Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 - from a personal perspective

After just having posted probably one of the most somber postings on my blog, I thought it would be appropriate to do a more personal review of the year that was 2009.

There is no doubt that the year has been a tough one, but it was also very rewarding in many ways and I have been able to realize and reach a couple of goals over the last 12 months. The year also produced a number of unforgettable memories, mostly associated with my work and travels within southern Africa and further a-field. Oh yes, in the process there were also many new friends made, some regained and, sadly, also a few lost.

Thea continues to be an inspiration and incredible support to me. How she manages to put up with all my nonsense, weird hours and obsessions is beyond me. Perhaps my frequent absences help to make them easier to digest and cope with! After more than 16 years together, we seem to have reached a solution which works for both of us, especially as far as finding fulfillment in our very divergent professional lives are concerned. This year, her dedication, perseverance and hard work in the tough corporate environment has continued to be an inspiration to me and other members of her family. It is great to see the satisfaction that she receives from supporting many members of her family in so many ways, both on an emotional and material level. That includes me, of course!

Although I was planning to travel a lot less in 2009, it turned out to be one of those years where I again spent more time on the road, and sometimes in the air, than previous years with more than 65000km traveled on southern African roads and including trips to East Africa, Botswana, Namibia and South America, some experiences which have been reported on in earlier blogs.

In fact, the year started off in the Northern Cape with a 10-day trip to the Kgalagadi Trans-frontier Conservation Area which was part of our annual leave and saw Thea visiting the Kalahari for the first time. Although it was extremely hot on most days, we were rewarded by great sightings of most of the large game and great birds during our visit to the area. Two images from that trip will however stay with me for a long time, namely that of a magnificent male lion that we encountered just outside Nossob rest-camp in the late afternoon sun. It posed just perfectly for photographs and looked the way that most people expect lions to look like, in regal command of its entire territory. Quite something coming from someone that doesn’t really have a great affinity for these cats!

The beautiful male at Nossob Camp, January 2009

The second memory is of the 4 San-children that we encountered on the way to the Kgalagadi TFCA near Ashkam. They were quite used to tourists stopping to purchase trinkets, etc from the stall run by their mother and willingly posed for some images, at a price of course! We were quite surprised by all of them getting rid of most of their clothes to pose for the pictures though! However, their joy of life and excitement about the area they live in was quite contagious and I hope that they will not become too affected by the impacts of tourism in the longer term.

Khomani-San children, Askham, Kalahari - 1 January 2009

Next was a week-long trip to Kenya in the company of my colleague, Jon Smallie. The aim of the trip was to look at vulture and other raptor conservation and research work being conducted in that country and I’m very happy to report that we were able to get to visit some very special areas, including a Rüppell’s Vulture colony at Kwenia and the Lake Naivasha-area with our good friend, Dr. Munir Virani     who hosted us for the entire week. Munir and his family went out of their way to make the trip an interesting and productive one. There were a number of promising initiatives that emenated from this visit and it was also great to meet with and learn from other bird conservationists from that country, especially with Dr. Muchane Muchai, the Head of the National Museums of Kenya who I have worked with before when he did his PhD-study at Wakkerstroom in Mpumalanga in 1999-2000.

Counting Ruppell's Vultures at Kwenia with Muni Virani and Jon Smallie, January 2009

In late February, I headed north by road via the Trans-Kalahari Highway and Ghanzi in Botswana to attend and chair the AGM of the Game Rangers Association of Africa at Shamvuri in the Caprivi-region of northern Namibia. Good rains had fallen throughout most of southern Africa and it was great to see the veld in such good condition. Of course, the AGM was good fun and it was good to meet with folks from further north. A surprising number of rangers from South Africa also made the pilgrimage up there and more than 80 people eventually attended. The event also included the wedding of ranger Jos Josling, but resulted in me having to miss that of my good friend André Agenbag and his good lady Angela. It was also the first time that the Africa Committee of the GRAA held a mobile meeting. We discussed GRAA matters floating on a large boat on the beautiful Kavango River one afternoon, certainly a first for the normally very terrestrial rangers that are on the Committee! This trip also produced my only southern Africa birding lifer in the form of Schalow’s Turaco which I was able to finally tick on a boat trip from Katima Mulilo with John Turner and Christine Jennings.

The mobile GRAA meeting on the Kavango River, February 2009

Another memory that will stay with me for a long time was the tree-platform on the Kwando River where I spent the Friday night after the AGM courtesy of the arrangements made by Simon Mays who works in the Caprivi National Park that this forms part of. I only pitched my mozzie-net tent and, after enjoying a basic meal of tinned rations, spent the night staring at the thousands of stars and the massive thunderstorms raging to the north over Angola and Zambia while listening to a range of owls, hippo, elephant and other creatures of the night 8m above the ground. Truly a magical experience!

The last out-of-country trip of the year was by far the most amazing experience of the year and included the fulfillment of a life-long dream to visit at least part of the Amazon in South America. If you are interested to find out more, you are welcome to read the blog titled “Birding and other Adventures on our South American Trip – October/November 2009”. This was done as part of a trip to attend the 6th World Congress of the International Rangers Federation that was held at Santa Cruz de la Sierra in Bolivia in early November. It certainly was great to meet with a large number of rangers from 47 countries to talk about the work we all are so lucky to be involved in and many a new friendship was made. As a South African, it was really great to receive great feedback on the Congress that was held here in 2000 and many people shared their memories of this experience with us.

Thea and 2 friendly local ladies, Cusco, Peru - October 2009

The field trip during the Congress was also a great experience, especially when the bus we were traveling in got stuck on one of the many log-bridges that traverses streams in this part of the tropical rainforests. Of course, this was not much of a problem and the rangers on board in no time extracted the bus and fixed the bridge before looking for a safer, alternative route to the Amboro National Park. It was here that we saw our first Toucan in the wild and also received more mosquito bites than I thought possible. Of course the itchy effect of these only became evident in the following days and these little buggers make the African version, except for the Anopheles of course, seem rather tame by comparison! The sighting of a magnificent Tarantula at Amboro also was a highlight. I was also honoured to be elected as African Representative to the International Executive of the IRF on the last day and we will be submitting a proposal to host the next Congress in East Africa in 2012/2013.

The Bus, the Bridge and resourceful Rangers on the way to Amboro National Park

Before heading back to South Africa, we also spent three days in Buenos Aires, Argentina. This is a city that I have very pleasant memories of resulting from a visit there in 2001 during a BirdLife International Building on Experience training session and it was good to share some of the sights with Thea. South America has not seen the last of us, I’m sure!

Although it was a difficult year at work due to the ever-present threat of limited financial resources and tough fundraising conditions, I am happy to say that the Birds of Prey Working Group of the Endangered Wildlife Trust has still made good progress on a number of fronts with regard to the conservation, research and monitoring of vultures, other raptors and large birds in the region. We once again hosted a successful Annual Conference at Hlalanathi in the KwaZulu-Natal Drakensberg which was attended by more than 80 people form as far a-field as the UK, Australia and East Africa.

Another highlight of the year was the successful launch of the International Vulture Awareness Day which took place on the 5th of September and involved 155 organisations from 45 countries. The response to the suggestion of such a day, which originated from the annual National Vulture Awareness Day held in South Africa since 2005 and a similar event hosted by The Hawk Conservancy Trust in the UK, we were rather overwhelmed by the global response to such a day this year and look forward to the 4th of September 2010 when the 2nd International Vulture Awareness Day will be held. More information in this regard can be found in several postings on this blog under September 2009. I was also honoured when the EWT presented me with a special award acknowledging my contribution in this regard during its Fieldworkers Week at the end of October. This event also saw the best ever attendance by EWT-BoPWG fieldworkers since its inception and it was great to have a good number of colleagues attend during a time when most of them are very busy with fieldwork.

The Lowveld/Kruger National Park Large Bird Project continues making a significant contribution to the conservation, research and monitoring of a range of species in the Kruger National Park and adjacent Lowveld-region of South Africa. This is a project that was long overdue and that has been a personal goal for many years, finally reaching fruition in late 2007 with the approval of the first of several projects by SANParks enabling us to work in this important conservation area. Scott Ronaldson runs this project for us, but I maintain a very close personal involvement in this initiative, for obvious reasons! In fact, I have been fortunate to undertake at least 16 field trips to Kruger during the last 12 months to participate and, in some cases, lead fieldwork on a number of initiatives.

As usual, the Savanna Science Network Symposium held in April was a highlight and this coincided with the county’s general elections. Scott and I did a trip to the Shimuwini-area the day before the elections to ring a very late Southern Ground Hornbill in a large Baobab and also surveyed the power-line between the Olifants-river and Satara Rest Camp on our way back to Skukuza. Our findings during this survey has led to Eskom re-assessing that network of power-lines that traverse this National Park and will hopefully lead to substantial improvements from bird mortality-perspective. We also ringed 11 other Southern Ground Hornbills earlier in the season. On one of these days we were accompanied by Section Rangers Don English and Rob Thomson covering nests along the Mbiyamiti and Mlambane rivers in the south. It was great to spend time in the field with good mates doing something that we all enjoyed at a time when the veld was looking at its best. Of course, there was plenty of banter and stories to share. I’m happy to say that both these rangers have had substantial successes in apprehending poachers in their sections over the last 5 weeks or so and it was great to share the tales of their successes during my last visit just before Christmas.

Working with Scott and Don to ring a Ground Hornbill nestling

Our annual survey of the Luvhuvhu- and Olifants rivers in Kruger also went well this year and we received great support from SANParks, Wilderness Safaris and a number of volunteers during June. The Luvhuvhu survey saw two EWT staff members, Alison Janicke and Wendy Collinson as well as Honorary Ranger and good friend Ashraf Sayed participate in the 4 days of walking the river searching for sightings and signs of Pel’s Fishing Owl and other birds that share the riverine habitat. This survey will certainly be remembered for the close shave the team on the southern bank experienced on the last morning when they walked into a less-than-amused female leopard and her cub in the process of taking down a sub-adult waterbuck ewe that they had flushed in her direction! The lightning-fast reaction of one of the Field Rangers who fired a warning shot fortunately was enough to discourage the female from any further action against the team and she dashed off into the undergrowth not to be seen again. As for the waterbuck, she eventually staggered to her feet after a while and took off after the rest of her mates, seemingly none the worst for wear!

The Luvhuvhu River survey team, June 2009

Our Olifants River survey is generally a far bigger operation with two teams each covering one half of the river in Kruger, a distance of about 92kms. I once again led the team covering the western half, stretching from a place known as Wildevyeboom to Mamba Picket on the Parks western boundary. My team was accompanied by Richard Sowry, Section Ranger of the Kingfisherspruit Section in the Park and Colin Rowles, Warden of the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve that borders onto the Park. In addition Cobus Bester and Foeta Krige, friends I have met on the Conservation Outreach and similar trips previously also came along as well as three long-standing mates from my army days, André Agenbag, Johan Nel and Ben van Zijl. We were supported by Thea and her nephew Tim Horak who ensured that our camping equipment were moved daily to new campsites while we walked the river banks on both sides looking for and counting all the fish-eating birds encountered. Apart from stumbling across several large groups of elephant and the odd hippo dozing in the undergrowth, the survey thankfully went off without incident. Even the river crossings by zodiac became rather routine once we got the knack of it.

