Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Pumas of Torres del Paine

 These elusive animals inhabit most of the American Continent and it is said that largest concentrations and body size are found in Torres del Paine. Therefore it attracts lots of photographers attempting to capture their images.  I have visited here regularly since 2004.  In my opinion, there is no other place in the world that offers the greatest opportunity for spectacular landscape photography that is enhanced by the frequent weather changes.

 I saw the pumas during two different visits in 2013 but did not get photos worth sharing until March 2015.  I spent 8 days looking for pumas with a famous wildlife photographer from the USA and two friends from Chile who also assisted as guides/spotters.  We searched for the pumas early in the mornings and then again about 2 hours before sunset. This required long walks in the mountain areas where the pumas had been recently seen, scan the landscape and wait.  One of the advantages of having local guides is that they networked with others and information of sighting was shared.

 The guanacos are the major prey of the pumas, they roam in herds and while they feed, the males act as lookouts and stand at a nearby elevation to watch for predators.  If one is seen, the alarm is sounded and in no time the herd localizes the predator and approaches it…strange behavior.  So it is difficult for a puma to make a kill.  Although there are not many fences inside the park, they are at the boundaries.  Some of the pumas have learned the strategy of chasing the herds to push them towards the fences.  The adults can leap the fences easily but the young ones called chulengos, are not able to jump and become prey for the pumas. We saw this behavior once; 4 chulengos were trapped against a fence. On this occasion the puma did not make a kill and just sat down and went to rest.  The fields near the fences are covered with guanacos bones left from previous kills.

 Torres del Paine has become in recent years a popular destination for landscape and puma photography. As a result, various wildlife photo outfits bring groups there.  We encountered these groups, one with 12 photographers walking the trails when a puma was sighted; see the first image below.  All started running to get a choice spot and in the excitement, they blocked the field of view of the others, tripped on their tripods…pandemonium.  It reminded me of similar situations that happen in African when a kill or action it taking place and the animals get surrounded by a circle of vehicles; not a pleasant sight.

 There were rumors plan between CONAF and a private environmental organization to fit pumas with tracking collars.  I have seen these practices in the Pantanal (see image below), Africa and the USA and question their value; of course it is done for the benefit of the animals and the advancement science.  Who wants to go and photograph a collared animal?  I did not hear of proposals for collaring foxes or guanacos too.

 Torres del Paine is the premier tourist attraction in Chile with hundreds of visitors coming daily on bus tours from Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales, as well as Argentina.  These buses pose a threat to the ecology of the park due to the dust that they generate while speeding along the dirt roads inside the park, not to mention the safety hazards.  The roads are in what appears to be a continuous state of repair and the trucks bringing the material with open load beds also add to the dust pollution. One can see a dust cast over snow fields and glaciers, not to mention the vegetation next to the road. These darker surfaces do not reflect the sun’s heat, increasing the rate of the melting of the glaciers and snow cover. The answer is simple, pave the roads! Some are opposing this alleging it will destroy the pristine state of the park and increase erosion.  My answer is that most countries’ premier national parks have paved roads.  When properly designed and constructed they prevent further damage to the environment. Yellowstone National Park has paved roads resulting in safer and more comfortable rides and greater access for visitors without undue impact to the wildlife.

 CONAF (www.conaf.cl ) suffers from a fragmented institutional design, and as a consequence, it responds to conflicting mandates and influence-peddling.  I was in Torres del Paine in 2012 during the fire; from my observations and talking with the locals at the time, there was a lack of firefighting personnel, equipment and expertise.  In 2012 and 2013 CONAF had a helicopter in the park for fire protection, but when I when I was there this year, it was gone. When I asked why, I was told that it was too costly to maintain. Chilean Parks and ecotourism will be better served if separated into its own agency with a single mission. Torres del Paine is my favorite place in the world, hope it remains that way.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Kenya 2015

During the 3 decades that I have been visiting Kenya, this is the first time that I was asked for proof of a Yellow Fever vaccination.  This is as a result of the Ebola scare for which the health authorities at the Nairobi airport have established and interesting screening scheme.  First one has to fill a questionnaire and as the official revised it, you see yourself in an overhead LCD screen with a couple of yellow dots moving that follow your head movements and target your forehead/temple.  And then ouch, your body temperature appears on the screen; if it is normal, you are OK to proceed.
 The safari started in Samburu where I first set foot back in 1993. Back then, the road was basically non-existent, just a dirt surface paved with potholes.  Never seen it so dry, the Samburu River was just meandering sand, I got to watch the elephants digging wells to drink.  Due the drought, the Samburu people are bringing their cattle herds for grazing and watering using the elephant’s dug wells for drinking.  As one travels across Africa, the color of the elephants changes due that of the soil in their environment, they dust themselves and take mud baths for protection against insects and the sun; you may call it their insect repellent and sun screen.
 The main reason for revisiting was to see species of mammals not seen or not abundant in other areas such as the gerenuks.  These are the most attractive antelopes in my opinion, with the graceful necks and standing in two legs to reach the acacia leaves in which they feed.  Below is one with its young one feeding.  There was a great waterhole in the Isolio River where water was readily available and frequently visited.  I spent some time there observing the Grant’s gazelles, giraffes, baboons and many others drinking…it is a stressful endeavor and any noise caused the animals to stampede in fear of a predator.  The Superb Starlings were busy at the time of the visit collecting material for their nest, and I caught this one in the act.

