14 September 2009

Rare Ant-Eaters, Rugby, and Cheetahs

Friday of week two had us now oldies welcoming a new batch of about eight volunteers after having said goodbye to friends and co-working-guests the day before as they headed off to Windhoek and then to wherever they each may be headed next. Work tasks for me included cleaning up old bones and scraps from wild dog enclosures and the wild cheetah enclosure. Some friends and I here discussed cultural differences and sexism as a result of a comical (from our perspective) extended interaction with a local. This theme has come up a number of times since arriving in Africa. Roles are, in many respects, roles. There are things that guys do and there are things that girls are not expected to do.

The highlight to Friday night was the release of Popeye, an owl who has been cared for at Harnas for some time now, and the release of a relatively recently arrived Cape Pangolin. This latter animal is incredibly rare. The acting volunteer director, Marnus Roodbol, who worked for seven years as a ranger in South Africa and with wildlife of different sorts for much longer, had never seen one until this pangolin came to harnas. It was such an honor to be part of the release of these two creatures. Once we had a good place to release the pangolin, I opened it’s temporary cage with marnas to let it go. Very strange looking animal indeed. To grossly simplify, it’s basically an armored ant eater.

The first half of Saturday was spent beating dead, dry, terribly throny branches from trees in the brush with a metal pipe to then form small piles of branches under each tree that a bushman would then burn to clear out an area for grasses to grow so that animals can eat. This is one of the many activities that falls into the category of farm work. Hot and frustrating. If you’ve never tried to use a round pipe to bang down branches from a tree, don’t, especially if the tree has thousands and thousands of small thorns on every branch.

The second half of my Saturday provided me another unusual experience compared with what most volunteers here have an opportunity to do. I was effectively an orderly and medical assistant for the veterinarians and vet nurse (Cheri) who were vaccinating baboons (rabies & tetanus) and performing minor surgeries on some who were injured before arriving or had various problems (e.g. one had stones, beads, and even a coin lodged in holes under her lower jaw).

Saturday night was also my first sleep out. My friends Barbara, Cheri, and I slept out with Goeters (pronounced roughly /xut@rs/ not unlike a restaurant chain with buxomly maidens as waitresses). He is a 23-year-old cheetah that couldn’t be sweeter. The first time I walked into his enclosure, he walked up to and past me purring. This was admittedly intimidating: seeing a graceful cheetah walk coolly up to you making a noise that you can interpret when produced by a domestic animal but whose meaning is perhaps unclear when coming from a less domestic one. I sat down away from him to get him used to my scent. He walked straight up to me and started licking my arm. Also intimidating. I’ve gone into his enclosure a number of times just to say hi. Getting back to the sleep out on Saturday, C, B, and I get our foam mattresses and sleeping bags and head to his enclosure. No sooner had we put the mattresses down that he climbs right on top and lies down. OK, now we just have to fit the rest of us on the two mattresses, with him taking up most of one. He couldn’t have been calmer. This guy gets loads of love and looking after. I suspect that won’t be the last time I spend a night out with him. It’s a lot like having a kitty in your bed, except that you’re outside looking up at a magnificent starry sky with an animal that could fairly easily incapacitate you if he so chose. It got cold during the night and we kept having to shift around to accommodate a long fluffy tail or leg or head of the most important one of the four of us on the two mattresses, so we didn’t get much sleep. Apparently I woke Goeters up with with my snoring. Barbara told me this over breakfast. I’ve been congested since before leaving Seattle, or for many years, depending on your perspective. I was mostly sleeping on my back on the night out, and I was snoring. During one of those snorty wake-yourself-up moments, I startled Goeters, who lifted his head and looked around to see what was going on. This happened a couple of times, according to Barbara, who must not have been sleeping well either. Oh well. Next time I’ll try to sleep on my side more and let the big kitty rest.

Have I mentioned that felines at Harnas like me? On Sunday morning, I went as one of the volunteers that accompany the morning tour for guests that come here on holiday. The volunteers’ role in this endeavor is to feed wild dogs various innards; throw horse or donkey legs to BIG lions -- including a lioness who may or may not have played Elsa or one of her kin in a later installment of the Born Free saga; throw mealie pap to LOTS of baboons; set up a table for tea and cakes for some special guests half-way through the tour; and throw various hunks of meat & offal, with and without fur, to painted wild dogs, wild leopards, and wild cheetahs. For the 23 wild cheetahs, we actually drive through the enclosure. Two of the cheeky cheetahs regularly jump onto the trailer that holds all the meat (while the guests sit comfortably in the vehicle pulling the trailer). Did I mention that the two volunteers sit or stand in that trailer along the way? I somehow missed the subtlety in instruction about what to do when the cheetahs jump into the trailer. Apparently we just let these two cheetahs jump in, get their meat and jump out without getting in their way. Well, David here gets in their way. Consequently, David gets a cheetah’s jaws briefly gripped around his calf (just as a warning nip: "get out of my way!"). The cheetah’s teeth did not really tear through my jeans (SOOOO glad I was wearing jeans from the night out with Goeters still). My leg has teeth marks/scratches that are not deep and I expect that there will be a nice bruise by morning. The lion scratches from the Brothers’ walk last Monday still hasn’t healed entirely. I’m thinking scars are in order here. I mean, what’s the point of all these encounters with ridiculously dangerous animals if you’re not going to have a scar and a story for each?

Oh yeah, I almost forgot, Sunday afternoon I play rugby with a former professional rugby player: Schalk van der Merwe. His family are the owners of Harnas. Yep, once-in-a-lifetime experiences here. It’s all a little surreal.

7 Lions, 3 Days, and 2 Shirts Later

My first Monday at Harnas. After turning in our indemnity forms, we now have the right to enter all (or most, really) of the enclosures at Harnas. Right off the bat, David goes for his group walk with The Brothers: Pax, Maddox, and Brad. If you happen catch a tip of the hat to a famous couple who has connections to Cambodia, Namibia, and New Orleans, that’s because there is one. Angelina and Brad sponsored the electric exterior perimeter fence around Harnas. Getting back to the animals... The three lion brothers are almost a year old. We load them up in the bed of a pick-up truck (caged) with one of the volunteers, with another one in the cab with the driver, and two of us hang on by our fingertips to the cage. ADVENTURE!

Felines at harnas seem to like me. We got dropped off at the beginning of where The Brothers walk. Within about five minutes, two of them decided they wanted to play with me. When a VERY heavy and VERY strong one year old lion plays, it’s not quite the same as a house cat. I tried not to turn my back on them during the whole walk, but two of them insisted on stalking me and running up to me. Once or twice they managed to jump on my side or back before I called them down. Thus I gained my first lion-ripped shirt. People said to me later that day, “I hope that wasn’t your favorite shirt”, to which I replied, “it is now!”

A mere two days later I went for a group walk with The Babies (four six-month-old lion cubs). This is one of the groups of animals my team is responsible for feeding. We had only just entered their enclosure to get them ready to go for their walk when one of them sneaks up behind me -- don’t ever turn your back on a lion -- despite Fiona’s “having my back”. Well, someone had my back. One of The Babies decided to see if my GHC shirt was tasty. Or maybe the big orange circle on the back looked too much like a target for him to pass up. Anyway, in short measure I had my second lion-ripped shirt. No skin breakage this time, even though it was teeth that ripped the shirt.

Bush Olympics & Harnas Dining 101

Sundays are a day of relative rest at Harnas. The first Sunday I was here, I was on food prep in the morning, and then the volunteers had Bush Olympics in the afternoon. Group 1 (my group) named ourselves the Seven Nations Army (rawr!) since there are people from seven countries in my group. Note that there’s no relationship between Bush Olympics and any former presidents of the U.S. This is the African Bush we’re talking about here! The first activity in our Bush Olympics included a sack race right in front of one of the baboon enclosures. I’m sure they got a kick out of watching 50 humans hop about in feed bags. We then had dung spitting. Yes. Small pieces of dry game dung (who knows which animals, but definitely game of some sort). Everyone has a go. Whichever team has a piece of dung that travels the greatest distance wins that round. There was next an amusingly abbreviated tug-of-war activity. The strength and tug-of-war technique of the SNA was quickly demonstrated... oh wait...nope, the rope just snapped. Thus ended tug of war. The next two activities were an egg-on-spoon race and then an egg toss. The grand finale involved a runner and a swimmer primarily. One person from each team was in the lapa pool (for Harnas guests). One person from each was the designated runner. The rest of the team holds two bolts of different sizes and cheers. The runner has to run back and forth to the pool with nuts that the swimmers get from the bottom of the pool. Once there are two matching nut + bolt pairs, the team’s swimmer runs back to the team and you’re done.

All great fun (except for maybe the dung spitting).

Needless to say, SNA won Bush Olympics. What was the prize? A lapa breakfast. We would come to find out on Wednesday that this would be a real treat. Non-instant coffee, for starters. Fresh juice (with ice!), hot scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, toast!, marmalade, fresh tomatoes & cucumbers & cured meats. Wow. To truly appreciate this, you’d have to grasp what volunteer dining is like on Harnas. We have three square meals a day, to be sure; but the temperature of those meals is not what I’d call hot, generally. Moreover, a nice breakfast does a lot to get you through several hours of physical outdoor labor in the Namibian springtime. I would not recommend coming to volunteer at Harnas in December or January. Although it is quite green at that time I hear, it’s undoubtedly incredibly hot.

Maybe once I’ve got more regular internet access, I’ll try to paint a better picture of what our dining experiences are (or were, by then) like in the volunteer village. I have to say, though, that the presence of sliced bread, eggs, and syrup comes in handy if one has a hankering for french toast or, as most people here call it, eggy bread. Of course, they’re just wrong since they also don’t put syrup on it but eat it in some savory fashion with either salt or ketchup or something equally atrocious.

Lions, Cheetahs, Baboons, Oh My!

My experience with the DD the leopard as a Harnas working guest is very unusual. I came to understand this as I found myself as a small fish in a big pond from day 1 at Harnas Wildlife Foundation. The oldies -- anyone who's been here more than 1 week, including some people who've been here for 10 or more -- have not necessarily had that sort of experience. Realizing this makes it that much more special. Nevertheless, it does not change the hierarchy of the volunteer/working guest system here.

The people who come to work at Harnas range in age from 18 to 41-ish. At least in the group of 51 volunteers that was here during my first week. The ratio of males to females was a bit surprising. Out of 51 working guests, only 5 are guys: me from USA, Ben from Australia, Andrew from Australia, Steve from UK, and Erland from Norway. Working guests here now are from Germany, Norway, Australia, South Africa, UK, Denmark, USA, Austria, Sweden, NZ. During introductions on the first night, I discovered that there's an American girl here now who hails from the greater Edmonds area in WA and goes to UW. Actually, she grew up in Fresno, CA and only moved to the Seattle area a year or so ago! Small world indeed. There's a volunteer village with each four-person cabin/tent (two walls wood + two walls frame, mosquito net, and canvas + corrugated tin/aluminum roof). Showers & toilets are in separate outdoor facilities. We're divided into four groups of about 10 to 12 people each. The remainder are group leaders, coordinators, or responsible for specific facets of life at Harnas.

Daily activities include "food prep", farm work, cheetah walks, meerkat walks, baboon walks, baby lion walks, older lion cub walks, eating, and sleeping. Very early on this past week I decided I wanted to extend my stay here by a week. Had I realized the amount of contact (close!) I would or could have with lions here, I may have skipped the Victoria Falls lion rehabilitation and conservation project I'm headed to next. Nevertheless, it will be great to check out Vic Falls and get a different perspective on lion conservation in Africa aside from the one of Harnas.

Each group is responsible for preparing food and feeding different groups of animals every day, some twice per day. Group 1 (my group!) is responsible for

  • Sule the wild cat
  • Audrey the 30+-year-old blind vervet monkey who was, in a way, the beginning of Harnas
  • Asem the vulture
  • Finn the one-winged buzzard
  • Rabbits
  • Roosters
  • Mice
  • Chickens
  • Turkeys
  • Baboons
  • Farm cats (i.e. the many cats living on the farm ... my favorite being a small black and white one that lays with me whenever I sit down in the courtyard)
  • "The Babies" - 4 lion cubs
  • the [wild] cheetah mom & her cubs

Animals sometimes get brought here when people can no longer take care of them. Sometimes farmers call Harnas to pick up wild carnivores that are killing their livestock (as was the case with DD the leopard). Other injured or sick animals get brought here to be taken care of for various reasons. The welfare of the animals on the 10,000 hectares of land here is top priority. Food prep is perhaps the most important activity the volunteers do. We cut up small and large pieces of raw meat to feed some animals, cut up vegetables to feed others, clean and refresh water holes for all of our animals, and hand select leftover food from our meals to supplement the fresh fruit & veggies some of the primates get. My group hand feeds our baboons every morning. So far I’ve witnessed two of the girls on my team get harassed by two of our baboons. One had her shirt ripped, with the shirt and bra strap snapped by the baboon. There’s some interesting sex-biased interaction with the primates, especially the baboons. They seem to respond very differently to males than females that are handling them.

Other activities during an “average” day as a volunteer include walks with/for baboons; vervet monkeys; cheetahs; the lion “babies”; the lion brothers Pax, Maddox, and Brad; caracals; Martha the baby baby lion; and Sana the baby baboon. And then there’s farm work. Farm work could consist of anything from digging water holes for cheetahs or caracals to cleaning out water holes for rabbits or wildcats or looking for and filling in holes that have been dug out underneath the perimeter fence by porcupines so that leopards or other animals that are in the lifeline (release program) do not escape to neighboring farms.

Speaking of releases, I have now heard from two sources that the leopard DD is going to be released Monday the 14th on a private reserve on the Namibian Coast. I found out that it was a female of approximately two years rather than a male of one. When we saved her from the farm west of Windhoek, we were more focused on getting her quickly and safely to Harnas than checking to see what parts there were underneath. That was done after she was here for a day and a little bit calmer than she had been. She couldn’t be released into the lifeline here because there are already several (read too many) female leopards there. Fortunately the Harnas staff were able to quickly find somewhere that could take her in.

(...Pics LATER!...)

04 September 2009

Not Your Typical Thursday Afternoon

Herman Oosthuizen, local transfer/transport guru associated with Harnas, helped me out with accommodations in Windhoek at Puccini House when mine fell through just before I left Jo'burg. Looking at the brush covered landscape that went on and on and on, I was excited for things to come as we landed. Sure enough, among the top-ranking text messages I have EVER received (right up there with one I got earlier this summer from a close friend in Seattle) arrived around 11:30 this morning:
"David are you in Whk.? We got a leopard today that we going to dart this afternoon and it have to go to Harnas early tomorrow morning. I want you to join the car in the morning at about 6h30. Would that be fine. Herman"

Ummmmm.... YES! that would be quite fine!

To clarify, this business of darting a leopard has to do with Harnas' role as a refuge for big cats that are often captured, shot, or poisoned by farmers in Namibia who don't like the fact that the predators are preying on their calves, goats, sheep, and the like.  Harnas has been reaching out to farmers requesting that the farmers not shoot the animals but, rather, get in touch to have Harnas come pick up the cats to relocate to safer parts of the country (for all parties involved).

I was thrilled about Friday morning and getting ready to go for an afternoon walk in Windhoek to see what there might be to see when I got a message from reception at Puccini House saying Herman wanted me to call him, so of course I did. What followed ranked among one of the most exciting brief phone conversations I've EVER had. Herman asked if I wanted to go with them to dart and retrieve the leopard from a farm about 2 hours west of Windhoek ... today! I'm thinking, "and I don't even officially start my program at Harnas until tomorrow!" I have to preface this tale with the comment that I am not a huge fan of leopards. Yes, I judge. They're just not my favorite large cat. They look particularly mean.

