Paradise Camp Blog | Transfrontier Africa | Michael Scholl

Paradise Camp Blog

Goodbye to 2009...

As I watch the pipe smoke drift lazily up towards the crystal blue sky it is with much happiness that I think back on the year that was 2009. Much has been achieved and 2010 holds much promise. Our work here is progressively bearing more weight and is being recognised by role players in the area… it is only a matter of time before we become chief ecologists of the world and can afford to hire scantily clad Brazilian models to fan us with palm leaves. Additionally it would be nice to hire that specialist Burmese mongoose etiquette trainer we saw on the internet, but alas we must remain realistic in our objectives.

In the space of two weeks Balule has transformed. For months it has been a dry, hostile forbidding landscape, a landscape where White-Back Vultures would ominously circle lonely rangers, crawling on all fours back to base after they had forgotten their water bottle. But suddenly with a monumentous crash of thunder the rains came and the lonely rangers lifted their parched lips to the sky and were revived by the heavens. The vultures screeched with frustration and made their way to the local vulture restaurant. The bush is now so green it resembles a forest in places and new life abounds throughout the region. New born impala cling nervously to their mothers’ side and warthog piglets are cute enough to make even the hardest rangers lip quiver. Flowers are out in abundance and we are currently compiling a species list of these splotches of colour which punctuate the landscape. 

As sad as we are to have the great Mr. Fox noticeably absent from our team we are excited to welcome a new student to our team. His name is Shaun Hill. With hair like phoenix’s fire and the determination of a hungry honey badger we are sure he will prove to be a valuable addition to Transfrontier Africa. If he doesn’t get skin cancer. 

I am glad to announce that I am no longer a student. November saw me completing my course in Nature Conservation after I handed in my dissertation and faced an assessment panel in Cape Town composed of the Conservation gods of the world. I passed and have been offered a position here at Transfrontier Africa which I gratefully accepted. Apart from the fact that it’s a good way to get rid of my girlfriend, I really believe in what we are trying to do here. This place offers much promise and the last year has been one of the most enriching of my life. My research project on the elephant damage to trees was well received and will serve as baseline data for next years studies. Our hypothesis was proved and we have found conclusive evidence that trees are not being negatively influenced by elephant action. The specific survival strategies exhibited by a variety of species demonstrate that they anticipate elephant damage, and through millennia of co-existence with elephants they have evolved to withstand elephant damage. In some instances elephant action proved to be beneficial for the ecosystem. No evidence was found that trees were declining in numbers, therefore no forms of elephant control is deemed necessary in the region. 

An additional project which involved the quantification of African Elephant numbers was also well received. The project uses a variety of sources to quantify the effects poaching and human wildlife conflict have on elephant numbers. We are currently elaborating on this project and aim to distribute it to a number of sources. We hope it will allow people to understand that elephant numbers are dwindling and are in great danger of extinction in the wild within a decade. 

Eva the mongoose continues her reign ofterror and we obediently obey her every command. We leave offerings of chicken stir fry but she fixes us with those smouldering hate filled eyes and we cower in submission. It is not only us humanoids which face the wrath. The other dayshe chased an entire troop of baboons away from camp. Ironically she is scared of the pheasants which frequent our camp. This makes me think I should fear them too. Strangely when night falls she transforms into the cutest little creature you’ve ever seen and curls up on your lap and purrs like a kitten. 

Last week we said goodbye to one of ourfavourite volunteer groups of all time. They were a group from CVA (Conservation Volunteers Australia). Not only did we really enjoy their company but we managed to make some good headway with our research thanks to their assistance. The volunteers, armed with huge bottles of sunscreen and functional (but really nerdy) hats spent many an 8 hour day in the boiling sun helping us devise our visibility index and spent an equal amount of time bent over during our grass surveys. We sincerely thank them for their assistance. Whenever Craig sees a discarded CVA hat lying around camp his eyes become misty and he begins to hum “Daniel” by Elton John. I think he misses them. But we look forward to welcoming the Aussies back next year. 

In conclusion it should be said that this past year has been a challenging one, but we have risen above the challenges and we are always moving forward. We thank our past volunteers of 2009 for assisting us in achieving our objectives for this year. Without them it would not have been possible for us to still be here, smoking our pipes as we watch the sun set on our beautiful Africa each evening. It has been an enriching and valuable year and we look forward to an equally successful 2010 with you guys.

Blog from the Bush

Finally I have found the time and inspiration to compose another blog! So much has happened since I last wrote but John has kept you all informed with his far superior writing skills. As 2009 draws to a close, I find it appropriate to communicate with my fans! It has been a fantastic and productive year with some important milestones reached. We have compiled several publications on our research and signed a memorandum of agreement with the Reserve Management for the total ecological management of this region.

