Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

Young orphan at the Sheldrick orphanage ... just polished off a bottle of milk and pretty happy

It’s been my habit for some time to set the television to record all programs that even remotely relate to Africa or its wildlife. So I generally finish the week with many episodes of Big Cat Diary, Wild Kingdom, and Nature in the queue for possible weekend viewing. Sometimes I’m able to see a few of the shows, most of the time I’m not. Too much to do and way too little time, which I suspect is the story for most of us.

During this past week one of the old movie channels aired the 1950 film “King Solomon’s Mines,” which was based on the H. Rider Haggard novel of the same name. The story was set in East Africa, starred Stewart Granger and Deborah Kerr … and its plot was wrapped around the search for a mythical diamond mine in uncharted territory to the west of an undisclosed Swahili speaking nation. I thought it might be interesting to evaluate the film as a piece of history … to see and assess its treatment of wildlife and indigenous peoples.


As it turns out, there was no reason to sit through the entire picture. The dismissive attitude toward the African people transcended the film’s turn of the century setting. The “natives” existed solely for the use of the westerners, and the tone of superiority throughout the picture was absolutely pervasive … it represented far more than simple Victorian era arrogance. It was clear enough to me that the 1950 producers of the movie also viewed the dehumanized depiction of the African people as the right and natural way of things.

The treatment of the animals was far worse. In one of the movie’s early scenes, a procession of adventurers and porters en route to the illusory mine crossed paths with an elephant family in the bush. The animals were peacefully stripping acacia bark when they caught sight of the intruders. The matriarch feigned a charge and the humans reacted in the expected way. The round from the elephant gun struck the matriarch high on the forehead and she instantly collapsed. The other family members immediately formed a protective perimeter around their stricken leader. In panic and confusion, they repeatedly attempted to lift her to her feet, but she was far beyond help and hope. The entire sequence, including the matriarch’s death convulsions, was captured in the film. In fairness to the makers of “King Solomon’s Mines,” I don’t believe the animal was destroyed for the sole and specific purpose of incorporating the footage into the movie. It appeared to be a filmed hunt that was spliced into the scene for dramatic effect. Regardless, its inclusion was unnecessary, gratuitous and disturbing.

The damaged elephant family, which was small to begin with (perhaps eight to ten animals), probably depended very heavily on the experience of the matriarch for its continued existence in the wild. The matriarch would have been her family’s corporate memory. She would have known the best places to locate nutritious food through the changing seasons and where to find water during the severest of droughts. One wonders how the family might have fared after the mindless destruction of its leader. Times must have been challenging indeed.

Difficult days continue to be the norm for far too many of East Africa’s elephant families. Poaching is on the rise in many parts of Kenya, as evidenced by the constant flow of new orphans into Daphne Sheldrick’s orphanage on the outskirts of Nairobi. Each passing week brings new inmates to the compound … and all of them have been traumatized to one degree or another. Their stories, which are posted on the Sheldrick website, are powerful and moving. Here’s an extract from the profile of the young orphan named Sities:

“An unusual visitor walked into the Mgeno Ranch Headquarters, within the Tsavo Conservation Area during the morning of 22nd March 2010. This unusual visitor was a bellowing baby elephant, desperate for company and who sent all the Staff scuttling for safety, fearful that the baby’s mother might turn up to claim it. Eventually they ventured out, their sudden appearance frightening the little calf, who ran off a short distance, but then returned, desperate for company. Too young to know fear, being only about 1 ½ months old, the Staff tied it to a tree, and then called Dr. David Ndeereh of the Trust’s Tsavo Mobile Veterinary Unit, who in turn alerted our Voi Elephant Keepers that an elephant rescue was needed.

It is suspected that this baby is a poaching victim, although human/wildlife conflict cannot be ruled out since the Ranch has a lot of livestock and herdsmen. The Trust’s De-Snaring anti-poaching team has been sent to scour the area to confirm any evidence of possible poaching.

The calf, a beautiful female, responded well to the arrival of the Keepers who fed her a bottle of milk and rehydration water before loading her into their Pickup and driving it to the Voi Stockades. Once there she remained close to the Keepers following them around, until the Rescue Plane arrived from Nairobi to airlift her back to the Trust’s Nairobi Elephant Nursery.”

Sities was a fortunate young lady indeed. For every orphan recovered there are surely dozens left parentless to meet a lonely and agonizing death in the bush.

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

Orphan with keeper at the mud wallow

If poachers and hunters represent the worst in our nature, then the dedicated souls at the Sheldrick Wildlife Trust must surely reflect the last precious vestiges of nobility in the human spirit. It was my pleasure to visit their orphanage recently. And I have to think that even the hardest heart would be touched by the love and care the orphans receive. The elephants they so meticulously nurture are slowly re-introduced to the wild when their keepers deem them ready. Anyone who reads through the orphan profiles on their webpage would surely agree that they’ve already produced a number of miracles with some of the more severely traumatized animals (please see the story of orphan Murka).

