Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

Last Minute Leopard

Sunday, July 1st, 2012

Don Wilson, Smithsonian Journeys Study LeaderDon Wilson is Curator Emeritus of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and was director of the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Programs for 10 years. A distinguished mammalogist and an internationally recognized authority on bats, his work has taken him around the world conducting field work and research. He has led tours for Smithsonian Journeys to most of the world’s greatest natural history destinations from Antarctica to Africa. On this last trip, he guided a Smithsonian group on safari in Zimbabwe and Botswana. Read his field notes from the trip below:

Our African Safari had been an unmitigated success, with one significant blemish: All safaris carry an unstated goal of seeing the “Big Five”— lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant. We had seen all but leopards after wonderful game drives at Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Chobe National Park in Botswana. Our last stop was in Lower Zambezi National Park in Zambia. With lots of activities to choose from, including game drives, canoe trips, walking safaris, and even fishing for tiger fish in the mighty Zambezi River, we nevertheless felt the pressure mounting to spot the elusive leopard.

On the afternoon of our last day, most folks opted for the game drive, and our two hard working driver-guides, Brian and Simeon, were determined to give it their best shot. We headed into the local game management area, passing through thorn-scrub woodland where they knew leopards were occasionally seen. Heading towards the Zambezi escarpment into the setting sun, our driver Simeon got a quick call from Brian in the other vehicle, explaining that they had just seen a leopard, but it was a fleeting glimpse, as it scurried into the brush before anyone could get a picture.

We joined the other vehicle for traditional ‘sundowners’ of drinks and snacks on a high plateau overlooking the entire river valley, and watched the sun dip over the mountain behind us. Needless to say, our vehicle felt very envious of the others, even if their leopard sighting had been all too brief. Simeon said we would leave 10 minutes ahead of the other vehicle and return to the area where they had seen it, in hopes of spotting it again. By the time we got there, it was getting dark, and I manned the portable spot light while Simeon drove and used his excellent eyesight to scan back and forth intently. I was dutifully shining the spotlight up into every tree, and back and forth across the road as everyone felt their hopes dimming with each passing kilometer. Then, as we headed down into a small ravine, I brought the light back across the road from right to left, and on the left hand side of the road in the bottom of the ravine, a big, beautiful male leopard stood stock-still watching us approach from no more than 30 feet away as we came around the corner.

We had warned everyone to be absolutely silent if we did find a leopard, as they are quite shy and will run immediately if they hear voices. However, the vehicle and the lights do not bother them, and this one allowed us to photograph it as it walked slowly by us and back up the road the way we had just passed. Simeon quickly and quietly called Brian on the radio, and by the time we turned around, the other vehicle was there, and the Leopard moved into the brush beside the road, but still in the range of the spotlight. After a series of photos from both vehicles, we high-fived all around and headed back towards the lodge.


Just another wonderful finale to a great safari, right? But wait, it gets better. About five minutes down the road, I was still manning the spotlight, hoping to see a small nocturnal genet or civet, when there was another leopard, walking right down the road in front of us! We followed it slowly, called Brian again, and the other vehicle joined us once more. We took turns following behind this one, another male, but a bit smaller than the first. After another round of photos, we finally did head into the lodge for one last terrific dinner and enough stories to fuel the long trip back to the States and beyond.

Learn more about Don’s upcoming safari trips here.

Book: Animal – The Definitive Guide to the World’s Wildlife

Friday, October 28th, 2011

Animal cover imageThis week’s book is from our own Don Wilson, longtime Smithsonian Study Leader and Curator Emeritus of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Named Senior Scientist in 2000, Don was also Director of the Smithsonian’s Biodiversity Programs for ten years.

For the last 40 years, his work has taken him around the world conducting field work and research. He has led tours for Smithsonian Journeys to most of the world’s greatest natural history destinations from Antarctica to Africa.

Working with co-editor and zoologist David Burnie, Wilson has created a giant reference to wildlife from every corner of the world. From the smallest insects to the largest mammals, this visual guide helps the reader understand and appreciate the fantastic variety of life our planet with vivid photos and interesting facts.

If you’re interested in traveling with Don Wilson, click here to see where he’ll be next.

Stepping Back in Time on an African Safari

Monday, October 17th, 2011

Study Leader Hillary Young is a Research Fellow in the Division of Mammals at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. She earned her Ph.D. in Biology from Stanford University and has done extensive field research on community ecology of mammals and birds. She currently splits her time between Washington D.C. and East Africa, where she is studying the effects of changes in mammal community composition on human health. She is editor of a new book, Seasonally Dry Tropical Forests: Biology and Conservation, focusing on the ecology of savanna and dry forest ecosystems. Here, she shares her thoughts on leading Smithsonian travelers on our popular African Safari. All photos on this post provided by Hillary Young.

