Friday, March 28, 2008

Leech Trekking in Periyar

Yes, that's a picture of a dead fish floating in a pond. And with the exception of a troop of monkeys, that was all the wildlife available during a full day safari in Periyar National Park, India.

The differences between here and Africa were profound.

While Africa receives most of the press about endangered wildlife, I walked away from every park I visited filled with awe and optimism for the future of species at risk. Periyar felt dead, and even though it apparently boasts healthy populations elephants and tigers, there were few signs of life. Meanwhile, the wilderness experience was compromised by the carnivorous appetite of the jungle's overwhelming leech population.

The Lonely Planet guidebook (which now borders on useless thanks to some key format changes, I'm switching to Footprint) advises that "leeches may be present following rain". That's sporting of them to pass on the tip (Rough Guide failed to do that much), but any review of the park falls short without an precise explanation of what this means...

The tour began at 5:15 am on the heels of week long rains from the nearby town of Kumily. By 7 o'clock we were squinting at a shadowy dot on the horizon that was meant to be a deer (I'm still not convinced) and noticed a few leeches scattered on the roadway. Unlike the slug-like variety you've seen around your local swimming hole, these creatures spring across open ground like Slinkys down stairs, and as we were to find out shortly, nothing short of the tightest woven fabric will halt their march to bare skin, and these few roadside specimens were the first in a plague of near biblical proportions once we reached the jungle proper.

Once at the park's headquarters we donned our 'leech proof socks' - a kind of canvas gaiter worn like a knee high sock inside your shoe - and were rowed across to the far side of the lake for the start of a three hour trek. Twenty feet down the path each of us had a half dozen leeches on our shoes. One hundred feet the ground crawling with, not a handful, not a dozen, but hundreds of marching, swarming worms. The jungle floor was alive and everybody's legs were covered up to the knees, with more disappearing through the leather and canvas of each available shoe.

We turned back then and there having seen no more than a hundred feet of forest and a single troop of monkeys in the canopy above. The downside of the retreat was looking like colossal cowards for calling it quits after a mere five minutes. I'm not worried. The intrepid explorers that kept on enjoyed three hours of soaking rain and annelid infestation to see no more wildlife than we did in the first hundred feet. I'm calling it a victory for our hides and our nerves.

Later that day we headed deeper into the forest via jeep, but the story was the same. With the exception of a few more monkeys and the dead fish expertly framed above, the jungle offered no wildlife while the leeches continued their assault, appearing inexplicably in our covered jeep, on our sleeves, and pasted to our faces.

Granted, I'm more than a bit squeamish of the creepy crawlies of the world, but in addition to the abysmal wildlife experience, the concerted lack of information on trekking conditions bordered on negligence. Periyar is India's most visited national park. I doubt this would be the case if park officials, and tourist guide books, ponied up valid information about the Periyar experience.

I'm interested in other's experiences here. For now, I recommend it to no one. Head to Ranthambore instead where two years ago I saw a tiger and an array of other Indian wildlife.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Shark Alley - South Africa

Here's one I've been looking forward to, in spirit since witnessing the breathtaking footage of Planet Earth, and in practice since first stepping foot in Africa - cage diving with the Great White Sharks.

Before describing the experience there's a need to address the inevitable and already existing concerns about diving with the great white. In particular, some environmentalists take issue with the activity because they allege that diving with these predators conditions them to view human beings as food. After a day of close quarters observation, both in the cage and from the ship's deck, I can tell you with full confidence that this concern is both unwarranted and unfounded.

To begin with, conditioning an animal to change its natural response patterns takes time, and a unique aspect about the South African great whites is that they are a completely open population, meaning that any given individual shark is only spending about three or four weeks in the area. That's far to little time to ingrain a new conditioning pattern. More to the point, whomever asserts this as a concern has a feeble understanding of conditioning. In order for sharks to be conditioned to view human beings as food, they need to receive some form of reward that causes them to believe this. For starters, they aren't managing to eat human beings during these trips. More importantly, they aren't permitted to eat anything else either. The bait used to attract sharks is pulled away before they can reach it. The entire strategy of shark diving focuses on piquing the shark's natural curiosity in order to bring it within sighting distance. They are not fed, and most importantly human beings are never presented as food, nor are they interested in them as such. Case closed there.

As far as the experience itself goes, its a phenomenal opportunity to appreciate one of natures most specialized creations. In the cage itself we witnessed great whites of up to 4 metres in length passing within a foot of our eyes. The largest of the species can top 6 metres, but there was no shortage of awe and appreciation for the beauty and power of these animals as it was.

In totaly, we witnessed four individual great whites in close quarters, and on one occasion saw one consume a giant lion's mane jellyfish measuring a full metre in diameter. The shark sucked it back with one motion, and even the marine biologist on board the vessel enthused that she had never so much as read about a great white preying on jelly fish, let alone witness it. The sighting will be her next academic submission to the professional journals.

More than anything the trip was an opportunity to witness a species deeply in peril. Despite their dense numbers on the southern tip of Africa, sharks across the world are in steep decline. Each year 100,000,000 (no that is not a typo) die at the hands of long line fishing nets and cast aside as by catch (but only after their fins are lopped off as delicacies, often with the sharks still alive). Meanwhile, collectors across the globe are willing to pay upwards of $100,000 for their very own set of great white's jaws for display as a trophy to god knows what.

The work of the tour leaders and conservationists who bring these creatures to the public eye is one of the biggest forces working in favour of their protection, and from start to finish, I have nothing but praise for the professionalism of this trip and the enormous respect they help spread for the great whites of South Africa.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Tanzania to Cape Town Photo Highlights

The departure for India is fast approaching, but while I'm still in Africa here are the photo highlights from the past two months. I've included titles and descriptions on the files, so anyone wanting a bit more context for the pics can read those directly on my flickr account here.