Problems with Palm Oil – and how to avoid it

Palm oil is a plant based alternative to digging up hydrocarbons (like oil).

In theory, the concept of growing the fuel that we use might be a good idea, unfortunately this has not worked well in practice. The best place to grow palm oil is along the equator, but this is where much of the tropical rainforest also grows. It has already been established that as much of this needs to be left intact as possible for the world to function as an ecosystem.

While I would have a problem in the way this is being undertaken for the simple reason that these rainforests hum with life there are other issues. Continue reading “Problems with Palm Oil – and how to avoid it”

Review of Udzungwa National Park, Tanzania

Driving around Tanzania, you regularly come across tiny remnants of rainforest that still exist high up in hills and mountains. East Africa used to have more rainforest, but the area has dried out over the last few thousand years (East Africa has an extremely long cycle of drying out and the retreat of rainforest and then its return). However with extra altitude you get more rain. That means that driving around areas that are largely dry savannah you can find small pockets of forest if the road rises significantly. As such driving between protected areas you can suddenly find that you are in a forest remnant and that there are monkeys above your head. One of the largest protected remnants is the Udzungwa National Park. This park protects a part of the eastern arc mountains that run across eastern Tanzania. The park protects around 770 square miles. Much of this is rainforest, with six species of primate, four of which are endemic. One of these the highland mangabay  (also called kipunji) was only discovered in 2005.

We stopped off for 4 days after leaving the Selous ecosystem. This is a park that I would highly recommend to anyone. After visiting the park headquarters, you are free to explore. Compared to the surrounding rainforest the prices were extremely cheap. We paid around £200 for two of us for 4 day guided walk in the forest and camping each night.

It does require a reasonably high level of fitness as you spend your days scrambling up and down steep hills and mountains. We went to stay in an encampment a significant distance inside the forest. There are few roads so everything is done on foot. The park is particularly popular for birds but also has a large number of reptiles. We did not see anyone inside the park, we had the paths we were on completely to ourselves. What is particularly odd that due to its size, many of the usual forest animals are not there such as chimpanzees, though they did live here at one time. Also missing is the forest elephant. However as this reserve is close to savanah parks there are elephants from there- forest elephants have developed smaller tusks to help them get around within a crowded forest, but these ones manage fine. While we did not encounter one we did see dung in many places.

With more time, you can go for a longer hike (4 days in each direction) to the furthest part of the reserve. In this part of the reserve you have an area of Savanah. This is particularly exciting as there are lions among other animals, but there are no vehicles so if you wish to see the elephants you have to walk.

There are no guesthouses or hotels within the park, though the local village does have some. There are however, a few campsites. Many of these are deep in the forest and are not going to be used except within the middle of a hike. We stayed in one of these campsites deep within the park. This was just stunning, and we found this park to be one of the most relaxing parts of our tanzanian holiday. However we also camped within a separate campsite across the road from the park, with beautiful view. It was only just being set up but the plans included large amounts of wild land and a lake which is likely to attract animals to watch during the evening.

Review of Selous Game Reserve, Tanzania

The Selous nature reserve is the largest protected savannah reserve in Africa. It covers roughly 50,000 square km (19,000 square miles). However this reserve is named Selous after Fredrick Selous, a successful hunter. 95% of the park is set aside for hunting. However, partly because of this and also because of an insect that inhabits the area; bites from the insect can give humans an illness called sleeping sickness, and therefore humans have not settled in the area. However due to its size, it has the capacity to protect huge populations of many mammals.

Few people visit the nature reserve, but this means that you are likely to experience a hugely wild experience, and usually have any sightings completely to yourself. It has been hard hit by the elephant poaching that followed the southern African countries one off sale of their elephant ivory stocks. The intention of these occasional sales is to drop the price of Ivory which means that it is not worth the huge risk to get it (both physically and from detection from the game wardens). However, the risk is that it increases the desire for ivory, and in this instance the second happened. In 2007 it was estimated that the elephant population of the Selous was around 110,000. When we went in 2011 the population was estimated at 30,000. 80,000 elephants from this one protected area were killed. As can be imagined the the remaining elephants are very wary of humans,and so aggressive,  which makes it harder to get significant numbers of people coming to the reserve to take pictures.

