Monate Tata

 

Monate Tata

Initially published on March 9, 2017, during a Beyond the Classroom experience with Round River Conservation Studies in the Okavango Delta of Botswana.

We left Maun a little later than expected and arrived at our first campsite in NG41, a couple of kilometers outside the village of Mababe, around 6 pm. We quickly set up camp: pitching the kitchen tent and loading the equipment in it, pitching our own tents, and throwing a tarp up between the kitchen tent and the table we cook over. Sixteen, our instructor who was born and raised in Sankuyo, left to pick up Zencks and Foe (pronounced Foye) – our escort guides for our time in Mababe. We cooked as the sun set. Chicken, seasoned simply with adequate salt, pepper, and a little cumin, grilled over a mopane wood fire, sautéed peppers and onions, pap (the ubiquitous fine white corn meal cooked to the consistency of very thick mashed potatoes), and a kind of thick instant brown onion soup. “Monate tata,” as we say in Setswana (meaning: very good).

After spending the last few weeks conducting our spoor surveys with our new Bushmen tracker friends in the Xai Xai area, NG3 and NG4, here in NG41 we’ve begun our routine of herbivore transects, which we will continue throughout the rest of the program as we move to Khwai and return to Sankuyo. Everyday, two cars, each with an instructor driving, a community escort guide, and two students, leaves camp around 6:15 am with the aim of beginning a transect at 6:30am. All of these transects are along roads, some more than others, that have been driven in previous years by Round River. The car goes along at 10 kilometers per hour and everybody keeps their eyes peeled for movement in the bush. Once something is spotted, the car stops, we count, age, and sex the animals to the best of our ability, record distance with a rangefinder, take a GPS point of the car, and use a compass to record the angle of the animal from north. This method is called DADS (Density And Demography Sampling). During the first transect I went on, we saw three bull elephants, several small herds of impala and one with thirty individuals, mostly females, a waterbuck, and a wildebeest.

 

 

It still rains almost every day, as we work through this near record-breaking wet season, ranging from a prolonged drizzle to a torrential downpour. Yesterday we managed to have a fire, despite a little rain. A campfire is one of those things that never fails to remind me of so many good and peaceful times, and is my favorite part of how we operate out here.

As we sat around the fire after dinner, Ben and Kaggie took the chance to remind us that this area is very different than the one we just left. Namely, the difference in the concentration of lions, elephants, and everything else that goes bump in the night. It has only been three nights here and we’ve heard elephants pass not more than ten or fifteen meters behind our tents, and we’ve found hyena and lion tracks about fifty yards from camp.

According to Ben and Foe, lions are more present in Mababe than they ever have been. Nobody walks in town after 9:00 pm, and there are only ten dogs left in the village. Ben told us the story of an old man who, a few years ago, was on the toilet at night, outside of his house in Mababe, and was surprised by a male lion. According to Ben, as the lion attacked and lunged at the man, he shoved his arm down the throat of the lion and ripped out it’s tongue, and the lion ran off. Undoubtedly this is a story that will stick with me every time I head to the latrine.

 

 

Sixteen picked some meat in the village yesterday and began cooking it around dinnertime. Sixteen prepared the meat for those who were willing to stay up for another hour or two and chat around the fire. In Botswana, meat of all sorts is usually cooked in the same traditional way. In a round, cast iron pojkie pot, the chunks of meat are just covered with water, a healthy amount of oil, and lots of salt. After a couple hours over the fire, having been stirred occasionally, the water has mostly evaporated and sliced onions are added as the now tender meat browns in the fat. Spices can be added, but traditionally rarely are. We enjoyed a few pieces before going to bed.

Not long after I could hear the low groans of a pair of lions calling to each other a kilometer or two or way. It’s an indescribable sound, like a long, deep, tired moan that you feel in your chest, something I’ve only ever otherwise felt hearing a grizzly bear huff and puff.

Life Inside the Buffalo Fence

Life Inside the Buffalo Fence

Published April 19, 2017

 

Only one more day left in the bush of the Okavango Delta and seven until I’m on a plane back to the states. It’s difficult to believe, the time has passed so quickly. I’ll go on my last transect tomorrow morning, a bird transect. All we have left to work on are our projects, which we’ll present at the Okavango Research Institute on the 24th, and studying for our Setswana exam.

 

 

One of the most interesting parts of living in Botswana has been learning about the hunting ban of 2014 and its effects on the people who live here, in the controlled and protected areas of Botswana. I admit I didn’t even know about the hunting ban when I came to Botswana. When I heard about it during one of our first conservation biology classes, it seemed like a completely correct response to aerial surveys done by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks that showed populations of most herbivores falling precipitously across northern Botswana. Now, having spent several weeks living in the Delta, inside the buffalo fence, the hunting ban seems more like a flawed stopgap than anything else.

Hunting still happens, but now it’s called poaching, and more often than not it’s done for subsistence rather than commercial reasons. Besides turning normal people who are just trying to feed their family, as they have for millennia in the Delta, into criminals, it has taken away an important income source for rural communities. Though I have zero empathy for the usual motive of trophy hunting—I believe people should only hunt to eat—it was a very significant source of income for communities in the Delta, and can be sustainable if properly managed. The money, much more than could be earned through photographic tourism in a similar amount of time, went to schools, scholarships, community centers, house loans, and clinics, to name a few. I agree that something needed to be done about the declining numbers, but there must be a more appropriate middle ground.

 

 

Throughout my time here I’ve found myself continuously making comparisons with my home state, Montana, and in particular the little corner of the state I grew up in, around Livingston, just north of Yellowstone National Park. The wide open spaces and big skies of both places. The people, who are friendly and welcoming. The astounding lack of people, in many cases, small towns and villages separated by vast wilderness. Some aspects of the wildlife: the cape buffalo and the American bison, the impala and the pronghorn, the lion and the grizzly.

 

 

One thing I’ve noticed while living here has been how I see, or define, the wilderness. In Montana, I recognize it mostly based on the absence of human activity and the systems that support it. I realize I’m in wilderness when I down see any power lines, roads, or fences. When I don’t see any empty plastic bottles, cigarette butts, or manicured lawns. Or when there aren’t any mountainsides stripped of their trees or their earth. Here, though, we’ve been camping in places where there is none of the infrastructure that supports human activity—the roads, fences, and power lines—and I realize it more often based on the presence of things, usually wildlife. The group of giraffes loitering around the wet pan, the mating herd of elephants running past the edge of camp, the pair of ostriches dancing in the distance, or the leopard walking through camp at night, as a group of us sit around the fire. We’ve learned the tracks and scat of more than fifteen mammals, the identification of more than sixty bird species, a dozen grasses, and around thirty different trees and shrubs. It’s instilled within me a desire to learn the same thing for the place I call home—to realize and enjoy wilderness for what it is rather than what it is not.

 

 

There’s so much I’ll miss about this country and this program. We’ve has so many great times and seen and done so much. We’ve met so many great people and made so many good friends. I’ve made promises to come back, both to myself and others, and am intent on keeping them.