Category Archives: Adventure

All the adventures in Africa, North America, and elsewhere.

African Wildlife Encounter #2: African Wild Dogs with Puppy

On this day while in Tembe Elephant Park we were working to habituate three African Wild Dogs (also called Painted Dogs) to the sound of the vehicle. The goal was to get them used to our vehicle so that we could both identify all the members of the pack, check their health, and eventually dart them for translocation to a safer area. To do this, we routinely had to locate the alpha female which wears a radio-collar and place parts from a dead Nyala or Impala on the ground, chained or tied to a tree.

A recording of Painted Dogs making a kill was played and usually after 10-20 minutes the pack would have found us and sniffed out the free food. This was the first time that we saw the puppy come out from its den.

Painted Dog pups typically den for their first several weeks, suckling from their mother and, when they’re old enough, eating food regurgitated to them from their older pack members or small bits of food brought back for them. After only a couple of months they must be strong enough to follow the pack’s nomadic lifestyle and keep up on the exciting hunts. Once old enough to keep up with the pack, Painted Dogs typically let the youngest eat first to make sure that they have enough nourishment, which is why we see the adult deferring to the youngest member. The twittering sounds heard int his video mostly come from this feisty pup who is excited to have this feast and also bravely guarding his meal!

Like their canine cousins, Painted Dogs give birth to several pups per litter. Unfortunately the little pup in the video, probably 8-12 weeks old, was the only survivor. While it’s not uncommon for pups to be lost due to weakness or disease, it’s most likely that predator persecution by lions was the cause of this pup losing its siblings.

The pup was very strong and active during the observation period, as shown in this video. The high-pitched vocalizations that are heard are characteristic of Painted Dogs and serve as a means of expressing excitement over their meal and letting others in the pack know that there is food to share.

More Information:

Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as often as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

Unlike Lions and other species that live in a close-knit group, Painted Dogs often let their young eat first. This suggests that the dogs are not only grouping for social reasons, but because they are stronger as a pack and only as strong as their weakest member.

African Wildlife Encounter #1: African Wild Dogs & a Nyala (Graphic)

While on Somkhanda Game Reserve in South Africa I had the good fortune to witness a very natural animal encounter between predator and prey. Although my group had regularly seen this pack of African Wild Dogs in various states of rest, play, hunting, and post-hunt activities, this was the first time we had seen the pack make the kill from start to finish. Although gruesome, it was exciting to see them on the hunt and achieve success. We also got to see how the group dynamic played out, which often has the youngest members eating first (puppies, sub-adults) and the older, stronger members eating last. This is the opposite of lions and is likely one of the factors which contributes to the ability of canines to support many more individuals per group than feline species. Of course, some of the dogs higher in the hierarchy pull out the tasty bits for themselves or, as seen in the video, pull out the foul-smelling innards and drag it down-wind.

Many people have mistaken the African Wild Dog (Lycaon pictus) as a diseased Wolf, Domestic Dog, or even Jackal. However there are several defining visual characteristics which set the African Wild Dog apart from its distant relatives in the Canidae family. The most obvious feature is the coloration of its coat. Often they have three distinct colors represented: white, black, and tan, although there are some dogs with little or no white. Close-up, it’s also easier to make out their ears which are larger than a similarly-sized dog’s or wolf’s and much more rounded than triangular.

African Wild Dogs are better described by their other name, “Painted Dogs,” because they are naturally wild and evolved independently from the other extant species in the Canidae family, which includes Wolves, Jackals, Coyotes, and Domestic Dogs. Painted Dogs live in packs with usually around a dozen members, but packs have been observed with three times that many members. They are among Africa’s most successful hunters. Painted Dogs achieve their goals at least 30% of the time, about twice as successful as large cats including Lions which may hunt as a pride.

I’ve previously written about this topic in Fence Lines: Dividing Africa and its Wildlife, but in the video below we get to see exactly how predatory animals have adapted to the existence of fence lines and used them to their advantage. In the case of this pack of Painted Dogs we had previously seen them chasing prey towards fence lines, although not always with such results, and cooperating to make the kill.

Warning: This video is graphic.

Disclaimer: Red Hawk Adventures is not affiliated with Somkhanda Game Reserve or Wildlife ACT.

Please visit Somkhanda Game Reserve on Facebook or in person!

