Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

How you can help wild giraffe in Kenya

by | May 19th, 2016

When I ask people what they think a giraffe keeper does every day, a wide variety of tasks often come to mind. Harvesting branches, training, and of course, cleaning poop, are typically the top answers. The one thing that most people do not consider however, is being an advocate for wild giraffe in Africa. As our society has begun to move away from the notion that animals in the care of humans are meant to be entertainment, we have started understanding and utilizing our roles to help fight against the devastating loss of natural environments and their inhabitants. I recently returned from the International Giraffid Conference in Chicago, Illinois, and was fortune enough to meet some of the leading individuals who are speaking out for the wild giraffe population and doing ground breaking work in Africa.

John Doherty, keynote speaker at the 2016 International Giraffid Conference, and head of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya

John Doherty, keynote speaker at the 2016 International Giraffid Conference, and head of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya

Most people do not know but there are actually 9 subspecies of giraffe in Africa spread across 14 different countries. All subspecies are declining at different rates. This is mainly due to the variety of causes for each group. The most studied subspecies of giraffe are those that live in developed areas. Some areas where giraffe live are far too dangerous for humans to go, and most of them do not even have roads to get to the population themselves. The reticulated giraffe, the subspecies that Oakland Zoo and over 100 other AZA institutions hold, has seen a dramatic 77% decline in 17 years. Issues facing these giraffe in particular are predation by lions, livestock occupying land, human access to automatic weapons, and drought.

Me with Jacob and John of the Reticulated Giraffe Project

Me with Jacob and John of the Reticulated Giraffe Project

John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya are working to combat many of the issues facing this subspecies. By providing their rangers with solar powered chargers, they are able to keep their devices up and running when they are out in the bush. This way they can transmit in real time giraffe sightings or emergency situations. They work closely with the children in surrounding villages to educate and build pride for these special animals, helping to create the next generation of conservationists who will keep a watchful eye over their country’s’ natural inhabitant. The most notable work John and Jacob have done is create a way to track populations of giraffe using telemetry that will not require the animal to be anesthetized in any way, avoiding unnecessary stress. To this day, adhering a tracking device to wild giraffe can be incredibly dangerous and terrifying for the animal, so the advancement in the RGP’s development is essential for the future of giraffe research.

Oakland Zoo is celebrating World Giraffe Day this year on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. All the proceeds from this event will go to support the Reticulated Giraffe Projects work in Kenya. Guests can get a chance to meet and feed our giraffes, up close and personal. Tickets for feeding the giraffes can be purchased online at Eventbrite. A limited amount of tickets will also be available day-of at the giraffe exhibit in the zoo. Activity tables, face painting, and informational stations will be set up around the exhibit for guests to enjoy. Please come out and support the wild giraffe in Kenya! I hope to see you there!

Feeding at World Giraffe Day 2015

Feeding at World Giraffe Day 2015

Big Love for Elephants with Big Life!

by | April 24th, 2015

It started with a book:  1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I was planning a trip to Kenya — my last one had been 25 years earlier — and read this:

“An Unspoiled Corner of Kenya:  Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills. The owner and occasional resident personality, Richard Bonham chose the site for its view of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Bonham himself occasionally pops up…”

Big Life, one of our Quarters for Conservation partners for 2014-15, is headquartered in the Chyulu Hills at Ol Donyo; Richard Bonham is one of the co-founders, along with photographer Nick Brandt.  Big Life protects 2 million acres of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of East Africa, encompassing portions of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Amboseli Tsavo ecosystem map
They implement the philosophy I heard about when I got there:  Wildlife Helping People.  Big Life is the largest employer of community members (predominantly Maasai) in the region, and the organization ensures that tourist revenue derived from wildlife in the ecosystem benefits the locals.

Richard Bonham grew up in Kenya, the son of a Kenya Wildlife Services ranger.  He recently received the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, and he thoroughly understands and appreciates Maasai economics and culture.

 

big life awardFor the Maasai, cattle are their wealth.  They live on semi-arid land that their cattle share with savannah grazers and browsers — elephants, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, antelopes, zebras — along with predators — lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas.  Young boys grow up herding and protecting cattle among all the resident wildlife, and they have a deep knowledge and appreciation of nature, with one exception:  lions are a traditional enemy, and when a lion kills a Maasai cow, teenage warriors retaliate — and prove their manhood — by killing a lion.

Over the last 25 years, Maasai elders — who serve as mentors for adolescents — have realized that their lion-killing tradition can’t continue.  Lions are among the iconic tourist draws, and if every Maasai warrior proved his manhood by killing a lion, tourist revenue would die with the lions.  In 2008, the elders asked Richard Bonham to brainstorm a solution with them, and together they came up with two schemes:  a predator compensation fund, from which the community partially compensates a family that loses cattle in spite of their best efforts to protect them; and the Maasai Olympics, where young men compete in traditional Maasai skills for prizes, displacing the need to kill a lion as a rite of passage.  The elders spent six months on education about the importance of the young generation in implementing a cultural change that would preserve the best of their traditions — but update their values to the realities of the 21st century.

Big Life and their partners have organized Maasai Olympics competitions in 2012 and 2014.  David Rudisha, the Maasai gold medalist in the 800 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, is a fervent supporter, and guest of honor.
2014-12-01-MaasaiWarriorJumps9.8ftduringMaasaiOlympics
During the last quarter of 2014, not one elephant, among the 2,000 that pass through, was poached in Big Life’s area of operation.  Most of the danger for elephants now lies in conflict with farmers:  elephants raid crops, or drain the water supply, potentially destroying a year’s livelihood.  Farmers retaliate by spearing the elephants.

And Big Life comes to the rescue:  a Kenya Wildlife Service vet flies to Ol Donyo when the staff spot a wounded elephant, treats the wound and sends the elephant back to the wild, hopefully wiser about where and what he chooses to eat and drink.

 

elephant down
The community around Ol Donyo now Gets It about conservation.  Big Life’s latest story:

They arrived with a just cause, eight construction workers to build a classroom. They must have wondered at all the animals, living in peace and not terrified of humans. Clearly they didn’t take the time to find out why.

And this led to a very bad decision. If no one else was eating all these animals, well then they would. They chased down a lesser kudu, an uncommon and shy antelope, and snuck the carcass into the school through a hole in a fence.

But they misjudged the people around them. The message went from a set of community eyes, via the Big Life control room, and straight to the rangers. The cooking fire wasn’t even warm by the time the ranger team arrived, and the men found themselves on their way to the police station. A bad end to their day.

Despite the on-going conflicts with elephants and predators, this is a community that has decided to conserve wildlife, and the sooner visitors get the message, the better for them.

Note: Big Life will be presenting at our annual Celebrating Elephants event on May 16th. Join us!

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Conclusion

by | March 3rd, 2015

March 1 and 2

 

Parting thoughts…

 

The journey home from QENP and Uganda takes three days, which gives me ample time to reflect on all I have seen and learned in the past 16 days. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to travel to Uganda, work in the field alongside conservation experts, discover exotic cultures, and begin a project that may ultimately aid in saving a critically endangered ecosystem. Dr. Siefert and James will continue the fight for tomorrows, while we help from home until we return. I hope that my words from Uganda have been educational, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspirational for those of you who have followed our journey. If that’s the case, or even if it’s just because lion cubs are one of the cutest things on the planet, please be sure to visit UCP’s webpage often www.uganda-carnivores.org – maybe you, too, can give them a chance for tomorrow. Until the next visit…Cub with kob

Papa resting

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper: Coming Back Home

by | February 11th, 2015

Just when I’ve started to feel I’ve found my place here at Lola ya Bonobo, it is already time to depart. I truly miss my pets and the animals I care for at Oakland Zoo, but I really wish I had a little more time here. Particularly since I don’t really speak any French, it was hard to get to know people initially. However, after a week or two, we all became comfortable enough to fill in language barriers with hand gestures. Plus, I’ve picked up a little more French during my stay. It’s more than enough to build friendships. I’ve also become more comfortable to jump in and offer help when I can.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

Here I am giving medical treatment for worm prevention.

On grounds, there is a never-ending supply of bamboo, I can’t believe how big it can get! The diameter of the bigger stalks is too large for me to reach both of my hands around and have them touch. In the past at Oakland Zoo, I’ve cut bamboo and drilled holes into it to hide peanut butter and jam for the sun bears and siamangs. The cost of these food items is very expensive in DRC, it is not realistic for me to suggest that. However, the bonobos do receive a daily supply of peanuts. I suggested making peanut puzzle feeders with sections of bamboo. Raphael (veterinarian) and Emile (keeper) help me to do this.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

Feeding bananas to Group 2 bonobos.