A population that has not been decimated in recent years is the lion population, in this reserve it is estimated that there is roughly 5,000 lions. This is roughly a quarter of the remaining lions in Africa.

Practical review

While I greatly enjoyed my visit here, it is not an easy place to travel to on your own. There are very few amenities here. This is partly because the majority of people who visit the park will do it on a far larger budget; there are the resources within the park for an astoundingly luxurious trip. For me, I am far more interested in paying the money to go to very remote places and then living frugally.

My wife and I camped in a camp called Lake Tagalala camp, this cost $25 dollars per night which is not terrible, but here it buys you some space to put your tent up, and a long drop toilet. Washing consisted of walking the 100m to the local lake, with your night guard as there were both crocodile and hippos were in the lake close to where you were able to use it. You also had to pay $50 dollars for a night guard each night. While this does not seem to much, we felt ripped off. All the night guards are day guides, so generally go to bed early (and indeed went to bed around 7pm every night we were there) also if you are sharing the camp with another group you are still charged $50 dollars but there is one between the two (or on some occasions more) groups. On those nights our $50 dollars bought us a good evening and good morning. $50 dollars is the average income for tanzanians per month. We did feel in places that people expected to be able to rip off tourists as they wanted (one warning: we were offered a free walk, on return, the guy demanded the full cost of the walk – we paid up but on leaving the park our driver went in and informed the authorities and got our money back)

Just as an aside, our car was the biggest headache for the whole trip. It was very expensive ($120 per day). It came with a driver and we were picked up at the airport promptly, which was lovely. The problems however started almost immediately. The windscreen was cracked badly already, though the whole pane needed to be replaced quite quickly as we hit a branch which made it far worst. The cold box was not working, the windows did not open some of the doors did not work etc. As you can imagine for the price we felt that this was a rather huge rip-off, and this was never fully rectified. However the driver we had was a lovely guy. It was unfortunate that his English was almost non existent, and it took several days to get him to understand how to drive within the park (slowly so we can look for animals and various other simple techniques to help us find animals). We did also discover after a few days that he was using the majority of our water, having not been sent with water of his own (when you are in a remote place perhaps 50 miles from the nearest place to replace your water this is quite important). However, I wish to say that our driver was lovely, very helpful and made sure that we were not ripped off when we went to buy things, the problem lay with the firm that rented the car in the first place.

Review of Kruger National Park

  • Size 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
  • Facilities 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
  • Range of animals 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)
  • Road quality 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)
  • Wildness 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

Kruger is one of the few national parks in the world that is large enough to have a sizeable population for some of its rarer animals. It is also part of the Limpopo transfrontier park which includes the Limpopo park in Mozambique, Gonarezhou National Park, Manjinhi pan Sanctuary and Malipati Safari area in Zimbabwe as well as the area between Kruger and Gonarezhou, and the Sengwe communal land in Zimbabwe and Makuleke region in South Africa. The area of this whole piece park is 35000 square km. There are plans to increase this in size to close to 100,000 square km. About 18,000 square km (half) of this is the Kruger National Park.

The Kruger Park on its own is the equivalent of an area roughly the size of Wales. It has 138 different species of mammal roaming free. This includes 6 species of Cat, 3 of Dog (two of these are jackels) and many species of Antelope.

The Cat species include Lions (about 1500), Leopard (about 2000), Cheetah (200), Caracal, African wild cat, and Serval. Lions are easily found and generally do not fear cars, we saw lions at some point on most days we spent within the park. Leopards are far more secretive and we had been in the area for almost 3 months before we saw our first one. That is not to say that they are always this hard to see but often keep themselves hidden. There is a section of the river which claims to have the worlds highest density of leopards in the world.

Cheetah are very hard to find in the park because as there is much vegetation you can not spot them from a distance like in the Serengeti. Because there are very few of them sightings are a rare treat, though because they hunt mostly by sight, they are most active in the day, and often hunt during the hottest part of the day when the lions and leopards are resting. When we had our sighting of cheetah within Kruger, they were clearly looking for food and were standing on a small mound on the side of the road. We followed them as they slowly went off after prey in the distance, but quickly lost them.

The last major predator is the African wild dog. African wild dog are highly successful pack animals. No African mammal is successful more often when hunting. However unfortunately this means that they are highly mobile and while we narrowly missed them on many occasions, we never got lucky with these fascinating animals. The Kruger has a relatively stable population of 350 animals, however they are very susceptible to illnesses, and due to the shape of Kruger, there is always the risk of rabies or canine distemper being spread through the population from strays living around the park. In 1992, the wild dog population of the Serengeti disappeared in one year. Because that park is connected to others wild dog are slowly returning. There are proactive projects trying to improve the health of dogs around remaining national parks containing wild dog, in the hope of saving this fascinating mammal.

It has both white rhino and black rhino populations, though the black rhino population remains low. Rhino have been targeted in the last decade. It is believed that by grinding down rhino horn and drinking it many illnesses can be cured. While this is rubbish demand meant that rhino horn was for a time more valuable than an equivalent weight in Gold. More absurd is the fact that White Rhino horn is made of keratin, the same substance that make up our fingernails (and you will get the same medicinal remedy by grinding up your fingernails and drinking them). At one point the poaching was running at one thousand animals a year, though thankfully this number has reduced. Black Rhino also once existed within the area in great numbers but were eradicated. They were reintroduced and there is a population of around 400-600, that has grown from a founder popuation of 90 between the 1970 and 1990s. Black rhino being browsers rather than the grazing white rhino (misnamed, White was a mistranslation of the Africaans name Weit meaning wide) and as such their droppings are easily differentiated. We encountered black rhino droppings a few times so knew that there was at least one animal in the area we spent much of our time, but they are very shy spending much of their time deep in cover so not seen very often.

When the park was enclosed it was worked out that the carrying capacity of the park was 7000 elephants. Currently the number exceeds 16000 which is roughly twice the calculated carrying capacity of the reserve. Up until 1990 regular culls kept the elephant population limited, but since then the size has doubled. However this is a rather difficult problem to work out as the elephants are not living in the same way that they would have lived hundreds of years ago. Elephants are very destructive, regularly pushing down trees and generally changing the area as they see fit; at a certain point in the elephants would have migrated out of the area for some time allowing the land to recover. Once the elephants were fenced in this was not possible. The hope is that this migrating behaviour can be restarted within transfrontier parks like the Kruger, though this behaviour might take many years to start.

On a smaller scale, due to the fact that large parts of the reserve have never been anything other than wild, this means that the ecosystem functions well in the natural way that it did for millenia before humans appeared. As such apart from all the big animals to be looking for, there are also dozens of smaller animals to be looking out for, animals such as Servals, Caracals, Civit cats, Genets, African wild cats, Pangolins, Aardvarks and many many more. This makes the reserve an exciting place to drive through; you never know what animal might walk out into the road (or be spotted in the nearby bushes).

Practical review

The Kruger is possibly the easiest large nature reserve in Africa to visit. This is because the majority of the roads are tarmacked and most of the rest are dust paths that are still easy to drive. Almost all the roads you are allowed to drive are easily driveable in a 2 wheel drive, therefore there is no need within the Kruger for 4 wheel drive, though the extra height of the vehicle comes in useful because it makes it easier to see over bushes and other cars.

The campsites have electric fences around them so there is no need to hire guards to look after yourself, this also makes Kruger probably the most child friendly large reserve as within the safety of the camp, children can play close by without needing to look out for animals all the time. There are about 12 main campsites but many of these have satellites camps that allow for a more wild feel (less easily child friendly).

For those looking for a wilder feel, some of the camps have satellite camps that are far smaller with fewer resources, but this means that often the animals come closer.

Each campsite has a sightings board, which contains a map of the park and pins of different colours to allow you to say where you saw different animals. This means that with some planning each morning you can make sure you look through parts of the park where sightings are most likely. This means that even if it is your first visit you can often have sightings just like a seasoned wildlife guide.