Preparation for this conference has taken a lot of my time this year, and that of fellow organizers Roger Smith and Caz Bartholomew of Echidna Walkabout Tours in Victoria
The conference was organized by Wildlife Tourism Australia, of which I’m chair and Roger is vice chair, and held in Geelong, Victoria. Our primary sponsor was Tourism Victoria, other sponsors and supporters including Parks Victoria, Phillip Island NatureParks, Rocklily Wombats, Zoos Victoria, Moonlit Sanctuary, Longhorne Tours, Echidna Walkabout and Araucaria Ecotours
About 140 people attended, including delegates, organizers, keynote speakers, sponsors and volunteers.
The program can be downloaded here, showing titles of all presentations and round table discussions ConferenceProgram
There were excellent presentations by academic researchers, tourism practitioners, government officials and others, and much lively but amicable discussion on a wide range of topics. We could easily have kept talking for another couple of weeks!
After the Think Tank near Kruger NP, I had to find my way to my second conference, Frugivory and Seed Dispersal 2015, in the Drakensbergs
All went well for several hours, although I was slowed down a bit by lengthy detours from roadworks, until I left Bergville, close to sunset, and the longer I drove the less it looked like I was going the right way. Finally it was quite dark and I was driving down narrow country roads with people, goats and cows occasionally wandering along on them. I stopped to ask directions from some ladies, but we had some language problems, or perhaps they just hadn’t hard of my destination. Finally when driving through a small village I saw a shop that was open, pulled up to the door and called out to the shop attendant. He was friendly and helpful and told me I had to travel the 20 km back to Bergville and take the road out the other side. When I finally got to the right road and saw a sign pointing to Alpine Heath Resort I actually called out ‘thank you’ to it.
The Alpine Heath Resort is in a dramatic setting in the Drakensbergs.
People from all over the world presented fascinating papers over the next few days on seed dispersal by frugivores (fruit eating animals), from insects to elephants. I presented a report on some work-in-progress on what determines whether native fig seeds and seedlings germinate and persist after being dispersed by birds and bats.
There were symposia on ecology and evolution, the chemical ecology of seed dispersal, international networks, patterns and processes in frugivore-plant interactions, understanding seed dispersal, see dispersal and plant recruitment in a changing world, anthropogenic impacts on seed dispersal, seed dispersal by animals as an ecological filter, movement ecology and genetic effects, and conservation of environmental services, with many good talks presented within each.
A mid-week fieldtrip took us to the Nambiti Game Reserve where I had my final chance to see lions, elephants, giraffes, hippos and rhinos, as well as my first hartebeest and oryx (the oryx is Namibian rather than South African, but have been released into the reserve)
After the conference I booked for a horse ride that included a wild gallop up a hill and my first view of an eland. During the conference I had also seen jackals and small antelopes at night, plus a number of birds, and heard that someone had seen secretary birds flying over. I suggested n my feedback form to the resort that they mention the wildlife in their promotion, and they have responded that they will try to fit it in to their website.
The next International Frugivory and Seed Dispersal Symposium will be held in India in 2020.
I’ve left Kruger, and am staying at the Protea Hotel ready for the BEST Education Network Think Tank XV: The Environment People Nexus in Sustainable Tourism: Finding the Balance. I’m still just across the river though, so can look across into Kruger and still hope to see elephants and hippos, and there are monkeys and birds in the garden. We’ll also be having a conference field trip back into Kruger tomorrow for a sunset drive.
I have to switch my mental faculties now from wildlife-watching mode to conference and networking mode. I would have liked another month or so of the wildlife watching, but this should be a very worthwhile conference. Because I’m representing Wildlife Tourism Australia at the Think Tank, I’ll now switch to recording events, including interesting bit of information and ideas from the conference and notes on our field trips, on the Wildlife Tourism Australia blog: http://www.wildlifetourism.org.au
(NOTE: this is not one of our own tours: I’m exploring Kruger NP before attending two conferences in South Africa)
I’m really going to miss Kruger! I could easily spend a couple of months here. Or more.
Visitors to my on table (and no, they didn’t get a feed) included glossy starling, yellow-billed hornbill (known locally as the ‘flying banana’) and female and male red-winged starlings
I made a sound while drinking my sparking marula juice which seemed to arouse this giraffe’s curiosity
As I said, all animals have right-of-way here, and with some you don’t get much choice anyway!
My ‘home’ for my last two nights: a cabin at Skukuza, with its own fridge and shower/toilet (my hut at Pretoriaskop didn’t have these, but its communal ablution block had a bath tub with plenty of hot water: great for relaxing before bed)
You don’t have to be in one of those very expensive luxury safari lodges to enjoy a hearty, leisurely breakfast while watching hippos, elephants and a variety of birds from your dining table
Quite an eventful morning (16th June)
First there was a small pack of wild dogs on the road towards Lower Sabie. One somehow became separated from the others, stood near my car, occasionally whimpering like a domestic dog, looking for his fellows and finally took off back into the bush
Soon after, I heard impalas making a fuss about something, so drove down a gravel road in their direction. There I watched two lionesses stalking a giraffe. The giraffe was understandably looking very nervous, and part of me wanted to reassure him that everything’s okay, he’s not about to be killed. On the other hand, those lionesses probably have cubs to feed, and it would take a lot of impala to equal the food supply in one giraffe. I had no desire to see something killed, but I was rather fascinated as to what they intended to actually do. The giraffe’s legs are so long, they could easily walk under its belly even if one was riding on the back of the other. A kick from a giraffe can kill a human, so it can probably do a bit of damage to a lion. How do you tackle something that big?
They finally seemed to decide it was too difficult after all.
Further along the road there was a traffic jam. The cause was a big male lion and two lionesses relaxing by the roadside, creating great excitement amongst visitors.
By now I was feeling a little peckish, and called in at the same picnic stop that had trouble with baboons a few days ago. I bought a cup of tea and a bag of chips, and the lady had to let me out the other (till now locked) door, as there was a large baboon waiting outside the door I’d come through, ready to leap at my chip bag.
(NOTE: this is not one of our own tours: I’m exploring Kruger NP before attending two conferences in South Africa)
Animals at picnic areas are a problem, not just for the humans, but for the animals themselves. If they get too demanding, as they can do after learning how profitable picnics can be, the rangers may have to remove them, even putting them down if they are dangerous (as large baboons certainly can be, and hyenas even more so: the strength of their jaws is second only to crocodiles).
I hadn’t been in Kruger more than a minute before I saw my first impala. Not really surprising: they are by far the most common hoofed animal in the park, but still quite delightful.
I was soon also seeing buffalo, kudu and a lovely lilac-breasted roller.
More wildlife awaited me in the Rest Camp, Skukuza. Wart-hogs casually wander past the cabins, grazing on the lawns.
My petrol gauge stil registered almost full, so I thought it was malfunctioning, but when I asked for the tank to be filled it only took five dollars. I was quite impressed with the efficiency of this little Chevrolet.
A final drive revealed no large animals, but I did see and hear the ‘Go-away’ bird (the grey lowry), hornbills and starlings.
The ant hills between my hut and the river are rather large: I haven’t seen the ants yet.
The moonlight was bright during the nights, so I went out twice to look across the river. I saw one lone heron feeding and heard a few other birds and frogs.
I have heard many calls for all elephant riding to be banned, everywhere, on grounds of cruelty. One of the first things explained to us at Elephant Whispers was the cruel way many elephants are trained in Asia and I agree those methods are brutal and I would not want to condone it by riding them.
The elephants here at Elephant Whispers are instead trained gently, patiently, winning their trust and rewarding them with tasty and healthy food treats. They were not torn from their mothers for the purpose of training but instead rescued from areas where they would otherwise have been culled. When not doing the public events (2 or at most 3 times a day, and not happening every day) they have thousands of acres of woodland through which to roam freely, but come back to cosy stables to sleep at night.
There is much cruelty in the world, many people doing horrible things to many animals, even back home in Australia (live-baiting of greyhounds, pigs spending their whole lives in tiny pens…) and much that should be banned. This place is not one of them.
The younger elephants had been previously rescued from culling and were being kept on cattle farms and enjoyed following the horses while cows were being rounded up. Some of the young men working there found they could hop onto these youngsters while doing this, and that they were very quick to learn voice commands. As the elephants grew they started getting into a bit of mischief, and had enormous appetites, and the people who now run Elephant Whispers took them in and continued training them (and also employed one of the young men who had started interacting with them) – a vastly different story to what happens regularly with the brutal training of young Asian elephants.
The biggest and oldest elephant, Tembo, had been kept in free-range captivity for many years with a female, until some wild elephants broke in and challenged his right to the relationship. Tembo got a bit upset, started unroofing houses, attacking other animals and doing other things his human neighbours understandably didn’t like, and he was soon to be shot, but the Elephant Whispers folk heard about this, brought him in, and with gentleness and patience won his trust and he became the truly Gentle Giant he is known as today.
Amazingly, one of the elephants, showing great trust in everyone, lay down and immediately put his trunk out for his food rewards, and allowed us to stroke and examine his trunk, tusks, ear, tail and feet.
The rides last only 15 minutes, and only happen two or three times a day, and not every day for every elephant, and then they are turned loose to wonder thousands of acres of woodland before coming into the stable at night.
Shangana Culture Village
This is a true Africa Village, and the chief you get to meet really is the chief of this village and of many other Shangana people in the region. This is the kind of African experience I missed experiencing on my previous two visits to South Africa and was very glad I decided to spend a couple of nights in Hazyview so I could visit both Shangana and Elephant Whispers.
Wooden carvings in the market are all made by local people, so by buying here you are contributing to the local economy, not some big international chain. I bought a lovely wooden kudu and a warthog.
Although I was the only guest for the day, my guide, Edward, took me through the entire tour. He showed me the wild chestnut which is ground for flavouring of spinach and other dishes, and talked of the other foods and medicines grown there. They are independent of the money economy for their basic needs. He also explained much about marriage and other aspects of the Shagana culture.
We walked to the village, where Edward called for the chief and asked his permission for us to enter, and for me to take photos. He explained which hut was the chief’s, which for each of his wives, which for the girls, the boys etc.
The traditional doctor showed me her various medicines and the collection of bones used somehwat as tarot cards, translated by Edward.
Finally the feast, starting with an appetiser of mopani worms, a caterpillar that feeds on the mopani tree. On my first visit to South Africa I had asked whether it was possible to try traditional African foods, and someone said contemptuously ‘you could eat insects like the natives!” This annoyed me in two ways: it was obviously racist, and eating insects really isn;t much different from eating crustaceans they would probably consider a delicacy. I have eaten two kinds of caterpillar previously, witcheti grubs in Australia, and caterpillars from the bamboo in China, so was very happy to try the mopani worms. They were salty and chewy.
This place deserves to be much better known. It is too easy to pass through South Africa without much introduction to traditional culture.
Not to be missed if you’re coming through Hazyview!