Sunday, July 31, 2011
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park
Yesterday, one of our activities involved investigating the local Chinese gold mining operation outside of the town Vila Gorongosa. The local operation holds great significance to Gorongosa National Park because it is being conducted in the buffer zone between the Park and Mt. Gorongosa. The protected land on the mountain is defined as everything above 700 meters. An extremely important connection between Mt. Gorongosa and Gorongosa National Park below is the water. The rivers and Lake Urema are fed from water starting on Mt. Gorongosa. Whatever gets in the water in the buffer zone between these regions can end up in the Park below.
I was sitting on the pilot’s side of the helicopter in order to get some photographs. I shot with both a wide angle lens and a 100 – 400 mm lens to get different perspectives of the mines. We were all amazed at how extensive the operation was. The water below us was heavily disturbed and sections looked as if they had been chemically treated.
Saturday, July 30, 2011
Explore Gorongosa Camp, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
Woke to heavy cloud cover and some wind. Most other days made me compare the Mozambican winter with late Spring in San Diego. Pleasant days with cool nights. Sitting by the campfire as the morning bird sounds rose around us I asked the guide Jeff about rain. The question was passed to Jinga, the scout, and he took a quick glance around and said “Tempo moron”, or warm weather. Not cool enough for rain at the moment. Once more this pointed out the importance of local knowledge, something I have heard again and again from Greg Carr. It has been mentioned here that many outside experts are in the Park at this time, but they are not rooted in this place. Most of the local Bantu DNA goes back nearly 2,000 years.
After a coffee preto by the campfire it was time to head out along the Msicadzi River with Jeff and Jinga. Jeff had his field glasses for birds and Jinga his bolt-action rifle for larger animals. The grass was high and the weather was possibly warm of enough for snakes so most our time was spent on trails or the sterile soda pan along the upper river bank. Since many of the animals we hope to see will startle easy, quiet feet were important. It was a hunt, but the telescoping lens strapped to my side was a Canon 100-400 mm for the documentation of life not the destruction.
We surprised some solitary bushbuck and impala in the high grass. It is the dry season, but there is plenty of vegetation for them here. Also good places for predators to hide.
Jay and Ed are naturalists. When they walk down a lighted path, they reach into the lamps and pull out beasts without interrupting their conversation. Jay puts a lot of things into baggies he always has with him. Ed puts things into the right front pocket of his jacket. Me, not so much. There is a scrollwork sign over the library at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory that says "Study nature, not books." As a magazine editor and textbook cobbler, my fieldwork is in the library and online. My specimens are scientific reports and conversations with scientists who tell me whose work is sound and who is walking off the dock. I'm sheepish about the sign at CSHL but luckily I don't get there that often.
Which brings us to the baboon spider.
Jay posted this picture of the baboon spider yesterday. He has more pictures on his drive that I would post now but Jay and Greg are out in the helicopter this morning investigating gold-poaching miners who are burrowing in the buffer zone where they don't belong. We made the acquaintance of the baboon spider when Jeff, our guide, teased it out of its hole with a bit of stalk. When the critter grabbed the stalk, Jeff tried to ease it out of the hole and the spider tried to ease Jeff into the hole and they ended up at a standoff with the eerie schrecklichkeiter half in half out.
My plan for this trip has been to do what Ed does when he sees a crawling thing. He picks it up and caresses it, admires its attire, maybe puts it in his pocket. So I had my chance with the baboon spider. It was offering a paw and I could have just pinched it by the paw and plucked it out. I'm told that if it completely forgets itself and chomps on me that it feels like two bee stings. Reading a first-draft manuscript feels like two bee stings so I can handle that. But I didn't pull it out. Because it was Thursday, and Thursday is the wrong day to pull monsters out of their caves.
So I'm overdue by about one career for getting into the field. Last night Ed taught us the two ways an Alabama boy catches poisonous snakes. There is a vervet monkey a few feet behind Bailey's head. We're going into the teeming rain forest on the mountain tomorrow.
Friday, July 29, 2011
Explore Gorongosa Camp, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
The camp at Explore Gorongosa sits along a serpentine river bed that draws in an incredible array of birds. antelope, primates, and enormous crocodiles. This experience showed us another side to Gorongosa National Park. We had spent most of our time in the dry savanna and now we had the chance to experience some very different bird life. Our day began with Scottish-South African-Zimbabwean guide Jeff who took us on a foot safari around the camp along with a Jinga an armed scout (askari) with the Park.
Ed Wilson returned to Chitengo last night. I made the trip with him which turned into a nice night game drive. We didn’t see a whole lot but did come across some oribi, bush pig, and several African hare. The cool night air in the open land cruiser topped off our fireside meal at the Explore Gorongosa Camp.
Thursday, July 28, 2011
Wednesday, July 27, 2011
In Jay's post below, he describes turning poacher haul into ploughshares. Jay conjured collection nets from confiscated snare wire and netting. He poached the scissors and stapler from the camp kitchen. Co-conspirators Bailey and Liz helped whip up the nets.
How did the equipment work? During the blitz the young biologists turned up 59 animal species in less than two hours. The guy below was the star of the day, earning the appreciative remark from Ed, "What the heck are you?"
Chitengo Camp, GNP, Mozambique
Today, was a day of biodiversity. The bioblitz was on and there was definitely a biobuzz around camp. Encyclopedia of Life recently announced our activities and had recognized the event under the Global Bioblitz.
Tuesday, July 26, 2011
We moved on to the next planned blessing up the mountain to the waterfall site that was visited yesterday. On the way every kid around came out to visit us with a smile, wave and a big “Ola!” all in unison. We climbed the rutted, steep road crossing through banana, papaya, and pineapple fields. Climbing higher we came upon some beautiful flat-top acacia trees not far from where the bioblitz will be held.
The ceremony was located around one particular tree within a beautiful grove up on the bluff. There was a crowd of 150-200 community members of all ages. Joel the Nat Geo photographer commented that every mature girl had a child except for maybe 2. Sadly, the average lifespan of a Mozambican woman is 40-42 years old.
Monday, July 25, 2011
One of the things that drives the textbook team is the newly tappable potential of scientific visualization. When Gael McGill and Drew Berry and their teams square off at their workstations, they're booting up a billion bucks in software research and development spent by Hollywood studios to populate Hogwarts and Middle Earth. We're using the Hollywood stuff to make biologists. We want kids to see what we're making for them, but what we really want is for them to see what Ed sees when he's outdoors. There are different ways of seeing. When Ed peels a blossom, he sees how the pistil and stamen were sculpted by the pollinating insect, and how the insect was sculpted by competition for the flower. He sees how they serve each other and how both serve the grazers that serve the predators.
We'll make a visualization of those connections, but the real goal is to make connections in the synaptic jangle of young brains so that when they walk around outside, they'll see what Ed sees.
This morning Ed hopped over the wire to explore in dry, dusty grass. He didn't find a single ant. Conclusion? Rainy season must come hard here. Ants are the boss of the world, but they're fussy about flooding. Obvious if you know how to look.
Chitengo Camp is surrounded by security wire because some of the passersby are lions and elephants, which can present a problem for people and buildings. No one would give Ed a disapproving look or a murmur, but when we got in late yesterday, there was mention that Ed had given the wire less respect than usual for a person walking past alone with a net to collect bugs.
One could imagine it working out OK if the big animals dropped by. "Is it really your first sub-Saharan visit, Ed?" "Yes it is, east enders of the Rift Valley." That could happen.
The solution, obviously. is a spotter to keep an eye out for Ed while Ed cracks stems and everts blossoms to find privacy-seeking insects. We'll probably be competing for the job soon.
Sunday, July 24, 2011
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
Where to start? Possibly it would be a reflection of a safari with Ed Wilson, his first. Maybe the talk with the breakthrough discoveries of the archaeologists from Calgary. Or possibly the helicopter ride and pilot bioblitz to Gorongosa.
The day actually started by bringing a few specimens to Ed for identification. Prepping for our upcoming bioblitz and the running entertainment for a camp full of biologists and national geographic crew has been to collect insects and bring them to Ed. After shining my light out on the grass last night, and see the glowing eyes low in the grass, I knew I had it. A wolf spider. Additionally just along the trail light outside my hut, I collected a large winged-insect with massive jaws. Bringing these to Ed in the morning was extra exciting since the winged beast was a male driver ant. This was the first driver ant Ed had seen. I then remembered last year, in Ed’s office at Harvard he showed me a sketch of driver ants in a book of his with a sketch of a tribesman and he asked if I thought the man could have been Maasai. Incredible to be sitting here now finding these animals with him.
|Monster Gorongosa Ant Lion (5 mm)|
A lot of the Nat Geo production involves Ed with a local Mozambique the biologist in-training Tsonga. Ed and Tsonga created a great team with Ed showing him techniques for collecting and identifying insects. Tsonga would share the local natural history of certain species. It is important to remember this is Ed’s first trip to sub-Saharan Africa.
We spent a fair amount of time telling the story of the succession of the termite mound. Fundamentally, these highly specialized social insects construct a massive earthen tower in the savannah. After the termites die off the mound soon becomes inhabited by a variety of small mammals. The initial vegetation begins with grasses and shrubs. The former termite colony has left behind a super nutrient rich deposit. Eventually large trees become the climax plant community in the mound. Burrowing animals take over the mound and when the trees die off the mound is reduced to a depression that can become a shallow pan for water.
After lunch we headed for a science talk from the University of Calgary archaeologists. We had heard of their work up in the limestone caves and their search for stone tools in the region. The presentation was given by the principal investigator, Julio Mercader. Little did we know of the significance of what was ahead. The group has been working in a local cave called Cheringoma. The region is the southern tip of the Rift Valley which runs 4,000 miles to the north to Ethiopia. The very active plate tectonics in the Rift have led to continual renewable of landscape, creating the very diverse geography in the region. Mercader reported their findings included Iron Age (2,000 ya), Stone Age (30,000 ya), and Middle Stone Age (300,000 ya). They also informed us of the challenges they have faced from a variety of onslaughts including: limestone collected for cement, rocks collected for roadwork, and bat guano collected for fertilizer. All of which has caused the devastation of several rich sites in and around the limestone caves. The good news came from an initial trench dug by this team in front of the Cheringoma Cave. Finds included hominid bones which they estimate between 1.9 to 2.6 million years ago! This is somewhere between the genus Homo and Australopitechus. This would be the first Australopithocene finds in the country of Mozambique. This is incredible news for Gorongosa National Park, for Mozambique and for a better understanding of who we are and where we came from.
After the news from the caves it was time for a pilot bioblitz on Mt. Gorongosa. Greg, Ed, Mark, Andrew from Nat Geo, and I flew in the larger helicopter to a site on the eastern edge of the mountain where Gorongosa National Park forestry workers have been cultivating a variety of native trees and replanting. This year they will have replanted one million trees! The workers performed a dance and welcoming cheer for Greg’s arrival. After searching for insects with Ed for a while, the findings were slim. We had been collecting on a magnificent grassy flat of the bluff above a large waterfall. This is situated just below the rainforest on the mountain. We started to find more life as we headed down to a stream. Mark commented on the low nutrient quality of the soil in the region as a possible cause for low abundance. I captured a dragon fly and found more flying insects near the stream. This will most likely be the spot for the bioblitz in a few days.
|Slash and burn agriculture seen on Mt. Gorongosa.|
We had another incredible flight back to camp. We were filmed by the second helicopter most of the way. It will be interesting to see how this footage is used for future Nat Geo productions.
Bailey and I flew North Carolina to JFK to Johannesburg (15-hour leg!) to Beira and the trip wasn't 10 percent as tough as we had feared. We stayed up all night Friday night, cabbed to the plane, and half slept all the way there. Never slept all the way, but got to spend half the trip elsewhere. When Bailey is in her hibernating posture she can do the trick of rolling in the seat until her feet are pointing at the luggage bin. I can't.
Vasco and Claude met us at Beira this afternoon, we signed the guest book in the visa office and jumped on the little helicopter. Shock number one. Gorongosa is a great deal huger than I thought.
We arrived at Chitengo as everyone else was leaving for another bout of Ed's Hot Streak. The original schedule was tight. Then we loosened up and decided to play the first few days by ear and plan textbook lesson as we went. Then Ed arrived with Jay and started pouring out lessons on camera and the textbook shoot jumped off the starting line. I missed day one and two. Bailey and I arrived in the little helicopter today just as the Ed crew was heading back out in the big helicopter.
Macadona offered us a spin in a safari truck until they came back, so we climbed up and went for a look around. As it happens, someone told the lions that Bailey was coming. Macadona hadn't seen them at the once-upon-a-time legendary Lion House in years.
They said, "What's up, Piedmont Flats?" We said, "What's up, lions?"
Then Bailey fell asleep on the ride home and it seems like I better get some sleep too.
Saturday, July 23, 2011
Chitengo Camp, Gorongosa National Park, Mozambique
The helicopter flight in to camp brought us right into the National Geographic Lost Eden film. We recognized some animals and landmarks and had to pinch ourselves because we knew this was the real thing. We had made it. The sounds of the metropolis were behind us and just the insects and birds of Camp Chitengo surrounded us.
The day began with a private charter flight from Lanseria Airport in Northern Johannesburg. The fires were up again as we made it to the outskirts of the city. A very friendly pilot, James met us at check-in and we sped through the small airport with ease compared to leaving from the large international commercial airport. Good conversation and beautiful landscapes entertained us as the flight took us over Kruger National Park and up along the coast of Mozambique to the city of Beira. We flew over the large estuary of the Pungwe River.
We spoke of true explorers and I thought of the legendary Scottish explorer David Livingstone who began his trans-African journey in Mozambique - from the mouth of the Zambezi River, not far north of our current destination. He traveled up the Zambezi in the 1850s and made it across the continent to what is now known as
Angola on the Atlantic. In order to return his traveling companions from Mozambique to their homeland, he then amazingly retraced his path back across Africa. His last journey made famous by his encounter with Henry M. Stanley, who found him ill and starving, was focused on finding the source of the Nile River.
Ed recounted his experiences in Papua New Guinea nearly 60 years ago and his expedition to explore the highlands. He figured he was the first outsider to do so. He collected numerous ants along the way and discovered a new species of frog. Nice to be traveling with a true explorer.
At the Beira airport we were greeted by Greg Carr, our host and the vision, catalyst, and spirit behind the rebirth of Gorongosa, and Vasco Galante, director of PR with Gorongosa and a true man of action. Both were possibly as excited as we were regarding our arrival. It felt wonderful to step on Mozambican soil after planning and anticipating this trip for so long. We also met a couple from Boston who are setting up a resort within Gorongosa National Park. This will be a major push for the future success of the region. Greg pointed out the importance of the private-public partnership in the region to create the optimal outcome for biodiversity and the people of the region. Ecotourism is a big part of the solution. We also met up with Bob Poole the photographer behind Lost Eden who will be with us during the extent of our expedition. He told us he had just driven in from Kenya – his homeland.
After introductions we were presented with a choice that may indicate the hospitality before us. “Helicopter or plane?” Greg asked. Nice question. Ed would be traveling with Greg and the Nat Geo crew. I sat up front to film in the second helicopter with Elizabeth and Nina, a biologist from Angola. Pilot Claude gave us a great introduction to the region. I have felt nothing closer to the take off of a bird then the forward moving lift off in a small helicopter – this rivaled past rides in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica the coastal rainforests of Kuaui.
On the way out we passed over a progression of human alteration to the landscape which was easily viewed from our low-flying helicopter. We donned our headsets and Claude pointed out slash and burn activity. Small fires rose in every direction. Most of the activity appeared to be charcoal production. After clearing an area, the wood would be cut and the charcoal would be produced in long structures covered with earth – from the sky, looking like the earthen long-houses of an old Celtic community. The scars of clearing were numerous. We wondered what the ‘price’ of this forest sold for in Beira. Claude informed us of the movement to cultivate cassava for food and biofuel. This sounded like a decent solution to provide needed food and a more sustainable fuel.
Some of the other fires were possibly set by poachers. The typical strategy is to set numerous snare traps and then start a brush fire to drive the animals in the waiting snares. He pointed out the poachers use the river to transport the bushmeat to Beira where it is readily available because of the large amount poaching that is occuring.
Shortly after crossing into the Park we spotted two small flatboats along the river bank with tarps holding nets. These were most likely fish poachers. Claude circled back around and I jotted down the GPS position (S 19 01 95, E 34 33 00) so rangers could be notified of their location.
This was all an interesting introduction to the challenges facing Gorongosa regarding wildlife management. The war is over, but the battle continues.