Monday, July 14, 2008

Lion attack

I need to tell this story. I don't really want to, I need to. I have four main reasons not to want to tell it:

The first reason I don't want to is because I am a safari guide, who hopes that one day someone who reads this blog may be interested in visiting Africa because of what I have written. This post probably goes against all that.

I also don't want to, because I don't want to give lions a bad name. I don't want to make people scared of lions.

I also don't want to tell it because the story's details are now distorted by many years. But I do believe that I still have the gist of the story correct, after all, we have been telling it over and over for more than twenty years now.

Lastly, I don't want to get into a discussion over lion behavior or why lions do what they do. I am not an expert in lions. I know a bit, and I have learned things from experience, but I am not an expert.

Why do I have to tell the story...every time I sit and think what will be my next story for this blog, this one comes up into my head. So it's a kind of cleaning, get it out of the way.

It's a bit gory. Sorry about that.

1982 I was a little kid having fun as a 'home schooled' child. It was wild times. My mom, who was our teacher, was still learning how to live in an environment where there were people at the door all the time. Thousands of people came to our house some days...the result - we didn't do much schooling. As soon as she would get caught up, we would escape. We were wild kids and life was great!

But northern Kenya was a harsh place. There were bandits, there were famines (as we would go through in 1984,) and there were lions. There were what they would call 'man eating lions.' During those time my parents dealt with lion attacks several time. Not on us, no, on the people living in the community.

There was an incident were a little boy was carried off by a lion, and dropped deeper in the bush, and survived, there were some people who got killed, and there were some that were attacked and lived to tell the tale...and who had to be rushed to hospital first, before they could do much story telling...and one of these incidence one stands out in my mind. We'll get to that.

Now, I am not an expert on this, but I want to offer my thoughts on why these things were taking place there. Lions are very instinct driven. Lions don't recognize humans as food right away. If you encounter lions in the bush, most of the time they simply run away. They don't just run up to cars or houses and eat people. It is said that dogs kill the most people of any animal each year. Lions are right down the list. I think even in Africa, where the statistics should be viewed with caution (where there are statistics,) lions still aren't killing that many people.

The area where we lived was the Kaisut desert. It's like a bowl of desert in the middle of an area of mountains on most sides. These higher areas have some lion prides, as do the dry river courses that come out of these mountains into the desert. But the good habitat is limited. Once a male gets to old for maintaining it's territory, it gets pushed out... and in areas like the Kaisut, they are forced into the less productive areas - the desert.

Here there aren't that many animals to kill, and in general the condition of these lions starts to deteriorate fast once they come into the desert. So these aging lions turn to what's easy.

...In the middle of the night we woke up to a strange noise. Very loud too. At first we though it was gunfire. The house we lived in was build from corrugated iron, fashioned into a two story, A frame building, designed to let the head rise through outside walls. The noise, in the middle of the night was from a Rendille warrior running his staff along the length of the house.

After flying out of bed from the noise my mom and dad went down to see what was going on. There was just one young guy there, completely covered in blood. This guy was sweating profusely and in an almost trance like state.

He was to zonked out to talk. My mom got out here first aid things, heated up some water, started to clean the blood off. He still couldn't talk. My mom carried on cleaning him up, looking for his wounds. There were none. This guy was completely covered in someone, or something, else's blood. And he was in such a state he couldn't tell my parents where his injuries came from.

They sat him down, gave him some tea (to Rendille super sweat tea is very good stuff.)

He started to calm down and told us the story:

There was with another guy in the grazing area (about 10 kilometers form the town where we were.) The animal enclosures were made from small Acacia bushes, cut and put into a circle with the top, the thorny bit, facing outwards. Inside this circle went all the animals, mainly sheep, goats and camels.

Two warriors were alone at this site. The so called 'warriors' were often no more than kids who had been circumscribed. They would be warriors for just over a decade before marrying. These two guys were still young, the younger must have been in his early teens, the older one, who came to our house that night, not much older.

The older guy had gone out to the toilet when the lion came in. From my recollection of the account, the lion had broken into the first enclosure, and, unable to even catch sheep, it broke through to the people part and when for this young guy.

He held up his spear, but the lion had a good swipe at him. It really did a lot of damage. It took off most of the skin from his face, damaged his eyes, and cut deeply into his chest.

The older of the two boys had no real trouble chasing the lion off back into the night...probably to die.

Now there was a problem...hyenas. If the older guy left his friend to go for help, the hyenas would surely get him. He was a big guy, and decided to pick up his friend. He ran/walked with him to a water pump. Here he could lock the injured boy into a small pump building where hyenas couldn't get at him. He had already done some distance with his bleeding friend slung over his back, and now he ran to town. When he reached our house he was severely dehydrated and in shock.

When we got the full story out of him, we (me and my brother and sister,) were garbed, jumped into my dad's GMC Jimmy, and raced off to go and pick up this guy. Everyone already feared for the worst. There was hardly any reason to even think he could make it. He had to be dead...

We got to the bore-hole pump station. He was alive, but only just. My mom didn't do much in the way of first aid...we had to get him to hospital fast, and hospital was more than 70 kilometers on bush tracks. My dad drove that Jimmy really fast through the bush. My mom did what she could. For us kids, I can clearly remember that I only looked at him once properly. It was really shocking.

