Okavango - Page 1

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Young baboons
sunbathing


Wild dogs

(see Note 1)

Adult male
Striker

(see Note 2)

View from
my hut

Female eating
Kigelia

Adolescent
female with
broken finger

Sentry duty
(just kidding)

Steve photo-
graphing lions

(see Note 3)

Typical
bent-wrist
posture

Nina Bestelink

(see Okavango
Horse Safaris
)

Brad Bestelink

Another view
from my hut

Infant baboon
colorations

Crossing a
molapu

Six months old

Cape Buffalo on
Chief's Island

Canoing on the
Boro River


Giraffes
near the
airstrip

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Note 1. All of the wild dog photos on these pages were snapped from a motocycle. The dogs were much more relaxed around a human on a motorcycle than a human on foot.

Note 2. When the study began in 1977, we could hardly get closer than 50 meters to the baboons before they would run. Striker, a past-prime male from the White Island troop, was the first one to accept our presence. Our strategy for habituating the baboons was to stay as close as we could to Striker and, subsequently, to an adult female named Rena. The others gradually lost their fear of us.

Note 3. We saw this lioness and her two adolescent offspring commonly during the three year study. Normally they kept their distance from us, but I had a frightening experience with them on the evening of July 20, 1979.

I often slept at the White Island baboon roost, some 2 miles from Baboon Camp, in hopes of seeing leopards hunting the baboons at night. The water level in the floodplains had risen dramatically however, and vehicle access to White Island was impossible. So before sunset I made the half hour hike over the fields and through the waist-deep water crossings with my sleeping gear and backpack.

When I arrived at the tall stand of Acacia nigrescens trees, most of the 70 members of W troop had already staked out their roosting spots in the canopy. On an adjacent island, some 300 yards away, another baboon troop erupted with alarm barks. Only five minutes later, so did most of W troop.

In the near darkness, I clutched onto my trusty 12-ounce hammer (used for nailing tree tags) and walked toward the disturbance expecting to see a leopard. Instead, I found myself face to face with the lioness, who seemed to be as surprised to see me as I was to see her.

We each backed away. I knew that lions could climb trees, yet the conventional wisdom was that they were usually too lazy to do so. This lion, however, was on the prowl. Without any good options, I levitated into a tree occupied by a dozen screaming baboons and prepared for the worst.

Darkness had fallen and the moon was yet to rise. The screaming intensified. Then I heard growling from the base of the tree, just 10 feet below me. There were three of them. The two adolescents had joined the mother. All I could do was growl back at them and grip my hammer, ready to flail as a last resort.

I had a brief out-of-body experience in which I pictured myself up a tree at night in the middle of nowhere with shrieking baboons above me and hungry lions below. It seemed too bizarre to be real. But despite knowing that I might soon be dinner, I didn't panic. Whenever the lions growled, I growled back at them and pounded my hammer against the tree trunk.

After a fifteen to twenty minute standoff the growling stopped and the baboons settled down. The shadow of a small wild cat appeared in the flickers of a lantern that I had left near my backpack. Half an hour later, when my heart finally stopped pounding, I began to grope for a way to get down. I landed awkwardly and ripped my arm on a jagged branch.

Figuring that the baboons would go nuts if the lions returned, I cleaned up my arm, built a small bonfire, wrote a letter to my grandmother, and went to sleep.

The next morning I walked back to Baboon Camp carrying my pack and my 12 ounce hammer, grateful that my life had been spared. I did not mention this event to anyone until years later when a friend asked me about the thin scar on my arm.