Crossing the Olifants using a human-propelled zodiac

Another incident worth sharing, albeit at my own cost, happened on my second trip to Kruger this year to do some Ground Hornbill fieldwork. After arriving pretty late on a Monday afternoon in February, I decided to go and have a look at the flow of the Sabie and Sand Rivers outside Skukuza which were flowing quite nicely after the good rains during the previous weeks. Upon arriving at the Sand River and traversing the low-water bridge crossing it, I saw an empty 2 litre cold drink bottle floating in the water right next to some rocks adjacent to the bridge. Some unthinking individual had clearly decided to dump the bottle in the river in the hope that it would be washed downstream by the fast-flowing water. The currents however kept on washing it back toward the rocks and I decided to try an recover it from the water, very conscious of the potential risks, but motivated by the fact that it was important enough to remove this annoying object from a river where it clearly didn’t belong. Getting out of my vehicle, I climbed down onto the rocks and bent down to retrieve the bottle, only to have my feet slip out under me and ending up to my neck in the water for a fraction of a second before recovering my composure and scrambling back onto the rocks and back onto the bridge, empty bottle in hand! Standing there, dripping wet and with copious amounts of adrenalin rushing through my veins, I reflected on the stupidity of my actions! Fortunately, there were no submerged crocs waiting for food at that spot or I would have been history.
Despite incidents like this, I am constantly aware of the immense privilege and responsibility involved in working in protected areas such as Kruger and several other reserves throughout South Africa and beyond on a regular basis. Other moments during the year that also stand out is the day we spent in the hide at Giant’s Castle as part of our attempts to capture Bearded Vultures to fit them with satellite tracking technology to follow their movements. On this day, we saw no less than 11 individual Bearded Vultures, but had no luck at catching them! The team led by Sonja Krüger has however persevered and are currently following the movements of at least 6 Bearded Vultures in the Ukuhlamba-Drakensberg. It is simply an amazing experience working with species like this in some of the most scenic areas of South Africa.

Thea and I also attended the Sunset Serenade event, hosted by the Honorary Rangers, and held at Letaba in June this year. It was quite an experience to sit in the African bush at sunset and listen to beautiful classical music being performed by an ensemble of musicians while looking at wildlife coming to drink in the river close to us. It is certainly an amazing event that also contributes to the good work done by rangers in the Kruger and other National Parks. Thanks again to John Turner for inviting us!

Sunset Serenade near Letaba, June 2009

Experiences such as these certainly make up for any lack of monetary compensation and have contributed to making the past year another memorable and enjoyable one. As my good friend Johann Oelofse always says, we get paid in sunrises and sunsets, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. There certainly also isn’t any harm in having fun while you’re earning a living and loving what you are doing at the same time! From a birding perspective, I was once again happy to reach the 600 species-mark for southern Africa this year with a total of 641 species during the last 12 months, the third highest total for the region since I started keeping an annual tally. Globally, I managed to reach 997 species thanks to the East African and South American trips, something that I am very chuffed about. Just a pity that it falls short of the 1000-mark! Another milestone reached over the year was achieving more than 60 000 Cybertracker datapoints of birds recorded by reaching a total of 62361 points, something I didn’t quite believe possible when entering the first record on the morning of January 1st.
On a sadder note, I would also like to remember two colleagues and friends that passed away during the last year. The first of these is Prof. Steven Piper who has been a friend, mentor and colleague for more than 10 years and who passed away after a short illness in March. Steven’s guidance and support in the initial stages of the establishment of the EWT-BoPWG has been invaluable and I will certainly miss his eloquence, wit and love for the vultures he cared for so much. The other friend to have passed away this year is Ben de Boer who owned the Kurisa Moya Nature Lodge near Magoebaskloof and who was making a huge contribution to the development of avitourism and site-based bird guides in Limpopo until his death on the 1st of August. We miss you Ben.

All things considered, it has been a busy and tough year. However, it has also been rewarding in many ways and generally a lot of fun! If 2010 contains even half the experiences of 2009, it will be worthwhile.


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