. The oldest ones, up to 60 million years old, have eroded away and mostly disappeared under the sea. The youngest island, Hawai’i, is currently over the hot spot and still has active volcanoes. Further northwest, Kaua’i is 5 million years old.
The cooling volcanoes were colonized by wandering birds and insects, by seeds borne on wind or ocean currents or in birds’ bellies, and by small animals clinging to rafts of floating vegetation. Lush vegetation grew up, but who would eat it? On islands worldwide, this has played out in different ways. In Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises became the herbivores. Mauritius had giant pigeons, the dodo. Madagascar had lemurs, and New Zealand had 11 giant flightless birds called ‘moa‘, a Polynesian word for any fowl.
The largest herbivores to reach the Hawaiian islands were ducks, 3.6 million years ago. Lacking predators, they evolved into several flightless forms, some as big as domestic geese. Later, ancestors of today’s nene goose joined them. They became abundant, eating ferns and grass and tree seedlings. At Makauwahi archaeological site, which preserves 10,000 years of remains, we learned that in 300-800 CE, the first Polynesians encountered 7 species of these “moa-nalo” (lost fowls). Unafraid of man, they were soon exterminated. The people brought pigs, which also ate moa-nalo, and chickens, which quickly filled their vacant ecological niche. Moa-nalo were forgotten until archaeologists discovered their bones in the 1980’s.
Enter the chicken! The Asian red jungle fowl, domesticated 8-10,000 years ago, is hardy, tough and eats anything. It is only vulnerable when it nests, on the ground. In all the other Hawaiian islands, sugar farmers introduced mongooses to control the (introduced) rats. But rats are nocturnal, so the diurnal mongooses attacked birds instead, especially ground-nesters; only Kaua’i’s chickens are safe from that threat.
Today the “wild” Kaua’i chickens in parks and reserves are protected. You can harvest chickens that enter your property, but they may be tough. Islanders say: “To cook the moa, boil it in water, with spices and a rock. When the rock is soft, the moa is ready!”
“Hermano, hermano!” shouted the crouching man, twenty yards up the canyon, aiming his handgun at us. Oddly, we felt no panic but wondered why he would point a weapon at a “brother”. We held still. A second man had his hand at his hip but soon relaxed and smiled at us. The gunman looked embarrassed and walked off behind the trees, to make some very important radio call. Trying to take it all in, we just sat on our log under the shady oak in a remote canyon near the Mexican border.
Officer Friendly came closer and apologized for mistaking us for illegal immigrants. We actually had to laugh; two more unlikely illegals would be hard to find. Officer Quickdraw joined in the apologies, revealing that they were border patrolmen new to the area. They went their way without even noticing the Covert Assassin.
The what? That was the inconspicuous trail camera attached to the oak tree behind us – its brand name probably designed to lure hunters to buy it. We were downloading its photos of deer, javelina, mountain lions, foxes and a turkey.
Have you ever walked in the woods and wondered what happens when no-one is there? What shy creatures prowl at night? A trail camera can tell you. It’s a weatherproof digital camera with a motion sensor. Anything moving in front of the camera gets photographed, day or night. In places where people don’t go, we can use a camera with a flash. On trails often used by people, our cameras use an infra-red lamp which shows only a faint red glow – certain kinds of nocturnal hiker might smash the camera if they realized it was there!
We monitor several cameras for Sky Island Alliance, an organization that studies and protects the wildlife of the ‘sky island’ mountain ranges scattered across the Southwest. To avoid becoming genetically isolated, animals must travel from one ‘island’ to another, across a ‘sea’ of farmland, desert and suburbia. Which routes do they use? SIA’s Wildlife Linkages volunteer program investigates this through direct tracking (subject of a future blog) and through the use of trail cameras.
Every month or two, we visit our cameras. Will they still be there? Will there be something rare like a jaguar or ocelot? Those spotted cats are the Holy Grail of animal trackers in Arizona, but so far we’ve not found any. However, our sightings of commoner animals add to knowledge about their daily and seasonal activity patterns.
Checking the cameras is always a thrill, even without confused gunmen.
Here are some of the animals we’ve ‘captured’ on our cameras: