This blue marble

– and yet it spins


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Rhinos! (and two very bad photos)

rhinos-1One word: rhinos. No need to justify the crappy quality of these photos. Because when rhinos are around, you take pictures with whatever equipment you have, in whatever lighting conditions.

We who stayed at Halali Camp were fortunate to see the black rhinos every night at the floodlit waterhole. As the sun set, people gathered at the viewing platform of stone seats scattered here and there in an amphitheater fashion above the waterhole. It was like watching a living movie: people enjoyed drinks as the sun went down, the birds quieted, and the animals came out to drink.

The rhinos took their time each night hanging around the waterhole, gazing at each other, drinking, ambling, and drinking some more. The strange, slow, prehistoric animals have feet like the elephant, although they are clearly not related. From time to time the male rhino would turn his lips inside out and grin like a crazy horse. He was using his pheromone-sensing organ in his gums to smell the whereabouts of the female rhino across the waterhole – because he, like all rhinos, had very bad eyesight. To top off the show he would pee by squirting a spray backwards out from between his hind legs.

Apparently black rhinos are moody. I can confirm this. And these two hated the pride of five lionesses that shared the waterhole. The poor big cats attempted at sneaking up to drink when the rhino was still chilling around, but no such luck. Of course. They were ultimately chased around the bush by one very irritated rhino.

Namibia is one of the few countries where both black and white rhinos are conserved in their original, natural habitat. There are a little over 5,000 endangered black rhinos left in the world. That is many, compared to the 50 living individuals of white rhino in the 1990s. Today there are over 20,000 white rhinos living in Sub-Saharan Africa. And so it felt like witnessing a living wonder to observe the Southern white rhino by a waterhole during our night game drive. Hence the second crappy photo below.

The hyenas accompanying the rhino dashed over and began pestering it, just for fun. They danced around, trying to nip the rhino, expertly dodging its huge horn (apparently white rhinos are easily irritated, too). The rhino can gore a lion with its horn so a hyena or two is child’s play. Because the horns are more valuable than gold on the Asian market, Namibia has begun to remove the horns of the rhinos by sawing them off. The local authorities deem their chance of survival better that way, even if dehorned rhinos are at worse odds against the lions. The chance that a lion will attack a rhino is much smaller than the chance that a poacher will shoot it for its horns. And apparently a rhino will slowly grow his or her horn back. Such dire measures are taken even in Namibia to save the rhino, a creature from another age of our planet’s history.

The Southern white rhino has been saved from the brink of extinction by being introduced further up north to Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, and other countries. Some, like Uganda and Sudan, used to host the Northern white rhino until it was hunted down to 3 captive animals in Sudan, constantly protected by armed guards. Even this may not save the Northern white rhino, as the three individuals seem to lack the hots for each other and refuse to breed. Once the old male dies that will be it. Unless in vitro fertilization or genetic engineering can save the species. Thank goodness for biotechnology, in advance.rhinos-2(Etosha National Park, Namibia; July 2017)


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In Etosha

etosha-4 Zebras, giraffes, kudu, oryx, antelopes, elephants, lions, marabou, secretary birds, rhinos, and a 2,000 square km salt pan visible from space. Etosha National Park is more than 200 km in width and we quickly realized we must properly plan our outings so as to not be stuck outside of the campsite gate after sunset. Driving at a speed limit of 60 km/hour means the return journey can be hours, depending on how far one has ventured. etosha-3Etosha is mind-boggling in size, and yet small compared to its initial size of 100,000 square km. Today, only one-fifth remains, and at 20,000 square km it is larger than Kruger in South Africa (for comparison, the famous Masai Mara in Kenya is only 1,600 square km). It was created in 1904 by the Germans to put an end to hunting and poaching. Back then it stretched into Kaokoveld, across to Skeleton Coast and the Atlantic, and into Damaraland. Later it got reduced in size when native Namibian tribes were given land back, and everybody was given the opportunity to build a farm.etosha-5Today the roads are all paved and one can drive around like on a Sunday outing, which is a very strange experience for the experienced safari goer. Only the area just south of the salt pan is accessible, and huge areas of land above and below are completely shut off from tourism. The animals are mostly a little way away from the road and compared to Kenya it is not possible to veer off on a dirt track to get closer. The distance also means binoculars are imperative.

