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Election Special: Democracy, Dye & Diversity

10 min read

Updated 01 December 2020

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By Chris McIntyre

Managing Director
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With much of the world breathing a collective sigh of relief at the US election result and the announcements of Covid-19 vaccines, a palpable sense of optimism is emerging. Travellers who deferred their safaris to 2021 are starting to get excited and lodge owners and their teams are eagerly anticipating the return of guests, while at Expert Africa we are working hard on new trips.

Travel in 2021 looks set for many changes. Early in the year, a handful of great offers are available, and if you have some time to spare to escape the northern hemisphere winter then please call us. Some of our favourite, top-class camps are offering long stays at bargain-basement rates.

From around April onwards, the picture changes. Many camps then have limited space, their tents already taken by travellers who deferred their trips from 2020. So talk to us soon if you want to escape to Africa in 2021. Meanwhile, although it’s still very early days for 2022 trips, we are seeing quite high demand with bookings in for 2022 already three times above their normal level for 18-24 months in advance of travel.

Our camps and communities in Africa have been keen to welcome back visitors for many months. They’re looking forward to seeing us all next year, and we can’t wait either.

Is democracy going to the dogs?

Perhaps. But given that free and fair voting seems to be the norm among some canines, and the results are undisputed, perhaps that’s no bad thing? Propaganda, lobbyists, conspiracy theories and foreign interference are all blissfully absent from decision-making in parts of the animal kingdom.

Scientific researchers in Botswana have observed that African wild dogs make decisions by peaceful group consensus. They have learned that a tightly bonded pack prepares to hunt by a straight vote, cast by sneezing. When the dogs greet each other at the end of rest periods, their rate of sneezing appears to correspond with the likelihood of the pack departing to hunt.

Power does still play its part, however, with far fewer sneezes needed to reach a decision if the dominant male and female are involved in the voting. Nonetheless, if 10 or more ‘sneeze votes’ are cast by hungrier, subordinate individuals, the whole pack will head off to hunt together. They may have to garner more support, but even the youngest and weakest members can drive the pack into motion: surely democracy in action.

And though we may be desperately avoiding sneezing in public these days, we can definitely continue to strive for a society where everyone has an equal voice and where social cohesion is actively embraced.

For your best chances to observe this in the wild, start with our traveller’s top camps for wild dog sightings in the last two years.

Wildlife in black and white

Everyone knows zebras have black and white stripes, right? And amber-hued leopards have black spots. Generally, yes, but not always. Sometimes Mother Nature offers up a little fairy-tale magic and familiar creatures take on wondrous variations.

From sightings of a leucistic, polar-white baboon in Arusha National Park to a golden-coloured zebra in the Serengeti, surprising colour variations in wildlife can be utterly enchanting. This year, a glorious white giraffe in Kenya made news headlines as his horn was fitted with a GPS tracker to protect him from poachers: he is the last of his kind and sadly his rarity puts him at increased risk.

As much as magical beginnings have child-like allure, straightforward science accounts for these fascinating colour variations. Mutated genes, inherited from both parents, affect the body’s production of melanin, resulting in white, albino animals with a complete absence of melanin or leucistic creatures, which have a partial loss of pigmentation, giving them white or patchy colouration but often with dark eyes. At the other end of the spectrum, melanism causes animals to be born black as a result of excessive amounts of dark melanin pigment.

2020 has proved to be a boom year for melanistic mammals in East Africa. Perhaps the most adorable are the melanistic serval kittens born in September in the neighbourhood of Namiri Plains Camp in Tanzania. Lying alongside their golden, spotted mother, the two blue-eyed kittens join their father in being completely black. While this is unusual, their striking colouration has previously been recorded in the East African highlands, leading scientists to hypothesise that they are displaying ‘thermal melanism’, a theory that animals living at cooler, higher altitudes are more likely to be melanistic, and thus able to absorb more solar radiation for body heat and activity, and perhaps also helping to protect them from the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

This theory, however, doesn’t seem to account for the black cats sighted around Laikipia Wilderness in Kenya (altitude 1,600m, about the same as Nairobi and the Maasai Mara), where no less than five melanistic leopards currently roam the rocky escarpments. Two female leopards are known to carry the all-important recessive melanistic gene, with one female having given birth to one black and one spotted cub. Although sightings remain rare, with time and energy, they are possible and with a black female recently mating, more of these extra special cubs are likely to be on their way.

Photo credit: Will Burrard-Lucas at Laikipia Wilderness

Gonarezhou’s Black Rhinos: Back from Extinction (Again)

Proudly passing out in front of cheering family this month, the graduate rangers at Gonarezhou Conservation Trust (GTC) have a challenging and noble job ahead of them. They are the front line in anti-poaching patrols and conservation initiatives as Zimbabwe’s second largest national park steps up surveillance ahead of the reintroduction of black rhinos at the end of 2020.

In the far south-east corner of Zimbabwe, bordering Mozambique and South Africa, Gonarezhou is remote and rugged. A hot, low-lying wilderness, dominated in the north by two perennial rivers, the Runde and Save, it’s a richly diverse landscape of riverine and mahogany forests, crocodile-strewn sandbanks, groves of baobabs among rocky crags and the spectacular sandstone Chilojo Cliffs.

Unfortunately, it’s an area with a history of widespread poaching, and rhinos here have a tragic past. The park’s original rhino population was killed between the 1930s and 1940s when hunting was rife. Conservationists in the 1970s successfully reintroduced 77 animals to the area, and these animals thrived, doubling in number. Then civil war in neighbouring Mozambique forced Gonarezhou’s public closure, and rhino extinction hit for the second time.

But Zimbabweans are resilient and determined. Gonarezhou has for many years been supported by the unstinting passion and commitment of a team of dedicated conservationists. In 2007, an innovative conservation partnership between ZimParks and the Frankfurt Zoological Society was established. They have worked tirelessly together to create a sustainable future for the park, with the reintroduction of black rhinos a key goal.

Now, after many years of hard graft, detailed research, feasibility studies, community engagement and intense practical preparation, an area of 130,000 acres (more than 500 km2) within Gonarezhou National Park has been designated an Intensive Protection Zone, and is once again ready to host a population of black rhinos.

By April 2021, fortunate visitors will once again have the opportunity to see these magnificent animals roaming wild in the park. Book a stay at clifftop hideaway Chilo Gorge Safari Lodge for far-reaching views over the Save River and expert guiding in the Gonarezhou wilderness.

Lady in Red: a lesson in hair dye excellence

The Himba ladies of northern Namibia are strikingly adorned with symbolic beaded jewellery, leather girdles, simple goatskin skirts and elaborate hairstyles. But it is the rich mahogany of their skin and hair that truly distinguishes their look. Theories of sun protection and insect repellent surround their daily act of colouring their bodies with otjize paste, though the Himba say it is simply beautification – a symbol of life-giving blood and earth.

The intensely coloured paste is sourced from the land and cattle around the community. Scouring the rugged Kaokoland landscape for particular ochre rocks, they grind them into a finely powdered pigment, adding butterfat and wood ash for substance and pungent tree resin as perfume. Crafted cattle horn containers store the vivid otjize, which is then smeared onto their skin and hair to obtain their distinctive look.

A semi-nomadic, pastoral people, with homelands reaching north into Angola, the Himba tend herds of drought-tolerant cattle in the remote, arid Kunene region. Respectful, genuine encounters with these traditional communities, can be eye-opening and help to engender mutual respect. At Expert Africa, we have spent decades working with people who seek to give authentic insights into their communities. In a world which increasingly appreciates diversity, these can be the most enlightening cultural experiences. For ideas about such opportunities, see our holiday ideas for Cultural experiences and give us a call.

Bull’s-Eye! Or is it..?

Over millennia, animals have evolved myriad methods to avoid being eaten. Anti-predator ‘eyespots’ are one common visual technique, mimicking the eye of a different animal to deceive potential predators, divert attention from vulnerable body parts, or simply to intimidate. It’s a ploy used to great effect by fish, birds, reptiles and insects – most spectacularly butterflies and moths – but is unknown among mammals. Until now. Because today, a rare sight can be seen in northern Botswana: several hundred cattle with eyes painted on their rumps.

Following a 4-year scientific study on the coexistence of cattle farmers and lions by researchers from the University of New South Wales, the ‘eye-cows’ are proving to be a low-cost, high-impact success story.

Photo credit: Bobby Jo Photography

Cattle farmers adjacent to the unfenced wildlife areas of the Okavango Delta were understandably frustrated with the large predators, especially lions, ambushing their free-range cattle. And with little compensation for killed cattle – the government only reimburses about 10-20% of the cost of a cow – retaliation killings of lion were rising.

Focusing on 14 herds that had experienced higher than average predation rates, the researchers tracked 2,000 cows, in three groups. A third were given a pair of acrylic-painted eye-spots on their behinds, a third were left unmarked, and the final third received simple cross-marks. Remarkably, the intimidation worked: over the entire 4-year study not one of the cows with eye-spots was attacked by a big cat, while 15 unmarked and 4 cross-marked cows were killed by lions. The sceptical farmers now look keen to continue this simple cattle-saving strategy and as migratory lions are unlikely to catch on to the ruse, eye-spots could be saving prized livestock for quite some time to come.

See ideas for costed trips to the Okavango Delta here.

Photo credit: Ben Yexley (@byexley)

If you’ve been inspired and want to find out more, give us a call or enquire now to speak to an expert.


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