At about 2:15 Herman, Marika, Ivan, and Davide (a Ligurian veterinarian studies graduate who's doing a practicum at Harnas for a month) show up. I'll be sitting next to a box cage in the back, along with Davide. A little cramped, but totally worth it. Westward, ho!

Davide and I bounced along, cramped in the back of the 4-Runner, winding through, up, and down dusty, rocky, dirt roads. A series of probably a dozen gates with long stretches of more dusty, rocky, dirt roads between each pair led to the center of the "farm". There we met a couple of guys and two dogs: Rex and a short-legged longish dog whose name I didn't catch. The dogs, two guys, and eventually two kids who hopped in along the way stood in the back of a better suited pickup for the extremely steep, rocky terrain that lie ahead to get to where the leopard had been trapped. Davide road in the cab, I stood in the back, thinking the whole while about advice I got about wearing my seat belt and buying travel insurance. Remember the "king of the world" business in Titanic. Yeah. Pretty much it. This farmer has killed over 20 leopards menacing his livestock and said if we couldn't pick this trapped one up today he'd kill it too. This is what Harnas is trying to stop. What an incredible privilege and unique opportunity to get to go on this mission to retrieve this bad ass kitty today.

As we approached the caged, frightened, angry animal, I heard a roar that actually made me take a step backward. This was real. This was not going to the zoo and looking at the animals. I was now about 40 feet (only to get closer) from a ferocious wild animal, about to take pictures of an Italian vet who has to tranquilize it. What pressure setting does the air gun need for the dart? 3, 4, 5? In order for us to open the trap he's in to move him into the box cage Davide and I will be sitting next to on the ride back to Windhoek and then on to Harnas tomorrow, he had to be totally out. You don't reach in and pull out a wild leopard by the tail if he isn't really really really out of it. As Davide approached, however, the leopard took a position as if he could pounce and showed the teeth that confirm my earlier statement about their meanness. These animals have what look like super sharp fangs that could pierce anything. The plan was for other people to distract the leopard while Davide shot the tranquilizer dart into his hind. The first dart Davide shot him with we gave about 15 minutes to kick in. He responded shortly after being hit by lying down and growling less, but he was definitely still responsive beyond simply reflexes when poked with a stick ... wouldn't you be, though? Eventually, the consensus, in which my opinion was obviously the least informed -- even the 11 year old was more informed than I on these matters -- was that the leopard needed another dose of the anesthetic. Just as Davide gave him the injection (by hand, with much concurrent consternation by Marika), he was down. What disturbed me was that his eyes were still open. It looked like he was stuffed or dead, except that he was still visibly breathing. We transferred him to the box, put drops in his eyes and closed his eyelids to keep them from drying out, splashed water on him and put a dampened towel on his head to keep him cool during the ride.

After loading his new temporary box cage into the 4-runner, we headed back through the steep rocky part of the farm again. I'm standing in the back of this truck bouncing along thinking about what just happened -- I had some tiny tiny part in saving this leopard's life. There was a full or new moon and a planet I have yet to identify in the sky. The landscape at dusk was beautiful. The whole experience left me speechless. Davide and I got back into the 4-Runner sitting next to the leopard for the ride back to Windhoek: about 1/2 inch of wood and some anesthesia between me and a wild leopard. Wow.

I had dinner by myself at nice, the Namibian Institute of Culinary Education, 2 Mozart Street, Windhoek: Springbok tournedos in cherry-chocolate sauce over tagliatelle with a glass of Excelsior Cabernet Sauvignon.

Tomorrow is my first day at Harnas. I'll be leaving at 6am with Herman, Davide and the roughly one-year old Leopard who may now be called DD (for Davide & David, who went along to get him).