It was with a heavy heart and regret that I had to say goodbye to Craig Fox, my “co-conspirator” and friend in all conservation matters since the inception of this project. Craig Number 2, as he was affectionately called on the radio waves of Balule, has left to further his studies and pursue his conservation career in East Africa. #2 has developed an exquisite passion and understanding of African Elephants and continues to be a big part of this project as he writes for any magazine or publication that will publish his works. Craig #2’s impeccable manners and general knowledge will be missed by us in camp as well as the lodge staff! 

The Reserve Management and Transfrontier Africa are concerned about the increasing levels of rhino poaching in the Greater Kruger National Park. We are lucky to have a “secret weapon” against poaching in our neck of the woods, in the form of the commercial lodges. They traverse almost 85% of our area for approximately eight hours every day. They all employ professional trackers and rangers who provide us with eyes and ears at all times. The value of these lodges is felt on a daily basis as they regularly report snares and suspicious tracks. In my new capacity as Warden of the Olifants West Region of the Balule Reserve, and given our Memorandum of Understanding to provide ecological management to this area, we have, in conjunction with Reserve Management, employed an expert tracker to provide us with professional anti-poaching support. Derrick has been tracking as a professional in the area for more than a decade and comes with the highest accolades from Sabi Sands and other high-profile regions. Derrick is our “secret agent man” responsible for covering the entire reserve on a bicycle and on foot! We are trying to raise funds to purchase him a bike with gears and decent uniform, GPS, binoculars and a radio.

John, our illustrious Research Assistant and well liked member of the team has completed his degree at last! I was impressed that the thesis that he submitted and the works that he produced from our project secured him distinctions and overall “B” symbol! Humble as he is, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate him in the most public manner that I know how! Well done John! It was a tough year for us all at camp, but you pulled it off, and did very well to boot!!! John was also instrumental in the compiling of our recent publications regarding the impacts that human pressures are having on the African Elephants in Sub-Sahara Africa, as well as the tedious fine-scale quantification of the impact that they are having on the woody vegetation in our region. These papers have been submitted to various role-players including CITIEs and the Save the Elephants Foundation. The documents have been well received and I would really like to thank the volunteers that have been through our camp in the past two years as they have all worked hard in gathering the information for this research! 

We are proud to announce that Vivian Burns, who started as a volunteers on our project and returned several times to assist us in the past 18 months, has partnered with us to form the long-awaited “Pennies for Ellies” organization. Viv has worked like a Trojan to set up the web-site and logistics behind this project which is aimed at elephant conservation in Africa and the raising of funds to support legitimate elephant conservation initiatives. GO VIV!! I am so proud to be involved with this as it is a unique project and screams success!! Check it out on Pennies for Eles. Although still in its infancy, the project is well on its way.

We have also been proud to host yet another Animal Handler from the Aalborg Zoo in Denmark. Nynne stayed with us for three weeks and assisted us with our elephant data-capture and research. During this time, Nynne was exposed to several aspects of protected area and general wildlife management and was lucky enough to witness the birth of a baby elephant in the Satara River! This was one of the most touching moments of my life and I was proud to see how Nynne was moved by this experience! Our wildlife have been sent to many corners of the Earth to act as ambassadors for conservation and our country. Our objectives of adding value to their jobs and helping animal handlers from around the world to gain a three-dimensional experience with our African wildlife which will put them in a superior position to empathise and manage their captive animals is bearing fruit. We have prepared ourselves to host a group form the Aalborg Zoo again early next year. 

Our Rains have come and shocked the socks off the advocates of al nino as we already sit at over 200mm for the season! Dams are full again and the grass biomass is looking very good. Volunteers coming through our system in the next few months will be assisting us in quantifying the primary production and ecological carrying capacity for our neck of the woods. As a result of the good early rains, we have seen several species drop their babies already. Wildebeest, impala and zebra babies are in abundance and we are having a tough time capturing all the data for our GIS model. 

We have just endured a fantastic two weeks with a group of Australians who were thrown into the deep-end to help us establish our new game-count routes and visibility index as the vegetation responds to the rains. This was tough work and methodologies take us into the bush for over 8 hours every day. It was a very productive few weeks and it is comforting that they were rewarded with an abundance of wildlife sightings, including lion kills, elephant herds and rhino sightings. We have begun to compile a photographic data-base of our rhino’s on the reserve and placing the sightings on our GIS model. This is an important asset management tool and will also help us to keep tabs on our high-value species. Some black rhino that moved into the area earlier this year make an appearance every now and again. We have a radio-telemetry device that we employ to monitor the movements of the black-rhino and this is one of our favorite pass-times! 

We have employed a new student, Sean Hill, from the Tswane University (formally Pretoria) and he will be tasked with assisting us in our vegetation and wildlife monitoring activities. Whilst I am compiling this, he is out with Derrick combing a section in the west of the reserve. Soon he will embark on the arduous task of grass species compositions and such. Good luck Sean! 

All of our projects and efforts on this small patch of Africa are conducted as a service free of charge. We continue to graciously decline any offers of funding form the Reserve Management and our sole source of income remains form the volunteers. This is an important part of our integrity and we wish it to remain so. 