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

Life at the orphanage enables the youngsters to form friendships and social bonds ... this is critical to the development of elephant calves

More buddies ...

More buddies ...

Like most conservation organizations, the Sheldrick orphanage depends exclusively on donations for its operations and continued existence. Their need is immediate and pressing, however, because orphaned elephants must eat every day. And they must eat large quantities. I would encourage anyone who visits Nairobi to spend some time at this sanctuary and observe the orphans as they visit the mud wallow for their morning feeding. It’s much more than an opportunity to see these extraordinary young animals … now so fortuitously blessed with a second chance to live, love and thrive. It also validates the possibility that there may actually exist some small measure of hope for our own species. The orphanage’s website is here …

Young orphan with keeper.  Image taken from DSWT webpage.

Young orphan with keeper. Image taken from DSWT webpage.

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William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

William Least Heat Moon ... turned a broken heart into a fortune

Back in the early 1980s I read a fascinating book called Blue Highways by a writer named William Least Heat Moon. It seems this pretentiously named gent’s wife had dumped him, and he’d done the only thing a person can do under those most trying circumstances. He’d hit the road in a lovelorn state in a Ford cargo van with a name as ostentatious as his own — Ghost Dancing. Blue Highways was a lovely tribute to the small towns and byways of America, but it was also a powerful and moving study of the human spirit. And it validated with the written word what music had been telling me since I was old enough to listen.

There’s no real cure that I know of for an utterly devastated heart. It’s almost as crushing as the death of a loved one, and only time can really take the edge off its misery. But I can imagine no better treatment for the pain than an extended, unplanned and meandering road trip. And based on the music I listen to, I’d say I’m not the only one who thinks that way. Over the past four or so decades there have been several tunes wrapped around this theme. I love Delaney Bramlett’s “Living On the Open Road,” … not just because Duane Allman does the guitar work on it. It’s an upbeat and compelling tribute to spiritual and physical freedom, and it retains a place of honor on my IPOD playlist. Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobbie McGee” is a touching and poignant ballad, certainly one of the best of the genre. Janis Joplin set the bar … and she was fortunate indeed that the subject name in the song worked equally well for a male or female singer. But there are three road songs that move me more than all the others … and they will always and forever occupy a special corner of my heart.

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

John Hartford ... banjo player extraordinaire

There’s something about a lost love that seems to inspire beautiful music and haunting, heartfelt, and visually powerful lyrics. Such is the case with John Hartford’s gorgeous tune “Gentle On My Mind,” most popularly delivered by Glen Campbell in 1967. The lost soul speaks to the woman he loves almost apologetically, because he can’t seem to abandon his drifting existence long enough to commit …

“It’s knowing that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowing I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the backroads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind”

As with so many road songs, the visuals are overwhelming. The listener can almost feel the scorching sun and feel the blowing grass along the highway.

“Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman crying to her mother

‘Cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence, tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me ’til I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see you walkin’ on the backroads

By the rivers flowing gentle on my mind”

And taking time the time in a trainyard (Chicago in my mind’s eye) to feel the wrenching consequences of choosing a life without strings:

“I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’

Cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile and

A dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend I hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the backroads

By the rivers of my mem’ry

Ever smilin’ ever gentle on my mind”

Gentle On My Mind is an up tempo song, with a beat and chord progression that would logically form in the mind of a banjo player, which its creator, John Hartford, was and is. It is lovely, with the minor chords placed perfectly for full impact. It is a bittersweet tune, simultaneously a toe-tapper and tear jerker.

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

Gregg Allman ... a teenager no more

One of the Allman Brothers Band’s most popular tunes, Melissa, was written by Gregg Allman while he was still in his teens. The story in this song closely parallels the plot in Gentle On My Mind, with the wandering singer basking in the full glory of itinerant freedom.

“Freight trains … each car looks the same

And no one knows the gypsy’s name

No one hears his lonely sigh

There are no blankets where he lies”

But there is again a deep and pained regret, elegantly understated with a heartfelt wisdom and world-weary voice that one would not normally associate with a teen-aged songwriter:

“Crossroads … will you ever let him go?

Or will you hide the dead man’s ghost?

Or will he lie beneath the clay?

And will his spirit float away?

But I know that he won’t stay …

Without Melissa”

Melissa is a classic tune that still rates frequent airtime on the oldies stations. This is entirely appropriate. Both music and message are timeless. My deep regret is that brother Duane didn’t live long enough to do the guitar work on the Eat a Peach album version. Melissa was Duane’s favorite of all his brother’s musical creations, and I can’t help but think he would have delivered a typically beautiful and majestic backing lead on it.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years.  Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White ... one of the better songwriters of the last 40 years. Looking suspiciously like Elvis in this photo.