Elephants. Photo by Hillary Young.

African Elephants. Photo: Hillary Young.

Driving over the ridge into Chobe National Park on the first afternoon of our arrival in Botswana, there is a collective intake of breath on the initial glimpse of the spectacle that was to capture us for the next three days. Hundreds, and then thousands of elephants can be seen moving slowly towards the river, coming for their afternoon drink at the only water source for miles around.

Crocodile - Photo by Hillary Young.On closer examination, we can also see many more slowly crossing the rivers, their trunks held up as oversize snorkels, as they slowly swim their way from bank to bank. Yet more, can be seen cooling themselves in the shallow mud, or spraying themselves with water and mud, providing a thick layer of primitive sunscreen to protect themselves from the radiating heat. Even from the comfort of a shaded landcruiser with a bottle of water in hand I must admit it looks like a good idea. Except of course… for the crocodiles.

The elephants, while the largest, are hardly the only animals to be gathering here at this point. Languid large crocodiles lounge on the river banks, their mouths held open to regulate their body temperature. Nile monitor lizards, move in slow undulations through the high reeds and slip back into the water almost unseen. They join rafts of enormous hippopatumus, that awkardly move from near invisibility in the water to intimidating grazers on river banks. There they are joined by the rare endemic antelopes, the puku, with splayed feet and an awkward gate that keeps them permanently constrained to the moist banks around this river.

Lion. Photo by Hillary Young.In the next few days we will glimpse many, many more animals clustered at this most verdant of refuges – rare sable and roan antelopes, large creches of giraffes, dozens of brilliant kingfishers and elegant wading birds, and stuffed prides of lion trotting back from their hunting.

Here is a place where it is easy to forget that large wildlife no longer rule the world, that man now dominates much of the landscape. We have talked in many of our Smithsonian lectures about the historical and modern importance of large animals in ecosystems, and the value of intact ecological communities in preserving ecological function.

Photo by Hillary Young.We have thought a lot about what the world might have been like in times of early man when large wildlife was so much more widespread. Here for a moment, we can stop imagining and just step back in time and watch in awe.

Book of the Week: Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning

Friday, September 16th, 2011

Serengeti: The Eternal BeginningOur book partner, Longitude books is always searching for new books to inspire and inform your travels.

This week, take a journey to Africa with award-winning author and photographer Boyd Norton and Serengeti: The Eternal Beginning. Immerse yourself in two-hundred-and-fifty vivid color photographs of the Serengeti National Park, the Masai Mara, and the Ngorongoro Crater. Norton’s memorable stories about encounters with people and wildlife will transport you from your living room to the compelling wilderness of East Africa.

Our African Safari is one of our best-selling adventures. Reserve your place while we still have space available.

Dispatches from Africa, Part 5: Togo to Ghana

Monday, April 4th, 2011

Smithsonian Study Leader Francisco Dallmeier has been a conservation biologist with the Smithsonian Institution for the past 24 years. Dr. Dallmeier is the director of Smithsonian’s Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability (CCES), part of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI). CCES provides research and conservation approaches for sustainable development and world-class professional and academic programs for conservation practitioners. Here, he shares a few dispatches from Into Africa: From Namibia to Ghana. Click here to read the other dispatches  from this journey.

Tuesday March 15, 2011: Lomé, Togo

We arrived in Lomé to another loud drumming and dancing group of beautifully dressed local performers, including two stilt walkers. The Togolese Republic is bordered by Ghana to the west, Benin to the east and Burkina Faso to the north. It extends south to the Gulf of Guinea where Lomé, the capital is located. Togo covers an area of approximately 22,000 sq mi with a population of approximately 6.7 million. Togo is a tropical, sub-Saharan nation, highly dependent on agriculture. While the official language is French, there are many other languages spoken in Togo. The largest religious group in Togo is those with indigenous beliefs. From the 11th to the 16th century, various tribes entered the region from all directions. From the 16th century to the 18th century, the coastal region was a major trading centre for Europeans in search of slaves, earning Togo and the surrounding region the name “The Slave Coast.” In 1884, Germany declared Togoland a protectorate. After World War I, rule over Togo was transferred to France. Togo gained its independence from France in 1960. In 1967, Gnassingbé Eyadéma led a successful military coup, after which he became president. At the time of his death in 2005, Eyadéma was the longest-serving leader in modern African history, after having been president for 38 years. In 2005, his son Faure Gnassingbé was elected president.

Lomé is the capital of Togo and was once claimed to be the Paris of Africa. It is situated in the Bay of Benin. The name comes from alomé – the Ewe name for the trees that produce chewing sticks, which once grew in abundance here. There are still reminders of European colonial rule which are quite evident in the old town. However, indigenous tradition retains its significance.

