November 5, 2013
We talk a lot about external threats to wildlife populations, because they are by far the biggest causes for concern.
But in the case of cheetahs, dwindling populations aren’t just the result of land encroachment, poaching, and global warming.
It’s in their genes.
Maybe a better way to put it is that it’s not in their genes.
About 10,000 years ago, at the end of the last ice age, hundreds of species died off in a mass extinction event. Cheetahs manage to survive…but just barely. In the years and millennia following, cheetah populations rebounded, reaching levels of around 100,000 animals in the wild by the turn of the 20th century.
But something was still missing: genetic diversity.
A 5-year study from the early 80s showed that the cheetah gene-pool resembles that of highly-inbred mice used for scientific research. Essentially, the entire population had been built up from too small a stock; the result was a species in which 70% of the males had abnormal sperm and infant mortality soared to over 29%, even in captivity. In the wild, only about 5% of cheetahs survive to adulthood.
To give you an idea of just how serious the inbreeding problem is in cheetahs, among related animals of most species, you can expect to see 80% gene similarity; related cheetahs have 99% gene similarity. Their genes are so remarkably similar, in fact, that even between unrelated animals, skin grafts aren’t rejected. Any one cheetah is essentially any other’s identical twin.
Scientists are desperately trying to force some diversity back into the gene pool via breeding in captivity, but until they do, cheetahs are an incredibly vulnerable species, not only because of the hunting and environmental threats that have already decimated wild populations (most current estimates put the wild population under 2,000 animals), but because a single illness could essentially wipe out the entire species (genetic diversity helps some members of a population fight infections, even when others succumb).
Beyond captive breeding, better protection for remaining wild cheetahs is absolutely vital. Currently, populations are relatively isolated from one another; the more chance they have of mixing, the better the chance that there will be different genes in the mix.
October 31, 2013
Anyone who has been to Gibb’s Farm (a destination many Thomson Safaris trips visit) knows that this working coffee estate nestled in the heart of the verdant Ngorongoro Highlands is a treasure. Set amidst an absolutely stunning landscape, the eco-lodge has been awarded time and time again for its luxurious accommodations, eco-conscious practices, and exceptional service.
We’re incredibly honored that Condé Nast Traveler readers agree that it’s one of the most amazing places in Africa. In the recent Reader’s Choice awards, they voted Gibb’s Farm the top property in all of Tanzania, and the second best hotel on the entire continent of Africa.
Gibb’s Farm has been around since way back in 1929, when it was founded as a colonial coffee plantation. Over the decades, the property has transformed into an eco-lodge, but the rich soil of the Ngorongoro Highlands has ensured that its first function—as an ideal location to grow exceptional coffees—has remained part of its identity. Today, guests have the opportunity to visit the coffee fields, see the process the beans go through before they can go into a brew…and of course to bring home a few bags of the plantation’s exceptional coffee!
But that’s just one of the many factors that makes Gibb’s such an amazing retreat on safari. Organic gardens on the grounds provide unbeatably fresh food to guests, who can take guided tours around the property, or even rent bikes for a tour of the Highlands. Lodges with wraparound windows, private verandas, and luxurious outdoor showers are a home-away-from-home on safari. And service is white-glove (in all the categories CN Traveler readers rated, “service” tied for the highest spot at Gibb’s!).
We’re proud to be able to send so many of our travelers to such a memorable, beautiful spot. We’ve always felt that Gibb’s is a little slice of paradise; we’re incredibly happy to hear that CN Traveler’s readers agree with us!
October 30, 2013
In Maa, the Maasai language, Kilimanjaro is known as Ol Doinyo Oibor, or “The White Mountain.”
But there’s a much more imposing-sounding mountain located just a little further along the Great Rift Valley: Ol Doinyo Lengai, or “The Mountain of God.”
That name might have something to do with Ol Doinyo Lengai’s frequent eruptions. An active stratovolcano, Ol Doinyo Lengai is unique not only in the region, but in the world.
While most volcanos spew forth familiar glowing-red magma, Ol Doinyo Lengai is a carbonatite volcano, one whose lava has a completely different chemical structure. Thinner and more liquid than lavas with higher silicate content, lava from Ol Doinyo Lengai and volcanos like it actually appears black in the sunlight. Unstable in the surface atmosphere of the earth, the flows weather rapidly, quickly turning from black to grey.
The lava’s makeup also means that it erupts at temperatures as low as 950° F. That may sound hot to you, but for most volcanos, it’s not even a simmer; some volcanic magma reaches temperatures as high as about 2200° F before erupting. The low ‘boiling’ point also means Ol Doinyo Lengai erupts frequently; in the last hundred years, Ol Doinyo Lengai has erupted well over a dozen times!
Ol Doinyo Lengai is the only active volcano with this unique, strange type of lava, and is in fact the only volcano of this type to have erupted in recorded history.
Whether or not that makes the mountain godlike is debatable, but it certainly makes it worth a trip!
October 29, 2013
Most of us have probably seen Fantasia, or at the very least, a clip of the hippos twirling around in tutus and nearly overwhelming their crocodilian escorts.
But the real prima ballerinas in Africa aren’t pirouetting through the rivers and ponds, they’re traipsing daintily across the plains, graceful necks and long, whippet-thin legs extended in a sort of antelope arabesque. They’re gerenuks!
If you haven’t heard of these bush ballerinas, it’s not only because gerenuks (a name that derives from Somali, and means, aptly, “giraffe neck”) are a rare sighting on safari; it’s because of the gerenuk’s notoriously humble nature. Biologists have noted their unfailing willingness to help other gerenuks in need, and in African folklore, the gerenuk is regularly referred to as the “Queen of Humbleness.”
Basically, they’re probably not launching too many personal PR campaigns.
But if you are lucky enough to spot one, you’ll be glad you did; when the gerenuk feeds, it rears up on its spindly hind legs, stretching its already long neck further into the branches to reach the most tender leaves, shoots, and fruits, looking for all the world like a very elongated dancer en pointe.
Feeding requires grace…and some seriously good balance!
As timid as they are delicate, gerenuks run away at high speeds when threatened. Often, though, they instead choose to stand very still behind a tree or bush, then slowly tiptoe away, heads lowered.
…which you’d be forgiven for mistaking for a scene from a new, African-themed version of Swan Lake.
October 24, 2013
There are over 120 different cultural groups living in Tanzania today, but perhaps one of the most unique (or old-fashioned, depending on how you look at it) is the Hadza.
There are right around 1,000 Hadza left in Tanzania (the only place this group lives), and some 300-400 of them live as true hunter-gatherers, sharing meat when they can find (and kill) it, and living off foraged tubers, berries, fruits, and honey when they can’t. As far as oral histories of the Hadzabe and anthropological research on the tribe can determine, their practices have barely changed in thousands of years.
Foraged tubers like the one seen here make up a large part of the Hadza diet
One of the most effective ways the Hadza live with the land is their symbiotic relationship with the honeyguide bird. When they hear its whistle, they’ll whistle back, the bird and the human calling back and forth to one another as the honeyguide flits through the trees. Following these birds can lead to very sweet rewards; they lead people to hives, and, after the honey has been conveniently cleared out, feast on the remaining larva and wax.
Most hunting is done with hand-fashioned bows and arrows. Some of the most commonly hunted animals include dik-diks, warthogs, monkeys, and occasionally larger antelope such as impala and eland. The bowstrings are generally made from animal ligaments, arrow heads are pounded out from nails and attached to wooden shafts, and the arrows are hand-fletched with bird feathers.
The Hadza still hunt game with bows and arrows.
The Hadza are also unique for another feature: their clicking language.
A linguistic isolate, the Hadza language—which involves unique (and, for a westerner, nearly impossible to replicate) glottal stops and click sounds on consonants—doesn’t fit into any larger language families. Fortunately for linguists, the language remains in use, and though the Hadza population is small, most Hadza children learn to speak Hadza fluently.
A Hadzabe shelter. During the dry season, even structures this simple might not be made.
Photo: Thomson Safaris guest, David Rush
Perhaps most surprising to a westerner, the Hadza have little if any concept of personal ownership. While they will make (and keep) hunting implements, leather bags from the skins of animals they’ve killed, and stone pipes, they tend not to accumulate many other possessions. If a Hadza does somehow accumulate more possessions than he or she needs, he or she will distribute them equally among the group, with no expectation of receiving anything in return. This sort of communal lifestyle is fundamental to their belief system.
Various attempts have been made to “settle” the Hadza, both by missionaries and by the Tanzanian government (the most recent government attempt was in 1990).
October 23, 2013
We’ve all heard that there’s nothing more important than a good night’s sleep (unless you count breakfast, or family). But on Kilimanjaro—where each day means physical challenges and adjustment to a new altitude, and your nights are spent in a sleeping bag instead of on a feather bed—getting all the sleep you need in order to reach the summit can be difficult.
Luckily, the Thomson team has learned a few tricks on their treks that will help ensure you have more restful nights:
Tip 1: Use an inflatable pad
You may not be able to haul your mattress up Kili with you, but you can make nights on the ground more comfortable. An inflatable pad not only acts as a cushion; as Michael notes, “it keeps the damp away.”
Tip 2: Pack a soft, comfy hat
One of the biggest barriers to a good night’s sleep on Kili is the colder temperatures further up the mountain. Rachel combats this with “the warmest, softest, most comfortable hat” she can find. Not only does it prevent you from losing heat, it can act as another “pillow” layer!
Tip 3: Just get up and go pee
It’s the middle of the night, the air outside is freezing, and you think, if you just hold it, you’ll be able to fall back asleep.
Think again. As Amy notes, “a full bladder isn’t just uncomfortable, it’s a heat suck.” You’ll feel warmer (and sleep more soundly) if you just get up as soon as you realize you have to go.
Tip 4: Shake up your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag says it’s good down to -30°…so why are your toes so cold?
Maybe you forgot to shake it out when you unpacked it. Since your bag will be tightly compressed while you trek, the insulation might not be evenly distributed when you pull it out for the night. But Michael found that simply shaking it a little helped even things out, keeping him warm from head to toe!
Tip 5: Change your clothes in the afternoon
After a full day of trekking, cleaning up and putting on fresh clothes will help refresh you.
But there’s an added bonus to changing up your look right when you get to camp; if you sleep in those clothes, like Katie recommends, you won’t have to start your morning with a serious case of the shivers as you try to change for the day.
Not exactly a sleeping tip, but it might buy you a few minutes of sleep—and more than a few degrees of body temperature—in the morning!
Tip 6: Upgrade your tent
Paul had a very simple response to how to get the best night’s sleep on Kili: “upgrade to the fancy tent with a cot and pillow in it!”
He was kidding, but only a little; on the Grand Traverse, hikers spend more nights in the lower elevations where it’s a bit warmer, and they also have the option to upgrade to our solar-lit, walk-in luxury sleeping tents.
So while most people will conk out easily and sleep soundly if they follow the first five tips on this list, if you know yourself to be an especially light sleeper, highly susceptible to cold, or just not a “roughing it” type, consider whether your trek—and most importantly, your chances of summit success—might be greatly improved with with the Grand Traverse and a “fancy” tent!