Good news rains down in Africa: giraffe raft rescue, rhino IVF, flat-pack safari vehicles, leopards in the loo and more…

March 9, 2021 | Expert Africa



Expert Africa (www.expertafrica.com) reports that, much like this season’s exceptional rains on the continent, good news is pouring in from Africa. The development of bush-ready, electric vehicles to aid development, new applications of satellite imagery and IVF, and ingenious animal rescues all show real passion and innovation.

Although most travellers have been unable to visit in recent months, all of East and Southern Africa – from Kenya to the Cape – is now open for travel. Every country there is welcoming those visitors who are able to make trips and Expert Africa has organised a small but steady flow of travellers to Africa over the last six months – read about their trips here

As vaccines roll out and travel restrictions gradually roll back, Expert Africa is excited to welcome back travellers. Africa’s camps and communities are looking forward to seeing you. To whet your appetite, Expert Africa has put together the following round-up of news and travel inspiration:

REMARKABLE DESERT RAINS

Desert rains are always a blessing: a time when harsh environments soften and flourish in unexpected ways. For Namibia, the driest country in sub-Saharan Africa, 2021 began with an overwhelming outpouring from the heavens. Record rains fell non-stop for 10 days in January, flooding the iconic red dune valleys of the Namib Desert, enticing wildlife, delighting camp staff and signalling good things ahead. And if ever we all needed a good omen, it is surely now.

The photogenic, normally cracked-clay pans are sky-blue pools, the curving apricot dunes of Sossusvlei are sparkling with water droplets, Sesriem Canyon has become a wild swimming hotspot for camp staff and, most importantly, the desert’s vital groundwater supplies are replenished.

In the past, Expert Africa has organised ‘weekends in Namibia’ to see this amazing spectacle. These days we suggest our travellers stay longer; almost any of our trips to the Namib-Naukulft area in the coming months should offer the chance to see this striking scene.

With reports of equally wonderful rains upstream, the Zambezi and Okavango rivers are also expecting impressive annual floods this year. If you’re inspired by the magic witnessed in the Namib, chase the spectacle and seek out the annual Okavango Delta flood from April to August – it’s going to be extra special this year. This captivating, watery world is utterly beautiful and the wildlife this year is likely to be especially concentrated, affording fantastic viewing opportunities.

FLAT-PACK OX

The Chinese New Year celebrations on 12th February heralded the Year of the Ox, an animal favoured for its hard-working, dependable nature. The OX vehicles arriving in Rwanda this year share that reputation: they are also the world’s first flat-pack, all-terrain electric vehicles.

Designed in the UK by legendary automotive designer Gordon Murray, these cutting-edge trucks are defined by their simple but effective construction – a light steel chassis paired with weatherproof plywood panels – which pays careful consideration to local practicalities. Everything from the driver’s seat location (central, to allow for right or left-hand drive) to the truck’s ease of maintenance, its energy efficiency, its high ground clearance and extreme durability have been taken into account. Capable of driving over sand or flood waters, carrying people or goods, and all at low cost and without pollution, the OX is certainly a contender for the beast of the year title.

SATELLITE SPOTTING TO SAFEGUARD ELEPHANTS

Tragically, the last century has seen African elephant numbers utterly decimated. Poaching, lucrative trophy hunting, community retaliation and habitat loss have all contributed to their decline. Fortunately, many people are dedicated to the protection and conservation of elephants and devote their time and expertise to the cause.

Their conservation efforts rely on accurate data: the numbers, locations and migration patterns of individuals and family groups. Aside from anecdotal ranger knowledge and camera trap images, most African wildlife is monitored by aerial game count surveys, in which a small plane flies in controlled patterns across the bush to locate and count the animals. It is logistically difficult, frequently hindered by dense vegetation or changeable weather, very expensive and immensely time-consuming. It’s also a tiring, monotonous task, making it understandably subject to human error. These issues limit the availability and accuracy of this key data.

Satellite surveys promise big improvements, by scanning large areas quickly, with minimal interference or the risk of double-counting moving animals. However, they generate enormous numbers of images for analysis, which would tie up researchers for months if they needed to be done manually.

Seeking to solve these problems, a project between the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and its Machine Learning Research Group has automated this detection process using machine deep learning (artificial intelligence that mimics the human brain). This promises to complete elephant surveys – which would normally take months – in just days, with the same accuracy as human capabilities, thus opening up enormous potential for elephant monitoring and conservation.

RHINO IVF TO AVERT EXTINCTION

In Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the world’s last two northern white rhinos, Fatu and her mother Najin, are the focus of a last-ditch conservation effort. In 2018, the last male northern white rhino died, prompting a team of international scientists to collaborate on this remarkable project. Operating as NGO BioRescue, the scientists plan to bring the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction using IVF and surrogacy.