03 September 2009

Leaving South Africa (for the First Time)

What an incredibly eventful day this has turned out to be. Woke up after only 2.5 hours of sleep - why did I stay up so late? For breakfast I had a poached egg, toast, tomato, sausage, not so crispy bacon, apricot jam, berry yogurt, juice, instant coffee (pretty much the only coffee I'm told you get on a regular basis here). After a ride with Arthur to the airport during which we briefly talked about his desire to see District 9 and my having seen it. Maybe I'll stay with them again passing through Jo'burg, maybe I'll try somewhere else. The beer last night was about $1.50. I wonder if tasty tasty SA wine is as cheap!

South African Airways apparently serves a "light lunch" on the two-hour flight from JHB to WDH, which leaves at 9:45am (Jo'burg time) and arrives at 10:45 (Windhoek time). Cutting costs by cutting out meals? Not here! I was smelling peppers on the plane thinking, "I'm not really hungry and definitely do not want the barley, mixed vegetable, warm fruit combo I had twice on the flight from the US to SA. Fortunately, the flight attendant mistakenly offered it to the French man sitting in the aisle seat. He shooed it away. She said, "Mr, Ro/dzh/as, you don't want it?" He waved his hand again. I said nothing. Chicken and roasted potatoes and peppers for lunch it was.

02 September 2009


On the flight from Dulles to OR Tambo (Johannesburg) airports, I sat next to a woman who went to Cameroon to visit a friend five years ago, then ended up raising $10k to come work in Zambia for nine months for Grass Roots Soccer, an NGO that teaches about HIV/AIDS through soccer (a.k.a. football). Five years later, she's living in Cape Town working at their headquarters, where things are getting crazy in anticipation of World Cup 2010 in South Africa. We exchanged contact info and have communicated a bit since the flight. It'll be nice to see her, should things work out, once I'm in CT in a month or so.

Arthur Johnson, owner of Sunrock Guest House, came to pick me up from the airport and drove me the 10 minutes to my one-night accommodations. Within the first couple of minutes at the lapa -- a sort of poolside covered recreation area with chairs, pool table, bar, tables, etc. -- I realized that this was a predominantly Afrikaans-speaking establishment. No worries: Afrikaans and English are practically the same language ;-) I was having my first sundowner, on my computer, by a pool, with people who might teach me something about a language I don't know much about.

While having my first African sundowner and waiting for dinner, I was using wifi to send mails and update people on my arrival when some more people, and home-cooked supper, showed up. Despite having eaten about five times in the past I don't know how many hours without moving very much, I figured I'd try Arthur's mother's cooking. I sat down at a table rather than standing at the bar with my computer on it. People began to get food and sit down. I got the distinct feeling that I had somehow sat at what was the black table. It felt to me like there was a black side of the lapa and a white side of the lapa. Maybe I just expected to be some residual segregation so created it in my mind. Maybe not. No matter. I asked what language the guys who came to sit down by me were speaking. Sotho, they said. One thing I know about seSotho is that it took a lot of OCR to complete a seSotho project my team was working on last year. They were all mine workers of various sorts (a hydraulic machine repairman, other specialists, etc.) I was once again exposed to people who spoke at least three languages to some degree, and it doesn't seem particularly special to anyone around here. We were sharing a meal of roast beef, rice, gravy, mixed roasted squashes & other veggies, sweet roasted pumpkin & butternut squash, roasted potatoes, and an afterthought of a salad. Loved the pumpkin!

Following dinner, I re-orged the contents of my carry-ons while watching a movie called Rocket Science, a cute coming of age film about a socially and linguistically awkward kid who joins the debate team. After this I was flipping through channels and came across another movie I thought I'd watch for a while: Center Stage. It was about a ballet company in NY and the trials and tribulations of its students as they participate in a student workshop that partially determines the fate of their careers as dancers. Half paying attention to the film, I look up and see someone I know from Seattle on the screen. Craziness. I probably never would have seen this film or known of his fame in the U.S.