Victoria Falls, seen from the Zimbabwean side, is often graced by rainbows.
Editor’s note: For as long as I have known him, I have been impressed by the scientific mind and musical talents of Greg Baker. Our youngest child and his first-born, both boys, were classmates from preschool through high school and our wives are great friends.
Greg is an accomplished fiddler and birder, but it was a work trip to southern Africa two summers ago that piqued my interest. I asked him to share his experiences in a guest blog and so he did, recalling elephants, forests, brushfires and charcoal.
By Greg Baker
In August 2014 I had the good fortune to work in Zambia, a land-locked, south-central African republic of some 14 million people. I was assigned to the position of job site safety manager for the construction of a hazardous waste landfill in the northern Copperbelt Province of Zambia, not far from Chingola.
Construction of a large, lined landfill can only occur during the winter season when conditions are dry – it must be completed before the predictable rainy season commences begins in late spring. Our construction schedule would be tight. My charge on this project was to prevent deaths, accidents, injuries, equipment losses and uncontrolled releases of hazardous substances. This would present a few challenges, as approximately half the crew consisted of local, young untrained laborers, and you never knew what to expect from local suppliers and subcontractors.
Though I’ve traveled a bit in Europe and visited several Central American countries, I’d never been on the African continent. I imagined it would be dominated by lush tropic vegetation and teeming with wildlife. But I quickly came to realize that location, elevation and season matter.
During a four-month stay, I would get a ground-level view of the country’s environmental and economic challenges and shoot hundreds of photos of spectacular scenery and wildlife. I would come home not just with the priceless experience of viewing exotic animals and birds in their native habitats but also with a new perspective on the traditional practice of cutting down live trees to produce charcoal.
So there I was, on my first trip to Africa – a serious birder, and I was stoked! More than 98% of the plants, birds and other animals encountered during this trip would be new to me. Undoubtedly I would find time for some collateral birding, and photograph species new to my life list of world birds (aka “lifers”).
Click on images to view captions.
Southern masked weaver closeup.
Southern masked weaver.
In Zambia people drive on the left hand side of the road, which is a throwback to former British colonial rule. Our construction management team drove through Kitwe to Chingola on a paved, but potholed asphalt road, recently improved by Chinese convict crews – they work for next to nothing I was told. My driver – a young fellow from Ndola – complained that the Chinese get much of the public works projects, because local Zambians simply cannot complete with the very low Chinese wages. (Over the course of the next four months I would come to appreciate that the Chinese aren’t exactly winning the hearts and minds of the African populace. And they appear to be underperforming on infrastructure development, specifically new road projects.)
Typical potholes on a major two-lane highway.
Drivers swerve around potholes, constantly resulting in frequent collisions. Over the course of my four-month assignment while I was there, several pedestrians and drivers would perish along the stretch of road adjacent to our construction site. Loud truck tire explosions occurred about twice a month – the Zambians appear to habitually use their tread-worn semi-truck tires until they blow up.
While cruising along at 110 kilometers per hour (roughly 70 mph) I could not help but notice the speed limit was posted at 60 kh. I was surprised but not shocked to see large stands of pine forest plantations, not dissimilar from what I have observed back in the states, in southern Georgia and northern Louisiana. They appeared to be plantations of pine, perhaps imported from elsewhere.
I soon learned that our project site was at 4,000 feet elevation and 12 degrees south of the equator. Would I get to experience any dense wilderness jungle during this trip? I could hardly wait to explore the countryside.
A typical informal roadside market at a railroad crossing where traffic normally slows down.
There seemed to be plenty of low-lying forests off in the distance, but very few wetlands, streams, ponds and lakes.
I soon learned that brushfires are daily occurrences during the dry season. Fires go unattended and the locals seem quite casual and unconcerned about them. The same goes for garbage fires in and around Chingola. People burn garbage around the clock and don’t seem to mind the foul acrid odors that offend the senses of a fellow from Portland, Oregon. (On one Sunday morning I arose at 8 am for a jog, but quickly gave up — the air pollution was too intense. That day I did not venture outside of my hotel room until noon.)
On a day off I visited the Chimpfunshi Chimpanzee Sanctuary with a few staff from the project and the Mokorro Hotel and Grille. We came across an uncontrolled brushfire, essentially out in the middle of nowhere.
An unattended fire near Chimpfunshi.
The fire must have been displacing insects because several species of birds were actively foraging in front of the fire line, including a distant hornbill, and a small flock of iridescent Greater Blue-eared Starling – both lifers.
Back in the vicinity of Chingola, I occasionally noticed women gathering dead wood in the adjacent forest around the perimeter of our job site. They collected large bundles and balanced their loads on the tops of their heads. The wood is used to produce charcoal, which is the primary fuel used for cooking in rural areas. (Zambia does not have any natural gas, coal or oil resources, and must import such fossil fuels, primarily for commercial and industrial purposes.)
Young local women from the squatter neighborhoods carrying sticks for charcoal production, which can occur informally, anywhere
Bundles of locally produced charcoal for sale along the road side
Back in the states African families are frequently belittled for relying upon “cooking” charcoal, which produces carbon dioxide that presumably contributes to climate change. (“If only those Africans would stop making and using charcoal we would have much less deforestation and less severe global warming to worry about.”) Westerners generally believe that the practice of cutting live trees down for charcoal production has resulted in deforestation in arid regions of Africa. No doubt this is a huge problem with unintended consequences. And it is a problem that is only exacerbated by unsustainable population growth.
But after residing in Africa for a few weeks I started to gain a different appreciation for this custom and the impact that it appears to be having in this part of Zambia. From the few wildfires I had observed, I concluded that such fires do not burn very hot, and the trees and shrubs in the forest understory appear well-adapted for surviving regular light fires. If the dead wood was left in place, the accumulated fuel would burn much hotter and likely destroy large tracts of forest. What type of landscape would result then, and how much carbon dioxide would be sequestered and/or released? Either way, that dead wood eventually IS going to get burned. And live trees should be left unharmed – at least that is the law.
Humans have been an integral part of the ecology in Africa for millions of years and have shaped the present day landscapes. The age-old African custom of regularly gathering fire wood has apparently resulted in the sustainable forests which we observe today in this part of Zambia. Despite the well-intentioned criticisms of Westerners, the forests and landscapes surrounding Chingola appeared to be doing very well, thank you very much.
I wish I could say the same about wildlife around Chingola and our jobsite. Mammals and birds were few and far between. Many children carry catapults (i.e., sling shots), so any unwary wild creature that moves could wind up in a pot or on a skillet before the day is done. Same for road kill – the only road kill I observed were flattened dogs which were ritually left in place to become two-dimensional, and recognizable even a few weeks after meeting their maker. Perhaps there weren’t many wild mammals and reptiles around to be struck?
Towards the end of the first week of September our team learned that a major shipment of construction materials had been delayed; consequently, we would have an uplanned shut-down at the project site – and a furlough – for up to two weeks. I decided to stay in country, though, as I might have had to return to the job site to conduct inspections, risk assessments, and issue specific work permits. So, I decided to fly over to Livingstone, Zambia to check out Victoria Falls and the famous national parks that were said to be teeming with wildlife.
My $40 per night private cottage at Jolly Boys in Livingstone, Zambia.
Since I stayed over a week in a private cottage, I got the 8th night free. The place had two cots with mattresses and mosquito netting; concrete floors; and screen windows. The shared bathroom facilities were in separate buildings, as were places to dine. Not bad at all!
Chobe River habitat.
In early September, many large mammals are concentrated on Sedudu Island.
I signed up for a day trip to Chobe National Park in Botswana with Kalahari Tours. The morning was slated for a water trip to Sedudu Island. Sedudu is a term for a group of hippos. Then following a brief lunch, the afternoon was scheduled for a game drive along a river bank and channel of the Chobe River, immediately across from Sedudu Island.
A bull elephant started crossing the Chobe River for Sedudu Island right in front of our boat.
A wild African elephant.
Bull elephant starting to cross the Chobe River for Sedudu Island
He made it across.
This was my first encounter with a wild African Elephant. I was so pleased to observe this large bull as it swam across a river channel and ascended onto Sedudu Island. Each elephant must consume several hundreds of pounds of vegetation daily, and during the dry season there are more than 100,000 of these giants in Chobe National Park.
I photographed hundreds of birds, reptiles and other mammals. (See www.bigdecadebirder.com to view the images.)
Nile Crocodile, a man-killer.
Hippos larger than mini-vans take out a lot of humans each year.
A sleeping leopard is one of the Big Five.
I took little comfort (from our boat) when a nearby buffalo assumed an assertive posture. (This species kills several people every year.) The Cape Buffalo is one of Africa’s dangerous Big Game Five, or simply “Big Five.” The other four include the African Elephant, White Rhino, Lion and Leopard. I was very fortunate to photograph all of the Big Five while visiting the Livingstone area for the week.
One day my destination was Victoria Falls, which is one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World. Dr. Livingstone was the first European to observe it back in 1858, I believe. How Dr. Livingstone ever made it here without dying of Yellow Fever, Malaria and a host of other life-threatening diseases is beyond me. I took my prophylactic malaria medication religiously each morning.
Victoria Falls, more than a mile wide, is considered one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Victoria Falls and gorge viewed from the Zambian side.
It quickly occurred to me “You’re not back home in Oregon, Greg.” Victoria Falls is nothing like the Cascades of the Columbia Gorge. which is so familiar. For example, Multnomah Falls, while impressive, is essentially a single thread of cascading water. In contrast, the band of spilling water from the Zambia River is over a mile wide, dropping some 350 feet into a steep narrow gorge, shrouded in perpetual mist, punctuated by a persistent rainbow.
Mist from the falls maintains a small permanent rain forest, where I stood taking this photo. Across from this mist, I paused in a mini-rain forest and was rewarded by encountering a small mixed flock or “party” of small foraging birds, which I took time to identify and photograph.
LATE SEPTEMBER/EARLY OCTOBER 2014
Subsequent day trips took me back to Chobe National Park in Botswana and to the other side of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.
Back at work on September 24th, we had a brush fire sweep through our construction site. Since I had wildfire fighting experience, I managed the fire response.
It wasn’t an intense fire, but we had to keep it away from a million dollars’ worth of heavy equipment and landfill liner materials!
I remained on site over night to conduct fire watch. I saw an adult African Eagle Owl flying around by an owl nest during the fire, and I was concerned about the owlets and their chances for survival.
The next morning both owlets were gone. They had vanished without a trace. I feared the worse. Perhaps they had dropped out of the nest because of the fire and were consumed by some predators?
Brush fire approaching our job site
Two weeks after the fire, I spotted two owlets, including this one.
By October 6th, nearly two weeks had passed without any sign of the owls. I happened to look up and spotted the owlets in the trees.
MID TO LATE NOVEMBER 2014
By mid-November we completed our landfill liner installation in the nick of time — just ahead of the first major wet season downpour. My job was done! I could now go meet my wife Rebecca in Livingstone. Later, we would fly down to Capetown and explore the South Africa coast.
Rebecca Bauer, a sight for sore eyes after months apart.
International traveler and lifelong birder Greg Baker.
After visiting the Livingstone area, Chobe National Park and the Wilderness area of South Africa I came to reconsider my previous impressions about charcoal production and the forests back at our construction site near Chingola. Perhaps the only reason there are ANY forests remaining around the Copperbelt and Chingola is related to the absence of elephants?
The folks around the Copperbelt exterminated the African Elephant long ago – this species is known for tearing down small to medium-sized trees and creating/sustaining savannah and grasslands habitats. If the African Elephant were reintroduced, protected, and allowed to roam freely (unlikely) throughout the Copperbelt, there would be very little shrubbery and understory left for the Zambians to collect for charcoal production – the landscape would likely be more savannah-like and there would be more grasslands.
After four months in Zambia I was not certain what to conclude about my Westernized preconceived notions concerning charcoal production, deforestation, climate change and elephants. I will simply have to return to Africa one day to ponder these matters again!
Greg Baker has chronicled the entire trip and hundreds of photographs on his website: http://www.bigdecadebirder.com. He is currently employed as Director of Training at PBS Engineering and Environmental in Portland, Oregon. His wife, Rebecca Bauer, is a retired teacher from Portland Public Schools.
All photographs courtesy of Greg Baker