Some of Nature’s Top Predators

They’re bodies are sleek, evolved to carry out quick stealth-like attacks in near silence on slacking prey. They kill thousands annually and their appetite for blood is unparalleled. And upon our arrival into Chiang Mai, we chanced upon seeing these top predators in action…unfortunately. Actually, we saw at least 64 of these guys in action, as that’s how many mosquitoes we killed in our room in a day. Turning on the fan caused 5 of them to scramble in all directions. Walking by the bed, 3 fly out from under it, 2 more make their appearance known from on top the blanket. Trying to lock in on one to smash it, meant ignoring others flying by your face in the commotion. They were everywhere, and if we stayed still, they attacked our exposed legs and arms unmercifully.
And let me say, I HATE mosquitoes. HATE them. The shrill buzz of its wings always finds me just as I’m about to nod off. And their bites on me don’t just result in a little red dot and a slight itch. When mosquitoes bite me, it’s like a mosquito clown is blowing balloon animals with my epidermis. My skin reacts into massive red irregular shaped patches with legs and tails shooting off them. I really can’t stress how much I HATE them. This also means then, that I take a real pleasure in killing them. Each clapping of my hands that ends with a little needle-nosed insect falling out of the sky brings me a smile.

The day after the day that became known as the “Massacre of 64,” I went out and bought a mosquito zapper. I’ve been looking forward to this for months, but have held off for not wanting to actually carry it around. It’s a tennis racket shaped instrument that has a small electrical current running through the “face” of the racket. See a mosquito, show it your backhand (remembering to follow through with your body) and zap! Mesquite BBQ mosquito. The prey has become the predator.

The same day I bought the zapper we went to see another of the world’s top predators. This one however is warm, cuddly and a welcome sight (under the right circumstances). We visited a place called Tiger Kingdom and spent about half an hour inside the enclosures with the equivalent of toddler and adult tigers. Mari entered and was in heaven. I was somewhere in the SF Zoo around Christmas time. But my fears subsided and we were able to sit and touch the tigers if they were lying down. When they were up and walking around us, we happily stepped back and observed. Being this close to these animals was a real highlight for us.
And it was a highlight that almost didn’t happen. We originally planned to volunteer in Kanchaniburi, Thailand for a month working with tigers at a place called Tiger Temple. We were both really amped to work with animals that had been illegally poached and couldn’t be returned to the wild. However, our research into the program brought up some concerns about the animal’s treatment (even in a country where animal conservation has a different meaning from our own) and we had decided we couldn’t support it.

And Tiger Kingdom isn’t perfect either. Assuming “perfect” is only the wild in protected areas, free from illegal logging, human interaction and hunting, this is far from perfect. The tigers are in enclosures and are fed chicken daily. They interact with humans daily, from birth. They will never be returned to the wild. But, that’s not the goal of the kingdom either. It’s a breeding program, keeping a species from extinction from a world that is far from perfect. And in a country without government commitment around conservation, this agency has naturally turned to tourism dollars to fill a void. And they do seem to treat the animals well, especially by South East Asian standards. They are cared for by handlers who have known them since birth. They look healthy and happy. And even if we’ll continue to hope for an ideal world, and hope that one day there will be large scale sanctuaries set up for these majestic animals, in the present we’ll happily settle for a step in its direction.

Posted: January 13th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: Thailand | Tags: , , , , , , , | 4 Comments »

For the Animal Lovers Out There…

Posted: September 23rd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , , | No Comments »