Tony Joe White’s Rainy Night In Georgia has been sung by a number of artists, and I’ve never heard it done poorly. That’s because it’s a perfect blend of haunting melody and brooding lyrics. The standard, of course, is Brook Benton’s rendition from 1970. This ballad, which is delivered in a downpour from a rail car in an unnamed Georgia town (in my mind it’s Macon), fills the head of the listener with street scenes, raindrops and loneliness.

“Neon lights flashing

Taxi cabs and buses passing through the night

A distant moaning of a train

Seems to play a sad refrain

To the night”

In the closing verse, in lines similar to those in Gentle on My Mind, Benton’s voice breaks as he remembers his love …

“Late at night

When it’s hard to rest

I hold your picture to my chest

And I feel fine”

Of all the music discussed in this essay, this version of this song is my favorite. It is in every way impeccable. The musicianship is extraordinary, the unknown guitarist simulates the descending raindrops without interfering with the soul and emotion of this incomparable singer. And Tony Joe White has penned many extraordinary tunes, but this one must surely be his finest.

For me, these songs beautifully capture heartache, loss and the eternal conflict between love and freedom of the human spirit … and they deliver an unforgettable message from the depths of the tortured soul. And they gracefully illustrate the natural, painful and undeniable connection between the heart and the highway.

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As I write these words I’m sequestered away in Cabin 3 at Chippokes State Park, just across the James River from my home in Williamsburg, Virginia. The grand purpose of this getaway is solitude, and sufficient peace and quiet to generate many pages of writing for this blog and other purposes. I have in my possession one acoustic guitar, two cameras, four black ink pens and three legal pads.

Through the front door of cabin 3

Through the front door of cabin 3

The cabin has four rooms … there is a well-equipped kitchenette, a bathroom, a bedroom and a living room. The floors are wooden … pine, it appears … of a very aged and rough edged sort. They look to be original, dating to the 1930s, when the building was constructed as a tenant farmhouse. The front door stands open, and I’m looking at a gray spring morning through the latticed screen door. A green field stands directly in front of the house and a tree line less than a quarter mile away blocks the horizon. The bees have buzzed the front porch in droves for the past two days but on this morning they are silent. Strong storms are in today’s weather forecast and perhaps they’ve taken the initiative and sequestered a little themselves.

Storm moving in ... trees swaying in the strong wind.

Storm moving in ... trees swaying in the strong wind.

I suppose it’s only natural to sit quietly in archaic but idyllic surroundings like these and try to imagine what an average day was like for someone who may have lived in this cabin, or one like it, when it was new. At the risk of stating the egregiously obvious, it emphasizes, first and foremost, the centrality of family. Large screen TVs, internet, social networking and the usual-named distractions would not even have been considered as distant possibilities. Radio existed in its infancy, but the odds are that this technology would have been well outside the financial reach of anyone who would have called this cabin home. There may have been a library in the nearest town, but that wouldn’t necessarily have been accessible either. So what was there to stimulate the heart and brain in those pre-electric days besides the hard work that served as the foundation of a rural existence? It could only have been interaction with family, friends and neighbors … and in the grand scheme that lifestyle seems much more substantive than that of the present day. Looking out at the green fields, watching the tall trees sway in the rising breeze and considering family it seems reasonable to ask … does a person really need more than this? In the imagination it all seems too perfect, and perhaps it is.

My father, who passed away not so long ago at the age of 94, often reminisced about the good old days. His commentary was simple, straightforward and from the heart … “There was nothing good about the good old days.” He remembered long hours in the cotton fields, cold winters with a coal stove for heat and, most miserably, knocking on the doors of strangers begging for food in the darkest days of the depression.

So, with my father’s remembrances in mind, I’ll allow reality to intrude just this once, and acknowledge …. that for every lovely spring morning in a place like this there might have been an icy February midnight visit to the outhouse, a dry well in the August heat or a failed crop under a silver harvest moon. So maybe it’s sensible to make the best of what we have … and be thankful for whatever peace and solitude we can find without encumbering it with too much sentimentality.

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Mara giraffes ...

Mara giraffes ...

There are nine distinct subspecies of giraffe ranging throughout the African continent. With respect to pure numbers, none of the nine are in particularly good health, but at least three of the varieties are in extremis. The West African, or Nigerian giraffe, is numerically closest to extinction, with just over 200 animals residing in an isolated area near the city of Niamey, the capital of Niger. The Nubian giraffe population, which occupies a small range in western Ethiopia, is estimated at about 250 animals. The Rothschild’s giraffe inhabits the Lake Nakuru area of Kenya and parts of Uganda. Less than a thousand Rothschild’s exist in the wild.