This month, 14 egg cells were successfully extracted from Fatu. The team now have a total of five fertilised eggs preserved in liquid nitrogen, along with frozen sperm from Suni, a deceased male rhino of the same northern subspecies. As Fatu and Najin are not able to bring a rhino calf to term, BioRescue plan to use a southern white rhino as a surrogate and are now working towards the critical artificial insemination stage. Hopes are high for a northern white rhino calf to be born in the next two to three years, joining Fatu and Najin to learn critical life lessons from its northern white rhino family.

Meanwhile, you can see Fatu and Najin yourself, from camps in Ol Pejeta Conservancy that Expert Africa offers, including the smart Kicheche Laikipia, the authentic Ol Pejeta Bush Camp and the more rustic Porini Rhino Camp.

Their conservation efforts rely on accurate data: the numbers, locations and migration patterns of individuals and family groups. Aside from anecdotal ranger knowledge and camera trap images, most African wildlife is monitored by aerial game count surveys, in which a small plane flies in controlled patterns across the bush to locate and count the animals. It is logistically difficult, frequently hindered by dense vegetation or changeable weather, very expensive and immensely time-consuming. It’s also a tiring, monotonous task, making it understandably subject to human error. These issues limit the availability and accuracy of this key data.

Satellite surveys promise big improvements, by scanning large areas quickly, with minimal interference or the risk of double-counting moving animals. However, they generate enormous numbers of images for analysis, which would tie up researchers for months if they needed to be done manually.

Seeking to solve these problems, a project between the University of Oxford’s Department of Zoology and its Machine Learning Research Group has automated this detection process using machine deep learning (artificial intelligence that mimics the human brain). This promises to complete elephant surveys – which would normally take months – in just days, with the same accuracy as human capabilities, thus opening up enormous potential for elephant monitoring and conservation.

“THERE’S A LEOPARD IN THE LOO!”

This was the radio call received by guides at Tubu Tree Camp the other week. Thinking the intruder was likely to be a genet and a case of mistaken identity, their initial response was light amusement. It was no mistake though. In this quiet camp, in the west of the Okavango Delta, a two-week old, male leopard cub was found contentedly curled up in the dark, behind the sink, where the ball of fluffy spots had been carefully placed by his mother.

Perhaps the presence of relatively few guests, familiarity with the staff and camp, the fact that the camp is firmly within the mother leopard’s territory, or the proximity of lions made her choose this unlikely spot for her cub. Lions are a particular threat to leopard cubs – only 50% of which make it to adulthood – and cleverly hiding their helpless cubs is critical to their care. Lions on occasion come into camps, but they do not like to use the boardwalks, so this leopard quite likely made a smart, if unconventional, choice to protect her cub.

Or maybe she just loved the treehouse vibe and floodplain views of Tubu Tree.

GIRAFFE RAFT RESCUE

 It sounds like a hideous brainteaser: eight endangered giraffes trapped on a shrinking island. The surrounding lake is rising and the water is swarming with crocodiles. Your mission is to rescue the giraffes and get them safely to higher ground.

This was exactly the problem faced by Ruko Community Wildlife Conservancy, at Lake Baringo in Kenya. The group of Rothschild giraffes – an endangered subspecies of which only 1,600 are left in the wild – have been living on Longicharo Island for the last decade. Originally a peninsula, their territory was cut off by years of rising lake levels, requiring the conservancy rangers to do their patrols by boat to ensure they were fed and healthy. As the waters rose, the situation deteriorated and the need to evacuate the stranded giraffes from their island became ever more pressing.

Transporting them by raft required serious planning and creativity. Rothschild giraffes grow to 5.8 metres, can weigh more than a ton, and have a particularly high centre of gravity. Keeping each giraffe calm and upright on a boat journey was essential, while ensuring the boat was strong enough and precisely balanced were equally critical.

In partnership with the Northern Rangelands Trust, the conservancy rangers familiarised the giraffes over several months with their rescue craft: a large, rectangular, steel pen. When it was finally launched, floating on a pontoon of empty drums, the raft moved slowly across the lake, guided by boats, carrying one blindfolded and sedated giraffe at a time. So far, three of the eight giraffes have been relocated, with the others making the trip to new home – a secure reservation, safe from predators, poachers and flooding – over the coming weeks.

For a giraffe encounter of your own, visit Expert Africa’s giraffes in Africa page to see where these gentle giants are most frequently seen by our travellers.

For further information, or to talk to a safari specialist, call Expert Africa on 020 3405 6666 or visit www.expertafrica.com.

Editors’ notes: Chris McIntyre, MD of Expert Africa, is the author of the Bradt Guides to Namibia, Botswana and Zambia, and co-authors the Bradt Guide to Tanzania and Zanzibar. All of the Expert Africa team know Africa well, have been to the places they feature, and can advise you from first-hand experience.

For further information, or to talk to a safari specialist, call Expert Africa on 020 3405 6666 or visit www.expertafrica.com.

Press: For further information call Mischa Mack, Karen Carpenter or Sue Ockwell at Travel PR on 020 8891 4440 or email m.mack@travelpr.co.uk / k.carpenter@travelpr.co.uk / s.ockwell@travelpr.co.uk.