Etosha means “Great White Place” in some local language, referring to the endless salt pan that sometime was a lake. Now it floods only for a few days, when the rains come. Otherwise Ethosha is a dry landscape, with bus and low forest and great grassy plains. There are a number of waterholes, and several are man-made, to draw crowds of wildlife watchers.etosha-6South Africa’s and Namibia’s national animals, the springbok and the oryx, are everywhere. The oryx looks like a graphic designer took a brushful of black paint and drew some defining lines on a goat-like large animal. Impala, kudu, steenbok, hartebeest, wildebeest, giraffe, elephant, and zebra – all the usual suspects are here, although they look a little different from the ones I’ve seen in Kenya. The zebra has more pronounced shadow stripes, and the hartebeest is more brown than ruddy. We also spent time admiring swanky secretary birds, prehistoric-looking kori bustard birds, jackals, and klipspringers. No baboons, but they were all over the campsite at night, heard going through the trash cans in search for leftovers.

Etosha is so large one can easily spend three entire days driving around. And because there are pools and restaurants at the camps, as well as airplane rides and guided morning and night drives, it is easy to max out and stay 3-4 nights. That, too, is the time required to ensure one sees a leopard or a cheetah. And yes, I did say “pools” and “airplane rides”. Etosha is like a well-planned theme park for kids as well as adults. I am not sure whether I should admire it, be sad, or laugh. Perhaps, whatever it takes to introduce new generations to wildlife is a win for this planet.etosha-2(Etosha National Park, Namibia; July 2017)


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At Pelican Point

pelicanpoint-3For a month we’ve been cruising around and past Pelican Point, viewing the desolate, 10 km long sand bank with its millions of noisy seals from the sea. Today we off-roaded through it, all the way to the seals at the northernmost tip. 2 cars, 12 people, 1 kayak, and lots of food for a beach barbecue. pelicanpoint-5We could naturally not do a beach outing without gathering some data, too. The kayak was brought along not just for fun, but also to record Cape fur seal sounds. The seals often move with the dolphins when feeding, and so it is good to understand the noises they make. Two from our team also snuck up on the seal mothers and their pups in the nursery on land, crawling as close as they possibly could, and leaving a SoundTrap behind.pelicanpoint-4I crawled close to the seals, too, just to watch. On all fours, we three people ultimately got about 10 meters from the “gentlemen’s club” of male seals, lying away from the big group of mothers and pups. The furry, almost shaggy large males sat proudly with their noses in the air, as if they owned the world. And from their point of view, they probably did.

From time to time, the fat old bosses would scoff at the younger or weaker one, yelling, jaws open, straight into their faces. For no apparent reason than to just vent their egos.
pelicanpoint-2The seals and the jackals inhabit a long, lonely stretch of the world. If the wind picks up, there is no way for the jackals to go except for to trot ten kilometers back towards mainland. Or to burrow themselves down into the 4WD tracks. Because this is Namibia and it is full of desolate places.
pelicanpoint-1(Pelican Point, Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)


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The hidden (less intelligent) lives of crayfish

aquariumDinner time, both for us and for the fish. The lucky wish were hand-fed squid fillets, by scuba divers. Except for the one scuba diver who was mainly filming with his GoPro, never-minding the poor starving fish.

The little krill-like crayfish were fed, too. After some observation, I am now convinced that crayfish have a social life we know nothing of. And some of the crayfish are socially awkward, just like us humans.

In particular, one little, young, crayfish just did not know how to exist among the others. It was trampled on by all the other crayfish passing by. Then it wanted to somehow crawl straight through another individual, not realizing that quantum mechanics was not going to favor its attempt at walking through another living being today. Their feet got all entangled and it seemed to want to push itself through its mate. No wonder the poor socially awkward crayfish had already lost a leg at a tender age.