Micro-Adventure 2014: Riding the Tail of the Dragon in the Great Smoky Mountains

The Tail of the Dragon is the name given to a section of Route 129, crossing from North Carolina to Tennessee, that runs through Deal’s Gap. The area is famous to motorsports enthusiasts for its mixture of sporty roads and beautiful mountain setting. It has 319 corners in just 18 kilometers (11 miles), perfect for bike riders that want to experience the thrills of the track but at more moderate and legal road speeds. Agile sports-cars also make the trip down to the Tail and many of them can be seen enjoying the curves.

Photo by Killboy.
Photo by Killboy (Killboy.com).

Hitting the corners hard is what’s most fun, but remembering to share the road and stay within the lines is important because some of the sections have steep cliffs with more than a 33 meter (110 ft) drop. There are also a number of ditches along the sides of the road which can be dangerous to run off into, though I saw a couple very ambitious riders do just that (they were okay!) when they missed their corner or didn’t break enough coming into their follow through.

The local town, which bears the same name as Deal’s Gap,  caters to riders and drivers that make the trip into this scenic portion of the Great Smoky Mountains. The community provides hotels, hostels, biker gear, and all the amenities of a small town. There are also several fantastic hiking opportunities for people that want to stretch their legs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Photo was taken at 7:50PM EST on April 7, 2007 at the Cliff Tops on Mount Le Conte, in the Great Smoky Mountains of Sevier County, Tennessee, USA. — Wikipedia. Public domain.

For my ride through this beautiful area I rented a Kawasaki Ninja ZX-6R from a company in town which was much more convenient than towing my own bike. But many people bring their own bikes, especially people on touring bikes and those that stay for a long weekend of riding.

On paper the ZX-6R only has a little more than  100 horsepower, but can do 0-100km/h in a little over 3 seconds, so there is plenty of energy packed into its 191 kg (421 lb) frame. This gives it a power-to-weight ratio of roughly 0.25, comparable to the Buggati Veyron’s 0.24. Albeit without the stability of a nearly 1,900kg vehicle along with one of the most advanced all-wheel drive systems in the world providing incredible traction. But that’s half the fun of a bike! And two wheels make cornering, even on this relatively low-speed road that much more exciting. A lot of riders come to the Trail of the Dragon to get their knee down on the corners and enjoy the camaraderie of other motorsports enthusiasts. But you don’t have to be an enthusiast or a full-time rider to come out to the Great Smoky Mountains and enjoy the scenery.

Photo by Xtreme Sports Photography.
Photo by Xtreme Sports Photography.

Thanks to all the photographers in Deal’s Gap and the surrounding areas for making it easy for riders to grab photos of themselves riding! Thanks to Killboy and Xtreme Sports Photography for taking the motorcycle photos used above.

Safari in Botswana’s Chobe National Park

Chobe National Park, established in 1967, is one of Botswana‘s many national parks and game reserves with an abundance of wildlife and different ecological zones. The country has one of the largest concentrations of wildlife on the continent, though South Africa probably has a larger number of unique avian species. Chobe National Park is known for its large populations of Bush Elephant as well as its heavily-guarded population of Rhinoceros, which are slowly repopulating the region. However while the ecosystem is currently supporting the wildlife, they are also supported by the anti-poaching rangers and conservationists that operate in the area to protect and preserve areas that in the past have had significant problems with poaching. The surrounding areas monitored by other countries have very few Rhino and Elephants left in some areas due to continued poaching.

Chobe National Park Official Tourism Site

Map of Botswana, highlighting Chobe National Park. (Source: ChobeNationalPark.co.za)

The park is located in the northeast of the country and is bordered to the north by the Chobe River. On the other side of the river is a stretch of land owned by Namibia. The Chobe River is just a small part of the waterway that eventually runs into the Zambezi River which makes its way between Zambia and Zimbabwe and drops 111 meters, creating the magnificent Victoria Falls.

My journey to Chobe began in nearby Zimbabwe, where I had to exit the country, get a 1-day visa to Botswana (free for citizens of most developed countries), and then get picked up by the tour company. The trip officially began when the tour company dropped off all the tourists at a cafe for a quick, light breakfast.

To the boat

Above: The back of the cafe lead out to a pier where our tour boat was docked. This was a large, pontoon-style boat with two decks. Half the people were ushered up to the top deck and the other half on the bottom. People were asked not to get too close to the edges not only so that they wouldn’t fall in, but also to keep the boat’s weight distributed so we wouldn’t capsize. The top deck offered a nice vantage point, but really wasn’t any better than the bottom.