The plight of the world’s tallest mammal is symptomatic of the larger challenges currently facing all of Africa’s wildlife. With mounting pressures from human encroachment and illegal poaching, the animals are confined to isolated pockets of ever-decreasing size. The World Wildlife Fund, the African Wildlife Foundation and a number of other organizations have done stellar work in the fields of conservation and education, but success can only be fully realized with constant vigilance and tireless exertion. The situation is sufficiently dire that many of the most endangered species merit their own support organizations. Such is the case with our long-legged friends.

The Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) was established in 2009 by Dr. Julian Fennessy, who is widely recognized as one of African wildlife’s most stalwart defenders. The GCF’s vision statement is straightforward. It is:

“The Giraffe Conservation Foundation’s vision is that of a sustainable future where all giraffe populations and subspecies are protected and secure in the wild.”

The tenets of the Giraffe Conservation Foundation mission statement, taken from the GCF website, are listed below:

  • Promote the importance and profile of giraffe conservation on the international stage.
  • Secure viable, and protect existing, habitat for giraffe and other wildlife.
  • Support dedicated and innovative research to better understand giraffe ecology, conservation and management.
  • Establish the current status of all giraffe populations and subspecies to support and inform their conservation and management.
  • Identify key threats to giraffe and innovative ways to mitigate these.
  • Develop a world class network of individuals and organisations dedicated to securing the future of giraffe.
  • Provide a platform and forum for giraffe related research, conservation and management discussion.
  • Increase awareness about the plight of giraffe.
  • Promote and support giraffe conservation initiatives and work collaboratively with local communities to develop a sustainable future for both people and wildlife.
  • Establish GCF as the key focal organisation for giraffe conservation and management.
  • Maintain a close working relationship with the IGWG to provide comprehensive educational and technical support.
  • To be the leading international organisation for giraffe conservation and management.

The GCF may be a fledgling organization but its goals are ambitious, and in my estimation, extremely worthwhile. The superbly led Foundation already has a number of initiatives in the works. Included among these (excerpts taken from the GCF website):

The Kenya Giraffe Project. This project intends to establish a baseline ecological and conservation “health” assessment of key giraffe populations of Kenya’s three distinct subspecies.  Working with the Kenyan Wildlife Service (KWS), key NGOs, e. g. KLCT and African Wildlife Foundation, and private landowners and communities, the project hopes to build robust ecological assessments of the populations.  The collaborative efforts seek to provide capacity building and ongoing information gathering to facilitate the long-term success of the project and understanding of the giraffe as a keystone species.

The Rothschild’s Giraffe Project. This effort involves a comprehensive scientific review of this vanishing subspecies. The project will report on the ecology, behavior and distribution of the Rothschild’s giraffe and investigate the effects the remaining populations are having on their environments. The data collected will be employed to develop conservation strategies to preserve and propagate the animals.

The Reticulated Giraffe Project. The Reticulated giraffe is not the least numerous, but with a decrease in numbers of at least 80% – from 30,000 to perhaps 5,000 – over the past 10 years alone, it is probably the subspecies in most rapid decline. By comparison with other megafaunal taxa, giraffes have been relatively little studied and most investigations have focused on the southern of two major clades. There are no published studies of the biology or ecology of reticulated giraffes, which may represent the northern clade’s earliest discrete lineage. The Reticulated Giraffe Project aims to address this paucity of information by investigating aspects of the animals’ behavioral ecology and of the population processes operating upon them. Social network studies will be coupled with analysis of DNA and reproductive hormones to interpret dispersion patterns; bioacoustics will be employed to investigate the possible use of infrasound as a medium of communication; movements, behavior, energy expenditure and environmental parameters will be measured using remote-sensing devices; and a combination of telemetry, direct sampling and a collaborative network of observers will be used to explore the demography of the population as a whole. The results will inform the conservation and management strategies for the remaining reticulated giraffes.

There are more projects ongoing and in the works. From my personal perspective, it’s gratifying to see a dedicated conservation effort fully focused on protecting this elegant, uniquely beautiful but often ignored animal. The giraffe holds an iconic place in the pantheon of Africa’s wildlife, and no effort should be spared to ensure its long term survival. To know more about the GCF, have a look at their website at the address below.

Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

Maasai giraffe trio in the Mara

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In past blog posts I’ve written exhaustively about elephants, which I’ve repeatedly identified as my favorite animal. I also have a favorite photographic subject, which is the plains zebra. My blog post dated April 18th of this year describes my strategies for photographing their extraordinary range of behaviors. But there is another species that holds a special place in my heart for deeply personal and historic reasons. That would be the elegant and beautiful, but highly implausible Maasai Giraffe. Here’s why …

In 2001 I traveled to Tanzania with a couple of friends to climb Kilimanjaro. Thinking our trip would be a “once in a lifetime” expedition, we programmed a few extra days into the itinerary to see Africa’s wildlife. Understanding perfectly well that one cannot travel to East Africa without a camera, I purchased my first SLR … the lowest end Canon edition with a ludicrously cheap kit lens. Before leaving Tanzania my friends and I visited a very damp Arusha National Park, Ngorongoro Crater, and the dry and dusty plains of the Serengeti. During the course of that initial 15 day trip I captured about 780 photographs, which at the time seemed an astronomical total (that figure now represents about a half day’s work). I was completely captivated by Tanzania’s landscapes and wildlife and spent a disproportionate amount of time looking through my photos after returning home. The months marched on but the desire to return never dissipated, and I became obsessed with finding a way to do that – often – without being consigned to debtor’s prison. I’d received some warm praise for those first photographs I’d shot, and it’s just possible that some of it may have been sincere. There was one particular image – which happened to be my favorite from the trip – that elicited a stronger response than all the others. Because of the encouragement and feedback I received on that one picture I began to study the art and science of photography. Here’s the shot:

First ever morning in Africa with a camera.  Sometime in mid-July of 2001.  Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

First ever morning in Africa with a camera. Sometime in mid-July of 2001. Captured by a clueless photographer at Arusha National Park with Kodak 400 speed print film.

And voila … by 2007 my images were not only fully subsidizing my travel, they’d enabled me to purchase a world-class arsenal of Nikon photo gear. So the giraffe, from my perspective, is in a class of its own. That’s because I’m deeply indebted to the animal for a life-changing encounter on a gray and rainy morning at Arusha National Park in July of 2001. And it’s about damned time I started making payments.

More to follow on this …

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Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

Grant's gazelle and young one ... southern Serengeti.

A few decades back from Carl Sagan …

“Memories of events late in the first year of life are not extremely rare, and there are possible examples of even earlier recollections. At age three, my son Nicholas was asked for the earliest event he could recall and he replied in a hushed tone while staring into middle distance, ‘It was red and I was very cold.’ He was born by Caesarean section. It is probably very unlikely, but I wonder whether this could just possibly be a true birth memory.”

from “Dragons of Eden”

For reasons I would never try to explain, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time trying to comprehend what the world must look and feel like to a newborn. I was in the delivery room for the birth of my youngest son and witnessed firsthand what must have been a very rude shock to his system … to pass from the warmth and security of his mother’s womb to the bright lights and controlled climate of the operatory. He was fortunate in many ways. A platoon of expert medical technicians was on hand to receive him and he was expeditiously cleaned, swathed in blankets and placed next to an exhausted but loving mother. He was safe from immediate physical harm and, unlike Sagan’s progeny, certainly has no memory of what must have been a less than pleasant accession to life on planet earth.

A newborn animal in the wild must surely be similarly bewildered and overwhelmed in the first few minutes of life. Spilling from complete maternal darkness to the powerful sunshine and pungent African earth must be a harrowing experience indeed. I suspect that the newborn initially sees nothing but blinding white light and hears a wild cacophony of strange and incomprehensible sounds. Within seconds, however, it would feel its mother’s presence and the quest for survival would begin in earnest.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

An impala mother welcomes her daughter, just minutes old, to South Luangwa, Zambia and the world.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work.

Just beginning to try the new legs ... hope they work. Notice the colors in the area mother selected for delivery ... a near perfect match to camouflage the newborn.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat.  This series of photos was taken by my son Joe.  One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

So far so good ... looking for Mom's teat. This series of photos was taken by my son Joe. One of the most special of many precious moments I've witnessed in the wild.

Unlike human offspring, animals born on the savanna are at risk for their very lives from the instant of their arrival. In addition to the inherent difficulties of adjusting to a new and hostile environment, a newborn’s challenges are compounded by the existence of other species that would view it as a quick and easy meal. Consequently, each animal has evolved protective mechanisms for the very young, but the effectiveness of these strategies varies widely from one species to the next.

The baby elephant is certainly vulnerable to lion attack, but the strength and size of its family are formidable obstacles against any and all potential predators. An elephant mother, aggressively supported by sisters and matriarch, is a determined and fearless protectress. This unique combination of family, size, strength and maternal love is usually sufficient to convince a hungry lioness to search for easier prey. For these reasons, elephant youngsters have a much higher survival rate than most species.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival.  The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

Elephant family steadying a new arrival. The little guy was having difficulty navigating the uneven ground, but he had much love and help from a supportive family.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

More Amboseli elephants ... notice who's tucked away under the legs of the larger animals.

The offspring of the great cats are in no way exempt from Africa’s trials. Mother cheetahs produce the cutest (and most photogenic) young of any African animal in my opinion, but those little ones are fragile, and susceptible to destruction by any number of natural enemies. Young leopards are subject to the predations of hyenas, pythons and even baboons. Lion cubs are also threatened by hyenas … and they are actively pursued by Cape Buffalo, who bear a hatred for lions that’s very nearly unprecedented in the animal world. And invading male lions always kill the young cubs when they assume control of an existing pride. This brings the females into estrus and enables the new leadership to mate almost immediately.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

A lioness with her very young daughter at Amboseli.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Tiny cubs in the Maasai Mara ... giving the nipple one hell of a workout.

Survival is even more problematic for an ungulate offspring. A wildebeest calf must stand within minutes of birth and be able to maintain pace with the greater herd within three or four days. Baby gazelles have evolved an innovative survival strategy. They are virtually scentless at birth and instinctively become motionless when in the vicinity of a threat. Because their colors so closely match the savanna grass they are all but invisible and just barely detectable.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

Another impala mom with little one in the central Serengeti.

But none of these protective measures is perfect. Every birthing season is witness to the destruction of innumerable new arrivals. Nowhere on earth are the dual miracles of life and survival more visible than on the plains of the Mara and Serengeti. The birth, predator and prey cycle is one of East Africa’s most fundamental realities … and one of its most enduring fascinations.

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Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

Zebra smackdown in Ngorongoro Crater.

I mentioned in a long ago blog post (July 31, 2009) that elephants are my favorite animals. The logic offered in that article was exhaustive, but at the heart of it all was my sincere belief that the depth of their feelings and power of their love make them unique in the animal world. But elephants are overwhelming … and for me that can make them difficult to photograph at times. Zebras, on the other hand, are eminently beautiful and forever entertaining. They are an impeccable combination of aggression and vulnerability, most beautifully parceled in black and white. For these and a succession of other reasons, they are far and away my favorite species to photograph – and have been since my first visit to Africa many years ago. And as with the giraffe, I’ve subconsciously evolved specific strategies for photographing them.

Zebras are social animals, and as they interact with each other they exhibit an absorbing range of moods and behaviors. In peaceful groups they often use each other for headrests, or stand in rows, alternately facing opposite directions – a twofold strategy to (a) optimize the predator watch by expanding the field of view to 360 degrees, and (b) take advantage of the next door neighbor’s tail to swish flies from their respective faces. These positions and postures represent a cornucopia of opportunities for the observant photographer.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Zebras as headrests ... central Serengeti.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

Alternating strips ... widens the field of view and enables usage of the neighbors tail to swish flies.

The babies of all species are photogenic, even those of the most visually unappealing adults (e. g., the hyena). Zebra youngsters are not only spectacularly beautiful, they are wonderfully curious. They have been known to elude the protection of their mothers and bounce directly toward the camera for a close-up portrait. They also make excellent subjects when huddled close to Mom or bucking through a field, trying out the spindly new legs. Some samples:

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli.  Mom in the near distance.

Baby zebra approaches the camera at Amboseli. Mom in the near distance.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Mother and very young one standing in Lake Masek at Ndutu, southern Serengeti.

Peace and harmony are not universally practiced in zebra society. When observing a large herd spread across a hillside I usually set the camera down (but leaving it in the ready position) and take a few minutes to study the herd as a whole. The animals graze quietly but audibly, companions form tight groupings and mothers maintain a wary eye on their vulnerable offspring. But somewhere in the crowd there will unfailingly be a single animal bawling incessantly, prancing through the host with head elevated and ears pointed skyward. This zebra should be observed and tracked closely, because he is, in fact, a troublemaker. And he will almost certainly generate the raw behavioral material for many an interesting photograph. The action will begin when the rogue zebra physically intrudes on a peaceful group and harasses them to the limit of their collective endurance. Eventually, one of the imposed upon animals will stretch neck and head backward to his flank and touch noses with the intruder. The action then begins within seconds. By this time the viewfinder should be clamped against the head to capture the imminent sequence of bites and kicks.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot.  Central Maasai Mara.

Trouble maker takes a chin shot. Central Maasai Mara.

An all out zebra fight for mating rights can be a very serious matter. The wild-eyed animals grab sizable chunks of their opponents’ flesh and deliver powerful kicks that occasionally find their target. Most dangerously, they circle each other aggressively … attempting to clamp down on their rivals’ lower legs. A zebra with an injured leg, particularly a foreleg, is a doomed animal. East African predators have a natural instinct for identifying and eliminating the vulnerable.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Another zebra smackdown in the southern Serengeti.