 Sweetwaters is a conservation site whose main attraction is the waterhole around which a tented camp is set allowing for the viewing of the activities of the various animals and birds come to drink.  It is most interesting at night…just seat at the tent, watch the action and drink the wine.  It is also a refuge of injured rhinos as well as a site for chimpanzee research.  Two years ago I got my best image of a cheetah here and this time, one of the most majestic lion.  It was at sunset and he was just sitting in a hill admiring the sunset.  I was lucky to find a hyenas’ den where I spent sometimes watching the kids playing.  And most unusual for me, photographed a flowering cactus as a well as a nearby Anama lizard.

 Arrived at Lake Nakuru after traveling both tarmac and dust roads, here there is a drought too but the lake is at the highest levels I had ever seen.  The water inundating Lake Nakuru are coming from underground sources and not from the rains; lots of acacias that circle the lake have died…not a pretty sight.  Also the huge flocks of flamingos are not there due to changes in the alkalinity of the water, so their food source does not grow.  Black and white rhinos can be seen here as well as the regular retinue of mammals.  I was able to get an image of a lilac breasted roller, among one of the most colorful birds in Africa, a snake eating hawk and the always present velvet monkey.

 Finally, reached the Masai Mara, the ultimate destination in Kenya.  It was dry here too and the Mara River reduced to a trickle in places; the result of the drought, deforestation and the pumping of water for irrigating the farmlands that has emerged in the vicinity of the park during the last 10 years.  When I first visited, here approximately 30 years, the land around the park was basically untouched, with all kind of wild animals and covered with acacias and few humans.  The animals have been poached, the acacias cut down for charcoal, and the land fenced fields with multitude sheds from where people try to scratch a living. But the dusty and pot-holed road to the park remains the same as it was back in the early 1990’s. I got the 3 big cats; the cheetah in its customary place on top of a mound searching the horizon for a meal, the young lion deciding whether to climb a tree, and the leopard taking a break from eating its prey hanging from the nearby tree.

 The birds are abundant and I got to see again my favorite owl with the pink eye lids…the Verreaux Eagle- Owl.  The saddle-billed storks were busy doing their courtship dances and the yellow-billed storks’ busy gathering energy for their migration back to Europe. Large flock were flying overhead in circles just ready to go…but I did not see any with draped babies hanging from their bills ready for delivery in France, Italy or Spain…maybe they contracted this duty to UPS.  One of the advantages of going to Africa during the winter in the northern hemisphere is that one gets to see European and Asian birds here.

I always said when there it is my last trip but Kenyan friends just do not believe me anymore...is that right Moses?  How many sleeping lions are there left to photograph?  Not as many as they used to be.

So go soon.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Yellowstone 2015

 This is the second winter trip to the white Serengeti of North America.  It was not much different than last year other than the temperatures were milder and had no need to use my electrically heated shoe liners.  And as last year, the elusive wolves were seldom seen but the wolf followers were there and photographers were not as numerous.  It appears from the wolf watchers that the wolf packs are undergoing territorial battles and their numbers reduced.  Their cousins the coyotes were there feeding on the carcasses killed by the wolves.

 The elks were very cooperative and decide to take a closer look at me.  Large males appear to have the habit to lying down in a hill by the road to watch the tourists go by while chewing the curd.  At this time of the year, mature elks hang around by themselves.  One freezing day, a male was just resting and when it exhaled, the water vapor will instantly freeze and fall on its snout and to the sides.  I waited for another to stand up from his rest, when he did he came straight, fell as I was being tasted… but deviated to one side keeping an eye on me.  Then you realize how big animals really are.

 Another one that I had been has bad as the wolves to get a good image were the pronghorn antelopes.  But year I saw a herd near the road and I stopped, and expected they ran away.  Anyway I decided to set up the camera gear and waited.  I was lucky, as they were grazing they moved back and seem to ignore me.  Incredible they got so close that I could not focus on them, that is about 12 feet. They just walked by and continued their grazing; another photo op of a lifetime.

 And not be forgotten, the bison are the most numerous and fully habituated to people.  They just don’t car to have all around.  It is hard to improve in some of the photos I took last year but here are a couple of examples.  The Bighorn Sheep were at the same location as last year’s jumping around rocks.

 During the winter the only area open to drive is the Lamar road by entering from the northwest corner at of the park at Gardiner, and then you can drive to Cook City from where there is no other outlet during the winter.  Cook City has more snow since it is at a higher altitude and is a snowmobiler’s paradise.  There are a few eateries, of which the Bistro has been the favorite, but this year, it was open only sporadically, the Soda Butte restaurant became the regular place; their Reuben Sandwiches were great.

 Will I return to Yellowstone next year?  Only if I get a 100% assurance that I will get decent images of wolves…somebody will have to lie to me.  So I leave Yellowstone with to weird images.  The first one I call the Eye of the Soda Butte Creek and then the one of the snowman of the woods.