Look. There’s a Bengal Tiger in My Cappuccino.

P1060058We are staying in Nagarhole National Park part of the vast Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve that covers 5000 square miles across the states of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in southwest India. To me it is wonder of human achievement that this park exists in the second most populous country on earth. It is habitat for over 100 different mammals including the majestic Bengal Tiger, Asiatic Elephant and Leopard.   It is late in the afternoon and we’re taking a water safari on Kabini Lake. It is calm, quiet and beautiful; the boatman cuts the motor often to stop and listen to the forest. Our guide, a certified parks naturalist, assures us that the animals go into the forest during the hot daytime hours but now that it’s cooler we have a chance to see some when they it come out to the lake to drink. We see hundreds of gentle, sweet-looking spotted deer, several huge gaur, wild pigs, lots of langurs (a large Old World Monkey with a very long tail) capering in the bamboo, a few elephants and a crocodile basking in the late afternoon sun.P1050950 P1050998               But wait a minute. Do you hear that? That is an alarm call. The monkeys are warning that danger is near. Now the forest is silent. A tiger peeks out of the bamboo, takes a few steps into the river to drink. P1050991 - Version 2Then her eyes meet ours.P1050989 - Version 3 And she slinks back into the forest. It’s thrilling for me to see a tiger in her natural setting but it is even more exciting to know and understand the natural environment she thrives in so that we can work toward preserving her natural space.   We return to our lodge full of awe. The sun is setting. P1060060The barista in the reading room overlooking the lake is very happy that we have been able to see a tiger. He shares his enthusiasm for conservation in Nagarhole National Park and makes us an unforgettable cappuccino to celebrate an unforgettable day.

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The Dance of the Red Necked Ostriches

P1040520 The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy is full of wonder, especially at Christmas time. But some say the dance of the ostrich is the most beautiful dance of all in the animal kingdom.

We are in Kidepo National Park, Uganda,  a small area bordering South Sudan and Kenya. P1040509It is early morning and we have driven a long gravel road around zebras, a few elephants and through grim tsetse-fly-infested country to find the red-necked ostriches.  P1040548

Look. Finally. There they are.P1040520

Sixteen ostriches are behaving as though as though they are sugar plum fairies. Small heads and graceful long necks turn as they sense the danger we bring simply by being here. Soft, generously plumed bodies flutter and whirl. A few ballerina-like pointe steps are taken before their strong two-toed feet propel them into ten-foot strides.

And then they run. P1040514Who knows where we will find them next?

They live in nomadic groups in the Sahel, the area between the desert in northern Africa and the grassland in the south. They are the fastest birds on earth and they do not (as some popular stories suggest) stand and bury their heads in the sand when they are afraid. They run when they are in danger. Because the population of ostriches has been decreasing dramatically for the past two hundred years, we need to be concerned about them and work to protect existing populations.

I’ll think about the beautiful word we live in and the dance of the wild ostrich when we watch the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy this Christmas.

Best wishes to all for a happy holiday season.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The Giraffes Are Here. Kidepo Valley National Park. Uganda

Bumping and sloshing over a muddy track, our open-air jeep creeps slowly over the savannah. With the look of a worried parent on his face Patrick says, “Last night there was a fight between three males. Two younger ones and the old leader were battling for power, control of the pride. One lion was badly injured and ran off. We don’t know where he is. We need to find him, make sure he’s okay.”

Snuggled in between South Sudan and Kenya in the far northwestern reaches of Uganda, Kidepo Valley National Park is one of Africa’s last great wilderness areas. After a torrential downpour an hour ago, the air is cooler and there is an eerie stillness. Smells of damp earth, elephant dung and wet grass fill the air. A big orange sun is sinking into the horizon behind rugged volcanic mountain peaks, and our excitement grows knowing that surprises lurk in the grasses and the fast approaching night.

“What are those curious buildings in the distance?” Ross asks, pointing to big dark forms in the distance that are beginning to come into focus. “It looks like a village.”

“It’s not a village. They are the elephants,” Patrick, who is an expert wildlife guide, born in the area, replies in a proud voice.

We keep our distance, but the matriarchal herd of forty-two huge elephants is unperturbed as they approach us. They’re feeding on the lush wet grass, stretching their trunks up once in a while to taste the delicious leaves of African Acacia trees that rise majestically out of the savannah. Baby elephants frolic about under the protective eye of their mothers, then bound back to them for vigorous quick feeds. A handful of bull elephants watch on the perimeter of the herd.

I’m mesmerized by the grace and family cohesiveness of the elephants but, although I could watch them forever, we need to move on. We still need to see if we can find out what happened to the lions.

Our guides scan the high rocky outcrops. “Wondering Where the Lions Are,” Bruce Cockburn’s song, rings through my head.

“The lions have moved on.” Patrick says with certainty. “Look. The giraffes are here.”

I strain my eyes, blinded by the low sun, and pick out a strange group of five or six cream and rosy brown, spotted towers in the grass It is a nursery group of fourteen Rothschild giraffes, with mothers suckling their babies and grazing on the leaves and bark of tall trees. Two huge male giraffes are on the side-lines. For now, the giraffes are safe. Their predators, the lions, are nowhere in sight. 

The number of Rothschild giraffes in Kidepo was a sustainable population of 400 in the 1960’s until poaching, hunting, Idi Amin’s reign of terror, and civil war in the 1970’s and 1980’s, disastrously reduced the population to a single female and two males by 1992. In an urgent effort to save them, three females and one male Rothschild giraffes were flown into Kidepo from Kenya, under the stewardship of the Uganda Wildlife Authority and the Kenyan Wildlife Authority. Some reports estimate that there are now 280 in Uganda but they still remain on the endangered species list.

It’s an awesome sight to see fourteen of these beautiful animals together. The Rothschilds are the tallest giraffes on earth. Their babies are six feet tall at birth and adults weigh up to 2800 pounds. We speak in hushed whispers, careful not to disturb them. They are serene and gangly, but if we disturb them this evening they will run – at 56 kilometres an hour.

Later we learn that “Tim,” Kidepo’s senior lion, survived his fight. It wasn’t his first. We find him the next day majestically perched on a rock outcrop above the savannah. There are no giraffes or elephants nearby but hundreds of kob and buffalo are grazing. I suppose Tim is planning the next dinner for his pride. 

For now, all’s well in the Kidepo Valley.