THANK YOU to the volunteers that have supported us in 2009! You have made a difference and kept this project alive!

Winds of Change

The Olifants West Sector of Balule and more specifically, our little Paradise Camp, has been experiencing many exciting new developments! 

Craig Spencer’s plans of world domination are progressing nicely, aided by his recent appointment as Warden of Olifants West. Now he rants even more while he parades around the fire enveloped in a cloud of pipe smoke. His appointment will potentially increase our influence concerning ecological management of The Olifants West Sector of Balule and we are excited for the future. 

On a sad note we said goodbye to the great Mr. Fox last month at the airport amidst a torrent of tears (mostly from weeping women!). His VISA expired and he has returned home. We are currently in communications with the Foxinator to represent us and initiate potential projects in Kenya. He will be sorely missed. Sometimes Spencer finds an old item of Fox’s clothing, or his old pipe, and just breaks down. But we will be okay. On the flipside we welcome a new member of staff to Paradise Camp. A young, mysterious man known only as Dumsani, who hails from one of the local communities in Mpumalanga Province. He is tasked with camp maintenance and irritating Spencer by singing Gospel songs and incessant raking of the pathways at 6 am every morning. 

Eva the mongoose continues her rain of terror. Recently 5 other mongooses, (all male) moved into Paradise and attempted to copulate with her. Unfortunately she proved too feisty for them and they retreated to River Lodge where they have set up a temporary base until they are brave enough to face the utter ruthlessness of Eva the Mongoose again. She continues to pee on all our electrical appliances (and pretty much everything else expensive) on a daily basis. We are all too scared to do anything about it. To make eye contact with her is to invite certain death. 

Sekorokoro continues to run beautifully after her makeover and serves us well on a daily basis; often outshining newer, shinier Land Rovers with her grit and determination. 

Leopard sightings are on the increase in our area, and two cubs have been spotted just adjacent to Paradise Camp. Nighttimes at Paradise are punctuated by a cacophony of sounds, ranging from lions, a leopard this week who sounded like he was right in camp, and hyena; who incidentally were in camp this week. Sitting watching us as we sat around the fire at night, their green eyes glowing in the moonlight. Apparently we had elephants feeding right in the middle of our camp this week as well. Admittedly I thought the noise was just our old friend Boris the Badger turning our kitchen into Ground Zero again, and promptly rolled over and went back to sleep. Due to the frightening levels of Rhino poaching in the Kruger Park (over 120 White Rhino have been poached in this region over the last year) we are currently involved in the creation of an anti-poaching team, due to the fact that we have many White and 4 Black Rhino in our region. Because Black Rhino are so rare they have been fitted with transmitting devices in their horns which we track by means of an antennae which Craig is constantly holding up to the heavens these days. He looks like he is attempting to make contact with the mother ship. Every now and then we hear a blip from the transmitting devices which let us know these beasts are alive and well out there somewhere. 

Dark thunderclouds gather in the sky threateningly and tease the dry land but still offers no relief. We are excited for the rains which will transform the landscape into one composed of vivid shades of green where life blossoms around every corner. 

I have finally completed my elephants influence on trees research. Our hypothesis was proved in terms of the influence of roads on elephant damage. We found that damage was magnified along the roads as elephants moved along roads and fed on trees on the verge of the road. The significance of this is that perceptions of elephant damage could be magnified owing to the fact that managers, and people in general travel along roads and visually assess damage. It was deduced that damage to trees is less 10 metres away from the road but people assume the damage they visually assess as they travel along roads could be extrapolated across the entire reserve. It is deduced that this is not the case. Additionally trees seem to regenerate well after they have been fed on by elephants. The relationship between trees and elephants are an intricate and multifaceted one which displays that trees seem to anticipate damage by elephants and thus employ various strategies which ensure their survival. This work will be continued on an annual basis, and the current data will serve as baseline data for future studies. 

Elephants have been generating a fairamount of interest in conservation circles and we here at Transfrontier Africa also find our emphasis switching progressively towards elephant conservation and research. Our organisation works closely with the Save the Elephant organisation based in Timbavati, and much of our time is spent gathering data for elephant identification. Additionally we recently completed a study which involved the compilation of an elephant timeline, which aimed to quantify the effects of poaching and illegal harvesting on elephant populations throughout Sub-Saharan Africa. This document has been forwarded to TRAFFIC, CITES and Sir Ian Douglas Hamilton, head of the Save the Elephant Foundation, in an effort to publicise the plight of the elephants. The results were heartbreaking. Currently it is estimated 167 000 elephants remain worldwide. It is estimated 37,000 are killed each year. We are doing what we can here in little Balule but we require volunteers who can assist us in doing our bit to save these majestic beasts from extinction. It is something which we feel requires the most consideration and attention at this time. We look forward to working with you, the volunteers, in this cause of the utmost importance. 

Till next time

© / Michael Scholl Copyright 2012 for TransFrontier Africa and Craig Spencer