When Macaques Attack…

So we decided to climb Mt. Emei. This is when my aversion to stairs really solidified, but already I digress. After walking up and down thousands of steps for about 15 kilometers, we reached the Qingyin Pavilion, a few kilometers after which is the Ecological Monkey Zone. There were hordes of tourist groups that day, so I was hoping to see a monkey or two. As we approached the entrance to the zone, vendors were selling bags of monkey food to those who wished to feed the monkeys. We decided not to engage in the feeding of wild animals and walked on. A sign posted near the entrance stated all the dos and don’ts involved in dealing with the monkeys, and there was a nicely written statement about how the locals and macaques have lived harmoniously together for years. Several meters past the sign, I spotted my first lone Macaque monkey walking across a hanging bridge. A few seconds later, a groundskeeper hit the monkey with a large stick of bamboo. “That man just HIT a monkey!” I exploded in astonishment and anger, as the monkey cowered and ran up into a tree. We were crossing the bridge as I continued on about this act of animal cruelty, when a mother macaque with baby attached jumped down and grabbed Jeff’s water bottle out of his backpack holder in one swift move. She then promptly bit open the bottle and enjoyed the beverage, sharing some with her baby, and dripping some down on us from her spot on the branch above. I looked around and saw macaques of all sizes all over the place-on the bridge, the railings, sitting on rocks, in the foliage. I also noticed that the groundskeepers who seemed to be everywhere, all had long sticks and slingshots. It was at this point I began to think that these macaques were too crafty for their own good. At the same moment, I spotted a very large male macaque walking calmly through the crowd of people. For some reason, he ignored all the people and their tangle of legs, bags, cameras, and monkey food and weaved his way straight towards me. As he came closer with no signs of slowing, I thought it best to show no fear. This was a wild animal after all-maybe a show of dominance would prove to him that I was not afraid and he would go away. Really dumb. I should have learned my lesson from the incident with the baboon on the car in Kenya, but apparently I have a thick skull. So, I yelled something, swung out my leg and kicked at him. Note that I did not actually kick him, just at him. Either way, he did not like this one bit, which I realized as soon as he bared his teeth and growled. The rest happened so fast, it’s all a blur. The next thing I knew he had leapt from the ground and was flying through the air. He jumped on me, the force of which knocked me over. Luckily, there was a large boulder to the side which I was able to grab on to as I screamed my lungs out. Jeff tells me that he was yelling by this point too and that he was preparing himself to fight the monkey, but at the same moment as all the tourists turned to see the commotion, the nearest groundskeeper appeared with her stick and chased the male off. Whew. I had escaped with barely a few scratches.

Looking all innocent

Looking all innocent

After that, it is safe to say that I did not enjoy the rest of the hike through the Ecological Monkey Zone. I tried to remain near any groundskeeper at all times, with their sticks and slingshots. And despite my indignation several minutes earlier, any time a macaque came too close (which was often), I found myself whispering to myself, “Get it! Hit it…hit it!!!!” which sadly they often did. Some of the ladies appeared to take a perverse pleasure in chasing the monkeys with their sticks, and playing games of monkey slingshot. Even though I was still a bit shaky from the incident, it made me really sad to see that several of the monkeys were a bit bloodied. I would like to think it was all nature, part of living in the wild, maybe a rivalry between packs, but I also think I know better.

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

A macaque monkey (not the culprit) and one freaked out girl

Posted: September 22nd, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: China | Tags: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Full Circle

Way back when (in April) we were in Costa Rica volunteering with giant leatherback sea turtles. It was nesting season, and at the time the only thing that would have made the experience more special would have been if we could have been present for hatching season. Mission complete! Because it turns out that it is hatching season for the green sea turtles here in Indonesia. Unfortunately, the handling, procedures, and overall treatment of the turtles falls short of ecological standards. In fact, it would probably make the research assistants and directors in Costa Rica (and other organizations) cringe. However, we were lucky enough to enter the hatchery and release the hatchlings back into the sea, which is something I’ve always wanted to do. A few days later, we got to see and do the photo op thing with another bunch of hatchlings in the middle of the day. The guy with the bucket of turtles, reached in a handed one to me. I hesitated, and tried to question if it was ok (which obviously to him it was since he was calling my name and holding it out). I’m not sure why they were kept in a dry bucket for hours until their release, but with the language barrier I was only able to be told that they were fine and did not need water. There’s something weird about sea turtles not needing water, but the guys were supposedly trained members of the World Wildlife Federation and who am I to challenge the way things are done on the island? I know conservation efforts and humans the world over are trying to help, but sometimes I wonder if in some instances it would be best to let nature take its course. So in a moment of weakness and deliberate selfishness, I took the turtle from him (ok, and another one out of the bucket so that turtle #1 wouldn’t be lonely and freaked out-my lame justification). It’s like when you are a kid, and your mom has taught you not to touch [fill in the blank], but one day it’s right there in front of you. No one else is in sight (although in my case there were witnesses). The chance may never come again. What do you do? As I got eye to eye with one of the babies, I felt lucky for experiencing a dream, saddened by the slim chances of it ever reaching adulthood, and guilty for the part I had so willingly played in it.

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

Green sea turtle hatchlings awaiting their release

*Side note: I would have felt a little better about this, but my google search on handling hatchlings revealed that although there are all sorts of pictures of people holding baby turtles (even on the conservation websites), the majority state that this is a serious no-no. Apologies to all those conservationists and animal rights activists out there.