While the sanctuary does have a drill on hand, there is no saw. Emile takes a machete to cut the bamboo sections. I want to offer to do it, so Emile can get back to his work and not have to baby-sit me. Raphael asks him in French if I can do the chopping. Emile’s translated reply is, “Sure, if you want to cut yourself, no problem.” He’s teasing…a little bit. I think. It’s also definitely a cultural issue, women don’t use tools like machetes here. I want to protest, but I am pretty accident-prone anyways. I’m just going to let this one go.

When we have seven bamboo sections of different sizes, Emile leaves and says it is okay for me to drill the holes. There are several other keepers in the area and I am uncomfortably aware they are all watching me drill, which isn’t easy. The dull bit isn’t big enough to make a good size hole for the peanuts, so I have to drill several times for one hole on the curved surface of the bamboo. Sometimes the power button on this ancient device gets stuck and the drill keeps going at full blast, all on its own. When I finish and Raphael and I are inspecting the holes, Nsimba, one of the women who prepares the bonobo diets here, says, “Strong!” and points to me, flexing her arms. I thank her and try to be cool about it, but I’m secretly giddy, hoping I’ve inspired female empowerment. If only a little bit.

Untitled3Raphael and I take the bamboo to the juvenile nursery, after filling them with a lot of peanuts. The reaction varies quite a bit. Some of the juveniles immediately use the bamboo to display or as a ladder to climb. A few immediately find something better to do, but four are all about them. It’s pretty amusing to watch when they accidentally get several peanuts to fall out, as you can see them realize what it’s all about. Singi spends a good 25 minutes with his (an eternity for a juvenile bonobo mind). This young male is referred to by the Mamas as being “cray cray,” some American slang they’ve picked up. Before the adult female, Kisantu (mentioned in an earlier blog), was put into the juvenile enclosure to recover from illness, it was safe to go in with the juveniles. Well, sort of. These bonobos are around 4-6 years old and are not only getting really strong, but also *realizing* how strong they are. They’re relentless and Singi is the roughest. I only went into the juvenile enclosure once before Kisantu was moved there- Singi gave me quite the run for my money. Anyone who thinks it is a good idea to have an ape as a pet should have to spend one hour with Singi. They’d opt for a goldfish pretty quickly.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Singi, figuring out the objective of his puzzle feeder.

Now, to see Singi thoughtfully turning over the bamboo, poking at the hole where he knows the peanuts could come out, he is a different animal. After the first minute or so, in proper bonobo fashion, he has sex with it. After that, his entire focus is on turning it over and over, at different angles, to get the peanuts.

My last full day at the sanctuary is a Sunday, which I’m happy about because it is bread and butter day. During a time when the sanctuary was getting charged astronomical prices for produce (see previous blog post that talks about the seed distribution program), they needed a way to make sure the bonobos were getting enough calories. The bonobos were supplemented with bread rolls and butter. By butter, I mean a very soft margarine that comes in bulk tubs and is produced in Kinshasa. The bonobos *love* it. Now that the sanctuary is getting a better deal on produce, they still offer the bread and butter one time a week as a special treat. Similar techniques are used in zoos as well. For example, at Oakland Zoo the sun bears get a treat mix sprinkled throughout their exhibit that contains peanuts, dried fruit, plain popcorn and cereal. This encourages foraging behavior and makes it worthwhile for the bears to put forth the effort to seek it. Also, who doesn’t like getting “fun food” every once in a while?

Bread and butter day!

Bread and butter day!

11

A Group 1 bonobo hits the jackpot on the bread treat.

Here at the sanctuary, the bonobos definitely go a little nuts on bread and butter day. When the media talks about bonobos (which is pretty rare), they love to refer to them as the “Make love, not war ape.” This is very much an oversimplification based on bonobos using sex to diffuse social tensions, but no one would use that phrase on bread and butter day. While there still are a few bonobos having sex and no serious violent aggression breaks out, it is mostly every bonobo for his or herself. The most dominant bonobos can be seen carrying handfuls of the torn-up rolls. The keepers try their best to make sure there is enough for everyone and spread it out as far as they are able, but there is still a lot of displaying and loud vocalizations. The human equivalent would be someone sprinkling a large amount of money over a busy city street.

I can’t put into words how grateful I am for my short time here. The Democratic Republic of Congo isn’t for everyone. There are a lot of political issues, cultural tensions and frequent violent outbursts in the country to protest the government. The U.S. government travel warnings’ website continues to advise Americans not to come here. You also have to worry about illness, like the multiple strains of malaria found here. One form, cerebral malaria, attacks the brain and kills you in days if not caught and treated properly. Even smaller things, like sitting on the porch at evening to eat dinner means you have to be okay with bugs the length of your hand possibly flying blindly right at you and bouncing off your head. However, I feel I’ve only become a better person for being exposed to a style of living very different from the country I grew-up in. Also, at least for me, the benefits of being here far outweigh the costs or risks.

Untitled11The conservation status of the bonobo is bleak. Their remaining range is only one section of the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is estimated there are 5,000 left, but no one can say for sure as it is too dangerous to complete a wildlife census in parts of their range. While hunting or keeping a bonobo comes with a severe punishment (10 years in prison and/or an $8,500 fine), it’s a big country with a lot of other issues going on to deal with. Bonobos continue to be actively hunted and slaughtered for meat, witchcraft practices and to capture young infants to sell on the black market. Being the only sanctuary available for orphaned bonobos to go to, Lola ya Bonobo is truly a place worthy of recognition and support. If you would like to learn more about the sanctuary or find out how you can help, please visit: www.friendsofbonobos.org.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper “Lola ya Bonobo” Paradise of the Bonobos

by | February 4th, 2015
One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

I’ve been here almost two weeks now and still have not really established a daily routine. The nursery bonobos are always in need of some socializing and that’s pretty much my favorite thing I’ve done in my life thus far, so I always make time for that. However, seeing how the keepers manage the adult bonobo groups is also a great learning opportunity. Bonobo society is so complicated, the behavioral signals they send to each other are so subtle. From a glance, you are just watching a group of bonobos lounging after a feeding and it looks like they’re lazily hanging out together. Watch them more closely and you will notice a male is several feet outside the inner group and that he looks up quickly whenever someone approaches him. He is low-ranking and is never sure when someone will come to remind him of this. Towards the center of the group, young bonobos play wrestle with each other, but all of a sudden it gets too rough for the little one and she cries out in protest. An adult female picks her up and they have sex. It is still weird for me to see bonobos use sex in this manner, regardless of gender or age, to calm tension. Next one young bonobo picks up a plastic bottle (used by the keepers to hand the bonobos water through the fence when they want to draw them in for closer observation). The bonobo leans on the plastic bottle and runs right by the group, pushing it against the ground like a child pushing a toy car. This is a display to show-off and it makes a really loud noise. Some of the bonobos look, but none react. They’re all taking note though.

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Another perk of walking the 1.5 miles around the sanctuary to observe the adult bonobos is seeing the other wildlife that lives on the grounds. Lizards, bugs, birds and amphibians are everywhere. One of my favorite species of snakes, the Gabon viper, can also be found here. They are very shy and usually hide under forest brush, camouflaging perfectly. In ecology, the usual rule of thumb is that the larger the individuals in a species are, the fewer there are and the more spread out they are. Another reason seeing a Gabon viper is unlikely, as they are a large snake and therefore more rare. They only get up to around 3 feet in length, but have a very thick girth, as do other terrestrial snakes.

One species that I would say is as socially complicated as the bonobos, just in a different manner, are the army ants. When I spent three months in Uganda, they were there as well and I honestly didn’t care for them much.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

We would usually find a place to sit and watch the chimpanzees, but if you didn’t notice the army ants marching through, they would be climbing up your legs and before you knew it, you were getting bit everywhere! Here at the sanctuary, the grounds have well-kept paths and so the ants’ presence is much more obvious. When on the move, the ants form a long line and the workers stream by. To protect them, guards are posted all along both sides of the line, with huge pinchers poised and ready. It’s easy enough to jump over the line, but even walking within a couple feet of it will cause the guards to break away from the line and fan out to charge the intruder.

An African millipede.

An African millipede.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

Besides critters, you also see some crazy looking plants in DRC. I would never describe myself as a “plant person” per se, my repeated disastrous attempts at my balcony garden back home confirm this.Here though, some of the flowers look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and should have names like “Snarfalamdoodle.” They’re bright, beautiful and crazy! Competing with the flowers are the caterpillars. They come in every neon color, with insane hair designs, signaling to predators that they are toxic to eat. Seeing a neon orange caterpillar with a black mohawk, you think, “I get it: No touchy.”