He was covered in blood, completely. His face didn't look like a human at all. Big sections of skin hung down from him.

When we got to Marsabet my mom went in the hospital with him. The staff didn't want to look after him. The desert nomads were very looked down on (and still are today.) And everyone thought he was dead. He looked dead at that point. Even my parents thought that he would be dead any minute. So my mom took over...she's the forceful personality in our family, just get's on and does what needs to be done, and doesn't usually stop to consider who is telling her that she can't or shouldn't.

My father, the more quiet, methodical one, went off to find out if we could fly the boy out to a better hospital. We were in luck, a flying doctor service was just on it's way. It's not geared up to be a medivac aircraft, it's mainly a flying clinic. But they didn't hesitate to fly the boy out.

His recovery was slow. First they though that he would loose both eyes, but gradually managed to save them. Lots of skin grafts and a lot of time in hospital. It was also depressing and scary. This young boy had hardly seen any sort of town, and here he was in the busiest hospital probably in East Africa. He was terrified. Couldn't understand what people said. But, with visits from my parents he pulled through. Till today he still knows my parents and his family are still grateful to have him after that incident.

That's my story about lions attacking people.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Desert Nomads to Frantic Naturalist

My childhood started in South Africa, but I moved to Kenya at the mature age of 8. The location, Korr. Where is Korr - in the middle of the Kaisut desert in Kenya.

It was here, growing up among the Rendile people that I grew my deep love for the bush, for wildlife, for deserts and for Africa as a whole.

The Rendile are a people group who live in the desert area between the bottom of Lake Turkana up to Mount Marsabit.

Rendile people are nomadic pastoralists that keep sheep, some cattle, and camels. There whole way of life revolves around the camels. Since they are nomadic in a dry area, the Kaisut Desert area where I grew up was wild. There was a lot of wildlife around, and no fences, restrictions, just open space.

I learned to speak some Rendile as a child, and spent a lot of time out walking, climbing mountains, tracking wildlife in river gullies and learning about the bush/desert from the people.

To this day, I believe strongly that those experiences have given me a perspective that can't be taught. It was a very special way to grow up.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Birding Pel's Fishing Owl

My memories of finding the 'tough bird'

In birding circles in southern
Africa, there is one bird that has remained a bird of mystery and intrigue in the guiding community...The Pel's Fishing Owl.

Many stories have been written about twitching this bird. Peter Borchert keeps telling his readers (Africa Birds & Birding editorials) that he hasn't seen the bird yet despite several tries.

So it has it's mystery
. And it has it's place as well. The hot-spot for us on the Namibian side is the top of the Okavango Delta - the so called Pan Handle area, where the Okavango river first splits into channels as it becomes the famous Okavango Delta. The Delta itself is a good place to go and search for this bird.

Despite the legend, the bird is very big, but they sit still in the high in the think trees, where the bright light shining through the tree tops makes it hard to see them.

As a new guide I was all keen to see this bird. In those early years I was a bit bedazzled by birding. I suddenly had ample opportunity to see birds that I couldn't have gotten to before as a student.

I had done a lot of my birding by cycling out from where I studied in Saasveld in George. It was a little crazy. It's rainy there, and I had to do big distances. Sometimes I took my projects with me to bird hides. So I would cycle, unpack my study work, and sit there, work and occasionally look up to see if anything had flown in. Magical times, but birding was hard work.

Suddenly in Namibia I was paid to take people to see amazing places, and these places held birds I wanted to see. I needed to see. And it was infinitely cheaper and easier than before! Nowhere was the intensity felt more than in shooting range of the legendary Owl. If you were a non-birding guest of mine in those years, well I am sorry. I have learned a lot about guests since then. I was all passion.

I tried in Chobe, all along the big trees lining the river. I tried in Lianshulu in the Caprivi strip. To no avail. They would often 'have had a sighting' the day before I arrived. Then it was Mahangu. This is an amazing small little park on the border between Namibia and Botswana, right were the first splitting of the river happens. It's only a little over 10km but the river enters a river and exits the Okavango Delta. Here I found feathers. You couldnt' walk to much - the lions/elephants/crocs/buffs problem.

Then I got to go down through Shakawi and round the Delta itself. Finally on a tour with a new guide we were in the Delta itself. I had been birding with him on the island we were camping on (had an encounter with a black Mamba on the walk - without insident

Then he carried on looking around by himself while I went to go help prep for the returning guests - who had been out with the Botswana guide. When our new guide came back he had a guessed it, Pel's fishing owl.

So, after giving the guests brunch we went out to try. After some time of pearing into the top of the tree tops it happened - we cought sight of this beautiful owl.

I found an image searching Google of the Pel's Fishing Owl in a tree, so that you can get an idea of what it is like to see it

It really looks a bit like a child's over sized Teddy Bear, stuck high up in a big, dark tree. Strange and amazing to see for the first time.

Later that year I also managed ot see Pel's fishing Owl's hunting on the open water in a lodge in the Pan Handle of the Delta. But till today, those early sights remain a wonderful memory to me.