Perhaps its recent shell-shedding had something to do with its apparent mental instability: it was all white and soft still. It takes time for crayfish shell to harden. Perhaps its brain had shedded a layer, too.

Thankfully, we were not served squid but other delicious treats. And I was glad to only have to shed clothes that do not fit, not an entire shell.
swakopmund-5(Swakopmund, Namibia; July 2017)


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Ray or shark?

guitarfishThese weird things hang around in the lagoon. Why they are called guitarfish is kind of evident, at least with a little imagination. Although this individual was quite slim.

Guitarfishes are rays, and thus related to manta rays and stingrays. Except for that their tail half looks like it belongs to a shark, with two dorsal fins and a vertical tail fin. Just a lot more friendly-looking. I nudged one with my toes and it did not seem to mind me at all.

These guys and girls have as a species been around for some 100 million years. Thus a lot longer than a guitar, or even a banjo. And certainly longer than us humans.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)


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How to count 3,000 flamingos

birdcount2,500 avocets, 1,500 sandpipers, 3,000 flamingos, and several hundred stilts. In just our little section. I did not get the final tally for the entire lagoon and surrounding saltworks. Just take my word for that there were A LOT of birds. And so, why not spend my Saturday off counting birds with a lovely bunch of bird lovers?

It is quite remarkable that an avocet on the 23rd latitude South looks just like an avocet on the 60th latitude North. An oystercatcher here looks like an oystercatcher back home in Finland, only that it is a solid black and not black-and-white. Sandpipers, turnstones, gulls, and plovers all look like their relatives up North. Kind of. With a twist. And different names.

And a plover here is pronounced “pl-oh-ver”, instead of “pl-uh-ver”. Weird.

(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)


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Trying to make sense of marine mammals

bottlenoseSo much of the lives of dolphins and whales remains as a mystery. We only see what happens on or near the surface. Most of our study data is biased to surface activities, and when we submerge hydrophones and other tools we are still mostly blindfolded: either we drop in something that only records behavior when animals are nearby, of we tag them but cannot really see what they are doing, and thus miss the big picture.

And so many whale species are rarely spotted alive here; they only make themselves known when stranded, and often either dying or dead.

To a random observer it might look like we are collecting bits and bobs of data just for the sake of details. But for example weather is used to predict the probability of a sighting, and the probability is for example going into a model of distribution of animals in the area, if this is the research question asked. If the weather is poor and we see some animals, it is possible to model their actual existence in a certain area based on how easily they really were to spot vs. what amount we probably missed due to poor conditions. There is some heavy, predictive data modeling going on in the background.

In essence, population ecology and much of cetacean (marine mammal) research is post-hoc analysis, meaning that the minds of scientist work different from those with my own background and working in controlled test-environments of laboratories. We would pose a question, a hypothesis; and then design and conduct an experiment to test this hypothesis. In cetacean research one collects lots and lots of data systematically, and interrogates the data afterwards to answer several research questions. Many times there is no hypothesis when one goes out to collect data, but the research questions can be asked by going backwards in time to look at years and years worth of data, to find a pattern.whaleIn Kenya we collected much information on fishing activities: locations of harpoonists, fishing dhows, and nets. Combined with dolphin sightings one could map out a picture of how fishing activities change the routes the dolphins prefer to take in the area.

In the Amazon, much of the data collection was analysis of social groups of branded animals: who interacts with whom, which animals are seen together year after year who has calves and where do the calves go when they grow up.

And yes, from time to time we see whales, too. We capture data in an opportunistic fashion. This whale was enjoying life and barrel-rolling, flipping its fins, for twenty minutes. Dolphins like to bow-ride boats, but today was the first time I saw tiny Heaviside’s dolphins bowride a humpback whale. Double joy.
whaleandheviside(Walvis Bay, Namibia; July 2017)

(Photos courtesy of Sea Search)