We drove for about 45 minutes east to Agbodrafo where we were met by His Majesty Chief Assiakoley, an older man dressed in a white robe and a white cap. After the greeting ritual with several members of his community we learned about the special significance of the elaborate canes that two gentlemen in his entourage carried. We then walked to the Maison des Esclaves, where a few people entered the basement prison of the slave house.

We then drove to the banks of Lake Togo to crossover to Badougbe village. The countryside was surrounded by numerous plantations with plenty of mango trees, coconut palms, and Indian almond trees. We crossed Lake Togo in pirogues. Pied Kingfishers were having a successful day while fishermen repeatedly cast their large throw-nets between the traffic of pirogues transporting people, motorcycles and goods. Once in Badougbe village we visited the local school and presented the headmaster with several packets of school supplies kindly donated by some of our guests as well as by Corinthian II. The multitude of khaki-clad school kids welcomed us in their classrooms. We were entertained by drumming and colorful folkloric dance performance by the village men and women. On the way back to the lake we observed a monitor lizard tied up by a gasoline selling post.

After lunch we visited the fetish market with monkey skulls, voodoo dolls, dried toads, antelope horns, crocodile skins, grigri charms, leopard pelts, dead owls, tethered live eagles, and a few owls, hawks and vultures. We struggled with the smell of partially decomposing animal parts and with the concept of mass killing of animals as traditional rituals to address illness and spiritual needs. Unfortunately, many of these products are made out of threatened or endangered species. We drove through the city and passed the Togo/Ghana border post and Independence Square and had time to shop at the local artisans market.

During the evening, Captain Boczek held his Farewell Cocktail Party and dinner, joined by the United States Ambassador to Togo, Patricia Hawkins, along with her husband Richard Hawkins, the Deputy of Chief of Mission Ellen Thorburn and Political Officer John Kmetz and his wife Loretta Bass.

Wednesday March 16 and Thursday March 17, 2011: Ghana

The Republic of Ghana with a population of over 25 million people is bordered by Ivory Coast to the west, Burkina Faso to the north, Togo to the east, and the Gulf of Guinea to the south. The word Ghana means “Warrior King” from the ancient Ghana Empire. Ghana was inhabited in pre-colonial times by a number of ancient predominantly Akan kingdoms and trade with European states flourished after contact with the Portuguese in the 15th century, and the British established the Gold Coast Crown colony in 1874. The Gold Coast achieved independence from the United Kingdom in 1957. Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa in the world and is home to Lake Volta, the largest artificial lake in the world by surface area.

Tema is the country’s most important seaport where as recently as the 1950s was only an obscure fishing village that was founded by Kpeshie fisherman who migrated to the area from present-day Nigeria. The bustling harbor city supports a population of over 500,000, as well as most of the country’s major industries. Accra is the lively capital of Ghana and was once a major center of the gold and slave trade. It has long been the industrial backbone of the nation. The city started life in the 15th century, when the Ga people who still live in the area, settled on the west side of the Korle Lagoon.

The first stop in Ghana was to visit the peculiar and multiple designs of the Casket Makers where we had the opportunity to view a collection of caskets carved into different objects, depicting the traditional African belief in the continuation of one’s profession or a new one after death. We spent a while at the Jaynii Streewise Foundation where we donated some basic school accessories to a needy group. In return they drummed and danced and sang for us. A brief stop at the Kwame Nkrumah Mausoleum was followed by a final spree of shopping at the craft market. Lunch was complimented by a first-class open air cultural fair dance and drumming demonstration. The next visit was to the National Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography. As we passed the Military Hospitals, a ‘flock’ of fruit-eating bats relocated positions on the tree for shaded and cooler areas.

On Thursday we visited the Aburi Botanical Gardens located 20 miles north of Accra. The Garden was opened in 1890 on a site previously occupied by a sanatorium built in 1875 for Gold Coast Government Officials. In 1890 William Crowther, a student from the Royal Botanical Gardens, in Kew, London was appointed the garden’s first curator. We enjoyed the multiple trees representing native and exotic species including cinnamon, quinoa, cocoa, and tress planted by the Queen of England and the Prince of Wales. After the visit to the gardens we drove to the Mampong Centre for Scientific Research situated at the Akwapim Ridge. The center has over 32 years of research on herbs and concoctions whose therapy pre-date modern medicine. We visited the labs and learned about the many products to cure tropical diseases.

The travel to the airport in Accra left us all feeling nostalgic about the travel experiences that happened a mere few weeks ago.

Click here to start planning your own journey to Africa.