Chobe River
Chobe River, between Botswana and Namibia

Above: A view of the Chobe river and wetlands. Once we were all aboard and seated we were given a safety briefing and introduced to the tour guides that would be informing us about the animals. The boat moved slowly along the river and took about ten minutes to reach areas populated by all varieties of wildlife.

Vervet monkeys on the shore of the Chobe
Vervet monkeys on the shore of the Chobe

Above: A couple of Vervet Monkeys play safely by a tree along the shore. This species is quite common throughout southern Africa and can be seen living in relatively large groups of usually at least ten, but sometimes more than 50 individuals. Like several other species of monkey, Vervets share their parenting roles among all females in the group, making sure that the young are constantly attended and not targets of predation.

Crocodile sunning.
Crocodile sunning.

Above: This relatively small adult Nile Crocodile is sunning itself in the morning rays, perhaps preparing for an eventful hunt later in the afternoon once its body temperature has increased. Like many apex predators, Crocodiles don’t have to feed every day, and the Nile Crocodile will gorge itself by eating as much as half its own weight, and then go weeks between meals.

Elephant bull in the river feeding.
Elephant bull in the river feeding.

Above: Unlike cold-blooded reptiles, the African Elephant has no shortage of warm blood. Their body temperatures range above 48 degrees Celsius (120 F) and they frequently are working to stay cool. In areas with plentiful water, such as the Chobe river, Elephants will submerge the majority of their 4,800-5,800 kg (11,000-13,000 pounds) bodies in the cool water. Elephant males, called bulls, are more solitary by nature, so they are more commonly out in the water in the morning as soon as it starts to get warm.Elephant bull

Above: This particular bull is pushing down into the grass and ripping up large swaths to eat. First he has to get underwater and use his tusks like a pitchfork to rip up the grass. Note the African Jacana on the right, keeping out of the way of the powerful bull. These birds are built for wading into the water and have unusually long toes to help displace their weight on water lilies and tufts of grass. The African Jacana is particularly interesting as it is one species of bird that has parenting roles reversed: females court males and lay the eggs, then males incubate the eggs and take care of the young.

Elephant bull

Above: In this photo the action of pulling the grass and reeds up becomes apparent. African Elephants can eat up to 450 kg (990 pounds) of food a day. While eating this much from the river can be somewhat destructive to the grasses, it also provides other species that live along the shore an evolving habitat that may benefit some species while being a disadvantage to others. Perhaps the African Jacana is one that benefits from being around this hungry bull.

Elephant in water, feeding and keeping cool. Botswana 2014.
Elephant in water, feeding and keeping cool. Botswana 2014.

Above: Elephants use their elongated nose called a trunk to grab things, to smell for potential threats, to touch other Elephants, and to breathe. This Elephant is demonstrating his “snorkel” ability, with his mouth underwater and the tip of his truck reaching above the water for a breath of air.

African Buffalo at the waterfront.
African Buffalo at the waterfront.

Above: A pair of Cape Buffalo (African Buffalo) also come down to the water for a drink before the day gets too warm. It’s late enough in the morning that most predators are seeking shade, not prey. Although many Buffalo will live in herds, these two appeared alone, the one on the right being an older male perhaps cast out from his herd for being too temperamental as commonly happens. However at the waterfront they are vulnerable to large Crocodiles.

Unidentified bird

Above: Two unidentified birds of the same species. These two are clearly waders as indicated by their long legs and relatively long, curved beak.

A Hippopotamus in the morning. Botswana 2014.
A Hippopotamus in the morning. Botswana 2014.

Above: Although they commonly spend a lot of time in the water to keep cool, just like African Elephants, this  Hippopotamus is resting along the shore, hidden by some bushes. Adult Hippos don’t have many natural predators and are very territorial and stubborn. They are known for entering the water from one direction and leaving somewhere else, only to make a circuit and eventually come back to where they started. This means that anyone that has seen evidence of a Hippo go into the water going one direction may be at risk of being attacked from behind. Because of this behavior, as well as their unexpected power and strength, Hippos account for the most animal-related deaths throughout Africa.

A pod of Hippopotamus in the Chobe River, Botswana.
A pod of Hippopotamus in the Chobe River, Botswana.