Posted: August 24th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: Indonesia | Tags: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

South Africa

As far as countries go, South Africa has been a bit of everything…in extremes. Of course there is the country’s fascinating history, of black and white, of pride and shame. And as in other countries, evidence of extravagance and poverty within a stone’s throw away from each other. Tribal villages, beaches, cities, townships, mountains, wilderness, and all the activities and life that go with each, all jumbled together in South Africa. Three weeks is not nearly enough to explore South Africa, but we’ve been getting a feel for what we can. The warnings about corruption and crime are valid in certain areas and dispensed not only from guide books and travel websites, but from locals themselves. Luckily, aside from one very minor ATM incident (from which I emerged unscathed, just a little shaken and a lot more savvy), we have had no trouble, and the South Africans that we have met have been friendly, outgoing, and more than willing to help us find our way. The one thing that has been a bit of a challenge is finding (free) wireless internet, which has hindered our blog upkeep. But the country has kept us busy and there has been no shortage of excitement. Here are a few highlights of our travels through South Africa.

• Two days in Kruger National Park doing our own version of a safari and animal tracking through the park in our little rental car. Spotted just three of the “Big Five”, but saw more than enough wildlife and close encounters to make up for the elusive two. Still hoping to spot a leopard and a black rhino one of these days, but for now we are happy to substitute cheetahs and white rhinos in their place, of which we were lucky enough to see several.
• Driving through South Africa on our own (on the left-hand side), seeing the landscape for ourselves, stopping whenever, wherever and for as long as we please, has been a new and refreshing way of travel for us. South Africa seems as if it was designed for backpackers, and the hostels here have most other countries’ beat. Even the most basic places have kitchens, pools, bars, lounge areas, laundry, etc. Knowing this, we bought some cheap camp gear (a tiny tent and two sleeping bags) which gives us the flexibility to stay almost anywhere for a fraction of the cost of a room or dorm, while still getting to use the amenities. We did end up spending one freezing night in what we thought was a B&B, where we set up camp after arriving close to midnight, only to discover the next morning that it was someone’s backyard! Luckily, they made light of the situation and even invited us in and offered us the use of their shower. (And for anyone traveling through Ladysmith, Boer & Brit closed a year ago and is no longer in operation.)
• Apparently surfing is big in South Africa. After one surf lesson (the cheapest in the universe–$5 for two hours!!), I have caught the bug. Was even able to ride one wave all the way into shore. Santa Cruz, here I come…
• Visiting the Nelson Mandela Museum would be an incredible experience in itself, but visiting the museum on his birthday felt even more meaningful. The man is a hero in every sense of the word, respected the world over and adored by his people. His birthday is celebrated by all in South Africa. When we arrived at the museum, there were balloons and people dancing at the entrance, and everywhere we drove that day, we saw signs saying, “Happy Birthday, Madiba!”, with all the radio stations broadcasting birthday wishes from celebrities and locals alike throughout the day.
• I have fulfilled a life long dream. We stopped off at Lion Park near East London, where we had the chance to play with a 5 month old lion cub-an experience that, if you love animals as much as me, is hard to put into words. I could have stayed forever. They practically had to kick us out of the park.
• Bungee jumping off Bloukrans Bridge–the highest bungee jump in the world….again, there are some moments you can not put into words. When you are standing 216 meters on a bridge looking down into a canyon, the word “scary” does not quite do justice to the experience and thoughts running through my head the moments before taking the plunge. It’s a good thing the fun-loving and well-trained staff push you off, otherwise it might not have happened at all. The most surprising aspect for me was how fun the freefall portion was-after the first split second of mind and leg-numbing fear, it really was a freeing feeling. And for a few seconds I felt like I was flying (versus the stomach flipping falling to my death feeling that I had anticipated).
• The Little Karoo area of the country provided us the opportunity to get up close and personal with its natural inhabitants-ostriches. They may be dumb and curious, but to make up for it, they are fast. Jeff and I each took a bumpy turn riding a speedy ostrich around the farm. If anyone is curious as to how to ride an ostrich, you jump on its back, remove the hood, steer left and right by pushing and pulling its neck in the desired direction as it careens around at breakneck speed (no pun intended) and stop by yanking its head backwards. That’s how you do it if you are an ostrich jockey. For me, I was helped on, told to squeeze my legs around the base of the poor bird’s neck, lean back, and hold on to its wings while two jockeys ran alongside to catch me before falling off. It was hilarious. Ostriches must have strong wings because I was holding on and pulling for dear life (and even ended up with an ostrich feather upon dismounting).

*In response to some comments regarding this video, the screaming/crying/laughing heard is not me.  While I may have let a minor scream or two escape, what you hear on the audio is the girl sitting next to Jeff and the camera.
• Shark feeding while scuba diving is next on the adventure agenda, as we make our way towards Cape Town. We will do the very best we can to stay safe and check out the city for ourselves before flying out to Indonesia at the end of the month.

Posted: July 25th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: South Africa | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments »