The recorded ramblings of an unschooled writer, aspiring biologist, amateur equestrian, ardent bookworm, avid music appreciator, increasingly addicted runner and college student spending the summer in Ely, MN.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Safari begins....

October 15, 2009

I’m actually writing this mid afternoon on the 16th, because yesterday was another very busy day and I didn’t have time to write at all about the day we spent traveling to Emboreet. Emboreet, our home for the next couple of days is a village outside of the Tangire National Park. The term “village” not only includes the settlement itself, but also all of the still very wild and natural area around it. Emboreet is a Maasai village, so the surrounding grassland is used for grazing cattle. Our campsite is beautiful, although very, very dry due to the drought conditions and feels as though it is miles from anywhere. Again, I find myself feeling very at home and at peace here, where it seems so far from modern civilization.

To get here was another full day of driving. We left the Peterson compound around nine o’clock am and arrived at our campsite around six. As we drove through the bush we made stops along the way to observe all of the interesting wildlife along the way. I saw so many different kinds of birds. East Africa is renowned for its bird diversity, a fact I’ve heard many times, but it was absolutely stunning to begin to see and experience it for myself. As part of my Land Vertebrates class, I’m compiling a list of all of the vertebrate species I’ve seen here and I’ll post it on the blog as its own separate entry and update as I can – that way if I’ve seen something you think is particularly cool you can bug me for pictures/video of it when I return home.

I used my video camera a bit on the drive. I’m trying to make myself only use it when the animal in question is close enough that I can capture it without zooming so far in that my lack of a tripod makes watching said video nauseating. I also got in quite a bit of practice with my binoculars. I’m not terribly comfortable with them yet, but am definitely improving as I use them more and more. Other than a half an hour long period during which Meryl engaged Rachel and I in many rounds of M.A.S.H. (Battlestar Galactica, Disney movie, Star Wars and Harry Potter themed, of course), I spent the whole drive just trying to look around me and take everything in.

I was also introduced the to the Safari Companion book, a fabulous volume that has basic facts about the animals of the grassland and even more importantly provides a basic guide to the behaviors of each type of creature, with little bullet points and diagrams detailing courtship rituals, displays of aggression, maternal care, etc.

The drive was pretty exciting – lots of ducking to avoid acacia thorns coming through the open sides of the large truck, but no one suffered any injuries, despite the long day. Along with the wildlife, it was interesting to the way humans have changed the land. The soil near Olasiti village (near the Peterson compound) is very fertile and most of the villagers had small very productive,, bright green gardens behind their houses. Because of the expansion of the village from overflow from Arusha, many people have sold their land in Olasiti (because it is very valuable) and bought land farther away from Mt. Meru, where there is much less water. Even though it is dry, this land has previously been suitable for pastoral livestock husbandry because the native grasses and shrubs are adapted for survival in periods of drought and the cattle aren’t contstantly grazing the same area – as the cows graze an area down, they are herded to another, so the original grazing land has time to recover.

When people try to farm this same land, it doesn’t work. We drove through kilometers and kilometers of desolate stretches where there would be a lone house or hut surrounded by fields that had very clearly been plowed, but where nothing was growing. Every time the wind picked up, the dust and dirt would blow through the air in great clouds, because there was nothing in the soil, no root system to grasp it and hold it in place.

It was one of the most depressing things I’ve ever seen. From an outside, biology oriented focus, it seems obvious that attempting such techniques in such an arid landscape would be unsuccessful, but the people living there haven’t had courses in ecology and most have probably never been exposed to ideas that seem simply common sense to the L+C group.

Not only is the land unsuccessful for those attempting to farm it, but plowing up the land in this way is also destructive to the pastoral lifestyle. In Tanzanian law, grazing lands are community property open for everyone’s use, but plowed lands are private and can be managed by one individual. This means that as more people start trying to farm in the grasslands, the Maasai are losing area in which to graze their cows. The pastoral scheme only works in a harsh climate when there is enough land to move to each time the cattle exhaust the resources in one location, and with the resources already limited by the drought, the Maasai are having difficulty keeping their cattle fed and watered because their traditional lands are being encroached upon. We saw so many dead cows just off the side of the access path on the way to our camp site. The journey to water is so far away from the area where they must graze (grazing by the water isn’t possible because so many animals must access the same few water sources that the vegetation there is so over grazed and trodden down that it just fails to grow anymore), that the Maasai herders in Emboreet are only taking their cows to the borehole for water every 3 days – and that is only if the cows are healthy enough to make the journey.

I’m not sure where the solution (if there is one) lies in any of this. Historically, the hunter gatherer has been pushed out by the pastoralist, who in turn has their way of life destroyed by the agriculturalist. I can’t think of a single society worldwide in which some pattern other than this has occoured. The agriculturalists’ drive to posess land is incompatible with the pastoralists’ practice of sharing it and even governments (as in modern day Tanzania) typically view the one who lives on and works the land as having a greater claim to it. At the same time, I don’t think the total destruction of the pastoralist culture has to be inevitable, though certainly preserving it is a huge challenge with a lot of different variables. The one problem that seems the biggest in my mind is one that faces the rest of the world too, that of overpopulation. If cities don’t need to sprawl out into villages due to growth and the settled population can be fed from goods produces in the more fertile areas, then the conversion of pastoral lands into unproductive agricultural plots would be less prominent.

All of the academia aside, I was thrilled to catch glimpses of several species of African mammal. We saw impala, lesser kudu, twiga (giraffe), zebras, Thompson’s gazelles and Grant’s gazelles. In no particular order, here’s a few of my observations on that:
1. I’ve decided to never again refer to a giraffe as a giraffe unless absolutely necessary. The Swahili name for the giraffe, “twiga”, just seems to suit it so much better. Despite the fact that they are so long and tall and gangly, they move with such an innate sense of balance and grace. I think the sound of “twiga” just somehow manages to capture both the lankiness and the dancer like carriage of the giraffe.
2. Zebras are equines, yes, but so very un horse like. Or at least, unlike the modern horse. However, it was interesting to look at them and realize that their body type and proportions (large, coarse heads with big Roman noses, well developed nostrils; short coupled broad bodies and small, switch like tails) is vso ery similar to that of horses prior to domestication. Its incredible to me to mentally picture a short, stocky Zebra, standing next to leggy, skinny Spec and realize that Spector’s long legs, slender face, height, etc. are a result of humans selectively breeding horses for our own use for many generations.
3. Gazelle’s appear, to me, to be perpetually perplexed.
4. While doing hyena research in the safari companion book, I learned that spotted hyeneas have a matriarchal society – mainly because the males are scared off the females. Even during mating season they will run away from a female in heat if she so much as looks at them the wrong one. Female hyenas are bigger than males, mainly due to the high levels of testosterone they possess. In fact, female hyenas are hormonally so masculine that they have a sort of penis and scrotum that is non-functional. Crazy, crazy, crazy stuff! I love being a biology student…it means I have friends who will gladly discuss all of this with me without finding it to be strange in the slightest.

Well, that’s probably enough for yesterday’s adventures, as I still have to write about today! But before I go, a few entertaining things that I’ve forgotten to write about:
1. On my way to the net café during my last day in Arusha, I met a Tanzanian man who could actually pronounce my name correctly – as “Hillary Clinton”. I explained to him that although I was indeed from America, my name is just “Hillary”, not “Hillary Clinton” (here parents might give a child the first name “Barack Obama” or “Bill Clinton” for example). I thought he understood this and we proceeded to continue to chat for a few more minutes a we walked along in the same direction. After we parted ways, he waited until we were separated by about two blocks and then yelled at the top of his lungs “Kwaheri Hillary Clinton!”
2. When a couple of very nice Maasai were helping Rachel and I put up our tent last night (we were doing just fine, but they wouldn’t take no for an answer), they put the rain fly over the top of it in such a way that it was blocking the doors. It required some very creative pantomiming on my part to explain the situation! Luckily, they all laughed at both my antics and the situation and we all switched it around together.
3. We stopped for lunch in a dry river bed and hung out there for an hour or so. That is just another measure of how dry it is, because I would never dream of doing that anywhere in the US. Can you say “flash flood”, anyone?

I have so much more to say, but so little time! I hope I’ve included all of the important stuff!

-Hill!

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