Above: A group of Hippo is called a “pod,” just like a group of Whales or Porpoises. These territorial creatures aren’t just dangerous on land, they can also be dangerous in the water. While these Hippo are clearly visible, they can easily walk on the bottom of lakes or rivers while holding their breath for up to 30 minutes. Then they push off the bottom and when they reach the surface take a breath of air before sinking back down to the bottom. They can cross open bodies of water this way, virtually undetected from land or air. This behavior is particularly dangerous to small boats and canoes which can be capsized by the 1,500 kg (3,300 lb) animals who will ruthlessly defend their territorial waters.

Hippopotamus on shore
Hippopotamus on shore

Above: Another Hippo illustrating a common symbiotic relationship seen among many of Africa’s large species and certain birds in a relationship called mutualism, where two distinct species benefit from working together. The Hippo gets a regular cleaning from the Oxpecker species of birds (seen on the Hippo) and the Oxpeckers get an easy and relatively safe place to feed on bugs. The Oxpeckers also serve another important purpose that greatly helps Hippo, African Buffalo, Giraffe, and other animals that they commonly perch on and clean: they give an audible warning if they spot a potential predator nearby. This warning can be for approaching humans, a stalking leopard, or other perceived threat. However the Hippopotamus is a large, powerful species that is so big it commonly rests its face on the ground to rest its neck! Hippos have also been known to kill large Crocodiles that encroach on their territory, so perhaps they don’t need much protection after all.

The Botswana shoreline as seen from the Chobe River.
The Botswana shoreline as seen from the Chobe River.

Above: The Botswana side of the Chobe River, as well as more Hippo.

Monitor Lizard finding some sun.
Monitor Lizard finding some sun.

Above: A Nile Monitor Lizard, one of the many species in the Monitor Lizard genus that can be found in many parts of Africa, parts of Asia, India, the South Pacific, and Australia. The Komodo Dragon is also in the Monitor Lizard family. The Nile Monitor species is among the carnivorous types, but will sometimes feed on Crocodile eggs and insects. It has a snake-like forked tongue for sensing smells and powerful claws, but its teeth become dull as it matures to adulthood and so they will swallow chunks of food whole. The specimen pictured above was about a meter (3 feet, 4 inches) long.

Blacksmith Lapwings & African Darter
Blacksmith Lapwings & (young?) African Darter

Above: Three Blacksmith Lapwings (left) and an African Darter (right). The Blacksmith Lapwings gained their name for the “tink” or “klink” alarm call they give when alerting other wildlife to predators. They typically eat small crustaceans, insects, mollusks, and worms. The African Darter is a very interesting bird due to its unique adaptations to its environment. Unlike most birds that have oily feathers to provide waterproofing, African Darters will submerge their bodies in the water and swim, with only their head sticking out. They will then catch fish by using their sharp beak to spear it, then flick the fish into the air and catch and eat it. Before being able to fly the bird must dry out its wings in the sun and wind, as the specimen in the photo above is doing.

African Fish Eagle scanning for prey or threats.
African Fish Eagle scanning for prey or threats.

Above: Perched in a tree near the waterfront was this African Sea Eagle, also called the African Fish Eagle (you can read an in-depth article on the species here on RHA). These have a very similar appearance to the slightly larger Bald Eagle found in North America. As the name implies the African Fish Eagle preys on fish, but in cases where the fish is too large to carry while flying the African Sea Eagle has been known to paddle to shore with its wings while dragging the fish in its talons. On average, adult males  weigh 2-2.5 kgs (4.4-5.5 lbs) and females can be 60% larger at 3.2-3.6 kgs (7-8 lbs).

Part 2: Chobe National Park by Land

Disembarking at the same place we had started our cruise we then had lunch. While we ate the tour operators brought the tour vehicles over for the second half of the safari which would be on land, but cover a similar portion of the waterfront because that is the most popular place for the wildlife to hang out.

Chobe National Park by land.
Chobe National Park by land.

Above: Entering from a different side of the park, our first view of the river was from the hot, rather desolate-looking area pictured above. In the dry season many of the trees will lose their leaves while plants and grasses turn brown as they conserve energy and water for the months ahead. It’s not the most hospitable habitat in appearance, which emphasizes why these year-round water sources are so important to so many species of wildlife.

African Elephants in the marsh grasses.
African Elephants in the marsh grasses.

Above: More African Elephants in the river as the temperature reaches its peak. There are actually two species of Elephant in Africa: the Bush Elephant (also referred to as the Savanna Elephant) and the Forest Elephant. The Bush Elephant is the larger of the two and the largest living land animal on the planet. The Forest Elephant can be anywhere from .5-1.8 meters (2-5 feet) shorter and is only seen in parts of the Congo Basin.

African Elephant bull by the water.
African Elephant bull by the water.

Above: A Bush Elephant bull walking along the shore. Too big to be much threatened by Crocodiles or any other territorial or predatory animals, they spend their solitary days in a small range. But in Botswana with so many other elephants nearby, it undoubtedly encounters many fellow Elephants throughout the day.

African Elephant herds at the shore.
African Elephant herds at the shore.

Above: Further down the shore it’s crowded with Elephants on both sides of the dirt road. They are used to the presence, sounds, and smells of the vehicle and the humans on board, so these Elephants don’t seem bothered that we stopped to gaze at them.

African Elephants close to the road.
African Elephants close to the road.

Above: On the opposite side from the shore (and previous photo) we had a female and calf close to the road. Elephants practice allomothering, just like Vervet Monkeys, where any female in the herd might take care of young calves. Some females will even cross-suckle calves in the same herd to provide them more sustenance.

Leopard after feasting on an Impala. Botswana 2014.
Leopard after feasting on an Impala. Botswana 2014.

Above: Our tour guide cruised by a lot of the more commonly seen species in an effort to get the tourists a glimpse of a Leopard that had been sighted much farther down the road. The Leopard had killed an Impala, one of the most common animals in the continent, and had recently been feasting on it judging by its bloody mouth. Leopards typically only make a kill once every few days, but will guard it so that other scavengers can’t take it away. However this puts the Leopard in danger of being attacked by larger and more numerous species, such as a clan of Spotted Hyena or a pride of Lion that will kill other predators to steal their food.

South African Giraffes
South African Giraffes

Above: On the way back there were several Giraffe, either of the newly posited Namibian Giraffe sub-species or of the general South African Giraffe sub-species. Their differences are minor, but their spots may be one indication of how they differ from their cousin sub-species found in other parts of the continent. Giraffe are the tallest living land animals, with adults reaching up to 6 meters (20 feet) in height. While Giraffe are said to have horns, they are actually ossicones which are made of cartilage. These protrusions act like horns and carry some significance when males battle for reproductive rights with a female. This battle is called “necking” and involves the males slamming their neck against the other’s, until one cannot maintain a rigid posture or is potentially knocked down or killed. Ossicones, being made of cartilage, will become damaged from these battles, but grow thicker and stronger. Alternatively they may break. In such cases some Giraffe have been known to grow a third or even a fourth ossicone on the head or face, due to cartilage buildup from many blows to that area.

Giraffes in the dirt road. Botswana 2014.
Giraffes in the dirt road. Botswana 2014.

Above: These Giraffe were coming out of the mixed woodland and loitering on the dirt road between the woodland and the shoreline. Due to their unique proportions and size Giraffe have an interesting anatomy that prevents blood from suddenly rushing to — or away from — their head, causing a blackout. A series of valves in the veins in the neck prevent too much blood from entering the head when bending down. Their legs also have thick, tight skin to keep too much blood from sinking into the legs. Giraffe feed on highly nutrient-rich plants and have tongues that are long and rough which they use to wrap around a branch and then pull the leaves off towards its mouth. This also removes any potentially hazardous spines from the tree limbs which are designed to protect the trees from most herbivores. Like all ruminant species, including goats, the Giraffe has a four-compartment stomach.

Namibian side of Chobe River
Namibian side of Chobe River

Above and Below: Scenery along the Chobe River.

Wetlands of the Chobe River area.
Wetlands of the Chobe River area.

 

Sources:

“Actophilornis africanus (African Jacana)” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Anhinga rufa (African Darter, Darter)”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Loxodonta africana (African Elephant)”. IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“The National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife” by Peter Alden, et al. (Copyright 1995 by Chanticleer Press, Inc.)

“The Safari Companion: A Guide to Watching African Mammals” Revised Edition, by Richard D. Estes (Copyright 1999 by Chelsea Green Publishing Co.)

“Vanellus armatus (Blacksmith Lapwing)” IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

“Walker’s Mammals of the World,” Sixth Ed., Vols. 1 and  2 by Ronald M. Nowak

Africa Video Safari #1: Cheetah Walk at Wild Horizons

I’ve previously shared some photos about my micro-adventure walking with Sylvester the Cheetah Ambassador. I have finally uploaded the high-definition video of the entire walking safari so that you can go on a casual walk with Sylvester through the African bush from the comfort of your home or mobile device! I’ve also included a few extra photos of Sylvester that you can download!

Skip to Chapters (opens YouTube window):

Sylvester was orphaned as a young cub (you can read about his story online) and has been given a home at the wildlife sanctuary. Unlike lion walks and other animal encounters where wildlife are taken out of their natural habitat, this cheetah walk is giving an opportunity to Sylvester to lead a relatively normal life given his circumstances. Having not been taught to hunt he is not very dangerous, but also cannot feed himself and therefore needs someone to provide him food. Lions used in lion walks are frequently taken from their mother when young and then live in a cage when not walking with tourists. When the lions get too old to be safe around humans they are typically sent to a hunting reserve where they will be killed. Sylvester has avoided that life and Wild Horizons and their partners at the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust have provided him a bright future in wildlife conservation.

Disclaimer: Red Hawk Adventures is not affiliated with Wild Horizons or the Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, but they’re great guys!

Please visit Sylvester on Facebook. You can read more about his story hereWild Horizons is on Facebook and on the web!

Micro-Adventure 2014: Supporting the NOVA Labs RhinoHawk Team’s Fundraiser

On Sunday I participated in the 1st Annual NOVA Labs Lost Rhino fundraiser bike ride. It was great to get outside and do a 10-mile bike ride (some of us even biked back!) while supporting the NOVA Labs RhinoHawk team that is currently designing and developing a low-cost Unmanned Aerial Vehicle for use by anti-poaching rangers in Kruger National Park where most of Africa’s rhino poaching is occurring, despite the combined efforts of NGOs, anti-poaching rangers, and the South African Defense Force. The RhinoHawk team will take their finished UAV to Kruger National Park and participate in the Wildlife Conservation UAV Challenge.

It was a great event and got together a lot of people from every age group and from various levels of bicycling experience. Everyone had a great time hanging out before the ride, riding down to the Lost Rhino Brewery, and the UAV talk and demonstration afterwards.

The RhinoHawk UAV has a lot of great advantages (you’ll have to read about it on their website!) and I wish the RhinoHawk team a lot of luck in the competition!

Read more about the event and view the pictures in their article Bike Riders Enjoy Great Weather, Fun Games at the 1st Annual Nova Labs UAV Team Fundraiser.

Southern Africa 2014: What I enjoyed most about volunteering in Zimbabwe

The most enjoyable aspects of volunteering in Zimbabwe break down into three simple parts: the people and culture of the region, the great food that made every meal a morale-boosting focal-point of the day, and the incredible experiences gained through encountering the wildlife we were there to learn about and help protect.

People & Culture

Overall I had a great experience volunteering with the IAPF in Zimbabwe. The opportunity to work and camp alongside experienced anti-poaching rangers was phenomenal and gave me a lot of insight into what everyday life is like in the wild of Africa as well as what the local people are like. Everyone that I met during my adventure was very welcoming and friendly, even those not affiliated with the tourism industry. I also had a great time with the other volunteers and we interacted well with the many rangers at camp and as we participated in their patrols and training.

During day-to-day interaction with the rangers we learned a tremendous amount from where the best place to stand in camp to get cellular coverage to how to select elephant dung to burn in the campfire to keep mosquitoes away. Learning bush survival tips from the rangers was one of my favorite aspects of the entire trip and allowed a chance for the volunteers to interact casually with the rangers while still learning the ropes. We also had opportunities while on some of the patrols to get to know the rangers personally and find out whether they were married, how many kids they had, and what their aspirations for their children were. Many of the rangers wanted their sons to be involved in conservation as well.

Over the course of my trip I had a couple chances to experience the local culture and way of life, but much of that required cutting through the tourist-friendly façade. Most of the white Zimbabweans that lived locally and worked in the tourism industry worked in the area of wildlife conservation or in high-value occupations, like helicopter pilot, that require education and experience most easily gained in expensive foreign universities. Most of the black Zimbabweans that lived locally were either unemployed (officially, unemployment in the country is 80%) or working at all levels of the tourism industry from making carvings, running shops, and operating safaris. It was sad to see such income disparity dividing the people of Zimbabwe and due to its past of being a colony and a minority-ruled country Zimbabwe now has strict regulations relating to operating a business and the way that ownership is shared. Despite these vastly different lifestyles and the political and economic problems in the region Zimbabwe was still a great place to visit.