Depending on the time of day, walking the perimeter can mean seeing many bonobos or none at all. In the afternoon, they usually go into the forest to rest where it is a bit cooler. I have yet to consider the walk a waste of time though, as the local wildlife never disappoints.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 8

by | February 3rd, 2015

It was another quiet day at the sanctuary. I went down to the daily morning meeting with all the staff, as a sign of respect mostly. The meeting is in French, so I don’t get much out of it. I sort of notice the director, Pierrot, has a lot to say this morning, but I don’t catch any of it and today no one offers to translate. Not that big of a deal.

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

I head to the nursery for a little bit, but then decide to be present for the Group 1 feeding. I sit on the bank of the large pond that runs alongside one perimeter of the enclosure and watch the bonobos interact. They’re all hanging out and waiting to be fed, but no keepers come. I’m not entirely sure what is going on, but it probably is not note-worthy. Nothing really happens at a set time in Congo. Pasha, the head groundskeeper, comes up and says hello. He knows about as much English as I do French (aka basic phrases), but he always comes to talk to me anyways. With the help of hand signals, we exchange a little back and forth about the bonobos. He then asks when I am going back to America, I tell him in one week. He’s quiet and then says, “Congo, Congo, Congo.” I reply, “J’adore Congo!” (“I love Congo!”). His face is very serious when he says, “Problems. Congo est difficile.” Congo is difficult. I nod empathetically, but I’m not sure what to say. It seems like he wants to discuss something, but we have no way to do it. It’s frustrating, because I’m dying to know what’s on his mind. Is he just referring to the turbulent history of the country? We’re both quiet for a minute or two and watch the bonobos, then he tells me he is leaving and we say goodbye.

Later that night, Gaspard and I are talking before dinner and I ask if he knows if Fanny is coming back from Kinshasa that night still. He says no, she decided to stay in town with her daughter and keep her home from school, because of the demonstrations. “Huh?” I ask, feeling like a ditz. Then Gaspard tells me what Pierrot had been telling all the staff that morning.

As mentioned in a previous blog, President Kabila is under strong international pressure to step-down at the end of his current term, which ends in December 2016. He’s not happy about this. On Sunday, there was supposed to be a vote in Congress on a new law that states a nation-wide census must be completed before the next presidential election. The Democratic Republic of Congo is huge, the second largest country in Africa, and a census has not been completed since the 80’s. To organize and complete a census will take years and only then would the campaigning for the presidency be able to start. Students in Kinshasa were planning to protest during the vote, but the government quickly did the vote on Saturday instead of Sunday and it passed. Today was Monday and people are angry, there have been protests. So far, it hasn’t escalated too badly. Several protesters were shot with rubber bullets and sent to the hospital, one police officer was stoned to death and one grocery store was looted. Traffic in the city is at an all-time high, most public transportation isn’t running (the reason why there was so few staff in the morning). All in all, it sounds pretty similar to protests that were happening all across the U.S. when I left, but being in a country that I haven’t lived in and having it happen somehow makes it seem worse. However, the sanctuary is far from Kinshasa and in a rural area. It’s safe here.

After dinner, Gaspard and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the sanctuary to look for wildlife that comes out at night. In particular, I really want to see a snake. We head off with head lamps and flashlights, but the night guard stops us. They speak in French for a long time, I don’t have any idea what’s happening. Finally, I learn that because of the tensions in the city, the military that are in the area are on high alert. The sanctuary’s guard doesn’t want us to walk along the perimeter, he’s worried we will run into one of them. He’s referring to the same military that we passed on our way to the lake a few days before. Apparently, they haven’t actually been in this area for very long and no one knows why they are here. Most of them come from eastern DRC, where a lot of people speak Swahili, not French.  These guards also don’t speak Lingala, which is the local language in this area that all the Congolese use to converse. I suddenly feel pretty stupid for saying, “M’bote!” to all the guards the day before, the Lingala word for “hello.”

We head back to the cabin and decide to ask the director about it the next day. I’ve learned that no matter how many people you ask about the conflict, you always get a different variation of the answer. Some are very nervous and full of warning, while others shrug it off and say it isn’t a big deal. I’m not sure if the situation is being blown out of proportion or if people are desensitized to the violence, because this happens every time there is any type of vote. I think it at least in part comes from no one knowing what will happen. Things can change so quickly or it can all blow over just as fast as it started. In some small way, I’m grateful to be exposed to the uncertainty, as I think I will be a better person for it. That being said, if my mom is reading this, I’m playing it on the safe side and staying in my room tonight.