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Stalking the Black Rhino | Namibia

June 24th, 2009 1 comment

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The World Conservation Union (IUCN) curently lists 1665 animals as “Critically Endangered”. This classification means that each of these species’ populations has, or will decrease, by 80% in the next 3 generations. We live in a unprecedented time of environmental strife, with species extinction occurring at 100-1000 times the historical rate. This is a big deal.

Among those animals listed as critically endangered is the Black Rhinoceros. It is estimated that about 3600 of these animals remain in the world 1. Think about that – 3600 animals. By comparison this is about the size of a small village. In addition it was in 2006 that the IUCN declared that one of the four subspecies of the Black Rhino was officially extinct. Extinct for several reasons, but the primary being poaching only for access to their horns. Buyers in both China and Yemen fuel a still active black market for Rhino horns where they are used in the creation of dagger handles or for traditional medicines.

The good news is that Black Rhino populations are slightly increasing with incremental jumps in population for the last 2 years. Keep in mind this inflection point occurred after a 95% drop in population. In the period from 1970 to 1990 the population of the Black Rhino went from 65,000 to just 3,800 2. Through private and governmental action to curb poaching, there is hope that the Rhino populations will continue to increase.

We spent 2 nights at Desert Rhino Camp in the Damaraland region of Namibia. This camp specializes in the preservation and research of the Black Rhino, and operates in cooperation with the Save the Rhino Trust. This camp provides acess to the largest population of free ranging Black Rhino in all of Africa. An Italian film crew shooting a documentary for National Geographic was on site when we arrived. We were initially disheartened to learn that they had been out for the last 3 days tracking the Rhino but had been unsuccessful in locating any of the animals. They would be leaving in the morning, and without any of the footage they had hoped for. This left us skeptical that our luck would be any different.

We started early, with the trackers heading out first. As we drove along keeping careful watch for Rhino tracks and silhouettes, we admired the giraffe grazing on trees and the Mountain Zebra scurrying up the adjacent hillsides. A call on the radio informed us that the trackers had spotted 2 Rhino on the opposite side of the valley. It was quite a distance to make it to the opposite side of the valley but I took solace knowing that as the morning drifted towards mid-day, the Rhino are likely to seek shade and stay put. We crossed our fingers as we quickly made our way to the other side of the valley.

As we approached by Land Rover, we could see that 2 Rhino were situated in the shade on an opposite hill.

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Thankfully, the wind was in our faces, thereby masking our scent from the animals. Rhino have relatively poor eyesight, but very keen senses of smell and hearing. We exited the vehicle about 200 meters form the Rhino, and proceeded to approach the animals on foot. I have been a few meters from Lions and Leopards in the Okavango Delta, but always in the protective illusion of a vehicle. The prospect of sitting in the grass with a Black Rhino 3o meters from me was enough to raise my heartbeat quite a bit! As we approached, it was clear that the Rhino knew something was up… We made our way closer and closer, always under the direction of our guide as well as the Rhino specialists who were collecting information about the sighting. We finally settled in a spot that did not seem to stress the Rhino, yet provided us with a good view. We remained in this space, observing and photographing the Rhino pair for about 15 minutes before we headed out. Again, walking single file and as quietly as possible, we made our way back to the truck. This was some very challenging photography, as the light was quite harsh, and the Rhino are quite dark compared to their surroundings. Much like shooting photos at the beach or on snow, this was a situation requiring a good degree of exposure compensation to aid in the proper exposure of the Rhino themselves. Most of these shots are all over-exposed by about 1 – 1.5 stops to prevent the Rhino from becoming dark blobs in a sea of properly exposed grasses.

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Many thanks to the individuals responsible for the care of these Rhino. Each sighting is carefully documented with both photos as well as visual information. This is all stored in a database to help researchers better understand the health of the Rhino population and to better understand the overall migration patterns of these animals. Notice that ear markings are a unique way to identify different individuals..

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Raven and Rich with the Save the Rhino crew

This area was not all about Rhino, so I thought that I would include a few shots of some of the other wildlife from this region.

Gemsbok a.k.a. Oryx:

Gemsbok or Oryx

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Mountain Zebra:

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Spotted Hyena:

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Behind the scenes..

Behind the scenes..

Footnotes:

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More Himba | Village 2

June 21st, 2009 1 comment

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These are some additional Himba pictures from the furthest village from the camp. We left early in the morning to arrive at the village shortly after sunrise. The goal was to witness the villagers going about their daily chores – milking the cattle, herding the goats, and warming their bodies from the cold night. We would see first hand how these people conduct their morning routines. A routine that was likely very much the same as it has been for hundreds of years.

As we arrived, the kids in the group were cooking Maize meal for breakfast.

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And Moms were waking up with their babies and making crafts.

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Then the process began of herding the goats out of the village, and separating the calves from the mothers so that they could be milked.

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Notice how the back legs are tied to prevent the cattle from moving away during the milking process.

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This woman actually had blue eyes, and as a result seemed very sensitive to the sun.

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Below is my favorite shot of the day..

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Categories: African Travels Tags: ,

Crazy Dead Trees | Dead Vlei Namibia

June 19th, 2009 2 comments

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If Salavador Dali had stumbled upon this place, he might have found fodder for another interpretation of his masterpiece “The Persistence of Memory”. Dead Vlei is a flat clay pan embraced on all sides by large red sand dunes. It is one of the landmark features of the Sossusvlei in the Namib-Naukluft park of southern Namibia. Many centuries ago, the Tsauchab river flooded this area, pushing deep into the dunes during a heavy rain year. The remaining water collected in the pan, and provided nourishment for numerous Camel Thorn trees. As the climate changed, and drought fell upon the area, the dunes moved in and isolated the pan from the river. The trees eventually died, and as a result of the extremely arid climate, have not yet fully decomposed. Instead they have assumed a rich, dark, and almost black patina resulting from the intense heat of the sun. The estimated age of these trees is almost 1000 years old.

A few remaining plants are able to eek out a living in this harsh climate. Small bushes grow on the surrounding dunes, creating a unique backdrop for this setting and challenging the mind to comprehend the juxtaposition of colors, textures and shapes. I could spend a week photographing all the nuances of this single place. It is truly one of the most unusual places I have ever visited.

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As this pan is completely surrounded by dunes, the early morning light takes a bit of time to reach the floor of the pan. All of the above shots were taken mid morning, after the sun had risen high in the sky. The perspective is what really makes this place unique, and although some of the trees are very small, others are quite big.

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Small tree or giant guy?

Often the only way to get a good composition is to lay down flat on the pan. Thankfully the pan is quite firm, and the dirt closely matched the color of my pants!

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The following morning, we got out early to visit Dead Vlei one more time to reach the pan before the sun had completely illuminated the trees.

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The folowing day, we boarded a small Cessna 210 for the 4 hour flight to the north. As we flew up the valley, we flew directly over the Dead Vlei. When viewed from the air, the scale of this place can be truly appreciated. Note the arrow which points to the end of the pan where all of these shots were taken.

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Dead Vlei from the air


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Humbled by the Himba

June 17th, 2009 3 comments

I often consider what life would be like if things were more simple. So much of our everyday life seems consumed by effort that yields little in the way of personal or social benefit. Our modern culture creates a unique framework for the allocation of our energy and time. One that is arguably inefficient and flawed in providing a sustainable lifestyle that nourishes our collective and individual needs.

For this reason, I was enthusiastically looking forward to visiting one of the few remaining nomadic and pastoral cultures in the world – The Himba of Northern Namibia. The Himba of Kaokoland in the extreme northwestern part of Namibia are closely related to the Herero tribe who in the 17th and 18th century migrated from the East to what is now known as Namibia. They are a Nomadic people who breed cattle and goats, and use these livestock as a metric for assessment of their relative wealth. Each village/family will share in the benefit of these animals, using their milk and their meat as nutrition for the entire village. The Himba are monotheistic, worshiping the god Mukuru. Each village will maintain an ancestral fire which serves as a place of worship and prayer. This fire is visited every 7-8 days by the village fire-keeper who will pray on behalf of the village to both the god Mukuru as well as ancestors of the family. Located close to the cattle pen, this is a very sacred space for the Himba. During our visit to the village, we were asked to please not tread in this area.

Three Himba villages were near our camp. Two were very close, only involving a 20-30 minute drive to reach. The other was a bit further, being about a two to three hour drive. We arrived at the first and closest village at sunset. As we arrived, the children were walking back to the village, their silhouettes casting long shadows across the golden grasses. It is common in African culture to hold hands as a sign of deep friendship, and many of these children were holding hands as they approached the village.

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The women of the camp were all sitting in the shade to escape the heat of the sun. The Himba women create a paste of ochre and milkfat with which they cover their skin to create a natural sunscreen. They also use this mixture to braid their hair in very ornamental braids, the style of which will communicate the maturity and marital status of the individual. This group of women seemed to be put off a bit by our presence, so I respectfully let my camera rest over my shoulder, and asked our guide (who is also Himba) about this observation. He assured us that we should not take this personally. The Himba are a very private people and not necessarily gregarious in their interactions with Westerners. I asked him how to greet the Himba in their local tongue. As we did our best to replicate this phrase as accurately as possible, we observed smiles and eye contact that validated what the guide had told us. I asked by pointing at my camera if it would be okay to take some pictures, to which I received a smile and a nod. I had been chomping at the bit to photograph this amazingly exotic scene in front of me, and felt a sigh of relief in knowing that I was being respectful in my intrusion into their world. I started capturing images…

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We learned that in the few days prior to our arrival that many of the boys in the village had been circumcised. Noting that this did not seem like the most sanitary of conditions, I asked how they managed the obvious risk of infection. I was shown a Tamarisk tree, and Steve, our guide, pulled some of the green needles from the tree, crushing them in his hand. “We crush these needles into a fine powder, combining it with the milkfat to create an antibiotic ointment” Steve said. I’m always intrigued by these natural remedies, as I sometimes think that we put too much faith in chemical-based medicines so common in our Western culture. The Himba have learned over the course of many generations to find local remedies to common human ailments. With no medical facilities within several hundred miles, it is imperative to be able to live locally and off the fruits of their surroundings.

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The Himba people of this village are accustomed to trading jewelery and crafts with the visiting guests. At our request, they all brought out there various goods so that we could shop. Spreading out decorative blankets onto the Kalahari sand, the landscape of the village quickly changed from a place of rest and reprieve form the sun to a scene more like a bustling local market. Beads, baskets, and copper bracelets were all laid out for our inspection. The craftsmanship and authenticity of these items was obvious, and unlike may other trading markets I had visited in Africa, this one was without pressure or influence. We drifted from blanket to blanket admiring the work of these women. Raven selected a nicely woven basket, and after inquiring about the price, found herself a nice reminder of this amazing place. With a burst of enthusiasm and excitement, the women all cheered at the purchase. This response took me by surprise as it was so different from tone of the village upon our arrival. Perhaps the people of the village were warming to our presence, or were they simply excited about the purchases that we had made? I’d like to think the former, but it was likely the later…

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We departed this village to visit another that was located only a few hundred meters from the first. As we approached, I could see that a man was present in this village – something that was missing from the last village. We learned that many of the men were off with the herds of goats and cattle, leading them to fertile grass and water, both of which were visibly absent from the region immediately surrounding the villages. As we arrived, the man was sitting in a chair, and the woman was outside the hut smoking a pipe of tobacco. The light was fading quickly, so I knew that I did not have much time to shoot…

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Steve showed us what was for dinner. I claimed to be a vegetarian…

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As we departed the village to make our way back to camp, we offered our best effort at a Himba goodbye, and headed off. As the light was fading, we could see the children of the first camp playing on the sand dunes near the village. As they giggled and laughed, pulling each other down the dunes, I thought about the essence of a good life and the origins of daily happiness. By our Western standards, we might be inclined to feel pity for these people – to see only what was lacking by comparison. To assume this hypothesis, I determined, would be to miss the true essence of what was happening. The giggles and laughs coming from those dunes were sincere and heartfelt. More than that, they communicated a true happiness. A happiness that is often lacking in even the most wealthy and fortunate of those in the Western world…

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Tomorrow – More Himba from the village furthest from the camp.

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Categories: African Travels Tags: , ,