Zebra fight at Ndutu.  Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

Zebra fight at Ndutu. Serious business here ... an injured foreleg can be fatal for one of these animals.

I don’t know of any African animal that isn’t photogenic in its way, but for me the plains zebra is the most consistently cooperative subject. Other opinions are, as always, very welcome.

Drinking in the Mara River.

Drinking in the Mara River.

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Bob Parsons, Mack Daddy of the web hosting company Go Daddy, recently generated a bit of a firestorm when he posted a video clip of himself executing a “musth bull problem elephant” in Zimbabwe. According to Parsons, the elephant was destroying crops, and the farmers were in desperate need of his assistance. Apparently, this is the second year in succession that Parsons has visited Africa to “help” the agrarian community in this way.

There are instances — more each day, sadly – when elephant and human contact results in tragedy in one direction or the other. I won’t pass judgment on the abjectly poor farmers who depend on their crops for their livelihood and survival. But I don’t mind passing a little judgment on Parsons. In the spirit of good will and friendship I offer him the following hints.

Notes to Bob:

– Don’t cast yourself as heroic. You’re precisely the opposite of that. There’s no glory whatsoever in killing an elephant. Hell, anyone who can lift a weapon could do it. You were well-armed … the elephant just wanted to eat. There may be people in this world who are ignorant enough to be impressed by what you did, but I doubt that anyone who’s reading this post would be among that number.

– Don’t claim that your motive for the destruction of the animal was in any way altruistic. You did not travel all the way to Zim at great personal expense to “help” anybody. If you actually wanted to benefit humanity there are quite literally countless ways to do this that don’t involve firearms. The fact is, nobody … I mean NOBODY … believes that your purpose and intent was to rid the farmers of a menace to their crops. The reality is … you wanted very badly to kill an elephant, so that’s what you did. To frame it any other way is a flat out lie.

– Be honest about what you shot. This is a cautionary admonition, because there’s just a little room for doubt about the gender of your “Bull” elephant. Based on the video you very generously shared with us, it’s doubtful that there’s enough physically remaining of the animal to ascertain its sex with 100% accuracy. But elephant researcher Joyce Poole has examined your video and stills, and she deems it highly likely that your “Bull” was a young female. I have considerably more faith in her best guess than I do in your integrity.

– If you want to perform an act that’s simultaneously destructive, dishonest, selfish and mindless, I recommend very strongly that you don’t videotape it and then post it for display like a badge of honor. Only a jackass would do that.

I’m always ready to help, Bob. If you’re ever again in need of my mentorship and guidance, by all means let me know.

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My first evening in Zambia was spent at a locally owned and operated hotel in the capital city of Lusaka. My son and I had deliberately avoided the western-style chains … we’d both seen enough of these in our travels to satisfy any irrational requirement we may have felt for comfort and convenience. We much preferred to pass the night at a place that reflected the character of the city and its people.

After 34 hours of numbing travel in cramped plane compartments and stale airports, I was far too tired and wired to even think about sleep. The hotel did feature a dim sanctuary that passed as a bar, so I ordered a local beer and sat. Within seconds I became vaguely aware that I was an object of curiosity … and within minutes I was engaged in a wide-ranging conversation with the barkeeper and two (the only two) other patrons. They were all kind, outgoing and friendly, validating my unscientific theory that African people are generally more gracious and welcoming than those from more “modern” countries and continents. I asked them if many tourists stopped here before launching for Zambia’s game reserves … South Luangwa, Kafue and the Lower Zambezi. With great pleasure, they advised me that I was the first white person they’d ever seen at this hotel. We spent the better part of an hour drinking, analyzing American and Zambian politics, and comparing the diversity of Zambian wildlife to East Africa’s. But the beer turned out to be the catalyst I needed to feel the debilitating effects of the long overdue travel exhaustion. As I staggered off to bed I made a mental note that if I had opted to stay at one of Lusaka’s chain hotels I’d never have been as warmly greeted or made to feel so welcome.

Awake early the following morning, my son and I patronized the hotel’s tiny restaurant. The place had four small round tables with whitish tablecloths, only slightly stained. The juice was cool and freshly squeezed, the food was simple but very good, and the staff was attentive and courteous. As we departed I left three American dollars beside my plate. After packing my gear for the field, I walked to the lobby to confirm the time. The young lady who had waited our table at breakfast saw me in passing and hurried over to talk. She asked if I realized that I’d left money on the table in the restaurant. I told her that I was indeed aware of it. She seemed relieved. One of her co-workers had insisted that the cash was left inadvertently … and another thought it was possible that the bills constituted a gratuity. So they’d had a meeting to discuss it. After working through the possibilities, they’d reached the consensus that they’d been left a tip, but wanted to be sure of it prior to my departure. She was pleased that I was able to confirm their decision and thanked me effusively. Then she left me, saying “I’ll share it with my colleagues.”

Although this memory has stayed with me over the past few months, there is no real point to the anecdote. But it does validate the thing I love most about the African people. Human interaction and connectivity seem to be much more meaningful to them … I think it’s because they’ve yet to be inundated and overwhelmed with the media distractions that so depressingly curse the westernized existence. They take the time to sit, talk and get to know a person … and visitors from faraway lands are still mysterious and interesting to them. My fourteen hours in Lusaka also illustrated the potential of the smallest act of kindness and the value of individual integrity. The hotel wait staff, which I suspect is minimally compensated, was more than willing to return my gratuity without hesitation … all the way up to the minute when I confirmed with finality that the money was theirs to keep. Three dollars may not be much in Williamsburg, Virginia … but it can reveal much about human character in Lusaka, Zambia.

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Maasai giraffes in a driving rain.  The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

Maasai giraffes in a driving rain. The giraffe on the far left has at least five birds on its forelegs.

A friend of mine recently asked  …”how do you photograph giraffes?” My initial but unspoken reaction was … (1) hold camera to eyeball (2) peer through viewfinder (3) lock focus, and (4) depress shutter button. But after a few minutes of consideration it struck me that it really was a damn fine question. That’s because, without actually thinking about it, I’ve evolved a specific strategy for photographing not only giraffes, but most all of East Africa’s animals.

The giraffe is both a beautiful and beautifully implausible animal. Outlandishly designed, they are photogenic even if they’re standing at a roadside doing nothing. But under certain circumstances they offer opportunities for world class images. I’ve outlined a few of those circumstances in the subparagraphs below …

a) Kenya is home to a couple of varieties of oxpecker … the red-billed and the yellow-billed. These birds ride the large mammals to pick off insects or stray vegetation… and as a general rule the big critters appreciate having them around. Oxpeckers love giraffes, and if the photographer catches one in just the right location the results can be spectacular. A photograph like the one below requires luck, to be sure … but it’s also made possible by maintaining awareness of the birds, where they are, where they’re likely to perch, etc. Patience is also important … sometimes the birds won’t immediately move into position, the giraffe looks away, etc. But good things come to those who wait (sometimes) and watch.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

Giraffe with yellow-billed oxpecker in the launching position.

b) Male giraffes compete for mating rights in the traditional way … by fighting. But they don’t have fists, large antlers or disproportionate incisors … they only have necks. And they use them to swing their heads at each other in hopes of achieving violent contact anywhere north of their opponent’s forelegs. The squabbles may seem ridiculous to the casual viewer — like slow motion play fighting — but in reality the process is executed in deadly earnest. The animals are quite capable of inflicting serious injury on each other. But what’s dangerous to the animals in this case is fortuitous for the photographer. Their lunges and contortions make them exceptional subjects for the camera. The “necking” pair below was captured at Samburu.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

Reticulated giraffes "necking" at Samburu ... winner gets to mate.

c) A solo giraffe portrait can make a memorable photo, but I’ve found that if you catch two together in a close up the results can be much more dramatic. The key to success on this is locking focus on the nearest giraffe and waiting patiently for a second or even third one to move into the frame. There are also times when the giraffe(s) to the rear of the subject don’t necessarily need to be physically close. The second shot below illustrates this point. The two “necking” animals in the near distance make this photo much more successful than it would otherwise be.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Maasai giraffes ... central Mara.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

Young reticulated giraffe with necking males in the background.

d) Giraffes tend to be shy. They’re a little less shy, I think, while they’re eating. Their facial expressions become almost comedic as they chew … and if you can catch a full on frontal shot while they have a mouthful of leaves you can capture an amusing image. If you’re a professional this is a particularly good thing, because there are many animal lovers who collect unusual or whimsical giraffe shots.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

Mastication in progress ... Samburu.

e) There are times when you fill the frame with the animal and there are times when you want to capture some of the surrounding environment to place the subject in context. That’s why it’s important to look up from the viewfinder occasionally and maybe even shift to a wider angle lens. The shot below captures some of the acacias and scrub vegetation at Ndutu, Tanzania … I think it’s much more effective than a straight up, full-framed portrait of one of these animals would be.

Bookends at Ndutu.

Bookends at Ndutu.

d) Baby giraffes are precious and cute … and they make lovely photo subjects. This pretty much applies to the little ones of all species. Evidence below:

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

Baby reticulated giraffe peering around mother at Samburu.

I’ll be writing about techniques for photographing several other species in the coming weeks but I certainly welcome questions from anyone at any time. Both my cell number and email address are listed on my website at Up next … Zebras.

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