Great Food

Africa has some great traditional foods and with the strong tourism industries in many of the countries in southern Africa there is a huge fusion of cuisines catering to tourists from all over the world. Indian food has a strong following, as does traditional western fare, but the fusion of African and western foods blended together exciting flavors and made for a great dining experience.

Nsima Relishes (mealie pap or corn meal with relishes) by Jpatokal on wikipedia.org

The above photo shows three relishes or flavorful toppings and in the top-right corner is nsima in the Chichewa language, but also known as sadza in the Shona language, and mealiepap in Afrikaans. Because Africa has over two thousand recognized languages there can be a lot of different terms for a single dish and often the most popular and common languages are understood across language borders.

In the region I was in we called it sadza and sometimes mealiepap, but its name also depends on how its served. While in Zimbabwe we had sadza, which as a staple food was served the traditional way: as a side to virtually any main dish. Since sadza is just corn-meal it acts like potatoes would in the west: as a heavy starch that goes well with fish, pork, red meats, and all kinds of vegetables. In South Africa it’s commonly made into a breakfast porridge and served with only a bit of butter or peanut butter. Any way you have it, it’s a great way to get some long-term energy and is especially great for long days outdoors.

While volunteering with the anti-poaching rangers we were camped more than an hour away from the nearest town. We didn’t and couldn’t partake in the tourist food and restaurants while on duty and couldn’t afford the expense, either. However when we were near our main area of operation we were able to have the majority of our meals at a central facility and there was a chef dedicated to the task. This benefit our time management by streamlining our schedules to make sure that we never went hungry before going out on patrol and by keeping us focused on our duties rather than shopping, preparing, and serving food. Of course, we were responsible for cleaning up after a meal, which followed my thoughts on Meal Planning, Cooking, and Cleaning in the Field.

We were very lucky to have the luxury of a dedicated team member to prepare and cook for us. Good food, including fresh-baked bread and fresh vegetables, helped to keep morale high and our chef knew exactly how large our portions should be to keep active people well-fed and healthy. He had a great sense of taste and while he wasn’t always able to use the most diverse ingredients due to cost and our remoteness to a grocery store he always created meals that we looked forward to eat. That the volunteers in the group represented four continents didn’t pose a problem and every meal the chef made for us was excellent and familiar to our varied tastes.

Amazing Wildlife

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As volunteers we had the opportunity to go on game walks — hikes through the bush to observe wildlife — provided to us by professional game guides. These were very different than our patrols or snare sweeps and didn’t carry the ominous feel of walking into the unknown that sometimes hit us as we ventured through thick brush or climbed up rocky hills. Each game guide’s duty was to help us move through the wilderness safely and remain respectful of any animals that me might encounter indirectly through their tracks or directly. Understanding animal behavior, being able to read tracks and sign, and having the clear-headed view and insight to keep our group out of harms way takes years to learn and only a few individuals can be certified as game guides, a role that we all deeply appreciated. We also had at least one ranger with us as an extra set of eyes and ears, but who was also trained and legally allowed to use the right amount of force in the event of an encounter with a dangerous individual.

Our game walks provided a great experience to move freely through the region, taking in the changing terrains as much as possible while learning about the plants and trees that are used by the animals but also for wilderness survival. Many of the game guides offered up a lot of fascinating information on how different plants could be used for making rope, which leaves and bark were used as traditional medicines, and how different flora affected the environment around them. Having the game guides around was a fantastic learning experience and they helped to keep us from walking into trouble. Just as important, the opportunity to walk with these qualified individuals didn’t cost us anything beyond what we had paid for the program, which saved the volunteers a lot of money and didn’t put pressure on us to “get our money’s worth.”

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The game walks and game drives also allowed us to get close to wildlife in a safe and respectful way. Many safaris that tourists experience in quick tours of the bush end up startling the animals that people are paying so much to see, ruining the opportunity to take photos and see animals in their natural element. But by approaching elephants and buffalo, two of the most dangerous animals on the continent, with respect and with the guidance of the game guides and rangers we were able to observe much longer than most tourists.

If you’re interested in participating in conservation adventures jump over to the Get Involved page. If you’d like to learn more about the importance of wildlife conservation and anti-poaching methods that can assist in protecting the world’s wildlife and improve standards of living for humans please view our Objectives page. To make a financial commitment to preserving our wildlife please take a look at the Conservation Organizations & Wildlife Rehabilitation Centers featured on the Conservation Groups page for featured recommendations and details.